The visuals that should have been there

While reading all these interesting books I keep encountering the same problems over and over. Many of these academic writers just concentrate on producing text and don’t pay enough attention to the visuality of their articles. They either do not employ visual means at all, or they use them poorly.

From now on, whenever I have the energy, I’ll try to to show you their mistakes and show you how it should have been done. So here you have the first part of my new “series” The Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Rosch 1978: Principles of Categorization

Before saying anything negative I must say that I really like Eleanor Rosch’s theory on prototypes. The notion of categorisation is central to my thesis. After all, genres can be seen as one level of the categorisation process.

But I seriously dislike the way Rosch explains the two different dimensions of category systems in her 1978 article Principles of Categorization.1 There are two problems there, which both are really typical to academic writing.

First of all, she employs the visual metaphor of the vertical and horizontal dimensions, just with words! Come on, if you are making a visual point, why not show it? It’s one of the classic rules of teaching and presenting: show, don’t just tell. But at least the metaphor is not that complicated:

For purposes of explication, we may conceive of category systems as having both a verbal and horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension concerns the level of inclusiveness of the category – the dimension along which the terms collie, dog, mammal, animal, and living thing vary. The horizontal dimension concerns the segmentation of categories at the same level of inclusiveness – the dimension on which dog, cat, car, bus, chair, and sofa vary. (p. 30)

So it’s sounds quite simple, doesn’t it. First you imagine a vertical stack of words:

living thing

And then you visualise similar stacks of words alongside that one, based on the words cat, car, bus etc. Right?

And after you have spent your time visualising the metaphor instead of just seeing it with a quick glance you move on and turn the page. And there is a table which seems to illustrate the point. But it is actually not directly connected to her text, but refers to related research on basic objects.

And now we get to our second problem: The table tells us the opposite of what she just explained in the text.

Whaaat? Why is the vertical dimension in her metaphor shown horizontally? And vice versa. Yes, it is connected to another study but why does it have to reverse the dimensions? Even if it is taken directly from another study, why not change it to suit the article? The table wouldn’t suffer from that. Another option would be to change the dimensions mentioned earlier to fit this table. Now the combination just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of a couple of explanations. Perhaps the table is just wrong. Maybe it wasn’t done by Rosch herself. Or perhaps in the text she is merely using abstract dimensions. It doesn’t really matter which is the vertical and which is the horizontal. Therefore, perhaps she means “dimension 1” and “dimension 2” without referring to the physical or visual world. And it’s just unfortunate that she employs the terms vertical and horizontal.

In any case, the end result is that you start doubting your own memory and/or comprehension. You have to go back to the previous spread, read the passage again, and compare that information with the table. At some point, you’ll realise that for the metaphor to work it doesn’t matter which dimension is which. But you have to be sure you understand the dimensions in the same way as Rosch, as she refers to the “vertical dimension” and  the “horizontal dimension” later in the text.

Now, it could be that I got this thing all wrong. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to understand a simple metaphor of two dimensions. But I seriously think something like this should be alongside the verbal metaphor:

This should be in the article by Rosch 1978

Then you could omit the unfortunate table and refer to that basic object research by other means. The whole issue would be so much easier and clearer. And the reader wouldn’t have to waste his or her time on trying to visualise the metaphor. And even worse, trying to solve the contradiction between the text and the table.

It just makes me think how much time and brain power is wasted on obscure academic writing in general. Imagine the confusion of one reader like me, and then multiply that with thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands students and academics over the years. That’s a lot of wasted working hours.

Any lessons for writers (and editors)? When the issues themselves are complex, why not try to maximise the clarity and presentation of them. Pay attention to this kind of small details, even if they might feel trivial to you. Your beautiful scientific ideas will suffer if the readers get stuck on pesky elements like this.

  1. Rosch, E. (1978) Principles of Categorization. In Cognition and Categorization (Eds. Rosch, E. & Lloyd, B.B.), Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, pp. 27–48. []

We all wear masks – even lovers

only death can strip our last masks
Photo by Audrey Love @ Flickr

I’ve spent the day reading Walter J. Ong’s book Interfaces of the Word. I’m completely in love with his ideas about how the writer’s audience is always a fiction. The ending of the chapter is perfect for Valentine’s Day, although a little cynical. He explains how we all wear masks, all the time. Now, this is not a new idea, but it is nice to stumble on this again. And Ong goes about it very eloquently.

In any act of written communication the writer must imagine the intended readers. This will fuel his or her writing. It will help in selecting what information to tell. How much are the readers supposed to know beforehand in order to understand the new text? Or what kind of things the readers would find important or interesting? But also the readers have to play their role. They must fictionalize themselves, trying to fit the role(s) which the author casts on them. So it is a play with masks. Ong goes on to point out how this is not limited to writing:

Masks are inevitable in all human communication, even oral. (Ong 1977, p. 80)1

And communication practically IS human life. So therefore we all wear mask throughout our lives. And this is the tragedy for lovers:

Lovers try to strip off all masks. And in all communication, insofar as it is related to actual experience, there must be a movement of love. Those who have loved over many years may reach a point where almost all masks are gone. But never all. The lover’s plight is tied to the fact that every one of us puts on a mask to address himself, too. Such masks to relate ourselves we also try to put aside, and with wisdom and grace we to some extent succeed in casting them off.

Reading Ong’s text I once again realised how I’m reading something highly academic and for my PhD, but I’m still deeply moved by it. The text touches me on a poetic level and I’m relating to it as an individual, a partner, a man, a boyfriend, a lover. Not as an academic coolheaded scholar. I feel that I know exactly what Ong is talking about and have had numerous conversations about the topic with my partners. How a relationship becomes strained if there are too many masks. How sometimes the other tries to hide behind additional masks and the other can sense this so easily, instinctively.

Romantics like to say that love strips away the masks. But this is not true. Often love makes us blind or creates new masks. Loving and allowing to be loved honestly can strip away some masks. But love doesn’t automatically do it.

But unfortunately it is impossible for us to cast off all the masks as long as we are human. There is only one cure which will strip away all that lies between two people.

When the last mask comes off, sainthood is achieved, and the vision of God. But this can only be with death.

  1. Ong, W.J. (1977) Interfaces of the Word : Studies in the evolution of consciousness and cultured. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. All these quotes are from the same page. []

A blog to keep up the writing skills

I’ve decided to start writing articles, or a blog of some kind, to my website again. I’ll just incorporate them into my main site instead of juggling between several sites. I have also transferred some posts from my old blog site here. So there are some reminders from my MA days.

One of the main reasons for these texts is that one stumbles on so many side tracks when researching for a PhD. So many interesting ideas are just screaming for attention but the poor bastards will never make it to the actual thesis. So this will be a kind of  kindergarten for all prematurely born, inbred and disfigured thoughts. 😉 And perhaps there’s also a little room for serious contemplation.

Lately I’ve been a bit frustrated as I’ve been reading a lot of interesting stuff which will never make it to the thesis. Theories from Umberto Eco, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Walter J. Ong, JL Austin etc. Really fascinating books that inspire my thinking but in the end might not have anything to do with my thesis. It would be a shame to just forget all these good thoughts.

Writing, like so many other skills, requires practice. Neglect to keep it up and you will get rusty. So writing things in a more relaxed blog-like manner should also help me keep up my skills. And it lowers the bar to also write something for the actual thesis.

And the PhD is a long process. I still have about three years to go. Any kind of diary will help me to review my own progress later on.

Of course, there’s one more aspect to all this. Perhaps the most important and serious one. Procrastination. Never underestimate the power of the dark side! But if one procrastinates by writing articles on things like philosophy or semiotics, it can’t be that bad! Right?