Poisonous academics and their claptrap of exclusion

I first came across this article after reading The Age of the Warrior by Robert Fisk, my favourite journalist stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. This book is full of highly opinionated readings concerning both domestic and international politics in the Middle East. Anyone interested in the modern political or historical situation of this region should definitely pick up this book.

I’m posting this blog in lieu of the discussion we had this past week, about coded academic language relative to public discourse. In his article titled ‘Poisonous Academics and Their Claptrap of Exclusion’ he speaks about academic jargon as a means to marginalize the public from social scientific writing. Singling out anthropology specifically, while attending a lecture, he writes:

“… all very fascinating. But once questions were invited from the floor, Gilsenan was asked about ‘matrilineal’ issues in colonial Singapore. I closed my eyes. ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to. It is part of a secret language of academe – especially of anthropology – and it is a turn-off. We poor dunces should keep our noses out of this high-falutin’ stuff. That, I think, is the message. I recall a student raging to me about her anthropology professor who constantly used words like ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ – to this day, I have no idea what they mean; readers are invited to reply – in an attempt to mystify her discipline.”

He concludes this article by asserting that public intellectuals refrain from using coded, conceptual language. In the last paragraph of this article, he states:

“No, I’m not saying that all teachers speak like this. There is no secret language in the work of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or Martin Gilbert or Noam Chomsky (* the latter of which I disagree with to some extent *). But it’s growing and it’s getting worse, and I suspect only students can now rebel against it. The merest hint of ‘emics’ and ‘constructs’ or ‘hermeneutic possibilities’ and they should walk out of class, shouting Winston Churchill’s famous retort: This is English up with which I will not put.”

Although I have my reservations about his analysis, I do think he has some important points about how we conceptualize and code our writing, if only to be understood by a select few. I’m not saying that words like ‘emic’ or ‘etic’ should be removed from the theoretical cannons of cultural anthropology, I’m only concerned with how the public engages with our writing. If this is indeed the how the public views our language and style, then perhaps when communicating our findings to a greater audience we should be keep these things in mind. Your thoughts?

Blog #1: Writing about Writing

It’s strange to sit and reflect on my own writing behaviours, let alone how I compose my thoughts in writing. Even while churning out this blog I find it hard to effectively tease out the relationship between how my brain operates and the behaviours that follow, pondering an outside version of myself watching myself write. I can think of two obvious problems that plague my routine, plus two more latent factors that contribute to a drunken-waltz final product. The two obvious factors include context (where I am writing) and the amount of relevant information needed to conceptualize my paper. Context seems to be more important than acquiring the right volume of information as these environments determine the rate at which I write. Since information is abundant, it comes in at a close second, but only because the rate I write is disproportional to the amount of gathered information. My ability to write well thought-out, clear assertive commentary and opinion decreases with too much information. Not at all mind-bending in a conventional sense, however a few people might sympathize with the ability, or lack thereof, to concretely write under cinder blocks of often-contradictory text. That being said, I still need large amounts of information to feel satisfied that what I’m learning is sufficient to defend my views. Writing for me is indeed a catch-22.

Immediate distractions in the form of sounds and objects (sounds odd, I know) entertain me in such a way that writing and staying focused becomes difficult. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe I am able to complete any written objective given the number of objects in my direct surrounding that resonate, indeed scream, object manipulation. Most people need a bit a background sound, such as music, to set an appropriate writing mood. Some people may find that twirling a pen in their left hand while sitting at a computer is therapeutic, too, while others rearrange their living room and clean their workspace. I never thought that music would play such a major role in the writing process for me. Yet it does, and considerably at that. For example, and this is strange, but I find I write better when listening to music composed in certain tonal keys. G and C major are my favourite to listen to because they tend to lack the depressing, melodic tone characteristic to songs written with minor chords and notes (F, C, and A minor are the absolute worst). Yes, I too find this strange, but in my opinion, necessary to keep a clear and structured mind.

Keeping myself glued to my chair is another major problem I have when I write. It seems that beyond the everyday distractions of tables, desks, and chairs, I feel the constant need to move around and be in different places at the same time. All fair in a quantum universe but as everyone knows impossible to do in a classical one. Do I want to go outside and smoke? Sure. Do I want to sit and get this paper done? Yes. Do I need a shower? Absolutely. I’m hungry and have no food in the fridge so perhaps a trip to Fortinos is in line; laundry, dust bunnies in the corner of the walls and under my desk – you get the point. My brain tells me to do everything at once, so instead of writing I find myself treading the periphery of the menial tasks I need to accomplish before I begin… OK, now I can start.

At times I feel like horse blinders are needed, other times I work perfectly fine for prolonged periods of time. It all depends on what is going on in my head at any given moment. I have, over the years, been able to keep many of these factors in check by doing one simple thing: I start writing early. Instead of waiting to write under pressure (and I know quite a few people feel this way) I try – and the catchword here is to try – to brainstorm and write the minute I get an assignment. I also find this a remedy for writer’s block, which in my opinion may be a symptom of waiting to formulate and simultaneously write your ideas down during the final minutes before submission.

Well there you have it, a brief look into my crazy ritualized behaviours that probably border several clinical disorders found in the DSM. I hope that by reading some of your blogs I will be able to add to my repertoire of solutions to effective writing.