Tuesday, 03 May 2005

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Anecdotes Personal and Professional and Awful [Skip to elsewhere if you prefer your whining in small doses.] Today's been a busy day in these headless quarters. I'm debating whether the Academic Introductions Project should continue straddling the fence between utter buffonery and responsible cataloguing because, despite my best efforts, I'm now categorizing every introduction I read. Don't misunderstand me: I finish the essays. But an inordinate number of my reading notes now focus on the first paragraph. Sometimes this approach produces some interesting (if obvious) insights, as when reading Cathy Davidson's "No! In Thunder" in the most recent American Literature I noticed that she introduces the essay with an anecdote, constructs a narrative by stringing together anecdotes, but then dismisses the evidentiary value of the anecdote the moment the ideological opposition shares some. Davidson is probably correct, as you'll see, but the logic subtending her claim poses some problems for her argument. Davidson counters the way conservatives "use the word 'harassment' to describe what happens to conservatives on our nation's campuses" by saying "Let me tell you about harassment." And she does, convincingly, with an anecdote about the death threats she received after she accepted the editorial helm of American Literature. Despite the number of complaints by conservative professors across the country, however, she determines that their "whining" is illegitimate because the evidence of systemic liberal bias is entirely local and anecdotal. How does she know these anecdotal complaints are illegitimate? As she says, "I have never heard any Republican colleague report anything similar [to death threats], despite some current whining about 'harassment' of conservatives. Let's get real, folks." Granted, this article is more personal essay than academic article. Granted, she knows she stands before the choir. And, as I already granted, her points hit the mark. I grant all that and am still bothered by her belief that the only representative anecdotes are the ones she believes are representative. The unrepresentative anecdotes ideological opponents repeat ad nauseam are easily dismissed because they don't jive with her equally unrepresentative anecdotes. Could she provide intelligent conservatives with a better portrait of the clubby quality of left intellectual thought? "I can't step out of my office without tripping over Republicans," she argues, "so they ought to stop whining about being unrepresented in academia. Let's get real, folks." Doesn't she recognize that her appeal to "folks" validates the very point she's condescendingly dismissing? Doesn't she recognize that if she's arguing with anecdotes then anecdotes are fair game? These are the sorts of observations I'm making now that I'm concentrating on the formal and stylistic characteristics of academic introductions. I could huff and puff in this sober tone at length, and I think recognizing and criticizing problem claims in arguments with which you otherwise fundamentally agree is time well spent. But I don't want to be the Bill Hicks of academia, spouting the things people generally believe and loved to be reminded they believe. (Bill Maher veers in this general direction on occasion, or at least he did before he...

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