I Rant Because I Care: On Academic Writing

Does this make any sense to you?

In this dissertation I argue for an expansion and transformation of post-structuralist and Frankfurt School critiques of history and progress through a rigorous integration of images and visual materials into the critical methods themselves. I suggest that etchings of a ruinous ancient Rome by 18th century Italian architect Giovanni-Battista Piranesi are emblematic of a critical and visual rethinking of emerging, Enlightenment-era-related conceptions of time – conceptions which continue to give order to our experiences today. Using these etchings as a visual framework for my project, I explore and critique the disciplinary parameters guiding the construction of historical narratives; from there I offer a reworked understanding of emerging notions of subjectivity and their relationship to a linear conception of historical time. This image-oriented critique of history as a continuous, seamless narrative culminates in a discussion of the dialectic between monuments and ruins, where I argue that in perpetuating a nostalgic longing for the past, romanticized writings on ruins also render invisible a productive reading of urban space as the necessarily discontinuous co-existence of past and present.
Yeah, didn't think so. Me neither. And I wrote it. No, I'm being completely serious. It's my dissertation abstract, featured prominently on the first page of my curriculum vitae. Academic writing is wordcraft writ very, very odd. I've come to believe that 10 years of graduate school didn't make me any smarter; they just made me much more skilled at constructing sentences that an increasingly smaller percentage of the population is able to parse. Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that those ten years were all for naught -- I went into grad school because I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to see to fruition, and I accomplished that. I just managed to do it in a language that now, 18 months since filing my dissertation, I only kind of remember, much less understand. I'm not suggesting that academics ought to dumb down their language; that would imply that academic language is of a higher order or something. And it's not. Rather, it's just on a different plane, and that's kind of sad. You've got a country full of un- or mis-employed phDs who were never taught how to forge necessary bridges between ideas and real articulation. (C'mon -- we all know that a seminar paper is fundamentally the reconfiguration of the same 500-odd words into different sentence constructions. That's not articulation; that, again, is just wordcraft. Well, wordcraft and smoke and mirrors. I mean: render invisible a productive reading of urban space? Why couldn't I have just said make it hard for us to talk about cities?) I mean, this is partly why I took an extended hiatus from academia, and why I now blog: I needed to find a way back to language that felt more grounded in how I might actually speak. (Read my dissertation abstract out loud. It sounds ridiculous.) I don't deny that there's a place for formal academic language, but at the same time, I worry that that formality has just become a way to hide behind a fundamental inability to truly share one's ideas. And what's an idea if you don't know how to talk about it? addendum: NG just pointed out that the phrase 'increasingly smaller' is rather laughable. No, wait. Very laughable. [apologies -- don't know why the formatting is wonky with this post.]


kiita said...

It's not that bad. But then again I'm an academic. ... And I have to resist the urge to make suggestions to clarify the language (occupational habit). It's an interesting abstract!

The best academic writing is language play, literally. Take that for what it is.

Now, how would Rand and Benjamin fight over it?

Asad said...

I agree, Kiita - but I also think a lot of the worst academic writing is language play. That it may be intelligible to the specialist doesn't change the fact that excluding lay readers has been a major impetus of the last twenty-five years of American literary theory.

I may be naive, but I still hold to the saw that the best writing of any variety usually transmits its meaning in the simplest way it can be, given its subject. Like this post, which I found honest and brave.

Carson said...

I've been writing a lot of press releases recently and this has purged a lot of academic jargon from my writing. Press releases (text that aims draw interest within a few lines), especially for art and architecture theory-based projects, requires one to transpose complex theories into clear, easily understandable sentences. The trick is to find the essentials in the ideas and leave out the rest.

ht said...

kiita and asad: some of my finer moments as an academic writer have involved clever word/language play to interesting ends. the problem, of course, is when one starts being clever for the sake of being clever: all form, no content.

i think that writing can and should be playful when that sort of playfulness is required of the text at hand. (and i think that a lot of academic writing really ought to be more playful -- ie, not take itself quite so seriously.) but play doesn't have to be complicated, or about complicatedness.

and so -- this links up to what you said, carson -- i really do think that grad students need to try their hand at writing for non-academic-journal sorts of places. write for people who aren't going to belabor the point, but who, rather, just want to see the point.