Debate re bad scholarly writing (long)

Subject: Debate re bad scholarly writing (long)
From: LaVonna Funkhouser <lffunkhouser -at- HALNET -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 1997 10:28:10 -0600

Those of you who are professors or who have read
about the Bad Writing Contest for academics sponsored
by the journal /Philosophy and Literature/ (the winners
of which were copied to the COREComm web site) will be
interested in this article.

I post this here as an FYI, with permission of the author.
Please do not try to open the debate on techwr-l. You may
direct comments to me and I'll tell you what little I know.

LaVonna Funkhouser
lffunkhouser -at- halnet -dot- com
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Bad-Writing Contest Spurs Debate on Rhetoric Mailing List


The recent results of a bad-writing contest have kindled debate on
a scholarly mailing list whose members discuss the quality of
postmodernist academic writing and the ability of readers to
understand it.

The discussion has taken place on H-RHETOR, an
interdisciplinary electronic mailing list about the history of
rhetoric and communications. It is part of H-NET, a huge
mailing-list network that reaches thousands of scholars in the
humanities and social sciences around the world.

According to Gary Hatch, one of the moderators of H-RHETOR,
the discussion started when one of the list's subscribers posted
the results of the third annual bad-writing contest, sponsored by
the editors of the journal Philosophy and Literature. The point of
the contest, which singles out "the ugliest, most stylistically
awful" passages in scholarly books and articles, is to encourage
humanities scholars to write more clearly. (See a background story
from Academe Today's Daily Report.)

Dr. Hatch said that the subject's initial posting, which was
intended to be humorous, generated an unusually heavy response on
the list as the discussion became serious. Some subscribers were
distressed that the writing of Fredric Jameson, a professor at Duke
University and a prominent postmodernist scholar, had won first
place in the contest.

"A lot of people on the list are involved in postmodern theory and
postmodern projects, and so they were eager to respond to what is
traditionally thought of as bad writing," said Dr. Hatch, an
assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University.

Some contributors wrote that they were concerned that the
contest was an attack on the intellectual left in general and on
postmodernism in particular, noting that the "winning" bad entries
were all postmodernist. One contributor wrote that the contest
unfairly took short excerpts from works and made "sweeping and
unqualified" judgments about them.

Meanwhile, some list members argued that every academic
discipline has its own jargon. Postmodernists, they wrote, could
not adequately express some ideas if they abandoned that jargon in
favor of clearer language. Others wrote, however, that academics
can -- and should -- write in "a way that is clear and

"Many of the terms that postmodernists use to replace thinking are
not uniquely specific, and nearly always lead more to confusion
than to understanding," wrote Shawn Smith, a graduate student at
Yale University. "The issue is a rhetorical one -- what good is
this sort of writing if it does not teach and persuade?"

"It's not so much the jargon in Jameson and others that bugs me,"
wrote James Aune, an associate professor of speech communication at
Texas A&M University. "It's the utter humorlessness of the writing
... I have this sense that the difficult style and the high
seriousness are some sort of defense mechanism -- science envy?
Ressentiment? Blocked ascendancy?"

Some writers attributed a baser motive to the defenders of
postmodernist lingo. Brad De Long, a professor of economics at the
University of California at Berkeley, wrote: "The claim that these
terms are 'technical' seems to me to be nothing more than an
attempt to exercise what one might call discursive hegemony: a
pretty explicit statement that 'We do not even have to try to write
in a manner that anyone else might understand, because nobody else
has any business trying to communicate with us.'"

Other contributors argued that scholarly writing should be
challenging. James Fredal, a graduate student at the Ohio State
University, said he felt inadequate and angry at being "shut out"
when he first tried reading works by Michel Foucault and Jacques
Derrida, two leading proponents of postmodernist theory.

"I remember thinking that in all of these cases the writers could
have chosen to write so that I could understand," he wrote. "Now I
think it probably has much less to do with the text I am reading
than it does with my willingness to throw myself back into the
fray, to work at 'getting it,' knowing the secret message, and
being, at least for a while longer, a real insider again."

Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Copyright, 1997.

Karla Haworth
Assistant Editor, Electronic Projects
The Chronicle of Higher Education
karla -dot- haworth -at- chronicle -dot- com

You may read the press release that sparked this debate (with
the winners of the above mentioned contest) by following a
link off this page:


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