Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

11Oct/09

Part II: Hocketing and Translating Academic Writing to Accessible English

above:  an example of a modern version of hocketing in an excerpt from Meredith Monk's "Hocket" from "Facing North" (1990), performed by Emily Eagen and Peter Sciscioli, members of The M6, at Symphony Space in New York, March 2008.

So how does academic writing differ from an author's use of two-bit words?

I want to contrast the writing of Michael Chabon's with an essay by Michelle Kisliuk in Music and Gender, a collection of essays by musicologists studying the participation of women in the music of various cultures.

In the varied and impressive writings of Colin Turnbull (1961, 1965, 1978, 1981, 1983), Alan Lomax (1976), Robert Rarris Thompson (1989), and Simha Arom (1978, 1991), the yodeling, hocketing sound of pygmy singing has served as an icon of social and musical utopia and an image of egalitarianism. 1 (Kisliuk 25).

[ footnote 1: Kisliuk notes that she is referencing an essay, “Can There be a Feminist Ethnography?” from the book, Women and Performance by Lila Abu Lughod]

I read this book of music and gender essays while researching my own book about composer Amy Beach. The sample sentence I provide is typical of that particular essay, and the first example I would cite as to why academic writing is inaccessible to most readers. Often academic writers fill their sentences with so many dates and references in parenthesis that a reader must really strain to find the meat. It is like having to trip over stones thrown in the path of reader comprehension.

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4Oct/09

Part I: Chabon’s Maps and Legends and Hayle’s Electronic Literature meet Two-Bit Words and Pygmy Musicians

Pygmie Music and Cyclone Fences 2009

Pygmie Music and Cyclone Fences 2009

During an online reading conference, for which I was the discussion leader (have I mentioned that I am about to complete an MFA in new media writing from Antioch University? - more on that later), several complained about the use of “obscure” vocabulary words by Michael Chabon in his book of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. For purposes of discussion, I subsequently referred to those words as what my father called “two-bit words.” I remarked that I bet we all had to look up different words, so I wondered which we could really call the two-bit ones.

Our virtual conversation about the use of these words did not go much further than a few complaints before it moved on to other topics. I was sorry that we did not delve into a related comment I made regarding the fact that Chabon’s use of some of these words seemed to hint at irony: they were contrasted with his book's content about the need to reanalyze and revalue dismissed-as-lowbrow genres of writing such as comic books, science fiction, ghost and detective stories.

One participant referred to Chabon’s two-bit word use as being “academic” writing, and I wished I had time to get back to that comment, too, because I think it was an important one to consider. Well, I will do it here in my blog. Having read many books by university professors on the topics of new media literature / electronic literature over the last two years as part of my new media writing and MFA thesis research, I have a particular take on academic writing at the moment. As I considered the two-bit words of Chabon as being linked with the idea of academic writing, I had to disagree. Academic writing and the use of a sophisticated vocabulary are not synonymous. And it is important that the distinction be made and they not be confused.

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