Archive | April 2012

Why Academics Write So Oddly

When I came here I was surprised at how little my “non-traditional” writing skills applied. So, I analyzed. I here share the results of that study. Perhaps it may be of some use to those of you who do not leave, get a doctorate or MFA, and rush back.

Imagine a nice, new car, something upscale. I will think of a Porsche 911 Turbo. Red. Mmmm. You may think of a Cooper, or a Navigator, or whatever rocks your van. Park it on the screen of your mind. We will call this a business plan. Keep watching. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, wearing white overalls, enter frame from left. They pull out the rear seats. Then the sound system. Then the odometer, the interior lights, the center console, and anything operated with a button. If you imagined leather, they take that. Finally, they spray the outside a flat primer black, dust off their hands, nod smugly, and leave. They have produced the undergraduate paper.

Why are the two antithetical? Start here: in any group of people, at any moment, 10% are thinking about lunch. The rest are thinking about sex. This is not moralizing; it simply points up the truth that we can all use a little help paying attention, even the three of you who are not yet on Ritalin. A business plan empathizes. For example, it dares to use bolded subheads to organize things, as did the center console those guys ripped from your fantasy car. Perhaps the occasional illustration. And italics, because some things are just more important. It makes it easy. Yes, a good business plan leans over and says: “Dude! A drive? Latte? Spin the old wheels?”

Not so the academic paper, which lets you bring your own coffee. Better, please have it at home. Black. With dry toast. On a white plate. Nothing may be bolded or italicized, except titles. Some titles. No graphics, or the captions they engender. Contractions aren’t permitted. And rhetorical questions? Fuggedaboutit.

Oh, right: no short paragraphs, either. Too emphatic.

(Did you know that a movement is afoot to enforce an MLA style on undergraduate emails? Fortunately, they’ve deadlocked with the APA and Chicago people. Titans wrestle above us.)

Why are these two great literary forms so disparate? Let’s go automotive again. It’s July Fourth, the Scouts just rolled past with supersoakers, and down the parade route weaves a little clutch of antique cars, driven by antique people. Gauzy head scarves and flat caps and such. What these rolling metaphors—the cars, not the oldsters—don’t have is all that stuff Stan and Ollie crowbarred out: odometers, leather, et al. What they do have is miles and miles of good old-fashioned credibility. Oh, yes. Why, if Henry and Rose were to pull over their Nash and give you 8,000 words on Mechanical Reproduction and Gender Gradients in the Early Critical Work of Virginia Woolf (Lateforlunch 937), well, you’d darn well listen. And just so the lit paper.

Of course, the important thing is to be scholarly and truthful, to twine another tiny golden link into the shimmering fabric of scholarly dialogue woven over thousands of years. But you also have to seem credible. A quiet, orderly demeanor is appropriate for this venerable conversation. As with Rose and Henry.

And yes, of course, a business plan also needs credibility. In fact, a generation ago they looked a lot like academic papers for just that reason, and a few still do (losers). But lately there’s an inverse correlation between the formality of the plan and the respect (money) it receives. If you, the prospective CEO, haven’t had a big win yet, you won’t get the money no matter how fancy your plan is. On the other hand, if you’ve already earned really nice places in the Hamptons for three sets of investors at three other companies, you can afford to be cool and casual, and you should. The CEO who wears jeans at an investment conference knows you’re afraid of her, and you should be. Her business plans are written on white boards. And she drives a car you haven’t heard of.

Then there’s finding an audience. Venture capitalists attract business plans the way a red Porsche 911 Turbo attracts slightly overweight middle-aged writers. It’s like parking at the mall on the day after Thanksgiving; there’s a little competition. So yours has to grab ‘em and keep ‘em, or forget about the two mil. Instead, they’ll just think about lunch. Or that other thing. So Ralph W. Emerson is out, and Hunter S. Thompson is in. Whatever it takes. Mixed martial arts.

Not so the undergraduate paper. It has a guaranteed audience of one. However, she has to read hundreds of them a semester, one after another after another. (Though at least we all write nicely; that makes it easier.) To slide successfully through her system the paper must be good, sure, but also very standardized. So no timelines, or cute little informational brushstroke drawings. And definitely no bullet points.

The genres diverge further all the time. Often, now, a business plan isn’t even on paper. It’s PowerPoint: kinetic and transitory, movable chunks, the barest essentials. A dozen slides will do it if you know how to communicate. Simple, streamlined: a bold statement up front, a clear structure of logic and data that support it, then a synthetic conclusion. In spirit and intent, though not in form, exactly like a good academic paper. Just easier to understand.



You Live Here and I Don’t

I don’t live here. You do. It makes a big difference.

This is a blog about non-traditional (= older (= old)) studentdom, or that at least is the tissuey excuse I shall use to write about more interesting things. So it may interest you to know that we non-trads have our own House. Well, house. It’s a 1942 Colonial near Marietta and River; stop by some time when it’s not finals week. Our coffee is probably much better than yours.

OK, it’s just me and my daughter, and my wife, our House Don. I pretty much encompass the non-traditional cluster at F&M; my apologies to anyone I’ve missed, and again, I’ll buy lunch. This is a stunningly homogeneous institution. That’s common, of course, at liberal arts colleges (with some exceptions), probably because few adults competent enough to amass a quarter million dollars would spend it on working like a fiend while living in a tenement house. They’d get a condo in Maui instead.

My recollection sucks (drugs, age, all that), but I don’t recall talking with anyone about living or not living in a House. Maybe it was just assumed. It’s too bad; I had wanted Slytherin. Instead, I was assigned to Ware, in what I continue to view as a warm, embracing gesture on the part of the college and that fine House. I’m on an email list which regularly invites me for evening movies and dawn bagels, though that latter experience still lies ahead, and will probably recede further; I have not risen as early as Professor Eigen in a very long time. And yet he still smiles that much. Go figure. I am, however, good to go for beignets at the Café du Monde at three a.m., if there’s a Learjet handy.

But let’s move to the point of the post. Houses, not classrooms, are where friendships happen, and sometimes last a very long time. Why Houses rather than classrooms? The degree of structure. In a classroom we dance to the professor’s tune, which is as it should be; they are like gods to us. Right? Or, whatever. And since, by one of their divine laws, a professor always shows up with more material than time, it’s necessary to keep things pretty darn focused. So the connection is generally student-to-professor, not student-to-student. As it should be, of course; despite pleasant rhetoric, don’t expect to learn all that much academically from other students. That’s why they’re, like, students. Duh. Me, too. Student tutors are godsends in their focused ways, as are the good people in the Writing Center. But at the end of the day you’ll learn fermions, folk dance, Faulkner, feudalism, and Frantz Fanon from people with Ph.D.s and MFAs.

In contrast, friends come out of that other education, the one you’d be working out for yourself, just in a different way, if you were working right now. This just happens to be a cool place to go through it. A House can be defined as a group of intelligent people attempting strange and uninformed experiments on their adulthoods, a process that provides many, many opportunities to locate compatible people. (As well as people you desperately wish were now at Gettysburg. The battle, not the college. Also a critical friendship learning process.) And you’re almost forced to become friends with your roommate, or to find a new one with whom you can be friends. After which you’re friends with her friends, etc.

All of this will not happen to non-traditional me. (Us? Seriously, there must be one more. Maybe if we both wear orange Dickinson hoodies for a month . . . ) But that’s totally OK. Between the ages of 17 and 25 I had experiences of a weirdly adventurous kind, so no envy there. I have a family, complete with wife and children, that is so much better than the one I grew up in. Right now the window is open, and I hear a lot of birds and no voices. I like this. One might think that my 2014 cohort should envy me, rather than me them. That would be error. We’re all lucky to be here. College is more fun than almost anything, for a lot of very good and different reasons.