Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are We all Daniel Plainview?

I'm watching "There Will Be Blood" tonight, and being reminded just how deeply I identify with Daniel Day Lewis' lead character.  All of the terrible things he does are driven by the uncontrollable rage that lashes out from his terror of loneliness, his fear of never having a real connection with anyone.  I grew up with some of those same terrors.  I've left simple teenage angst behind me, but I've found it at least partially replaced by the overriding power of careerism, always threatening to cut one off from people.  This is a film about the alienation that lies at the heart of a success-driven society.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How to Stop The Oversupply of Bad Publications

The Chronicle provides some sensible suggestions for holding journals to higher standards - primarily placing the emphasis in the hiring and tenure processes on relevance and quality of writing, rather than volume.  I think that almost inevitably the increase in time and care that would follow from this would also result in better, more readable writing among published papers.

Academic Cliche Watch: " . . . In particular ways."

Note: As of 8/3/2013, I'm out of academia!  Temporarily! Maybe!  Check out my new blog, focused on my interests in weird fiction, experimental music, and generally all things so post-academic that they're not academic at all, over at

I consider myself almost as much a "writer" as I am a "researcher." I do a lot of journalistic writing on the side, and have accomplished some moderate to big things in that world, including being selected for a major non-academic collection (which you should totes purchase). This makes me at best an oddity in the academic world, which is broadly and justifiably notorious as a haven for bad writers and writing. Let me briefly pre-empt the inevitable line about how academic writing is necessarily bad because philosophers are trying to "challenge the language." I acknowledge that some writing seems 'bad' mostly to people who haven't bothered to learn the specialist language, but it's undeniably true that there are many specific bad habits and lazy gestures that have infected academic writing (as well as some institutional structures that help foster them).  As people whose job it is to increase human knowledge, we should be ashamed of these professional failures, and rather than falling back on boilerplate defenses, we should be working, as individuals and as a community, to improve the level of our writing.

One big way we can do this is to become more conscious of the cliches that litter academic writing. These are distinct from jargon, which needs to be used carefully but is nonetheless an important part of writing within any specialty.  (For my money, Lacanians are the most frequently and undeservingly bashed for using a necessarily dense jargon.) Jargon condenses a whole discourse into a single word, and when used judiciously, and with a consciousness of audience, makes writing richer.  A cliche, by contrast, is the performance of a conventional linguistic gesture that has actually lost whatever original meaning it might have had, a verbal twitch that has more to do with sounding like an academic than actually thinking carefully.

So, this is the first installment of an ongoing series highlighting specific cliches of academic writing that I think deserve to be banned from the lexicon forever. There's a wealth of these that enrage and frustrate me, utterly empty phrases that cloud minds and swell word counts to absolutely no effect. Since the journals are providing new bad writing all the time, I'm hoping the topic will keep me angry and productive basically forever.

First on the chopping block: “X does Y in particular ways.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Richard Serra / Awesome Decay

(Photo from a thoughtful post on Vortex at Olds Road Blog)

I'm in Fort Worth visiting family for a few days, and I'm on a sudden art kick, so it only made sense that I stop by the excellent Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It's close to the doctor's office where my aunt goes on Mondays, so I had the bright idea to combine the two today – except I forgot that, like most museums, the Modern is closed on Mondays. There's nothing more frustrating than being primed for some ART and finding the doors locked on you. But there ended up being a big fringe benefit. Standing out front of the Modern is Richard Serra's Vortex (2002), a five-story monument constructed of six sheets of corroding metal that meet and overlap like a closed blossom.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Should I Go to Grad School? Perspectives from a Fresh Humanities PhD.

About a month ago, I successfully defended my dissertation. Two weeks ago, I walked in my university's graduate commencement, and I'm guessing in about six months I'll be shipped a copy of my actual diploma. Predictably, I'm less interested in celebrating this achievement than asking the awkward question - Was it Worth It? Going to grad school probably seems like a very attractive option for some in the currently dismal job market, but there are a lot of travails to the process. At the root of many of the problems confronting current grad students are some big issues that will, if anything, be even more acute for future students, issues that are or will hit the humanities hard. So, what follows is a not-too-brief introduction to a few things to consider before you make a life-altering decision.