Chat with us, powered by LiveChat How Do I Annotate a Text? 1. Use highlighters or | Coms Paper

How Do I Annotate a Text?

1. Use highlighters or sticky notes

2. Read everything at least twice. Read through once to get the gist. Read through the second time and break into

small sections, reading more carefully and critically.

3. Mark anything that is:

• Confusing

• Interesting

• Surprising

• Important

• Unfamiliar

4. Annotate by

• Circling, underlining, and marking important ideas and explaining their significance on the side or in the


• Mark repetition.

• Circle or mark confusing words or phrases and defining them from context or from the dictionary.

• Noting pages or passages that generate a strong positive or negative response from you as you are


• Write questions for ideas or passages that need clarification. These questions can be for the teacher to

answer, for the team to discuss, or for follow-up/future assignments

• Think about the connections between this text and other text you have read, information from other classes,

and personal experiences outside of the classroom

What are some common annotation marks? Below are some common marks to make in the margins of texts to clarify

your thoughts. You do not use all these, all the time. Use what works for you.

2/22/22, 10:17 AM Critiquing, Defending Academic BS 1/5

Critiquing, Defending Academic BS
Submitted by Scott Jaschik on March 17, 2009 – 3:00am

SAN FRANCISCO — A much discussed essay in the journal College
Composition and Communication last year was titled “A Kind Word for Bullshit:
The Problem of Academic Writing.” In the essay, Philip Eubanks and John D.
Schaeffer — both on the English faculty at Northern Illinois University —
acknowledge that much writing by professors, especially in the humanities, is
seen as bull by many others [1].

“For many non-academics, academic writing is not just bullshit but bullshit of
the worst kind,” they write. “When non-academics call academic writing
bullshit, they mean that it uses jargon, words whose meanings are so abstract
and vague as to seem unrelated to anyone’s experience. Such jargon seems
to contribute nothing to the reader except confusion and serves only to
enhance the ethos of the speaker, a strategy that the general public dislikes
precisely because they suspect that academics are taken in by it.”

While the essay defends some writing that is not easily understood by the lay
reader, it suggests that academics need to pay more attention to how their
writing is received outside the faculty lounge.

In that spirit, a panel at the annual meeting of the Conference on College
Composition and Communication considered the question of “Empty Rhetoric
and Academic Bullshit: Strategies for Composition’s Self-Representation in
National Arenas.” In the discussion, participants differed on how much of a
problem their language is – and because this is a meeting of language and
rhetoric experts, the discussion referenced issues that were personal to
scholars’ work and values.

Published on Inside Higher Ed

Home > Critiquing, Defending Academic BS

2/22/22, 10:17 AM Critiquing, Defending Academic BS 2/5

The organizers of the panel invited Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at
Emory University, to kick things off, expecting and receiving a critique of their
discipline’s approach to research and the public.

Bauerlein started by noting that many of the reports issued by the composition
group and panels at the meeting deal with issues of race, class, gender and so
forth, and he said that this would make no sense to the “man in the street.”
Such a person would say “it’s just writing” and wonder why “politically charged
subjects” capture such attention.

While Bauerlein is critical of what he sees as a political one-sidedness on
humanities faculties, he was careful to say that he was not arguing that the
man in the street was “right” and that in fact this man might have a “simplistic”
view of teaching writing. But Bauerlein said that the gap between the public
understanding of what composition is about and the discipline’s understanding
of itself is “not healthy for anyone.”

A key source of this problem, Bauerlein said, is the “publish or perish” system
of academic advancement. The “extraordinary burden” on scholars in
composition and rhetoric to come up with something new to say, he said,
results in work becoming more specialized, with “every narrower niches,”
language that can only be understood by other experts, and a “progressive
departure from popular understandings” of what writing is about.

“Disciplinary sense,” Bauerlein said, replaces “common sense” and no one
outside the field understands it any more.

Given that freshman composition is frequently the only required course for
students at many colleges, Bauerlein said that people who teach the course
have “power” and should not be so disconnected from society.

Another critique of the field was offered by Margaret Price, assistant professor
of English at Spelman College, who compared the two disciplines of which she
is a part: rhetoric/composition and disability studies. Disability studies, Price
said, “spends less time — in my estimation — talking to itself and more time
working on fostering public understanding.”

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The composition association, she said, “tends to operate as if we ourselves
are our most important audience, and we don’t pay enough attention to other
audiences,” such as students’ parents, state legislators and “academic
skeptics” such as Bauerlein.

As an example, she cited the composition group’s new blog on diversity, [2]

created as part of an association effort to produce a statement on diversity.
Price said that she admires much of the writing on the blog, but that it “doesn’t
seem very blog-like to me.” She noted that the writing isn’t “especially messy
or unpredictable” and that “many of the participants seem to have agreed to

Composition scholars need to “take seriously charges that we theorize too
much and teach too little, however much such charges might offend us and
our sense of ourselves,” she said. That means inviting more public voices, a
diversity of views, and “allowing mess” — through online, informal writing.

To illustrate how this might look, she cited the movement dubbed “The Trouble
With Jerry,” [3] a protest of disability studies scholars and disability rights

activists of the ideas of Jerry Lewis and the recent honorary Oscar he
received. This movement is playing out on blogs, Facebook, YouTube and
elsewhere — and while scholars are participating, the discussion is
understandable to someone new to the issue, Price said.

Price said that while not everyone agrees with every part of this movement, it
has captured public attention (prompting articles and television coverage) and
clearly reached a non-academic audience, including people who haven’t
previously thought about disability issues. By organizing in this way, she said,
participants will be criticized, and internal divisions among those in disability
studies will become apparent, too. But she argued that there is credibility that
comes from “genuine outreach to diverse opinions,” adding that “if we are not
willing to get a little messier in the ways that we engage with our potential
audiences in national arenas, what we say may end up smelling of bullshit.”

Mike Edwards, an assistant professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy,
said that he also saw the problem with composition scholars feeling proprietary

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about their control of discussion of writing. He described talking to a colleague
in the history department who reminded him: “Yours is not the only discipline …
with expertise and investment in the production of writing.”

Edwards said that he sees some of the dangers Bauerlein and others have
discussed. But he said that many times, such critiques actually come with their
own non-writing philosophy for teaching writing: namely that it’s important
because it is economically valuable for students to write well. While not
disputing that students benefit from writing well, he questioned the
“commodification of writing.” With debates in writing over intellectual property,
the use of writing tutors, the purchase of papers online, and educationally
valuable but nontraditional approaches such as peer coaching in writing,
Edwards said that theory has a role in understanding the process — even
theory that runs counter to public understandings of writing.

And Lauren Rosenberg, an assistant professor of English at Eastern
Connecticut State University, warned of the desire of some critics to “keep
compositionists quiet and constrained,” focused on “skills and drills.” She said
that these calls are typically based on a “mythic past” where composition
instructors somehow produced perfect writers.

Audience reaction was mixed. One person in the audience suggested that
Bauerlein has “taken advantage of public misunderstandings” of writing and
other humanities issues to advance his own ideas.

Bauerlein replied that he would never want to impose any sort of ideological
conformity on professors — and he said that the public doesn’t want that either.
“They want professors to be critical, to be judgmental, and to be a measure of
opposition to mainstream norms,” he said. But it is possible for professors to
play that role while also explaining their work in ways everyone can
understand, and while respecting the views of the public.

It is the “complacency and condescension” of professors that gets them into
trouble, he said, not the substance of their ideas.

One audience member said she was very pleased to hear the discussion. She
said that as an instructor at a community college, focused on teaching, she

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sympathizes with members of the public who don’t understand the discipline. “I
get a half dozen journals and I’m lucky if I find two articles a year that help
me,” she said. “I find it really frustrating not be spoken to. If you aren’t a
researcher, it’s gobbledygook.”

Source URL:


Academic Writing in an Age of BS Assignment

Instructions for Task #1:

Follow the step-by-step process to produce a final product. Read through the instructions carefully.

Step 1.

You will need to make annotations on these articles, located in the “required readings for this module”


• On Bullshit 16
• A Kind Word for BS 16
• The Prevalence of Humbug 21
• Short of Lying 18
• Critiquing, Defending Academic BS 3
• How Data And Information Literacy Could End Fake News 7

***Please use the worksheet for the annotations!!! I cannot stress this enough. It will simplify this task.

Be prepared to make connections between the articles.

I want you to be aware of the scholarly position and academic writing. You will need to be aware of the

this to make your own theory between BS and academic writing. And believe me, there is plenty of…

well, I won’t go there.

The Nietzsche article you can leave until you work on the reflection part (but do not forget this). You

will need to know his character traits to be able to write his part.

Step 2.

The tasks.

Divide up the six tasks among team members (each person must have a different task). I am keeping

track. Depending on the number of team members, not all tasks will be completed. Again, you will pick

only one task to complete. You, alone, will be responsible for your work. It must be original.

Plagiarizing on this assignment will result in failure of the assignment or failure of the course (see

university policy in syllabus).

Brainstorm about each article in a collaboration session before you begin—this is optional, but it will help

to voice your thoughts on this topic.

Note: This is an essay that you are turning in for a grade. I will look for creativity—did you include

images? Are these images inserted correctly? Did you thoroughly work with the idea/task given? Did you

provide evidence in the form of quotes, in-text citations, and a Works Cited section? Is the essay properly

formatted by MLA style standards? Did you write the reflection part that included all the authors? In this

reflection part, I am expecting dialogue and to see how you work with character traits.

Before you begin, know the general message you to convey, the purpose, and the audience.

Task #1: Evaluating the articles

Evaluating articles increases the reader’s understanding of the main idea and themes. Interpretation and
evaluation assess the information learned and you arrive at a conclusion. Work with each article
individually, addressing each question in separate paragraphs:

• What is your opinion of the topic and how it is treated in the article?

• How would you evaluate the author?

• How did you select the quotes used for your annotation?

• What data was used?

• Discuss the work’s organization and style

• Discuss the article’s effectiveness (subject matter)

• Discussion of the author’s treatment of the topic

• Discuss the appeal to a particular audience

In each bullet you must make judgments (think, defend, or criticize) using evidence from the article. You
should address all the articles using subtitles; a template is provided. Change all highlighted areas.

Length of text: minimum 5 pages; no maximum.

Perspective: evaluations are commonly found in the workplace.

Evaluate: v. to determine the significance, worth, or condition of by careful appraisal and study.
Organization: n. process of putting the different parts in a certain order. When things are laid out in some
sort of order, we can work with them more easily. If we can impose some kind of order on information, the
information is easier to talk about, easier to understand, and easier to remember. Principles of
organization include: chronological, spatial, climatic, and topical.
Style: n. distinctive manner of expression; custom of behaving or conducting oneself. How does the
author use words? These words will reflect their personality. Focus on word choice, sentence structure,
figurative language.


Then make connections between the texts, lecture notes, and textbook (Length: 1 page).

• What are some similarities?

• What are some differences?

• What claims do the author’s make and do you agree with them? Do you agree with some or all or
none? Why or why not? Explain your logic. Provide evidence.

• Do they all share the same definition of the word, bullshit? Why or why not? Provide evidence.

• What is academic writing?

• What is bullshit? Do you think about this differently than just a phrase you might have thrown
around in the past? Have you thought about this term in an academic sense?

• Discuss a recurring theme that crosses the articles.

Theme—a broad idea, message, moral, universal truth, or lesson expressed. See examples of themes

*Allow time for proofreading. Check grammar and punctuation. MLA format.
*Do not forget images with this part of your section, make sure they are labeled correctly by MLA

Reflection (creative writing):

Our selected Authors and Readings:

▪ Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit
▪ Philip Eubanks & John D. Schaeffer, A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing
▪ Max Black, The Prevalence of Humbug
▪ Heinz Brandenburg, Short of Lying: The prevalence of bullshit in political communication
▪ Scott Jaschik, Critiquing, Defending Academic BS
▪ Friedrich Nietzsche document

Imagine these authors seated around the formal dining table; a fine dining experience hosted by yourself.

There is also another person at the table; he wasn’t invited, but neither is he unwelcome as far as most of
the other guests are concerned. Once the brandy and cigars arrive, Friedrich Nietzsche says, “Live
dangerously! That’s MY motto!”

Each of the guests, taking turns, one at a time,

#1 propose their own motto, and explain WHY they think about bullshit the way they do, and how the
motto captures the essence of their axiomatic beliefs concerning the question of bullshit (whether that
might be argued by some as a socially political matter, or a personally ethical matter) and then
#2 why they agree or disagree with Nietzsche’s motto, what it is specifically they agree or disagree with
considering what (specifically) MUST be the philosophical assumptions (ontological and anthropological)
behind the motto Nietzsche announced.

*Remember each author has published a document about a taboo idea in the world of education. Even
Nietzsche was critical of teachers.

Each of the guest’s responses, therefore, has TWO parts. Both parts are of equal value, and each guest’s
answers are of equal value to those of the other guests. So, cover each author relatively equally.

Your essay, to be precise, MUST be based exclusively on relevant quotations from specific readings we
had from each of the authors. No quote, no credit. No baloney gleaned from other sources or
generalizations, etc. etc. etc. Be careful there. You may paraphrase from our readings, of course, and
adapt the quote to the topic as necessary.

Take some time to sketch out your ideas. Make a nicely structured dramatization. Give good thought to
the motto you are inventing for each author. It should powerfully reflect the thinker’s chief idea on bullshit.

I cannot put a length on this part of the assignment because it really depends on how you see it “play”
out. They dialogue will show your understanding and each author’s character traits. You can also have a
mix of dialogue and sentences or a mix of straight dialogue and paragraphs that provided explanation.
You are capable of determining the flow of this section.

Philosophical assumptions—In any kind of work or study, we always bring a certain set of beliefs as well
as philosophical assumptions. Qualitative researchers understand the importance of beliefs and theories
that inform their work and also actively write about them in their research.

Ontological (The nature of reality): Relates to the nature of reality and its characteristics. Researchers
embrace the idea of multiple realities and report on these multiple realities by exploring multiple forms of
evidence from different individuals’ perspectives and experiences.

Anthropological: When conceived in contemporary terms, philosophical thought might come within its
purview only as an element in the culture of some society that is under study. Also, philosophical thought
extends to an explanatory interpretation of the human being, man, and his essentially human action.

*Remember each author has published a document about their concept concerning bullshit in society for
an academic audience.

Take some time to sketch out your ideas. Make a nicely structured dramatization.


• How do people identify bullshit?

• What is the principal ideology that each author strives to achieve? (motto—you can look for
phrases within the article)

• How would each author react, positively and negatively, to someone calling their bluff after
voicing their motto?

Common themes:

• Confidence v insecurities

• Overcoming fears

• Appreciation/gratitude

• Acceptance/tolerance

• Kindness

• Honesty v Dishonesty

• Teamwork v Individualism

• The importance of education/ Intellectual education/ Moral education

• Code of conduct

• Social change

• Civilized v uncivilized society

• Power v weakness/no control

• Sacrifice (What will you do to save/help someone?)

• Choices and possibilities

• Life out of balance/chaos v order

• Communication: verbal and nonverbal

• Knowledge: empowering or destructive

• Traditions v change

• Responsibilities

• Bravery v cowardice

• Overcoming adversities

• Uncertainty (Or, the impossibility of certainty)

• Life v death

• Patterns (in human interaction, nature, etc.)

• Conflict (Interpersonal, intrapersonal, etc.)

• Exploration

• Relationships (purpose of, etc.)

• Force (attracts, repels, influences of, causes of)

• Time (value of it)

• Innocence v experience

• Human needs


C C C 5 9 : 3 / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 8

CCC 59:3 / FEBRUARY 2008


Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer

A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic

The phrase “academic bullshit” presents compositionists with a special dilemma. Be-
cause compositionists study, teach, and produce academic writing, they are open to
the accusation that they both tolerate and perpetuate academic bullshit. We argue that
confronting this problem must begin with a careful definition of “bullshit” and “aca-
demic bullshit.” In contrast to Harry Frankfurt’s checklist method of definition, we ex-
amine “bullshit” as a graded category. We suggest that some varieties of academic
bullshit may be both unavoidable and beneficial.

n 2005, Princeton University Press republished, in book form, Harry
Frankfurt’s classic essay “On Bullshit.” Perhaps predictably, since most aca-
demic titles are not nearly so earthy, the book received more than the usual
amount of public interest. On Bullshit garnered flattering attention in the New
York Times and on 60 Minutes, Frankfurt appeared on The Daily Show, and the
book sold briskly. But for all the fanfare and commercial success, Frankfurt’s
essay is rather modest. He notes that bullshit is all around us, and yet “we have
no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, and what
functions it serves” (1). Therefore, he proposes to “give a rough account of what
bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not,” and he cautions that he can-

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Text Box
Copyright © 2008 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.


E U B A N K S & S C H A E F F E R / A K I N D W O R D F O R B U L L S H I T

not offer anything “decisive” (2–3). This article proposes to take up where Frank-
furt left off and to address the question of bullshit in a way that is especially
pertinent to academics, even more pertinent to people in the humanities and
social sciences, and most pertinent of all to those who specialize in rhetoric
and writing.

Frankfurt is right that all of us are familiar with bullshit. We are also con-
flicted about it. In the United States, few words signal the same kind of am-
bivalence. Bullshit can be a bitter epithet: the bullshit job, words that are a
bunch of bullshit, and people who are nothing but bullshitters. Yet the same
word can be uttered with sly affection or charming self-deprecation. Think of
the standard phrases: I was just bullshitting. Never bullshit a bullshitter. If you
can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit. Similar words don’t
allow for such playfulness. You cannot use kidding as a bitter epithet. You can-
not say I was just lying and keep your self-respect.

In academe, we are if anything more conflicted than the public at large
because of the scathing quality of the phrase academic bullshit. The most apt
examples of academic bullshit come from the social sciences and humanities—
not that anyone who produces this work is happy about it. After all, our work
is serious, and we naturally take offense at critiques that call our writing and
scholarship pretentious (which impugns our character) or nonrigorous (which
impugns our minds). The flipside of that taking of offense is fear—fear that
the critiques are right.

If you doubt that, try not to laugh at Dave Barry’s advice to prospective
English majors, advice “reprinted” on countless websites:

Suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would
say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to
it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say
Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. . . . If you can regularly come up
with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English. (I14)

Or abandon all restraint and become an English professor. Who more likely
than a preeminent literary critic would provoke this scornful remark from a
graduate student: “He’s a total fraud—a complete bullshitter.” Barry is just as
dead-on in his parody of sociologists, who “spend most of their time translat-
ing simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code.” You should
be a sociologist, he says, if you can dress up the fact that children cry when
they fall down in words like these: “Methodological observation of the
sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a

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C C C 5 9 : 3 / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 8

causal relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrymatory, or
‘crying, ’ behavior forms. ” And Barry is perhaps no more derisive than Richard
Weaver, who observed decades ago that because of its overblown style social
science “fails to convince us that it deals clearly with reality” (187). In other
words, it sounded then, and sounds now, like bullshit.

Academics are thus in a peculiar spot with regard to bullshit. For us, it is
not sufficient to observe, as Frankfurt does, that bullshit is “one of the most
salient features of our culture” (1). Rather, we have to confront the fact that
our culture often singles out academe as the mother lode of bullshit.
Compositionists may be in the most peculiar and complicated spot of all—for
at least three reasons. First, the writing style of composition research risks
being called bullshit because it often has the timbre of abstruse literary criti-
cism or of social science. Second, composition has taken up disciplinary writ-
ing as an important area of study and thus implicitly endorses it. It probably
does not help that writing studies has often focused its attention on the rheto-
ric of science; that simply enlarges the number of suspect academic texts. Third,
one major consequence of studying disciplinary writing has been the aban-
donment of the abstract ideal once called “good writing.” The current main-
stream of composition studies not only takes up academic writing as an object
of study, but it also sees writing instruction as at least partly a matter of intro-
ducing undergraduates to the established practices of expert academic writ-
ers. Even though some composition scholars have critiqued academic discourse
as a form of Enlightenment-inspired hegemony, almost no one advocates com-
pletely abandoning academic styles and standards. If academic writing is
bullshit, then bullshit is what we teach.

Some or all of those reasons may seem profoundly unfair, but they none-
theless call for some reflection. The first part of that reflection ought to con-
front the problem of defining bullshit more usefully than Frankfurt has. As
careful a job as Frankfurt does, he is right to say that he does not offer any-
thing decisive. In fact, a major problem with Frankfurt’s essay is that he as-
sumes that lack of decisiveness is a shortcoming. But decisiveness is not the
appropriate standard. There are better ways to wrestle with a word—ways that
do not involve retreating into claims of indeterminacy, either. The second part
of the reflection ought to confront how bullshit is and is not a part of the prac-
tice of composing academic arguments. It may well be that much academic
rhetoric is, in fact, bullshit. But it may also be so that bullshit, in at least some
senses, animates what is best in academic rhetoric. At least, that is the sugges-
tion that will be made in this essay.

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E U B A N K S & S C H A E F F E R / A K I N D W O R D F O R B U L L S H I T

Method of Definition
Frankfurt makes it his project to say what bullshit means (“what bullshit is
and how it differs from what it is not”), but he immediately finds that goal
elusive. Bullshit is “often employed quite loosely,” he says. But rather than ac-
cept that as a fundamental characteristic of the word, he attempts a tight defi-
nition that lays out the word’s “essential” characteristics—a method that
Charles Fillmore once called, not flatteringly, the “checklist” theory of defini-
tion (quoted in Coleman and Kay 26). Within the limitations of his method,
though, Frankfurt’s discussion is often illuminating. According to Frankfurt,
bullshit does not necessarily involve a misrepresentation of facts but must in-
volve a misrepresentation of the self—one’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes. In
that way, a Fourth of July speaker may commit an act of bullshitting by exag-
geratedly extolling the virtues of American history. American history may or
may not be just as the speaker claims. But that is incidental. What matters to
the speaker is the hyperbolic impression given of his or her own patriotism

In that sense, bullshit is disconnected from the truth in a way that lying
never is. Frankfurt argues,

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing
bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to
the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he
says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indis-
pensable that he consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however,
all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the
false. His eye is not on the facts at all . . . except insofar as they may be pertinent to
his interest in getting away with what he says. (55–56)

In other words, bullshit may be false, and it may, by accident or by design, be
true. But either way what really matters is that the bullshitter gets away with
something, chiefly a misrepresentation of self and intention. That is the main
reason, says Frankfurt, that we are generally more tolerant of bullshit than of
lies. Unlike a lie, bullshit is not “a personal affront” (50) and yet is a greater
enemy of truth than lies are (61).

The phrase academic bullshit thus presents a double insult to academics.
It can mean academic writing that shows a reckless disregard for the truth—
that it is almost certainly full of things that are false. That accusation stings.
After all, the traditional aim of the university is to seek the truth without inter-
ference of politics or other loyalties. To what degree truth is objective or know-

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able has come under much scrutiny in the past few decades. But even that
debate is a question of the truth about the Truth. If academic writing is seen as
unconcerned about getting things right, that is problem enough. Yet an even
worse problem may be that, as Frankfurt says, bullshit is not seen as a personal
affront. Academic bullshit may bear no relationship to what is true or false,
correct or incorrect. But no one is offended by academic irrelevancies anyway.

A tempting response to this might be to identify academic bullshitters
and drum them out of the journals and academic presses, but that will not
help. Some academic writing may stand out as bullshit. But—to many inside
and outside of the academic world—almost all academic writing, and surely
that produced in the humanities and social sciences, stands accused. What
might help, though, would be to grapple with the meaning of bullshit differ-
ently than Frankfurt has.

Frankfurt himself nearly happens upon a better approach. He recounts a
story about Wittgenstein in which a sick friend says, “I feel like a dog that has
been run over.” Wittgenstein responds, “You don’t know what a dog that’s been
run over feels like.” From that, Frankfurt draws the lesson that Wittgenstein
was intolerant of anything that smelled of bullshit, no matter how faintly. But
the lesson he should have drawn was that Wittgenstein was, at least in his
later life, intolerant of unfounded speculations. Recall his dictum: “Don’t think,
but look!” (31). That was especially true when it came to definitions of words.
For instance, Wittgenstein explains at some length that the word game refers
to a set of loosely affiliated activities—board games, card games, ball games,
Ring around the Rosy—that are not called by the same name because they
share a fixed set of essential features but rather because they share in varying
degrees some of the features typical of games. They are related by “family re-
semblances”: “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-
crossing” (32). Like game, bullshit groups together acts that can be quite varied.

A similar approach to word definition is prototype semantics, which is
based on a cognitive science view of categorization that says (1) that category
members do not necessarily share a single set of distinguishing features and
may exhibit features to greater or lesser degrees and (2) that some category
members are more typical—that is, cognitively salient—than others. Linda
Coleman and Paul Kay use prototype semantics to define the word lie. They
demonstrate that, although lies may have identifiable features such as misrep-
resentation of belief, intent to deceive, falseness, and reprehensible motives,
not all features are always present and not all features are equally prominent
in every instance. In other words, lie is a graded category in which some ex-

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amples are more easily and certainly recognized than others. In prototypical
instances of lie, someone makes a false statement that he or she believes to be
false for the purpose of deceiving another person. But other statements can
also be called lies—such as when someone makes a statement that is factually
true but is intended to conceal his or her motives or intentions. For instance, if
your spouse asks you where you are going and you respond “to the store,” he or
she will very likely assume that you are going to the grocery store. If your in-
tention is to go to the guitar shop, then you have—in a sense—lied. But it is
not a prototypical lie.

Likewise, there are prototypical and nonprototypical instances of bullshit.
So in defining bullshit, one task at hand is not to say what is bullshit and what
is not but to distinguish what is prototypical bullshit from what is not. An-
other important task is to gain some sense of how the bullshit prototype rhe-
torically influences our attitudes about even very peripheral category members.

Prototypical Bullshit
Although Frankfurt makes no distinction between prototypical and nonproto-
typical cases, his discussion can be helpful in understanding what makes up
the bullshit prototype. According to Frankfurt, the bullshitter attempts to mis-
represent himself or herself, that is, to create an ethos that implies a character
that the speaker does not possess. Furthermore, the misrepresentation aims
to deceive; intentionality (the intention to misrepresent) is an essential part of
bullshit. Both traits do seem to be especially characteristic of bullshit.

Once intentionality enters the definition, however, the difficulties begin
because intentions are seldom if ever pure, seldom if ever entirely conscious.
Nor is this a modern phenomenon. Isocrates, for example, urged his students
to adopt a virtuous persona and offered to teach them how to do it, not merely
because they might become successful pleaders, but because he thought they
would soon see that the only way to persuade with a virtuous ethos was to
actually have one. In short, acting virtuous would lead them to act virtuously.
The case could be framed in modern terms: Is it deceptive to represent oneself
as one actually aspires to be; to create an ethos one doesn’t have yet but wants
to have? Is such representation really misrepresentation? If so, what is the “sin-
cere” alternative? Can one never speak out of a “better self ” until one has a
better self? And if so, when will one ever know that he or she has it? This diffi-
culty requires refining the notion of misrepresentation.

First, Frankfurt’s notion obviously runs afoul of current scholarship about
rhetoric and the “constructed self.” Some contemporary scholars might deny

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that there is a pre-existing self to which the bullshitter is not true. They might
say that the self is bullshit. It is constructed out of bullshit and to believe that
it exists independently of bullshit is, well, bullshit. The bullshitter thus could
not misrepresent a self that does not exist outside of bullshit. A prototypical
example might be sales representatives. Their goal is to sell the product, yet
they are required to present themselves as benefactors of their potential cus-
tomers, as persons with only the good of the client at heart. Is their sales pitch
bullshit if they sincerely believe that their product really is what’s best for their
customers? Or does their biased position render them bullshitters no matter
what their beliefs are? Actually, how a salesperson represents him or herself is
suspect per se. The complexities described above indicate one of the serious
limitations of Frankfurt’s definition; namely, bullshit may be a defining aspect
of rhetorical situations.

Bullshit may be essential to the kind of rhetorical situation that Walter
Ong calls “ludic,” that is, a situation in which certain rules and expectations
permit behavior that would not be appropriate in “real life” situations (132–
33); to prescind from the Latinate “ludic,” these situations could be called
“games” and the behavior appropriate to them called “gamesmanship.” To con-
tinue with the salesman example: the client knows that the sales representa-
tive has his own agenda, that the salesman may be exaggerating the product’s
advantages and minimizing its shortcomings, but the client should expect
nothing else. Likewise the salesman knows the client will ask questions and
voice objections that he, the salesman, is expected to answer, not merely to
demonstrate his knowledge of the product, but to demonstrate his knowledge
of the client’s problems, his sympathy with the client’s situation—in short, to
ingratiate himself with the client and establish his ethos as a knowledgeable
and trustworthy colleague. The salesman/client situation clearly involves
bullshit according to Frankfurt’s definition, but the rhetorical situation, the
game, makes bullshit far more complex than in Frankfurt’s account.

The sales situation exemplifies bullshitting to convince someone, but
bullshit can also aim to create an ethos for its own sake, to misrepresent the
speaker simply for the pleasure of doing so. This activity is perhaps the most
frequent kind of bullshitting, and it too participates in gamesmanship. The
two prototypical examples of this kind of bullshit are the fish story and the sex
story. The former usually concerns the one that got away; the latter the one
that didn’t. This bullshit aims to enhance the speaker’s reputation as a sports-
man or a lover and in the process entertain the auditors. It differs, however,
from tall tales or fairy stories (although it may be as true) in that it purports to

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be the truth; it aims at belief, not the suspension of disbelief. Part of the game
is to speak so convincingly that the auditors believe the bullshit and thus not
only enhance the speaker’s reputation as a fisherman or ladies’ man, but also
enhance his reputation as a skilled bullshitter. The truth of the account is sec-
ondary to the credibility that the speaker wins. The highest compliment, and
most derogatory insult, that can be given to such a person is that he is “full of

The above part of this essay slipped into the masculine pronoun—and
with good reason. According to Ong, this ludic quality of bullshit is gender
specific—it is almost exclusively a male game. Ong lists a variety of such games:
medieval disputants insulting or “flitting” their opponents, African Americans
playing the dozens, primitive peoples engaging in ritual boasting, etc. (124–
25). All these may be described as bullshitting insofar as they use language to
establish an ethos of aggression and masculine superiority. This ethos can be
highlighted by comparing it to the opposite of bullshit; not to “truth” or “sin-
cerity” as Frankfurt would have it, but to “chicken shit.”

The locus classicus for the use of this term is President Lyndon Johnson.
When Johnson was in the Senate, he reputedly called Richard Nixon “chicken
shit,” implying that he was weak, petty, and untrustworthy, not because he was
a bullshitter ( Johnson himself had no equals) but because he was a liar. Later
Nixon, while vice president, scored a public relations coup by standing up to
an angry mob in Venezuela; Johnson embraced Nixon upon his return. When
reminded by a reporter that he had called Nixon chicken shit, Johnson replied,
“Son, you’ve got to learn that overnight chicken shit can turn to chicken salad”
(Morgan 109). Finally, when Johnson was president, Charles Mohr asked him
how pay raises to his staff were being distributed. Johnson replied, “Here you
are, alone with the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World,
and you ask a chicken-shit question like that” (Mohr). In each instance, “chicken
shit” connotes unmanliness, weakness, and pettiness. In Johnson’s eyes, if Nixon
had been a bullshitter, he would have been a far better man.

So “chicken shit” illustrates by contrast the masculine, aggressive, ludic
qualities of “bullshit.” These qualities are particularly important in light of Ong’s
insights into the nature of argument. He claims that argument, verbal conflict,
was and is essentially a masculine endeavor fraught with ludic qualities. It is
ritual combat in which the establishing of reputation is critical. Seen in that
light, it is surely no accident that so many influential critiques of academic
argument have come from a feminist perspective.

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To sum up, prototypical bullshit has to do with a purposeful misrepre-
sentation of self, has the quality of gamesmanship, and—contrary to what
Frankfurt says—is at least potentially a lie. Frankfurt may be right to point out
that some bullshit may possibly be true (e.g., the Fourth of July speech or the
sales pitch), but it is not recognizable as bullshit because it may be truthful
but rather because it is likely to be a lie. Most Fourth of July speeches are, in
fact, chock-full of dubious historical claims, and sales pitches are all too often
both biased and false. Moreover, Frankfurt’s understanding of lie is too narrow
(“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth”). As
Cole and Kay point out, the prototypical case of lie includes not just actual
falsehoods but also statements made when there is an insufficient basis for
knowing the truth.

One way to notice when bullshit is most bullshit-like is to look at the
difference between the noun bullshitter versus the verb to bullshit. Consider
Frankfurt’s example in which Wittgenstein challenges the statement “I feel
like a dog that has been run over.” Someone who makes that statement may be
bullshitting, but it is not the statement of a bullshitter. That is, it is not a state-
ment to which a competent interlocutor can respond, “Bullshit!” Indeed, in
the anecdote, apocryphal or not, Wittgenstein does not respond with anything
like that but rather with a hyper-empirical rejoinder that demonstrates his
meticulous cast of mind.

Prototypical bullshit is what a bullshitter tries to pull off—something that
should provoke “Bullshit!” That may not always be “high-quality” bullshit.
Frankfurt says that we are more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, citing the fa-
therly advice, “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through” (48).
That seems to be a recommendation not just to bullshit but to be very good at
it. But we often grow weary of bullshit when it is both prototypical and of poor

As good an example as any of prototypical and unsuccessful bullshit is
found in the title of Laura Penny’s book about corporate bullshit: Your Call Is
Important to Us. The statement “Your call is important to us” has the usual
qualities of self-misrepresentation (if corporations can be said to have a col-
lective self ). It is likely to be a lie because it greatly exaggerates the company’s
sincerity. And it is gamesmanship (or, to use Frankfurt’s phrase, an “attempt to
get away” with saying something). But it fails to play the game with skill or
elegance. Part of gamesmanship in successful bullshit is that it is at once gran-
diose and difficult to be sure of: it gets away with something audacious while
also putting it plainly on display. “Your call is important to us” is hardly auda-

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cious, and nobody believes it. So it grates. That is also true of the brand of
bullshit sometimes called governmentese, which misrepresents intentions, is
likely to be deceptive, and perpetrates, rather than plays, a game.

Of course, the ordinary defense for “Your call is important to us” and simi-
lar corporate banalities is that they are matters of politeness. But as many dis-
course analysts have pointed out, politeness is not without its complications.
Norman Fairclough writes, “[P]articular politeness conventions embody, and
their use implicitly acknowledges, particular social and power relations” (163).
No doubt, part of the irritation people feel toward false politeness from corpo-
rations is that consumers are, all too apparently, powerless to avoid it or even
respond to it—trapped on hold, with no choice but to be mollified again and
again by a prerecorded “Your call is important to us.” But it is not just a feeling
of helplessness that bothers people; it is the bullshit quality of the corporate
language. Its insincerity. Its smugness. The feebleness of its attempt to get away
with something.

Both successful and unsuccessful bullshit can be found everywhere. But
this essay is particularly concerned with the way bullshit is perceived and the
way it operates in academe. Accordingly, the problem that will concern the
remainder of this essay is this: What kinds of prototypical and nonprototypical
bullshit characterize academic writing? And what difference does it make?

Academic Bullshit among Professors
For many non-academics, academic writing is not just bullshit but bullshit of
the worst kind. That is a stinging condemnation, but one that would be easily
dismissed if academics did not have their own reservations about academic
discourse. The fact is: both non-academics and academics sometimes judge
academic writing to be bullshit, but for reasons that are very different. At play
in making these judgments are multiple prototypes and their contending rhe-
torical forces. Just as bullshit is a graded category centered on a prototype,
some kinds of academic writing are more typical than others. Because of that,
we have to investigate not whether academic writing is considered to be bullshit
but whether or not prototypical academic writing is considered to be proto-
typical bullshit—and in whose estimation.

When non-academics call academic writing bullshit, they mean that it
uses jargon, words whose meanings are so abstract and vague as to seem unre-
lated to anyone’s experience. Such jargon seems to contribute nothing to the
reader except confusion and serves only to enhance the ethos of the speaker, a
strategy that the general public dislikes precisely because they suspect that

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academics are taken in by it. Academics, it is said, believe their own bullshit:
They hide behind language that may be as slight, or exaggerated, or obfusca-
tory as any sales pitch or fish story.

Joseph Williams and Richard Lanham are perhaps the best-known com-
mentators on the topic of overblown prose style. In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity
and Grace, Williams writes, “Generations of students have struggled with dense
writing, many thinking they were not smart enough to grasp the writer’s deep
ideas. Some have been right about that, but more could have blamed the writer’s
inability (or refusal) to write clearly” (8). The key word here is …

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