“…a deeper, more perplexed theory…”

Ah, how I wish I had saved the context for this one!

I think I knew what my student meant. I think she meant to refer to a deeper, more COMPLEX theory.

“Perplexed” must have gotten in there by means of the back door invented by Herr S. Freud: my student’s own state of mind attached itself to the theory she meant to characterize. This is a good possibility; if she had been characterizing the theory itself, surely she would have said “more perplexing,” not “more perplexed.” That the theory could have been perplexed is highly unlikely, at least in the universe as we know it—or as we have constructed it by means of language.

I wouldn’t blame my student for being perplexed. As students arrive at college with smaller and smaller working vocabularies (as opposed to SAT-crammed ones) and weaker and weaker analytical skills, the critical and other scholarly articles we expect them to deploy in research papers are written in increasingly obscure and esoteric language. I’m a pretty good and fairly savvy reader, and I find articles in my own discipline rough going (too long since grad school, I guess; too far from instruction in the prevailing lingo). The Sokal hoax—the fact that the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was taken seriously by academic editors and then by quite a few academic readers even after its perpetrator announced he had tailored the scholarly equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes and the scales fell from all eyes—should be still vivid enough in every scholar’s consciousness to keep us honest and humble, even if it makes no dent in the way many continue to insist on writing.

No wonder so many students plagiarize parts of their research papers, or write assemblages rather than arguments. The sources were Published, for heaven’s sake, which means they are Important and True; but the hapless student writer can’t make heads or tails of what the sources say, while still being pretty sure the sources should be in there. The only way not to get the ideas wrong is to copy the source straight out…or, I guess, to hire another writer who does understand them, or who claims to understand them. I don’t excuse this behavior, but I do sympathize with the desperation in the student who engages in it.

I’d like to start a “Back to English” movement in scholarly writing. I have no objection to complicated sentences, as long as they’re well punctuated and grammatically coherent—no surprise there, eh? But I do feel that there’s a point at which, or an audience for whom, words concocted to carry exquisitely precise but also vastly abstract meanings aren’t worth using, and words that mean one thing shouldn’t be preempted to mean something quite other (“rubric,” anyone? please! I know a matrix when I see one!). And I also feel that no matter how complex an idea is, there must be some point at which it can be uttered in a straightforward way: clear syntax, accessible vocabulary. Anchor the reader with a general, concrete, or simplified utterance and then go ahead and refine the hell out of it until you get to what you really mean (or really think you mean). In fact, I’d hazard the opinion that a writer who can’t do this—can’t lay a discernible foundation for the intellectual structure that follows—isn’t a writer….

…or, alternatively, that the writer’s theory is itself perplexed, despite its depth. I guess there could be such a thing as a theory so deep that it’s out of its depth.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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