Undoing the damage done: learning how to write outside of Academia
February 1, 2011 § 6 Comments
Fairly fresh to blogging in the beginning of December 2010, I came upon the blog of a bright, hilarious young mother who challenged me (well, not me personally) in ways I never before expected to be challenged. I happened upon this blog when I was just coming to grips with what it meant to own the words “I don’t want to teach anymore.” The blog that was featured was Tori Nelson’s “The Ramblings“, and especially the post “War of (BIG) Words / Battle of Smahrt.” What Tori did in this post was something remarkable. Without meaning to, she held a mirror up to my own speech and writing patterns. In fact, I found myself on the side of pretentious speech, attempting to win the so-called Battle of Smahrt. But, Tori so wisely concludes:
“Do not feel trapped by these word-twisting, outsmart-ing whackos because, in the end, whatever you say can be said one hundred different ways, most of them better. But you say what you say the way in which you say it…. small words and all.”
I think we might even be able to play with her quote here a little (and only do minor damage by mangling the meaning…hope you don’t mind, Tori), and we can even apply it to the word-twisting, outsmart-ing, whackos themselves. In short: You pretentious linguistic snobbish pig-dogs, stop hiding behind those massively inappropriate and unnecessary words. Your meaning is all the more clear, your message all the more endearing, when you appeal to the broader audience who, by the way, is not mentally incapable of translating your words. You simply look verbally foolish.
The “you” in the above paragraph really stands in for “Mrs. H.” You see, as a graduate student I learned how to write. The right way. I learned how to verbalize my rhetorical arguments with such vigor and force of vocabulary as to purposefully leave my adversaries’ heads a-swimming. I was trained to dominate linguistically. Professors expected judgment, so-called “rhetorical discernment,” wherein I would exercise my intelligence and deem this argument worthy or that one dreck. Scholarly writing, it was demonstrated to me, is a style devoid of humor and “plain speech.” Unless you have “made it” and are a tenure-track professor at a top-notch university and constantly published. Unless you, like Stephen Greenblatt, have a veritable nine rings of an entourage, the degrees of which determine how intelligent you perceive the individual yes-man to be. (Oh, and yes. I have seen Dr. Greenblatt, premier Shakespearean scholar extraordinaire, at a conference…which is to say I have seen the cloud of people surrounding him all jockeying for a better position within the entourage. Those physically closest to Dr. Greenblatt are his intellectual near-equals; those further out are mere sycophants.) Only if you are Stephen Greenblatt or someone of his ilk do you even conceive of breaking the rules of Good Academic Writing. A young Master’s student who chooses to emulate his easy-breezy, personal style in the introduction of her thesis may be told at her thesis defense that such a choice was “interesting.” And that is not a compliment. For example.
And here I am facing the reality that I might not want to be an academic when I grow up. I might not want to emulate Stephen Greenblatt or Lisa Jardine or Valerie Traub. Sure, I admire the mess out of them. But I do not want to be them when I grow up. (And, ladies and gentlemen, I am near-grown.)
So, where does this leave me?
This leaves me trying out a new voice. Writing with a different purpose, a different edge. Finding a new audience. Hell, enjoying writing at all. I gather great inspiration from Tori’s blog in entries like “I still write.” (Tori’s honest look at herself as a writer, in response to a sort of call-to-arms issued by Kathryn McCullough…mentioned below.) And, also by Tori, “Man Van & The Hip Husband Demographic,” which is a hysterical analysis of recent ad campaigns. Tori represents to me the writer that I could have been had my humorous, creative voice not been so sufficiently stifled. Of course, I am really kidding myself if I have the gall to claim that I was ever as humorous as she is…but who’s to say I might not have developed more in this direction than in the academic one? Tori inspires me to try new things. To loosen up. To play with words and laugh. To invite my readers to laugh with me. I don’t believe I have accomplished this yet, and I am not so arrogant to believe it will happen overnight. After all, it took six years to become the proper scholarly writer that I sort of am. But there is an obvious unease in my academic writing; it is clunky…like a child plodding around in her father’s loafers. Maybe it will be easier to shuck this writing style that drapes over me in an embarrassingly pretentious way.
And then there’s Kathryn McCullough’s blog “reinventing the event horizon (notes from the edge).” In her current life, she lives in Haiti with her partner Sara, and she writes beautifully descriptive and informative posts about Haiti’s current struggle to right itself (if it ever was before aright); one of her most moving posts was one that left me shaking in my boots: “An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return From Exile.” In this post Kathy not only informs her readers of the frightening and tumultuous political upheaval poor Haiti is now enduring, but she also makes this specific, singular experience relevant to the rest of us. What I love about Kathy’s writing style is that she is the perfect example of someone who has been where I am now, too. In her past life, she was an instructor of college composition; and, in fact, our universities are in the same football conference. Kathy is the kind of woman who not only taught strong writing to college students, but she demonstrates it in her own blog. She does not write in the voice of the pretentious, over-educated, Ivory Tower elite. She writes in a way that is engaging and interesting…and isn’t that the purpose of writing? In fact, Kathy devotes some time in her blog to exploring what it is to be a writer; when Tori wrote the post “I still write,” she responded to the questions that Kathy asks at the close of her blog post “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: A Writer’s Confession.” Thank goodness for Tori’s blog because it also introduced me to Kathy’s–I was doubly-blessed this day to encounter both of these women’s writing styles. She follows up this post with another that explores how writers defeat themselves with what she terms the “Writing Neurotic”–the part of us that sabotages our work before we’ve even had the chance to begin. This post is titled “Confessions of a Desperate, Writing Neurotic.” To give an example of Kathy’s Writing Neurotic (and I hope you don’t mind my reposting, Kathy), she bravely shared with her readers a piece of her personal brainstorming:
“When I have tried to journal recently I’m always bothered by the notebook I’m writing in—I know that sounds crazy—and surely it’s a mere excuse—but I truly believe I should be keeping my entries in another format—
Perhaps, typing them on my computer—if the paper is lined, perhaps, it should be unlined—if it’s plain—perhaps, it should be graph paper. If I write in blue ink, probably, it should have been black or green or gray—any other color than the one I’m using.”
And so she continues, finding fault with nearly everything she is using as a tool for expressing her thoughts on paper or in digital format. Finally, she concludes,
“Most everything about writing feels wrong—doing it—not doing it—doing it in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon—equally problematic.
But I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s better to get it wrong than not to have gotten it at all.”
The perfect conclusion to the conundrum. It is better to get it wrong than not to even try to get it at all. My father used to tell me, “You might fail if you try, but you will absolutely fail if you don’t try.” Also true.
What does all of this have with “undoing the damage done”? Well, you see, whether intentionally on the part of my graduate school professors or not, I learned that some writing styles are better than others. That if you write in a relaxed, easy, loose, humorous way, then you are simply not taking your work seriously. And, as my immature early-20-something brain took it the next step further, if you are not taking your work seriously, then you are not taking your intelligence seriously. Whether or not it was said, I heard, “You must wear your education on your sleeve. Demonstrate to everyone that you are smart, you are educated, you are a budding scholar.”
Well you know what? Nobody cares. When I went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas the years between 2004 and 2010, none of my family members were impressed that I could elucidate on the valorous wordplay of Marlowe over Middleton. They wanted to know if I was close to graduation. If I was dating anyone. How teaching was going.
The training I have received to be a master of Academese (our very own language, really, replete with buzz words like “agency” and “gender” and “sophistry”) has served me to excel in my program, to be sure. But I am not comfortable with this language. Although immersed in the culture, I do not speak with the effortlessness of an Academic Native to the Ivory Tower. I have a funny accent, slow vocabulary recall, imprecise word choice. When I return to my natural home, however, my speech is tinted with an exotic tinge that smacks of long-term exposure to Academia. I struggle to communicate with my family while I speak a disjointed version of Academlish–occasionally I manage to piece together a coherent sentence in plain English but too often Academese breaks through and distorts my meaning.
I do not believe that all Academics have this problem. In fact, I know of several off the top of my head who are fully capable in their bilingual expertise, flowing easily from English to Academese with little effort.
I do believe, however, that as an Academic-in-training who does not intend to pursue her scholarship, I must relearn the proper method of communicating outside of the Ivory Tower. Maybe then my thoughts will be taken all the more seriously and less like elitism.