Adjectives Are Not Arguments, Part I

It is time that all of you grasped a simple yet profound truth of academic writing: adjectives are not arguments.

Simply repeating the words:

  • complex
  • multivalent/multidirectional/multiplicitous
  • unique
  • diasporic
  • transnational
  • intersectional

over and over in your documents, does not suggest that you have a coherent project, or make a compelling point, or advance an original argument.

The first three adjectives on the list above are the worst, because they are, frankly, pointless. Tell me a Ph.D. research project that is NOT on a complex, multiplicitous, or unique topic.  Tell me. Tell me!  There is none!  None!

I’m going to go ahead and shout:  THERE IS NO PH.D. RESEARCH PROJECT THAT IS NOT ON A COMPLEX, MULTIPLICITOUS OR UNIQUE PROJECT, AND THERE IS NO ANALYSIS THAT YOU CAN CONDUCT AS AN ACADEMIC RESEARCHER THAT IS NOT COMPLEX, MULTIPLICITOUS AND UNIQUE.

Therefore, to mobilize these words to describe your work is to say, precisely, nothing. They are white noise and devoid of meaning.  Indeed, they make an implicit straw man move, because you are always implying that something “out there” — some topic, phenomenon, or analysis — is simple and unitary and entirely derivative.  But that’s patently untrue, and you know it.

So stop implying it.

It’s a stealth form of grad student grandiosity.

“Complex” is far and away the worst culprit.  Rather than try to tell you about how bad this epidemic is, I’ll show you, by giving you a collection of cases that I gathered in less than one week at the Professor Is In.

  • This work surveys [XX composer’s] complex influence on the musical poetics of authors
  • this book offer a more complex narrative of the relationship between sexuality, consumer culture and power.
  • Four case studies of XXX are used to illuminate this complex nation building process.
  • a particularly effective means of demonstrating the complex cultural logics that form the common sense assumptions underlying political power.
  • many opportunities to discuss the complex interrelationship of structural and cultural forces that reproduces urban poverty.
  • [XXX’s] place was more complex and profound not only in the history of nation, but also that of region as a whole
  • I challenge students to immerse themselves in the complex socio-cultural contexts surrounding each text.
  • Chinese XXX actually has a long, complex history.
  • I examine the complex interplay of publishing, reading, and circulation that imbued vernacular fiction with meaning in early modern XXX
  • My second article, xxxx, analyzes the complex strategies employed by a highly acculturated ethnic population.

Don’t think that transforming the adjective complex into the noun complexity helps, by the way.

  • This role-playing exercise builds skills while also building a deeper understanding of the complexities of globalization.
  •  Understanding this past complexity prepares us for the challenge of working to improve…

And don’t think that substituting some other tired adjective for complex makes it any better:

  • My research examines the intricate relationship between religion and politics in [XXX]

No, this is all just a cheap and–i’ll just go ahead and say it–lazy substitute for actual engagement in ideas.  Do better. Dig deeper.  Find things to say about the world, and about your work, that are meaningful and substantive, and not just a placeholder adjective that mimics substance while saying nothing at all.

In another post, I will take up the problem with the repetition of more substantive terms like these:

  • diasporic
  • transnational
  • intersectional

These are words that seem important and meaningful, but are often so simplistically over-repeated in the space of a single document, in place of an actual developing argument, that they too come to function like mere white noise.  I’ll take that up next week.

 


Comments

Adjectives Are Not Arguments, Part I — 6 Comments

  1. On the other hand you can extend and explain such adjectives for a better impact. e.g.: an international project with partners from A, B and C (for expressing international experience), or a complex/interdisciplinary study comprising blah, blah blah (for expressing versatility).

    But that’s stetching the good ones. I confess I cannot come with any good use for unique, multidirectional and diasporic.

  2. Thanks for you advice (as always). I would love to hear your thoughts on the “diversity statement” – something that is popping up in a few of my applications – or how to address serving/teaching a diverse student population in the cover letter. Diversity has so many meanings (racial, religious, gender spectrum, sexuality, disability, etc.) that I’m especially stumped when it comes to addressing my awareness and approaches succinctly in the cover letter

  3. Excellent post as always. However, within the field of computer science and mathematics complex has a specific meaning. In fact there exists an entire field of study called ‘Complex Systems’. As such its use within these fields can be appropriate given that it has a specific function.

    However you are entirely correct that its entirely overused. Even within those two fields.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *