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October 22, 2003

Thanks to all who wrote of their concern about AJ. He seems to be 100% better today, and to celebrate we spent a good amount of time this morning chasing geese around the playground before embarking on a finger painting adventure that has left my basement floor looking like a Jackson Pollock reject. This is actually a vast improvement over the former décor (poured concrete decorated with glue residue from the incomplete removal of appallingly bad linoleum tile).

Today I’m doing my best to slog through some dissertations and articles that I need to address in my dissertation. I have been putting these off because, for the most part, they are written incredibly poorly. Reading jargonized academic prose is equivalent to putting my brain in a blender on liquefy. I was feeling like the most intelligent thing I could do in the aftermath is try not to drool on the pages as I doze off at my desk. Then I thought, Well, there’s always diaryland!

And it is hard to write about literature that is written like this without falling into the trap yourself. One of the dissertations I’ve been working with is actually extremely clearly written: he defines his terms, uses language efficiently and clearly and makes lots of interesting arguments. But he runs into trouble when his lit review hits Habermas the point I myself am facing at the moment, with all the public sphere stuff. If youre writing about theories of performance, you can’t not deal with Habermas. But Habermas seems to have given rise to some of the worst academic writing I’ve ever seen, even among people who generally write rather well. This particular dissertation disintegrates for several paragraphs into complete incomprehensibility until the author sets Habermas and his followers aside. My personal associations with some of the writers and my desire to maintain my own academic credentials prevent me from citing any of the current examples in my repertoire for your entertainment. But I’m sure you all know the kind of thing I mean.

The classic example is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, a gender studies classic that was notoriously ripped to shreds in The New Republic by the inimitable Martha Nussbaum. A summary appears here along with a discussion of bad academic writing. I know that I’m not immune to this kind of thing myself, which is probably why it bothers me so much. I like to think of myself as a relatively organized and lucid writer and teacher, as academics go. But every now and then something gives me pause about my own work. A few years ago, for example, when I was teaching an introductory ethnomusicology course at a university, one of my students returned an essay question on an exam that began, “Music is a very important part of the music-making experience.” Now I can’t take total credit for this gem; most of my students did very well with that particular question. But I could certainly hear echoes of ethno-speak in the construction, which alarmed me somewhat. Just what do I sound like in front of the blackboard?

When this stuff gets me down, I usually turn to my favorite satire of academic writing, Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin. Particularly entertaining is the chapter where the footnotes take over and there is no text at all. This is unfortunately what parts of my dissertation are starting to look like. Another fun read in this vein, although not nearly as clever, is Publish and Perish by James Hynes.

And as long as I’m linking, here’s another good article on Plath and Hughes.

Today’s entry brought to you courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily.

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