3 thoughts on “In Defence of Turgid Prose: A[nother] Response to Nicholas Kristof

  1. This post raises an important point … but the proper reaction to people like Kristof is, I think, a tricky business.

    I think it's quite right that it's very important to resist the suggestion that the only measures of worth and “impact” are economic—or within academia, bibliometric. But the shape this resistance should take isn't obvious. One shape it shouldn't take, though, is disdain for the very idea of trying to make the case that the humanities matter, or to make the case in a way that only other academics in the humanities can understand. But both these reactions are, in my experience, all too common.

    Some people, perhaps Kristof, are allergic to the very idea that critical re-evaluation of established ways of doing thing has value. But most of even the most vocal cheerleaders of the direction things are going will admit, for instance, that entrepreneurship is not, in fact, and unvarnished good if you put the question to them.

    We do think our work matters. What we need to be able to do is to say why it matters. I know that if someone tried to tell me that I'm not smart enough to understand something, I would immediately suspect that either the person doesn't know what s/he's talking about or else is trying to pull the wool over my eyes, because I think I'm a pretty smart person. So we need to be very cautious about saying anything that suggests that to explaining why what we're doing is important requires dumbing it down when talking to people who have good reason to think they're smart. How can you blame people for suspecting there's nothing there if we act in ways that suggest that the nature of what is there is ineffable, or impossible for people who pride themselves on their ability to communicate to communicate clearly? I think it's not impossible for us to explain the value of what we do, since the number of people who really think the only values are economic values is actually pretty small. We just need to do the work that Boyda describes as needing doing in the first paragraph, so that we're not wrong-footed when we get asked.

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  2. Thank you, Jennifer!

    And @ddvd, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree with you that we need to learn how to articulate why the humanities matter–and we should certainly do so in ways that nonacademics will understand. I don't tout “ineffability,” but sensitive, nuanced addressing of the issues, and a way of defending the humanities that doesn't fall into either camp of a) the humanities are valuable because they fit the metrics of instrumentality that (I think) are so often demanded of us, or b) the humanities are valuable because they stand completely OUTSIDE of those metrics, forming a kind of romanticized, isolated island. The value of the humanities lies somewhere in between those two things, and while we should always aim for clarity in prose, we should not do so at the expense of complexity.

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