Management & Professional Development

Simplify, Simplify: Working with Faculty in the Technical Fields

What’s the best way to work with faculty in very technical fields, or with material that is tough for the public to understand?

Illustration of light bulbThere was a lot of stuff from my HighEdWeb12 presentation “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D. – Working with Faculty and the Web” that got left on the cutting room floor. One of the bits I removed turned out to be the topic of a question I was asked after:  what’s the best way to work with faculty in very technical fields, or with material that is tough for the public to understand?

Though the faculty I worked with had very diverse research topics, they all worked in the same field – family social science. The work was easy to translate for outside audiences, since there almost always was an easy human interest angle. Everyone has either a family of origin or a family of choice (our faculty research and recognize both), and the work stretched further out to families dealing with the foreclosure crisis, family-run businesses and families sorting through inheritance issues following the death of an older relative. The stories were easily relatable, even if a reader was not himself in one of these situations.

Now you, gentle reader, might work with faculty who specialize in areas of greater complexity –high level research in cell biology, mechanical engineering, atmospheric science–you get the picture. It’s super important stuff, but even at the basic level it could be hard to understand for Joe Average Reader. Here’s some help in getting things straight.

What does Wikipedia have to say… in Simple English?

While there might not be a Wikipedia page about your faculty member’s specific research, the concepts and ideas that support it are probably covered. But scientific Wikipedia articles can be just as tough to wade through. The solution: see the page in another “language.”

Wikipedia’s sidebar features links to other languages that the page is available in, one of which is Simple English. (Yes. That’s a language.) The Simple English Wikipedia site is written using only the 1,000 most common basic English words, simplified word use and straightforward grammar rules.  Comparing the Wikipedia entries for atmospheric pressure on the standard English site  and the Simple English site  quickly reveals how the basics of an idea can boil down.

Simple English Wikipedia has 88,577 articles — a small number compared to English Wikipedia’s more than 4 million articles. Still, some of the concepts and ideas your faculty work with are likely to be found there. It’s a great first step for you and your faculty to look up those topics and start thinking about how to express ideas in easier-to-understand terms.

Plain Language: The law, a civil right, and generally awesome

Actually, plain language is only the law if you’re a federal agency, but higher education can definitely benefit from the amazing resources at and the Center for Plain Language. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” and three Executive Orders cover the need for and the use of plain language in regulations. Here is a brilliant before and after example of the power of plain language:

Medicare Fraud Letter

The Medicare Beneficiary Services receives a lot of Medicare fraud correspondence every year. To reach their customers more effectively, they took an already short letter and made it even shorter and to the point.

Investigators at the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the providers’ medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.

We will take two steps to look at this matter: We will find out if it was an error or fraud.We will let you know the result.

111 words becomes 28 … from the federal government! Excuse me while I go freak out for a little bit.
Both sites have tremendous resource sections ( Tips and Tools , Center for Plain Language resources) with guides for getting started, word choice tips, online training and overviews on how to start your own plain language program. This can help you cut through some of the more technical details of faculty work and get to the heart of it – what does your audience need to know to understand?

You’re doing this together for the good of everyone.

I will often get emotional over working in higher education because I love the heart of it, the responsibility we have in working with knowledge to transform our world and our society for the better. While high-level specialized work needs high-level specialized language, it also benefits from taking a step back to see the everyday benefit. What is this work leading to? What’s the end goal? How will this make the world better, help us understand who we are as human beings and as part of a giant, complex universe? I believe that all research, no matter how specific or seemingly minute, points towards a better future, and it’s a daily privilege to work with specialists who are making these investigations, and get the information out to the public – great things are happening here.

It’s a rare faculty member that doesn’t want their work to be understood, but since they are high-level specialists in their fields, they might not even know where to start. So ask those “stupid” questions. Get clarification. Simplify, simplify. Have your Ph.D.-holding faculty explain things to you so that together you can explain things to the world. We can’t wait to hear it!

As with most good concepts, there is a relevant XKCD comic to illustrate things, and plain language is no exception: XKCD’s breakdown of how the Saturn V Rocket (or “Up Goer Five”) works.


Illustration by Andrew Coulter Enright, Flickr.

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By Sara Clark

Sara Clark is operations director for the HighEdWeb Association.