Friday, March 09, 2012

The bottom of the academic barrel

It's not only the Chinese academic who can drive me to rages of tears with his/her laziness, ineptitude, inconsistency, and muddled thinking.

The latest huge batch of academic editing I had to deal with included a couple of pieces by European writers - and they were pretty nearly as bad as the Chinese articles.

There are two linking factors which I think may explain this.

The first, of course, is that this is a Chinese academic journal I was editing for - so, it has no profile, no credibility: it is a sump for talentless time-servers who need to rack up some token 'getting something published' brownie points, but have no chance of their work being accepted by any decent journal (with a peer review screening system).

I suspect that an almost equally potent reason, though, is the fact that these people are all from the field of 'Marxist studies'.  Marxism - and, even more so, its Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist and other derivatives - has ceased to have much credibility or relevance in the modern world. Most academic institutes specialising in this field today are sponsored by the former Communist countries for propaganda purposes. It's a niche that mostly only attracts third-rate intellects and loony obsessives.

Moreover, having sprung from the German philosophical tradition - Hegelian dialectics and so on - Marxism is heavily burdened with obscure and self-referential jargon. Enthusiasts get rather too intoxicated with this secret code, thinking perhaps that the circularity of their arguments is effectively concealed from their readers by the impenetrability of their vocabulary. Or perhaps they just derive the same giddy thrill from the exercise as a dog does from madly chasing its own tail.

Yes, I believe the nature of Marxism and Marxist studies largely explains the intellectual poverty of most of the people who choose to write in this field. It does not fully explain why such writers are incapable even of giving consistent citations or transcribing quotations accurately.  [The last jackass I had to deal with had relied for almost 10% of his bloated 12,000-word text on extended - and garbled - quotations from this excellent book on the art of Chinese propaganda posters from the Mao era. Fortunately, that book is on the shelf right next to my desk, so it wasn't too much of a bother to correct these quotations from the original source; well, it wouldn't have been, if the dingbat had even managed to get the page references right! This is not part of the service usually expected of a proofreader, or even of an editor/polisher. I invariably go the extra mile - and more - like this because I care about quality, in an abstract way, for its own sake... regardless of financial remuneration or whether my efforts will be noticed or appreciated by anyone. I fear this makes me something of an endangered species.]


John said...

What I don't understand is why the 'a law unto themselves' "commie"ist fraternity give their work to someone in the real world to work on. Could you explain this to me, I'm assuming it's a case of boundaries becoming blurred.

John said...

To add, I saw a BBC documentary a couple of years back about a Chinese PhD student and his young family. I can't remember what it was called so unfortunately I can't link you to anything but it sheds a light on a new angle on this topic. He was a very nice chap and had spent some time in Germany. To that end his writings had broadened from his original, blinkered Xist teachings to something more rounded and, well let's not beat around the bush here, more correct. However, when he went to publish this mountain of work he was fiercely put down, berated even by the Chinese alumni in residence and told to cleanse it back to something they would find acceptable. To his credit he did attempt to justify his additions to them (stuff I have no knowledge about but the gist was that it was more evolved) but he was up against a lot, not to mention the social culture of respecting elders and more importantly thinking of his family and the extra bother they didn't need at that time. So you might not realise it but I expect a fair number of the papers you work on are written by some pretty disillusioned people bogged down with the knowledge that they must write x and y but not z alongside those who do genuinely follow the Xist line the whole hammer and tongs (AND sickle).

Froog said...

I would like to think I get hired because I'm good - but, in fact, most of the people I work for have little or no concern for quality.

I worry that it's just because I'm affordable - although I do make a point of turning down a lot of really low-paid work, and always haggling for an enhanced rate on the jobs I accept.

Basically, it's because they know me - the old Chinese guanxi thing again. Very nearly ALL jobs here are allocated on the basis of personal introductions. Fortunately, because I've been here so long and networked so hard, a lot of people know me, and so I get quite a lot of job offers.

Froog said...

I wonder what subject the PhD candidate was studying in that documentary you mention, John. I suspect it was history or politics/international relations, if he was coming under that much pressure to modify his dissertation even when studying overseas.

I have observed on here a number of times that academia is one of the most hidebound areas of public life in China, the sphere where old-style Communism is still most influential. Almost all university teachers are CCP members, indoctrination is still pretty intense, and advancement is dependent on toeing the party line more than achieving excellence in your field.

Philosophy is a particularly dead area of study. A friend of mine and I taught for a little while in the Philosophy department at one of Beijing's leading universities a few years back, and students and professors alike virtually wept with frustration at how much they were required to focus on - or at least to accommodate - the precepts of Marxism/Maoism.

There's also a problem, of course that universities only started to get going here around the turn of the 20th century, suffered decades of disruption through revolution, civil war, and the Japanese invasion - and then got shut down completely for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, just as they were getting going. So, an 'academic tradition' in the Western sense in still only in its infancy here.

There's also an unfortunate mindset ingrained in the ancient culture that rote-learning of the 'classics' - rather than an analysis or original observation - is enough, at least for younger scholars (up to the age of 50, say!!).

Most of the articles I get asked to edit - in any field - contain almost no original work at all; they are merely literature reviews, ragbag summaries of everything the author has read. In the field of literature (the area of the last big clump of editing I did), they typically spend 70% or 80% of their text merely describing - in laborious detail - what happens in the story or stories that are the chosen subject of their paper, with just a few analytical points (invariably culled from other authors) thrown in as seasoning here and there. Most of the time, even this isn't very well done: it's the kind of thing that we in the West would do as a straightforward writing exercise in junior or middle school - "my holiday book report". And, very often, the level of insight you get from Chinese doctoral candidates - and even from "respected" professors - is no better than you might get from a reasonably bright 13-year-old back home.

John said...

Did some more digging around and finally found a page about it- (yours to watch for only $295!) His subject was actually Philosophy and if I remember correctly the fingers of the staunch CCPers and such weren't able to reach him abroad (good to know although Chinese students sure like to form cliques away from home so who knows who was interfering with his work, or not) which was why it was so sad to see him face these guys when he came home. Anyway, nice little programme; it's a shame I can't find anywhere to watch it again.