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Showing posts from April, 2014

How We Train University Students to Write Poorly (with Addendum)

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When I was in the hunt for a tenure-track university position, I attended a mentoring session on how to publish led by Linda Hutcheon, who was, at that moment, the newly hottest thing in Canadian postmodernist theory and criticism.  “Writing a thesis,” she told us, “was an exercise in covering your ass.”  There was nothing shocking or striking in her declaration; it was a well-worn bromide, a truism.  No-one in the audience blinked.


I began my teaching career giving one-on-one instruction in administrative writing (among other things) to civil servants working for the Government of Canada.  Those were the days when “writing style” meant being able to express yourself in clear, crisp and concise prose (without overdoing the alliteration).  Around the same time, a journalist, with the Ottawa daily, The Citizen, wrote a regular column on effective writing.  In one of his articles, he constructed the following fable to explain why and how government administrators deliberately wrote poorly…

The Postmodern Hoax

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Beyond the HoaxReading Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax brought back the question that haunted my university teaching career:  How much of postmodernism was intellectual fraud?
"Transgressing Boundaries" and Social TextSokal is the physicist who submitted a deliberately bogus article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries:Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the cultural studies journal Social Text.

Post-structuralism as MummeryAfter it was accepted and published (Spring/Summer 1996), Sokal announced that the article was nonsense, a parody of postmodernist half-baked arguments and verbiage. Sokal and the Belgian physicist/philosopher, Jean Bricmont, subsequently published Impostures Intellectuelles (1997) in which they systematically unmasked the mummery of leading lights of post-structuralist theory such as Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva.

Jacques Lacan as CharlatanThe most compelling essay I have read on Lacan is Dylan Evans’ “From Lacan to Darwin.”  Eva…