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by Denise O’Dea

Presentation by Kai Jensen AE at the IPEd conference.

Are universities teaching students to write badly? In a thought-provoking presentation at the 2021 IPEd conference, Kai Jensen AE offered a diagnosis of the writing culture at Australian universities, suggested a potential cure and invited editors and their professional organisations to get involved.

When we talk about “bad”, “turgid” or “opaque” academic writing, Kai said, we’re often describing prose that inverts the principles of plain English. Such writing prefers long, more obscure words, jargon, convoluted sentences and three words where one would do (“submit an application” vs “apply”). Passive voice often edges out active statements because passive voice feels “safer”. 

Crucially, Kai’s presentation and much of the group discussion considered why some academics, students and others on campus write like this. Understanding this seems an essential first step towards a solution. As Kai argued, this kind of writing can become so entrenched that it comes to be considered more professional or scholarly. 

In the Australian context, universities are hierarchical workplaces, with sharp distinctions between academic and other staff. If opaque writing is considered a marker of seniority or intellectual heft, administrative staff and students may feel pressured to write this way too. Academics may be wary of directives to change how they write; they may see such interventions as managerial interference (understandably, after decades of managerial interference). Any attempt to change the writing culture in universities needs to be considered in this wider context, and Kai’s presentation was insightful on this front, drawing on his many years’ experience working with academics. 

As an editor at a university press, I recognised the kind of writing Kai described, but felt hopeful after his presentation. In my experience (working mostly with authors from the humanities and social sciences, which might be a skewed sample), not all academics write this way, and those who do, don’t necessarily want to. Some may have learned the habit under the pressures Kai identified, but if given the freedom to write more clearly and directly, most can, or are grateful for editorial help to do so. 

What would it take to shift the writing culture in Australian universities? Kai proposed that change needs to be led from the top, with university leaders setting an expectation for clear communication. Universities Australia could offer plain English guidelines and training, in collaboration with organisations such as IPEd and the International Education Association of Australia. 

At a time when universities are under pressure from regulators to have clearly articulated policies, and when competition for students is fierce, clearer writing could benefit universities in many ways. 

Kai outlined some benefits: 

  • better and more equitable experience for students, particularly international students and students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • more efficient communication, so less stress for staff
  • more effective implementation of university policies
  • graduates better prepared for their future professions.    

Kai said graduates carry bad university writing habits into all the professions, so poor university writing habits are a problem for communication throughout society. So if we can improve university writing, it will have benefits beyond universities themselves. 

A recurring theme of this year’s conference was the importance of understanding different writing cultures. Kai’s presentation offered an incisive analysis of a much-maligned but highly influential writing tradition, along with practical suggestions for improving it. 

Denise O’Dea is Editorial Officer at Sydney University Press and was previously a Senior Editor at HarperCollins and Black Inc.