Times like these are hard. Economic downturns. It means that my job at the university is to prepare students (some of them incredibly bright) for underemployment or unemployment. The concept of ‘professional’ degrees becomes a little bankrupt when there are no professions recruiting. So every year we will graduate new lawyers and pharmacists and accountants and send them into a world without vacancies, like training up farmers and sending them into the heart of Manhattan. And we even do it in our own field. We train up academics when we jolly well know there are hardly any academic posts right now.
It makes me think of a friend I have recently made in Glasgow. (In fact, I hope he never comes across this!) But he strikes me as one of those who the academy has seriously failed. On his part, he did everything right, but it came to no good. The academy gave him a very particular language – Lacanian/Deridian/relentlessly post-structuralist – but then didn’t bother to give him a job. They created him, dizzyingly and at times inspiringly intelligent – if you can keep up – but with a language that is all but useless outside of the ivory tower. The university seemed to decide in the end that he was too theoretical even for them. He lives now in a tiny flat, unemployed, surviving barely on government benefits.
And yet, there are times that I am jealous of my friend’s language. I know that language opens doors and whole countries to us, which is why I still try doggedly to perfect my Spanish. There are upsides to learning ‘academicese’; places that it allows us to go. But perhaps there are downsides as well, especially if you become a monoglot and speak nothing else. There are suddenly places which become shut off, doors which are suddenly closed – even, and paradoxically, doors to academic posts!
Incidentally, I did mean the pun (if you detected it) in the title of this blog. For not only is there a scramble for academic positions or ‘posts’ these days, but within this language that we mockingly call ‘academicese’, there is usually a scramble to master the discourse of at least one of those theoretical schools that boasts the ever-so-trendy prefix ‘post-’.
I imagine the whole thing must have started innocuously enough with the rise of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘poststructuralism’, which in turn saw the rise of post-marxism and post-feminism and post-nationalism, and nowadays it has proliferated into the rather clunky adjective – post-post-colonial, or the altogether hopeful post-racial, or the worryingly post-human, or the Viagra-accommodating post-sexual, and inevitably to the self-reflexive post-theoretical. It is almost amusing, this obsession with academic ‘post-‘s which could either be a hankering for the future or a pathological tendency within academia to go against orthodoxy – an unwitting convention to resist convention.
But I also think my generation must feel a little short-changed by it all, because the whole fucking thing has been so claimed and colonized that there is hardly anything left for us to put the prefix post- before. It is hard work to get a post or a post-. In my own work, I have struggled to do just that.
Ok — so allow me a brief paragraph of academic wankery. You see, my pseudo-scholarly work looks at West Indian epistolography. To put it plainly, I ask the questions: ‘why do Caribbean people write letters? And to whom? And what have been some of the conventions of these letters?’ I also consider what technology has done to the epistolary mode – how emails and blogs and various social media communique upstaged the hand-written missive – how the electronic has replaced the postal. And in thinking about this, it has been impossible for me not to recognize and then to articulate the ways in which the letter has now entered a ‘Post-Postal’ phase. Quite frankly, I was surprised that in New Media studies no one had thought of the term.
But even while I have my wank over page after page of this kind of prose (enjoyable in its own way as every wank is) I couldn’t help but accuse myself – ‘Oh Jesus, Kei! What has become of you? You are a poet with an academic post who has begun to speak academicese!’
This is a conflicting state of affairs. As a previous blog intimated, poets and writers have a strange place within the academy. Because our obsession and vocation has everything to do with language, we seem especially inclined to resist the one associated with the academy. I have had more than one creative writing student complain, ‘Why can’t academics just speak plain and regular English? Why can’t they just say things as they are?’
But this is downright hypocrisy coming from anyone who wants to be a poet. Poets do not say things as they are. Well, not usually. Poetry is certainly not known for its plain-spoken-ness and in fact is accused, just as much as the academy, for its obscurity and its pretensions. And this is as it should be! Those on the outside of poetry might say off-handedly, ‘But isn’t the point to communicate?’ Oh hell no! Communication is what people in advertising agencies do, or PR firms. Poetry may be about transmitting (emotions or sensations), but it is not about anything so banal as ‘communication’ in the way that we generally mean the word.
Poetry disdains everyday and quotidian language in order to reinvent it. And it means that there will always be some who just don’t ‘get it’ and are annoyed by it, in the way that some just ‘don’t get’ academicese.
In the end, my own position is a little dubious – a bit on the fence, as it were. I know that the most significant door that language opens is to ourselves. When we really know a language it means there are thoughts and feelings that we begin to have in that language. And when we know more than one languages, it means we will have thoughts and feelings in one that we simply do not have in the other. And I find the same is true for ‘academicese’. For all its pretensions, there are thoughts I have in that language, ways of thinking through things, that I don’t have access to in another language. It has become a part of myself, and in the end, why would I deny myself such access?
“Post-postal” – that’s wonderful. Perhaps poor old Jamaica is “post-” almost everything – but then if you ARE “post,” what comes next? How about “pre-” something? Pre-development? Pre-disaster? Pre-chaos? (Forgive me, it’s election time here). I am very fond of an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros, with their ethereal singer Jonsi, and was puzzled to hear them described as a “post-rock” band. I like them as a plain ROCK band!!
Anyway, I am going to eat a post-sandwich now. That means I’ve eaten the sandwich and am now about to eat a yoghurt. PS Please don’t succumb to academicese. It’s a slippery slope.
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“When we really know a language it means there are thoughts and feelings that we begin to have in that language.”
That is interesting. Do you ever think in pictures? For me, pictures give rise to thoughts and feelings about what they illustrate first, and you have to actively seek out the language that creates the closest match to those feelings. I think knowing the/a language well would help recognise when you’ve got it right. Three ways to broaden options for communication might be to learn another language, invent new words or use poetry, which bypasses the restrictive, literal meaning of words that currently exist in a language, like you say.
The reason my poetry hardly ever works (but when it does what I intended it to, in an elegant way, I generally feel really good about it), is that I have to have a picture in my head that I can instantly ‘feel’ the significance of, or else a feeling which instantly translates into a very solid picture which can be communicated back into feeling in the form of language. The picture must be complete and simple, but give rise to multiple layers of significance, and multiple interacting inferrences. This is harder to achieve on-cue than getting the language itself right, because the language is just a description/translation of the picture/emotion combination.
“Poetry disdains everyday and quotidian language in order to reinvent it.”
It often seems to be nothing but dots. To create the dots AND join them is to feed the reader a literal picture as well as the language – which is sort of at odds to circumventing and reinventing said language. If you’re going to tell them the picture, you might as well use more literal language, like prose. For poetry, I think the reader has to find their own picture – or the poet’s picture – in the dots the poet creates – and the only partial control the poet has over that is in how the dots are placed.
Having said that, I suppose fictional prose has its own types of dots. With prose though, my view is that the dots don’t form the picture – they form as a RESULT of the picture. The story is told and people take what they take away from that into real life. Instead of ‘joining the dots’, prose is ‘dotting the joins’. I think there’s a paradox there: Using ‘dotty’ poetry as a means of communicating something specific, especially ‘nonsense poetry’, means that people might read it with different thoughts and feelings, and therefore get a totally different picture and idea as a result. Does that come down to nuance again? Perhaps very subtly so. But I’m not sure that can always be totally avoided without turning poetry into prose.
So laying aside surefire literal communication, what function does poetry serve, outside of the author’s own mind and heart? Perhaps it serves, on one level, to make the reader more aware of their own empathies, sentiments and sympathies in relation to what they perceive the poem to be communicating.
Not sure what all this has to do with academicese…having done biological sciences and read research papers in at least a ‘dialect’ of academicese (if not an arts dialect) – it seems that it is based on the principle of very stringently fencing in meaning – making it unambiguous and fully present – unlike fiction or poetry. I don’t know why that in itself should be viewed as a bad thing by nonacademics. Perhaps because it makes the scope for discussion so specific and so narrow. Every word has a function in the meaning of the whole, and if part of the meaning is missed, another word is cobbled together from the literal meanings of existing words (hence ‘post-colonialism’, ‘post-modern’ etc.). And every time a new word or argument with a new meaning is created from existing arguments or words, the meaning of the current one becomes more abstract and yet specific. I think it may be this specificity that makes it hard for people who haven’t followed the discussion all the way to contribute to, or to swallow, because nine times out of ten, they probably feel they risk getting the response: ‘That’s not really what is meant by [insert highly specific word]’, thus totally invalidating what they had to say. So in a way I think it’s seen as very exclusive.
Incidentally, going back to your ‘occasionally dangerous thing called nuance’ blog post, I think perhaps the question of exclusivity versus generality is different when writing an academic essay about racism. If we as a class were anything to go by, in general we seemed to want more specificity to Chinua Achebe’s arguments, to get our personal selves off the hook. A bit of a paradox then when academic essays concern racism: To be generic is to accuse, to be specific is to exclude. But then, if that type of picking holes is born of defenisveness rather than objective discussion, we’ll always come up with some excuse as to why it’s wrong to make us look the subject in the eye.
I’m not sure I buy into academicese automatically being a bad thing. I’m not saying it doesn’t exclude people – but then if a person walks into a room mid-conversation they are excluded from the beginning of that conversation and thus have some catching up to do if they want to join in with it. Maybe the difference is that most people don’t have to pay seemingly vast sums of money to be brought up to scratch on a conversation, whereas to learn what you need to learn to contribute to an academic conversation, you often have to study for years under the guidance and examination of experts – which requires tuition fees.
I’m sure academicese can also be misused for the sole purpose of excluding certain kinds of people whilst making the academic group feel dizzyingly clever, which I think is pretty elitist of the individuals in question…but I do agree with you that it isn’t necessarily elitist to share highly specific, pertinent ideas with particular people, the very nature of which could not be communicated any other way. Are such ideas themselves elitist, and is it right that people should be discouraged from communicating them just because of the language necessary to do so? That seems wrong to me as well.
Very interesting and nuanced post. I like your candid out-spoken-ness. I have a question about freedom of expression for those writers working in Academia. Does anyone representing ‘management’ at Glasgow University read your blog posts and if they do, have you ever been asked to ‘tone it down’? Or are they fine with you saying what you really think about the system, and your role within it? A friend of mine, who taught Creative Writing at a University, once posted some critical comments on her personal blog and was asked to remove the post. So – I’m just curious. Poets who work for University departments obviously have lives and interests beyond those walls, but how do academic employers view remarks about the institutions they inhabit, in a publicly accessible forum? I wondered, too, if any of your readers have had experiences of attempted censorship. It seems to me important for writers within these institutions to reflect honestly on their thoughts and experiences.
Warm wishes from chilly Sussex,
ooooh oooh uhm… what a time to ask me that! The university had never asked me to ‘tone down’ a blog until two days ago. I’m still processing what that means and the implications that has for the manner and vigour with which we (I?) engage in public discourse. But I’ll say more when I’ve processed it more. Thanks for the question!
Ah – interesting timing! 😉
I think writers who also blog, (employed by Universities), are in a tricky position. Unless blog posts honestly reflect the opinions of the writer, what’s the point? And yet, from the point of view of the employing University, there’s probably something in your contract that says you mustn’t bring the institution into disrepute, etc…..
I’ve never blogged (too busy or maybe lazy) but I taught Creative Writing (prose and poetry) at Sussex University for 15 years before that wretched institution decided to close down its Community Engagement department, making myself and 163 of my colleagues redundant (may the fleas of a thousand camels infest the management’s arm-pits, etc.) So I guess I’m a bit cynical about the ability of academic institutions to nurture/support creative people within their environs – creative people tend to have those unfortunate habits of thinking outside the box, asking awkward questions, questioning academic conventions, etc.
Good luck with the processing of this one.C x