Monday, January 30, 2012

Learning to Decode Scholarly Journal Articles (Part 1)

[One of my favorite parts of blogging is the opportunity to draft language for specialized projects - and potentially receive feedback from a much broader community of readers. Toward that end I'm sharing a preliminary version of a note I hope to share with students struggling to make sense of scholarly journal articles.]

Learning to read the professional journals of your chosen field of study can sometimes feel like stepping into quicksand. Most likely you began your coursework reading textbooks, workbooks, and other introductory materials designed with you as the primary audience. These resources typically include glossaries to help you master new terms and pictures to illustrate complex concepts, along with other components meant to aid student learning. These tools are rarely exciting, but navigating them should be easy.

Scholarly articles, in contrast, tend to be thick and weighty. Start reading and you may quickly get bogged down in all those endless paragraphs. The vocabulary alone may intimidate you. This feeling can be especially frustrating if you are a student of communication studies. Read a few paragraphs from Quarterly Journal of Speech and you might think, "For supposed experts in communication, these folks are awfully dense." After wading through a few pages, you might even wonder if you chose the wrong field.

The good news is that you're not alone. Professors can feel overwhelmed by scholarly journal articles too. Some authors pile ideas and references into a structure so thick that their articles seem like walls built to obscure understanding rather than windows designed for illumination. Articles should be accessible. In fact, the multiple drafts and revisions necessary for a scholarly article to be published should all but ensure their readability. Unfortunately though, layers of anonymous peer review and editorial feedback can add unnecessary complexity. And some scholarly articles, no matter how complex they might be, suffer a simple problem: they are poorly written and/or carelessly edited.

Still, you should not immediately dismiss a challenging scholarly article as pointlessly overwritten, at least without first considering a basic question: Who is the intended audience for this piece of writing? In most cases, scholarly articles are written for a relatively narrow community of experts for whom simple terminology can actually impede understanding. It's strange but true. Scholarly articles often include exactingly specific concepts that require precise vocabulary. Their authors select terms carefully to signal their identification with particular schools of thought, ways of researching, and even groups of people.

Chances are you've employed a similar strategy. Think about the care you devote to selecting clothes before a job interview or a date. To someone outside of your peer group (present or future), your attire might not merit close scrutiny. Shoes are shoes, right? And who cares about the label on your jeans or the brand of your coat? But you're hoping that your potential employer or romantic partner will read the signs you've chosen to communicate. Your particular choice of shoe, which might be meaningless to a cultural outsider, says much about your identity and much about the community with which you prefer to affiliate. The same applies to the other signs you arrange to communicate your nonverbal message.

What's more, your selection from potential meanings will become more precise as your notion of community becomes more refined. Consider a cover story about romantic relationships appearing in a glossy magazine like Cosmopolitan. The article might be titled, "What does his body language really mean?," which could be an interesting topic for communication research. But scholars of nonverbal communication would require much more specific wording. After all, when we speak of "body language" do we mean "ritualistic facework" or "paralinguistic turn-relinquishing signals"? Do we employ a "positivist" paradigm or an "interpretivist” approach? And what about "mutual or co-active influences"?

These phrases may seem needlessly opaque to the casual reader. But they reflect specific ideas that cannot be easily conveyed by the generic term, "body language." Yes, the choice to use these words and phrases will not appeal to all readers. Yet a scholarly article isn't intended for all readers; it's meant for professionals who practice a particular approach toward a topic.

Cracking the professional's code requires more than a dictionary; this feat calls for context. Accordingly you should read a scholarly article as an interested and open-minded stranger wandering around a new city. Initially you might be confused or frustrated by seemingly meaningless things said by members of that community. You will likely need a guide at first, a friendly insider who can help you interpret the subtle and nuanced meanings of the messages you see (while directing your attention to messages you can't quite discern). You will certainly require patience and time to endure this initial encounter.

Eventually, you will recognize the purpose behind these seemingly strange messages; you'll know why they were selected and to whom they are intended. And then, almost without knowing it, you'll find yourself reading and speaking like a "local" in a place that once felt so foreign. At that point you'll be in a much better position to assess the selection of words and symbols in your community. You might even work to open up your profession to new members by increasing the accessibility of the words valued by your group. It all begins with one step.

Read - not just to understand but also to join.

[In a forthcoming post I'll offer additional tips for deciphering the typical components of a communication studies journal article.]

No comments: