One of my favorite writers, Russell Jacoby (whose The Repression of Psychoanalysis, an account of how the American medical establishment tamed & betrayed Freud’s key insights, has held up very well) has an article in this week’s Chronicle (permalink for subscribers | temporary free link) unpacking the academic penchant for “complicating” matters. The whole thing is worth reading, but the payoff is a story about academic integrity:
Underneath the signature, the credo continues, but the tone shifts: “There are alternatives to academic dishonesty,” it offers. “Please see your TA, professor, tutor, the Ombuds, or the Dean of Students to discuss other options.”
“Alternatives to academic dishonesty?” How many are there besides honesty? “Other options” to discuss? “Hi, Prof! I’m stressed about the exam. Honesty doesn’t work for me. What are my other options?” The mind-set is familiar. Complicate things. For the partisan of complexity, honesty/dishonesty presumably exemplifies antiquated binary thinking.
Mark Bauerlein had already gone down this path 11 years ago, in Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, which includes this entry on “problematize”:
This complication of accepted ideas and values certifies the critic’s heightened awareness. As a problematizer, the critic is sensitive to institutional contexts and dubious of interpretative habits. What others handles with thoughtless facility, the problematizer queries with wary deliberation. He is a conceptual devil’s advocate, an anti-positive gadfly who keeps inquiry honest, preventing other inquirers from relying uncritically upon problematic norms and methods.
We are a faddish lot!
By coincidence, today’s “Tomorrow’s Professor” e-mail was about reducing complexity in academic prose. It will probably show up on their blog in a week or two. At the risk of seeming uncomplicated, however, I’m going to go check on this week’s installation!