Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On Set Pieces

Since I am on a small trend of discussing things in academia that annoy me, might I mention the habit of many academics of using "set pieces"?

Now we all have set pieces that we use in lecture or even discussion: a certain, expected question comes along, and we can launch into an effective piece of oratory, with well-chosen examples and even memorized quotations.

For example, I have a set piece on Tolkien's engagement with the German race laws of the 1930's: in response to an inquiry as to whether or not he was Aryan, Tolkien replied that he was not aware of any ancestors who were Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or related dialect-speakers and then went on to say that if they were in fact asking whether or not he was Jewish, he did not know of any ancestors of that talented people, but if such impertinent questions become commonplace, he would no longer regard his German name with pride. Later he wrote to his son Christopher that would have been a better soldier at 40 than he had been at 22 due to an abiding hatred of that ruddy little ignoramous Adolph Hitler: ruining, perverting and making forever accursed that noble northern spirit Tolkien had so admired...

I also have a set piece on Thomas Jeffereson's thought to make Old English the legal language of the United States and his design for the great seal of the US to depict on one side the pillar of fire that led the Isrealites to the promised land and on the other side the Anglo-Saxon warriors Hengest and Horsa, who led the "migration" or "invation" of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to England.

Set pieces work well, though you must be judicious: I have a few students who tend to "major in Drout" and thus may have seen a set piece before.

But, I assert, you must never use a set piece on one of your colleagues, particularly if that colleague has heard you do that set piece before on undergraduates. It happened during my dissertation defense, when one of my committee members launched into a well-prepared bit on C├Ždmon's Hymn that I had heard delivered to a class less than a year before. When I stopped gripping the edges of the desk, I decided the best thing to do was visibly zone off during the presentation -- NOTE: This is a terrible strategy. Do NOT do it at your Ph.D. oral, no matter how pissed off you are. Really. Bad. Idea.

Yesterday the same thing happened to me in a meeting, and once again, I was floored. It reminded me of the scene in The Blues Brothers, where Carrie Fisher has John Belushi crawling around in the mud while she points a machine gun at him, and he tries to charm her back, and for a moment there is a priceless look on Fisher's face, a look of sheer fury that you would even dare think of trying to explain (and then John Belushi, being John Belushi, briefly makes up with her). The look on Carrie's face was the look on my face while I sat there and listened to this set piece.

Patronizing is one of the deadliest of the academic deadly sins, and is it all the more dangerous because academics fall so naturally into the trap: it's a short, short trip from Knowledgeable to Patronizing--you hardly have time to find a good seat before you're there. So don't even board the Set Piece Train in front of your colleagues.

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