The Academic’s Guide to Academese


Arts & Culture


The following definitions are culled from a critical glossary written by a group of Princeton graduate students and faculty. The glossary defines fifty-eight terms common to academic life, in a style intended “to prick both egos and consciences.”

art. Most generally, the ability, manner, or “knack” essential to the realization of some task or goal, especially when tricky or specialized (e.g., “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”). Also, a large class of objects and/or nonmaterial phenomena privileged for their putative ability to occasion unpredictable but significant responses (particularly aesthetic, but sometimes sentimental or political) in individuals and groups. A term substantially defined by resistance to definition. Hence, difficult to define satisfactorily, if also satisfactory to define difficultly.

canon. A sacred weapon within academic departments, fired ritually upon the uninitiated or wayward. Injuries suffered may generate the scars requisite for entry into the relevant sodalities and/or encampments. 

emancipation. Freedom; arguably the single highest political/intellectual ideal across much of the world, at least in the wake of late eighteenth-century developments commonly referred to as the “Enlightenment.” Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences write books and articles that seek to emancipate readers, generally from what are understood to be ideological misprisions inimical to the proper experience or full exercise of human freedom. Interestingly, however, relatively few of the scholars in question seem to have a robust account of into what condition of existence it would be ideal for humans to be freed. But this is a very hard problem. Gestural micromaneuvers away from one or another punitive nonfreedom will generally suffice in the introduction and/or conclusion of a scholarly work.

excellence. The substantive form of the familiar adjective excellent, meaning “of the highest quality,” and, more specifically, “surpassing related or adjacent members of the relevant class.” As a noun, the term designates the state of being “better than” other persons, places, or things. Interestingly, while it permits the conveyance of this sense, the term never requires that the surpassing of the broader field be specified: from a grammatical perspective, the comparative or competitive implications of the word are sublimated. Excellence is the basic objective of most modern human activity in developed societies. Within the expansive culture of neoliberalism, excellence functions a little like money: everyone needs to pursue it; the pursuit of it is considered not only the pursuit of a fundamental good, but also a fundamentally good pursuit, one that has the capacity virtuously to organize and to motivate both individual and collective life. Within academic settings, the pursuit of excellence—by persons and institutions—is essentially the unique “absolute good” upon which there seems to be unanimous consensus. The resulting distortions of human experience are difficult to summarize concisely but might be said to include compulsive competition, pervasive hyperspecialization, a ubiquitous capitulation to mechanomorphic ideals (both in the realms of thought and those of the body), want of textured appreciation of the diversity and vicissitudes of life itself, and a widespread and barely concealed disdain for weakness, failure, doomed gestures, tragedy, paralysis, fragility, mediocrity, and the ordinary in all its forms (this despite there being excellent evidence that this litany epitomizes much that is essential to human being).

irony. Notionally, the simultaneity of two (or more) perspectives. Any account of irony must begin with a caveat: if irony were to be successfully defined, it would cease to be useful. The difficulty of clarifying its operations in ordinary language precisely defines the domain within which it can operate. Still, it is not wrong to say that irony involves a doubleness, and such a description, as vague as it may be, can nonetheless suggest why irony might be so important for interdisciplinary studies. The greatest risk to interdisciplinarity as an intellectual project is the collapse of its perspectivalism into a monologic method. Interdisciplinarity, that is, depends upon the persistence and the discretion of its constitutive disciplines. The best interdisciplinary thinking arises not from a fusion but from a friction of methods. The interdisciplinarian, therefore, does well to be an ironist, agile among the disciplines, capable of seeing each under the aspect of the others, committed wholesale to none of them—which is to say that interdisciplinary thinking is not more knowing than the knowledge given by the disciplines on which it depends (as it often claims to be), but less, and that is its value.

progress. The gymnastics of moving forward, understood as advancement or improvement, although possible without any propulsive motion, as in the case of stationary bikes.


Excerpted from Keywords: For Further Consideration and Particularly Relevant to Academic Life, Especially as It Concerns Disciplines, Inter-Disciplinary Endeavor, and Modes of Resistance to the Same, authored by A Community of Inquiry, edited by D. Graham Burnett, Matthew Rickard, and Jessica Terekhov. Copyright © 2018 by IHUM BOOKS. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.