… that the New Yorker magazine used to have an amusing feature (maybe it still does?) called Block that Metaphor!, in which the editors printed excerpts from writing that featured mixed or excessive metaphors.

SOS considers the problem of excessive and awkward metaphors in a recent piece of writing by a North Carolina state senator denouncing the athletic/academic scandal at Chapel Hill. As always, her comments are set off from the main text. The senator’s writing is bolded.

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The UNC academic fraud scandal is like a pesky staph infection that just won’t go away for university officials — nor should it. As reporters at the Raleigh News and Observer continue to dig, they uncover more and more dirty little secrets. The latest problems swirl around a pus pocket called the Academic Support Program.

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Okay, so first things first: Figurative language is basically a good thing; it’s there to pep up your writing, make it more vivid. But the figures you choose should have some pertinence to the situation about which you’re writing; they should help us envision it, or think about it, more clearly, as in this famous opening paragraph from Orwell’s essay, “Down the Mine”:

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.

The caryatid image takes our mind to that paradigmatic location, the Acropolis. Orwell thus has us, from the outset, exactly where he wants us, equating the miners with the foundations of civilization. Thom Goolsby’s pus pocket does have a connection to his subject in that we often talk about corruption in the language of spreading sickness. The “cancer of corruption,” for instance, has become a cliche. But his elaborately evoked, way icky, somehow comical image is simply over the top, especially for an opening paragraph. It suggests an out of control anger about his topic that immediately diverts the reader’s attention from the subject at hand to the mentality of the writer.

Here’s a really extreme example of a bad comparison, from Morrissey:

“We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 dead. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried [Chicken] every day.”

Of course Goolsby’s isn’t that grotesque, but it has that same feel of absurd incommensurability, an unfitness to the topic under discussion.

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For many years some football and basketball players, known to the University as “Special Admits,” were assisted by the Academic Support Program and allowed to take no-show classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Billed as lecture classes, the courses were offered by none other than the chairman of the department. The classes never met — leading one to wonder why the courses were scheduled at all.


Mary Willingham, a reading specialist at UNC, worked in the Academic Support Program. She told reporters she met numerous athletes who had never even read a book, nor did they know what a paragraph was. Willingham reported numerous instances of academic fraud, but no administrator wanted to hear from her. Why would they?

These student-athletes (the term “student” is used lightly here) played in the all-important category of revenue-producing sports. Such individuals are precious commodities at any major university because college sports programs bring in billions of dollars every year to the schools that maintain them. The money comes from many different places, including trademarks, endorsements, media revenues, postseason games and big money from alumni donors.

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This is okay, though the final sentence in the first paragraph would have more impact if Goolsby dropped the last part of it (“which leads one to wonder…”). Just end with “met.” It makes the point, and the finality on the monosyllabic word “met,” combined with the white space before the next paragraph, nails the idea of the nothingness of the courses. In the same way, drop Why would they? at the end of the next paragraph. When expressing rage and disgust, you want to be cool, collected — even cold. Hot rhetorical questions dissolve the sharp substantive language you want.

Wordiness in general – saying much more than you need to – is a problem in this essay. Drop the parenthetic the term ‘student’ is used lightly here. It’s much better simply to use the term – without quotation marks – and proceed. Trust the reader to understand the irony you’re bringing to it. And think of the other words better dropped to make this attack lean and mean: The writer uses the ugly, clunky word numerous (just says lots, or tons, or plenty, or many, — trim your syllables when possible) twice. The final paragraph here would be better if you dropped all-important (precious makes the point). Individuals, like numerous, is a multisyllabic, vague, and rather pretentious word. If the writer had combined his first two sentences, he wouldn’t have needed to come up with another word for players. His second sentence should have ended at billions (same principle as in the first sentence of this excerpt). Or, once having dropped that verbiage, the writer could have attached his final sentence to this one:

These student-athletes played revenue-producing sports, making them precious commodities able to bring in billions from trademarks, endorsements, media revenues, postseason games and big alumni donors.

Okay, back to metaphors.

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It’s the gladiators who bring crowds to the arena and it should surprise no one that schools will do whatever it takes to field the best possible team. What is shameful is the continued smokescreen produced by the UNC administration around this scandal. Academic fraud has prompted no less than four investigations at UNC. One is currently being led by former Governor Jim Martin. So far the governing body of college sports, the NCAA, has not sullied its hands in the most recent fraud revelations.

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Should be
no fewer than.

You see what I mean by an excess of metaphor and simile? In this short paragraph, gladiators wrestle with smokescreens and dirty hands. It’s not that any particular image is bad; but jamming them together, one after another, has the reader’s mind dashing off in distracting directions.

In the next few paragraphs, SOS will highlight in red language that if dropped would make this a more powerful argument.

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Governor Martin’s investigation should provide clear answers and solutions for dealing with the scandal. So far, administrators are using the former Republican governor’s inquiry as a dodge to avoid any comments. When asked about the problem, Chancellor Holden Thorp refused [say refuses] to talk, stating that everyone was focused on the Governor’s investigation and that’s all he had to say.

Further, university officials repeatedly claim that FERPA does not allow them to discuss developments in the academic fraud case or release records to the public. FERPA is an acronym for the federal “Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.” [Put this information in a parenthesis after your first use of FERPA.] The University claims this law does not allow them [Find a way to avoid repeating these words.] to release records or face the loss of federal funding. A few documents were disclosed, providing strong evidence as to the extent of the scandal.

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Weak or odd metaphor, redundancy, and unnecessary words will now appear again.

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It is past time for a criminal investigation into these fraudulent activities. For far too long, academic scandals have been treated with the soft glove approach. The local district attorney’s office should begin an immediate criminal probe. If the DA does not wish to handle this matter, he should request that the Attorney General appoint a Special Prosecutor to handle this case.

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The word “criminal” appears twice; you can drop into these fraudulent activities and for far too long. Adding the word “approach” to “soft glove” weighs it down. Just write with a soft glove. End on your strongest word – and that’s glove, not approach.

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The reputation of the state’s flagship university is at stake and someone must take this matter seriously. [This is just blahblah at this point in the essay. Drop the whole thing, or risk looking like a blowhard politician.] Any prosecutor worth his salt would turn detectives loose on staff and administrators involved in the fraud and subsequent cover-up. If necessary, the General Assembly could consider legislation to make prosecuting this type of academic fraud easier.

Additionally, the UNC Board of Governors should seriously consider [Drop seriously consider; makes you look weaselly. If you think they should resign, say it forthrightly.] asking for the resignations of current UNC Trustees who failed to safeguard academic integrity. They have shown little willingness to get to the truth of this scandal and cure the infection. When UNC comes to the General Assembly for more funding, university officials should expect that legislators charged with representing the taxpayers will demand answers.

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He does circle back nicely at the end to infection, which gives the piece some coherence.

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