February 23, 2014


"It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too."

My friend Margaret recently sent me the above quote. She then asked my thoughts on the quote (and presumably Joshua Rothman's New Yorker article from which the quote was pulled).

Having now read Rothman's article as well as Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece to which Rothman's article was responding, man, have I got thoughts. So many thoughts! (David Foster Wallace had so many thoughts on this topic too, as well as on other issues of language, almost all of which are worth reading.)

First off, I believe academic writing to be not only valuable, but necessary. Academic writing is not very accessible, but academic essays are often trying to argue something so specific wrapped in so much context that a more open writing style would fail to effectively communicate the nuance of the author's intended ideas. I won't hold the style of academic writing against those employing it any more than I'd object to the use of terse abbreviations for chemists or complex equations for mathematicians. They are tools of the trade, public accessibility be damned. Furthermore I think there's a lot to be learned from academic writing about language, precision, and complexity. 

The thing is, an academic paper shouldn't be the end of a useful idea, and it shouldn't be the final output of a useful skill set, either. Most people don't read academic essays on alternative energies, but many do see authors' ideas turn into progress in the field of alternative energies. 

But what of the humanities? What is the point of taking one's above-average intellect, one's skill for close examination, one's keen observation of the complexities of ideas, and putting them towards the ongoing assessment of the specific meaning of a few lines from a fictional text written hundreds of years ago? Or indulgently delving into structured, theory-based political discussions that have no hope of providing useful information in real-life circumstances? Seriously. I'm asking. 

To explain the necessity for the continued existence of academic writing, Rothman points out that publishing a paper is often necessary to forwarding one's own career. 

Is that it? Is the goal really so limited and underwhelming? 

What's worse, ongoing submissions of papers to academic publications embolden said publications, despite subscriber lists shorter than that of this blog, to set increasingly exacting standards for those wishing to submit entries, requiring more and more time and energy from those working to get published. 

How can we look at it any way but that we first created the ravenous monster of academia and then sacrificed other aims and goals in order to keep it fed? 

The real disagreement between Kristof and Rothman doesn't run very deep. Rather, it seems to be primarily one of optimism vs pessimism. Both writers see the limited range of academic writing. Kristof believes it can be changed; Rothman explains why it is the way it is. 

Kristof asserts that academics are too busy feeding the monster they've created to produce anything truly useful. Rothman argues that the monster must be fed in order to advance academic careers. But does either really question that it's a silly use of one's time? 

Rothman states, "Professors didn't sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it's part of a system." 

Well good god! Let's change it. Instead of writing defensive articles explaining why we must not only engage with but bow down to a broken system, let's do something different. (An easy recommendation for me to make from a cosseted, non-academic position, I know.) 

Systems only have the power that we invest in them. (If you don't believe me, examine the differences between observances of traffic law across the world.) As long as we believe the system must be the way it is, it will not improve. 

Academics are not immune to the question that should be asked of everyone from time to time: why are you really doing what you're doing? 

By engaging only in academic writing, academics have done themselves (and those who might have benefited from their insights) a disservice. 

I've read academic essays that have altered my perspective, and I've read essays that should have been no more than an argument during a late-night graduate school discussion. Explore things that actually matter, not things that will ensure easy success. Find ways to share ideas worth sharing. Repurpose work for a broader audience before it's bastardized by someone else.

Kristof is imploring academics to share their ideas more broadly. I second his request. 

October 20, 2011


Conversation with my father:

Me: When we go out on Saturday, can we stop and get some pumpkins for my halloween party?
Dad: Sure. I bet if we drive around residential areas, we can find some that are already carved.

October 19, 2011


A coworker was loitering in my office on the far side of the partition in front of my desk. A woman walked in and asked if we were meeting. He told her we were not. She babbled a request and then bustled off.

Coworker, in an aside after she left: Isn't it obvious we're not meeting? I mean, there's a partition between us. What—are we supposed to just hand a talking stick back and forth? Oh God—I can't imagine giving you a talking stick. Who knows what you'd do with it.

September 15, 2011

I Have a Dream

I have heard this speech oh so many times.

This is a speech my dad gives anytime he, my sister, and I are in a restaurant. It generally happens immediately after one of the following (or possibly several in conjunction):

–Someone shoots a straw wrapper across the table.
–I knock over a beverage.
–My sister snorts milk out her nose.
–Food is mindlessly shoved around a plate until it spills onto the table or splashes onto clothing.
–Jams/sugar packets are stacked up before tumbling down all over the table.
–Little triangular paper footballs are accidentally flicked into an adjacent booth.
–There is excessively loud shrieking/laughing.

The speech goes something like this...

"Girls, girls, girls. [Lots of disheartened head-shaking here.] When you were little, and we were out at a family dinner, and one of you would end the evening jumping up and down on the booth, dancing with your dress lifted above your head, I would daydream of the day we could go out for a nice dinner, and there would be no ugly incidents. Just a pleasant, non-embarrasing meal. It's been decades. I am still waiting for that dinner."

Often, this speech is greeted with a loud belch.

While the three of us were in Germany this summer, my sister pointed out that such a dinner had actually happened at one point. This did not satisfy my father.

"It's a perennial dream."

July 21, 2011

Lessons I Can't Learn

Today ended with me padding down a hallway in my office building barefoot, looking for my boss and carrying a copy of a Harry Potter movie on blu-ray. I was yanking unhappily at my dress (dress: slang for hot little sack of torture) and contemplating the lack of self knowledge that had led me to this moment. Which led me, in turn, to contemplate some lessons that, no matter how many times I "learn" them, I don't really seem to learn them.

Number 1: I like to write.
Sometimes, life gets busy. And by "life gets busy," I mean sometimes I feel compelled to come home from work, put on sweatpants, open a giant bag of Red Vines, and work my way through 18+ episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun. Then I go to bed feeling tired but vaguely unsatisfied. If, instead, I come home and put on a record and do a little writing, when it's time to go to sleep, I feel good. Note: In either case, I am likely to wear sweatpants and eat Red Vines.

Number 2: I like to read.
The fact that I like to read isn't something I forget. It's more like something I overlook. I get into habits where I'm writing and drawing (or lounging and watching) and I don't pick up a book for a while. Then I crack one open and I just want to stop everyone I see and be like "HEY! Do you know about books!? BOOKS ARE AWESOME! You can read them! Stuff happens! It might restore your faith in humanity or it might just keep you guessing about why Daisy is obsessed with this Gatsby guy's shirts but either way—you win!"

Number 3: High heels suck. A lot.
Some days I wake up and think, "I will be a professional today!" I wear a suit or at least a jacket and a pair of heels and leave the house feeling like a million bucks. By the end of the day, I'm in a professional nose dive as I run around barefoot and daydreaming about amputating my pinky toes.

Number 4: I hate hot weather.
Because I insist on living in an area that is entirely Too Hot for my liking (and for stupid reasons, too, like proximity to family and a job), each spring I play the same game where I delude myself into thinking I have gotten over my hatred of hot weather. "Is it 90 today? I hadn't noticed. It's not so bad honestly. So childish of me to think this was intolerable." And it's all very well to say that as I sit on my bed in my air-conditioned apartment checking weather.com. But three minutes walking outside and I'm ready to kill someone, usually the designer of whatever clothing I might be wearing. "GD Banana Republic! Who makes a strapless wool dress? What were they thinking? I am in merino hell!"

Tomorrow I'm wearing flip flops and a toga and canceling my Netflix account.

July 18, 2011

Days 3 and 4 – Anne of Green Gables and the Haunted Mansion

If you are a young woman living on Prince Edward Island, you better resign yourself to the fact that, at some point, you're going to have to don a green jumper and some fake braids if you want a job.

We visited L.M. Montgomery's birthplace, the site of her childhood home, and the house she based Green Gables on. We also walked through the Haunted Woods and down Lover's Lane and visited the Anne of Green Gables Chocolate store (the most profitable if not the most authentic, surely). Everywhere we went, girls in braids. Also, straw hats with braids attached for sale to those looking to fit in.

We also went to a local haunted mansion. This was sort of a nod to my not-present sister's interest in all things creepy. Too bad my mom and I are big babies. We got through two rooms before my mom pulled a small flashlight out of her purse. A lot of the house was hokey, but there was a bottomless pit and a spinning vortex at the end. Also, inexplicably, there was a tilt-a-whirl in the yard that we were allowed to ride once.

Really the only thing missing was a zombiefied Anne inside the haunted mansion. I might suggest it.

July 11, 2011

Day 2 – Everyone Is Nice

[Dots On Maps–Say Hi; Y Control–Yeah Yeah Yeahs; Sit Down By the Fire–The Veils; The Stars Came Out Once the Lights Went Out–The Veils]

The stench of death is on my hands.

I ate a lobster tonight. It was good. It was creepy. I've washed my hands four times and they still smell lobstery.

We went to a Royal Canadian Legion lobster dinner, part of Summerside's "Lobster Carnival," where we were served by rotary club members. It was really quite wonderful. Two old men showed me how to get every little bit of edible meat out of a lobster. Their methods included doing things I wasn't willing to do, due to aggressive 8th grade dissection flashbacks, but it was all very informative. I have mixed feeling on devouring every speck of a lobster. On one hand, if you're going to kill the thing, you shouldn't let it go to waste. But then, on the other hand, no one wants to think about someone breaking open every part of their body after they're dead, right? I mean, wars have been fought over stuff like that. Bodies have been ransomed for small fortunes to avoid stuff like that.

Right now, I'm thinking this was my first and last lobster.

Other things that happened today:

–The b&b called and apologized profusely for the mix-up last night. They upgraded us to their suite for the duration of our stay.

–As I played music in the car, my mom said "I like your music. Is that the Blueberries? Wait. Cranberries." (It was not.)

–People at neighboring tables at the lobster dinner cheerfully inquired as to where we were from, how we were liking PEI, etc. They made recommendations, talked about their own origins, and spoke warmly about life on the island.

–We visited the downtown seaside boardwalk in Summerside. We missed the lobster trap competitions, but we caught the end of the live music.

–Every single shop we went into had a friendly, helpful owner. 

Everyone here is NICE! They are all nice! And genuine. Not just helpful and friendly, but happy. I love it. Surprisingly.

Tomorrow is Anne of Green Gables bonanza.