Saturday, November 5, 2011

Calvin & Hobbes, Aristotle, & Academia

This strip pretty much sums up the frustration I feel with 'academia-speech.' I love Aristotle's logic that the best rhetoric is that which is most easily accessible, that which relies on common logic instead of big words.
Miller has me thinking a lot about genre, and I wonder what she would have to say about the genre of academic writing. She writes, “Human action, whether symbolic or otherwise, is interpretable only against a context of situation and through the attributing of motives” (Miller 152). So, when it comes to super complex, 'difficult' academic papers like the ones Bill Watterson is poking fun at in the strip above, do the motives include hierarchization and commodification of knowledge? If a paper is intelligible only those who have access to years of schooling, would Longinus condemn that motive as 'bad'?


  1. This 'academia-speech' is also something I find very frustrating, especially in some of the harder to grasp articles we read for this class. It seems to me that a main point of rhetoric is to be as clear as possible, not, as Calvin puts it, to "inhibit clarity". Going back to our first Locke reading where he states that words are to "record and communicate thoughts" (817). So, if language is a means for common understanding, wouldn't you want to use the clearest, most stable, most common words to generate the same ideas?Although I don't think the writer's we read use large academic words just to create an "impenetrable fog" or to sound smart, they certainly do tailor their works to those and often previous knowledge, and "academia-speech" is just that, speech that only academia can really understand. With that said, finally being able to unpack a piece like Derrida's "Differance", which I about nearly tore to shreds out of frustration, is a great feeling of accomplishment.

    What I think academic papers struggle with, more so than a concept of "bad motives", is having to relay such complex ideas. These concepts we attempt to understand in the texts we read are very very intricate and built upon a lot of thought and knowledge. Thus often Derrida and Bahktin must use 'academia-speech', not to narrow the scope of those who can comprehend, but because it is the only way they can use language, with all its imperfections, to describe their complex ideas. Sometimes they must even create words, like 'herteroglossia', just because their unique and diffcult thoughts have never been put to words before (although this further shows the limits of language, because how are we supposed to put meaning to a word that was just invented within the text?).

    This to relates back to Locke and his idea of "simple and complex words". The more complex the ideas are (and as we continue the semester they get progressively more and more complex) the more complex the words must be to relay them. And reading the works is not always a matter of being able to understand such large and academic words but often having some previous necessary knowledge of the subject matter before going in (especially with Miller's article, which pulls together so many sources). "Acadmia-speech" is very frustrating indeed, but how else can writers relay such complex and built up ideas? It is difficult. Also I try to keep in mind that we are often only reading small parts of bigger works, which makes comprehension all the tougher.

  2. Blair -

    I am wondering whether agency as Campbell conceptualized it might be helpful here. Campbell writes that agency refers to the capacity to speak, act, or write in ways that are heeded by others in a specific community (3). The key here is that people generally write or express agency for specific communities. While I am also sometimes a bit overwhelmed by academic discourse, I'm not sure that academic discourse is unintelligible based on the wording used. If a person is writing for an academic (university) community, it is important that the discourse fits that community. Thus, people outside the specific discipline (sociology, biology, etc.) probably would find the writing very hard to understand. So, I am not sure that pieces have what Longinus would call "bad motives" because they are academic. Certainly, writing clearly is desirable, but certain concepts, vocabularies, and terminology are necessary to different kinds of academic discourse. The goal of academic writing (and other specialized sorts of writing) is not so much to write a piece that is accessible to a large, general audience, as it is to build theory or practice, or to communicate the results of a study to a highly specific community.

    I am not sure what Miller would say about "academic discourse" as a genre, although perhaps she would question whether is it indeed a genre. To me, that sounds more like a category from the taxonomy-type genre classifications that she very much wants to replace. Perhaps she would question what kinds of typified rhetorical actions give rise to academic discourse or what kinds of action it accomplishes.

    Interestingly, the Miller quotation you include might help here. Miller writes that since genre represents action, it has to involve situations and motives (152). And,human actions (like writing an academic paper) are interpretable only in the context of that situation and considering the motives. Thus, academic discourse is primarily to be interpreted in the context it occurs, and the motives also depend on the situation. To judge academic discourse negatively because it is not accessible to the general public seems to me not quite fair or productive.


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