Friday, February 17, 2012

Making sense

It has taken me a long time to get around to mentioning this intriguing blog post by the anarchist anthropologist and activist, David Graeber.  Though there is much more of interest packed in a short piece, his main purpose, apart from plugging his new book, is to discuss "how to write a book that would still be scholarly, but not academic", one that addresses big questions for a wider audience. Having suffered frustration and tedium whilst wincing at the pain inflicted on the English language by academic writing, I am in full sympathy with him. But he also manages to pinpoint what can go wrong with much that it is produced for a wider readership.
At least in the English-speaking world, there have been two dominant approaches taken by scholars trying to reach a broader audience. One might be deemed the Pop Mode ... In Pop Mode, one affects an accessible and breezy style, much easier to understand than ordinary academic prose, but, rather than seriously challenging one’s audiences’ assumptions, essentially provides them with reasons they never would have thought of to continue to believe what they already assume to be true... The alternative is the exact opposite. I’ll dub it the Delphic or Oracular mode ... Here the aim is usually to challenge as many common-sense assumptions as possible, but also, to do it in a style even more obscure than ordinary academic writing—so obscure, in fact, that its very obscurity generates a kind of charismatic authority, as devotees spend untold hours of their lives arguing with one another about what their favorite Great Thinker might have actually been on about.
Instead, Graeber tried to tackle the problem by writing something accessible that did challenge assumptions and by doing so he identified three good tips for any aspiring writer: "be an even more conscientious scholar, don’t waste time arguing with other academics unless there’s a reason to, and entertaining digressions are okay, especially, if clearly marked as such".

But it was this line that really caught my attention:
Good scholarship is more appreciated by popular audiences than academic ones. This is a bit scandalous but I have found it to be true.
All this brought me back to my days in adult education. The style of writing that he describes is precisely the way we tried to teach. Though we aimed to be accessible, however difficult the subject matter (in the humanities and social sciences anyway) the first and most important thing we always had to remember was that we must never patronise our students. They want the real thing, not some watered down content delivered in childish tones. They would not let you get away with second-rate tosh. What this means is that your material has to be academically impeccable, well organised so that it is presented logically and, most importantly, explained and discussed in such a way as to make it intelligible to everyone. Clarity of explanation is the key to demystification; popularisation is not dumbing down.

When I worked at Hull University's Centre for Lifelong Learning, we had a corny slogan using the Centre's acronym; CLL - Changing Learners Lives. It was rather effective as a marketing tool because it told the truth. Good adult education is subversive in the broadest sense of the word. This is because it questions conventional wisdom and actually that was half the fun of it. So yes we challenged too.

As for anecdotes, well I often though that there was a narrow dividing line between my teaching style and stand-up. Funny stories have been the mainstay of many of my classes. I used to justify this by saying, "if they laugh, they learn". I have a horrible feeling that the real reason may have been less about altruism and more to do with the pleasures of performing.

So Graeber has given me some personal affirmation, right at the moment when I face the scary task of turning my doctoral research into something that people might actually want to read and even pay for. What's more, the commonality of our approaches could point to a more subversive notion; conventional academia itself may act as a barrier to popular education, one that us adult educators kept trying to breach. Seen by this light, widening participation is not a question of admissions procedures or, using the patronising phrase that always grated, of 'raising aspirations', it is about the culture of the academy and its inability to communicate beyond the walls of its closed world. Adult education is in sad retreat, we are a beaten and much diminished bunch. But we will return. The demand is always there and it keeps re-emerging, sometimes in the least expected circumstances. And if it challenges, makes people think, can speak in ways that can reach out beyond the selective demands of the modern diploma factory and, yes, even make people laugh, it will succeed in transforming the lives of future generations.

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