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February 29, 2008

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Why you have to go and make things so complicated?

Posted by Peter Chen, columnist

Russell Jacoby, a history professor at UCLA, has written this column for the Chronicle of Higher Education essentially outlining a critique of the academic tendency to complicate everything. I mean, how often have you heard professors say they are going to “complicate” a situation, point out “complexities” in a model, etc.? Being an English major, I hear this kind of stuff (and regurgitate it into my papers) all the time. But isn’t the whole point of academia to take a incomprehensible system and turn it into something comprehensible? Certainly I prefer over-complication to over-simplification, but the results of either extreme are rather undesirable.

Jacoby points out a couple reasons why the tendency for over-complication has become the norm:

1.) New scholars need work. If you’re studying, say, Shakespeare, you find that a lot of scholars have already done plenty of work on that guy. In fact, he may be coming quite close to being understood! Heaven forbid! Suddenly, you could be out a job. So, why not poke holes in previous simplifying theories and “problematize” the whole thing. As long as you can turn it back into a problem, you’re still not hopelessly irrelevant.

2.) How do you prove it wrong? If your theory is nothing but further “problems” based on your observations, people will rarely call you out on it. Sure, everything is very complicated and requires more than a “binary” understanding, but if that’s the case, isn’t it trivial to note it? I mean, if you say something that no one can (or even wants to) question, why should you be writing it at all? Complication insulates you from criticism.

I don’t necessarily agree with Jacoby’s extrapolation that complication in academia leads to academic dishonesty (because of “other options to academic dishonesty”), but I do find his dissection of the “complications” in academia important in the grand scheme of things. In all their attempts to complicate matters, professors have veered dangerously close to self-parody (see: The Post-Modernist Essay Generator) and by rejecting any attempt to simplify rather than complicate, their knee-jerk predilections obscure the bigger picture rather than illuminate it.

Oh, and that song is great.



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Posted by Anna Piontek, IDS columnist at 12:17 pm on February 29, 2008

Oh man…pomo.

I loved reading Prof Jacoby’s spoof of classroom speech. Most lit theory courses are peppered with the jargon of “problematizing” for its own sake…And I’ll admit I’ve fallen into the trap of decrying the simpletons and their ‘binary’ logic on occasion. It’s like we all just want to work on logic puzzles, but we go to class and discuss books instead.

I mean, problematizing is its own academic institution with no signs of slowing down. I think Guyatri Spivak was the one who said that the role of a thinker is to ask questions, not provide answers. And every time I read Spivak I still can’t even figure out what the questions are. Anyway.

I would say that the anti-binary hysteria in academic thinking (especially lit crit) would be better applied to public discourse (uh-oh, here comes the foucault) and politics, two realms in which there is a tendency to simplify, make compact, and reduce ideas. On the other hand, ‘problematizing’ Shakespeare, as you pointed out, more often than not OBSCURES Shakespeare. Those sorts of post-structuralist studies of, say, Flaubert’s use of language, can be really forced and really useless! I’m not an old fogey or anything, but i think good old fashioned close reading normally renders more valuable stuff than the application of high falutin “Lacan Obscurity” to literature. I’m not discounting all the developments of pomo thought, just that…well, they have their limits, but have unfortunately taken over in classrooms as Jacoby points out.

Posted by Peter Chen, columnist at 12:58 pm on February 29, 2008

“Here comes the Foucault” sounds like a great wrestling super-move.

“Oh! It’s the double-back-flip Leg Crusher! Followed by THE REVERSE FOUCAULT! Man, he laid the ideology on that guy.”

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