Tag Archives: academic reading

Alphabet Soup

About a month ago, I came across an article on the Guardian, “From Alright to Zap: An A-Z of horrible words.” Excellent, I thought. I rather enjoy alphabetical lists, and horrible words are always good for either agreement or outrage. Would the perceptive author include the abomination “impactful” or the over-used “utilize”? I turned to the article with interest. After reading it, I thought the article could be more appropriately described as a reflection on how language, English in particular, changes over time. Words shift in use. Neo-logisms appear. Some of these catch on; others fall by the way. It is a helpful reminder to define terms, particularly when I’m using them in a specific and nuanced way. In fact, this article has inspired me to write an alphabet of my own, a list of words I find troublesome as I do scholarly work. My A entry will appear on Monday, and B-Z will follow on from there. Please feel free to indicate any academic jargon you think should be included in the comments.

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D is for Doh? No, not quite

D old

D is for Daniel and Dean, as in Lillian Daniel and Kenda Creasy Dean. Daniel and Dean have co-authored books — not with each other though — in my field, pastoral theology. Lillian Daniel worked with Martin Copenhaver on a book called This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Life of Two Ministers. Daniel and Copenhaver are pastors who reflect theologically on all parts of their lives. By making some of their stories and thinking public, they provide the rest of us with two examples of practical theological thinking. I appreciate their work. D is for the duo of Daniel and Copenhaver.

D is also for the duo of Dean and Foster, who together wrote The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry. Kenda Dean and Ron Foster focus on youth ministry, but, in my mind, this book speaks into something that resonates in ministry to any age group. Dean has also written other books on youth ministry and teaches at Princeton Seminary. The Peace Pastor and her husband the Foodie Theologian have heard her speak and thought a lot of what she said. The Godbearing Life is a book I highly recommend for anyone working in ministry, whether with youth or not. 




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Reading on the Bus Again

In my last post I mentioned reading 1984 on the bus. This brought to mind other books I’ve read on the bus. Back in the day, when I worked at McDonnell-Douglas Canada for a summer, I rode the bus from where I was staying in Etobicoke to the plant out at Airport and Derry. There was lots of time to read on the bus. One of the books I read that summer was The History of the Church by Eusebius. I wasn’t planning to formally study theology at that time — I was still studying aerospace engineering. Funny how things work out. I’ve still got my copy of Eusebius sitting on my shelves. It has been joined by many other volumes on Church History. 


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Turgid Prose

Previously in this space I have lamented Turgid Academic Prose. I have found one reason rising academics continue to write with such a pompous bombastic style: profs teach it.

I am reading a book on writing a particular kind of advanced research paper. It advises students that they should be formal and not be overly chummy in their style. I agree. An academic paper is not a blog post or a tweet or a facebook update. The author then quotes paragraphs from two sample research papers which I consider prime examples of Turgid Prose and lauds these as showing proper depth and academic rigour. One paragraph does not show depth or academic rigour. It may suggest that a subject will be treated with such depth and rigour, but it does not have to be dense and unreadable to do so. I throw up my hands in disgust. Why can’t North American academics write? Because they are told that if they write too clearly, they clearly don’t have any Big Ideas. This is so backwards I hardly know how to begin to reverse it. I do the only thing I can: advise my students to write clearly. Writing clearly does not mean you don’t have big ideas. Writing clearly does mean others may benefit from understanding your big ideas.

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Language, a tangled web woven about us

I am reading some interesting non-fiction at the moment. I’ve progressed very slowly through James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation. I’m not sure exactly why I am reading this quite so slowly as I am, but the contents of the book interest me. I’m provoked to rabbit-trails of thought, which is a good thing. It does, however, make for slow reading. In Smith this morning, I read some discussion of language in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (alternate English title: On Christian Teaching). My transit reading for the day was Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, the Massey Lectures for 1962. I made it through the first two of Frye’s lectures. They are fascinating reading. I imagine they are also fascinating listening.

The interplay of first reading Smith writing about Augustine writing about language, then reading Frye’s words on literature as opposed to other uses of language has set my head spinning. I’m not sure how my brain will land on this. More thought is needed. Here, as food for your own thinking, are some quotes that have me thinking hard on how to teach a class on telling stories in religious education.

From Frye:

This allusiveness in literature is significant, because it shows what we’ve been saying all along, that in literature you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature forms a part. This affects the writer as much as it does the reader.

From Smith (on Augustine):

Language is required in order to express that which is interior to the soul by means of something external (verbum); thus language “makes public” the “private” intentions and desires of the self; words are therefore “common property,” belonging to a community. Language must span a gulf between interiorities, precisely because the other has “no means of entering into my soul.” The “space” between souls requires the mediation of signs, which in turn requires interpretation.

Shared stories are essential to community, particularly a community of faith. We need to tell these stories, using language well, in order to share faith with others.

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Random Readings

I was lurking in the stacks in the Large Research Library on the university campus where I work. Sometimes, when I’m in Fort Book (unofficial name of the Large Research Library) in the early stages of research on a new project, I lurk in the stacks looking for material. Today I lurked in the bound copies of Very Old Journals area. I pulled down The Monthly Review volume 70, 1813, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine volume 93, 1863. I browsed the six months of articles and reaped the following excerpts for your interest.

From Blackwood’s, and an article entitled “A Month’s visit to the Confederate Headquarters,” by An English Officer, I took this quote from the first paragraph:

“But the desire of knowledge, or the promptings of curiosity, as the case may be, determined me upon running all risks, and making my way into the forbidden land of Dixey [sic], despite all the blockading, gunboats, and Federal patrols along the Potomac river. There was, however, one great drawback to my happiness in starting upon this expedition—namely, the necessity which existed for my being back in New York by the 20th of October, and it was already the 11th of September when I left that city.”

In The Monthly Review, I found a review of Hannah More’s latest work. I have excerpted a small bit of it which thoroughly trashes Mrs. More as one of those writers who has not one unpublished thought:

“We shall not be so rude as to say to Mrs. More that she ought to learn ‘the art to stop:’ but we may venture to observe that the work before us is not in substance so different from her last, as to intitle [sic] it to praise on the score of novelty of sentiment. Whether her professed theme be “Practical Piety” [her previous work] or “Christian Morals” [the work under review], her essays or dissertations have precisely the same substratum and character; her thoughts all flow in the same channel and to the same point; and over the whole a sameness of feature is thrown. A new repast is presented to us: but in substance and essence it is the same with its predecessor; it is served on the old family plate, recast; and, though it assumes a new shape, every ounce of it has been on the table before. With great fluency and occasional eloquence, she prolongs her serious theme; and, whether sick or well, she employs herself in administering religious advice and admonition. With other authors, she has an indisputable right to offer her opinions boldly and without disguise; and though an attempt to mend the world is a very discouraging undertaking, we nevertheless applaud her for not desponding.”

Having satisfied myself that there is nothing really related to my research in these two volumes, I must now go back to work. Ok, the Hannah More review is sort of related to my research in very vague and general terms. But it is not the thing I’m working on right now. Must. Stop. Procrastinating.

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Apparently it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Really. Go look at the article. I’ve heard 10 years to become an expert, no hours per week attached, but my understanding was ten years of full-time hours. That is more than 10,000 hours, so something is funny somewhere. Whatever, it takes a long time. It also means that many of us aren’t really experts at anything because we don’t do hours and hours of intentional practice at much of anything. Things I’m probably an expert at:

1. Sleeping.

2. Watching TV, even though I grew up without one.

3. Reading fiction, especially mysteries.

4. Teaching.

5. Reading other texts, but I’m not sure that I’ve read enough non-fiction. Though I may have.

6. Writing/editing academic work. Maybe I’ve got close to 10,000 hours on that. Not sure, but I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years so it is likely up there.

How about you? Where is your expertise in the 10,000 hour definition?

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Twelfth Day: Bad Theological Writing

I’m teaching this term and selected two textbooks for the course based on prior experience with both. I’ve been re-reading these books as one should do when teaching a course. One is not a bad read. The other is pretty dreadful academic theological stodgy writing. The grammar isn’t bad. It is just that the writing is terrible. You want an example? Happy to oblige. Please note that I’m not going to tell you the titles or authors of the books. I’m just going to show you what I mean by giving a sample sentence from both. Both are about Christian Education since that is what the course is about. Here is a sentence or two about education in the church from both.

Not A Bad Read: “I believe that a broad definition helps us to see the basics that are necessary in developing a strong and vital educational ministry. Education in the church calls for religious instruction, socialization, personal development, and liberation. There is a need for transmitting knowledge, for shaping people through their participation in communal activities, for helping people on their individual faith journeys, and for developing a critical consciousness that leads to faithful service in the world.”

Dreadful Prose: “Christians are called to be faithful in the theory and practice of Christian education to assure the transmission of a living faith to the rising generations. In support of this task, Christian educators are called upon to reappraise their thought and practice in relation to the foundational issues of Christian education. These foundational issues represent perennial or recurrent questions for those involved in the teaching ministries of the church. They deserve careful consideration by those who reflect upon their ministries of the past, the present, and future.”

Not A Bad Read isn’t great, but the author varies sentence length, tells stories, puts themselves into the text, and expands upon key points to explain them. Dreadful Prose has sentences all about the same length, saying similar things using slightly different language, without rhythm, and without really saying much. What does “their ministries of the past, the present, and the future” mean? Ok, I can unpack that, but shouldn’t the author do a little bit of unpacking and not be so dense? And if the first thing that happens when I read a sentence is to yell What? that means the author has not properly done their job in writing clearly.

I admit that I can write dense putrid prose with the best of them. I’m an academic theologian. It is what we do. But, I would like to write better prose so that reading theology doesn’t automatically cure insomnia or require reading at a snail’s pace with coffee and a notebook to unpack every sentence. I don’t think that is what academic writing should be like. You are not smart just because no one can understand you. You are smart if you can clearly explain your new ideas for others to understand them.

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As noted earlier in this space, I am moving. I have done an initial cut of my books with more to come. My current task is purging paper files. I am an academic who likes to save things that might possibly be used for future research. This is a problem. I decided, before opening the first of nine (9) bankers boxes of assorted files that I moved from my last location, to be quite severe this time around. So far I have been. Two boxes have become half a box. Well begun, I think, and isn’t that half done?

I have been sorting more carefully through some files labeled “bibliography.” If I have to get rid of paper copies of journal articles, it might be nice to have a list of some that might be important. The lists I’ve looked at have mostly been books. In the dim and distant past I’d annotated one of the lists in a read it/got it/need it kind of way. I am going to update those notes as I think I’ve acquired some of the ones listed under Need. Also I’ve read a book or two so the Read part also needs some work. I like bibliographies a lot — so helpful for picking out what to read next. Also, these bibliographies may help me decide which books are worth keeping. After all, aren’t bibliographies lists? And aren’t lists of books a good thing?

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Reading with a Medieval Twist

I noticed that my friend the Libertarian has just started reading Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie. Someone suggested to him that the book was brilliant, and that he would enjoy it, but also suggested he might need a brief background in twentieth-century Indian history and politics to properly “get” the book. I’ve read some of Rushdie’s essays about writing MC which mean that I do want to read the book at some point, but I also feel like I need a bit more history before I launch in. I need to know a bit more about where Rushdie is coming from.

This article suggests that a similar issue might arise in reading Bede, a medieval historian. The blog post is actually the abstract for a doctoral dissertation on reading Bede. The dissertation suggests that Bede wrote with a certain method of reading in mind, reading in depth, not just reading the surface. Indirect quotes, phrases, and allusions to other events (often from the Bible) in Bede’s work point to deeper meanings, beyond the superficial recounting of historical events.  Why would Bede write like that? Because that is how Bede expected his text to be read. If he read other texts, primarily the Bible, in this way, then he surely would write so that his texts could be read on many levels.

Interesting. Might the same apply to, say, nineteenth-century writers? How did they read books and so expect their books to be read? Similarly, how do postmodern writers expect their texts to be (mis)read? Do they write so they can be read this way? Does this explain some things about academic writing in the twenty-first century?

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