Friday, June 13, 2008

The conversation

Some time back, one of my lecturers referred to academic writing as a conversation. She was giving us hints an tips on how to write critical reviews at the time. She explained that no-one ever expects to have the last word or to write The Definitive Piece on a subject, but that each person is adding to the sum of material available on a topic, inviting response from others in the field. She spoke for some time, using words like "conversation" and "discourse" liberally.

This stuck with me, and, when we came to think about our dissertation topics, I came back to these words. You see I like conversation. Those who know me in a face to face capacity tend to describe me using words like chatterbox and motormouth. What they less often appreciate is that I listen enthusiastically and rapaciously as well, and what they relate to me will become part of my portfolio of knowledge, to reappear in a later conversation with someone else. I quite often say things that are aimed at eliciting a response of some kind. I don't mind being disagreed with and set right, just TALK TO ME! I can't learn anything from (or about) people who don't talk.

The trouble with the conversation in its academic format, as I see it, is that it's rather like a conversation between Ents. Any other sad Tolkien bores out there will remember that Treebeard says at one point (in both the book and the remarkably faithful movie) "it takes a very long time to say anything in (Entish), because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to."

The academic conversation/discourse is like a series of long, ponderous monologues. Of course, the fact that it can take anything up to two years for an article to be published once it has been accepted by a print publication does nothing to speed things up.

I completely sympathise with the hobbits Merry and Pippin whose frustration knows no bounds when it takes the Ents several days of their discourse to decide that hobbits are not orcs. The poor hobbits are almost hopping from foot to foot with impatience because the Ents have not even touched on what they consider to be far more important matters.

Like Merry and Pippin, I feel small alongside the profound minds that turn out the academic writings I encounter during my research. Like them, I want to interrupt. I want to say, "But what about..?" The only trouble is that, to enter that conversation, I have to observe its rules and learn the language. My but-what-abouts will take two years to appear in print, by which time, other things will have captured my attention. I can almost hear them say it: "Now, now, don't be hasty little Hobbit..."

But there is another conversation going on. One that is far more suited to my impatient, pondskater nature. And that is this one.

You don't have to be an Ent to participate in this conversation. You can be a hobbit, or a man. You can be an orc or an elf. You can be Gandalf or Sauron himself. It doesn't matter. It's open to everyone. If you are an Ent and you want to take two years to think about what you're going to say before you say it. You go right ahead and do that (just don't expect the conversation or the audience still to be in the same place when you get around to it).

So, over here, there is "yes" and "no" and "I agree" and "don't be daft". And over there, there is "hoom" and "A-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lindor-burúmë".

It's a bit like the difference between playing Scrabble face to face and playing Scrabulous online. But, just as I have learned to do and enjoy both of those things, the challenge for me now is to figure out how to "do and enjoy" the academic approach to the concept of discourse and conversation, so that I can hand in a decent dissertation!

The fact that I have chosen to explore the impact of the use of social media on my professional practice puts me in a tricky position. How do you explain crackle and snap of the speed-of-light, open to all, global conversation using language
that "takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to"?

I feel as if I have to deliver live commentary at Wimbledon in an imitation of the style of a medieval balladeer!


Anonymous said...

I really like the Wimbledon comment -- it reminds me of one theory about the development of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The original poems were unwritten (an incident early in the Iliad demonstrates that the Greek heroes couldn't read or write). The rhapsodes memorized the overall structures. They deployed standardized epithets that filled out the metric requirements, giving them time to work on the next line in the background.

That's why so many of the women are "bright-eyed" or "of the flashing eyes," and why Odysseus himself is so often "crafty" or "the man of many turns."

And the long lists of which Greeks came from where were almost certainly adapted to the immediate audience. Folks from Argos? Play up the ships brought by Diomedes.

Nobody's writing a new Iliad, but there's a place for the old one -- though probably not on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

@Dave I had fun reading your comment. I went to drama school when I finished my secondary education and the entire first year was spent focusing on the origins of western theatre. So we were steeped in Greek mythology, theatrical vehicles and half-mythological history.

The Greeks were suckers for a great story and got totally drawn in.

I am of this school myself. When I pay for my ticket, I enter into a tacit agreement to be completely and utterly gullible, to be an uncritical empty vessel, ready to be manipulated by the players. I would have fitted right in among the terraces at Epidavros!

Anonymous said...

I remember two specific class sessions from undergraduate school as if they happened last week. One was Professor MacDonald going through anyone lived in a pretty how town such that I've never read poetry the same way.

The other was Father Norm McKendrick spending two hours of an evening class on the first seven lines of the Iliad.

Μηνιν αϜειδε Θεά Πηληϊαδεω Αχιλῆος...

Tinfoilstar said...


Im referring my Unisa students on their online discussion forum (MyUnisaa) to this blog. So, never delete it... Well said -- academic conversation.. let's learn from each other by talking...


Anonymous said...

@dave f Ah. ee cummings. Now there was a poet with a streak of optimism a mile wide.

@pagboyz I'd be in trouble if I deleted it - it's my outboard brain!