Review: Learn to Write Badly, Michael Billig

by Marc Geddes

It is no secret that academics can come across as lofty, eccentric and difficult to understand. Given this, I got hold of a copy of Learn to Write Badly, by Michael Billig, with some enthusiasm. Billig’s thesis is extremely insightful into the world of academic writing, and the fetish some scholars have for technical jargon. With this in mind, however, I also felt a twinge of disappointment in some parts of the book. What follows are personal reflections on what is, in general, a thought-provoking book.

The opening chapter makes for a depressing read on the current state of higher education. The universities of old have been turned into mass-producing businesses, hoping to extract as many ‘high quality’ articles from scholars that will be published in ‘high impact’ journals. Citation analysis has become a science of its own, and the adage ‘publish or perish’ is a daunting truth for the modern academic. I would term this the ‘commercialisation’ of the HE sector (but, having read the book, perhaps that is unwise). The chapter paints a very bleak picture. But it is painted with a broad brush, consequently ignoring some of the nuances of the debate about the future of education. For instance, whilst I would agree with Billig that the trend of ESRC-led ‘impact’ is worrying, the initial concept or idea behind it actually serves a liberating purpose (see this debate, for instance). The opening chapter hints at some past golden age of cross-disciplinary research, which patently never existed. Universities have always perpetuated specific kinds of knowledge for a small elite. Universities do not produce knowledge for the sake of knowledge; but, as Michel Foucault once put it, ‘knowledge is for cutting’. [1] Knowledge has always been imbued with power, and, whilst we must reject the present trend towards ‘commercialisation’, we also cannot return to a past ‘golden age’ for universities.

In general, Billig seems to have little interest in the purpose of knowledge. His disdain for the term ‘epistemology’ itself (p.37) seems to offer a clue. I agree the term is technical, but it refers to a largely accepted branch of philosophy on theories of knowledge. The reluctance to see any use for this means that Billig goes on to seemingly mock those social scientists that have engaged with this and committed themselves to a specific ‘approach’ to knowledge (p.59). For Billig, academics zealously promote their approach at the expense of others, and try to persuade others that their chosen approach is most useful, which represents shameless self-promotion. I am not so sure. Academics must defend their views; or am I wrong to believe that higher education and university research is about the exchange and debate of different ideas? That we must contest the forms of knowledge we put forward in our published research? That, ultimately, approaches to knowledge matter? [2]

The previous two paragraphs are easily small fish to fry in comparison to the central argument proposed by Billig, which unfolds in chapters five and six. Here, Learn to Write Badly is at its most persuasive. The way in which academics use language has had two effects: first, they have reified people and turned them into ‘things’ – processes, ideas, concepts, and materials; second, they are able to conceal the value of theoretical and empirical research, which, when stripped of their technical language, end up making quite simple, self-evident or at times contradictory points. Specifically, our preferred use of the passive voice in academic writing means that we can avoid attributing actions to agents. Additionally, when we use nouns as opposed to verbs, our language becomes more distant and vague. As a result, people have been turned into abstract processes, without sufficient explanation from the researcher. The insights from Billig, which he makes far more eloquently than this review could ever do justice (and in far more detail), challenge us to be more explicit in our language, more specific in our arguments, and ultimately more analytical.

I am worried that Billig may have – although I’m willing to be convinced otherwise – over-analysed his otherwise excellent discussion, for three reasons. First, the emphasis placed on verbs marginalises nouns which are still crucial to generalising events. Very often, active sentences and profuse use of verbs are helpful in case studies and practical examples. However, if and when an author wishes to generalise his or her account, i.e., to make the action more applicable to a wider set of phenomena, we must use nouns, concepts and, ultimately, approaches and theories. Second, the passive voice is a symptom of a wider problem with the status of knowledge in the social sciences. Billig mentions, more than once (see p.102, pp.124-9, pp.176-8), that the passive voice is used to make accounts appear impartial, authoritative and scientific. Rather frustratingly, Billig does not link this explicitly to how modern societies emphasise ‘scientific’, ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ explanations for phenomena. Billig gets lost in his discussion of verbs and nouns. This goes back to something I raised earlier about the lack of interest or attention Billig ostensibly has for epistemology. Third, in ignoring the status of epistemology, Billig also marginalises crucial debates with a distinctively ontological flavour (perhaps intentionally). Learn to Write Badly ignores completely the fact that some academics intentionally remove actors from their analysis because of their position to the ontological debate between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, some of whom do not believe that ‘agents’ are the cause of any social phenomena. As a result, they devote their attention intentionally to structures, processes and materials – not people.

For me, this book is not a holy grail. [3] Indeed, if the recommendations are anything to go by, then it is clear that a lot of the suggestions are about common sense. A glaring omission by Billig is the failure to connect any of the recommendations to the conditions that contributed to the rise of poor language. The sixth recommendation implicitly argues that self-promotion is bad; but there is nothing in Billig’s conclusion that returns to the profound issue of commercialisation raised in chapter one. Having said that, the book remains incredibly incisive to anyone interested in the current state of academic prose. Without a shadow of a doubt, too, some academics have become too technical. Words such as ‘disciplinarity’, ‘specificity’, ‘trajectories of participation’ and ‘opportunity spaces’ fail to make academia accessible. However, the biggest lesson I have taken away from reading this book is that I will continually question the balance of nouns and verbs in my own writing. [4]

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[1] Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader

[2] Billig also shuns the word ‘methodology’, which overcomplicates the simpler ‘method’ (pp.74-5). I would argue that this is too simplistic, for you can have multiple methods that, taken together, form a methodology (such as interviews, observation and textual analysis). Methodology is therefore linked back to theories that help to explain events, without which social scientific enquiry would be reduced to little more than a description of events.

[3] I have other issues with Billig’s book. First, for example, he has a prolonged section on statistics (pp.190-205) to make the point that statistics are not what they are cracked up to be. This, surely, is nothing new (see M. Blastland and A. Dilnot, The Tiger That Isn’t)? Second, his concern for acronyms is vastly overstated (see pp.85-90). Third, Billig argues that academics use the same concept in different ways, making analysis vague (pp.75-7, pp.132-7). I agree this is a problem, but I do not believe this is something new – almost all concepts are ‘essentially contested’, whether they are simple or complex.

[4] …I just didn’t need a 220 page book to demonstrate that.

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