academia: March 2008 Archives

1 step forward?

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Lindsay Waters has a piece in yesterday's IHE about how we evaluate what we do in the academy, "A Call for Slow Writing." Now, you might recall that my own feelings about Waters are, shall we say, less than glowingly positive. But I will say that my feelings about this essay are mixed, and not in the worst way.

First, it's a well-wrought piece, showing off Waters' own skills at prose, and it is replete with erudition. I don't usually write like that, but there you have it. And second, I'm actually in complete agreement with the major point of the essay:

I have claimed elsewhere that the book-for-tenure system is coming to an end, that it is unsustainable, that its growth has been an obscenity, because it was mindless, because it sought to make something automatic and machine-like play the role that should only be played by the soul....There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should. I am tempted to say -- in order to be maximally provocative -- that anyone who publishes a book within six years of earning a Ph.D. should be denied tenure. The chances a person at that stage can have published something worth chopping that many trees down is unlikely.

Waters' argument is that we need to start unlearning the system that prompts us to push out writing as quickly as we do, in the interests of bumping up our pre-tenure numbers. I don't know that he'll have many takers for denying tenure to those who do publish books, but I will say that I very consciously reset my tenure clock when I moved from ODU to SU. And my book was better for it, I believe.

So far, so good. It's a little curmudgeonly of me, but I am willing to grant that most of our writing would be improved by shaking it free of the shadow of tenure. But then...

What I'm saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes -- and here I'm going global -- a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand.

It's hard for me not to react negatively--and here I'm going local--to the modo for modo's sake here. But the larger point is where I'm set back. To imagine that an entire profession sits around thinking, "hmmm, how can I write a really crappy sentence here?" is beyond laughable to me. Is there writing in the humanities that is largely indefensible from a stylistic point of view? Almost certainly. Are there writers in the humanities who consciously set out to produce inelegant prose? I seriously doubt it. So the notion that an entire tenure system is going to be changed by our conviction about the quality of our prose just sounds cranky to me, to be honest, and not serious at all.

Now, Waters goes on to talk about the editorial changes going on at boundary 2, and they sound great. I'm even willing to grant as part of a thought experiment that other journals follow suit. Not all, I'd imagine, but some. Let's even suppose that some of the essays written in this renaissance of clarity trickle upwards into book form. How long will that take? And where does the system tip?

Most importantly, though, what will any of this have to do with the demands placed upon us by our institutions? Who will be the first top-flight university to say that their tenure expectations are aberrant, and should be scaled back to allow more quality work? Which administrator, content with a system that translates qualitative work into quantities, is going to admit the "obscenity" when most university and college budgets already build into their calculations the retirements and tenure denials, and the budget line resets that they bring?


I've never been all that adept at the kind of nominal-dense, code-wordy prose that Waters and others decry, so I don't really take this stuff that personally. What I do take personally is the transfer of value judgments from the work (this work is difficult, obscure, and personally offensive) to the folk who write such works, in some kind of weird moral algebra. Honestly, I find that a little sloppy.

There are things that we can do. That much I agree with. We can strive to write as well as we can, certainly, and we can try to hold each other accountable as we read manuscripts, offer advice, direct projects, etc. But to imagine that we are the ones who have driven this system within which we toil is a little facile.

And this is from someone who's been fortunate enough to receive tenure. I'm not one of those who believes that the current system was good enough for me, so it's good enough for anyone else. But I don't see this essay offering anything like a solution for the problem it poses.

That is all, except to note that I'm not the CB who left a comment on the original post...



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from March 2008.

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