Monday, December 04, 2006

Textbook Speak

As I've mentioned before, one of my students is studying Criminal Justice at a college on a military base. She's taking a class in Juvenile Justice and has the same sort of textbook that you use at most colleges. It's extremely difficult for her to understand in large part because of the specialized vocabulary but that's not the hardest part for her. She can look up random words and get translations.

The harder part for her is that she has issues de-scrambling the sort of language that textbook writers feel obliged to use. Sometimes, the grammar in the sentences is contorted such that you have to read it more than once to understand the point. This is often the case even for native speakers. One of the sentences which she had particular difficulty with was something which said something along the lines of 'a framework from which to study (a topic)'. I can't recall the rest of the sentence, unfortunately, but it was clear that the way in which the sentence was written was awkward (though grammatically correct) in order to avoid the use of "I" or "we".

When I was in college, I remember specifically being told that one was never to use "I" or "we" in academic writing. I don't know why that was the case but, to this day, when I write anything, it's in the back of my mind that I should try to avoid using such types of sentences.

Besides the tendency of textbooks to use contorted grammatical structures, they also seem to go out of their way to use uncommon vocabulary. I'm no slouch in the vocabulary department and my husband is even less of a slouch than me but the book I'm currently reading, Adaptation and Human Behavior, often has us both clicking our way over to I'm reading this book, incidentally, as a nice little palate cleanser between novels though the number of $20 words is really clogging up the mental pipes as I try to slog through the book.

I'm not talking about jargon. In fact, I understand the jargon pretty well having studied psychology and appreciate the need to use a word like "phenotype" because it saves the writer from using multiple words to describe "body type" and it fits in with the phenotypical body descriptions (ectomorphic, mesomorphic, endomorphic) aka somatotypes. Now, wasn't that far more confusing than saying body types which tend to be thin, muscular, and fat?

At any rate, I don't take issue with this type of jargon because I know that the ideas underlying them are more sophisticated than "thin"," fat", and "muscular". In some cases, using simpler words undermines the meaning the writing is trying to get across. In other cases, however, it seems to have little to do with conveying words which carry more depth of meaning than more commonly-used vocabulary. For instance, what is the point of using a word like "adduce" instead of "cited"? There is no added nuance carried by "adduce" over "cite". It's just a less commonly-used word.

I'm never sure if academics sit down with a thesaurus and find new and uncommon words in an attempt to appear more sophisticated or to use words that are less common to spice up their dry content, or if they use these words because their exposure to vocabulary is extraordinary. Either way, for both my student and I, this is sometimes a pain in the ass.


Luis said...

Unfortunately, people who write textbooks tend to be experts in their fields--and more often than not they are not expert writers. It's like a whole class of books written by amateur writers, except the books cost more than normal, rather than less.

I think the whole no-first-person rule is so as to focus on the subject and not yourself, also to sound more objective--in effect, the subject is this-and-that (sounding like truth) rather than "I know the subject to be this-and-that" (sounding like belief). For the same reason, you're supposed to avoid using words like "thjink" and "believe." It is, it's a fact; anything less sounds wishy-washy.

Of course, good writers know when to break the rules. Certainly, the author you mentioned probably wanted to introduce the vocabulary you mentioned because it is (probably) commonly used in the field's jargon, but they should have used both the jargon and the plain-English translation, for clarity.

That's another problem with academic writers: they think that you need to use ten-dollar words or you don't sound academic. Something that pollutes the writing of students and professionals alike.

I remember hearing that Faulkner once criticized Hemingway for not knowing how to use big words, to which Hemingway replied that he did know how, but he was a good enough author to know that the plain words carried more force and feeling.

Shari said...

I had to laugh out loud at the notion that textbook writers attempt to appear subject by not using "I" or "we" (though that sounds right as a rationale). Textbook writers are often the least objective, particularly in psychological fields.

However, I can say for a fact that "adduce" is not a jargon word. When I studied psychology, I was pretty heavily involved in experimentation, paper-writing, and even presented a paper at a conference and know the jargon well enough to know it's just a less accessible word.

I can sympathize with what you say about students feeling they need to use complicated words in their writing. One of the things I've emphasized for my student is that she doesn't need to use complex sentences or vocabulary for her papers. All it does is muck up her English even worse and make her impossible to understand. Fortunately, she seems to listen to me and has simplified and improved.

Tokyo Rosa said...

The function of specialized language in academia is similar to that of politeness levels in Japanese. The understanding and use of specialized language (in both cases) allows for the creation of barriers that either include or keep out others.

Do you understand and can you use "adduce"? Can you formulate complex English sentences that omit personal pronouns? Welcome to the club! Do you understand and can you use keigo? Welcome to the club!

P.S. "Either way, for both my student and me..."

Shari said...

Tokyo Rosa: You make a very good point and I'm sure you're right. I hadn't thought about that for ages since I've been out of school for so long.

In my case, I know that academia is often a hiding place for people who are incapable of facing and dealing with the real world of employment. I will hasten to add though, that I don't put those who teach in elementary schools, high schools and in Japan in that category because it's a real job with little time to develop an elite clique with its own language.

When I was an assistant to a psychology professor in school, she said this to me directly. She said that a lot of people who became professors (and the type of academics who go on to write textbooks) were afraid to leave the protective cradle of school so they just found a profitable way to stay in it. She was self-aware enough to include herself in this group.

I'm not awed by people who can use a thesaurus or twist English into sentences which have to be untwisted to be understood. I can do it, or at least I used to be able to. These days, my main function is to make everything as plain and clear as possible and haven't tried to do the opposite for ages. It's no great feat. It's a skill you learn like any other.

Tokyo Rosa said...


I picked up similar language "simplifying" skills living and working in Japan--as did some of my co-workers (who, incidentally, had been living in Japan for years because, yes, they had found a way to make money and didn't really have options other than teaching English in Japan (just like their counterparts in academia).)

"The protective cradle of school"...I like that phrase, even as a life-long student! It's easy to become a (perhaps underserving) big fish in a little pond. Happens to gaijin in Japan all the time!

This was a really thought-provoking entry! Thanks!

Shari said...

Tokyo Rosa: Thanks for your comments as well (which are spurring mine). I think being a lifelong student is good, actually. I think everyone should be a lifelong student. My professor was referring to people who spent their whole life in school and never worked in any other sort of job. Essentially, they got PhDs then became professors with no pitstops along the way.

I don't see the situation with teachers in Japan as being quite the same since living here is inherently challenging for foreign people. Japan can be a really hard place to live which psychologically challenges foreigners. It doesn't matter how long you live here. You always have to battle prejudice and fight your worst inner responses.

Of course, there are those who are utterly oblivious and don't even notice what is going on around them. ;-)