Thursday, 25 May 2017

The 'curse of knowledge' and what to do about it

Dear Colleagues,

I am in the process of writing-up my doctoral thesis and have taught myself two valuable lessons, primarily as a result of (a) nor being able to maintain a schedule of output and (b) feeling that my writing just isn't good enough. What I have learnt is, I am partly ashamed to admit, that I need to listen to the advice that I would give to a student in the same predicament:

(1) Just write - it might not be brilliant, but it's better than finding the day is ending and you've done bugger all. Linked to this;

(2) It isn't meant to be perfect first time 'round - great if it is - but it doesn't matter if it isn't. It'll give you some to read and reflect on and send to your supervisor to prove you are still alive and/or haven't run away.

Part of the problem is an assumption that, writing a doctoral thesis should mean using language that looks like the stuff I have been reading to help get my head around my research focus: activist education and knowledge production.

Well it should certainly look like I understand key messages, be able to grasp and apply elements of theory and relate this to my own research. But, what I shouldn't do is, as Steven Pinker warns, fall foul of the 'curse of knowledge' - and I think I have been.

For Pinker the curse of knowledge is:  the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows — that they haven't mastered the patois of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Taken from his book, The Sense of Style ( the simplest explanation of Pinker's position is that you can become so bound up within, or confident about your subject knowledge, that it becomes difficult to relate this in simple, explainable, understandable terms.

To know that I actually know what to do here is frustrating - I just need to keep reminding myself of the advice I'd give to students tackling the same challenge. In addition I shall bear in mind Pinker's advice to manage this problem:

Get rid of abstractions and use concrete nouns and refer to concrete things. Who did what to whom? Read over your sentences and look for nouns that refer to meta-abstractions and ask yourself whether there's a way to put a tangible, everyday object or concept in its place. “The phrase ‘on the aspirational level' adds nothing to ‘aspire,' nor is a ‘prejudice reduction model' any more sophisticated than ‘reducing prejudice.'”

When in doubt, assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you about your topic. Clarity is not condescension. You don't need to prove how smart you are — the reader won't be impressed. “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.” 

Get someone intelligent and part of your intended audience to read over your work and see if they understand it. You shouldn't take every last suggestion, but do take seriously when they tell you certain sections are muddy or confusing. “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.

Put your first draft down for enough time that, when you come back to it, you no longer feel deep familiarity with it. In this way, you become your intended audience. Your own fresh eyes will see the text in a new way. Don't forget to read aloud, even if just under your breath.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fight the Tory Attack on Schools

Dear  Colleagues,

The education unions are heading a campaign to fight back against cuts in school funding. Please use the interactive website below to identify an event near you that you can support.

You can also organise your own event by ordering resources from the campaign website:!/

Whatever you do, please join one of the most important campaigns of current political history.

In Solidarity