In Friday’s New York Times, the novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer wrote a scathing indictment of academic writing. An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece takes aim at the well-known art historian Michael Fried, but it could easily have been written about almost any scholar in the humanities, veteran or novice, successful or luckless. It lambastes the bad, turgid, unclear writing so common to university professors. Following David Morris’s suggestion, it is rightly called academic mumblespeak.
Dyer’s article is brilliant because he adopts the style he intends to mock. To give you just a small taste, here’s how he begins:
In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow.
I found it hilarious, apt, persuasive, and timely. Academics are many things, but good writers we are seldom. We deserve the critique.
That attitude in mind, I was surprised to get in a mild disagreement with some colleagues on Facebook after one of them posted a link to Dyer’s article, along with a complaint that it represented yet another example of anti-intellectualism in the NY Times. I was fascinated and a bit startled to see my interlocutors content to dismiss this piece as useless—save as a lens on the ideology of media (anything you can do I can do meta). This surprise was magnified by the fact that one of the individuals commenting on the post holds a senior position at a university press.
I was likewise surprised that, after I pressed them, my colleagues (including the university press rep) still didn’t see Dyer’s article as but one example of a wholesale problem, but only as a specific critique of a bad writing tic of a single author, Michael Fried. At least one of them didn’t see any reason to entertain gripes from outside academia about writing styles within it.
I’m not interested in chastising my friends in public about a private conversation, and that’s why I’m not naming names here. But I was startled and disheartened to think that this sample of scholars might be representative of a common attitude—things are fine in the humanities, we don’t owe you any explanations, just leave us alone to write terribly. We like it that way.
This is a backwards attitude, and I don’t want any part of it.
It reminded me of another, slightly different response to the relationship between the humanities and the world. Last week Google’s “in-house philosopher” Damon Horowitz wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the role of the humanities in the technology industry, and elsewhere. As Alex Reid reports, with horror, the dozens of comments that follow the article actually express offense at the idea that a technologist might actually partake of the humanities. After all, we’re here to be “unaccountable” (yet fully supported).
My conversation about the Dyer article on Facebook makes me realize that my and Alex’s views are still very much in the minority among humanists. (In fact, I suppose there are some who wouldn’t even call me a humanist anymore.) It’s a disillusioning realization, but one worth having. For years now, many have written about the dire state of the humanities and the liberal arts more generally. Will they be able to survive the financial crisis, the corporatization of the university, the government’s preference for STEM fields, and so forth. By contrast, I find myself wondering if the liberal arts will survive itself.