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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I am smarter than you

I used to think of myself as very smart. This was a mistake, because what really matters is the ability to communicate ideas, whether through teaching or writing. It helps to have ideas, of course, but there will always be people more intellectually brilliant or more erudite, with more knowledge of philosophy or theory, than me (or you, probably). Some of these smart people write books that I cannot even understand (not smart enough maybe?), but then I wonder... I am fairly smart, so a book I don't understand probably puts itself out of range of large numbers of reasonably intelligent academic readers. Academic writing is already out of range of most of the general public, who read nothing at all. It is usually too specialized to be of much interest, and also very difficult. Often it is not well-written either. It should be possible to write in a way that at least reaches the average academic reader. I'd say even the below average one. You know that half of college professors are in the bottom 50th percentile of college professors? I'd say that something that an undergraduate majoring in your own field could understand might be a reasonable standard.

7 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

Whenever I give undergraduates in English Literature essays by scholars in the field, I get the impression that the students do not understand the scholars. I chalk it up to lack of experience -- but your point is well taken: perhaps it really is the scholars' fault for not writing for an undergraduate audience.

Jonathan said...

I try to pitch toward that 1st year graduate / senior level, but even then I often overestimate what they are capable of understanding. It could be that my writing is clear enough, but that my ideas simply are too complex for them. So it's not quite a matter of whose "fault" it is. At least if I try to reach seniors in college I will at least be sure of communicating with research faculty in my own field.

Clarissa said...

How do you feel about the ideas proposed by Jonathan Culler? He says that using a lot of jargon is necessary to weed out the readers who haven't gone to the trouble of learning the academic terminology and, hence, do not deserve to be granted admission to the knowledge of theory.

I admire Culler a lot. He is a wonderful person. However, if I were to be completely honest, I would never want to learn how to write from him. When I read your books, I simply have fun. I can quote them to my non-academic acquaintances (and I have), and they get them and enjoy them. Culler's stuff needs a lot of deciphering of the kind that yours doesn't.

I always thought that academic writing loses in quality when it becomes so sophisticated that reasonably educated people can't read it and enjoy it. But there is an entire school of thought that believes it should be as hard to process as possible.

Why does that school of thought exist? And how do you feel about it?

Jonathan said...

That's kind of ironic because Culler is mostly known for his popularizations of more sophisticated thinkers. Obviously I disagree with the idea of style as a way of weeding out less educated readers. That school of thought exists because of insecurity. If our field is accessible, then are we really that smart?

Clarissa said...

"That school of thought exists because of insecurity. If our field is accessible, then are we really that smart?"

-I always thought the same way but was afraid to say it. :-)

profacero said...

When students do not understand, it's usually lack of contextual knowledge. It is not that the reading is too hard as such.

Andrew Shields said...

I've noticed that last point often recently: as soon as some context is provided, the students can handle texts much better. The problem for me as a teacher is that often I don't even recognize that there is a context that I am unconsciously assuming is familiar to everyone.