Academic And Professional Writing

UT students learn to cut the jargon Graduate program teaches academics how to speak, write in plain English

By Mary Ann Roser
American-Statesman Staff
Published: Dec. 7, 1998

University researchers talk so much about standard deviations, null hypotheses and scientific paradigms that people outside the academic world have formulated their own standard reply: "Huh?"

Universities are beginning to pay attention.

As the job market for academics has tightened, the University of Texas and other schools are training future scientists, professors and business people to be not just good at research, but also able to make people understand it.

"I've heard people say the problem is we're cloning ourselves at a time when the market has really changed and the world needs different people," said Rick Cherwitz, UT's associate dean of graduate studies. "Personally, I think that goes too far . . . but there are some things we need to be doing."

One of those, he said, is teaching graduate students to become better communicators. What began as an experimental program with three courses in the summer of 1997 has been expanded to 10 regular courses this school year. Called the Graduate Professional Development Program, its main focus is on writing and speaking.

Students from the sciences, engineering and the arts have clamored to get in, UT officials said.

"A lot of people out there are hungry for writing teachers" whether they are in academia, business or government, said Betty Sue Flowers, an English professor and guest lecturer at a recent class on academic and professional writing.

She, too, has heard the criticism about inaccessible, esoteric academic writing. Even people inside universities complain they can't understand their peers.

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University said in a recent report:

"Nowhere are the failures of graduate education more serious than in the skills of communication. Corporate leaders complain that new Ph.D.s too often fail as communicators and cannot advance their own careers or contribute to the success of their companies."

Flowers has taught writing to lawyers and judges and has trained corporate executives, including leaders of General Motors and Shell Oil, how to articulate their visions.

"What makes a difference in the world is not the facts as much as how you tell the stories," Flowers told the class. "If you change your story, you can change the world. . . . I think that's what happened when our country was founded."

Students in the class, led by professor JoyLynn Reed, said they enjoyed getting feedback on their writing and learning with students from different fields. Reed uses a tape recorder when critiquing student papers, and students were eager to get the tapes back.

"There is a great deal of jargon in the medical and health professions, and a lot of times, individuals don't understand what we're telling them," said Bobbie Sue Sterling, 50, a nurse working on a doctorate in parent-child health. "This course is helping me learn how to write better to a general audience, and that will make me a better nurse educator."

Amy Stone, 23, who is working on a master's in accounting, said that even though she works with numbers, words are equally important. She must learn to write analyses of financial statements and other reports.

"How to approach writing is what I have learned from this class," she said. "I've become a more confident writer, and it's good to practice."

Samarth Pai, who is 23 and working on a master's in computer science, said he has learned that some of the most successful people are not necessarily the ones with the most ingenious ideas. They are the people who communicate their ideas best.

"I do a lot of writing, and I thought a writing class would be essential so people would understand what I'm saying," he said. "When you write, you learn. This helps me clarify my ideas."

Flowers advised the class to avoid "writing for the lowest common denominator." Instead, she said, when conveying complex ideas to a broad audience "generalize at a level that would make you squirm."

Most professors don't teach people how to write for nonacademic audiences, said Robert King, a linguistics professor and former UT College of Liberal Arts dean who also spoke to Reed's class. King said he writes newspaper opinion pieces to share ideas with a broad audience. Newspapers use short sentences and short paragraphs -- a style researchers can emulate, he said.

"Short, good. Long, bad," King said. "If you're using more than one semicolon in a sentence, you're getting dangerously close to the edge."

Jules LaPidus, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, applauded the UT program and sees it as part of a national trend to better prepare doctoral students for work outside academia.

Today, he said, only about half of the students who come out of major research universities are interested in teaching. Even fewer will get jobs as schools hire more part-time faculty.

"The ivory tower is not the ivory tower anymore," Reed said. "The walls around the university need to come down, and teaching students to communicate to broader audiences is one way to do that."