One of my favorite scathing essays about the dysfunctionalities of academic writing and academic life is the \”Dancing with professors: the trouble with academic prose,\” by Patricia N. Limerick, a history professor at the University of Colorado, which appeared almost 25 years ago in the NY Times Book Review (October 31, 1993). It\’s available various places on the web (like here and here). It\’s not at all fair-minded, but it\’s funny–which is better–and it has enough truth to carry some sting. Here\’s Limerick:

In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange: 

Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying. 

Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly. 

But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:

Reader. I cannot understand what you are saying. 

Academic Writer. Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me. 

The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say: \”This doesn\’t make any sense,\” for fear that the response, \”It would, if you were smarter,\” might actually be true. 

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.  …

Ten years ago, I heard a classics professor say the single most important thing — in my opinion–that anyone has said about professors: \”We must remember,\” he declared, \”that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.\”

This is an insight that lights up the universe–or at least the university. It is a proposition that every entering freshman should be told, and it is certainly a proposition that helps to explain the problem of academic writing. What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe-paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message: \”I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me.\” 

Think of this, then, the next time you look at an unintelligible academic text. \”I would not want the attention of a wide reading audience, even if a wide audience were to ask for me.\” Isn\’t that exactly what the pompous and pedantic tone of the classically academic writer conveys? Professors are often shy, timid and even fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls. …

Fortunately, we have available the world\’s most important and illuminating story on the difficulty of persuading people to break out of habits of timidity, caution and unnecessary fear. I borrow this story from Larry McMurtry, one of my rivals in the interpreting of the American West, though I am putting this story to a use that Mr. McMurtry did not intend. 

In a collection of his essays, \”In a Narrow Grave,\” Mr. McMurtry wrote about the weird process of watching his book \”Horseman, Pass By\” being turned into the movie \’\’Hud.\” He arrived in the Texas Panhandle a week or two after filming had started, and he was particularly anxious to learn how the buzzard scene had gone. In that scene, Paul Newman was supposed to ride up and discover a dead cow, look up at a tree branch lined with buzzards and, in his distress over the loss of the cow, fire his gun at one of the buzzards. At that moment, all of the other buzzards were supposed to fly away into the blue Panhandle sky. 

But when Mr. McMurtry asked people how the buzzard scene had gone, all he got, he said, were \”stricken looks.\”

The first problem, it turned out, had to do with the quality of the available local buzzards–who proved to be an excessively scruffy group. So more appealing, more photogenic buzzards had to be flown in from some distance and at considerable expense. 

But then came the second problem: how to keep the buzzards sitting on the tree branch until it was time for their cue to fly. That seemed easy. Wire their feet to the branch, and then, after Paul Newman fires his shot, pull the wire, releasing their feet, thus allowing them to take off. 

But, as Mr. McMurtry said in an important and memorable phrase, the film makers had not reckoned with the \”mentality of buzzards.\” With their feet wired, the buzzards did not have enough mobility to fly. But they did have enough mobility to pitch forward.
So that\’s what they did: with their feet wired, they tried to fly, pitched forward and hung upside down from the dead branch, with their wings flapping.

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to meet a woman who had been an extra for this movie, and she added a detail that Mr. McMurtry left out of his essay: namely, the buzzard circulatory system does not work upside down, and so, after a moment or two of napping, the buzzards passed out. 

Twelve buzzards hanging upside down from a tree branch: this was not what Hollywood wanted from the West, but that\’s what Hollywood had produced. 

And then we get to the second stage of buzzard psychology. After six or seven episodes of pitching forward, passing out, being revived, being replaced on the branch and pitching forward again, the buzzards gave up. Now, when you pulled the wire and released their feet, they sat there, saying in clear, nonverbal terms: \”We tried that before. It did not work. We are not going to try it again.\” Now the film makers had to fly in a high-powered animal trainer to restore buzzard self-esteem. It was all a big mess; Larry McMurtry got a wonderful story out of it; and we, in turn, get the best possible parable of the workings of habit and timidity. 

How does the parable apply? In any and all disciplines, you go to graduate school to have your feet wired to the branch. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: scholars should have some common ground, share some background assumptions, hold some similar habits of mind. This gives you, quite literally, your footing. And yet, in the process of getting your feet wired, you have some awkward moments, and the intellectual equivalent of pitching forward and hanging upside down. That experience —  especially if you do it in a public place like a graduate seminar ­– provides no pleasure. One or two rounds of that humiliation, and the world begins to seem like a very treacherous place. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem to be the choice of wisdom to sit quietly on the branch, to sit without even the thought of flying, since even the thought might be enough to tilt the balance and set off another round of napping, fainting and embarrassment.

Yet when scholars get out of graduate school and get Ph.D.\’s, and, even more important, when scholars get tenure, the wire is truly pulled. Their feet are free. They can fly wherever and whenever they like. Yet by then the second stage of buzzard psychology has taken hold — and they refuse to fly. The wire is pulled, and yet the buzzards sit there, hunched and grumpy. If they teach in a university with a graduate program, they actively instruct young buzzards in the necessity of keeping their youthful feet on the branch.

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