Performance Art in the Ivory Tower

In Rapunzel’s remote tower of western fable, a king imprisons his daughter to keep her innocent of the world.  While she longs for society, she busies herself with solitary preoccupations.  So too do inhabitants of another kind of tower, made of mythical ivory, designed to keep academicians and their musings away from the taint of the practical universe.

Rapunzel eventually sees that the prison of protection is empty of meaning.  Her industry is useless without engagement outside its walls.  Futile, too, are the preoccupations of a legion of researchers, philosophers, writers, and teachers whose life work collects dust on shelves when it could instead shape a better planet.

Why do the serfs of the village fail to appreciate the toil of the academic lords?  In part, it is a problem of language.  In part, it is a disconnect between theory and practice.

Consider the vocabulary of the average professor.  Arcane words.  Repurposed words.  Nouns shaped into new adjectives.  Sentences twice as long as necessary.  Phrases whose subject and verb aren’t even kissing cousins.  Metaphors so ridiculous that they are impossible to fathom.  Exhibit A:  a famous scholar who will remain anonymous once wrote of the “wings of consciousness”, not recognizing that his readers might have difficulty imagining awareness in flight.  A sociological favorite, heteronormativity, is Exhibit B.  Why not just refer to a view of heterosexuality as the norm?  Exhibit C: “problematize”:  to consider something a problem.  It is a problem that a perfectly good noun is being contorted into a verb.

The specialized language of academia is not unlike the terminology developed by other professions, designed in part to winnow participation to the vocational “in crowd”.  In theater, your grip is not your grasp and a dolly is not a toy.  Preciousness in professional vernacular is common.  In academia, however, excesses of language are downright obnoxious.  What is communication for, if not both to transmit and to be received?  Scholars have a special role in society as discoverers, decoders, pedagogues, and inventers.  If their texts are too dense, their ideas too obscure, their language too obtuse, the common man or woman cannot learn, grow, or seize actionable ideas for improving life and community.  If the wall of understanding is too high to surmount, an author’s scholarship is useless, becoming nothing more than performance art for a very small audience.

It is the freshness of an idea, not the fancy gauze it’s often wrapped in, that makes for good thinking, speaking, and writing.  Clarity of thought demands clarity of presentation, and yet, this is anathema to most academicians who appear to believe that their membership in the genius club will be revoked if they are plain spoken.

Also true is that the long sentences of gobbledygook that often pass for academic-speak mask the very little that some have to say.  In one recent academic conference, a panelist spent 15 minutes deconstructing the language of a group’s website to determine that the entity focuses on self-marketing at the expense of its target.  To those in the room familiar with the organization, this was not news.  Syntactical analyzing of verbiage on a home page was passed off as scholarly research, when a few interviews with principals or clients of the organization would have yielded substantive evidence of the hunch presented by the graduate student.  Could it be that some PhDs and would-bes are simply running out of ideas to unpack?

The most serious cause of the gulf between academic navel-gazing and activism in the real world seems to be the age-old problem that the two sides make few attempts to connect to each other’s valid contributions.   Policy leaders and their ilk rarely give true research more than a passing notice, and researchers fail to move their work into the public realm in a useful way.  Each community seems to operate as though the other does not exist.  Few translators and tour guides hold mixers for the sides to become acquainted.

This problem is evidently as old as known civilization.  Today’s political writers often paraphrase the wise words of Quintilian, born in AD 35: “One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”  However elegantly he worded it, the message has still not gotten through.  Poking fun at such torts has become a cottage industry for everyone from Mark Twain to George Orwell to Edwin Newman. The latter wit’s 1974 book, “Strictly Speaking”, draws much merriment from political speech – a close relative of academic language.  Forty years later, Steven Pinker takes up the theme in his “Sense of Style”, which mocks academic language for its pomposity and pretense.  Noting that academic word-wenders write ponderously to demonstrate to university presses that they are serious, Pinker observes that one must “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Perhaps another decade will pass before scholarly scribes walk on the same planet as the rest of us. Or maybe the world’s true crises will drive the policy wonks and thinkers into each other’s arms for comfort.  In my imaginary world of this pas de deux, “research” won’t just be a term that reformers use without attribution to prop up bad ideas, and real evidence will find a place on the path to positive change. Once the Policy Prince finally climbs Professor Rapunzel’s long braid, I’ll be the first to throw a fistful of rice at the happy couple’s wedding.



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