Last year, I briefly visited the U.K. and, while I was there, I popped in to the Cambridge University Press shop. It’s one of my favourite places because you can always pick-up a relatively inexpensive paperback on an obscure yet intriguing subject. This time, I alighted upon “Learning to Write Badly” by Michael Billig.
Billig is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University and the book is a howl of pain provoked by the poor quality of writing in his field. In Chapter One, he offers an analysis of the problem:
“This abstract way of writing – filled with conceptual nouns and emptied of people – is something that we will encounter many times in subsequent chapters. It is a conventional way of writing, but with unfortunate consequences for the social sciences. In analysing this style of writing, I will not entirely abandon all aesthetics. I want to suggest, however, that, once an academic has the requisite big words at their disposal, is is easier to bang out paragraphs of clunky writing, than to try to clarify exactly what one means.”
Billig notes the potential advantages of writing this way. These conceptual nouns act to signal ‘an approach’ and, as Billig claims, ‘to wander forth into the social sciences without an approach is almost like going naked into a shopping mall’. Such writing acts as promotional material for a field in which future work may be done.
I was reminded of this when I read a new paper by Bob Lingard, Sam Sellar and Glenn Savage. It is called, “Re-articulating social justice as equity in schooling policy: the effects of testing and data infrastructures,” and it essentially makes a fairly straightforward case: Social justice is not just about reducing achievement gaps on standardised tests such as PISA and NAPLAN – there’s more to it than that.
Yet, in the course of making this case, we are required to navigate our way through the most abstruse language. In addition to the fairly standard ‘neo-liberalism’, we read about, “the rise of the ‘neo-social’ (Rose 1999a, 1999b; Savage 2013), which involves an elision of the economic and social domains of governance to recast all aspects of human life in terms of an individual’s potential for self-capitalisation in a market society.”
The authors also wish to make use of the, “Foucauldian concept of dispositif.” I had to look this one up on Wikipedia. The definition given is:
“Dispositif is a term used by the French intellectual Michel Foucault, generally to refer to the various institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.”
But the most striking feature of all are the paragraphs of excessively nouny prose:
“Associated with the shift towards big data, measurement and comparison is what some have described as the becoming topological of culture (Lury, Terranova, and Parisi 2012) resulting from the production of new continuities and discontinuities through metrics, models, calculations and comparisons. These facilitate new global flows and imaginaries (Appadurai 1996), new modes of governmentality (Ruppert 2012) and ‘a new order of spatiotemporal continuity for forms of economic, political and cultural life’ (Lury, Terranova, and Parisi 2012, 4).”
Here we have abstract concepts doing things to other abstract concepts. We have ‘continuities’ and ‘discontinuities’ that are facilitating ‘global flows’, ‘imaginaries’ and ‘new modes of governmentality’. Whatever this is supposed to mean, I am pretty sure that it could have been expressed with greater clarity and precision.
The following passage makes some sensible points but it really is extraordinarily written (MySchool is the Australian government website that allows members of the public to look at a summary of the NAPLAN data for any given school):
“We might speak of local locals and non-local locals in respect of the topographical and topological conceptions of space produced by My School. School context is defined as the sum of the socio-economic contexts of individual students and families. From a topological perspective, context is also constructed through measures of statistical similarity, so that schools in very different geographical, cultural, economic and political locations are seen as sharing the same social and educational context. This is a fundamental reconceptualisation of context and place as a topological space of comparison and governance.”
Well, we might speak of local locals and non-local locals, I suppose, but the chances of us being clearly understood seem pretty low.
According to the authors, the problem with a focus on test data is that:
“This most often means that schools serving poor communities need to focus more on improving test scores than those with middle-class clientele, which reduces the likelihood of socially just curriculum provision, narrowing opportunities for young people from poor families to access the high-status capitals necessary for educational success.”
I don’t agree that the aim of raising test scores is in conflict with the aim of a socially just curriculum. The authors don’t actually spend any time making this case, perhaps assuming that it is axiomatic. But I have some sympathy for the central argument of the paper. It is true, for instance, that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tends to focus on the economic impacts of education (the clue is in the name) whereas most of us involved in education see this as too narrow. And however you try to statistically match groups of students for the purposes of comparison, you will miss stuff that’s important. Interestingly, this is a good argument for more randomised controlled trials.
Clearly, social justice is not simply reducible to the differences between different groups of students’ scores on PISA or NAPLAN. I’m not sure that anyone is actually claiming that it is but, nevertheless, it is a fair point to make. However, if the authors are suggesting that, due to this emphasis, we are missing out on a discussion of the philosophical aspects of social justice then I cannot help but hope that their efforts might lead to one that is clear and lucid rather than shot-through with impenetrable jargon.