Wednesday, December 1, 2010

35. Mumbo-jumbo abounds.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which mumbo-jumbo has permeated academe. The problem is especially egregious in the humanities, but it exists everywhere in the modern university. Mumbo-jumbo takes many forms, but it is closely associated with the desire of far too many academics to be perceived as sophisticated at the cost of clarity or meaningfulness in the most fundamental sense. Four years before dissolving its Department of Physical Education completely in 1997 (by which time "P.E." lacked any connotation of sophistication), the University of California, Berkeley, renamed it the Department of Human Biodynamics. But terminology-inflation is only the tip of the mumbo-jumbo iceberg.

In the sciences, sophisticated terms are necessary to describe extremely specific phenomena. Faced with an endless need to publish, academics in the humanities have also developed a complicated vocabulary, but whether or not it is genuinely sophisticated is a matter of debate. A complex arrangement of complex words can serve as a smokescreen for nonsense. In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal famously submitted “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—an article intentionally full of nonsense—to Social Text, a journal published by Duke University Press that currently describes itself as devoted to “a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena from a radical perspective, applying critical theory and methods to the world at large.” After the journal accepted and published Sokal’s article (without subjecting it to peer review), Sokal revealed the hoax in an article published in Lingua Franca. The experiment had little effect, however. Articles with titles like Sokal’s appear constantly. If you find that you can’t initially write such a paper yourself, the Postmodernism Generator will write one for you. You can still build a career in academe on mumbo-jumbo, but before you give it a try, ask yourself if you can do so with a good conscience.



39 comments:

  1. Excellent reason! Having been to grad school and now out of it has meant that I've had to learn how to write again for the non-academic audience. Hard work!!! But I could finally rid myself of having to use the arcane vocab. However, having had to learn how to use in (fake it in my books)..was that I do now know that when it's used there's really very little fundamental being said. Sad really...but true.

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    1. In some fields the goal is to learn to write papers like Sokal's. And this is supposed to help people parlay their "writing skills" into real-world jobs?

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    2. Yes. why pay an unemployed Ph.D. In English for their "writing skills" when you can get the same results with the Postmodern Generator for free?

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    3. At least you can't say this aspect of the Acadamy has been without influence. The anti-reason, anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-truth, postmodern sensibility of English departments is now sweeping American culture and politics.

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    4. I have never seen any evidence that "real-world" employers give a rat's ass about writing skills of any kind, or math skills either for that matter.
      Said employers love to complain about the lack of these skills among job seekers, but it's really a reflection of the people who are getting hired in the first place.
      If employers cared about English communication skills, you wouldn't see the H-1B hype campaigns we've had for over 20 years now, and we'd still have literate journalists.

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  2. Almost as good as Sokal's hoax itself was how the editor of Social Text (Stanley Fish at the time) stoically defended the decision to publish it.

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  3. Yes, indeed, this is one of the most annoying things about academia. Worse yet, some of the phrases start to make their way into your conversation, making people treat you like an alien.

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  4. This was the main reason I didn't do a PhD... I wasn't aware of most of the other factors on this blog - lack of jobs, funding, etc. - but this was enough to put me off.

    At MA level things were getting out of hand, it was like, why would you describe things you want people to know about in such unclear language? The other factors for me were that nobody would read your work and you had to fit all your work into this weird academic structure under someone elses' orders.

    Really, the time is often better spent doing your own reading and research, writing your own stuff the way you want to, in a clear way, and if enough people are interested in the subject, publishing it for a wider audience, which I've seen many people do. They become actual leaders in their field and have academics quoting them as a major source.

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    1. Thank you! This is the best post! I couldn't agree more.

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  5. Because no other field of work has a large group of tools who aren't very good at what they do but learn how to play their office politics just right. Try our entire economy?

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  6. I caught myself using the word "historiography" in casual conversation at a party one night. That was enough. Then to make it worse, I found myself chatting with my housemate about the inaccuracies of "teleological historiography." I really need to graduate soon.

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  7. Just discovered this blog. Great entertainment. I like mumbo jumbo in a perverse way. It reinforces my belief that there is nothing new under the sun that can't be described in a worse way than before. Some of my favorites: transformative, transgressive, contextual, authenticity, relational and hegemony.

    Infomercial shillers, tv preachers, liberal arts professors, I kind of love them all. The men and women behind the curtain I like paying attention to them

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  8. Me like de Mumbo Jambie. Just reading through these, I don't think you make a very good argument for not going to graduate school.

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  9. "Just reading through these, I don't think you make a very good argument for not going to graduate school."

    For those of us who have gone through grad school, I can't help but nod my head at each one. These are ALL good things to consider before starting grad school! They might not all apply to your situation (I got married while in grad school, for example, and had my first two children while in grad school as well) they are all things you should weigh carefully before embarking.

    As for myself, and this topic, I'm a mathematician, so I don't *quite* have the same problem with "mumbo-jumbo" as other humanities do. (Math is one of those things that's weirdly sort-of humanities, and sort-of science.) It's hard to slip phrases like "Gorenstein grade 3 ideals" absentmindedly into conversations. Even so, I find myself using "Let", "consider", "given", "thus/hence", and other mathematical idioms quite a bit.

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  10. Speaking of mumbo-jumbo, I love this site:
    http://www.bullshitjob.com/title/

    Note- No spam intended. It fits in with this topic.

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  11. Amen to this one! This was my MAJOR frustration with my doctoral program in mass communication. I told my profs that all of their mumbo-jumbo was simply "complicated names for simple functions." It was funny AND sad to see how they were all so impressed with each other because they used this "special language." Our textbooks were filled with this pointless jargon... the most tedious, pointless drivel I've ever read.

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    1. Communication is not the point in doctoral programs such as mass communication, although communicability might be.


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  12. Along the lines of Sokal's hoax, someone had the good humour to set up snarxiv.org. Theoretical physicists in particular should check it out, and give snarxiv vs arxiv a try too...

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  13. "Really, the time is often better spent doing your own reading and research, writing your own stuff the way you want to, in a clear way, and if enough people are interested in the subject, publishing it for a wider audience, which I've seen many people do. They become actual leaders in their field and have academics quoting them as a major source."

    Amen. I just realized I can pay $13,000/year for the next 3-5 for advising from a mentor who aims to destroy my writing, or forgo the degree and research on my own for free! hello...

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  14. I know I'm way late, but I just want to say I agree with the writers assessment that there is a fair amount of bullshitting in graduate school BUT it's not fair to unilaterally dismiss jargon as mumbo jumbo. Academics don't use jargon just to sound smart to the uninitiated- they're short cuts to communicate/reference complex ideas, specific notions, etc. Sometimes 'mumbo jumbo' has real substance, and just because it's not accessible to everyone doesn't make it rubbish. But yeah, lots of these assholes are pretentious as fuck.

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    1. > BUT it's not fair to unilaterally dismiss jargon as mumbo jumbo.

      True.

      But given the reference to the Sokal Hoax I suspect that the author of this blog was not referring to jargon in, say, advanced math or economic theory. Nope, the we're talking about the kind of stuff that Martha Nussbaum described in her article "The Professor of Parody", about Judith Butler:

      >...obscurity creates an aura of importance. It also serves another related purpose. It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding. When the bullied readers of Butler's books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler's notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don't go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument.

      >Last year Butler won the first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature, for the following sentence:

      >"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

      >Now, Butler might have written: "Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time." Instead, she prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims."

      Nussbaum, BTW, is someone who can explain sophisticated philosophical concepts (e.g., Kant's work) in a way that the layperson can understand. She's intelligent, but not pretentious.

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  15. To anonymous above:

    While it rests on solid ontological schwerpunkten that many didactic epistemological tropes stem from an "Is-is-not" rather than the paradigmatic "Is-is-not-is," the inherent risks are an ontological uncertainty; a meta-agency's un-agency. So that's why girls and minorities don't get a fair shake, ya see?

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    1. OMG this is hilarious! You have just summarized a large number of articles I had to read.

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  16. You are so right! Unfortunately. I feel like in mumbo-jumbo-land all the time, ever since I started my graduate studies... so much nonsense! But what troubles me the most is that I always feel alone with this opinion in my department. It's such a relief to read you!

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  17. Social text is not a peer-reviewed journal so the sentence "The journal subjected Sokal’s article to peer review before accepting and publishing it"

    is just mumbo jumbo

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  18. wow. thank you for revealing the full potency of your ignorance. just because YOU don't understand someone like Derrida or Heidegger does not mean they're to be compared to a postmodernist jargon generator machine. no surprise an anti-grad school blog was written by such a person.

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    1. Cough, Derrida, cough, Lacan, cough, Žižek. Surely you jest, sir. There are two possible interpretations for much postmodernist writing:

      a) they have something to say, but are very bad at saying it.

      b) they have nothing to say and are covering this fact up with fancy words.

      Either of these options is an indictment of the state of academe.

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    2. Thing is, no one can really tell if something was written by Derida or the postmodernist generator.

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  19. Anonymous (07/03/2011) has hit some kind of nail on the head. In no sense does academia have a monopoly on the misuse and propagation of BS - this problem runs rampant through 'Merkan biznuss koolcher, 'Merkan medea koolcher and 'Merkan pill-idical koolcher.

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  20. The more real content a field has the less Mumbo jumbo. Compare physics and math with English (a field that used to have content, namely literature). Why should a hard-working person struggling to get by be taxed to help fund the latter? It's not about the life of the mind. It's not about anything.

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    1. The problem is not the name of the major, it is what the degree program promulgates. Unfortunately the backlash against the post-modern mumbo-jumbo is taking a lot of perfectly solid literature and history with it. What are we replacing it with? A lot of 'flavor of the month' 'business' and 'science' (read: political propaganda) which is a lot less substantive, but obviously more popular and for which it is superficially much easier to justify taxing people.

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  21. Fields and subfieds differ greatly in how severely they have been blighted by postmodernist Mumbo jumbo (aka bullshit). As an an under exploring courses and departments, you may be learn to avid the worst.

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  22. Back in 2002 I was dragooned--against my wishes and against my better judgment-by a very sweet but throughly addlepated PC-feminist professor into taking her supposedly cutting-edge seminar, "The Making of the Modern Body." We read one horrible, turgid academic tome after another, each more execrable than the last, and mumbo-jumbo did indeed abound. Virtually nobody in the room understood much of anything we (were supposed to have) read, and the participants' overall ignorance of more basic subject matter only compounded the mishegoss. One woman, for example, who cast herself as an expert in Victorian Britain, had considerable difficulty putting a dreary text about Victorian prostitutes and morality into context, because she didn't even know who Prince Albert was (that's kings and queens stuff, too banal, you must understand). Grad school...number ten, the worst, as they used to say in Vietnam.

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    1. Isn't that the fellow who's in a can?

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    2. I think that's King Oskar, the sardines.

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  23. You are mixing two very different things. One is “the desire of far too many academics to be perceived as sophisticated at the cost of clarity or meaningfulness.” This certainly exists and is is utterly irritating. I think is also morally questionable. As a scholar myself, I have to struggle with that on a daily basis. Man, I hate it.
    But then:
    “In the sciences, sophisticated terms are necessary to describe extremely specific phenomena. Faced with an endless need to publish, academics in the humanities have also developed a complicated vocabulary, but whether or not it is genuinely sophisticated is a matter of debate.”
    This claim assumes “sciences” deal with specific and complex matters and “the humanities” are about simple things that can be discussed without a specific vocabulary or extremely complex arguments. And that is plain ignorance. Actually, is nonsense.
    The vast majority of scholars who write in needlessly complicated ways are written by scholars (or, even more frequently, graduate students) who after learning some basic, formulistic structures, repeat them (usually in a very basic, formulistic way). They seem talking puppets. That’s very poor scholarship, to say the least.
    But most of the time, the “jargon” they use was originally developed as a tool to understand and communicate specific, complex phenomena.
    Analyzing a phenomenon like the impact of Nazi propaganda in German society or how a particular image is produced in a poem may be extremely complex. The author, and some commentators here, seem to believe that the brain is a complex thing (which is certainly true) but the human mind is quite simple, and that while analyzing one involves dealing with "extremely specific phenomena," understanding the other does not, Are you serious?

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    1. I'm no psychologist, but things that make me defensive are things I feel insecure about. If someone suggests I'm overweight I get defensive, though it's perfectly obvious to me and everyone else that I'm overweight.

      In the humanities, we get defensive when the value or complexity of what we do is questioned, but our reaction reveals our insecurity. Nothing sounds more unconvincing than a bunch of humanists explaining the importance of the humanities.

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  24. What is the most complex term you encountered in your field of study?

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  25. On top of this mumbo-jumbo, you may be subjected to completing absolutely idiotic tasks based on a professor's whims, with no chance to suggest that the way he wants things done is illogical. For one class, my professor insisted we develop an annotated bibliography with 9-12 sources for our final paper. It was required to be at least 6 single space pages long. My annotated bib came to 7.5 single space pages, or 15 pages double spaced. The mandated length of the final paper? 8-10 pages double spaced.
    While the professor has since changed the assignment to limit the freedom of what students can explore, he has inexplicably insisted on keeping a bibliography that is much longer than the essay for which it is written.

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