Between wrapping up one search and starting another, teaching, picking at a theory-packed dissertation I’m quite enjoying, and eyeballing a stack of papers on agency to grade, I haven’t had much headspace for a full post. So this is more by way of a gesture than a completed thought, but I guess that’s what blogging is for.
I’m reading one of these agency papers, a good one which the author sets up to be an analysis of Adam Smith’s contribution to the awakening of individual independence in that fateful 1776 period. Logically enough there’s a scene-setting paragraph about the American revolution, Declaration of Independence, new world for the Brits, yadda yadda. The problem is that the intro paragraph says nothing about this context and it’s just launched into without any segue, so I think I’m going to be reading about laissez-faire and all of a sudden I’m reading about taxation without representation.
A step has been skipped. But then as if to retrace it, the author circles back and launches into a metaphor about seeds of agency watered by revolutions and technological advances and new economic theories and now we’ve got a giant plant of personal agency for the British people. Wow – but it doesn’t actually fix the setup and sequencing problem.
Now the thing is, I can easily imagine a colleague who would be so delighted by the flight of metaphorical fancy as to give a pass on the structural problem. And of course I know that the students receive a variety of instruction on how to write papers, some of it contradictory and much of it looking to them like the personal taste of particular professors. We pick our battles and we have our preferences. So is there a sense in which the plant metaphor is actually a good gambit and I’m just being narrowminded about wanting a more literal exposition?
I don’t think so. I’ve assigned this as an analytical essay and that’s what I’m teaching. There are certain readers for whom literary considerations will trump expository ones, and in some contexts that’s defensible. There are many others for whom it won’t, also for good reason. On the other hand, there are few or no competent readers who will fail to appreciate an accomplished analytical exposition. The standards are transitive one way but not the other.
I think it’s a good idea to teach reasons, not rules or tastes. So for the reason that the standards of sequenced expository analysis are transitive whereas tastes in metaphors are not, I’m going to call a foul on this particular move and press forward boldly with teaching a kind of writing that will be recognized as good by all but the most narrowly idiosyncratic reader.