Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This Post Contains "Words"

For weeks now, I have been reading research statements by faculty from many different departments on campus. Each statement is supposed to be as devoid of jargon as is humanly possible, and if one must use a technical term, the term must be defined. Most faculty from science and engineering departments make an obvious effort to avoid jargon in their research statements (though there are some spectacular failures at this), perhaps because we are aware that much of what we do is incomprehensible to most people.

And then there are the research statements from humanities faculty.. Nothing makes me more aware that I am a Scientist and have moved far away from my liberal arts roots than reading research statements by faculty in English, history, philosophy, and so on. I find most of the humanities statements very hard to understand. Fortunately there is a diverse committee evaluating these, and I learn a lot from discussing the files with colleagues from other departments.

My 2 main problems with comprehension of the humanities statements are: (1) when an unfamiliar term is defined, it is typically defined using one or more other unfamiliar terms; and (2) the extensive use of "quotation" marks "around" so many "words". Worse is when both occur in one sentence: e.g., Professor X has developed the novel idea that the literature of the Baltic states was strongly influenced by the unconscious retransfixation of "trees"(that is, the trans-identity of the arboreal "mind"). [note: I made that sentence up] I suppose that the quotation marks signal that a "word" might have lots of meanings for different people from different cultures or experiences and we don't want to limit ourselves to a single meaning as that would be "confining" or even hegemonic.

Eventually, we work these issues out in discussion -- the committee has broad representation from the sciences and humanities. One of the reasons this is a committee I actually like being on, despite the major time commitment, is because it is one of the few opportunities I have to meet and talk with faculty in other departments/colleges. Despite my lack of comprehension of some of the research statements, I do rather like reading them and getting a broad view of what's going on at the university. That's part of the fun of this professor job.


Anonymous said...

I took a social sciences class in undergrad that featured a lecture by a guest professor from some area of the social sciences every week. It took about 2 months before anything started to make any sense whatsoever! Ever thereafter I have enjoyed pretending to talk like a social scientist at parties where there are anthro or soc types. :)

Rosie Redfield said...

I'm on a similarly interdisciplinary committee that evaluates workshop proposals from faculty all over campus. Impenetrable (and possibly meaning-free)jargon is only half the problem with the humanities proposals. Rarely do these proposals clearly explain anything - what their hypothesis is, what they want to find out.

We scientists complain a lot about grant proposal writing, but that's probably how we learn to present logical arguments.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, that is a big issue as well, and our committee has discussed it at length -- as well as the tendency for humanities research to have a pre-ordained outcome. For example, if you examine the importance of cats in French film, you are probably going to find that cats were very important in French films. I am not as extreme about this as some of my fellow committee members. In some cases, I say: Why should humanities research conform to methods of scientific research re. hypothesis testing etc.? Sometimes it's just interesting to pursue and discuss an idea. If only I understood what some of these ideas are..

Anonymous said...

As you point out, scientists are generally aware that their work can be perceived as technical and difficult to understand. I wonder if people in softer disciplines feel, in a sense, the opposite. Like "French film? You mean it's your job to watch movies??" And so compensate in the other direction. (Hey, a testable hypothesis!)

Anonymous said...

In my study of the importance of cats in French films, it is important to first interrogate the category "cat"? The hegemonic understanding of "cat" suppresses the canine perspective. Attending to the canine in a deconstruction of "cat" allows us to re-image "cat" in a boundary transgressive move that destabilizes the inherent power structure. By asking what is "cat" in this manner, we take the first step on a journey that leads us to reconsider what, in fact, is even "French" or "film". In the end we discover that, having destabilized all pre-existing hegemonies, we are able to re-construct a vision of cat-in-French-film that incorporates the canine and broadens our understanding of "cat" and "canine" simultaneously.

Do I get the job??????

Female Science Professor said...

That is so eerie -- it is almost word for word from the research statements I've been reading. Really.