The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Talk about things that are not necessarily related to music or the guitar.
Andrew Pohlman
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Thu Nov 09, 2017 4:41 pm

Rasputin wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 5:01 pm
Adrian Allan wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 3:52 pm
... And all of this brings me back to what I love about the classical guitar - there is no chance of disguising anything - it's all about the player and his or her skill, no effects pedals, no concealing poor technique.
I couldn't agree less. The technique is just cogs and gears in my view - what matters is the musical vision the player can convey, or in other words the way in which they express the music. I don't think it's far-fetched to draw a parallel between that and the way a person expresses ideas in writing. Both are matters of personal style which reflect the way something is organised in an individual's mind, and both are successful to the extent that they persuade us to organise it the same way in our own minds...
Expression depends upon a wide range of technical capability. To make this point with an extreme example, if all you know is a major scale, how can you adequately express you inner emotions in the music? You can't. A more realistic example is improvisaton. You must have the technical skill first, then you can unleash your brain and establish a musical conversation with all musicians in the improv ensemble. The same can be said of textbooks. If the author's writing skills or vocabulary are limited, then there will be limited expression of deeper ideas. This of course assumes the author is capable of thinking deeper thoughts ! :D
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Jeffrey Armbruster » Thu Nov 09, 2017 5:38 pm

Just to play devil's advocate: There's also the issue of people wanting complex topics explained in a few simple words. In the field of psychology, for example, there are various schools, each using a somewhat specialized vocabulary that has to be learned if a student wants to understand. This isn't willful obscurity on the part of the writers; it's just, the topic is complex and demands real thought to make headway. You can always prefer self help books if you want clear and easy to understand language; but these books will only get you so far.

We re-read with pleasure Joyce and Proust,who can be obscure. We don't re-read Louise Penny, even though we breeze through her mystery novels in a flash because the language is crystal clear. Proust is a better writer, even though--because--the language is dense and complex.

That said, it's true that many textbooks are poorly written.
Last edited by Jeffrey Armbruster on Thu Nov 09, 2017 8:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Adrian Allan » Thu Nov 09, 2017 6:48 pm

Jeffrey Armbruster wrote:
Thu Nov 09, 2017 5:38 pm
Just to play devil's advocate: There's also the issue of people wanting complex topics explained in a few simple words. In the field of psychology, for example, there are various schools, each using a somewhat specialized vocabulary that has to be learned if a student wants to understand. This isn't willful obscurity on the part of the writers; it's just, the topic is complex and demands real thought to make headway. You can always prefer self help books if you want clear and easy to understand language; but these books will only get you so far.
Totally agree with that - some subjects, by their very nature, are complicated. But as you say in your final sentence, some books are not well written for a variety of reasons, but they have been published and are considered scholarly. I'm not sure what the answer is, but perhaps some sort of training on the subject of style (without sacrificing content) as part of a doctorate qualification. I am reading article by one particular academic, and each one is turgid and unnecessarily circumspect and I have to re-read sentences to fully grasp their meaning. It seems that once you have got your academic doctorate, nobody ever challenges your writing style.
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Rasputin
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Rasputin » Thu Nov 09, 2017 7:37 pm

Andrew Pohlman wrote:
Thu Nov 09, 2017 4:41 pm
Rasputin wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 5:01 pm
Adrian Allan wrote:
Sun Nov 05, 2017 3:52 pm
... And all of this brings me back to what I love about the classical guitar - there is no chance of disguising anything - it's all about the player and his or her skill, no effects pedals, no concealing poor technique.
I couldn't agree less. The technique is just cogs and gears in my view - what matters is the musical vision the player can convey, or in other words the way in which they express the music. I don't think it's far-fetched to draw a parallel between that and the way a person expresses ideas in writing. Both are matters of personal style which reflect the way something is organised in an individual's mind, and both are successful to the extent that they persuade us to organise it the same way in our own minds...
Expression depends upon a wide range of technical capability. To make this point with an extreme example, if all you know is a major scale, how can you adequately express you inner emotions in the music? You can't. A more realistic example is improvisaton. You must have the technical skill first, then you can unleash your brain and establish a musical conversation with all musicians in the improv ensemble. The same can be said of textbooks. If the author's writing skills or vocabulary are limited, then there will be limited expression of deeper ideas. This of course assumes the author is capable of thinking deeper thoughts ! :D
You write as though disagreeing but seem to be saying essentially the same thing. My point was that technique is just a means to an end and not something to be valued in its own right - its value lies in what it enables us to do.

I would not file knowing a major scale - and certainly not improvisation - under technique. As far as I'm concerned these things belong to theory and musicianship. I wouldn't file vocabulary under technique either, but I think you have this analogy the wrong way round anyway. I'm not sure there is anything in written expression that really corresponds to technique in guitar -handwriting or typing would be nearest perhaps, but I don't think there's much of an analogy there. In spoken expression, diction or the ability to project the voice - or maybe, if we are talking about acting, the ability to put on different tones of voice or different accents - could be considered aspects of technique, but again the value of these is instrumental. They are worth nothing until someone does something interesting or funny or powerful with them.

Painting may be a better analogy for the technical side, I think. Vermeer may have been very skilful with the brush, but when we admire the Girl with the Pearl Earring it is not really the brushwork we are admiring, even if we think it is impressive. To focus on the brushwork would be to miss the point.

In each case it is what we do with the tools we have that counts, and this is not the same thing as our competence in using them.[/quote]
Jeffrey Armbruster wrote:
Thu Nov 09, 2017 5:38 pm
Just to play devil's advocate: There's also the issue of people wanting complex topics explained in a few simple words. In the field of psychology, for example, there are various schools, each using a somewhat specialized vocabulary that has to be learned if a student wants to understand. This isn't willful obscurity on the part of the writers; it's just, the topic is complex and demands real thought to make headway.
An ex-girlfriend of mine was a lawyer and she said there had been some initiative to make the system more user-friendly by using more familiar words. Her view was that this was a bit of a trap because although the words might have sounded familiar, they actually had pretty technical meanings... which non-lawyers might not realise. Under the previous system, where the terminology was obviously legalistic, it was much easier to tell when you were getting out of your depth - so sometimes specialised terminology is a good thing.
Adrian Allan wrote:
Thu Nov 09, 2017 6:48 pm
I'm not sure what the answer is, but perhaps some sort of training on the subject of style (without sacrificing content) as part of a doctorate qualification. I am reading article by one particular academic, and each one is turgid and unnecessarily circumspect and I have to re-read sentences to fully grasp their meaning. It seems that once you have got your academic doctorate, nobody ever challenges your writing style.
Who's going to give this training though? There is a lot of scope for disagreement about what is good style and what isn't - it may even be that somebody else would think the person you are talking about wrote very clearly and had a wonderful ability to see things from all angles.

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

Post by Adrian Allan » Thu Nov 09, 2017 8:24 pm

On the above subject of who is going to assess the style, I'm not exactly sure, because the person supervising the doctorate may be an academic who is also stylistically very unengaging.

However, it can be achieved if there was any motivation to make positive changes. Just think about how widespread writers' workshops are for budding novelists, and people offering advice etc are in the world of fiction, both online and in the real world. People can offer subjective opinions without being dogmatic. Just like when I have a guitar lesson, I'm not normally asking for notes to be corrected, but to be given advice on style and interpretation - rits and ralls here and there, tonal changes, bringing out voices, etc.
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by PeteJ » Sat Nov 11, 2017 1:40 pm

Another problem is that some expert topics are quite simple once one has grasped the principles and main issues, but remain very difficult to explain to a layman. I find this a regular problem. One has to write a thousand words to explain something that needs only ten if we know the basics. Maths and physics are not usually like this but some topics are more profound than complicated and this is where the problem often arises.

Does anyone read Dan Dennett? He is my 'go to' example of style over substance. I've tried to think of an example of substance over style but this is more rare.

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

Post by Rasputin » Sat Nov 11, 2017 1:47 pm

PeteJ wrote:
Sat Nov 11, 2017 1:40 pm
I've tried to think of an example of substance over style but this is more rare.
i.e. the content is good but the prose is unfelicitous or even unhelpful? Kant?

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

Post by Jeffrey Armbruster » Sat Nov 11, 2017 5:09 pm

Actually I'm uncertain what's meant by 'text books' here. I assume what's meant is something like a Biology text. A text by Foucault or Kant or Ernst Mayr I think of as original works that are assigned as such, not as text books. I hope this is clear...anyway, again, I assume we're not complaining about how obscure Derrida is, for example, but how poorly written academic text books are.
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Rasputin
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Re: The Unwelcoming Style of (some) Academic Text Books

Post by Rasputin » Sat Nov 11, 2017 5:52 pm

Yes, and someone did point out above that a textbook is a different beast from a journal article or what have you.... but Dennett does not write textbooks either, so I think we are OT at this point.

I have never looked into Derrida but have picked up the impression that his works are the ultimate in terms of style over substance.

What a curious word 'textbook' is.

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

Post by PeteJ » Sun Nov 12, 2017 12:09 pm

Hmm. Yes, I see my Dennett comment was off -topic. Text books are a specialist area.

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

Post by guitareleven » Mon Nov 13, 2017 8:27 pm

Adrian Allan wrote:
Fri Nov 03, 2017 4:44 pm

... 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.
I just came across this thread which, though lengthy, I've only had time to read the first few entries-- but this caught my eye. Yes, I've heard that same sort of comment about Williams. I never had any opportunity to study with him. But his easy prowess was actually an inspiration to me, rather than daunting, when in listening to his recordings it suddenly occurred to me that the only reason he was able to play the way he did was because it was humanly possible to do so. I'm not claiming anybody can get to where he was, but it was one of those moments that stays with one.

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

Post by Nikos_Greek » Mon Nov 13, 2017 9:00 pm

Dear Allan,

a text book is about science, knopwledge not style. It is, in Addition, judged for ist merits exactly on threse criteria, i.e., how far it pushes the boundaries of human Knowledge in the given area, how original and revolutionary it is. A nice, well-edited, well-illustrated text book, easily accessible, and perhaps comercialmay become popular with uhndergraduate students, but in Terms of originality, scientific Quality will be garbage. Don't confuse style with Content, an academic is not supposed to be an Artist (author). It is your duty first and foremost as a Student to grasp the essence of teh book and be able to explain is*s thrust in your own words in a plain way. Of Course,a s you said, there are able writers and less able ones If you did a PhD as I did in history in a German speaking University you would be at a loss as to how labirynthic, chaotic, unclear and ambiguous German writers are. It is not only that Graman is much more nuanced, obscure and esoteric than English, it is also the way, unfortunately, many modern German historians think. To cut the long story short, as a Student you are supposed to be able to read everything and explain Content
I fancy that a fellkow member has denied historians their scientific capacity. well, Thucydides was the first scientist in human history, even according to our modern criteria of what constitutes science, and guess what he was a historian!

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