Wednesday, October 12, 2011

English, yea I can write it.

I was a good writer. Yesterday. Today I suck. And using "Yesterday" is a sentence fragment. Did you know that? Even if it completely communicates my thoughts, it is not allowed in scholarly writing. Shit. Oops. Of course you know that it is a sentence fragment. The rules I have been using for writing (or not using) were by choice. I thought I knew the rules so then I would know how to break them. But it I don't and the way I write is not good enough for scholarly writing.

I had this vision of revolutionizing the world of scholarly writing. I was going to write the way I spoke. Present complex ideas and theories in an uncomplicated language of the people. The proletariat. But that is not the case with scholarly writing. You will be laughed at by your peers and you will not be taken seriously in well-read circles. Your writing will not be appropriately obtuse (ding ding SAT word!). And who in their right mind from the non-academic community would want to read a paper comparing and contrasting Elizabeth Alexander's poem Absence to August Wilson's play Gem of the Ocean? You would need to be familiar with the poem and the play to get the paper. So, I am finally starting to get why academic, nay, scholarly work is written in such complicated language because non-academic people are not going to read it!

I had a great professor in high school (I refer to her as "Professor" because she had a PhD in Medieval literature from Princeton. She deserved that title even though I called her K.P., in class!), she taught Dante's Divine ComedyHandmaids Tale and The Bible. All in one semester. She made me love Dante. Her incredibly descriptive accounts of what happened in hell made it accesible to all of us with only a sophomore high school English under our belts; even those of us who had attended rigorous elementary and middle schools.(now that was a bad sentence!). I wanted to write the way she spoke. To inspire people to read the Divine Comedy. To be taken in by the stories of lying, sexual misconduct and patricide as well as killing any neighbors who came by your house! Wow! That book would be a best seller. And then I read her book on The Divine Comedy and I fell asleep while reading it. It was her dissertation from Princeton. Dry. I wanted to throw pitchers of water on it. Or better yet just put it in the tub and let water consume it.

How could it be that this vibrant and amazing teacher could write something so boring? It didn't make sense to me. Not until years later when I had to write my college thesis. One member of my committee had also been my English Professor. She taught Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. I loved the way she taught and as a matter of fact she got her PhD from Princeton the same year K.P. did. They were friends. And my college professor was so incredibly vibrant in class. She described Chaucer with such passion that you wanted to perfect middle English! Then I made a huge mistake. I read her dissertation. Again, nod'sville. How was this possible?! She made me want to run away with Virgil! And to adore Dante. To this day The Divine Comedy is one of my favorite collections of books and The Inferno in the top three of my favorite books. However, this professor who had encouraged me to write the way I spoke told me that I missed summa cum laude on my thesis because I had "dropped the ball" on the use of language. It wasn't scholarly enough. The entire faculty was not going to stand up and then genuflect when I walked in at graduation (which is what they did with summa cum laude graduates. Okay not the genuflect part). And I wasn't going to get a nifty medal. Damn, Damn Damn! How did I know there was a difference in how I spoke and how I wrote?

Then I got it. There is a huge difference between scholarly writing, how one teaches, and how one writes for non-academic audiences. Scholarly writers don't really give a damn if the proletariat can understand their writing. It wasn't written for them. It was written for the academic community. And they expect, nay, demand that the writing be as complicated as possible so it shows how learned you are. I get it. And I also get that that last part wasn't fair to academics.

And now I have to learn how to write like an academic if I want my work to be taken seriously in certain circles. Ahh, am I up to learning those rules now, at my age. Well, it seems I have no choice if I am to be a scholar. There is a silver lining, however, learning to write academically does not mean I cannot also write for the masses. I can do both. Learning the rules of scholarly writing means I can break them in my blogs and other commercial venues. I can use it in my speech when I teach (oh, rhymn that is a no no!). And I can make things vibrant and inspiring for my students. Don't worry I will not bore you with my scholarly writings here. I will save that for another audience.

Be well,

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