Saturday, October 13, 2007

Writing without communicating

The language of academia can be a daunting thing. Every field has its terminology, its jargon, its buzzwords and catchphrases. These stand like the sentinel at the gate to enter the club of a particular discipline. If you don't know the password, stay out.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to find this frustrating. In this 1999 article from the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Dutton discusses the "language crimes" of academia. Fed up, he helped start the Bad Writing Contest. The task was to pull out a sentence from an actual piece of academic literature and submit it to the judges. I love this excerpt from Dutton's article, which gives the 1998 winner of the contest and his commentary on it:

“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.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

Amen to Dutton's assessment. Now, I'm sure there are people who genuinely understand that sentence, and even I can sort of make out what it's saying, but egads, does it make you want to keep reading in any way? I'd say writing clear prose on a difficult topic is the more difficult task, and perhaps even a sign of greater intelligence. I saw my share of this stuff in college, and professors whose lectures sound like this snippet don't do much to inspire the enthusiasm of students. Luckily I didn't meet many.

It's not just academia though. I've heard of another bad writing contest, the long-running Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (also see the official website), named after the man who originally penned that oh-so-classic phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." The best purple prose wins the prize, but in this case they judge original submissions. That is, entrants try to come up with the worst opening sentence to a novel possible. Here's the 2007 winner:
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.
Jim Gleeson, Madison, WI
Finally, I must say this all reminds me of a (humorous) book I read in middle school which included convoluted versions of everyday sentences. I still remember one of them clearly: "My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have arrived at a state of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity." (That is, "I'm full.") Touché!


Torben B said...

Amen to this post! I have been thinking about this for quite some time, mostly because I have been in and out of at least four departments in my college career. Each time I decided I'd found my major, I'd always have the challenge of climbing the jargon gate at the front in order to be able to access the information inside (never mind that in Anthropology, Sociology, and Philosophy, I have read the same articles). Each time I was faced with the challenge of re-wording my ideas within the new linguistic context.

I think that being an integrated studies student presents an interesting challenge. We have the challenge of communicating across disciplines; trying to communicate distinctions while bridging similarities. We also need to understand the history of our disciplines so we don't assume that both fields are saying the same thing when, in fact, their views may contrast greatly.

Communicating is so interesting to me! I'm not sure there is anything in academia that interests me as much as methods of communication. Many times, I am more interested in the ways people choose to communicate than their actual ideas. I think that's why I have a current infatuation with 'This American Life.' I think that there method of communication is so fascinating. Anyways, I'm probably rambling. The end.

Torben B said...

Btw, great post Rikker!

Torben B said...

their method :)

Grabloid said...

Agreed! (To the post and to Torben's comment.) I'm also an integrated studies student and have experienced similar things. Integrated studies classes, so far, have been the only advanced classes that haven't alienated me in this sort of snobbish, ultra technical jargon-ish sort of way. This doesn't mean that integrated studies isn't unique, in depth and doesn't mean that we aren't wrestling with interesting or difficult issues...I would just say that integrated studies, by definition, is much more accommodating to students from all disciplines.