3 Minute Reads // “Does that make sense?” How schoolteaching made me a better academic

When I completed my doctorate, I was still quite new to this teaching malarkey. It wasn’t until I re-read my old PhD thesis after several years in the profession that I realised just how much my writing style had changed – and, I believe, improved – as a result of what I’d learnt in the classroom.

One of the first things I picked up as a fledgling teacher was how to spot The Confused Look. It’s a common phenomenon in schools; symptoms include a furrowed brow, a slight tilt of the head, a glance at the neighbouring student… If you ever see a mouthed “what?” or “I don’t get it”, those are a dead giveaway.

Spotting The Confused Look (and its close relatives, The Restless Shuffle and The Wobbly Lip of Abject Panic) is a vital component of the pedagogical process because it gives the teacher a pretty good idea of how well the lesson is going – and allows them to respond accordingly. Confused looks during a lesson signal that something somewhere has been lost in translation, and present teachers with the opportunity to better serve the requirements of their class by backtracking and spotting the source of the confusion. This kind of clearing-up can be the difference between a successful lesson and a frustrating one.

In teaching, as I discovered very quickly after some comically unsuccessful lessons, clarity is everything. Clarity of instruction, clarity of expression, and clarity of explanation. It’s easier said than done, of course – what may sound crystal clear to one student in the midst of a busy lesson may be utterly obscure to another, and as a teacher (and therefore an expert in your own field!) one may sometimes forget that we shouldn’t expect the same level of understanding that it took us years to cultivate from a class approaching a topic for the very first time. In time, though, focus on clarity can become second nature, and lead to the best lesson outcomes. After all, if classroom tasks and teacher’s expectations are communicated in a way that makes sense to students, everything else will follow.

I mention this because in academia, as in teaching, nothing matters more than the clarity with which one expresses oneself. This is true regardless of the level you’re at or the background of your audience, and it’s especially true for the PhD student entering the world of academic conferences or undergraduate teaching for the first time!

If you consider for a moment your favourite academic texts, lectures, or conference papers, it’s a safe bet that they’re also the ones that you could understand from start to finish – the ones in which you could comfortably follow the argument, and which were easiest to access as somebody unversed in the contents. It’s surprising, though, how easy it is in our own writing to sacrifice accessibility in favour of oft-unhelpful academic trappings. Whenever you affect a “scholarly” voice, write solely with your PhD supervisor or examiner in mind, or string together long, complex sentences loaded with specialist terminology, you risk alienating the very audience for whom your work may be the most useful. If, however, you foreground clarity in your writing – if you offer obvious signposts, consider the effect of your vocabulary, and avoid using more words than necessary! – you can avoid Confused Looks entirely, and your work will be far more effective as a result.

Whatever stage of your academic career you’re at, then, you owe it to yourself and your readers to prioritise the clarity and accessibility of your writing. After all, if you aren’t writing with your audience’s needs in mind, who exactly are you writing for?

If you likes this, why not explore some of my other recent posts?

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