Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dense Academic Prose

Victoria Clayton has a piece in The Atlantic on the complexity of academic writing.

It's an issue I deal with a lot because so much of the teaching I've done focuses on writing in the disciplines.

I have a lecture I do on hedging in academic writing, and it goes into some of the important reasons some sentences get cluttered. My students and I talk a lot about disciplinary jargon. The way we incorporate citations into sentences is a major concern as students advance in their studies. And the list goes on and on.

From a distance, academic writing often does look too complex. And sometimes it is. But I do worry about this debate. The debate suggests that there is one form of "Academic Writing," and that simply is not the case.

To a person who has examined writing across the disciplines, that suggestion is as silly as suggesting that there is one form of "writing for the public." Imagine if The Atlantic used the same style and tone as The Huffington Post or TMZ.

This article deftly deals with the complexities behind the styles of writing that emerge from academia.
A disconnect between researchers and their audiences fuels the problem, according to Deborah S. Bosley, a clear-writing consultant and former University of North Carolina English professor. “Academics, in general, don’t think about the public; they don't think about the average person, and they don't even think about their students when they write,” she says. “Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.” But Bosley, who has a doctorate in rhetoric and writing, says that academic prose is often so riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax that even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work unless he or she comes from the very same discipline.
It is well worth the read, especially for students and scholars of writing.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

the highly scripted yet seemingly spontaneous ‘NPR Voice’

Great NYT piece on the rhetoric of the highly scripted yet seemingly spontaneous ‘NPR Voice’ 
If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.
That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.
In a post I wrote a while back on the way conservative blogs and emails are formatted, I addressed this issue.

The observations made in the NYT point to yet another example of a community's readers shaping the style of discourse in unexpected ways. I'm fascinated at how technology pushes that process along at speeds that make the changes seem inevitable.

Read the whole article here: NYT 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Writing Reflecting in Reverse

I've set myself up for a difficult task here.

I'm asking my students to compose one reflective text for each of their writing projects in their portfolios.  So, I'm providing them with a sample in which I do the thing I'm asking them to do. Only fair, right?

Shortly after I filed my dissertation
Writing a brief reflective introduction to something I wrote shouldn't be difficult, but I've made it difficult for myself. I'm reflecting on my dissertation: a large writing project that by the most conservative standards took five years for me to complete.

Why? Why would I pick that for this sample reflection?

Well, that word "complete" is a major factor here.

All of my writing is in varying stages of completeness, but this dissertation is the most complete text I've ever produced. I filed it with my university and said, "That's it. That is the final draft."

I'm asking my students to submit artifacts to their portfolios as "final drafts" (along with links to earlier drafts). So it's only fair that the most "final" draft I've produced to date should serve as my portfolio sample.

Now, if I selected this text because it has reached the final stage of the writing process, maybe that's where I should begin this reflection.

If I'm starting at the end, 
then I suppose I should share the final draft here
at the begining...

See, now that's weird. Just throwing the link to the final draft on the page and saying, "There it is!" 

Doing that feels too easy. It was a huge process getting the thing done, which makes me want to tell the story behind the text, and I suppose that's what this reflection is meant to be...

And while it's nice to have this reflective space, it is not how most texts are experienced, right? People see the final product first.

So, I'm writing this reflection in reverse...

Publication Stage

Just getting through the final stages of writing took so much longer than I thought. My committee had already signed off on the thing, which felt final, but there was still a ton to do.
I wanted to generate a table of contents, a list of tables, and a list of diagrams.
I wanted to dedicate it to my wife and kids.
I wanted to write up my acknowledgements.
I needed to get the pagination right.
I needed to convert it to a PDF.
I needed to submit it electronically for approval from grad studies.
I got all that done, but I will admit, actually going through the publication stage is very different from thinking about the publication stage.

Editing Stage

Editing happened a lot during the writing process. I tend to complete a rough edit as I go, because every time I sat down to write, I had to read my way back into the project. I would fix and tinker with the text as I did this.

But the later stages of editing felt important. Let me tell you one reason why.

Last spring the editor of Writing on the Edge David Masiel invited me to join him in an interview with Professor Kathleen Blake Yancey. I admire Professor Yancey and her work a great deal. Her most recent book, Writing Across Contexts, played an important role in my writing. I told her that after the interview. To which she responded: "Oh that's great. I look forward to reading it."

And that's when it really hit me. I was going to be producing a text for readers who A) are smarter and more accomplished than I am (e.g. my dissertation committee) and B) are potentially people who haven't read my work before.

I checked and re-checked things I hadn't really thought about in previous writings: the formatting of my diagrams and charts (especially the captions), the amount of times I used words I tend to overuse such as "however" (used 64 times in the final draft), paragraph indents, where pages ended, chapter numbering, and a bunch of other stuff.

I followed that with one last round of proofreading using Microsoft's 'text-to-speech' feature (highly recommended, btw).

Then the last step in editing was checking all of my references, making sure the in-text citations were clear and making sure the reference list was complete.

Revision Stage

This took for-f-ing-ever.

Even while I was drafting new chapters -- no, especially while I was drafting new chapters, I would have to go back and cut, reshape, move, or rewrite earlier passages. Then when I was done with the full first draft, I knew there was still a ton of re-working to do.

One writing-process choice sticks out: I would sit down and write for a while only to realize what I was working on didn't belong in the chapter or section I was drafting; it actually belonged in a section I hadn't yet written. So, while I was writing, there were always three or four paragraphs of to-be-placed material underneath where I was typing.

Then came reader feedback. I shared my work with Professor Dana Ferris first. She pointed out underdeveloped arguments and places where I mistakenly assumed my reader knew the literature as well as I did. I worked to address this while Professors Carl Whithaus and Lee Martin read. Their feedback helped me clear up terms and the theoretical framework.

I can't stress enough how much the feedback from experts moved the work forward. They are the ones who helped me understand how to re-shape my ideas for a broader community of scholars.

Drafting Stage 

This was messy. I spent months on the literature review, because my understanding of the literature is how I aimed to demonstrate a clear theoretical framework. So, I needed to work through that before writing up how I collected and analyzed any data. But I had to write up a proposal and submit it to IRB before that, and the proposal locked me into an agreement with the university on how I would proceed.

Yeah. This was messy. I'd love to provide a neat telling of the drafting, but my drafting process won't cooperate.

I blocked off hours of the day. Some days were productive. Some days were a total loss.

It's hard to write that last sentence. I have a wonderful wife and two great kids, and admitting that some days in my office were a waste makes me feel guilty.

But I'm not sure I would have completed the work without those days. Tiny but important breakthroughs happened at odd moments, and those led to the whole.


I feel like this started years before I started grad school. In fact, my first chapter names 2004 as the year this project started. 

My six years as a teacher in Budapest contributed to the shaping of this. My course work during the first three years of grad school was tremendously influential. My time at Transfer Camp got me ready to write. 

In short, the project was so big that it is difficult to pinpoint where it began, but it did begin. 

And now it's done. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Correct Grammar, but Bad Grammar Nonetheless

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Ellen Bresler Rockmore writes about the Texas textbook debacle

Rockmore examines how the textbook authors used grammar in unethical ways to meet the expectations of the Texas legislators who wanted to deemphasize the horrors of slavery.

The fact that Texas puts textbook choices in the hands of politicians makes me angry for so many reasons, but that's not why I'm writing.

Rockmore gracefully demonstrates how grammar is an important tool in crafting the public discourse.

She introduced an excerpt from one of the textbooks and went on to show where the book's grammar crosses an ethical line.
Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.
Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.
It's an important point, and one that could help get people to stop yawning whenever I say, "Grammar."

Check out the whole article.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Is Rhetoric & Composition Eating Its Young?

In the last twelve months, I have learned there are at least three scholars in Rhetoric and Composition who do not believe I am a scholar of Rhetoric and Composition. One of those scholars told me there are a number of people in the discipline who feel this way.

That stings. 

I identify as a scholar of Rhetoric and Composition. 

It stings even more because the suggestion that I do not belong in the discipline comes from people I greatly admire -- people who have made important contributions to the field. In some cases it is people I know, people with whom I have discussed our discipline at length.

It turns out, for reasons I'll get to in this post, some scholars of Rhetoric and Composition want to exclude certain people from the discipline. 

I am one such person. The reason for placing me outside of the disciplinary community is this: My doctorate was granted by a school of education, not by a department of Rhetoric and Composition. 

Just to be clear, that is the language on my diploma. So, the words "rhetoric" and "composition" are on the diploma, but admittedly, they are not the first words used to describe my degree. 

The decision to pursue a degree with that title was mine. I wrestled with this question back when I applied to graduate programs. 

When applying and later when picking which program I would attend (picking between the UC Davis program and a program with a PhD in Rhet/Comp), I researched this question: Is a "PhD in Education with an Emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies" a degree that scholars of rhetoric and composition will recognize? 

The discipline's literature says "yes."
So, I looked at who I would be studying with at each of the programs that had accepted me. The experience and scholarship of the people at UC Davis impressed me a great deal. Both the writing program's director and the director of lower-division writing (a position I aspired to) offered to be my advisors. They made the choice easy.

I know I made the right call.

But I have been told multiple times now that a contingent of Rhetoric and Composition scholars believe my program choice means I cannot be acknowledged as a scholar of Rhetoric and Composition.

Now, this is not a "poor me" post. This perception of my program choice did not stop me from completing my degree in five years. It did not stop me from presenting at national conferences in the discipline. It did not stop me from composing a WAC/WID dissertation. It did not stop me from getting papers accepted for publication. Nor did it stop me from getting the job I wanted.

Some might suggest this is all reason enough to ignore the people who hold this exclusionary view, because they have clearly failed to keep me out of the discipline. But there's more to it than that. The community of scholars in Rhetoric and Composition is a small one, and many of the doctoral programs in Rhetoric and Composition use the "concentration" or "emphasis" model. Composition and Rhetoric is, after all, a discipline that works across several disciplinary boundaries.

So, a group of scholars seeking to exclude people based on a diploma's phrasing have an impact on the discourse community (a term taken from an applied linguist's work, btw).

Something I need to make clear here is this: The people who hold this exclusionary view are not mean people. There's good cause for people seeking to exclude some from the discipline. Let me explain:

In an extremely tight job market for tenure track jobs of any kind, there is a large pool of people who apply for any and every job, even jobs outside of their discipline. A number of people who pursue scholarship outside of rhetoric and composition have gained some experience teaching writing along the way. Some of these scholars believe this provides experience enough to obtain a tenure track job in Rhetoric and Composition. But all too often, these people have not studied or performed any research in the discipline. In the very legitimate interest of preserving those few precious tenure track spots for people who will contribute to the scholarship of Rhetoric and Composition, it is important to vet job candidates and recognize legitimate members of the disciplinary community.

I am not objecting to that practice.

I am, however, objecting to the very limited criteria used by people who would exclude scholars who can demonstrate disciplinary membership through their transcripts, mentors, scholarship, and professional associations.

I think I'm just asking people to avoid siloing our discipline away from its multidisciplinary roots -- read past the first five words on a diploma and acknowledge the contributions from young scholars seeking to grow our field's understanding of writing as a practice.

These kinds of exclusionary practices are troubling just 11 years after we had to go to the broader community of scholars and make a case for the disciplinarity of Rhetoric and Composition. It limits the work our field can accomplish. It is shortsighted and a waste of time. It makes us look bad.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Why do people opposed to gun control play the victim every time a group of innocent people get gunned down?

Why do people opposed to gun control play the victim every time a group of innocent people get gunned down?
A quote falsely attributed to George Washington with my less-than-clever speech bubble
So, I saw the uncorrected version this meme on social media. I checked the quote, because as a composition instructor I have a nose for quotes that seem a bit too on-the-nose.

Yeah. Turns out there is no record of GW saying this.

The meme is likely another example of someone realizing that no one is going to care about what some joker on Facebook has to say about the government or the right to bear arms. So, they falsely attributed it to someone with a bit more ethos.

It's kind of like when someone opens by saying, 'according to studies, gun control has...,' but when pressed for specifics, they fail to find the name of any studies.

Or something I see even more often in the work of novice writers:
'It is widely known that gun control is a...' Oh I hate it when people tell me something debatable is "widely known."

But you see, we all want our arguments to sound important enough to merit attention. And there are some clever tricks for making an argument sound important.

But an ethical argument doesn't require tricks. An ethical argument stands on its own merit.

Knowing this doesn't make it any easier to compose an ethical argument. Nevertheless, this issue of slippery rhetorical tactics is something I work to make my students aware of. These methods of argument are so common that students might not even know when they themselves are using them.

But these techniques have consequences. People start to misunderstand history, devalue the reliability of the sciences, or misconstrue public policy.

For example, when I pointed out in a comment that the above quote was not spoken by George Washington, the original poster responded by saying, "if it was up to non-pro gun owers, we wouldn't have anything. Anyway, yes we do keep our rights and as far as I'm concerned they have not EXPANDED they take more and more EVERY chance they get."

What's odd here (other than the unintentional support of my point via unclear pronoun usage) is this is a gun enthusiast who actually believes his rights are constantly being eroded.

That just isn't the case. As of 2013, people can now carry a concealed weapon in all 50 states. Assault rifles are legal in all but 7 states. States are changing laws so that formally gun-free campus allow students to carry weapons.

We live in country where gun control is being relaxed.

That does not seem to register with people who are are against gun control. Pro-gun folks roll out the rhetoric of the persecuted whenever gun violence is in the news. They talk about dictators and looming threats.

And whenever a mass shooting pushes the nation to question our decisions to continually relax gun control, the pro-gun crowd convinces themselves that they are the victims.

Don't talk about an assault rifle ban, or else you'll hear them gasp, "How dare you threaten the right our forefathers fought for and that we won in 2004."

The effort has worked. In the minds of many this modern policy debate is linked to a caricature of our forefathers, or else it is portrayed as an assault on the persecuted.

It's absurd, and it's in particularly bad taste to play victim every time innocent people have been shot.

And so, I call on you to stop putting up with it:

Gun rights advocates are not victims.

Don't let them act like they are.

If they start acting like victims, here's what you should do:

  1. Point out that they are acting like the victim when the real victims are the ones who got shot.
  2. Tell them to stop whining. It's just unbecoming.
  3. Ask them to describe how and when exactly their right to bear arms have been violated. Make them be specific. Ask them about their rights. Ask if they have been forced to give up a gun. Ask if they missed a hunting trip or a day on the range due to unreasonable waiting periods.
  4. And don't put up with any nonsense. Gun owners have their rights, and any suggestion otherwise is stupid.