An academic’s take on academic writing.
Harvard English professor Garber (Dog Love, 1996, etc.) has written a lot, but here she turns her attention to a subject she deals with on a daily basis: the state of scholarship in the humanities. Unfortunately, that proximity does not make for exciting reading. In her other works, the author is intriguing, even titillating, but only diehard graduate students will be interested in these three essays (Garber calls them chapters, but they basically stand alone). The first explores the shifting border between the “amateur” and the “professional,” hopping from the Olympics to the struggle between public intellectuals and institutionally affiliated academics. The second looks at competition among the various disciplines within the academy. The last delves into the recriminations that have recently proliferated over the use of academic jargon. While Garber’s writing is typically punchy and entertaining, it cannot make up for the fact that in the first two essays she has very little of interest to say. Paragraphs here and there are clever, and the intelligence behind the arguments is unmistakable, but true insights are few and far between. Moreover, articles from the New York Times are referenced so frequently that one gets the disheartening feeling that Garber was writing over her morning coffee. The third piece (“Terms of Art”) is significantly better. Garber points out that academic neologisms and other difficult terms provoke arguments that keep language fresh, while supposedly “clear” language can be deadening. Her riffs on the novelist George Orwell and the theorist Theodor Adorno not only support her argument but also inspire on their own. One still wonders, however, whether “Terms of Art” has enough heft to support the volume. It would have made an excellent article.
Probably of interest only in the faculty lounge.