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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Paragraph of the week

I submit this to you
More broadly, some members of the profession will be less likely to identify intelligence in someone with an unpolished social manner — though on the other hand others are more likely to expect smartness there. (Another race in which I have a horse, though one emphatically not ready to be put out to pasture: aren’t colleagues more likely to describe people their own age, rather than significantly older, through these and related positive epithets?) As these instances suggest, both judgments on “smartness” as well as other monolithic overall evaluations may screen other, less savory evaluations, whether or not the person making them is aware of that.
What's wrong with this writing? It is verbose, awkward, and doesn't really make a strong point. We might think rude people are also less intelligent (yes), but others think rudeness is associated with intelligence (maybe?), and we might think people much older than us are dumber (??). The parenthetical sentence awkwardly combines two idioms (having a horse in a race, and putting a horse out to pasture) in a confusing way. Why "though" instead of "and." The author is a professor of "poetics" of all things.


Vance Maverick said...

The horse bit is lame (as it were), but I think comprehensible. She's saying that old fogeys like her tend to find young people unpolished. So it's "though" because she's saying "This matters to me because I'm on the old side, though not so old as to be ruled hors concours", as it were.

Somehow I assumed such bureaucratically circular prose had to come from a man! The effect is extra-numbing at full length. Note for full pomp that she's the Somebody, SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination -- I'm guessing that what that makes her professor of is something more down-to-earth like English.

I'm also a little disturbed that the cult of "smartness" or intelligence, measured by IQ tests and manifest in "unusual verbal skills" (she credits herself with these) is turning up in academia as well. I too think highly of my own intelligence, but I've never been tested, and smart is as smart does.

(BTW, you left the initial H off the https:// link.)

Jonathan said...

Ok, I took it to be that younger people see their elders as less intelligent, but I find it difficult to parse her prose. I think she is arguing against iq measurements, in favor of more capacious definitions, but in the process she relies heavily on the discourse she would like to have dismissed. She is at cross-purposes with herself, and the bad prose is a symptom of that.

Thomas said...

The link doesn't work. (You're missing the aitch in https at the beginning of the URL.)

As to the essay itself: what a strange piece of writing. (I looked up her book on Google books, it's the same weird voice as far as I can tell.)

Interesting that she reflects on how her childhood IQ test "prefigured both the unusual verbal skills and indifferent visual and spatial abilities that have characterised [her] cognitive performances to this day". In fact, the essay both expresses and performs the writer's insecurity about "academic" smartness—I guess she'd say academic "smartness". Not surprisingly, she finds the ability to hold a traditional lecture prejudicial.

It's a great example, actually, of what has happened to academia because it stopped insisting on its own values (out of embarrassment about its "smartness"). In this case, I imagine she got her position (and is no doubt a valued faculty member and teacher) because of her poetry, but then felt pressured into expressing herself in something that sounds (to her) like academic prose. I can't imagine she likes writing this way.

"One of the top graduate students I ever taught told me that she had worked sedulously to discard her Southern accent, correctly perceiving that listeners in other regions might be less likely to take her seriously."

Dubrow empathises with this student because she herself (in her mind "correctly perceiving" that it was required) has adopted "academic" airs.

I wonder if you'll agree with me that her poetry is much better, and much less foreign to her. She strikes me as a real poet who is pretending to be an academic.

Jonathan said...

Link is fixed.

I agree her poetry is not as inept as her prose, and I think the analysis of insecurity is on target. People write like this when they think they have to, without actually choosing their style.

Thomas said...

My favourite of example of a poet who lacks this kind of insecurity is Lisa Robertson. She sometimes writes with what John Latta describes as "abstruse and tedium-inflected verbiage". I see what he means, but it's important to grant that she writes postmodernist academese better than almost any academic I know. While Dubrow is clearly out of her depth, Robertson kicks ass when she ventures here, albeit in an style I wouldn't write in myself.