Bad academic writing of the year award

February 16, 2022 • 3:30 pm

Well, it’s only February, but I have a contender for the Worst Academic Writing Award already.  It’s not of Judith-Butler-level opacity, but it’s pretty convoluted, and in fact I have a hard time figuring out what the authors are trying to say.

The whole article is as badly written as the passage I quote below.  And pity me, as I had to read the whole article. Click on screenshot if you want the mental equivalent of a root canal:

This is just the opening passage, and is just a single paragraph:

It has been argued many times over the course of decades and across diverse paradigms that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education practices-as-usual (re)produce systems of dominance: be it patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, Eurocentrism, (neo-)colonialism, able-ism, classism, labor inequity, anthropocentrism, and/or others. Thankfully, there are many who are doing the critical and creative work of (re)opening STEM education to the possibility of eco-social justice to-come through a plurality of productive approaches, orientations, and stances: anti-oppressive, anti-racist and critical race-based, decolonizing and de/colonizing, queer, Indigenous, gender-equitable, post-colonial, community-based and participatory, critical place-based, inter-species, and many more. Further, there are many examples taking richly critical and complicit stances to work within and against logics of exclusion. Yet, in doing so, many of these engagements are oft depoliticized and atheoretical practices of inclusion in ways that continue othering those formerly excluded, albeit differently. As readers of the field, we note the ways in which efforts often center around questions of curriculum and pedagogy; as they should, these are central and major nodes within STEM education. How coming-to-know-nature, coming-to-know-number, and coming-to-know-technology are conceptualized and enacted matters deeply: in terms of the curricular destinations and the pedagogical pathways that might allow such learning, as well as for whom. For example, as Megan Bang and Ananda Marin (2015) remind, the curricular inclusion of Indigenous perspectives is differentially problematic if we cannot also attend to the taken-for-granted and naturalized epistemological, ontological, and axiological commitments and enactments of what we are including perspectives into. As Bang and Marin (2015) state, if science education continues to “focus on ‘settled’ phenomena as well as ‘settled’ perspectives and relations to phenomena” (p. 531), which rely on and reinforce recursive whiteness and settler privilege while simultaneously dismissing, diminishing, and denying Indigenous ways-of-living-with-nature, presence, and futurities, it will remain but a tokenistic inclusion which serves to distract from the more unsettling demands of this work and is often primarily an effort to reconceptualize and recenter the subject of dominance. Again, how curriculum, pedagogy, and its central nodes are conceptualized matters.

You could have a drinking game with this: a shot of tequila for every woke buzzword you read. The thing is, though, you’d be a goner before line ten.

Want more? Here’s the second paragraph:

Similarly, methodology is alsoFootnote1 an important site in which the movements of power occur, differentially (re)producing articulations of dominance. While these often manifest in much more subtle ways, we argue that it remains important to ask ourselves how the diverse methodologies we employ in and through our research practices as scholars of STEM education contribute or work to maintain and privilege the prevailing trajectory of STEM education. To this end, highlighting the ways in which the disciplines discipline what counts as knowledge and, more to the point, knowledge production processes, Linda Tuhiwei Smith and colleagues (2016) ask, “are methodologies simply new technologies of cultural assimilation?” (p. 133). For Smith and colleagues (2016), attending to methodology is to address lingering colonial referents which lurk within our methodological constellation of concepts (e.g., voice, identity, data, and reflexivity). To engage in critical goals yet engage in “conventional” methodologies, whose taken-for-grantedness does not and cannot identify which conventions inform them, sends a subtle yet insidious message: that alternative perspectives need to be validated in and through the norms of dominance in order to “count.”Footnote2 There is a need to actively de-center these taken-for-granted notions and to pull through alternative and multiple ways of assembling theory, practice, and ethics. However, disrupting and displacing methodologies is not strictly a call for methodological pluralism, a means of “losing the way — as losing any sense that just one ‘way’ could ever be prefixed and privileged by the definite article” (Gough 2006, p. 640, emphasis ours). It is also a call for “disrupting the hegemonic ways of seeing and how this relates to subjects making themselves dominant” (McKinley 2001, p. 76). We do not suggest that the critical and creative reworking of methodology is (wholly) a panacea to this poison. Nonetheless, there is purpose in critically engaging with the work of disrupting and displacing methodology: it is to at least dare to fail in new ways.

Do these people think they can write? This is the worst kind of obscurantist postmodernism in town, and Orwell would have a field day with it.  What are the sweating professors trying to say? (See p. 271 here, in one of the funniest and most scathing book reviews every published.)

I thought this kind of execrable and impenetrable postmodern prose went out of fashion two decades ago.

38 thoughts on “Bad academic writing of the year award

  1. And that’s the short version: the first sentence leaves out the system of dominance in which people with advanced degrees cobble together a lot of crapola and pass it off to an academic(?) journal.

  2. “It has been argued many times over the course of decades and across diverse paradigms that …”

    Translation: “We’ll try to give the impression that such a claim is now beyond dispute, though we will not be so vulgar as to feel we need to defend it with actual evidence …”.

    1. My experience in writing any paper is that an assertion about “many times and decades” should be accompanied by at least several references that give historical foundation to the assertion or claim. This is a paper from a school of education by a faculty member whose degrees, with the exception of his BS, are all in education as opposed to a science discipline. I have noticed that much of the woke literature (e.g. hannah-jones and kendi) seems to be written similarly: assertions and untested hypotheses.
      Btw, the journal is for math, science, and technology education. Tech ed is k12 talk for what we used to call “shop” or “vocational ed” or “industrial arts” in the U.S. it is not aimed at the STEM disciplines themselves.

      1. Re “I have noticed that much of the woke literature (e.g. Hannah-Jones and Kendi) seems to be written similarly: assertions and untested hypotheses.”

        This has been my argument/question all along with DiAngelo, Kendi and Co.: Where is the *evidence* for their startlingly broad assertions? Like you, I’ve seen only assertions and claims.

        Why have their evidence-free hypotheses captured so many people?

        1. “Why have their evidence-free hypotheses captured so many people?”

          Because it’s easier than thinking, doing research, doing analysis?

          1. And if I understand post-modern critical theory correctly – which makes so little sense to me that I may not – it is anti-enlightenment, anti-scientific in a nutshell…a kind of go with your first thoughts or gut or feelings. Thus in that philosophical framework, one needs no proof or evidence. Again, if I understand it correctly. So I wonder how school administrators and boards can push both StEM education and anti-STEM ways of knowing? Oh that’s right they would have to use reason to figure that out.

  3. It seems clear from the excerpt you shared with us that their ultimate goal is to displace the methods and epistemology of science as a racist and “imperialistic” construct. So using logic and reason against them will fail by default.

  4. Funniest language construct:
    After the initial long list of evils they insert “and/or” before “others”. Well which is it? Maybe not the long list but just the “others”?
    Definitely a word apocalypse and/or how not to write analytically.

    1. “…decolonizing and de/colonizing…”

      This is all way too clever for me, but if they want my colon they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

    1. Yep, me too! But kind of them, in the same way that the Bible-thumper radio stations self-identify when you’re station-surfing out on the road – every third word is either God, Jesus or Salvation.

  5. Here us what took away
    (1) “systems of dominance” have been criticised many times
    (2) they come in many forms, patriarchy, euro-centric etc.
    (3) attempts have been made to overcome them.
    (4) but these attempts were more inclusive, but not radical or different enough.
    (5) to overcome 1, more fundamental changes are required

    It’s indeed just another cliché postmodern pamphlet.

  6. Mmh. Well. This paper does some errors and challenges and is very intentional about proving its point, regarding educational perspectives. What made you write a position on this particular paper from a professional journal. These are tough. I recall one for class formatted for a professional journal, but not have to submit a the journal (psychology).

    1. My wife’s PhD many years ago passed with flying colours, the only amendments required were to sort out some stylistic errors in the footnotes- most of them my fault as I checked them all but the American psychological style guide is the most complicated and ridiculous I have ever seen -and that’s from someone who is a legal academic.

  7. That’s probably the ugliest, least intelligible, most egregiously pretentious pile of self-congratulatory obfuscation I have ever seen in my entire life.

    What is the bloody point? What does this nonsense do, other than provide the authors with a fleeting opportunity to feel much more accomplished than they have any right to?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe the authors have any integrity at all; they are playing for the audience. Anyone with the ability to write the most basic of term papers, including these authors, has the intelligence to see this rubbish for what it is. They are utterly devoid of anything useful to say, but conscious of the gnawing, nagging need to publish, they’ve gone for the easy way out. How? By writing a pile of impenetrable woke crap, safe in the knowledge that it ticks enough boxes to keep them plodding along doing their pointless ‘research’.

    Please just stop the world, I want to get off.

    1. But mud is useful. This is a waste of electrons even if it has been cited 7 times according to Web of Science.

  8. “Further, there are many examples taking richly critical and complicit stances to work within and against logics of exclusion”.

    Puzzled by the “complicit” here. Usually that’s a bad thing but here it seems to be something the authors approve of.

    The piece is just so hilariously bad that I hope it is really a satirical Sokal-type spoof. At any rate such a spoof could not be more pompously obscure and absurd than this.

  9. I think Professor Emma Renold at Cardiff University could give these authors a run for their money in terms of Butlerian obscurity.
    Try this for example https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1357034X20923017 which contains the following –

    Inspired by the works of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Erin Manning, a series of cameos are presented: room dancing; the hold; the wiggle; the leap and the dance of the not-yet. We speculate about relations between the actual movements we could see, the in-act infused with the history of place, and the virtual potential of movement.

    or

    Iris Marion Young suggests that the lack of intentionality in girls’ movements relates to molar forces of patriarchy and in the valleys this is likely to be amplified by the history of masculine corporeal labour valued in mining communities.

    And finally,

    We feel that widening the purview of what counts as knowledge is critical to tackling all kinds of injustices, and specifically in the valleys, where economic regeneration is not taking place yet where all kinds of educational experiments are happening . In the era of the ‘Capitalocene’, young people’s micro and macro political activisms are becoming vital to ongoing life. To legitimate their embodied and prehensive knowing we, researchers, have to take risks by placing ourselves in the midst of things and develop and communicate a praxis that opens the world to speculative hope.

    This kind of c**p is endemic in parts of academia. Unfortunately, Emma Renold has the ear of politicians and is helping to shape relationships education in our schools.

  10. In Australia, normal people would describe writers like this as “wankers”.
    BTW- The link to Mencken is a hoot!

    1. Not too dissimilar here in the UK, though I think it would be a toss-up between wankers and gobshites. For those unfamiliar with the term, gobshite is a wonderfully flexible insult with a variety of uses, but particularly apt here is this one from the Urban Dictionary: “A person who does something completely foolish and doesn’t even realise it.

    2. Very restrained for an Australian! Most of the ones I know would use several other adjectives in front of “wanker “

  11. “We do not suggest that the critical and creative reworking of methodology is (wholly) a panacea.”
    A whole panacea is indeed difficult to achieve, twice over.

  12. “This is the worst kind of obscurantist postmodernism in town…”

    The quoted passages are more akin to poststructuralism than postmodernism.

  13. I’d say its clearer what they mean here than it is in many cases:

    “We assert that STEM subjects are biased towards the sort of people we don’t approve of and biased against the sort of people we do approve of, but this margin is too small to contain any evidence or justification for this assertion”

  14. Reading the two block paragraphs quoted above, I got a sense of what it must’ve been like in their last moments for the poor souls who perished on Boston’s North End in 1919 during the Great Molasses Flood.

  15. To be fair, I dug my master’s thesis out a while back and barely understood the thing, That’s mainly because I’m a EE and haven’t done that level of mathematics in 30 years. Apparently I was smart enough back then to use partial differential equations; don’t know if I am anymore. 😉

    1. I know the feeling, this sort of thing is quite common among software engineers. I occasionally see some code running an inventive, well-optimised algorithm that must have been designed by someone way out of my league. Genuinely impressed, I will marvel at the ability of the author, and reflect on my own inadequacy, before spotting my name and realising I wrote the bloody thing!

      This sometimes makes me feel quite chuffed with myself. Although more often I feel discouraged and a little unsettled by the feeling that I really have no idea how I came up with it. Worse still is my nagging belief it would lie beyond my ability these days. Thankfully my desperation is kept in check by the fact that this is also the experience of every other software engineer I’ve ever known. 😀

    2. I had the same experience with a final year school chemistry textbook. Amazing how much I knew a couple of decades before that. I think there was a series of books with a title of roughly “Things you learnt at school but have forgotten.”

  16. “Thankfully, there are many who are doing the critical and creative work of (re)opening STEM education to the possibility of eco-social justice to-come through a plurality of productive approaches, orientations, and stances: anti-oppressive, anti-racist and critical race-based, decolonizing and de/colonizing, queer, Indigenous, gender-equitable, post-colonial, community-based and participatory, critical place-based, inter-species, and many more.”

    Many more of what, that’s not already in that list?
    “Inter-species” covers pretty much everything except rocks and water.
    Oh, oh and air. I almost forgot about the air. Please don’t cancel me about the air.

  17. I tried to read some of it, but it was opaque. It brought to mind what my British uncle would sometimes say, namely: “It’s all a load of bloody ol’ codswallop !”.

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