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How much should we expect our students to read and write?

The pressure to keep it short.

By ALAN MACEACHERN | April 8, 2015

I attended my first Three Minute Thesis competition last week – or rather, a very small portion of last week. Is it absurd to be surprised how brief such a competition turns out to be? Each graduate student has just three minutes, their voice and a PowerPoint slide to introduce their research. It was fun to see how the students responded to the challenge. And yet, while I appreciate that the competition encourages students to develop their communication skills and improve their ability to explain their work to non-specialists, part of me felt uneasy that I was giving these smart young people no more time to describe the important and complicated research that is the focus of their present existence than I keep conditioner in my hair.

But 3MT – the name inevitably compressed – is symbolic of the time pressure of modern life. We live in an age of efficiency, of shortened attention spans, of elevator pitches. Corresponding to time pressure is a “text pressure” that shrinks written communication shorter and shorter. This is the age of text messages, Tumblr and Twitter, after all (and brevity is the soul of Twitter).

Text and time pressures permeate the academy today, calling into question how much we should expect our students to read and write. For example, my course reading lists have shrunk somewhat over the past 15 years as I came to the conclusion that two shorter articles read by the whole class (OK, most – OK, some of the class) make for a better seminar than three or four ones read unevenly. Other professors are holding the line, but is that actually translating to more read, let alone more understood? TL;DR, as the kids say: too long; didn’t read.

Such matters affect the whole structure of academic life. My university funds the first four years of the doctoral program in the belief that the vast majority of PhDs should complete within that period. But that can be very difficult to achieve in practice: in my field, after coursework, comprehensive exams and archival work often in foreign countries, it is quite common for a student not to begin seriously writing their dissertation until sometime in the fourth year.

Disciplines bear their own responsibility; some fields’ dissertations may be prolonged because they are overlong. I used our library system to track the 10 most recently completed PhDs in each of the departments in my faculty and found that the average size ranged from 314 numbered pages in history to 149 in economics. This did not take into account a lot of things, including what might be called a discipline’s textual intensity, but it was hard not to notice that some departments produced dissertations as long as two others put together.

But if my department were to consider shortening the PhD, it should be aware that it has already been doing so. Looking at the page-length of every history PhD that Western has ever produced, beginning in 1968, I discovered that the trend line has moved steadily downward from an average of about 480 numbered pages to about 320 over that time, a decline of one-third. Whereas almost 40 percent of all history dissertations have run over 400 pages, only 10 percent of the most recent third have. Text and time pressure has been with us for some time.

I worry where the university is headed: Office minutes? Assigned skimmings? Dissertationellas? Essays measured in tweet-counts? (“Discuss this Russian novel of 140 characters in fewer than 140 characters.”) For some, it can’t come soon enough. I am friends with a young scholar who tweets acerbically about how many more people read his blog than his peer-reviewed work, the disconnect between effort and audience. And he is not wrong. But a focus solely on the number of readers misses the point. An academic work may get more deep reading and may ultimately endure longer because its length allows it to offer a richer contribution to knowledge. When I provide more detailed events and analysis when writing History, it’s in part for my immediate argument, but it’s also to make the most of the chance to portray more of the past more fully. Sometimes more is more.

As a young scholar I assumed I would be a book guy whose career would be measured in ISBNs. But talented at multitasking – a.k.a. easily sidetracked – look, a bunny! – I found myself to be an article guy, their length better-suited to my professorial life. Just as the perfect is the enemy of the good, the short is the enemy of the long. This column hasn’t helped. But I finally feel I am heading back into book mode, and as the rest of civilization’s writing gets shorter and shorter, mine is getting longer. TS;WW: too short; won’t write.

Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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  1. Kim Solga / April 8, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Alan,

    Thanks for this. I’ve noticed the same trends (at Western, as well as in the UK, where I’ve also taught). I’ve come to appreciate the blog form, the tweet form (perhaps less so; not sold on tweeting yet), the crossover article for a wide audience, the academic article, and the book (shorter for a wider audience, longer for an academic audience, diversified anthologies for diverse audiences) as all different ways to reach different (equally valuable) constituencies. I’m trying to become reasonably adept at as many of them as possible. I used to think I’d never get a monograph published; then, when I did early in my career, I felt like I’d really hit the jackpot. Now, I realise my monograph is among the least read things I’ve ever written; my blog isn’t super popular but has been without doubt more read than that book. I’ve just completed a short book for students that I think may ultimately become the most-read output of my career, and I’m quite proud of that – though I’m a bit cynical about whether or not my colleagues will think it should count toward future promotion bids (and that’s another problem in itself).

    All this to say: perhaps we should actively be encouraging our graduate students to think about different venues, different voices, different lengths, different audiences; it’s a more creative way to encounter writing, perhaps a less stressful way to actually *start* writing, and I have no doubt it will better serve us in communicating the public value of the humanities and social sciences in the future. Alongside this effort, of course, we need to press our peers and university administrators to understand multiple publishing platforms, including digital, as valuable and worthy of tenure and promotion.


  2. Alan MacEachern / April 13, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for this, Kim. I completely agree.

    I couldn’t help but notice you referencing your works as “least read,” “more read,” and “most-read.” All of us, I think, seem more fixed these days on the numbers of people reading us, rather than how closely or for how long. And who can blame us? – among other things, sheer numbers are easier to measure. I’m reminded of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, in which he differentiates between “great immortality” (essentially, fame) & “minor immortality” (the way we live on in the memory of those we love). Academic books rarely offer immortality of the major kind, but they may be more likely to produce minor immortality, in the sense of bringing more sustained attention from those most interested in a perhaps obscure, perhaps deservedly obscure scholarly topic.

    All the best,

  3. Mark Morton / April 14, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    The abstracts that appear at the top of most published articles only take about a minute to read. The three-minute thesis is just a fun, spoken-work version of that.

    As for the observations about dissertations, I don’t think there is a direct correlation between their length and the time needed to complete them. To my mind, it takes longer to write a 300-word dissertation than a 400-word dissertation: conceptual efficiency and verbal compression take time.

  4. Ridha / April 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Well said, interesting comments , the other day , I came across a website that encourages novice researcher to publish . On of the website stated criteria is to adhere to 6 page long papers. I must say that I found myself immersed in reading so many research studies across a number of disciplines, reading one after the other in enjoyment. Many among us may wonder why? The magic lies in the short aspect of these published articles. Shortness is gentle on the reader , many would think ” it is just a 7 page paper” compared to 21 or 30 page articles , in other words 3 to 4 articles are equivalent in size to the length of traditional salient articles. Moreover, the tendency is to do away with final lengthy essays and papers that , chance are, will end up in dusted shelves if ever read.
    By the same token,I read, recently, a guide on how to conduct academic research by Dr. Ivan Lowe for non native speakers of English ( published in 2014) , one of the striking recommendations , in line with the aforementioned opinion, is that graduate students ( particularly PhDs) are encouraged to draw attention of their supervisors to specific portions or segments of their PhD section submitted for review as it is an illusion for students to expect their supervisors to be read and comment about every single line and word of their dissertation. This can only confirm that we are in a fast reading and short writing era. AT present, digital tools have been invented to guide and facilitate smooth reading. On this light, a short anecdote , to finish my comment with , about a fellow colleague of mine who developed a new habit when reading lengthy assigned articles , the colleague would use FIND search option in the document to locate key words and concepts. He then read these very sentences and then come to class prepared to participate and discuss. According to his claims, he has always got higher grades in class participation , my narrator calls it read intelligently or eclectic reading and I would say a reading fo convenience ( after a sample of convenience after Dorneyi.

  5. Aaron Slepkov / April 20, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Funny (and insightful) article. Were it cut to two columns instead of three, I bet many of the quips would have been omitted. Then the article would just be insightful and I probably would not have read on. The shot can be an amuse-bouche or it can be a multivitamin. I don’t do vitamins.

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