Monday, October 22, 2012

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

The document I worked with in studying the Official Style is a dissertation called: “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman: Food, Eating, and Social Formations in Renaissance Culture and Drama”. That title alone exhibits why I chose to analyze this dissertation. After working with it for a presentation in my Renaissance Lit class, I quickly noticed the contrast that the style and caliber of writing had with the nature of its topic: food. Food is one of the most basic topics for people to understand; it relates us all because, to put it simply, we all eat food. As the author of the dissertation, Huey-ling Lee, notes, “it is not original to say that people need food in order to survive” (1). However, the style of writing Lee uses, along with the complicated themes and ideas he addresses, create a text that can be considered unattainable for readers who lack background knowledge and language of the Renaissance era, Sociology, History, and the Culinary Arts. The dissertation itself is nearly 200 pages, so I chose to focus solely on the Introduction section and what I decided was that it juxtaposes a seemingly easily understood topic—food—with a strong use of the Official Style, creating a text that has become quite unattainable for many readers who are non-scholars. This poses the question: should academic writers gear their style of writing towards academic readers and risk blocking out a group of readers who may be just as interested in the information but lack the scholarly background to support them?

The text demonstrates use of the Official Style throughout the writing. While Lee’s writing does not touch every component of the Official Style, it does use several of them. Much of his writing is passive and impersonal: “a consideration of the relation between food and survival thus leads to a consideration of the economic and social structures which control who has what to eat and how much” (1).

The word choice Lee uses is highly bureaucratic and jargonistic and he assumes a lot of his readers, such as that they’re familiar with “Elizabethan and Jacobean drama” (2) or what “interpersonal interaction” (3) is. Many common phrases are restated to be as complex as possible, like when he refers to eating less as “a reduction of food intake” (4) or the rising popularity of unfamiliar foreign food as “the unprecedented influx of alien foodstuffs from other regions or foreign countries” (6). He also uses complicated sentences, often long-winded enough to leave us as readers forgetting what we’d started reading in the first place. Not only are these statements quite lengthy (with an average of 31.4 words per sentence), they’re often more confusing than informative. Lee uses advanced word choice and intricate sentence structures, most likely in attempts to make the writing seem more academic. However, based on several samples tested, the average grade level this writing was listed at was 16.9. That’s almost at the level of a fifth-year college senior or a first-year graduate student. In a discussion about food and how people eat it, this has become quite the complicated topic. Whether Lee was intending it or not, using highly specific phrases and jargon, as well as overly-complicated sentences, risks losing readers. Instead of using language that invites non-academics, he is essentially preventing them from joining the conversation.

It’s quite obvious that the anticipated activity systems for this dissertation are made up of English, Renaissance History, Sociology, and Culinary History scholars and students whose motivations are most likely studying the social and economic implications of food and eating in the Renaissance Era. As these are the most likely people to be interested in such a piece of literature, it makes sense why Lee think to would use such academic writing. However, the complex sentences and word choice he uses may deter or alienate readers of a non-scholarly nature. The Official Style functions within the academic activity system because scholarly readers (the intended audience) can understand the jargon and complex themes, and can most likely see past the passive voice, lengthy and complicated sentences, and bureaucratic writing style. However, for non-scholars who may still have an interest in the topic, the use of Official Style can also be just as alienating.

The use of academic writing and the Official Style presents a bigger issue at hand: while the author is aiming his writing for scholarly purposes and audiences, is writing in the Official Style necessary and, more importantly, ethical? By using the Official Style, Lee has made an assumption about his readers before their eyes have even scanned the title page; that they are at the same or at least similar comprehension level as he is and are fully capable of understanding such an advanced writing style. Deliberate or not, he has closed out an entire group of readers who are equally as interested in this topic but may not have the academic background needed to be able to break through the wall of the Official Style. Even more unnerving is the fact that such an alienating text is focused around such a general, widely-known topic of food preparation and its connection to gender roles in society. What makes this style of writing more credible than plain language? Perhaps it is because language like this is alienating; the purpose of academic writing and the Official Style is not to be inclusive but exclusive. This manages to form a separation between the scholarly and the not, creating a belief that the text is set at a higher standard. In a rather cyclical fashion, writing like this makes a statement that only the people who can understand it are worthy of reading it and worthy of making a contribution.

-Mandi Janikowski

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