Culture

What Happens When Academics Essay the "Wang Dang Doodle" of Life?

Flippancy of postmodern rhetorical parkour (iƒ.e., “jargon"), when wielded indiscriminately, draws boundaries between the insiders who know it and the outsiders who don't.

Dear Academia,

I've never been intimidated by the sight of abstruse or polysyllabic words (i.e.; words like "abstruse" and "polysyllabic"). I spent precious moments of my adolescence nose-deep in a dictionary, trying to decipher some of the more arcane references in Steely Dan lyrics (the exact monetary value of a piaster, for example, or why a drug dealer was nicknamed after a French megalomaniac). Plus I'm a writer, so I appreciate and can pick up a few tricks from those who revel in the nether regions of language, making it do what they need it to do in the spirit of the literary game recognizing game.


Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards

Harvard University Press

June 2017

Far be it from me to give you a harder time than you've already been having as of late. On top of the seemingly perennial questions about the value of higher education, especially in those disciplines not seen as particularly useful in a competitive, global economy (i.e., everything not STEM), your junior members toil away as lowly adjuncts with few health benefits and apparently even fewer rights of any sort, especially as the tenuous nature of their employment is concerned. None of this is made any better by the current political environment, which accuses most of you of fomenting revolution through the rigorous cultivation of educated minds (of course, if you were fomenting the sort of revolution those in the current ascendance would appreciate, none of this would be an issue).

So I say these words carefully, not wanting to give your detractors more ammunition, but valuing the work you do, and wanting it to have the kind of impact you want it to have (i.e., a significant contribution to the public discourse, if not a widely-viewed TED talk or a gig as an on-call pundit). I say this from my lived experience, both as someone who spent a recent year working in higher education and seeing up close and personally the work you do, and as a critic and essayist who frequently uses academic, scholarly products as springboards for musings on history, race and culture.

My humble request is simply this: Can you please dial it back a little with the academic lingo?

I know this is a perennial debate amongst y'all, especially with the shifting realities of university presses and what that means for the publishing you're expected to pursue. I know every so often, as if on cue, someone holds forth in one of your industry trade papers, The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Education, about the quality and nature of academic writing. But I'm coming from another perspective – the one beyond the academy, perfectly capable of deciphering the rarified terminology but wondering what good it really does in the long run.

Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about. This is Brent Hayes Edwards, in his excellent Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination, expounding upon the poetry, and poetic forms, of the blues:

"In effect, this double apostrophe in the blues poem is a radical strategic response to the version of subjectivity inscribed in the traditional lyric, which has always had treacherous implications for a black poetic practice. The lyric is not a timeless, universal form; it is marked by history – and its history couches a threat to the enunciation of black subjectivity. In Nathaniel Mackey's words, there is a 'predicament of subjectivity in the lyric that we inherit within a Western tradition which has legacies of domination and conquest and moral complication that make [its] claims to subjectivity and sublimity hard to countenance.'"

The entire paragraph continues for another 64 words, some of which are "the blues lyric as a discourse of individualization and internalization." I'm sure the eminent blues lyricist Willie Dixon had that very thought in mind when he was essaying "Wang Dang Doodle".

I'm not picking on Edwards specifically; he's just the most recent example in my reading list of this tendency. Over the years in this space, I've encountered similarly cryptic passages in books about early writing by black Americans, racial depictions of Jesus Christ, and the evolution of black dandyism. I've been able to make my way through them, even when they were a step or two beyond my wheelhouse of expertise; the more academic writing you read, the more of it you can decipher without advanced degrees. But why is so much writing by academics so complicated to decipher in the first place?

It really doesn't have to be that way. Back in October, black professors Daphne A. Brooks (Yale), Kara Keeling (USC) and Jacqueline Stewart (University of Chicago) performed a video mixtape tribute to the Combahee River Collective (CRC) as part of a black feminist film series in Chicago. This was a new one for me; my readings on black feminism and progressive thought never introduced me to this collective, or their 1977 manifesto on black feminism as "the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face."

The professors sought to pay honor and respect to the CRC by citing examples of musically bold soul sistas throughout time, from Labelle to Beyoncé. They played YouTube clips of performances from back in the day as backdrops to the linkages they drew between the black cultural and feminist politics of the '70s and now. It's an intriguing concept, both conceptually and practically, provoking a lot of interesting questions, and by and large they pulled it off.

Unfortunately, this wasn't quite a performance for the masses. The event was promoted mostly through University of Chicago channels, as opposed to Pookie's Facebook feed or fliers on telephone poles. As such, it attracted an educated, woke audience that didn't need terms like "intersectionality" defined for it. Good for them, and good for the professors doing this work: it's nice to have a shared baseline of terms and understanding in working through complicated issues and ideas. But I suspect there are a lot of people who, while they may not be up to speed on this season's countercultural buzzwords, would have easily understood the gist of things from the visuals alone.

The thing is, dearest academia, your "shared baseline of terms and understanding" is someone else's "incomprehensible jargon". Every field, of course, has its own bag of jargon, not to mention annoying catchphrases that wannabees tend to drop as if they're hot. That doesn't make the jargon of academia any better. That's because jargon, when wielded indiscriminately, draws boundaries between the insiders who know it and the outsiders who don't, and who can't become insiders without figuring out (often, with scant assistance) what the jargon means in everyday language.

I think this is especially problematic for those of you in academia because you produce so much amazing work that can resonate beyond your ivy- or graffiti-covered walls. Take Epistrophies: I've been listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Cecil Taylor, and Henry Threadgill for decades, but gained an enhanced appreciation of their work from Edwards' examination of how they wielded words as well as musical notes. I'm sure there are lots of other jazz fans who would have more than one "a-ha!" moment while reading this work. But I wonder if some of those fans might not push through the more esoteric sections, where Edwards seems to forget that not all of his potential readers have a Master of Fine Arts degree and know what terms like "a discourse of individualization and internalization" mean in any given context. (Or if they'd even know, given how most scholarly books are marketed, that Epistrophies even exists.)

I appreciate that some concepts are less immediate than others to explain in detail, and may need more specialized language to make the point. But I can't help thinking, as long as the work in question isn't a technical or procedural manual, there might be a middle ground between explaining an idea to a Ph.D. candidate in Ph.D.-level language and making it plain for a reasonably literate layperson. One might not want to be as extreme about it as Ms. Lauryn Hill, who revealed her writing m.o. on the Fugees' "Zealots": "And after all my logic and my theory/ I add a 'muthafucka' so you ig'nant niggas hear me". But I'm guessing one could more prudently attempt a promise similar to the one Chuck D made on Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype": to "reach the bourgeois/ and rock the boulevard".

Academics, you know a lot of words. Use your vocab more imaginatively, with an eye towards making your work more accessible to a broader potential audience without watering down the bonafides of your research. And peer review panels, since you often hold the fate of such works in your hands, cut them some slack when they dare to aspire towards readability, instead of getting all fussy with your red pencils in the name of academic tradition or some other spurious notion.

In other words, if you want more than just university librarians to understand the book on that specialized corner of the world's knowledge you spent years researching and writing, it's no crime to use four $5 words instead of one $20 word. You get more bang for your buck, that way — and your readers get a better experience.

Robert Christgau's 'Is It Still Good to Ya?'

Robert Christgau is the rare critic who can write insightfully and passionately about a sweaty performance by a popular Congolese soukous band and a magisterial show by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. That magic is captured in his latest anthology, Is It Still Good to Ya?

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