Sometimes, experts in specific niches don't always make the best teachers.
Usually, it's not because they don't have enough passion for their position or because of poor communication skills. It's because they know too much.
I've worked on several instructional manuals and titles that claim to be beginner's guides. Most of them fall into the same trap in that they are not for beginners. The language is often inaccessible to those who do not already know the field intimately. If a "beginner" picks up a book and does not understand it, the field is "just not for them," correct?
"The Curse of Knowledge" was a term adopted by Steven Pinker from economists who use it to explain how and why people bargain the way that they do.
For example, a person who is buying a car might assume that the person they are buying it from knows more about cars than they do. So, after some cursory research into what the car would normally cost used, the buyer determines they are purchasing at a fair price and does not bargain. In this situation, the seller is pricing the car as if the buyer knows as much about the car as they do.
The curse of knowledge is very real. It's hard to imagine that a concept that one person considers basic and foundational could be complicated for someone else.
When I worked with a multilingual student in revising something for their class, the first thing I noticed was the unusual formatting. I told them that their paper should be in paragraphs, and when I was trying to explain that, I found that the kind of instruction they received in their native country didn't use the paragraph.
I worked backwards, teaching this student how best to compose their paragraphs to meet the expectations they were under. At that point, I never expected to need to teach someone that, so I wasn't prepared. It was very difficult for me to teach a person how to write a paragraph because I'd been using them all my life.
How do you teach something that, to you, just is?
Experts in their field don't always go back to those basics, and some of the most difficult questions for them to answer accessibly will usually be the most basic. Some people will quickly discredit those experts for using inaccessible language when the fault lies in that curse of knowledge. It's frustrating for all communicators involved.
Pinker points out that most jargon could very easily be gotten rid of with little consequence. This could be done, theoretically, but the realistic problem is that if a word exists, someone makes a habit of using it and relies on it to make their meaning known.
In a review of Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader, Jessica Moore writes "Though the camera lingers on sexualized bodies, because this scene is from Megan’s point of view it also elevates feminine detail: intimacy, pompoms, pleats of polyester. Thus, although this sequence recognizes a male, especially American, sexual role-play, it omits men from their own fantasy; it is reconfigured to include the gaze of women. The camerawork is tactile, there is no distance or inequality between Megan and the girls she admires."
People, like myself, who have seen this movie would know what Moore is talking about. This is not a review for people who have not already seen this movie. People who have seen this movie know that Megan is a high school cheerleader. The film sequence shows her reflecting on how she sees the other cheerleaders without really understanding her feelings towards those thoughts.
Already, this excerpt makes a little bit more sense.
It makes even more sense to those who are familiar with film scholarship on "the male gaze" and how But I'm a Cheerleader reconfigures that concept. Not everyone is familiar with camerawork. However, people who are more familiar with "film as text" scholarship might read this and gain a more profound understanding as to why this movie resonates so strongly with so many people's experiences and why it's become such a source of comfort.
"Megan Bloomfield is a seventeen-year-old high school cheerleader dating a football player named Jared, but it's immediately obvious that she doesn't feel an attraction to him. A sequence plays that shows Megan thinking of the other cheerleaders, specifically the movement of their bodies. While the way that their bodies are moving might not have been out of place in the fantasy of a male character, this comes from Megan's perspective. She's thinking of people who have already been established as those she feels to be her peers and her equals. They're a source of comfort to her and she happens to admire them physically as well."
My rewrite creates a very different review, but is meant to be more accessible to those who haven't seen the movie, but might know about this scene or others like it from the trailer or previews. This is in no way to disregard Moore's work. She's being conscientious to a different audience than mine.
For those who are experts in their field, they should be able to use their genuine voice and communicate to those for whom their communication style will best suit. However, they also shouldn't be afraid to re-learn their own work from the ground up, especially if their goal is to engage new interest or solve old problems.
As always, thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and those who recommended I use But I'm a Cheerleader as one of my primary examples.
For the purpose of this series on The Sense of Style, I am not giving the same in-depth review as I usually give to older scholarship. This is easier to access and purchase. I recommend that anyone who is interested in this specific series or the topics that I'm covering follow along with their own copy. Next week, I plan to cover the ninth essay in When a Writer Can't Write that details different methods by which writer's block has been researched.
If you are interested in this or want to send your recommendations for topics I should cover or pieces I should analyze, you can become a Purposeful Prose member. Members can engage with my posts directly, take part in my forum, and have the option to get notified each time a new post goes up!
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Moore, J. (2020, December 11). Visualizing Liberation in “But I’m a Cheerleader.” MUBI. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/visualizing-liberation-in-but-i-m-a-cheerleader-9518
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking.