Academia vs Practice

Author: joe

Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 22:28

A thought experiment around practice-led research in academia.

A practice-led PhD is normally assessed on a body of evidence which consists of an artefact - the product of the 'practice' in question - accompanied by an extended piece of writing in which the questions, world-views, investigative approaches and methods, disciplinary concerns and interim self-diagnoses are made explicit. So for example we might see paired materials such as: a piece of sculpture, accompanied by an articulation of the traditions within and against which the process of making the object has worked; a film, along with an essay exploring the disciplinary innovations and concessions that were revealed in its making; a networked set of documents, and some accompanying long-form text drawing attention to the conventions of mediation and aesthetics which are either challenged and rejected or accepted and extended in the pursuit of innovation in the production of such works.

So I wonder aloud what would such a submission look like if my practice were poetry? I write some words (in the form of poetry) and I write another set of words (in the form of academic explication). On the surface, it might seem that an assessment of the value of either of these sets of words is dependent upon the other. So, it is not enough to write poetry: in order to be judged expert enough for doctoral status you must translate the importance of your poetic output into academic language - the purpose of which is of course to ensure that you can articulate in a suitably neutral language what your non-neutral, poetic language has achieved. But note that the reverse is not the case: one may be recognised as doctorally qualified, wholly on the basis of an academically articulated thesis. Thus the primacy of academic language is established.

This primacy is predicated upon a number of assumptions:

I hope that the logical sequence as I have described it here demonstrates well enough the shortcomings in such assumptions. Certainly, if, like me, you are persuaded by the Latourian and/or Deleuzian notion that translation is transformation and production, then you will quickly concede that neutral articulations which permit mediation between two discrete fields of practice without distortion, problematisation and transmogrification are impossible and illusory. If you are not persuaded, then at least consider the possibility that academic language, rather like the poetic language produced by practice, has no claim to being anything other than a genre of writing, any more than other accepted genres such as journalism, prose fiction or drama. Academic writing is a non-neutral genre of language, constituted by a set of arbitrary conventions, no less than drama is convened through dialogue and performance, prose fiction is enacted through narratorially organised text, and journalism is constructed through the signs of format, voice and a reference to some convenient form of accepted reality.

All of which is to say that the requirements of the practice-led researcher are currently that they must make explicit in academic language what is implicit in their practice; and yet those who are not educated or indoctrinated into the conventions of academia are no more able to comprehend what is supposed to have been made explicit in that academic account, any more than competent academics with no expertise or experience in poetry might be expected to uncover the implicit value in poetic discourse. Another way of stating this is to say that if it is necessary to translate the implicit innovation and disciplinary excellence in poetry into academic language in order for it to be made explicit to a wider community of interest, there is no less need for the excellence implicit in academic language to be made explicit in yet another (meta-generic?) language for the benefit of a wider community of lay people. Indeed the irony here is perhaps that a wide community of lay audiences might be equally competent to grasp and appreciate the practical outputs and artefacts of practice-led research (if not more adequately equipped by virtue of the disinterested yet loving enthusiasm of the amateur) as is the proponent of academic discourse. This becomes especially true when one considers that the academic's livelihood increasingly depends upon a specialisation which moves ever further away from easy access by a lay audience, and further into obscurity and jargon.

At the risk of repetition I'll restate this once again: the notion that innovation and discovery in practice must be re-articulated in academic language, as though that academic language is an adequate meta-language for the communication of such innovations and discoveries, is no more or less true than the notion that academic language must be re-articulated in a third language, accessible to lay (or other) audiences who are not academics. The constant striving to establish the academic norms of language and writing over other forms is simply the will to power of the academic institution as a necessity in the social order. Excellence and sensitivity in the domains of practices can be achieved without recourse to academia.

Academic experience is not a necessity for excellence in the practices I pursue. There. I said it. It is a watershed for me, personally. I rather wish I had discovered this (in hindsight, rather obvious) truism a good deal earlier.

Categories: academia, practice, research, language, genre, translation, learning,
Comments: 3


Bourdieu is your man,Academic discourse : linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. I am not sure if you have defined what you mean by academic language though.

Author: Trevor Sent: 2010-01-17 23:43:30

A great read Joe.

Personally I find, or at least found, academic language extremely convoluted and off-putting. In my first year as an IMP, when presented with some academic research or otherwise, I was thrown into a state of confusion every time I tried to read said work. Was I understanding it correctly? Do I know enough to understand it? What the crap does that word mean?! Academic language to me has connotations of complexity and inherent required knowledge for understanding. I can't say I know of any students that feel excited about the chance to read through an academic paper, even if the subject of the paper is fascinating.

Why do academic papers have to be so complicated? Yes, big words are needed sometimes, and sound pretty cool, but if you could articulate the premise in a more understandable way, perhaps with commonly used words, then surely that's better? I concede that the ambiguity of academic language holds some beauty, leaving the reader to come to a conclusion of their own, but why be so vague if you're trying to get across your amazing discovery?

I suppose, being slightly less educated in grammar and English language, I will always find complex academic papers a challenge to understand. I suppose, also, that my upbringing with SMS, instant messaging, blogs, and Twitter, have all played a part in my desire to get ideas and opinions across in a concise way. In my practice as a programmer I've never found it troublesome to keep it simple stupid, only resorting to big complicated words as and when they're required (there's no point using something else when the perfect word, albeit big, already exists).

I hope I haven't completely misunderstood the point you were getting at. If so, I blame the big words!

Author: RobHawkes Sent: 2010-01-18 10:09:47

Rob, thanks for the comment, I think your frustration with the difficulty of acamedic language is a common experience. As someone who has taught in academia for over 10 years now, I know I'm often guilty of using the kind of difficult and complex language you're talking about. I do it in this post! Sometimes it's hard not to use it when it's so much a part of "playing the academic".

It's the "playing the academic" that I think I've had it with. It is as though your work isn't legitimate unless you can account for and encompass it in some disinterested, objective language. We reinforce this on our courses by insisting that practical work is accompanied by a contextual analysis; however, we never insist that theoretical essays be accompanied by practical work. I wonder why not?

Trevor, you're right I didn't define academic language, and I know that you've done some useful work in identifying some of the characteristics of scholarly work. I'll write more about this some time soon...

I think Rob makes an interesting point about the "ambiguity" of academic language. I wonder if there are different sorts of ambiguity here? There is the difficulty of the language which means that different people will take different things from a paper, because they have different levels of understanding of or familiarity with the subject at hand. Obviously that sort of ambiguity is problematic if the writer is trying to communicate understanding in the way we expect academics to do.

But there's another sort of ambiguity which we might think (as you suggest, Rob) is desirable: I think that might be the kind of ambiguity that allows your reader to bring their own meanings (regardless of their "academic" experience) to your work - or the kind of ambiguity where you as an author acknowledge that your own understanding is partial and ever-changing.

To me, that's one of the beauties of practice - people who do what we might call "good" practice are always getting things done and moving to the next thing, always learning from the mangle of making things and making more things, never staying still. Maybe that's what I dislike about academia and its language: it's always trying to stay put, freeze knowledge, pin things down, reify thinking instead of transform it.

Author: joe Sent: 2010-01-18 19:38:45

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