Re: to read or not to read... (fwd)

Cynthia Haynes (
Mon, 24 Mar 1997 00:33:55 -0600

On Sun, 23 Mar 1997, Stephen Newmann wrote:

> Cynthia, I have not seen the Branagh version of Hamlet. Nonetheless, I
> think your comparison of this film to the current concerns with conference
> presentations is awkward. Two elements you have left out of the
> comparison are beauty and motivation. Shakespeare's language is beautiful
> enough that even the uninitiated are moved to listen to it and to "work"
> at understanding it.

Stephen...I didn't want to compare Shakespeare to the present debate. I
said it was analogous (similar 'in part')...though I perhaps should rather
have used it as an allegory, or symbolic narrative. In any event, beauty
is a really BIG word for such a small word. That is, you immediately
bring in the 'quality' issue, something about which the likes of Plato,
Kant, Hegel, and countless others have argued for centuries. And you bring
in the 'uninitiated' and pathos (being moved). I once thought theoretical
discourse something to fear! Then I read Elizabeth Bruss' book _Beautiful
Theories_, and soon I was reading theory AS literature...theory on my
nightstand! Now, before some of you go thinking to yourself, "That Haynes
woman should get a life!" please remember that adage someone mentioned
earlier today, one person's ugly abstraction is another person's beautiful
theory :)

>You imply that it is ok for conference presenters to
> put the effort of making their ideas understood onto the audience. I
> don't think that is a reasonable expectation.

What I hear in your statements here are some unexamined assumptions.
First you assume that writers can be 100% understood by an audience, and
that this is the only 'reasonable' (and I hear ethical, sorry) expectation
a writer should place on her audience. Let me counter this with an example
in which this concern very nearly threatened to prevent a fine article
from being published. It is not completely analogous to a conference
presentation, though the quibbles with jargon and audience expectations
were very similar. I am co-editing a collection of essays, and when our
publisher recently sent us copies of the two reviewer reports, we were
faced with a rather hostile reviewer report about one of the essays. The
reader used words like "purposely obtuse" and "the concentration of
neologisms that almost seems meant to confuse." The reader also said that
the writer's imitation of <famous author> struck them as quite sad...that
it provided the audience with little understanding and it seemed "yet
another deliberately confusing element." In this instance, I feel that 2
things are going on. First, the reviewer makes a dangerous suggestion
that the author is "deliberately" and "purposely" writing to confuse the
readers of the essay. How in the heck can this reviewer KNOW such a
thing? What is at stake in their portrayal of the writer in this way?
Second, there is a BIG difference between not understanding someone and
disagreeing with someone. But, so often I hear arguments mounted in which
the claim is made that "I don't understand you," or "You're not
communicating with me on my terms"...when the truth be told, the person
simply disagrees with what is being communicated. I think that is arguing
in bad faith...claiming deliberate obfuscation and then disagreeing
privately while falling back on a simple "I don't understand"...or worse,
something in so many words that implies "you won't communicate with me."

Stephen...I believe that a reasonable expectation of audience includes
fairness to the writer. That door swings both ways.

>I can read the professional
> journals for free--they circulate in our department regularly and we carry
> them in our library. But I have to pay big bucks to attend a conference.
> I expect to "enjoy" the presentations I attend. I can read a journal
> article at "leisure" taking time to look up difficult language and to
> think about it as I "work" at understanding the ideas offered. I have no
> opportunity to do that when a "paper is read" at a conference. The forum
> of the conference is nothing like the forum of the journal. One type of
> presentation is appropriate to the journal but is inappropriate to the
> conference presentation.

What do you mean by 'enjoy'? Do you mean you expect clear, im/mediate
(unmediated) understanding of every presentation? Given the diversity of
forums at the conference (forums, roundtables, panels, workshops,
caucuses), I would think that there would be room for the reading of
papers, and that your dollars are well spent because the conference
organizers insure that this diversity is maintained, in addition to the
diversity in topics and perspectives. I have not argued here or in my
earlier posts that ALL conference presentations should be limited to the
reading of a formal paper. On the contrary, I am a rhetorician, I always
want MORE! I'm not an either/or type of person.

>I don't think it matters how versed the audience
> is in the technical language of the field. I have watched foreign films
> in languages I do not know and have reveled in the beauty of the sounds of
> the words and phrases. I have never seen the beauty of words like
> hegemony, and problematize. Words like "Four score and seven years
> ago..." conjur all sorts of imagery that can be useful in augmenting an
> idea, saving the speaker lots of need to "create" a scene. I doubt
> "hegemony", or many other technical terms, do that.

Twice you use the word "technical" to delineate words that you say are not
beautiful. What if I say that words like 'hegemony' conjur all sorts of
imagery that can be useful in augmenting an idea FOR ME? The word means
dominance, especially of one group (or nation) over another. It does not
need to be beautiful, it isn't a beautiful thing, dominance. Nor is it
'technical'...whatever you mean by that. I don't know, Stephen...perhaps
it's like when you see a movie like SLING BLADE and come away saying you
'enjoyed' it. It was disturbing, moving, violent, and the acting is
superb. But, beautiful? the heart of Karl and the little
boy. Entertaining? I don't exactly have a word for what that film did for
me, but it wasn't entertainment. So, when I hear conference presentations
that are performed/read and that are about problematic things in our
field, our classrooms, our lives...I want to hear them in language
appropriate to the 'marks of contortion' (as I quoted in my reply to Deb)
that we find in academia.

>I think the
> conference is the place to "test" ideas and the best way to do that is to
> put those ideas forth in as straight forward a manner as one can--in
> language that is clear and that does not raise the side issues of speakers
> motives. I'm not suggesting that ideas be "dumbed down" to the level of
> the least prepared of the members of an audience. I think conference
> presenters might profit from a semester of public speaking which includes
> a little audience analysis.
> --stephen

The side issues of speakers' you mean speakers' agendas? Are
you saying that testing ideas should exclude new ways of articulating
those ideas? Was it Bobbie who mentioned that she participated on a panel
that was attacked for some of the things we've been talking about, and
that her chair had told the audience that he didn't think they should have
"intellectually gutted" the papers for their use "dumbing
down"...same thing I guess. I don't think this is what anyone wants...but
I also don't think what has been described could be termed "smartening
up"...much less to purposefully rob anyone of pleasure, conference
dollars, or of beautiful theories.

I know this issue comes up cyclically on lots of lists, and each time it
seems to polarize quickly. I would like to see us 'slow' it down with
some examinations of our assumptions. I would like to see more debate
about 'delivery' as affected by technology, 'delivery' of services in
academia, 'delivery' of research as experimental scholarship and
publications create new forums. But I would hate to see us exclude the
very thing we teach...writing. To add to what Stephen recommends...I
think conference attendees might profit from a semester of critical theory
which includes problematizing the hegemony of didactic email discussions.

If I remember correctly, another debate that often surfaces on this list
is whether the list should screen out chatty, humorous, and seemingly
insignificant posts...and each time I have weighed in on the side of
both/and, rather than either/or. So, Stephen, Deb, Carl, Bobbie, Ed, and
all the others who have ventured their opinions and allegories, tales and
lived experiences on this subject re:CCCC sessions...thank goodness for
this list! Me...I'm going outside to catch a glimpse of the comet. I saw
it while driving across the barren stretches of Arizona and New MExico
after CCCC...and thought it was just some star behind a cloud. Who would
have thought it was a problematized (and no doubt hegemonic) comet!

Signing off until there are no more oceans to throw messages in bottles
into...(my notion of audience)


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