The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

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Adrian Allan
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The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:11 pm

I am studying for a masters in history at the moment, and sometimes reading the set texts reminds me of my student days; they can be written in a style that is fairly off-putting. You know what I mean, sentences that lose their structure and direction, paragraphs that last for an entire page (this is not uncommon in history books), and passages that you have to read a few times in order to fully extract any meaning.

Do you think that academic books should be partly rated on their accessibility? I know that some subjects are not necessarily easy to grasp, but the way in which some academic works are presented to the reader really does not help the process of understanding.

I am certainly dead against dumbing-down for the sake of it, but I do think that some academics stylistically have the ability to be more lucid than others, and some writers really don't engage the reader at all.

What do you think?
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by doralikesmath » Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:41 pm

I don't know about other subjects, but most academic books in mathematics that I've read will be rated really low if we really rate them on accessibility. It is on the opposite end of what you described, actually. Most of the math books I've read are too dry and concise that sometimes it took me days to understand just 2 pages long of materials. One of the reasons I guess it that the authors of those books have spent years researching about the problems and what's hard to students are obvious to them...
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Adrian Allan
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:44 pm

doralikesmath wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:41 pm
I don't know about other subjects, but most academic books in mathematics that I've read will be rated really low if we really rate them on accessibility. It is on the opposite end of what you described, actually. Most of the math books I've read are too dry and concise that sometimes it took me days to understand just 2 pages long of materials. One of the reasons I guess it that the authors of those books have spent years researching about the problems and what's hard to students are obvious to them...
This is why I heard that in some ways, John Williams is not the best guitar teacher - he just expects that everybody can do what he can, and has no memory of any technical struggle.
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Andrew Pohlman
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Fri Nov 03, 2017 8:53 pm

Lousy text books happen when the author(s) won't spend any money getting a technical writing consultant to review the materials. Either that, or there are no technical writers competent in the subject matter. That usually happens when the word "quantum" is involved... :D And it is semi intuitive that people good at their professionals are not necessarily good writers ... I had an English teacher who was the worse writer I ever was forced to read ... :D
I feel your literary pain! :D

To answer your question - YES! Text books should be rated up on quality of conveyed message and content. And rated down on blusterous pontification and obfuscation of content.
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by gitgeezer » Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:46 pm

Is there an editor in the house?! Textbooks are difficult to the extent that good editors are missing from the process. This is especially a problem for history books, because historians tend to assume that they are good writers and don't need help. Scientists, by contrast, understand that they need help, to the extent that their books may be over-edited.

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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by pogmoor » Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:53 pm

Andrew Pohlman wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 8:53 pm
...And it is semi intuitive that people good at their professionals are not necessarily good writers ...
There's quite a good discussion of how this comes about in Steven Pinker's 2014 book "A Sense of Style". One of the factors he sees as the difficulty the expert has in understanding that the reader doesn't have some of the knowledge the expert takes for granted; another being the tendency of experts to indulge in over-complex and unclear sentence structure. Pinker himself is a good example of an expert who writes in a clear and readily understandable style.
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by pogmoor » Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:55 pm

gitgeezer wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:46 pm
Scientists, by contrast, understand that they need help, to the extent that their books may be over-edited.
There are some excellent writers among scientists. Read Cordelia Fine's recent book Testosterone Rex!
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by DevonBadger » Fri Nov 03, 2017 10:28 pm

Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:44 pm
doralikesmath wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:41 pm
I don't know about other subjects, but most academic books in mathematics that I've read will be rated really low if we really rate them on accessibility. It is on the opposite end of what you described, actually. Most of the math books I've read are too dry and concise that sometimes it took me days to understand just 2 pages long of materials. One of the reasons I guess it that the authors of those books have spent years researching about the problems and what's hard to students are obvious to them...
This is why I heard that in some ways, John Williams is not the best guitar teacher - he just expects that everybody can do what he can, and has no memory of any technical struggle.
If that were true wouldn't it be the case for all long standing highly proficient musicians?

And from masterclass clips and interviews I'd say the evidence is that John Williams is a very good teacher and has an enlightened approach to bring out the individuality of each player, in contrast with someone like Segovia who seemed to want everyone to play exactly the way he did.

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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by DevonBadger » Fri Nov 03, 2017 10:29 pm

Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:44 pm
doralikesmath wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:41 pm
I don't know about other subjects, but most academic books in mathematics that I've read will be rated really low if we really rate them on accessibility. It is on the opposite end of what you described, actually. Most of the math books I've read are too dry and concise that sometimes it took me days to understand just 2 pages long of materials. One of the reasons I guess it that the authors of those books have spent years researching about the problems and what's hard to students are obvious to them...
This is why I heard that in some ways, John Williams is not the best guitar teacher - he just expects that everybody can do what he can, and has no memory of any technical struggle.
If that were true wouldn't it be the case for all long standing highly proficient musicians?

And from masterclass clips and interviews I'd say the evidence is that John Williams is a very good teacher and has an enlightened approach to bring out the individuality of each player, in contrast with someone like Segovia who seemed to want everyone to play exactly the way he did.

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Adrian Allan
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Sat Nov 04, 2017 7:08 am

DevonBadger wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 10:29 pm
Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:44 pm
doralikesmath wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:41 pm
I don't know about other subjects, but most academic books in mathematics that I've read will be rated really low if we really rate them on accessibility. It is on the opposite end of what you described, actually. Most of the math books I've read are too dry and concise that sometimes it took me days to understand just 2 pages long of materials. One of the reasons I guess it that the authors of those books have spent years researching about the problems and what's hard to students are obvious to them...
This is why I heard that in some ways, John Williams is not the best guitar teacher - he just expects that everybody can do what he can, and has no memory of any technical struggle.
If that were true wouldn't it be the case for all long standing highly proficient musicians?

And from masterclass clips and interviews I'd say the evidence is that John Williams is a very good teacher and has an enlightened approach to bring out the individuality of each player, in contrast with someone like Segovia who seemed to want everyone to play exactly the way he did.
Yes, he does make some very good points regarding interpretation. Maybe I was being too harsh. I know one of the top UK's players from a few decades ago who asked Williams for technical help in a class, but was unable to explain/ relate to the stages in technical development, because presumably that area of technique came very naturally to him, or was acquired at an age when most of us were learning to talk.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Sat Nov 04, 2017 7:14 am

gitgeezer wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:46 pm
Is there an editor in the house?! Textbooks are difficult to the extent that good editors are missing from the process. This is especially a problem for history books, because historians tend to assume that they are good writers and don't need help. Scientists, by contrast, understand that they need help, to the extent that their books may be over-edited.
I have decided to skip out the module by the director of studies because, having read some of his articles, I know that his writing style fails to engage the reader.

I wonder to what extent when doing his doctorate he was given advice on style, or if a doctorate is all about the gathering and interpretation of evidence, because in some cases, I think that there is work to be done on style - and if not stopped at that stage, they could spend the rest of their lives writing books and articles that are literate (ie. not grammatically incorrect), but dense and uninviting.
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Laudiesdad69 » Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:21 am

Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:11 pm
I am studying for a masters in history at the moment, and sometimes reading the set texts reminds me of my student days; they can be written in a style that is fairly off-putting. You know what I mean, sentences that lose their structure and direction, paragraphs that last for an entire page (this is not uncommon in history books), and passages that you have to read a few times in order to fully extract any meaning.

Do you think that academic books should be partly rated on their accessibility? I know that some subjects are not necessarily easy to grasp, but the way in which some academic works are presented to the reader really does not help the process of understanding.

I am certainly dead against dumbing-down for the sake of it, but I do think that some academics stylistically have the ability to be more lucid than others, and some writers really don't engage the reader at all.

What do you think?
You think that is bad, try reading a pulmonology text book. Very detailed, but overall a dry read.

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Adrian Allan
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:50 am

Laudiesdad69 wrote:
Sat Nov 04, 2017 8:21 am
Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:11 pm
I am studying for a masters in history at the moment, and sometimes reading the set texts reminds me of my student days; they can be written in a style that is fairly off-putting. You know what I mean, sentences that lose their structure and direction, paragraphs that last for an entire page (this is not uncommon in history books), and passages that you have to read a few times in order to fully extract any meaning.

Do you think that academic books should be partly rated on their accessibility? I know that some subjects are not necessarily easy to grasp, but the way in which some academic works are presented to the reader really does not help the process of understanding.

I am certainly dead against dumbing-down for the sake of it, but I do think that some academics stylistically have the ability to be more lucid than others, and some writers really don't engage the reader at all.

What do you think?
You think that is bad, try reading a pulmonology text book. Very detailed, but overall a dry read.
I haven't the heart to do so.
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by gitgeezer » Sat Nov 04, 2017 1:24 pm

pogmoor wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:55 pm
gitgeezer wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 9:46 pm
Scientists, by contrast, understand that they need help, to the extent that their books may be over-edited.
There are some excellent writers among scientists. Read Cordelia Fine's recent book Testosterone Rex!
As the daughter of two noted writers and as a life-long writer herself (Testosterone Rex is her third book), Fine is an exception to the rule. Her answer to the following interview question shows an awareness of the art of writing that would escape most scientists.

"You're an academic but your works are accessible. Do you think academic works should have the ability to be picked up by those outside the academy?"

"I’m definitely not a fan of needlessly obscure prose, and the more clearly academic work is written, the greater the chance that people looking at the same phenomenon from a different discipline can come to know about your area of research. Writing for a popular audience can also sometimes force clarity about what you mean and why it’s important, which is why I think that this kind of writing can be a useful exercise for postgraduate students."

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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Andrew Fryer » Sat Nov 04, 2017 2:00 pm

Take note of the pass criteria - even at post-grad level it's as pathetic as "the candidate must show SOME knowledge of the primary sources, SOME knowledge of the issues (i.e. secondary sources), and SOME ability to argue."
The onus is on you to learn to read and criticise.
Welcome to the adult world!

Reading boring books is better than spending two days chasing a Spanish research paper, only to realise it could have been written by a 10-year-old (I experienced that once while writing a commentary to a poem in the Palatine Anthology).

What's your location?
In the UK one is on a fairly firm footing - one either reads Oxford academics (but they are guilty of certain orthodoxies in certain faculties), or one reads Cambridge and has to tolerate their fondness for never using one word when 10 words will do. Cambridge tend to be more left-wing. Here I am not allowed to say anything, due to the censorship on this forum.
American writers rarely seem to have any interest in their subject - they write in areas where there's a buck in it for them. If you ignore all of them, you may miss a very rare gem (but your tutor should be able to help you avoid that), but look again at those pass criteria! Engineer your results. If you can't do that, you can't do anything.
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