Sunday, March 16, 2008

"A kind word for bullsh*t"

An academic essay entitled "A Kind Word for Bullshit" drew me in right away as soon as I saw it on the cover of the Feb 2008 issue of College Composition and Communications where Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer write an argument of definition about "academic bullshit":
The phrase "academic bullshit" presents compositionists with a special dilemma. Because compositions study, teach, and produce academic writing, they are open to the accusation that they both tolerate and perpetuate academic bullshit. We argue that confrontings this problem must begin with a careful definition of "bullshit" and "academic bullshit." In contrast to Harry Frankfurt's checklist method of definition [in his Princeton UP 2005 book On Bullshit], we examine "bullshit" as a graded [graduated] category. We suggest that some varieties of academic bullshit may be both unavoidable and beneficial. (372)
As they point out, the work of scholarly academics is "serious, and we naturally take offense at critiques that call our writing and scholarship pretentious (which impugns our character) or nonrigorous (which impugns our minds)" (373). Here Eubanks and Schaeffer set up the importance of their argument, answering the questions we (and Graff & Berkenstein in They Say, I Say) ask our students to answer - "so what" and "who cares?"

Part of their argument lies in distinguishing bullshiting from lying because ""bullshit is disconnected from the truth in a way that lying never is" (375). By definition liars are intentional about saying what they believe to be untrue, whereas in bullshitting the point is less about the truth and more about the image one creates.

Thus, their argument revolves greatly on the way that "bullshitting" is an appeal to ethos, a technique admired by some for the "masculine, aggressive, ludic" (379) style of braggadocio. The technique might even be slyly recommended as in "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit" (373).

They cite Dave Barry and Isocrates, among others, which is a nice spectrum but somehow they overlook David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University" which argues that we should teach students to be apprentice academics in writing in a scholarly style. What can happen, though, is stilted vague student writing. Anyone who has taught first year composition has surely read any number of student papers that try to "baffle.. with bullshit" instead of making a sincere effort at entering the conversation by critically engaging with sources. As Eubanks and Schaeffer point out, however, "[n]o one, not even the "bullster," would contend that bullshit can really substitute for well-informed and thoughtful writing" (386).

This essay was a delightful break in a weekend of grading. I highly recommend it, and apologize for the too-brief summary. (Great use of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the neat distinction of bullshit versus chicken shit.)


Blogger Miss Marjie said...

That sounds very interesting. I looked up the call number for the journal at the library and shall have to check it out. :) Thanks!

10:36 PM  
Blogger Michael Faris said...

Thanks for writing about this, Sara. I've been meaning to read it, and your post prompted me to sit down and read it. I'll probably write about it as well.

I think I disagree with you that they "overlooked" Bartholomae's "Inventing the University." It seems to me that they view his argument and the discourse around it as so commonplace as not to warrant explicating. They write that "This social understanding of writing and self is too familiar to rehearse at length here," which I think also refers to Bartholomae's work.

Thanks again for writing about this!

11:15 PM  
Blogger Sara Jameson said...

No sooner did we start talking, but I found this piece by Jeff Abernathy in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which might well be a riff on the various degrees (academic and not) of bullshitting in publishing. "Meat Loaf and Me: A Journey to Hell and Back". Enjoying Abernathy's piece reminds me why I am glad the term is nearly over and I can at last think again.

ps: Michael, you might be right that they imply Bartholomae, but I think an explicit mention would have been better.

8:24 AM  
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