I agree that academic prose is sometimes both boring and frustrating because of the extent to which academics overqualify and parse every substantive claim they are making. It can lead to endless thickets of dependent clauses designed to cover all possible objections by pre-emptively conceding to them.
At the same time, scholarship needs to be something more and something better than what any random person pulled off the street might say off the top of their head. More based in specific evidence, more aware of the history of thought and expression on a given topic. I’d like to say more subtle, more nuanced, more complex, but that’s not a necessity. Sometimes the evidence and the historiography justify being very direct and intense in a scholarly argument.
It’s also a question of voice, though. One reason I didn’t know how I felt about the tenure case of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University is that while it’s clear that his critics didn’t like the content of his arguments (which is the wrong reason to deny tenure), I’m not wild about the professional tone in which he made some of his arguments.
It’s why I’m unhappy with some of the claims that KC Johnson makes at his blog and apparently at the conclusion of his new book about the Duke lacrosse case (haven’t read the book yet, so note the apparently.) I agree that a very large number of people, including some of the Duke faculty, made some really serious ethical mistakes in their behavior in that case. I even agree that one of the reasons for that error on the part of some faculty is that there is a problematic set of arguments about the relationship between the history of race, class, and gender in America and both collective and individual “guilt” in some contemporary academic thought. I’d agree that this problematic composite argument is more widely distributed than the Group of 88. I’m just really unhappy with the leap from those legitimate targets of criticism to a much more general set of targets based on thin, impressionistic, borderline demagogic claims. If you want to talk about what academia as a whole is or does, I need more than some course titles, some misleading inferences, and a cherry-picked list of nutcases. Or more than one group of people who made a bad individual mistake.
It’s why, like Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, my eyebrows went up at Alan Wolfe’s comment in an interesting New York Times Book Review article on the canon wars. Wolfe is quoted as saying that while everyone reads Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, “few people” have read the Yeats poem. Really? Doesn’t ring true in my experience at all.
This is the problem with all these kinds of moments for me: they take what could be a perfectly sound consensus and hold it hostage to a thoughtlessly aggressive generalization. Finklestein didn’t need the red-meat invective, Johnson doesn’t need to imitate the expansive stereotyping of the lacrosse lynch mobs, Wolfe doesn’t need to exaggerate.
It’s not the substantive claim that’s the issue, even. It’s the tone, the voice, the way a thing gets said. A lot of quick generalizations become less noxious when they’re acknowledged as such, and therefore when the speaker doesn’t try to use them as a platform for making grave claims. When they’re said with a laugh, for fun, or when they’re said with a sly wickedness. When the speaker self-deprecates by including himself or herself in the generalization. When they’re offered as a highly personal observation, or made part of an entertaining presentation by a raconteur. When the entire rhetorical style of the speaker is over-the-top and unabashedly gonzo, generalizations are par for the course.
The bad combination for me is an attempt to claim the high ground of careful, scholarly academic work for a quick, impressionistic generalization and when someone wants to make unmistakeably consequential claims and demands based on such a generalization. That’s what steps over a line.