On language

4 09 2006

I was particularly struck by some points made in a post at Tales from the Reading Room, particularly since I’d been mulling over “academic language” since reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

I never understand the idea of explaining ideas in the most complicated language possible. If the point is to share ideas, why not do so in a way and in a language that everyone could understand? It is something I strove for in both my oral presentations and my articles.

It seemed not everyone shared my opinion. In most cases, the more obscure your language and your references the more intelligent and insightful you were. My Gothic grad class was perhaps worst of all and I still remember the feeling of being verbally attacked in what might as well have been a foreign language by one classmate who belittled everyone else in the classroom just to make herself more intelligent in the professor’s eyes – and (more’s the pity) she was on the whole successful.

It was perhaps because of this that I was most struck by the section in Smith’s novel that focuses on Katie. It is a very minor section, but important and it underscored to me how much is lost when we cannot find a common language to share our thoughts and ideas.

Smith details Katie’s reaction to some assigned paintings. Her thoughts are immediate, insightful, even inspiring perhaps. Smith describes how excited she is, to speak in class, to share her observations. She is “determined this time” will be different from others, this time she will speak (252).

That optimistic determination Smith almost immediately counters with dialogue from Dr. Belsey:

“What we’re trying to . . . interrogate here,” he says, “is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the hum. What is it about these texts – these images as narration – that is implicitly applying for the quasi-mystical notion of genius.” (252)

This type of language creates a barrier that Katie cannot bridge. She sits silent, all those insights, all that excitement left within as “the class escapes” her (253).

It is the type of language that would have terrified me as an undergrad and a young grad student and that frustrated me beyond end by the end of my time there. Too many times did I sit there as Katie did, having thoughts, ideas, reactions to share, but not able to bridge that divide between my (perceived) plain-speaking ways and those who seemed to speak in tongues.

I see it differently now. But I don’t think I will ever forget what it felt like, to sit in a class, always hoping that things would be different, that I would be able to communicate and then suffering through an hour – even two or three – where I felt myself inferior, where I felt myself wanting, all the while with a growing uncomfortable consciousness that everyone else in the room was aware that I hadn’t spoken and knew the reason why. It was so freeing to sit through my final grad class and know that I would never have to feel like that again – that I would never put myself into a situation where I would feel like that again.




2 responses

4 09 2006

It’s so funny you should pick on this bit of the book, because it really struck home with me, too. I find the other students’ pretentious discussion with the professor almost wince-inducing. Any teacher worth the title ought to ask them a few basic questions to find out if they have any idea what they are talking about! As a teacher myself I worry that the Katies of the world don’t get to speak out, and I watch out for them particularly. It’s amazing how often the quietest person in class has the most worthwhile comments to make.

4 09 2006

I definitely agree with all of your points. The whole passage is so brief and yet its critique of those kinds of teachers is spot on – and it is also is somewhat key to Howard’s entire character. It is the one passage in the book that has really stayed with me.
As a former “Katie” I hope that I’ll be able to spot that in my students and encourage all of them to share what they have to say – though I realize that is easier said than done.

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