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You think you’ve been clear, but…

How often does this happen?

You spend three weeks crafting a draft, editing it, polishing it, explaining what you mean. You hand it in to your supervisor. They hand it back. ‘I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue here,’ they say.

You roll your eyes. When you were writing it, it seemed so OBVIOUS. SO OBVIOUS. Like, shouty in ALL CAPS obvious. The logical progression was blindingly obvious to you. How could they not see it?

Signal amplification bias and the illusion of transparency.

Basically, we overestimate how explicit we have been in ‘signalling’ what we’re thinking, and we overestimate how easy it is for other people to read our signals. The more anxious or afraid of rejection we are, the stronger this is likely to be.

***

There are so many ways that this is likely to be playing out in academic writing when you are a doctoral candidate.

1. You have spent 3 weeks writing this text, you have poured over it multiple times. You know it backwards.
Your supervisor has read it once, it took them 25 minutes.

2. You know what you were trying to say, and feel that the words are a good representation of your ideas.
Your supervisor has a PhD, but the p does not stand for ‘psychic’. They have no idea what was going on in your head, and have to guess from your words.

3. You want to be respectful of your supervisor’s intelligence and knowledge of the field, which you feel is greater than yours.
Your supervisor is no longer the expert in your topic. They need you to explain your original contribution to knowledge.

4. You are afraid of rejection. If you ‘hedge’ your language, it feels like you are protecting yourself and your ideas with a buffer of maybes.
Your supervisor reads this waffley text and wonders if you know what’s going on. They can’t tell if you are right, wrong or just unclear in your thinking.

5. You feel explicit signposting is kind of rude, like shouting at someone, telling them what to do.
Your supervisor has to peer at the work through a microscope to perceive your signposts. They resent having to read your thesis like a work of modernist poetry.

***

What to do?

In this section, I will consider Christopher Columbus, the most important propagandist radio Feature drama of World War II. I will demonstrate how the circumstances which surround the commission, creation and performance, shaped it. Throughout the Chapter, I will continue to argue for the interplay between high and mass culture in the play, and for the tension between the official and the individual, between professional propaganda responding to contemporary political or military situations, and nuanced writing that responds to personal histories.

As a reader, this does not feel like the text is rudely shouting at you or spelling things out as if to a small child. It’s pretty hard work to read, actually (and I wrote it. I’m quoting here from my thesis.)

What it does is tell you the topic (Christopher Columbus the radio drama) and its significance (its the most important). It shows what I will prove (that context shapes art), and what I will argue (that the art works play out these contradictory tensions), and how it fits into the wider argument (that these are the same contradictory tensions that I argued were important in the previous section).

That’s it. It’s the difference between signalling your romantic interest by looking at me intently, and asking me out on a date. The difference between signalling friendly overtures, and saying ‘hey, let’s go grab coffee, I’d love to be friends’. The difference, therefore, between me saying, ‘okay, sure, let’s give that a go’ and being blithely unaware you even knew I existed.

Don’t think you’ve been clear: make sure you have been clear. Declare yourself, if only on paper.

And get ready for rejection. Rejection is a massive part of academic life.

***

References:

Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others’ ability to read one’s emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 332–346.

Cameron, J. J., & Vorauer, J. D. (2008). Feeling transparent: On metaperceptions and miscommunications. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 1093-1108.

Vorauer, J. D., Cameron, J. J., Holmes, J. G., & Pearce, D. G. (2003). Invisible overtures: fears of rejection and the signal amplification bias. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(4), 793.

Firth, K. (2009). The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collboration on Art Song, 1939-54 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

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