the academic earworm

We all know about earworms. They’re that piece of music that we can’t get out of our heads (thanks Kylie). The Earworm Project – yes, there really was such a thing and it was real, proper, actually funded research – says this about earworms…

The term earworm originally comes from a translation of the German word ‘Ohrwurm’. It refers to the experience of having a tune or a part of a tune stuck in your head. Often a person experiencing an earworm has no idea why a tune has popped into their head and has little control over how long it continues. Earworms are a really common phenomenon: A recent poll suggested over 90% of the population experience them at least once a week, so it seems like having the odd earworm is perfectly normal. But 15% of people classified their earworms as “disturbing” and in a different study one third of the people described their earworms as “unpleasant”. This means that although earworms are essentially harmless they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and can stop you from thinking straight.

So, there you go. The earworm. It’s a proper thing. A phenomenon able to be researched. Something that sticks in your mind and might prevent you thinking of other things.

We all know earworms. They are verbal as well as musical. Words that are worth repeating.  Phrases and terms that just hit the spot. They weren’t there one day, and then the next day, there they are. And where-ever you look, the same phrase or term pops up over and over again. Something that sticks in your mind and might prevent you thinking of other things. (See what I did there.)


Earworms proliferate on social media. New terms pop up on a daily basis and then just become the way that we talk about stuff. Hashtags we all somehow just know and then use. Labels that seem felicitous. Apt. A way to shorthand what we want to say.

And this happens with academic social media too. Earworms proliferate just as much among the scholarly set as anyone else. For instance, not long ago there was a lot of discussion in my twitter-feed about ‘the slow professor’ and ‘the accelerated academy’. These terms then became a kind of earworm for contemporary academic life. Despite some debate about their use, the terms continue to appear as a way – the way? – of talking about the performativities of academic life and they seem to be terms that are just stuck in our heads.

Then there’s the term ‘Reviewer 2’ – that’s the awful reviewer you wish you hadn’t got. The review you wish you’d never read. Mean, nasty and almost impossible to work with. But despite some protestations about the ways in which challenging reviews can actually be helpful, and all difficult reviews not necessarily the same, we go on talking about Reviewer 2.  I found myself saying it just the other day in a workshop. Even though I hadn’t thought I would use this term, it just came out of my mouth. It popped into my head and once it was there I couldn’t get rid of it all day. And it wasn’t completely helpful, as even a ruthless and rude review can often still be of help. They thought that? How did I give that impression? How can I say this differently?

I worry about academic earworms. Yes, I use them, see above – it’s hard not to. But I do wonder what using them actually does to thinking for myself/thinking for ourselves. Does the academic earworm, like their musical equivalent, sometimes prevent me/us from thinking straight?

Let me give you an example about my vague concern. One of the things I occasionally study is leadership. Well, what leaders do. School leaders in my case. Not my fave topic to be honest, but I just end up back at it every now and then. It’s very common in the leadership literatures to talk about leaders and followers. Completely ubiquitous. It’s a kind of earworm. Say leader and you think follower. It’s a twosome that’s sticks in the mind, leader/follower pops into your mind without you even thinking about it. If there’s a leader there must be followers.

Well, of course a leader has to have followers or they actually aren’t a leader But a leader doesn’t just have those who follow. A leader may also have some people who oppose them, some who couldn’t give a rat’s tail, and some who are potentially, or actual, rival leaders. In following the academic earworm – leader/follower – we lose sight, in the moment and potentially for much longer, of what else might be going on around the leader – we don’t see who else is there other than followers, and what the non followers are doing.

But why does this matter? It matters because critical interrogation of terms is what academics do. It’s one of our signatures. We are known for being pernickety about meanings. It’s what we train our students to do from the moment they begin their undergraduate studies. We academics don’t take things for granted. We try not to use language indiscriminately. We work to become discerning about the ways in which we speak. And that’s why the academic earworm is insidious. Because the word or phrase that just pops into our heads may in fact need quite a bit of examination.

And social media isn’t a place necessarily conducive to intellectual precision. Too many academic earworms altogether.

I’m trying to stop myself using easy phrases and catch words when I post.  I’ve become really conscious of academic earworm proliferation. Of the tension between being critical and writing colloquially and communicating ideas in a relatively short word space, between the need for scepticism as well as making myself clear enough for readers to get past the first few sentences.

When, I am asking myself, is it OK to use an academic earworm, and when does it become counter-productive? When does the academic earworm cloud an issue, rather than help make things more visible/audible?

Image credit: Garrett Coakley, Flickr Commons.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic earworm, academic writing, critical, language and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the academic earworm

  1. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat: The very first time an academic ‘earworm’ is heard, you may well think it’s a novel conceptual illustration, but, eagerly adopted by all and sundry, it soon becomes a lazy cliché, a fashionable filler clause. Then it tends to be mocked by people like me, who have a fondness for irony. Take the latter-day clichéd phrase, ‘think outside the box.’ Having lived most of my life outside ‘the box,’ I never want to be confined within it, like some kind of Schröedinger’s cat. Catch words and trite terms not only obscure issues, they are also indicative of boxy thinking ~ i.e., only going with flow, never daring to push the envelope, or indeed venture into blue sky thinking …


  2. … ‘academic writing is a skill’: is this an example of an earworm, one that deafens us to the socio-psychological, cultural and disciplinary aptitudes needed to become academic writers?


  3. Tuluiga Aiiloilo-Maka says:

    indeed phrases or words we now called earworm its just like an epidemic in the world of academic writing as if no one can do anything about it


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