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· Around the Academic Bell Curve in Artful-Scholar Style ·

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reviewed Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb's book, Just Being Difficult? (Stanford, 2003). Subtitled Academic Writing in the Public Arena, the book aptly lands on the much-contested subject of modern academic prose. Carlin Romano's witty take, Was It as Bad for You as It Was for Me?, links it to academic sex, marking the meeting there of philosophical opposites: postmodern constructivism and classical essentialism, ideological obscurity and ideal purity, savvy complexity and naïve clarity. Here is his lead.

For most scholars, bad academic writing, like bad academic sex, doesn't call for explanation — or argument.

It's poor chemistry between writer and reader (pontificator and pontificatee, in the academic version), like lack of sizzle between jaded full professor and enthusiastic asst. prof. It's failure of Interrogator A to make the noises and gestures that work for Hegemonized Reader B. It may be Defamiliarizer A's clumsy attempt to shake up the ideological/emotional/instrumental reflexes of Overly Essentialized Reader B. It may be sheer incompetence at nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Typically, I hold to the latter view — "grammatical," as you may call it — aware that Romano's theme, like that of E. M. Forster in Howard's End ("Only Connect"), partially bridges (or "pontificates") such a gap nicely. Such is my hope too, but it is hard work — especially in view of the examples. Here, for instance, is Judith Butler's winning quote in Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest (1998):

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. Judith Butler, 'Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,' Diacritics 27 (1997): 13.

As I have sometimes abused such prose — recall High Style and Compromising Style — you may find it strange that I sympathize with Butler's point, not to say with Butler's writing. It is simply because Butler delineates here, with a line that may drift and circle around too much, the analogous concerns of Robin Lakoff's excellent discussion of "How to Write Like a Professor." To Lakoff's credit in Talking Power: The Politics of Language, Butler's "question of temporality" — considered vis-à-vis "structure," "power," and "style" — is even graphically well-illustrated.

 · Power and Privilege in Academia ·

The curve of the line suggests that academic style, as Lakoff claims, "is connected to notions of privilege and power."

If academic style were merely the result of carelessness or unconcern for the graces, it would increase as its user advanced in the field, in a straight upward direction; and if undergraduates were capable of using the style, it would be deemed an unmixed sign of competence, not a little off-color. But we find instead the parabolic curve of Figure 8.1 . . .   You are allowed to use academese when you have convinced the elders that you are a serious apprentice, no longer an outsider (who is not allowed knowledge of the mysteries). You must use academese to prove your worthiness of acceptance and your ability to submit to discipline. You may abandon academese, wholly or more likely in part, when you are the gatekeeper and need no longer worry about being excluded from the society. Robin Tolmack Lakoff, Talking Power: The Politics of Language, New York: Basic Books, 1990, 158.

So where, pray tell, does that leave Styles, as a life-long academic bottom-dweller — a wily old fish, full of Ancient Academic Graces and all the Modern Gumptions? Just stuck in the reedy backwaters of learning, warily observing clumsy bait-hurlers like Butler (her aim is good, by the way) and stylish fly-tossers like Robin Lakoff (she must shop at R.E.I.) almost communicating effectively. But so much Butlerian telling and Lakoffian showing leave this fish reflecting, if truth be told, on Norman Maclean's sage advice in A River Runs Through It: "Grace comes by art, and art does not come easy."


Absolutely fantastic! What a lift! If you are, as you say, an academic bottom-dweller, the view from the bottom must be quite clear. Thanks, Styles, for the intellectual equivalent of a TGIF happy hour.

Posted by
Mary Lee Donahue on October 31, 2003 12:36 PM

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