Critiquing, Defending Academic BS

Composition scholars consider whether their language and tone alienate the public -- or raise tough issues.
March 17, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- A much discussed essay in the journal College Composition and Communication last year was titled “A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing.” In the essay, Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer -- both on the English faculty at Northern Illinois University -- acknowledge that much writing by professors, especially in the humanities, is seen as bull by many others.

“For many non-academics, academic writing is not just bullshit but bullshit of the worst kind,” they write. “When non-academics call academic writing bullshit, they mean that it uses jargon, words whose meanings are so abstract and vague as to seem unrelated to anyone’s experience. Such jargon seems to contribute nothing to the reader except confusion and serves only to enhance the ethos of the speaker, a strategy that the general public dislikes precisely because they suspect that academics are taken in by it.”

While the essay defends some writing that is not easily understood by the lay reader, it suggests that academics need to pay more attention to how their writing is received outside the faculty lounge.

In that spirit, a panel at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication considered the question of “Empty Rhetoric and Academic Bullshit: Strategies for Composition’s Self-Representation in National Arenas.” In the discussion, participants differed on how much of a problem their language is – and because this is a meeting of language and rhetoric experts, the discussion referenced issues that were personal to scholars’ work and values.

The organizers of the panel invited Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, to kick things off, expecting and receiving a critique of their discipline’s approach to research and the public.

Bauerlein started by noting that many of the reports issued by the composition group and panels at the meeting deal with issues of race, class, gender and so forth, and he said that this would make no sense to the “man in the street.” Such a person would say “it’s just writing” and wonder why “politically charged subjects” capture such attention.

While Bauerlein is critical of what he sees as a political one-sidedness on humanities faculties, he was careful to say that he was not arguing that the man in the street was “right” and that in fact this man might have a “simplistic” view of teaching writing. But Bauerlein said that the gap between the public understanding of what composition is about and the discipline’s understanding of itself is “not healthy for anyone.”

A key source of this problem, Bauerlein said, is the “publish or perish” system of academic advancement. The “extraordinary burden” on scholars in composition and rhetoric to come up with something new to say, he said, results in work becoming more specialized, with “every narrower niches,” language that can only be understood by other experts, and a “progressive departure from popular understandings” of what writing is about.

“Disciplinary sense,” Bauerlein said, replaces “common sense” and no one outside the field understands it any more.

Given that freshman composition is frequently the only required course for students at many colleges, Bauerlein said that people who teach the course have “power” and should not be so disconnected from society.

Another critique of the field was offered by Margaret Price, assistant professor of English at Spelman College, who compared the two disciplines of which she is a part: rhetoric/composition and disability studies. Disability studies, Price said, “spends less time -- in my estimation -- talking to itself and more time working on fostering public understanding.”

The composition association, she said, “tends to operate as if we ourselves are our most important audience, and we don’t pay enough attention to other audiences,” such as students’ parents, state legislators and “academic skeptics” such as Bauerlein.

As an example, she cited the composition group's new blog on diversity, created as part of an association effort to produce a statement on diversity. Price said that she admires much of the writing on the blog, but that it “doesn’t seem very blog-like to me.” She noted that the writing isn’t “especially messy or unpredictable” and that “many of the participants seem to have agreed to agree.”

Composition scholars need to “take seriously charges that we theorize too much and teach too little, however much such charges might offend us and our sense of ourselves,” she said. That means inviting more public voices, a diversity of views, and “allowing mess” -- through online, informal writing.

To illustrate how this might look, she cited the movement dubbed “The Trouble With Jerry,” a protest of disability studies scholars and disability rights activists of the ideas of Jerry Lewis and the recent honorary Oscar he received. This movement is playing out on blogs, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere -- and while scholars are participating, the discussion is understandable to someone new to the issue, Price said.

Price said that while not everyone agrees with every part of this movement, it has captured public attention (prompting articles and television coverage) and clearly reached a non-academic audience, including people who haven't previously thought about disability issues. By organizing in this way, she said, participants will be criticized, and internal divisions among those in disability studies will become apparent, too. But she argued that there is credibility that comes from "genuine outreach to diverse opinions," adding that "if we are not willing to get a little messier in the ways that we engage with our potential audiences in national arenas, what we say may end up smelling of bullshit."

Mike Edwards, an assistant professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy, said that he also saw the problem with composition scholars feeling proprietary about their control of discussion of writing. He described talking to a colleague in the history department who reminded him: "Yours is not the only discipline ... with expertise and investment in the production of writing."

Edwards said that he sees some of the dangers Bauerlein and others have discussed. But he said that many times, such critiques actually come with their own non-writing philosophy for teaching writing: namely that it's important because it is economically valuable for students to write well. While not disputing that students benefit from writing well, he questioned the "commodification of writing." With debates in writing over intellectual property, the use of writing tutors, the purchase of papers online, and educationally valuable but nontraditional approaches such as peer coaching in writing, Edwards said that theory has a role in understanding the process -- even theory that runs counter to public understandings of writing.

And Lauren Rosenberg, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University, warned of the desire of some critics to "keep compositionists quiet and constrained," focused on "skills and drills." She said that these calls are typically based on a "mythic past" where composition instructors somehow produced perfect writers.

Audience reaction was mixed. One person in the audience suggested that Bauerlein has "taken advantage of public misunderstandings" of writing and other humanities issues to advance his own ideas.

Bauerlein replied that he would never want to impose any sort of ideological conformity on professors -- and he said that the public doesn't want that either. "They want professors to be critical, to be judgmental, and to be a measure of opposition to mainstream norms," he said. But it is possible for professors to play that role while also explaining their work in ways everyone can understand, and while respecting the views of the public.

It is the "complacency and condescension" of professors that gets them into trouble, he said, not the substance of their ideas.

One audience member said she was very pleased to hear the discussion. She said that as an instructor at a community college, focused on teaching, she sympathizes with members of the public who don't understand the discipline. "I get a half dozen journals and I'm lucky if I find two articles a year that help me," she said. "I find it really frustrating not be spoken to. If you aren't a researcher, it's gobbledygook."


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