June 07, 2004

Hey...The Professor Has No Clothes On!

Ever wonder why Academia so often seems separated from...well...normalcy? It's because they're like a big Country Club, and they decide who, how, and when anyone joins. Not only that, but they occasionally say stupid things, and they say them with impunity and a false sense of security. The other members are afraid to disagree because they might look silly and be drummed out, and if any 'outsiders' dare criticize...well, what do they matter, they're cretins anyway.

How do I know all this? Well, somebody left the servant's entrance open one day, and while no one was looking, I became a member.

Here's an interesting piece from butterfliesandwheels about academic "bad writing." The idea is that if (some) academics use enough big, made-up, or poorly defined terms, they have a solid defense against criticism. Like they have their own special language. "Well," they will say. "it's just too difficult for you to understand what it's really saying."


Here's a little chunk of the article, fairly dripping with sarcasm:

Ah - so that's it. It's not that the writing is bad, it's that the readers who think it's bad are 98-pound weaklings who turn pale and sick at unsettling projects. They are 'frightened off,' the poor cowardly things, by the 'difficulty' of theory - not the ineptitude, mind you, or the slavish imitativeness, or the endless formulaic repetition of repetition - no, the difficulty. So as a result they 'can dismiss' theory - not laugh at, not hold up to scorn and derision, or set fire to or thrust firmly into the bin or take back to the shop and loudly demand a refund - no, dismiss. And dismiss 'as an effort to cover up in an artificially difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say.' Well - yes, that's right, as a matter of fact. We couldn't have said it better ourselves. That is exactly what it looks like to an impartial outsider. And then even though theory is 'difficult' which being interpreted means 'badly written,' we mustn't assume it's all like that (fair enough, and if you show us the good stuff, we'll greet it with a hug and tickets to the Icecapades) because that keeps us 'from confronting the real questions that theory raises.' Oh does it really. Surely that would only be the case if 'theory' were the only discipline raising such questions. But you know what? It isn't. One can confront such questions just as well by reading people who do know how to write as by reading ones who don't.

UPDATE: Here's an article by Dennis Dutton talking about "Bad Writing." Dennis also started the Bad Writing Contest.

Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.


  1. See, this is exactly why I'm reading the adventures of Captain Underpants these days. Back when I was taking a pedagogy course concerning the instruction of under-prepared students in the art of composition (in plain English: teaching subliterate Louisiana high school grads how to write their own damn language), I fought with my instructor quite a bit about our reading assignments. I was drinking a lot at the time and therefore showing up to class hungover, but I think it only helped my case. "This is crap. We're supposed to be teaching these kids how to write and these masters of the language couldn't write a clear sentence to save their tenure*"

    *tenure being much more important to life.

  2. There's such a difference, as well, between two-year and four-year schools. At the four-year school, no one even wants to address grammar issues. (I suspect this is because many of them don't know much about it. I've noticed I get a lot of grammar questions from my peers now that they know I'm including some in my courses.) There's this idea that we can't tell students that they are "wrong," because that might make them feel bad. Instead, we try to accomodate.

    The two-year schools need good grammarians even more than the four-year ones do, but the trouble is, they don't want to pay for them. More and more adjuncts are being hired in place of full-time positions. And let me tell you--when you're getting shit money, it's hard to be commit yourself to the job.

    The community college is the best thing that has happened to higher education because it gives everyone a chance to go to colelge. It's also the worst thing that has happened to higher education because it gives everyone a chance to go to college.

  3. Sort of off topic, but we're talking about education, so...