Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Lessons for academics from history

Here's Daniel Defoe, on why academics should be excluded from his proposed Society for reforming the English language:
The Work of this Society shou'd be to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language…
Into this Society should be admitted none but Persons Eminent for Learning, and yet none, or very few, shoe Business or Trade was Learning: For I may be allow'd, I suppose, to say, We have seen many great Scholars, meer Learnèd Men, and Graduates in the last Degree of Study, whose English has been far from Polite, full of Stiffness and Affectation, hard Words, and long unusual Coupling of Syllables and Sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the Ear, and shock the Reader, both in Expression and Understanding'. 
Now I'm with those who say that languages are sprawling beasts which can't and shouldn't be tamed, but I can't help agreeing with Defoe here: some academic writers are needlessly convoluted as a performance of academia - it's particularly painful when students feel they have to mimic this to show that they're 'proper' members of the community.

One of the guiltiest parties is, alas, one of my inspirations, Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble. In the introduction to the tenth anniversary to the work, she takes up the critique of her particularly dense style:
…neither grammar nor style are particularly neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalised language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself… there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. But formulations that twist grammar… produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended… does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps, a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.
The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly "clear" view… Who devises the protocols of "clarity" and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency… What does "transparency" keep obscure?
Hmm. For someone who believes that it is her mission to fundamentally alter grammar at an 'epistemic level' in pursuit of breaking down binary oppositions, Butler expresses herself rather well while remaining within the bounds of intelligibility in this introduction. Her point is that grammar is an exercise of power and exclusion, and that it should be ruptured - and yet there's a rather distasteful attack on the reader encoded here, one which labels all those within the inherited linguistic tradition as lazy consumerists who should be excluded if they can't be bothered to think carefully enough. Difficult ideas certainly require technical and subtle language - but I feel here that Butler's position is rather defensive. I don't think that intelligibility is so much of a constraint as Butler asserts - languages are flexible machines capable of intelligibly bearing a wider range of meaning than she appears to believe.

Obviously I'm not operating at the intellectual or public level Butler habitually works at, but I do think we have a responsibility to our readers and audiences - mostly undergraduate students - in my case. A new student isn't stupid, merely uninducted into the academic community as yet. As Butler points out, inducting someone into a community, linguistic or otherwise, is an exercise of power: they accept our paradigms to contribute, but at the same time, they have an opportunity to shape the paradigms to some extent. I don't, frankly, see how Butler expects to radically alter grammar and the social structures they reflect by making herself so formidably unintelligible. After all, she too grew up in these linguistic structures and - however unwillingly - bears the traces.

When I'm teaching, I raise the intellectual temperature gradually. I identify the points of interest/contention/complication and attempt to explain why they're important. At each step of the way, I try to get students to think their way around these points (this is the most important element of the educational process) and we gradually complicate the issues by raising further arguments. At no stage do I announce that any student who doesn't get it is a lazy, passive consumerist.

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