“[The] atrocious academic style was bleeding over. I mean, the PhD dissertation is the world’s worst genre. No one wants to read that.” Discuss.
The prompt is a quote from Jennifer Croft’s interview with Micaela Brinsley (La Piccioletta Barca 2023). The statement makes three main assumptions: (i) the academic style is atrocious; (ii) the PhD dissertation is the world’s worst genre; (iii) no one wants to read a PhD dissertation. This essay critically analyses each proposition in turn, and agrees with both (i) and (ii). It argues that the academic style is indeed the worst thing, because it is boring, dry, rigid and pretentious. Further, it argues that the PhD dissertation can indeed be construed as the world’s worst genre. However, I only partly agree with (iii) in that I voluntarily and gladly read my own mother’s PhD dissertation and a chapter of a friend’s PhD. Therefore, the claim that, ‘no one wants to read that’ is fallacious.
1. The academic style is atrocious
First of all, this sections examines the main features of the academic style. Before I begin, the academic style can be described as a formal and objective way of communicating information and arguments in a clear and precise manner. It follows certain rules and standards that are widely accepted and expected in the academic community. However, the academic style is characterised by a number of elements that make it difficult to read. Some of these elements include:
(a) The use of passive voice, which obscures the agency and responsibility of the actors involved in the research or argument. For example, instead of saying "I conducted a survey of 100 subjects", the academic style would say "A survey of 100 subjects was conducted". This makes the sentence longer and less clear, and also hides the identity and role of the researcher.
(b) The use of jargon, technical terms, and acronyms, which alienate the reader and create a barrier to communication. For example, instead of saying "The law doesn’t protect the right to protest”, the academic style would say "The Public Order Act 2023 (POA) fails to adequately protect protestors". This makes the sentence overtly complex and less accessible.
(c) The use of long sentences, paragraphs, and sections, which make the text dense and hard to follow. For example, instead of breaking down the text into short and clear units of information, the academic style would use long and complex sentences that contain multiple clauses and sub-clauses, long paragraphs that cover several topics or arguments, and long sections that lack headings or subheadings.
These features of the academic style are not only detrimental to the reader, but also to the writer. They make the writing process more difficult and time-consuming, as the writer has to conform to a rigid and unnatural set of rules and conventions. They also limit the creativity and originality of the writer, as they have to follow a predetermined structure. They also constrain the voice and personality of the writer, as they have to adopt a formal and impersonal tone(s). George Orwell, for example, criticised the academic style for being vague, pretentious, and dishonest in his essay titled “Politics and the English Language" (1946). Therefore, Jennifer Croft’s statement that the academic style is atrocious certainly stands.
2. The PhD dissertation is the world’s worst genre
Second, this section examines the reasons why PhD dissertation is the world's worst genre. This is not a hyperbole, but a statement of fact. The dissertation is a long, arduous, and often frustrating process that requires a tremendous amount of time, effort, and resources. It is also a genre that is too uncreative.
The first problem with the dissertation is that it is unclear what it is supposed to achieve. Is it a demonstration of original research, a contribution to knowledge, a training exercise, or a rite of passage? Different disciplines, institutions, and supervisors may have different expectations and standards for the dissertation, leading to confusion and inconsistency among students and examiners. Moreover, the dissertation is often disconnected from the actual practices and needs of the academic community.
The second problem with the dissertation is that it is uncreative. It is typically divided into chapters that follow a conventional and rigid structure: introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion. It is a copycat of other styles that came before it, and it claims to be objective and universal, but in reality it is subjective and biased. It pretends to be innovative and progressive, but in fact it is conservative and stagnant.
The third problem with the dissertation is that it is poorly evaluated. The dissertation is usually assessed by a committee of examiners who have to read a lengthy and dense document and decide on its quality and merit. Moreover, the dissertation is often evaluated on criteria that are vague, subjective, or inconsistent. For example, what does it mean to have a "critical analysis", a "coherent argument", or a "contribution to knowledge"? The dissertation evaluation process is often arbitrary and unreliable.
3. I did, a couple of times, want to read a PhD dissertation
Third, I examine the proposition that no one reads a dissertation. I disagree with Jenny Croft’s statement, in that my personal experience contradicts the statement. A curious child, I once read my own mother’s PhD statement, willingly and gladly. I don’t pretend to have understood it. However, I did ‘want to read’ it. Furthermore, another time, a good friend of mine asked if I could read a chapter of her PhD dissertation before the submission deadline. I did want to read it, so as to review it. Therefore, according to the falsification theory of Popper, one instance proves the scientific theory is tested and proven false by empirical evidence. The hypothesis that ‘no one wants to a read a PhD dissertation’ is thus refuted. However, (i) and (ii) still stand, in that academic style is bad, unoriginal and I hate it. It is a curse that plagues the world of writing and communication. It should be replaced by an engaging style that celebrates diversity, creativity, originality and individuality. A style that I would love to use and enjoy.
To conclude, this essay only partly agrees with the quote by Jennifer Croft in the prompt. It argues that the academic style is certainly atrocious and the PhD dissertation the worst genre. Moreover, the academic style is not only bad for me, but also for everyone else who has to deal with it. It alienates readers and listeners who are not familiar with its jargon and terminology. It confuses and frustrates writers. It discourages and demotivates students and teachers who lose interest and passion for their subjects. I hate academic style with every fibre of my being. I hate it when I have to write it for assignments, exams, reports or dissertations. In this essay, through the very structure, I also hope to have convinced my examiner of the veracity of Jennifer Croft’s point of view. The academic style is clearly a form of oppression that ought to be abolished immediately.