Up to last week, I believed that the r’aison d’être behind studying English is good communication. Boy, was I proved wrong: for a fourth year seminar, I was assigned an article, Animal Nomenclature: Facing Other Animals, by Richard Nash, English academic extraordinaire.
“In Emmanuel Levians’ s “The Name of a Dog,” an essay that has justly received much critical attention in animal studies, “Bobby” is heroic because his “speech” conferred a recognition of humanity on those whom the deprivation of speech had rendered vulnerable; but the very account that valorizes that behavior will grant it heroic status only while policing the species border that figures non-human speech as silence.”
Me: “What? Maybe it will make more sense the second time around.”
“Nope. It makes no sense. Perhaps the next sentence will be better.”
“This is the sentimental logic of the pet- those special “domesticated” animals who function to confer upon us a greater humanity by actions and articulations that simultaneously transcend their “animal” status and accept the logic of domination and domestication in which such transcendence is recontained.”
Me: “Oh no. How long is this paper?” These were not really sentences at all, but abominations moonlighting as coherent thought. The article took me forever to read, mostly because I made the foolish mistake of trying to understand it. Between the first and last sentences, my initial head-scratching turned into cold indignation, and finally into calm fury. A few mental points on writing and reading:
a) Next time I see Nash on a reading list, I’ll buy a bottle of tequila to help me with the translation.
b) Simple wording and grammar might be lowly, but they make plain old-fashioned sense. Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in trying to make yourself sound intelligent by making up words ( “recontained?”) and using convoluted sentence structure. The words are still made up and the sentences still make no sense, Ph.D. or not.
c) Trying to squish three papers into one is not okay.
d) If you can say it in a paragraph, you should stick to a paragraph.
There are some things in a paper that I simply cannot accept. I am not a die-hard student who believes that you should only focus on big “important” subjects, that topics like animal nomenclature are too superfluous to research – but if you’re going to write a paper, make it intelligible. I thought that was the point. The article was so frustrating that it got me thinking about the good, the bad, (and the ugly) readings that I’ve been assigned over my undergraduate career, and what made them good, bad, or ugly:
1) Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder by Gavin L. Langmuir:
Murder mystery and academic paper? Be still, my beating heart. Here’s the story of the twelfth-century murder of William, a boy from Norwich last reported talking to an outcast, found dead in the woods near his home. A brief travel through time allows the reader to explore the murder, plus be privy to a persuasive argument based on the emergence and development of anti-semitism and anti-Judaism in medieval England, while casting light upon teleological methodologies prevalent in other historical works.
2) Candide, Voltaire.
It’s three hundred years old, includes a ruthless critique of human civilizations, is full of the absurd and pitiful, yet still made me laugh. The book is accessible (no long-winded words) and human (i.e written by a human for other humans). I read it three times.
3) Safe in the Hands of Mother Suburbia: Home and Community, 1950-1965, by Doug Owram:
I could envision the world changing while reading this article: the emergence of the suburb, the privatization of public space, the ascent of the automobile as purported conduit to freedom and green space. Plus it wasn’t written by an automaton whose internal spell-check is on the fritz.
Isabel Robinet: Growth of a Religion.
A cosmological history of Taoism from the third century B.C.E to around 1500. If I wrote a paper in which I only included hand-picked evidence that supported nothing but my own arguments (and openly admitted to doing so), thus painting a nebulous impression of any kind of historical reality, I would not ask people to take me seriously. I would not ask to get published. And I certainly would not go on for 300 pages.
The big lesson I learned from this one: if you’re asked to read it, find a few reviews online, read them instead, and go, be content doing anything (literally anything), knowing that you’re not spending your time reading this.
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth.
I don’t know where to start with this one. 976 pages of dime novel hell, and not only did I have to read it all, but also re-read it in order to write a stinking paper on how inaccurate it was. Of all the things one could have students read, it had to be this book? Twice? That’s 1952 pages! That’s the equivalent to a few classic novels, even a saga. I could have finished Don Quixote! Instead I was stuck with lurid love scenes, extreme violence, and a sensational portrayal of life in medieval England. The only redeeming quality about this book is that it took absolutely no brain power to get through it, and so went as quickly as 976 pages of smut will allow.
And in the interests of proper form, below are listed my references, à la history paper style:
Follett, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. New York, 1989.
Langmuir, Gavin I. Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder. Speculum, Vol. 59, (October, 1984), pp. 820-46.
Nash, Richard. Animal Nomenclature: Facing Other Animals. Humans and other animals in eighteenth century British culture: representation, hybridity, and ethics. Frank Pameri, ed. (2006), pp. 101-118.
Owram, Doug. Safe in the Hands of Mother Suburbia: Home and Community, 1950-1965. Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation. Toronto, 1996, pp. 54-83.
Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Phyllis Brooks, tr. Stanford, 1997.
Voltaire. Candide. Burton Raffel, tr. New Haven, 2005.