Dancing with Professors: An Essay on Academic Prose & Rhetoric by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Robert Kozinetz gave a really interesting talk in Bodø last week; he talked about how to develop ideas and how to make them matter. During the talk, he brought up Dancing with Professors; an article from the New York Times (I think it was) discussing troublesome academic prose. The article is written by Patricia Nelson Limerick and is from way back (2001, perhaps), but is still relevant, of course (old habits die hard, I guess).

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.

The dancing comes in when Limerick claims (perhaps rightfully so) that those who become professors are those nobody wanted to dance with in high school; you know, the shy, fearful, and lonely guy in the corner:

Professors are often shy, timid and fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.

After a couple of (dreary) parables and sidetracks, Limerick returns to how academic prose is hindered from improvement: Professors think they are supposed to teach bad writing in grad school:

This is a very well-established pattern, and it is the ruination of scholarly activity in the modern world. Many professors who teach graduate students think that one of their principal duties is to train students in the conventions of academic writing.I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

The lesson? Think more like a carpenter than, say, an artist:

Ego is, of course, the key obstacle here. As badly as most of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant in criticism. But even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as existential trauma. A few years ago, I began to look at carpenters and other artisans as the emotional model for writers. A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, “I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?” Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works on it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation. If we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity. Escaped from that trap, we could simply work on successive drafts until what we have to say is clear.

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