Monthly Archives: December 2012

Style Conventions and Graduate Student Writing

I recently wrote a post about the tension between expressiveness and adherence to form in academic writing. By adherence to form, I meant following established genre conventions. But there is another level of adherence to form that I didn’t consider in that post: adherence to a particular form of grammatical correctness. As everyone knows, grammatical correctness is much more complex than it might initially seem. There are so many ‘rules’ that are actually apocryphal or at least highly contested by language experts. That awareness, however, can actually complicate my attempts to teach academic writing to graduate students. Graduate students are—in so many ways—standing in an odd space between student and professional. As students-aspiring-to-be-professionals, graduate students must face a unique challenge as they try to develop their academic writing skill while avoiding confrontation with the linguistic bugaboos of their audience.

My dilemma is that my own inclination towards descriptivism isn’t necessarily relevant to my teaching. There is a crucial difference between how I wish people thought and how I suggest people write given how people actually think. In other words, as much as I dislike a grammar hammer approach, I do think that graduate students ought to avoid aggravating their readers. For most graduate students, assuming a critical reader is a good idea. Even if our future reader has only one bête noire and is quite liberal about other usage matters, we generally can’t know that in advance. Split infinitives are an easy example. Despite there being no good reason to avoid them, I often suggest that students do so. In the first place, I do think that there is often a genuine benefit to thinking about modifiers placement: there is often a better place for the modifier or even a better way to word the sentence overall. But there are some split infinitives that are absolutely fine and yet I still suggest rewording to avoid aggravating those who believe this to be a real and important rule. My general practice is to make students aware of traditional ‘rules’ and to emphasize that people who care about those rules often care a lot.

Let’s consider a trickier example. How do you feel about using ‘they’ or ‘their’ or ‘them’ with grammatically singular antecedents? Is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should be able to eat their favourite treats over the holidays”? ‘Everyone’ is grammatically singular (so should be replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’), but actually points to a group of individuals of indeterminate gender. Although many think of the singular ‘they’ as a recent response to our desire for gender neutrality, this usage is actually quite venerable. This post by Geoffrey Pullum does an excellent job arguing for the value of this usage and, more generally, for the value of basing our linguistic decisions on evidence rather than dogma. The Motivated Grammar blog has a comprehensive post explaining all the ways that a singular ‘they’ is acceptable. Despite the manifest good sense of these arguments, I feel that it is my job to point out to graduate students that some will take an ‘everyone/their’ pairing as evidence that they are unable to write correct English.

A closely related issue that frequently affects me in this blog is the need for an appropriate pronoun for a generic singular. I often write a version of the following sentence: “When a student brings me their writing …”. I intuitively write the sentence that way every time, before changing it to “When students bring me their writing …”. I never seem to use the plural form of ‘student’ the first time, presumably because I am thinking of a generic student. Students don’t come to my office en masse, they come one at a time. When I talk about those meetings, I naturally gravitate towards a generic singular: not a particular student, but a singular instance of student. The plural is grammatically correct and solves the gender neutrality problem yet feels inaccurate.

In this instance, I am simultaneously drawn in two directions: on the one hand, I feel that I should be liberal with the singular ‘they’ because I think it is acceptable, useful, and inevitable. Maybe I should be using it to hasten (in a very small way) its widespread acceptance. On the other hand, it isn’t particularly accepted at the moment and I don’t want my stylistic choices here on the blog to mislead. I feel it is my responsibility—despite my interest in descriptivism and my own faith in its wisdom—to remind students that their audience may have a decidedly prescriptivist bent. Those self-styled traditionalists seem to live on a razor’s edge, always ready to be driven around the bend by relatively benign stylistic choices or instances of neglect. Nobody wants a grant application or thesis proposal to antagonize its intended audience. Effective prose is prose that is well received by its audience. Without being able to call ahead and ask our potential readership how they feel about split infinitives, we have to make up our own minds, using all the information available to us and probably erring on the side of caution. (Erin Brenner has a great post on making sure that our ‘careful usage’ is still informed by all the available sources. Being cautious isn’t the same thing as being superstitious—you need to look things up! I also recommend this lovely post from Lucy Ferriss in which she describes how she is relinquishing the role of linguistic gatekeeper as she marks her students’ writing.)

Overall, I want to balance my own distaste for heavy-handed linguistic fundamentalism with a need to provide students with a good sense of current style conventions. But even as I think about that balance, I have to allow how disinclined I am towards the disparagement of other people’s writing. Someone recently sent me to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, and as much as I tried to be amused, I found myself increasingly annoyed. Of course, quotation marks should ‘not’ be used for emphasis: doing so will lead to unintentional hilarity and that is never the effect graduate students should aspire to. (Or it will make people think you are writing for Zagat; if you want to see that tendency manifest in the most amusing fashion, try this old Shouts & Murmurs piece by Noah Baumbach.) But most of these utterances actually make their meaning quite clear. So I’ll end with a tentative conclusion: graduate student writers should be attentive to conservative writing conventions to avoid making stylistic choices that might aggravate their audience. But nobody should make a habit of deriding language that has made its point. “Fresh” meat may sound deeply unappetizing to a discerning reader, but we do know what is meant. “To boldly go” makes its point unambiguously. “If you love somebody, set them free” is perfect. Be cautious in your academic writing, but still strive for joy in language rather than fear of error.

I wish you all a very happy and productive holiday break! Explorations of Style will be back in mid-January.

Advertisements

Links: Somebody That I Used to Know

I heard recently that ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ was the number one song on Spotify this year.* Encountering that unsurprising fact must have moved the phrase onto the tip of my tongue because I found myself using it later in the day to explain why I couldn’t answer a simple question about my own thesis from one of my students. The question that stumped me? What was the title of your thesis, Rachael? I was eventually able to recall the proper title, but I stumbled over a number of inaccurate versions first. I was mildly embarrassed, of course, but mostly I was just amazed. In less than 10 years, my thesis had gone from being my everything to being, well, ‘somebody that I used to know’. My students were tolerant, as always, but I wasn’t sure they really believed me. Which makes sense. When I was in their place, I wasn’t even sure I could finish the wretched thing, let alone finish and then forget about it. Perhaps if you find yourself in the thick of things, unable to see a clear path to completion, it may help to imagine that someday you may not even remember what it was called!

While I was still thinking about this diminishing importance of our theses over time, I read a post on The Thesis Whisperer from Ben from Literature Review HQ.  In this post, Ben reflects on his post-graduation case of Stockholm Syndrome. He knows he should be glad to have his thesis behind him—and, of course, is glad to have it behind him—but still feels a bit bereft. While that sense of loss is inevitable, Ben has the exact right response: he figures out what was good about the process that can now inform his new post-thesis working life. There is a great deal of intellectual struggle and psychological pain in the thesis writing process, but there is also a unique degree of freedom. That freedom can be an opportunity to learn about ourselves and how we can optimally organize our professional lives.

* If you hate this song, ask yourself if you really hate it or if you hate it the way the guys in the car hate it.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From the Lingua Franca blog, Lucy Ferriss on the rhetorical impact of using ‘we’.

From @thesiswhisperer, using the Cornell Method to limit, analyze, and annotate your own notes to prepare for writing.

From @ThomsonPat, an explanation of the metacommentary we use to frame our own contributions to the conversation.

From @CShearson, helpful advice about using strong verbs in scientific writing.

From @ThomsonPat, an interesting breakdown of the many complex tasks involved in reviewing the literature.

From @ThomsonPat, a helpful way to think about writing a road map.

From @fishhookopeneye, a radical approach to breaking down the tasks of thesis supervision.

From Inside Higher Ed, the final instalment of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s excellent series on academics and perfectionism.

From @MGrammar, a discussion of why it is so annoying when someone says “I don’t know, can you?”.

From @ThomsonPat, interesting reflections on the way blogging readily disrupts any dichotomy between work and leisure.

From @ProfessorIsIn, a post by @rogerwhitson on successful collaborative projects (with lots of helpful links).

Do you need another way to distract yourself from academic writing?

Can a humanities PhD be done in five years? Inside Higher Ed discusses a new proposal at Stanford.

From Inside Higher Ed, a helpful discussion of a commonly asked question: how to cite our own work at various stages of completion.

From @chronicle, Cassuto on possible futures for PhD education.

From the New York Times, a fun post on what life is really like for lexicographers: Lies! Murder! Lexicography!

Glad to be included in the @thesiswhisperer‘s November newsletter, along with lots of great stuff on doctoral study.

Mind the gap! @ProfessorIsIn on a characteristic and crucial weakness in academic proposals and theses.

AcWriMo Reflections

Before getting to my AcWriMo reflections, I’d like to say thanks and welcome to all my new subscribers and followers. November was the busiest month ever on the blog: there were nearly 5,000 views and we passed the 50,000 views mark overall. Thank you all for reading and commenting and linking and sharing!

 ♦

As anyone who reads this blog knows, November was AcWriMo, an exercise in public accountability and support for academic writing facilitated by the lovely people at PhD2Published. As I discussed in a post at the beginning of the month, I decided to participate as an experiment. Looking back over the guiding principles set out by PhD2Published, I see that I basically kept to them. I aimed relatively high; I certainly told everyone; I thought a lot about being strategic in my approach; I checked in over the course of the month; and I did work hard. What I didn’t do was meet the target I set for myself. I committed to writing a weekly blog post (five over the course of the month) and turning a conference paper into an article. I did do the former, although that was no more than I would have done anyway. I started working on the paper and even managed to create an initial draft. But by the middle of the month, I hit a wall: to finish the paper I needed to engage more deeply with the literature and didn’t have time to do that. So I carried on blogging and following the AcWriMo activities of others and using what extra time I had to plan the literature review I need to do. (I was assisted in this planning process by an amazing series of posts by Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn (of The Thesis Whisperer) on Pat’s blog patter; in this series, they detail and reflect upon a work in progress. It is a rare and welcome thing to see people trying to give voice to how complicated and unruly the research process can be. For me, that was AcWriMo at its best: a public discussion of writing challenges in a manner designed to demystify the process.)

Engaging with AcWriMo confirmed one of my key assumptions about writing: we all need less how-to and more self-knowledge. The ‘right’ way to write is elusive, considerably more elusive than a lot of writing advice seems to grasp. To get a sense of the vastly different ways that we experience writing—brought into focus by the artificial pressure of an ‘academic writing month’—I recommend looking at some of the great post-AcWriMo reflections that have been written thus far. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed: Raul Pacheco-Vega; Peter Webster; Liz Gloyn; Lyndsay Grant; Ellen Spaeth. And PhD2Published has begun the process of reflecting on AcWriMo through a series of Storify posts. If you read these posts, think about what resonates for you as a writer. What writing practices works for you? What holds you back? Can you distinguish between psychological and practical barriers to writing? Does technology help or just displace the problem? When has writing been best for you? Academic writing is hard enough—trying to do it according to the dictates of someone else’s process can make it even harder. Self-knowledge is key. In that spirit, I offer my own reflections. They are unlikely to be interesting in and of themselves, but I hope they serve as an example of how to develop a better understanding of oneself as a writer.

So what did I learn about my academic writing process from AcWriMo?

1. That concrete and demanding writing goals are essential. Writing is so easy not to do; I start many days wanting to write and having to do any number of other things. Anything I can do to move writing into the obligatory column is valuable. I have found it helpful to think about the imperative to write in two ways. First, I need to conceive of what writing means to me for professional satisfaction, development, and advancement. For most of us, writing is crucial, but I found it useful to identify its precise value to create more motivation. Second, with that sense of my broad priorities, I need to create a concrete writing schedule. Working backwards from a target means that I can see exactly how much needs to get done right now and prevents the sort of magical thinking that allows me to imagine I’ll pull off miraculous feats of writing in an unspecified future while remaining hopelessly unproductive now.

2. That committing to a certain amount of time spent writing works better than committing to a number of words/pages per day. In particular, short Pomodoro-style bursts work best for me. The 25-minute period, short enough for even my appallingly bad powers of concentration, helps balance writing with the rest of my life. I can be out of touch for 25 minutes, from my co-workers, from my kids’ school, and from social media. The five-minute break spent catching up on email and messages gives me the sense of connectedness that I love as well as the ability to stay on top of all the little things as I go along. Which leads me to my next observation.

3. That getting behind on everything else for the sake of writing makes me unhappy. My central professional commitment is teaching, which means class preparation, reading student writing, meeting with students, and—needless to say—lots of email. I need to get these things and any associated administrative work done in order to be comfortable writing. This prioritization is not something that always works well; if writing is put last, it will sometimes be left out. Taking AcWriMo as an opportunity be more aware of how I spend my time allowed me to see that my days fall into three basic types: days when I genuinely can’t write; days when I can and do; and then days when I could except that my inefficiency and inattentiveness mean that I’m unproductive. Accepting the first type as legitimate helps me to turn my attention to reducing the third type.

4. That making myself read is always my biggest challenge. Reading makes me impatient; the ideal pace for reading is slower than I like things to be and requires more intellectual flexibility than I naturally possess. Writing, on the other hand, allows me to be active and creative. Of course, good academic reading must be active and can be creative, but it’s still not an activity that comes easily to me. When AcWriMo begins in 2013, I’ll need to have a well-researched project in hand, ready for a month of intensive writing. In the meantime, I hope to turn my attention to solving this persistent weakness in my research process.

5. That my writing process is unduly hampered by pre-emptive anxiety. It doesn’t speak well of me, but I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?… 

6. That blogging is a lot more than just writing. I was so struck this month how much time I spend preparing each post (beyond the time spent writing) and how much time I spend in general maintenance and social media engagement. This entire process is one that I love, but it is time spent and not exactly time spent writing. When thinking about how to allocate appropriate time to writing, I need to think about all the facilitation and administration that goes along with having a blog. (Pat Thomson had a very interesting post this week on blogging and social media participation as a complex form of academic labour that breaks down any simple dichotomy between work and leisure.)

7. That traditional academic writing can be restful after the immediacy of blogging. At the beginning of the month, I felt a little uncomfortable to be writing in other than a blogging or microblogging format. The lack of feedback felt strange; like when you put an actual letter in an actual mailbox and then wonder, six hours later, why you haven’t heard back yet. But once I got over the strangeness, I found it very restful. Once again, I could take advantage of the ‘nobody ever has to read this but me if it’s awful’ strategy that got me through my entire dissertation. That’s a hard strategy to employ in blog writing; knowing that I’ll be publishing in the coming days (or even hours) means that I have to be fairly committed to what I am writing at the moment of composition. It was lovely to write with a broader time frame in mind, knowing that I could finish the whole article with the luxury of returning to it with a critical eye later.

Overall, AcWriMo was a great chance to focus on what both writing and not writing look like for me right now. In particular, this month gave me a unique opportunity to reflect on the role of writing in this phase of my life: without the pressure to produce a dissertation, without the anxiety that accompanied my recent promotion process, and with the very different rhythm of maintaining a blog. I look forward to continuing to reflect upon the experience of academic writing amidst the wonderful online academic writing community; thank you to the people at PhD2Published and all the AcWriMo participants for the encouragement and all the engaging commentary. I hope you are all able to continue to, in the memorable words of an AcWriMo participant, ‘write like there’s no December’.