Whew. I am now done with my first year of grad school. I have just turned in my first real grad-school research paper. It is 20 pages and 6,000 words long. It contains more syllables per word than the Edict of Worms.
“Instrumentality” (noun, meaning, useful for getting stuff done).
“Historicization” (noun, meaning, framing a thing in the past).
“Problematize” (verb, meaning, to make things puzzling).
The paper almost included the word “heteronormativity” (noun, meaning, straight folks tend to rule). But just before pressing the “send” key, I realized I’d never be able to look a newspaper person straight in the eye had I written a word with as many syllables (almost) as the entire first verse of Genesis.
I tell you all this because, as sure as Latinates are long, as fast as newsroom jobs are vaporizing, more and more journalists are heading back to grad school to reinvent themselves. Some after 10, 20, or even (like me) 25 years or more of ink-stained wretch-dom. So, if you are one of those recovering, or soon-to-be recovering journalists who say, “Why grad school, of course!” when asked what you’ll do when you leave your newsroom, please note:
Everything you have learned about writing over the years — all the workshops, the tips from Scanlan and Clark, the wisdom from the chiseled gems in the “best-of” collections — just might have to go. Out the window. Dumpster City.
That includes the time-tested tenets we have tried to live by since the great Stanley Walker preached that a sentence be short, an adjective be chosen as if it were “a diamond or a mistress,” and most of all, that we not end up one of those writers who “rear up rococo Taj Mahals of verbal flubdub, wandering on and on amid synthetic vaporous splendors.”
We spent lifetimes learning to be clear. To use single-syllable words. To go for the concrete Anglo-Saxon over the air-puffed Latin. Thus, our stories favored drunks vs. the inebriated; the rich vs. high-wealth individuals, and “straight folks tend to rule” vs. “primacy of heteronormative discourse regimes.”
And then, we get to grad school — in my case, an MFA in creative writing, an effort requiring, as well as the “creative” part, six courses in literature and/or theory. And so, in grad school, we have to start from scratch.
Following is a brief survival guide for those of you who will pass through there, on your way to your post-newsroom life. (Disclosure: It is hardly scientific. It is based on what I have learned over nine months of wandering through, and writing in, the Groves of Academe.)
The Academy: When you go to grad school, you enter “The Academy,” a synonym of sorts for “university,” but one evoking the ethos of ancient Greece, and in particular, one of its Trojan heroes, Akademos, whose leafy olive groves became a gathering place, kind of an early Starbucks, for the famous philosopher Plato (who gave the world the useful adjective “platonic”) and his followers.
The Professor: Most have PhDs. Most are smart as Plato. And most will be much younger than you, by several times as many years as it took to wage the Trojan War. When you write for Professors in The Academy, it is best not to think: “Boy will they appreciate my terse, monosyllabic journalistic prose! How refreshing it will seem to them after reading stacks and stacks of academic (see “Academy,” above) flubdub!” If you make this mistake, you will receive terse (occasionally monosyllabic) comments such as: ”Watch tone. This is not especially academic” (see “Academy”).
Foucault: When you go to grad school, you should know how to pronounce the name of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (that would be: Me-SHELL Foo-COE). To not know this would be like walking into a newsroom and not knowing how to pronounce the name of Joseph Pulitzer. You should know as well, even if you have never read Foucault: His theories about knowledge, power, and almost everything else, pretty much underlie anything you will encounter in grad school, from literary theory to Queer and gender studies, to history, philosophy, architecture, criminal justice — everything, save, perhaps, toothbrushes, and maybe Japanese horticulture, though I am quite sure that someone, somewhere in The Academy, is studying how his views apply to those things as well.
Just for the record, there is no journalistic equivalent to give you a true sense of just how important Foucault is in The Academy (at least my experience of it). So, for the sake of illustration, imagine a mix of John Peter Zenger, Frederick Douglass, Pulitzer and Hearst, Walter Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein, Daniel Pearl, and maybe Barbara Walters or Arianna Huffington, and then, just for the record, add in Barack Obama, the film “Casablanca,” the Internet, Disney, and Michael Jackson, and you kind of get an idea.
Theory: When you go to grad school – at least in the academic, non-journalism climes – you enter a world in which the theoretical, not the factual, reigns. In that world, everything that can be read, from the markings on the side of a barn to a Web page, is now called a “text.” In the world of the theoretical, those “texts” do not actually exist by themselves. If a tree falls in a forest, for example, it makes a sound only if someone is there to write a text about it, and to use one theoretical frame or another to interpret it, so that others can now write new texts either agreeing or disagreeing with you, depending on their theoretical bent.
To illustrate, some time ago, a small scholarly journal started “The Bad Writing Contest,” which gave “awards” to the most drain-cloggingly turgid academic prose they could find. The contest made The Wall Street Journal, which caused a major brouhaha, because one of the “winners” was a scholar whom many others across the globe place just a few rungs down from Foucault himself (try it: “Foo-COE”).
The scholar in question responded to the “award” in the op-ed pages of The New York Times. The whole thing was then dissected in Salon. About eight years later, when things were just settling, another scholar presented an academic paper on the theoretical underpinnings of the bad-writing dust-up, saying it offered a “good case for examining the workings of a particularly academic system of textual exchange,” a peek, if you will, into ”constitutive ideologies of this system, the ideology of ‘authorship’ or what I will call textual branding.” You get the idea.
So why do I put up with this? Because, in the end, I am only passing through this alien territory, land of the scholarly, toward a single destination: Getting a degree that will let me teach students to write truly, creatively, i.e., without words like “heteronormativity.” No matter how tough the path, how strange the customs, I recall St. Ambrose’s advice to St. Augustine, back in the day, hundreds of years, in fact, before the first university was founded: ”Si fueros Romae, Romano vivito more…” or, “When in Rome…”
Bulletin! My Professor just returned my 20-page paper, commented on and graded. The Professor liked the basic premise, even some of the analysis of the text I theorized about. In general, though, he noted a “peculiar stylistic quirk:” I tend to “slip into narrative.” Thus, the A-, the minus being a pregnant caveat (from the Latin verb cavere, meaning “to beware, take heed, watch, guard against”). So, until I get my degree of freedom, I will try each day to rid my writing of narrative. To watch those single-syllable Anglo-Saxonisms. To not be so concrete.
Future scholars: Do this, and you’ll be just fine.