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Write Badly And Influence People

Michael Billig, the author of Learn to Write Badly: how to succeed in the social sciences (Cambridge University Press), related in a 2013 article in Prospect magazine that in the university where he teaches, management had recently introduced “a new way for staff to record information about tutorials, grandly calling it the ‘Co-Tutor Student Management Relationship System’.

“The name,” he continues, “possesses the linguistic features that appeal to managers today: nouns strung together without intervening prepositions, with some of the nouns conveying generally desirable qualities ('relationship,' 'system')."

Those working in British universities, he writes, cannot be unaware of a device called the Research Excellence Framework, “a group of nouns capable of striking fear into the calmest of academics”. By choosing nouns and nouns alone to express their big idea, he suggests, the authorities wish to convey that their so-called “framework” for judging the research of academic staff has some sort of independent existence or objective validity “and that somehow the whole business really does have something to do with a thing called ‘research excellence’”.

The problem, it seems to me – and it may already be too late to do anything about it – is that across many professional fields we have allowed a new caste of supposedly scientific managers (“human resources” types are the worst) to tell us what to do. Universities are far from being the only places where this plague is being felt. If HR, or general management led by the nose by HR, tell us that having completed all the required stages of the consultation phase we must now move to the implementation and review phases of our Unit Output Maximisation (UOM) programme what they mean is “we have listened to your pathetic blustering about why you shouldn’t be required to increase productivity yet again and we’re not impressed – now just do it”.

There is of course an element of the emperor’s new clothes in all of this. They prefer to call their key concept “Unit Output Maximisation” rather than simply “screwing you”, possibly in the hope that you will think they are the kind of people who have studied deeply in their admittedly arcane discipline and know what they are talking about. I don’t know anyone who is fooled but unfortunately the robust countervailing force that trade unionism once was has faded away in the workplace, almost to nothing (I blame “partnership” principally).

Billig notes that it is not just university administrators who use words in an obfuscatory manner but university teachers too. “Social scientists,” he suggests, “commonly justify their use of big words by saying that ordinary language is hopelessly vague and that social scientific terminology, although it might be awkward, is at least precise. However, [he asserts] the opposite is true: ordinary words usually convey much more information than the big words of the social scientists, especially when used to describe ordinary actions.”

There may be truth in this, but there could equally well be something in the precision argument. For the most part bureaucrats and academics will be using obscure or unusual language for different purposes. Billig quotes Pierre Bourdieu, according to whom sociologists “need to distance themselves from everyday assumptions which are built into the meanings of ordinary words. Therefore social critics should treat ordinary language with suspicion and develop their own technical terminology.” Up to a point Lord Copper, I think.

“This view [Bourdieu’s view],” Billig continues, “has led some analysts to value difficult writing for its own sake. For instance, Jonathan Culler put together a collection of literary theorists extolling the virtues of difficulty.” Delight in difficulty (or “knottiness”) is a tradition which goes back at least as far as the German philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which was imported into other cultures (as Sartre introduced Heidegger into France, a country and culture that once prided itself on purity and clarity of thought) in the twentieth century. And out of that has arisen what some British traditionalist smartass was pleased to christen “the higher French nonsense” – Althusser, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault etc.

I am sure many of us have had the experience of wading through a sociological or sociologically inflected analysis of a phenomenon with which we thought we were to some degree familiar and come away feeling that for all the words expended we had really been told nothing of any value. Or having read a page or two (all I can manage) of one of the masters of modern French thought been persuaded that one might well be in the presence of a demonic intelligence – but to what purpose? Someone once described the speculations of (eighteenth century) metaphysicians as being akin to “grasping at the air”. It is true that difficult things may sometimes need difficult formulations to describe them. And non-existent things no doubt even more so.

Michael Billig on universities and bad writing: