CLUSTER CLUSTER ON THE WALL, WHO’S THE CLEAREST OF THEM ALL?
Photo: Emre Can/Pexels
In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:
Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying
Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly
But in scholarly writing In the 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:
Reader: I cannot understand what your are saying
Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.
— Dancing With Professors, The Trouble With Academic Prose, Patricia Nelson Limerick.
It is not immediately clear how I am going to be doing the job of “chronicling” the Cluster over the four weeks I am supposed to be spending in this town famous, among other things, for its Institute of African Studies. However, I am pleased that the kind Spokesperson of the Cluster, who had also previously invited me to give a keynote at the end of the last conference, thought of me to do this. As I try to figure out how to begin, I get an invitation from a scholar of Islamic Studies to speak to his class. He has a contemplative gaze and picks his words so carefully that often I am not sure if he has finished a sentence. He knows a lot about one of the subjects I have been researching for years, so I listen closely.
He drives me from the office to his class, a short distance away. On the way we chat about politics and political figures in Nigeria many of whom he met personally while working there. We discuss sharia and northern Nigeria and he asks what I think the state of things are now. When we get to the class, the room is aired and after the introductions, I try to connect with the students by creating points of convergence between my work and their various fields of study. Apart from the page, the classroom is where I feel most comfortable, but there is something not quite right here. Everyone else is attentive apart from two people, one of whom is supposed to be a coordinator of the group. She sits in front across the room from me, facing the students. She is lifting her phone, giggling and looking at one student in particular. The student, sitting directly in my line of vision is struggling to feign attention while casting glances at her. Then he picks up his phone and soon, both of them are typing away in full glare of everyone, giggling at each other. I try to ignore this, but it goes on for a couple of minutes. I do not know what to think of it. I wonder what urgent jokes have to be texted across the room while I am speaking. Finally, unable to concentrate, I pause and say to the student, “that thing you are doing, is distracting me, stop it.” He mutters a faint apology, drops his phone. She drops hers too.
For many hours after, I wonder if it was an inelegant way of saying these individuals were being disruptive. I could have said something that masked my irritation, with less clarity, or in codes intended to preserve (or diminish) the dignity of the student. As a writer and storyteller for whom clarity is not just important but necessary, I am torn between what appeared to be the effectiveness of my response and its inelegance.
As I prepare to chronicle events, I mull over the words that recur in everything I read about the Cluster and the work of its scholars— multiplicity, relationality, reflexivity, transdisciplinarity, modalities, decolonial. They seem clear enough after a few readings, but I find myself needing to go back to the definitions when the words come up, just to make sure it means what I think it means. I find myself dreaming of the Cluster as a church and each word being the subject of a hymn. To amuse myself, I begin to make up Cluster hymns.
Amazing Decoloniality, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind, but now, I see.
Holy, holy, holy! Great Modalities
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee
Multiplicity, Relationality, Reflexivity! Merciful and mighty
Cluster god in three persons, blessed Trinity!
The process by which words become slogans, defined and/or redefined and chanted enough times for it to become shorthand for a set of ideas, has always intrigued me, whether it occurs in religion, which I am a keen student of, in political and ideological movements, or in academia. These shorthands can be useful in engaging with bodies of ideas, becoming either a rallying point, or a point from which divergence can occur. Invoking this sort of term can also mean invoking its associations. However, apart from becoming jargon, it can also become a needless point of contestation, where one party avers that the other misses the mark or has a flawed understanding or application of a term, even in cases where, peeled back, these persons could be on the same side of an argument if they simply said exactly what they meant in each given situation.
Since Harry G Frankfurt published On Bullshit, there have been myriad academic responses to that paper which sought to give a rough account of what bullshit is, and what it is not, what function it serves and how to detect it, as a thing separate from lies. This thought has been extended to academia in particular, leading to the phrase academic bullshit, which I found helpfully expatiated upon in a paper by Philip Eubanks and John D Schaeffer titled A Kind Word For Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing. They assert, that “the most apt examples of academic bullshit come from the social sciences and humanities”. Quoting (and agreeing with) Dave Barry’s parodying of sociologists, who “spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific sounding code”, they cite an example where sociologists describe the fact that children cry when they fall like this: Methodological observation of the sociometrical behaviour tendencies of prematurated isolated indicates that a causal relationship exists between groundwork tropism and lachrymatory, or crying behaviour forms. They however argue that academic bullshit, or at least some varieties of it may be both unavoidable and beneficial.
I discuss this with a professor in the Cluster who I trust to tell me when I myself am talking bullshit. She challenges the general idea that many academics deal in obscurantism by stating that there are different types of writing and different audiences and that some subjects and theories can only be written about in language matching their complexity. I agree with her that it might be a generalisation, or even too simplistic to just conclude that academic writing is full of bullshit, and that using examples like that of Dave Barry’s as proof that academics peddle bullshit ignores the nuances of the argument. But like Eubanks and Schaeffer, I do believe that while many assertions that academic writing is full of bullshit might be unfair or unfounded, it is important to reflect about how meaning is conveyed in academia and if in fact there are ways of making theory clearer and using storytelling skills to craft arguments that are also intelligible to persons outside small groups of experts in the field.
Especially for scholars of literature, I often say that if the writers whose work you analyse find it difficult to follow your academic analyses, then there might be a little problem, regardless of them not being the primary audience of your research.
I get my BT number which allows me to access the university library online. I search for the papers of every scholar I meet to find those whose work I understand (and relate to) enough to have public (and private) conversations. The library access is one of my favourite things about universities and I lose myself in rabbit holes reading and being reminded of just how much I do not know.
As I read across disciplines, I am reminded that there is a lot that academic writing can glean from creative writing. One of my favourite papers on the subject of how and why academics write and speak the way they do, is Eric Hayot’s Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do. And like a bachelors student trying to increase the word count of their paper, I will quote copiously. He writes:
“Academic writing is not just a set of words on a page but is a procedure. One major endpoint of that procedure is the publication of a limited set of words on pages (or online). But that endpoint appears within a series of connected institutional structures that include large-scale nonprofit and corporate entities (the journals and publishing houses, the universities themselves) and formal and informal patterns of practice and habit, including the various instructional modes that shape the writing we do (the response paper, the seminar paper, both instructional, and the conference paper, the article, the book). Each of these modes presupposes both a set of generic conventions and a writing process by which one accomplishes them. At the lowest scale of practice, which we call style, we find the various professional conventions, including paratextual ones like titles, footnotes, or citational practice, microgenres like the block quotation or the anecdote, the various largely unconscious but nonetheless disciplinary and habitual patterns of sentence formation, word choice (using stage as a verb, for example), and epistemological and rhetorical structure, all of which can vary, of course, by subfield (so that we can distinguish the writing of a deconstructive feminist from that of a New Historicist on the basis of “style” alone)…
All of this procedural activity…produces a significant metadiscourse. And all of this metadiscourse and procedure is mediated, not so much finally as simultaneously, by the vast numbers of people making up its audience, or audiences, most of whom are also participants in the production of scholarly writing, whether as publishing members of the faculty or as undergraduate authors of five-page midterm papers.”
I mostly agree.
I am looking forward to the virtual Cluster conference, but I remind myself that, although I am genuinely interested in the subjects, I might need to psych myself into not just staying awake, but remaining attentive during a conference where I am not an active participant. Having ADHD sometimes means coming up with ingenious ways at staying on a task especially where there is nothing to stop you from wandering off, mentally or physically. I look up the speakers and read some of their papers, randomly selected from Jstor. Looking up an academic’s papers before meeting them physically or virtually is like googling a Tinder date before meeting them in real life. Important. I find my “dates" for the conference — which of the panels holding at the same time I want to attend. It would have been better to be able to jump in and out of the panels, but Zoom is very gossipy — it announces to the whole room when you leave. Or maybe there is a way to leave quietly that I haven’t figured out yet. I love an Irish exit.
One of the talks I attend is the artist talk. From the onset, the tone is different — it is apparent that a storyteller is at work. I am curious about the engagement that this talk will get from the scholars listening and watching. The writer, a novelist from Kenya, speaks about an alternative decoloniality, and questions the use and importance of the term, and of any term which has the word “colonial” in it, inadvertently centering that which it purports to move away from. I wish I could read the minds of the scholars when she talks about reframing African studies and especially when she says that academia is a site for the production of the grammar that “debilitates” and “reduces” us. She says she does not “care for the decolonial”. I cannot wait for the responses to the dismissal of this word that is uttered in reverential tones by many scholars in the Cluster. In my head there is feverish hand-wringing. What will she say about the other core concepts, what I call the Cluster Trinity? My restless mind begins to wander. I am creating hymns again.
Thou shall have no other gods but me
Multiplicity, relationality, reflexivity,
The holy Cluster Trinity
At the end of the talk I am disappointed that this hour long discourse isn’t interrogated in any serious way. It is hard to tell if there weren’t many people who attended, if the moderator didn’t ask the right questions, or if the academics listening did not feel like engaging. There is a lot I do not agree with and I imagine that many of the academics feel the same. In the end, it does feel like church. The sermon is over and if there was a challenge, it happened only in the minds of those in the pews.
One of the sentiments I try to unpack is why many writers think a lot of the language used by academics is all “nonsense”, or in the words of Eubanks and Schaeffer, “bullshit of the worst kind.” Is it because these words are so abstract that they would be unintelligible to the very people whose lives and practices academics research and write about? And do academics care that this is the case?
I do not think it is all nonsense, but I can understand otherwise intelligent people feeling alienated by dense and abstract language, or even by, as is the case with a lot of academic writing, a stiffness, a lack of feeling in words. Bhavin Tailor, in Crossing Genres: Exploring the Interplay Between Academic and Creative Writing, puts it succinctly:
The wholesale product of …academic procedure becomes a sort of ouroboros, creating the sort of discourse it seeks to consume. The corresponding feedback loop, while self sustaining, ultimately perpetuates myths of ivory-tower academic elites through its exclusivity, keeping at a distance people not fully literate in this academic discourse.
My mind wanders again, to a conversation that struck me as odd, but which now sits, uncomfortably in my head. A senior academic, speaking to me about a subject I know rather well, and telling me, in front of his students, that I might be too young to know something he was talking about. I am thinking again of clarity. Perhaps some jokes from German speakers come across wrong in English. Perhaps sometimes translation muddies meaning, strips context, makes unclear. Perhaps my ears, trained in English, filtered wrongly, leaving me with this discomfiture. I at least hope that my response, “I do read books” was clear enough for him.
I speak again to my bullshit-detector professor. I ask her how many Africans have full professorships in African Studies at the university. Not many I am told. But things are changing, she says to me, and hopes that in the long term, initiatives like the Cluster can move in this direction. She explains how (Bavarian) professorships are structured and that it is not up to the Institute of African Studies, the Cluster or even the university to simply create seats for new professors. There first has to be a seat for one to apply for in any of the levels of professorships. It is state regulations that designate the different levels of professorships according to their salary level. It is not immediately apparent to me how this can be achieved, and what specific actions the Cluster can take to have more Africans in African Studies with permanent positions. I am only a writer (and a young one as I have been reminded by at least two persons here), observing things, sometimes clearly, sometimes not.
Going through the program of the conference again, I wonder about the placement of artists. Are artists a sideshow? Do academics, (especially ones that have made grand claims of transdisciplinarity and multiplicity) really see this type of knowledge production as equal to theirs, enough to seriously engage with it? I notice that apart from one panel where an artist is a discussant alongside academics, the artists have been bunched together, and always moderated by academics. Even the panel about art, with only artists on the panel is moderated by an academic. The artist lecture is moderated by an academic. But then I pause and ask myself: how many academic conferences have this many artists as part of the program, in spite of the fact that no conversation is led by one? In the end I decide that my own critique, especially the weight I am now assigning to it in my head, is in fact, bullshit. It is after all, an academic conference. While the quality of the engagement with artists could be better, it is certainly not as problematic as I initially perceived it to be.
At the end of the conference, I try to catch up on some reading, especially about dividuation. One paper in particular seemed challenging to follow. Was it because the sentences were dense and abstract or because I was listening to the panel while walking to a pharmacy to buy antihistamines for allergies that suddenly flared up? I discover quite a few scholars who have written lucidly about different aspects of dividuation and many of the things I heard during the panel on “dividuation as a heuristic category” become clearer.
I enjoy my conversations with the Cluster Dean whose area of specialisation is of particular interest to me. We speak about Islamic scholars in northern Nigeria and Senegal, and about their politics. I ask him what he thinks about particular researchers in his field. His critique of research that is simplistic, of dense academic writing that his students cannot relate to or understand is clear and direct. We talk about strategy. How do we make academics who are not hostile to but merely skeptical about processes of committing to ideals of equity, diversity and decoloniality, connect with moves to reposition African Studies? How do we draw in, rather than alienate those who have genuine questions about anti-racism, diversity and decoloniality? He comes across as particularly thoughtful in matters of intersectionality and inclusivity, and mentions his commitment to unlearning harmful practices.
A few days before, I had misunderstood a comment he made to me. He had asked about a tweet I had posted on my personal Twitter account about universities. He asked what I meant by my tweet. Not being accustomed to explaining my tweets to anyone, I firmly resisted this. When he pressed the matter, I felt cornered, thinking he might have been uncomfortable with my thoughts about the orthodoxy and conformity I noticed in universities. It turned out, he simply wanted to discuss the matter, and in fact agreed with the sentiment. It was not clear to me at the time, and so I was irritated by what I thought was an attempt to censor me while I was a guest of the Cluster. I mentioned my concerns to him a few days after and he clarified that this was not what he meant. Clarity prevailed, and I felt at ease again.
I am back talking with my bullshit-detector professor at the end of my visit, sharing thoughts about what my final essay will be. I tell her about my critique of academic writing in the social sciences and humanities. She understands my point but says that in many cases it is mostly academics in the social sciences and humanities who invite the kind of radical critique that Eubanks and Schaeffer write about and that they are the ones who mostly have to engage with it. In this sense, she thinks, they might even be closer than others to academic openness and introspection, because unlike the colleagues in the natural sciences whose work appears incontestable by non academics or non specialists, they are open to critique from everyone. I of course agree that a geneticist is more insulated from the critique of non specialists than say an anthropologist or scholar of Islamic studies. She makes an interesting point, one which I understand but which I think does not disprove my point about the importance of clarity. Clarity, not meaning a watering down of theories and layered ideas. Clarity which is in fact sophisticated, which requires a deep understanding, not just of the ideas themselves but of ways of conveying those ideas in all their complexity, in an intelligible manner, to a diverse audience.
Cluster, Cluster on the wall
Who’s the clearest of them all?
In my first week in Bayreuth, I caught myself, at least a couple of times, picking my words, trying to reach for the most intelligent thing to say when speaking to scholars. After each time, I felt deeply ashamed. The lingering aftertaste of bullshit in my mouth was distressing. I do not speak like this. I do not use jargon. I do not concept-drop. There is nothing to prove. I am already here, and not because I wrote about reflexivity, relationality or multiplicity, but because of the kind of work I do. So I allow myself speak plainly, use simple metaphors, and tell stories. There is no shame in speaking clearly.
I will miss Tuesdays here when I leave. I have held open conversations at an informal weekly gathering with one or two academics at a time. Reading their work beforehand, and hearing them come to life in front of their colleagues when I ask questions fill me with delight. It is always delightful to see academics who not only can but enjoy talking about their work. I will miss my library access. I will miss the Therme, refreshing warm pools a little outside the town, a treat from my generous host and Cluster Spokesperson. But more than all of this, I will miss the challenge of engaging with the research of many scholars in such a short time, looking for clarity.
I hope the gods of the Cluster are not jealous. Because I am going back to other gods, and at least for a while, I will have to abandon the Cluster Trinity as I return to finishing my novel.