Experiencing a nasty turn
I’d like you to read the following passage, but I feel I should warn you that it may be a distressing experience:
‘Based on constructivist epistemology, the linguistic turn puts forward a conception of history as a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality (White, 1987). Textualism presumes that whatever is taken as the real is constituted by representation rather than pre-exists any effort to grasp it in thought, imagination, or writing.’
The passage is taken from an article by an American social scientist, entitled ‘Introducing the “linguistic turn” to history education’. But what does it mean? I am not querying the academic prowess of the author; indeed I am deliberately not naming him or her because I am not trying to make an ad personam point; countless other academics write in similar style.
I came across this passage recently when I was referred to it by another scholar. I could not make out what the author was intending to say; I couldn’t even work out what ‘turn’ meant in this context. Indeed much of the article was, to me at least, completely impenetrable. But when I asked a former colleague what he thought of it, he assured me that you could not hope to be published unless you used this kind of style; anything easily accessible would be considered an example of dumbing down.
It is not just that the extract is hard to understand, it also displays a penchant for Romance verbiage. This includes ‘constructivist’, ‘epistemology’, ‘conception’, ‘textualist’, ‘reality’, ‘constituted’ and so forth. One of the five rules suggested by Henry Watson Fowler in his classic book The King’s English was that writers should prefer Saxon to Romance words, and that their style should be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid’. Much of today’s academic output, particularly in some disciplines, has turned all of that on its head and has gone all out for inaccessibility and complexity. Too much writing leans heavily on jargon and on the apparent belief that knowledge is the property of a cult.
Nobody is suggesting that you can publish a worthwhile academic treatise on quantum mechanics in text that anyone could understand. But history education does not need to be presented as a form of quantum mechanics. There is no need to create and deploy a secret language that uses complex codes. Accessibility does not betray an aversion to critical thought. It is time to bust the jargon.higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.