Tuesday, 6 August 2013
Are you still sharpening your use of academic language, or are you loosening the reins?
The title of this blog points to the tensions involved in professional educational writing. In one sense the purely personal, original, pre-academic voice is a fiction. By joining the ranks of academe your voice has already begun to switch from a personal to a public voice. Taking the micky becomes parody or satire, for instance. Academic writing loses colloquial speech-like qualities and takes on the jargon of professional authenticity. And speech also tends to lose the accent and dialect of your class roots. Sadly, standard academic English is a rather middle-class business proposition. There is a gain but there is also a loss.
But academic voice in the arts and the social sciences need not be the bleak accent of dry neutrality and emotionless abstraction. Surely there's an error in losing the individual idiosyncrasy of the human pulse in this domain of work?
While it is true that the lexis of academic disputation is often overused it is clearly helpful if you want to signal degrees or shades of difference in your interpretation. In that regard arts and social sciences judgements are not derived from logical positivism, and evidence and interpretation have shades of gray. All writers also deploy a variety and range of connectives to link ideas and signpost the flow of thoughts. The trick is not to use them too much, or too little, because you will end up sounding like a robot, rather than a sentient and sensitive human creature! In summary ...
Language is your tool, not your master.
Is it worth pointing our that grammarians are divided between those who describe actual living usage, and those who try to enforce, regulate and prescribe based on tradtion? Our greatest writers, such as Shakespeare, were often ungrammatical by modern standards.
Have we become too prescriptive and normative in our deployment of academic writing skills? Academic composition has certainly spawned an academic sub-industry of poorly and well-paid tutors who will offer you the keys to success. They will help you to pay lip-service to the discourse of acdemia.
Academic discourse is a specialist use of English which is still evolving. I suspect that it’s becoming less stiff and stylised nowadays. An example of the current informaility is the tendency to use the first person pronoun “I” instead of the neutral objectivity of the third person. Even abbreviations and speech like contractions are now common, as I’VE noticed in recently published academic books. By claiming to be a common language of transparency academic discourse pretends to show us the ideas, rather than the person speaking them. Eventually by playing them game you lose your consciousness of the rules by which it operates.
At its worst academic discourse serves as a defensive armour or shield; at its best it supports the elegant deployment of necessary subtleties.
Any thoughts? Have you been sharpening or loosening your academic style?
Academic Phrasebank. Created by the University of Manchester.
Using English for Academic Purposes. A Guide for Students in Higher Education
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)