“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.


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You are currently reading “It’s like the snowfall that obliterates all the features of the landscape. A snowfall of words that just cuts out any sound.” at dropitintheocean.


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