Thursday, June 12, 2014


As I was contemplating the grotesque inequities of the world yesterday evening, a thought occurred to me regarding the aspersion with which those who work in the academic humanities are held. One of the criticisms leveled against us--and I write "us" for the very good reason that I work in the academic humanities, if not so well or so long as have others--is that what we write is unintelligible to the layperson. We write removed from the realities of those outside the ivory tower, speaking each only to each and judging ourselves based upon how well we make writing that nobody will read. We write to impress one another, using words nobody else would consider and stringing them together in sentences long and torturous such that nobody else can stand to look at them, and then we condemn as uneducated Philistines those who are not willing to endure the pain of going through what we write to see the truths therein.

I will not say that there is not truth in such accusations. I am minded of a piece by Ian Barnard, "The Ruse of Clarity" (CCC 61.3 [February 2010]: 434-51), in which the author asserts that clarity cannot be had in writing that wrestles to make sense of difficult concepts. The work of the academic humanities is the identification and interpretation of sign and symbol, searching therein for images of truths of human experience, and all of them are difficult concepts; it is not to be wondered at, then, that the writing that seeks to uncover them, to walk the reader through the process of arriving at them (for the writing of the academic humanities is didactic at its heart), is a challenge to read. And those of us in the field do write for others in the field to read. It is those others in the field who offer us jobs and promotions, who offer us opportunities to go to other places and see what can be seen; of course we write to impress them.

We do so just as accountant write to other accountants, engineers write to other engineers, physicians write to other physicians, and so forth. Yet we are condemned for our doing so, while other specialists, not more professionalized than we, not more credentialed or embedded in their work than we, not more called to their work on their part of The Work than we, are not. It is the case that those of us working in the academic humanities need to do a better job of making our work accessible to those outside our fields of study, as do those working in other fields. We do not do enough outreach, really; we do not do enough to justify to the others from whom we derive enough support and sustenance to be able to work on The Work instead of working directly to make our food and goods. But it is also the case that those outside the field need to consider why it is that they hold us to a different standard than others whose knowledge is ultimately not more arcane than ours, whose work may be or more immediate practical benefit but which does not work to understand the activities that make us who we are.

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