Saturday, May 19, 2007

Academic writing

One of my very, very favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

I sent it to my friends in the annual holiday letter in which I announced (a dozen years ago) that I was going to graduate school the following year (the Ph.D. graduate school, not the earlier divinity school one). One of the reasons I didn't do this kind of academic degree sooner is that I was afraid of wrecking my writing. This was back in the days when I was concerned about "finding my voice" as a writer. I was a published journalist, essayist, and preacher by the time I started the Ph.D. , and by then I'd also met, and read, a few academics who could actually write with beauty and clarity. But the jargon can still get pretty heavy, and there's plenty of bad writing around. What gets me most of all, or rather, what I don't understand, is why and how people who write about language (e.g. the "great" philosophers of language) are the worst of all in that department! They are impossible to understand. Fortunately, that's not my field so I can avoid reading them. I wish I had the patience, since I am deeply interested in questions related to language, but it makes no sense to me to explore the issue of language and meaning by wading through obscure texts. Sorry, Wittgenstein.


Kirstin said...

"But the jargon can still get pretty heavy, and there's plenty of bad writing around."

Dear God, that's the truth.

I love this cartoon!

janinsanfran said...

When my partner went to grad school, I informed her that adopting the obfuscations of academia would be grounds for divorce. Fortunately, academia has not destroyed her cogent and sometimes eloquent writing.

June Butler said...

Jane, the academic writing on language is the absolute worst of the lot. Impenetrable.

Some years ago, I purchased a critical work on the novels of Jane Austen, that model of clarity in writing, which was written in academic literary jargon. I was absolutely furious! How dare they write about Jane Austen's works in that manner!

Now, I look back and laugh at how angry I was, not so much because I had thrown my money away, but that any critic would dare to do that dirty deed.

Ken said...

If they understand what you wrote you may not get tenure. It's a risk, admittedly.

Jane R said...

Ach, I may not get tenure for other reasons. ;-) We'll see what the Holy Spirit and the System (NOT the same thing) have in store. In any case there are also parish and diocesan ministries, but let me not get started on that talk since the grass is always greener on the other side by the time one reaches the end of the academic year.

Glad I have some company in the love of clear language. Isn't it appalling, Grandmère Mimi, how the literary critics assault the literature?

Specialized language is useful; we use it in church and art and politics and other places; sometimes only a particular word will do, and it may save us three sentences or more. But combine an overabundance of those words with bad writing and you'd got mud. I'm on a rampage against the passive voice. I keep writing "PVF" in my students' margins (they know by now that it means "passive verb form") though sometimes I have to inform them of the difference between the active and the passive voice. Nobody knows grammar any more. Hell, my professional colleagues don't always pay attention to the passive voice in their writing. (Besides being ugly and confusing, it abdicates responsibility: "Mistakes were made." Oh yeah? WHO MADE the mistakes?) I have to say, though, that because our college has made writing a top priority --we told the accreditors, so it must be true-- my colleagues on the faculty are generally attentive in that department. I did, however, find out during one faculty discussion that we didn't all have the same definition of "good writing."

Half our students are adult (usually commuter) students, which is unusual for a small liberal arts college. So we also deal with the matter of teaching people who have been out of school a long time and may not have had a very good high school education to begin with. And then we have the "traditional age" (mostly resident, occasionally commuter) 18 to 22 year old students, at least 20% of whom (at our school, I don't know the national stats but ours are high, for a variety of reasons) have learning disabilities. Some of those younger students write very well; others do not, and the ones who do not have very different abilities and backgrounds. Finally, we have a very small number of "Early College" students, who are brilliant high school students taking college courses in a public-private partnership we have with the local schools. They are highly articulate and few of them are LD students. All this makes for a challenging mix of levels in any giving classroom -- in general and in relation to oral and written expression.

But as usual, I digress.

Thanks for ranting with me. And Jan, having heard your partner present an academic paper at a conference last fall (and having known her a bit in the classroom, back when she was a master's student) I can vouch for the fact that she remains an eloquent speaker and writer -- as you know. It probably helps to be living and conversing with you, too.

I'm grateful for two life experiences that have made an impact on my sense of language: a) I come from a family of journalists and b) I went to the French public schools from nursery school to the end of high school. Also, being bilingual has been useful. Hey, has anyone read Lost in Translation? NOT the recent movie and (I think) related book (which may have had a different title) but the 1989 memoir by Eva Hoffman? The book's subtitle is "A Life in a New Language." Interesting writing about living in two cultures and two languages. I loved it when I first read it. I just checked and it's now out in paperback.

johnieb said...

Ma Cher Grandmere,

I was right about Jane Austen, though you may have mentioned it before we became acquainted through this means. May I share a confidence? Other concerns have prevented my acquaintance with her work to this point, though her reputation is well-known to me, as how could it not?-- would either you or our host--even others who may chance to read my admission--care to recommend a starting point among Miss Austen's works?

I gifted a niece, who prefers music and mathematics, and godchildren with "the Little Book" of Strunk and White, (This beastly machine doesn't know Professor Strunk's name: imagine!), though I fear they may need additional aid to grasp it, even in outline, in the present day.

PVF: yech! Students' writing is best judged only by the patient: not me.

Jane R said...

Johnieb, there is a new illustrated edition to Strunk and White which came out last year (or the year before actually - in time for Christmas 2005 as I recall) -- perhaps it will make style and grammar more accessible and palatable.

I will defer to Grandmère Mimi on what to recommend in the Austen canon.

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