All 4 entries tagged Academese

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May 08, 2012

On bullshit – by Anna

I spent the day on Friday attending 'Othering Academia: A (B)ull/shit Conference' put on by three postgraduates in the English department. I was expecting a day of laughs and lightheartedness about academia and the sometimes obscure or silly ways we talk about things - which I definitely got. But underneath it all, as we discussed in a roundtable at the end, it was actually a serious interrogation of what academic bullshit is, and how it functions within the academy.

Highlights of the day included Virginie Sauzon and Claire Trevien's paper 'A la recherche du Tesco perdu: The unbearable lightness/otherness of capitalism in Rimbaud', which was a hilarious sendup involving a supposed sexual liaison between Arthur Rimbaud and the founder of Tesco. Another favourite was Anirudh Tagat's 'Mine is faster than yours: Analysing speed of speaking from an economic perspective', in which Tagat completely made up his evidence and conclusions for our edification. Andrea Selleri's 'Vibrating subjects: Motorhead and the cunnilinguistics of the Other' also stood out as the day's most straight-faced piece of pure unadulterated bullshit. Well done, everyone!

However, all this came with a serious set of questions, which coincidentally have been coming up for me in the past few days anyhow. In the US there has been a bit of a furore this week amongst academics over a blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Naomi Shaeffer Riley which dismissed and ridiculed the work of four young Black Studies scholars as irrelevant 'hackery'. What's interesting is that she essentially accuses these scholars of bullshit - of looking at topics irrelevant to the wider culture, and of doing so in a way that is based on left-wing ideology and is impossible to understand (although she has not taken the trouble to read the dissertations).

This highlights, to me, the complicated thing role that bullshit seems to play in the academy. As philosopher H.G. Frankfurt's now-classic essay On Bullshit suggests, bullshit is not the same as a lie - rather it's a statement that is made without regard to truth; the bullshitter, he contends, is more interested in gaining power for himself (and it is often a male-gendered thing, though not always) than in stating the truth.

Here are some possible uses of or contexts for bullshit, according to ideas that came out at the conference on Friday:

  • Impressing funding bodies in applications
  • Making what you're saying sound complicated or intelligent (although this might not always be done at the conscious level)
  • Taking a simple pleasure in obscure language, or in the feeling of mastering it
  • Lubricating social interactions amongst academics
  • Applying a potentially complicated theory to a particular set of texts or artifacts
  • Showing that you have achieved fluency in academic language (for. e.g. PhD students)

This last point seems especially relevant to the Black Studies case, because Schaefer Riley is essentially (beyond the obviously racist comments she makes, which have been eloquently discussed elsewhere) accusing these doctoral students of taking the language of academia too seriously. Yet, as someone pointed out today, the overuse of technical academic language often relaxes after an academic has tenure; bullshit contains an aspect of proving that you belong within the academic 'priesthood'. So in this sense, her picking on PhD students, which seems very unfair, is actually quite telling of the ideological structures of academic bullshit.

January 30, 2012

Which window should I throw you from? – by Anna

My supervisor and I are having a, erm, disagreement about the formality of the language in my thesis. She seems to think it has to be extremely formal at all times, even to the point where she strikes through phrases like 'cutting down the task at hand' or 'straining at the seams' as too colloquial.

A particular bugbear of hers is when I end a sentence with a preposition. I'm perfectly aware that there is supposedly a grammatical rule against this! I disagree with it because I think the acrobatics a writer has to go through to avoid it are totally pointless and don't achieve anything other than pleasing some grammar freaks somewhere. Yet every time I get a chapter back from her, she painstakingly takes me through every one of my grammatical 'errors'. Better use of time, please?!

This is really starting to get on my nerves. One problem is that I don't write (or think) formally. I struggle enough with just getting the words on the page in the first place, without having this additional devil on my shoulder about whether it's formal enough to satisfy some arbitrary rules!

And for another thing, I'm really unclear on what purpose such formality would serve. Replacing an expression everyone knows with some longer words that mean basically the same thing doesn't create more clarity; if anything the opposite is true.

The supervisor seems to see it as a basic requirement of writing a thesis, like having footnotes or a bibliography, but I really don't see it that way and it feels like this is just an unexamined assumption on her part.

Besides which, it doesn't seem like this is universal belief even within academia. Many of the most famous academics are often the least formal in their language. I think using slightly less formal turns-of-phrase makes you sound as though you've mastered the material.

Maybe y'all can help me out on this one though? Is this a problem anyone else has encountered?

By the way, my favourite ever response to correcting a grammatical mistake is in With Honors, this cheesy film from the early 1990s starring Brendan Fraser as a Harvard student and Joe Pesci as a homeless guy, who strike up an unlikely friendship. Fraser takes Pesci to one of his lectures, where he starts an argument with a snooty professor. Finally, fed up, Pesci says:

Pesci: 'Which door do I leave from?'

Professor: 'At Harvard, we don't end our sentences with a preposition.'

Pesci: 'Fine. Which door do I leave from, asshole?'

(Immortal movie moment, in my opinion.)

March 10, 2011

Also… – by Anna

Does anybody know what a 'precession' is? As in Baudrillard's 'precession of simulacra'? I mean, wtf Jean.

Incomprehensible Academese – by Anna

I propose a thread on such! Here's one of my favourite incomprehensible sentences, from Prem Chowdhry's Colonial India and the making of empire cinema: Image, ideology, and identity (and really, isn't the title already a warning?):

Despite the presence of hybridity in what are theoretically considered by orientalists to be homogeneous sets, the binary opposition colonial self/colonised Other is encoded in colonialist discourse as a dichotomy necessary to domination.

This is the first sentence of the book!

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