Saturday, February 16, 2013

Peter Elbow: Academic writing--bad on purpose?

Peter Elbow has a new book out--and, more important for fans of teh webz, an interesting blog post--on why academic writing can be so impenetrable:
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
 X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.
Elbow goes on to say that even strong, confident academic writers "interrupt themselves" with opposing arguments in this way. Overall, he says, "I want to celebrate the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas."

 My first thought: John Keats, you were right! "The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems."

 Second thought: Elbow is right, but I want him to say more (to which any sensible person would say "buy the book, then").  What about academic jargon and theory-speak?

 That's a difficult proposition, taking on the jargon question, because here's the basic debate if anyone brings up the issue:

 Scholar A: "Why do you use so much jargon?"

 Scholar B: "It is not jargon! These words are an indispensable set of terms that serve as shorthand for difficult conceptual ideas and theoretical systems. Sometimes those terms don't cover it, so I have to invent my own and use them without defining them."

 Scholar A: "I'm asking why you use ridiculously obfuscatory language to mystify readers when your concepts are really pretty simple and not all that novel."

 Scholar B: "You're just too stupid to understand my Complex Ideas."

 Scholar A: "Am not!"

 Scholar B: "Are too!"

 [[[[Crickets.]]]]

 Your thoughts?

6 comments:

Contingent Cassandra said...

First thought(s): amen on the theory conversation, and I want to buy the book, which I hadn't yet heard of. Thanks!

Next thought: one of the purposes of foot/end notes is to move the "x said this and y said that and here's how my idea fits into that conversation" stuff out of the main body of the text. Of course, one can only have so many of those notes.

Tree of Knowledge said...

I'm teaching my intro to research students to read scholarly sources this week, and we had to have the "why don't these people do any of the things that you insist I do" conversation. Fun times. But there really is nothing like academic writing to show a student the value of clear thesis statements, point sentences, and organization, and how many decisions actually get made based on audience.

Jonathan said...

Ok, but I can write clearly and eloquently and not be simplistic. I love writing about how my views differ and build on those of others. There's a kind of elegant dance in that, if you do it right.

You have to be able to intelligently balance opposing viewpoints, consider views alternative to your own and work out intellectual problems. If you cannot do it and write well, it is because you are a bad writer, not because of the demand that you be an intellectual.

Of course it will be easier to be clear if your idea is a simpler one. Who cares?

The question of jargon is another one. I think most of us use much less of it than 20 years ago. Remember those titles with parentheses, like "The (Mis)prision of Man: Gender (im)politics in ...."

undine said...

Contingent Cassandra--absolutely! Also, I'm increasingly seeing this in newer scholarly books: primary text + fashionable big-name theorist but no references to critical articles on the subject, even those that say essentially the same thing as the new book.

Tree of Knowledge--that should show them what to do (in some cases) and what not to do (in other cases).

Jonathan--I do indeed remember those titles with parentheses--and don't forget the slash: re/interpellating the subject and all that.

Z said...

I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with reading while writing. There is value to doing that, since you don't put off writing, but then reading while writing means your ideas are not limpid yet ... or at least, it does for many.

Z said...

Also: one is not supposed to have footnotes any more. This leads to many parenthetical statements and interpolated clauses.