Journal editors are a lonely lot. Yes, we work closely with brilliant authors and reviewers, but in the end, we must make decisions, sometimes very difficult, solo.
I'm very fortunate to be a part of a larger group. NSTA publishes four peer-reviewed journals and so employs three other field editors and a wise, supportive editorial staff with long experience. The three other journals in the fold are centered in the world of K-12 science teaching: Science and Children for elementary school, Science Scope for middle school, and The Science Teacher for high school educators and policy makers. Because we're all engaged in the same enterprise--to support effective science education--we editors get together at NSTA conferences and confer frequently via e-mail or phone, sharing our issues and brainstorming solutions.
You probably imagine I'm in an enviable position as king of the hill. I represent the college level of science teaching. My authors and reviewers are professors of science and education. My group works on the cutting edge; they know more about science and more about education than anyone else in the world. Certainly, all of the other journal editors must defer graciously to my cadre of experts whenever there is disagreement. They must be genuinely honored when a professor submits a manuscript to their journals. The college group at NSTA stands firmly at the pinnacle of the educational process and at the frontier of science itself, so where else could the others turn for the very best articles and input?
It's a nice dream, but it isn't so. Frankly, I'm usually the poor cousin at the party. And this has nothing to do with the intellectual resources of my college colleagues or to some flaw of reticence in my personality. It has everything to do with a peculiar quirk of my ilk and their intersection with publication; in a word, we college folks are incomprehensible.
In fact, I've become somewhat of an apologist for the college crowd among the other editors. I step in when the K-12 editors cringe at a submission sporting a list of references twice the length of the paper. I explain reasons for the obfuscation of simple concepts by university authors. It's painful work, especially because I see both sides of the issue. But in the end, in order to improve science education, we need to reach science educators. Often, despite the best of our intentions, we college folks fail to do so.
How can it be that brilliant, articulate professors can't communicate with science teachers? Why aren't we the veritable fonts of useful wisdom we imagine ourselves to be? I believe it's the product of entrenched protective coloration.
Consider the experience of a young person on the road to becoming a college-level educator. In my experience, the majority of capable undergraduates can usually write well when they start. But as our young person proceeds through an increasingly discipline-specific curriculum and then a graduate apprenticeship, we teach them first to read and then to write in our special structure and voice. As they mature, they read and write in this structure with increasing exclusivity. They get rather good at it, too.
Is this an appropriate part of their science education? Absolutely. In order to be effective scientists and researchers, they must understand the literature (and the presentations, poster sessions, and hotel lobby discussions) of their field. They also need to add something, so they need to converse in a way that helps them fit in and be understood. This manner of communication becomes second nature for our young researcher, even a sort of default way of thinking when working.
But there's a more insidious lesson being taught to our young scientist. This particular (even peculiar) form of communication becomes intertwined with the contribution itself. Their peers appear smart and capable when they write and speak in the language of the discipline. So they come to believe that they are smart and capable when they write and speak this way, too. Over time, they conclude that someone is smart and capable only when they sound this way. Anything else conveys ignorance or indolence, and no one wants to be seen as stupid and lazy.
So whenever we write about our work, we slip seamlessly into the cadence and structure of an archival article. We learned how to do this so we could fit in with those we admired and sought to emulate. Moreover, it's a matter of professional survival. If we ever consider the target audience of our writing, it's that same group we instantly envision; our discerning major professor, our most admired mentor, and our jealous rival. How could we possibly say "learning" instead of "specific synaptic up-potentiation subsequent to effortful cognitive and meta-cognitive attendance" in front of THEM?
A fixable problem? I deeply hope so. But the first step is recognition of this disconnect.
I've postulated here that we develop our professional communication skills as a matter of personal survival. If we could not write and speak like our tribe, we would not be employed for long. However, from my vantage point, it's clear that if we don't attend to communicating effectively the value of what we do to those who aren't part of the tribe, we risk a far greater collective loss.
It's been said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. As a thought leader of science education, you (yes, YOU) are an officer in the armed forces of science. I urge you to consider including a new set of marching orders for the troops under your direction, and I urge you to follow them yourself. Practice communicating our good work to those others who truly need to know.
Please let me know your reaction. And don't hesitate because I might edit your response--I promise I won't. Contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll write back.