Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Eschew obfuscation in your discourse!

I attended a lecture recently by Michael Silverstein, a distinguished professor of anthropology, linguistics and psychology at the University of Chicago, at which he discussed “Culture, Conversation and Creativity”. It was simultaneously the most amusing and the most dreadfully boring event I’ve attended in a long time.

I found it incredibly entertaining to listen to someone speak about the art of conversation for an hour while actually speaking straight-faced in the kind of vernacular one usually encounters in graduate school textbooks, flavoring his fairly trancendental speech by remarking frequently on the humor of Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte and telling jokes about the candidates in the 1984 presidential election. Vatti, my mentor and I, sat in the back row and poked jabs at him the entire time. It was great!

It really reminded me, though, of the vast ineptitude in the actual teaching that goes on in both high school and higher education. I appreciate the incredible experience that people like Michael Silverstein (“that’s SilverSHTEEN!”) bring to the world, but I cannot help but wonder if part of the reason education at all levels struggles to be effective has to do with the inability of teachers to speak to people in language—all kinds of language—that they can understand. Perhaps the distinguished professor knew his audience very well, and used the delivery he did intentionally. My money says he didn’t.

I’ll take that back. I think he probably did what he felt was necessary to maintain the carefully crafted image of a superior academician. At his level of education, after all, image is everything. It’s all about looking and sounding smarter and more superior than the average, because that’s how people spar with each other in his world. They don’t use insults or throw money around. They sling obscure references to past popular culture in the most abstruse and recondite language possible.

I can do that, but I really prefer to do my verbal sparring with television and movie quotes. Did anyone get the obscure movie reference up above? Bonus points to anyone with the answer!

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