Trans/Modalities and Re/Representations of Something or Other: What the Hell? (Or: Why Do Academics Talk Like That?) *

*… and why do they use so many colons?

It’s “conference season” here for us Canadian academics working in education. Every year we get together with other academic types at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In anticipation of Congress, we received an invitation to an allegedly “public” lecture to be held there. Follow along if you can:

Cancer Knowledge in the Plural: Communicability of Presence,Trans/Media and the QueerBiopolitics of Prosthetic Mobilities Media(tions)

In this lecture, Dr. XXX explores the logics of participation, narration and mobility that inform current communications models of “culturally competent healthcare” and “media engagement”, both of which articulate a particular story about diversity, informed participatory modes of citizenship and democratization. As she argues, comparative analysis of “the mirror” and “the glory hole”-as prosthetics of attachment, relationality, transit, experience and affect-fleshes out a modality of critically queer attention to the problematics of a politics of recognition, rights and of visibility, at work in sites of subjectification and sociality. She provides us with analytic means to deal with complexities attendant to the mobilities of cancer’s plural knowledges in the present.

Now if your reading experience was anything like mine, you were scratching your head by the second line of the text. By the third line, it goes something like “blah blah blah… democracy…. blah blah blah… mirror….blah blah… glory hole??? Isn’t that sex in bathrooms?…. Wow. Weird….Oh wait! Maybe it’s about cancer!”[1]

Sadly, the incomprehensible business you just had the pleasure of reading is not unusual in the academic world. And much as railing about bad academic writing is sort of a hobby of mine, it is also something I sincerely find troubling. It bothers me because it plays right into the hands of those who claim that academics are “out of touch,” and dearly need to get out of their ivory tower offices.

Now, no doubt the academic above has “ordinary people” – cancer patients and their loved ones (I think?) – in  mind in her efforts to make sense of cancer and the health care system. I mean, that’s important for ordinary people, right? Well yes and no. The heart of the idea may be in the public interest. But the ways in which this knowledge is presented and shared is not. On the contrary, the “public” invitation above, I believe, would send most folks running for the hills.[2]

So why do academics write this way? It’s because the university rewards you for being obscure and “edgy” in your thinking, whether or not this actually maps back to something non-academics call the “real world.”

Want to know how this system works? Here it is: Universities have expanded dramatically over past decades. Expansion means more professors. And the thing you have to do to get a PhD and become a professor is produce “original research.” And when we run out of original ideas (which we do) we have to come up with new ways of spinning the old ideas such that they look “original.” And when we do this we get scholarships, and awards, and promotions, and all sorts of recognition from our colleagues.[3]

We also have to publish. The “publish or perish” thing is for real. So there is a big fat incentive to go for quantity over quality. And because we publish in academic journals that are read by other academics, there is no particular reason to discipline oneself to write clearly or cogently. In fact, unnecessarily complex writing and ideas are, collectively, the naked, parading Emporer of academia. (Ooh and aah accordingly.)

On the other hand, “public intellectuals” – that is people who earnestly seek to share their knowledge outside of academic circles – are rarely recognized and rewarded. In fact they may even be “punished” because they won’t be promoted.[4] Many professors and graduate students I’ve spoken with express frustration with a system that makes it very difficult for them to invest their time and resources in good teaching, and genuine community engagement.

But I also see evidence of whole sale buy-in too. And this is how academics lose the “common touch.” On a university campus, surrounded by others like ourselves, it’s easy to become insular. It’s easy to get caught up in careerism, take yourself too seriously, and run like a little rat on a treadmill in pursuit of the esteem and recognition of other academics. Hubris starts to come naturally.

And I guess that’s what really got me wound up about the advertisement above. It’s not just that it’s obscure – I mean if you can make sense of it go to the lecture and fill your boots. It’s more that the event is advertised as a “public” lecture. I don’t know: did they just call it that because it’s free? Or is this, as I suggested earlier, the mark of an intellectual community that is so out of touch with the world outside of the university as to think that people generally think and speak this way? And because I’m a raving idealist who thinks that knowledge ought to belong to everyone, I take issue with language that confuses people instead of informing them and inviting them into conversation.

In my next blog, I’ll speak more about why muddled “academic speak” is not just disappointing (which it is) and annoying (which it is). Nope. It’s also got the power to do some serious social and political damage.


[1] I am presently polling my grad student homies for their translations. I’ll let you know how we make out.

[2] Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2009) Brightsided, and Wendy Mesley’s (2006) Marketplace episode Chasing Cancer’s Answers come to mind. Both women draw powerfully from their own experiences with breast cancer to offer thoughtful, well-researched critiques of the politics of cancer awareness and cancer treatment. And yes, you can understand what they are saying without holding a university degree.

[3] This is, I do acknowledge, a gross oversimplification. There are a lot of “yes buts.” Randall Collins offers a much better developed discussion on this topic here. The big caveat is that academics aren’t any more or less self-serving than anyone else. Rather they (like all of us) respond to rewards and incentives.

[4] For those who don’t know, here’s how the tenure system works: you start as an “Assistant Professor.” The next level is “Associate Professor.” The top of the ladder is “full tenure,” or “Full Professor.” This is rock solid; you have a good job for life. To move up this ladder you are reviewed every couple of years by your colleagues. In these reviews, your publication record is the most important criterion for promotions, so this imperative tends to push other activities off to the side.  In publishing, the best lecture for a public audience, or the best article published in a commercial magazine will always be “ranked” lower than something one writes for an academic journal, regardless of the fact that the latter reaches a very narrow, very small audience. Trust me, we almost fall over from shock when we hear randomly from someone who’s actually read our published stuff.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting, if true. That’s what my mother used to say. However, I think it is true, and I’m an editor of an academic journal, so I’ve see lots of articles over the years. Most of them are mediocre, even bad. But every so often one shines through. Those people can both write and think clearly (they’re connected). You’re one of those Laura. The problem is also that inexperienced authors overdo their titles, to make them edgy or cool, but often the article itself doesn’t measure up. A bad idea for an author.

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