July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
“It’s like the snowfall that obliterates all the features of the landscape. A snowfall of words that just cuts out any sound.”
July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
This quote comes from what I think is a rather poorly-written article on writing well (i.e. against the grain) in academia published in Times Higher Ed:
Brian Boyd, distinguished professor of English at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, calls standard academese a “porridge of abstractions” whose glutinous texture is best avoided by stylish writers: “You’ve got to be able to swim comfortably in the porridge as an academic but I try to offer fresher seas.”
Swimming in a porridge of abstractions, eh. The thing that bugs me about this article is its porridge of metaphors. It’s like the article is a bowl of porridge and it’s been completely drowned in a topping of metaphors, to the point where you just can’t taste the oats at all.
Meanwhile James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, notes that job security seldom leads to a sudden fairy-tale transformation.
“It’s not like you’ve been kissed and turned into a prince when you’ve been a frog all along,” he says.
“If you have wriggled in a kind of academic way for the seven or eight years leading to tenure, and have not made any effort to change that style, it’s probably impossible to do so at that point. So the fantasy that you’re allowed to be free and express yourself more freely when you receive tenure is just that – a fantasy.”
Yes, I know a few tenured frogs too. Were they wriggling tadpoles before tenure, or did they hop and ribbit then too? I don’t know. Is this article supposed to demonstrate the good writing – sorry, stylish writing – it champions? I don’t know that either. Maybe it’s supposed to be ironic?
Janelle Jenstad, associate professor of English at the University of Victoria in Canada, takes the artisan metaphor a step further, using terminology borrowed from the building trade to describe the writer’s craft.
“If you’re cutting a piece of metal to make a shape, the very first thing you do is give it a ‘roughing cut’, where you just get rid of most of the excess metal. Once you’ve done that, then you do your ‘finishing cut’.
“I’ve applied that in all aspects of my life…”
Ok enough of this, I’m off to give a roughing cut in one aspect of my life. I do, of course, hope that writing this blogpost does not affect my own chances of getting tenure.
But what is the point of being an academic, I ask my angst-ridden younger colleagues, if you’re unwilling to take intellectual risks?
You shouldn’t have asked that question, and you shouldn’t have referred to your younger (non-tenured) colleagues as “angst-ridden”. Really, you just shouldn’t. End of.
July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
7 year post-doc – an article about surviving post-docs: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/
July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
July 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
BS: What are your general opinions on American universities and American students?
MM: What a privileged place is an American university. What amazing resources. My god! I am so acutely aware of the poverty of resources in African universities, just having spent some years writing about Makerere in Kampala. Outside of the war-related industries, this is the only industry where the US has an edge – in education. I don’t see it dominating any other economy in the world market. My sense of Indian and Chinese higher education is that it’s so single-mindedly focused on the instrumental – the engineering, the science, the medical – and the place of the humanities and social sciences is so marginal, whereas in American universities you can do away with medical school and engineering school and the university will still be there. But if you do away with the faculties of arts and sciences, there is no university. So this liberal education is very much a driving force for ongoing confrontation with the world, and at least sustains those who question that.
About students – Columbia is a privileged place from which to get a sense of American students. I think, quite often, if you take top 20 percent of Columbia undergrads, they are smarter than half the grad students at Columbia. The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.
They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem. Surely, [these students] are not the solution, and can’t be the solution.
That’s the dangerous thing. Somehow, ways have to be found to impart some degree of modesty to this new generation of Americans.
BS: In relation to that, I wonder about self-censorship. Do you think that American students suffer from self-censorship? For example, when I once added a Cold War and the University component to a literary theory class, it seemed that no one wanted to deal with this. It was treated like a conspiracy theory, but this information is everywhere. Yet, it seems, one does not want to know. What’s this self-censorship? Do you find this theme too?
MM: Yeah. One of the most damning words in the American academy is to be described as controversial. What should be the essence of scholarship has become a critique of scholarship, which is bizarre to me. Completely. The student experience is a tough one. You are judged constantly by the very people who teach you, and these are the very people who tell you that you should learn to think for yourself and think free of consequences. Yet the consequences are right there – there is the exam, and marking, and there are the risks you must take if you deviate from what the professor thinks, whether it’s a right-wing professor, a left-wing professor or a centrist professor. There is a cost of deviation. So between the language, the rhetoric and the reality there is a huge gulf. And the student knows it better than anybody else. In a way, the student is being made to to conform – to not say that which he or she thinks if it deviates from the norm. So we’re turning out kind of a group of mercenaries. It’s always a question for me: How do you deal with this catch-22? How do you say to the student, “Write what you think,” and yet you know that the student knows that you will be grading that student?
July 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
produced by a Sussex Anthropology project. http://vimeo.com/69824235