Here is a quotation from a document I had to discuss with my academic colleagues today:
The school should continue moving forward in its attempt to formalize more structured processes for planning and the allocation of resources. It is important that a more structured planning process involve various constituencies, provide increased opportunities for collaboration across units, communication, and shared governance, and that it should integrate multiple programs and sites into a coherent whole.
I know all these words, but this is so vague that I have no idea what it actually refers to in our particular case. It is intentionally abstract, allowing for multiple interpretations, and in fact we made kind of a party game figuring out how various initiatives we’d already undertaken might fit into it and satisfy it. I’m sure it is left vague and in passive tense for legal reasons, lest we fail to comply with some directive and get sued for the deficiency. In fact, this paragraph isn’t an exact quote; I changed the order of several phrases for fear someone might Google it and locate where it came from, and I don’t want to get in legal trouble myself.
I take minutes for these meetings. If I report what anyone actually said, my colleagues jump all over me. I have finally learned that the purpose of my minutes is to conceal what we’re saying, not reveal it. After 25 years in the newspaper business, my trained instinct is to report what goes on, colorfully and in intelligent detail, and I have to forcibly squelch that impulse in my current administrative role. For a well-trained writer to intentionally write badly – obfuscatingly and in noncommittal terms and passive tense – is really painful.
We write evaluations of our colleagues. It used to be, the writer of an evaluation would construct a narrative pertinent to the facts of the file at hand, but now we are given a recipe for the evaluation, which specifies how many paragraphs it will contain and which issue each paragraph will address. The result reads like a transition-less child’s primer with all the small words replaced with long ones, but the fear is that someone suing the school might be able to prove that his or her evaluation was more or less thorough than someone else’s.
I read books and book proposals for academic publishers. It seems that every book I read lately at some point mentions Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, or Lyotard, and then launches into a melange of special terminology. These terms all seem to stand for actions or processes that are entirely familiar to us all, but by packing them into proprietary formulae, the author can squeeze the argument into smaller, denser paragraphs in which every word stands for an entire phrase – as though paper were terribly dear, and meanings had to be expressed in the maximally efficient manner possible. It is amazing to me how often the author wants to prove his or her critical theory credentials in the first chapter, and how often I can simply skip that chapter and find the meat of the subject matter expressed more cogently in chapter 2.
And I watch my poor students, who know what they’re trying to say, stumble and stutter and search for the most abstract, most grandiose words, so that they’ll sound as pompous and abstract and authoritative as the models that are put in front of them every day. I’ll read some circuitous paragraph of five-syllable words they wrote, and ask “What are you trying to say here?,” and they’ll tell me in simple words, and I’ll ask, “Well why didn’t you just write THAT?”
ACADEMIA TRAINS YOUNG PEOPLE TO WRITE TURGIDLY AND VAGUELY. And not only young people. Readers of this blog sometimes get upset with me that I seem so anti-academic, that I am always denigrating university culture. I love certain aspects of college life, and I am extremely pro-education, but it has to be acknowledged that academia, as it stands, has a default tendency toward inculcating pomposity in writing and, most of all, a bureaucratic avoidance of personal responsibility. One shouldn’t need to reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to realize this. Slate magazine recently had an article on how the SAT teaches high school kids to write badly. Young people, and young faculty, learn how to become part of the bureaucracy, and how to write in such a way that no one is ever personally implicated. It becomes a habit, and a grating one. I am a beautifully-trained, colorful, clear writer surrounded on all sides by execrable prose and forced to occasionally commit turbid paragraphs myself. That’s why I’ve been posting my own scholarly articles on this blog, because in the “peer”-review process my translucent sentences get edited into embarrassing mud. I am thrilled and honored to be in academia, especially given the horrible state of culture in the current outside world, but I have to harangue our students to resist the bureaucratic influences that the college surrounds them with. And the same foul brainwashing that turns students into bad writers turns them into bad composers as well. There’s really no alternative to being here – but some of us understand that we have to push back against the prevailing winds to stay intellectually and artistically honest. Anyone who’s offended by my saying that is part of the problem.