Having a colon is extremely important for academics, says Edward Clarke

I’ve sat through a lot of boring academic papers in my time. Whole sessions in which earnest or not so earnest academics are ‘Negotiating Materialisms’, ‘Transforming Traditions’, or ‘Recuperating Structures’, in order to ‘(Mis)identify the Self’ or something.

Usually each essay will be read aloud verbatim, with little or no extemporisation, and it will be called something like ‘Use Me, But As Your Spaniel: Feminism, Queer Theory And Early Modern Sexualities’.

It’s terribly important to have a quotation, a colon, and then a list of theories for your title (you can have little academic credibility unless you use a colon in your title) and it’s a certainty that such a paper will have been delivered with the support of PowerPoint.

The first time I attended an academic conference was in Derry just over 15 years ago, and I remember it as one of my bleakest weekends.

Although I felt vaguely exhilarated by the edginess of the pubs, I was massively disappointed by the discourse in the lecture hall. My problem was that I had just spent a year reading nothing but poet Wallace Stevens and philosopher Martin Heidegger in a bedsit the size of a second bathroom in Dublin.

I will probably never go to those extremes again, but ever since Derry 2000 I’ve been wondering about the propriety of academic discourse while listening to it.

Certainly I’ve had more uplifting experiences at conferences, running down Helm Crag, for example, to make a session in Grasmere.

But I always seem to end up reflecting to myself by the end of an hour of papers, that we want today the resistless eloquence of Pericles or of Milton.

Whenever I hear a response to a work of literature that is inhibited by its theoretical content I find myself asking, as Seneca did: “Pronouncing syllables, investigating words, memorising plays, or making rules for the scansion of poetry – what is there in all this that rids one of fear, roots out desire, or bridles the passions?”

Sadly these are no longer the activities of teachers of literature.

While I do yearn for some Ciceronian eloquence on the conference circuit, I am also mindful that conformity to accepted standards of disquisition, even Cicero’s, restricts, as much as it enables, any appreciation of a text.

When Saint Augustine first read the Bible it seemed to him: “Unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero. My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness.”

Of what are academics proud today? If it isn’t the inspiring elegance of their speech it must be the professional appearance of their PowerPoint presentation.

Facing questions at the end of a paper, in fear and trembling I recall Christ’s advice to his disciples: “And when they bring you unto... the powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.”

But that is to speak from a position that many of today’s critics would not accept.