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Mortarboard and Bachelors Degree (David Buffington / Photodisc)
Mortarboard and Bachelors Degree (David Buffington / Photodisc)

Russell Smith

Complex ideas can't always be made simple Add to ...

The University of Western Australia sponsors an interesting competition for PhD students from Australia and New Zealand. It’s called the Three-Minute Thesis: Entrants must present a three-minute summary of their PhD research to an audience of non-specialists. A panel of judges awards a $5,000 travel grant to the winner, who is judged on communication style, engagement and comprehension. The 2011 winner and runners-up all have their presentations on video up at the UWA site, and they are extremely impressive as demonstrations of public speaking.

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This looks like a brilliant and progressive idea. It attacks the ivory tower; it builds bridges between specialists and the intelligent laypeople whose tax dollars fund universities; it encourages the development of teaching and performance skills among people who are going to be teachers for the rest of their lives. Universities have long been criticized for spending too much money on obscure research and not doing enough to teach teaching.

All good. But predictably, the vast majority of finalists are in the sciences, not in the humanities. The 2011 winner was a very polished young criminologist talking about advanced techniques for identifying fingerprints. The runner up was a dietitian working in intensive-care units; the People’s Choice award went to a pharmacologist studying cannabinoid receptors. Of 10 finalists, only one was working in literature (she studies Australian women’s travel narratives as found in blogs). There was not one from history or philosophy.

Why do I say this is predictable? Because current advanced studies in the humanities can be more difficult to explain than science is, no matter how complex the science. The vast majority of the Three-Minute Thesis finalists are working on projects with practical applications, not with entirely new concepts. Not one of the winning studies embodied a genuinely difficult idea: The techniques used to gain knowledge may have been highly complex, but what they find tends to be measurable and thus easily explained. You can usually follow the argument just by reading the titles of the talk: “Survival of the stillest: predator avoidance strategies of shark embryos;” “Nutrition around conception determines the baby’s metabolic health.”

Researchers in philosophy or art criticism may not have to explain the workings of a microscope, but a technical labyrinth is not quite the same as a genuinely difficult concept. What I mean by concept is something that takes you a few readings to get your head around – something like, I don’t know, differance, the rhizome, the simulacrum, the uncanny....

Ah, but yes, I hear you saying: here we go – all that is the cant that has so poisoned the social sciences and convinced them all that they cannot communicate with outsiders, the jargon of critical theory that disguises simple ideas with obscure language to make them seem more difficult. You might say: A program like this, one that forces the second-rate theory students into clarity, is exactly what they need.

And then we’d be into a very deep argument indeed – one that would take much longer than three minutes to resolve. For the past 40 years the humanities have been experimenting with new language to describe fluid concepts, and it’s the very fluidity of the concepts – their very resistance to explanation in everyday language – that makes them useful. The idea is generally that we can’t see the ideological and economic structures that we live in unless we change our language – for language is a pillar of that very structure. Furthermore, the veneration of clarity or simplicity is itself an ideological position, one that limits thinkers to conventional thoughts.

That’s the argument, anyway, and yes, it’s an argument I usually find myself on the other side of. But this competition eliminates it by simply ignoring it.

It’s also important to note that the voices clamouring for more emphasis on teaching and less on research among academics are generally conservative ones, who dismiss radical thinking as uselessly obscure. And there are a number of professors who are uneasy about the pressure to work on projects that are most susceptible to being compressed into a life-altering 20-minute TED Conference or YouTube presentation. Some important theorizing is not adaptable to that format.

So is there a way to make this clever Australian idea more inclusive of the humanities?

By the way, if you want to see condensation and simplification taken to its extreme, look up “Dissertation Haiku,” a blog on Wordpress, where PhD students summarize their work as perfect haikus. Such as: “Alkaline, salty; / Plants hate bauxite residue. /Soil, it must become.” Why bother with theses?

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