Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Trickster Motif in Obscurity: Mocking the Titles of Ridiculously Hyper-Specialized and Linguistically Bloated Theses at Harvard

Harvard annually awards its Hoopes prizes to its best undergraduate theses. What's amazing is how quickly the clotted sclerosis of academic language grabs hold of people. These aren't tweedy profs who by now, actually speak like this and would probably run afoul of the various English-only laws states sometimes try to pass. These are undergrads who no more than four years previously might have thought "Zarathustra" was the silly old-people spelling of well-known rapper Z-Thurztee (There is not, as far as I know, any such person. But I don't follow hip-hop very well, so don't go by me).

Few of the theses are literal scientific papers, which by their nature have strings of long words -- chemical names and scientific processes need precise descriptions, and precision seems to require lots of syllables. Most of the rest seem more the victims of the old idea that longer sentences and longer works somehow sound smarter.

Not that they aren't precise -- when I read the title Globalizing Actionable Rights: The Role of Policy Elites in Health Care Reform in Chile and Bolivia, 1982-2007, I'm pretty sure I'd be reading about health care reform in Chile and Bolivia during the last quarter-century or so. I probably won't have a clue about what it means to globalize actionable rights or how to qualify as a policy elite in Chile and Bolivia, though. Although I suspect improving my Spanish would help.

Also, Shifting Animal Exploitation Strategies in Late Neolithic China: A Zooarchaeolgical Analysis of the Longhsan Site of Taosi, Shanxi Province seems pretty clear as to what it's about. But by the time you've printed the title, your ink cartridge has run out and you can't tell me why it matters at all to we post-Late Neolithians (AKA Really Tardy Neolithians), unless there's something in there about getting my cat to change her own litterbox.

Academia has a rare genius at making the simple complex. Exhibit A: Shoes: The Arch Enemy? Contrasting the Kinetics and Kinematics of Habitually Shod and Habitually Barefoot Runners. Although I'll give the guy points for the pun -- as academic writers set their phrases to stun, they generally lose the ability to have any fun with their words.

And somewhere, parents are weeping as they realize they paid $45,600 or so a year to Harvard so its world-renowned instructors could guide a study such as this: Being B-Boys: Style, Identity, and Respect Among New England and Miami Street Dancers. Hey, cheer up, Mom and Dad. It takes a pretty clever mind to figure out how to fold your spring break trip to sunny Florida into your course work.

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