Friday, October 19, 2012

Was It Worth It? Critiquing a Blog Written in the Official Style

Imagine a time in your recent days when you sat sequestered in a classroom, test on desk, with a group of your fellow students. Someone, not you, finishes first and turns in the test. How many students will think to themselves, “that person is smart”? Better yet, how many people do you think will feel pressure to speed up the process of their work? This question assumes that intelligence is measured by the speed of test-taking. Although the statement “that person is smart” may or may not be true we are incorrect in assuming its truth based on the evidence we see. Even saying, “that person is a great test taker” is specious. Perhaps the person knew very little and gave up. In our lives we place judgments on people on things such as intelligence immediately at the first sign of the attribute. It’s only natural.

So then, what does it mean to be intelligent? Let’s ask this question in the context of blog-posting. Is an intelligent blog one that uses big words, cites scientific sources, crafts one hundred word long sentences and reads at the twentieth grade level? Maybe, if intelligence is what you’re going for. But is an intelligent blog a successful blog? Better yet, would you rather read a blog that sounds smart and has a lot of information or one that gives you something? I believe a successful blog post, like any good writing, is one that not only gives you something, but something new. In this post I will analyze a blog post by Kenneth W. Krause titled “Mapping Metaphor: This Is Your Brain on Figurative Language” from the July/August 2008 issue of the online blog “The Humanist." I will discuss the success of the blog post versus the amount of intelligence it appears to possess. The context I will be analyzing article will be the various activity systems to which it belongs. It is my goal to inform the reader if this article, for all its glorification of the Official Style, is worthy enough to delve into as I have.

The article we will look at summarizes studies scientists have conducted regarding figurative language, metaphor in particular, and what parts of the brain our ability to process language “comes from." The article is formidable to me, someone with no knowledge of neuroscience. But even the parts of the article not smattered with scientific jargon are tough to traverse. Krause begins, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Then again, mischief is the hot smoke that curls off the end of a lit intellect. And sometimes a diamond in the rough is indeed just an ancient deposit of highly compressed carbon. But no facet of humanity’s evolved “genius,” as Aristotle put it more than 2,300 years ago, sparkles so brilliantly as our unique capacities for extra-literal description and comprehension.”

I believe the author is saying that we are quite fortunate to understand the flexibility of our language usage, or “extra-literal description” as he names it. As I am already confused, and we haven’t even begun to discuss brain functions, I certainly am discouraged from reading another word. What’s the point of continuing on to subjects I don’t understand when the introduction is incessantly cruel to the mind? The author also mentions Aristotle’s “genius." If this is a reference to a “genius” Aristotle created the reference is lost to me. The knowledge on Aristotle is seemed to be assumed by the author, or else we are to take his word that Aristotle did indeed say the word “genius” many years ago.

The article continues on, summarizing the paradigms and studies that have existed in the course of neuroscience, historically mapping all those who sought to find the effect of metaphor on the brain. It’s all legitimately intriguing, but in the midst of summary and explanation the author reaches a point that begs the question: what next? The author states, “But why should cognitive scientists of all people agonize over literary minutia normally regarded only in university humanities departments? Generally, because the days are long past when science could be neatly segregated from ‘other subjects.’ More specifically, because significant clinical interests are at stake as well. Several patient populations reliably suffer from diminished or otherwise altered comprehension of irony, humor, metonymy, and non-salient metaphors in particular. Certain diseases, therefore, might well find their causes in brain anomalies also responsible for linguistic deficiencies. Regardless, such deficiencies surely exacerbate the existing social impairments experienced among patients overwhelmed by serious psycho- and neuropathologies.”

Here we see the reasons for the article’s existence. “Clinical interests” include everything from pharmaceuticals to hospitals to clinics to patients. Millions of people and billions of dollars are at stake. Still, the statements made by the author and me are extremely superficial and require more detail. The author attempts, in the last two sentences of this piece, to explain the importance and although we see large words and science-related diction, nothing of value of said. If we were to translate the next-to-last sentence we might say, “Brain anomalies that cause linguistic deficiencies might cause other diseases.” What is this...sound reasoning dressed up in a suit? That seems like a safe assumption to make without doing all the research. Let’s simplify the next sentence. “Such deficiencies surely worsen the existing problems among patients suffering from psycho- and neuropathologies.” In essence, it is said that one problem makes another problem worse. Again, this can be said without trudging through the article. Still, that all sounds pretty intelligent. Don’t we feel like we are part of some great discussion, some great discovery? That is the power of the Official Style. It gives credit when credit is not always due and it creates the air of an intellect that may not exist. These two sentences work hard to discredit the author and reveal the shear lack of knowledge he has on these matters. Any credibility fostered in my own mind, through the tedious read through, is lost.

Still, this critique is about more than how I preceive things. Who is affected by this piece? To whom is it of service? The major activity systems to which this piece belongs are as follows: the scientific community, students researching topics discussed in the piece, and people surfing the web. How would this article benefit the scientific community? It is doubtful that this article will spur scientists to put aside other goals in order to take up the mantle offered by Krause. It is safe to assume that scientists working on cognitive-related experiments are aware of everything that has already been discovered and put into words. If they didn’t and went on with their experiments they could be embarrassed for discovering something that had already been discovered. They are charged with coming up with something new, with applications. Students could find this article useful in citing for research papers as it sums up this history of cognitive research. It lays out many of the names and discoveries and quotes that a student would love to explain and delve into. The final activity system is the population of people surfing the web, specifically for this subject or not, and I believe this is the largest and most important activity system.

And here is the rub. The grade level of this piece is 15.6, or college juniors and seniors. Each sentence contains an average of 22.7 words. Is there not discouragement for the reader after spending a very short time in this piece? It does not invite young readers or those without such high grade levels. Yet the piece is not condescending to readers in its tone. Where there is a sense of the author in this piece, specifically the paragraphs bookending this work, the tone is one of positivity and wonder, wonder at the loveliness of our brains. Why can’t this tone be reflected in words “regular people” will appreciate?

Let’s look at that last paragraph. The author writes, “Figurative language is surely more than an intellectual extravagance. It is as much a fiber of our very being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains. Most fortunately, however, comprehension of novel expression serves as a useful barometer of our personal and communal health as well. So one might permit a writer the guilty pleasure of mixing his metaphors on occasion, despite academic decorum.”

There seems to be an importance hidden in the subtle humor. Is writing in a higher grade level a celebration of how amazing our brains are? Should we spend the time reading things we can barely understand in order to challenge our minds? Should we have this forced upon us by most or everything we read? The author has taken it upon himself to write in such a way that forces us into new planes of confusion. Someone has to keep writing in Official Style to combat legislative and societal attacks, why not him? The author uses the word “decorum” to end his work. “Decorum” means “dignity” or “modesty.” Let’s change the final sentence. “So one might permit a writer the guilty pleasure of mixing his metaphors on occasion, despite academic dignity.” Is it any less confusing? I believe he is saying that it is academically “undignified” to write outside of the Official Style. Perhaps, instead of being a steward of the Official Style he is acknowledging that he is a slave. Breaking free of that, using metaphors and such, is a “guilty pleasure." Of course, the true meaning of the author is shadowed because “decorum” has several meanings more than I have listed.

The author could be forgiven, in my mind, for not adding something new to his summary of scientific discovery in the way of application if he had spent more time connecting the scientific to the humanistic, such as he attempted in the previous example. I do not wish for a long stream of outpouring of beauty, but the author wasted an opportunity to ask questions, even ones he could not answer.

So I’m left to ask, why should I care? And yet, who am I to judge this article for separating itself so far from the average reader through its language and voice? Who am I to criticize it for failing to find applications for discoveries I don’t understand in fields that don’t greatly interest me? I am limited by my own desire or lack thereof to learn about what is placed before me yet I have the right to critique an article in the same spirit in which it was created. Those of us who write in one form or another all reserve the right to critique others who write about things we’d rather not touch. I can admit that the blog article written by Mr. Krause is full of intelligence in its words and research and successful in summarizing the studies done in figurative language abilities in the brain. Still, it is not successful in expanding upon the possible applications of this science nor in expanding upon the faint notions of beauty it touches upon. As thus, it leaves me to wonder on my own, what does it all matter?

By Matthew T. Bauman

Source Material:

Sleep Paralysis


     In preparation for his TV spot on BBC1’s The One Show, Professor Chris French wrote an article for The Guardian, both covering what the heck Sleep Paralysis is (by the way it’s a sleep disorder that causes the sufferer to become conscious before the brain has fully awakened) as well as giving an overview of his latest research in that area. Being that it is in preparation for (and an advertisement of) his TV spot, it seems natural that the article should be written in a conversational or at least entertaining tone, but most of French’s article is written in the same dry and complicated language that you would expect to find not on a website for a newspaper, but in a psychology textbook.
      By far, the most out of place term within the entire article is “holographic dollhouse” which is from a quote that French uses from a fellow scholar and sufferer of sleep paralysis named Jeremy Deane. In this quote, Deane says, “The environment tends to feel like a holographic dollhouse, the experience peaks and then the hallucinations mysteriously vanish when I regain control of my body.” And that’s all that’s given. Instead of going back and explaining clearly and concretely what it is that Deane means when he says this, French simply moves on to his next point, leaving this odd “holographic dollhouse” hanging in the air (excuse the pun) without explanation.
      Of course, it could be argued (and I hope that this is true) that this term may be something he covers in his TV appearance, and so he leaves it hanging to pique curiosity, but I found that the odd arrangement didn’t so much make me interested in his TV spot, as it did the opposite. I don’t find myself wanting to tune in at a later date; I wanted it explained immediately, because the whole idea of the sentence runs behind this term. This feeling was only increased by the fact that the phrase didn’t seem odd or out of place at first glance. At first, it was simply an odd idea that this man had come up with to explain his condition. Then, as I focused on it individually, I found that I couldn’t explain what it actually meant, and finally, I got to the point that I wasn’t sure if I actually knew what was meant by it.
      This isn’t the only time that French stumbles in his article. Later, French quotes a woman named Lori Ball, who, like Deane, is a sufferer of sleep paralysis. Unlike Deane though, Ball is not a student at a prestigious school. The account we get from her is plain English, spoken exactly as she experiences it, without any fluffing to make it sound more scientific. Her account is not what I find fault in. It is instead, the little that French adds before her account begins, that I see as ill-fitting of the voice of the article. He says,

“This strongly suggests that the fear is not a consequence of the experience but an integral part of it, possibly caused by over-activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for fear.
This is illustrated by an account from Lori Ball, a healthy 53-year-old woman from Ohio who is not only well-informed about sleep paralysis but is actually cognisant of what is happening to her while it's happening . . .”
     Phrases like “fear is not a consequence of the experience but an integral part of it,” or “over-activation of the amygdala,” disrupt the flow and the feeling of the overall article, which, up until this point had not pushed it’s jargon to the extreme. Now, French seems to be attempting to over-compensate for the scholarly background that Ball doesn’t have, as if her own personal account is not enough. As a sufferer of the disorder, Ball really needs no justification in her words, and yet, because she isn’t a scientist like French and Deane, she has these titles thrust upon her.
      It is in paragraphs such as this that French alienates a majority of his audience — for his audience is not that of doctors and scientists, but rather the readers of The Guardian and viewers of The One Show. French seems to be talking down to the very audience that he wants to watch his spot on TV. And, this example with Ball isn’t the only time that he does it. It can be found at large in one other area of the article:

“During normal sleep, the brain and body pass through four stages of sleep during which physiological indices such as brain activity, heart rate and breathing rate gradually slow down.
This process then reverses and the sleeper enters a period of REM-stage sleep, so-called because of the characteristic rapid eye movements that are associated with it.
The full cycle, which takes about 90-100 minutes, is then repeated and, as the night progresses, each cycle becomes progressively less dominated by stage 3 and stage 4 sleep and increasingly dominated by REM sleep.
Dreams can occur during all sleep stages but the most vivid dreams tend to be reported when people are awoken from REM sleep.”
      Here, the article takes on an air of a psychology textbook. French seems to lose site of the fact that he is supposed to be entertaining, as he begins droning through the process of sleep, and the explanations of what is actually happening. And, as he goes on, the interest of the audience drops.
      Throughout the entirety of this article, there seems to be disagreement in who French thinks he’s writing to. Half of the article, is written very plainly, as if for the general audience that would be reading it, and the other half is written with elevated language — more for his colleagues that might read his work. And the problem isn’t so much that he slips into an elevated style of language, but that he fails to keep to either a more official language or a plainer language. For an article such as this, it is a better idea to use plain language that all can relate to, if you really want people to tune into your TV show, but, even if you decide against such tactics, you only alienate your audience more by constantly switching between the two styles. And, as if that isn’t enough, when French does slip into his doctorate voice, he provides only the bare minimum of information, so any interest he does actually inspire with his words, is lost when he suddenly switches topics again three sentences later.
      On a whole, does this article make me want to watch his spot on The One Show? No. It makes me want to learn more about Sleep Paralysis, but not from him specifically. I only want to have the questions he inspires answered, but he doesn’t nothing to convince me or his general audience to get it from him. The activity systems of this article would ideally be expert speaking to the general population, but he writes it as if he is an expert speaking to other experts. And, as I have demonstrated, it didn’t work.


--Lauren Ihrke

Before You Hit "Accept": Translating YouTube's Terms of Service

     Terms of Service for any website can be confusing. Everything from legal terms in large complex sentences, to short summarizing phrases can be found in this type of document. However, even those statements that summarize and are meant to provide clarity can end up confusing the average, non-legal reader. Most of us simply find it easier to click the “I accept” button and move on, hoping that we didn’t somehow sign our lives away in the process. I will be focusing on the Youtube Terms of service in this article; more specifically the “Your Content and Conduct” section which includes a discussion of ownership rights regarding Content. Although the activity systems involved are an important factor as to why the terms are written the way they are, I will focus more on the text itself with some brief insight into the activity systems.
     Texts like these are usually for legal purposes as opposed to users of the website. In order to fully know what one is signing up for, the user should read through the terms of service when first joining a website. However, many of us cannot even translate the legal terms and find our eyes glazing over before really even understanding the basic content of these terms. The website that is providing these terms of service, such as Youtube, is not writing towards the users, but rather to the legal teams in case a user, or other company that uses the site, brings up a legal discussion or debate about something that occurs on the website. We find that three separate activity systems come into conflict within the reading of this document. 
     While the text is primarily to give proof to the user of the rules and regulations that the site has, it must be written in legal terms to be presentable if problems should arise that bring the legal system into the argument. The three activity systems can be identified as the youtube staff, the users, and the copyright laws that youtube must regulate. The YouTube staff is at work through the writing of the terms. The staff is the connection between the user and the service, making them an important part of the relationships involved between the activity systems. The user is obviously involved as the subject of the terms of service as well as the people who are directly affected by the other activity systems. The copyright laws are presented within the terms of service as would be expected by a legal team. This brings into play the third activity system. Together these three systems work to form a relationship revolving around this website.
     The conflicts between the activity systems bring about the need for these terms of service, in order to keep everyone on the same page. Sometimes the conflicts of interest cause some confusion and the terms end up being a little confusing to the user. The terms are described as “community guidelines” on the youtube site to further place responsibility on the user, showing that the user must have full knowledge of the terms and will be held to those rules. The formal elements of the writing do not make it unintelligible, but some lengthy sections and legal vocabulary can make it difficult to those who do not want to read through a legal document. It does not seem that they are intentionally trying to confuse the user, but are simply following the legal procedures that the site will be held to. The legal framework lowers the reading ease and may be cause for some confusion. 
     If we look directly into the text, we can find some key examples of where the terms are quite easy to understand, but also sections in which the reader has the potential to get lost or confused. Point number one is easy enough to grasp stating that “as a YouTube account holder you may submit Content to the Service, including videos and user comments. You understand that YouTube does not guarantee any confidentiality with respect to any Content you submit.” This statement is pretty clearly is saying that you can submit videos and comments, but they may not necessarily be kept private since it is a public site. 
     Point two is a bit more difficult. They throw in different legal terms, covering all the bases that the legal system mostly likely expects of them. 
     “You shall be solely responsible for your own Content and the consequences of submitting and publishing your Content on the Service. You affirm, represent, and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to publish Content you submit; and you license to YouTube all patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights in and to such Content for publication on the Service pursuant to these Terms of Service.”
The second sentence is a whopping 53 words throwing in everything from “rights” to “trademark” within them including the word “pursuant” which means nothing more than accordance to, or following the Terms of Service. It’s words with that much prowess that seem to throw readers for a loop when they scroll through the expectations. It makes you really wonder what you’re signing before you hit “accept” on the site. 
     The biggest point, point three, comes with not only the most words but is also the most complexity in both sentence structure and content. They start off with the helpful phrase: “For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your Content.” This gives us a good feeling, thinking that they have assured us that our videos are ours. The rest of the section however, leaves a reader with less certainty -- that is if they can get through it.
     “However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service. The above licenses granted by you in video Content you submit to the Service terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your videos from the Service. You understand and agree, however, that YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of your videos that have been removed or deleted. The above licenses granted by you in user comments you submit are perpetual and irrevocable.”
     The first thing that may be cause for a bit of unease, is the use of the word “however.” YouTube had just established a sense of clarity, but had a bit of a catch after all. This section is not easy to get through with a reading ease grade level of 17.6. According to the reading ease scale you would need at least 5-6 years of college level education to understand the section. Needless to say, most of YouTube’s users don’t have that. 
     The almost 200 word section of the terms of service is enough to throw any user into a sense of panic if they were able to get through all of the legal terms. The site covers all basis of materials on YouTube in only a few sentences. A primary use of listing helps the terms to stretch to the longer sentences you can see. Lists such as “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license” and “to use reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content.” While these lists do not seem all that hard to understand when separated, combined into one sentence they have the effect of overwhelming the reader. In reality, the legal terms used are ones that we hear often in everyday life, but connecting them into the long and complex sentences as they have causes it to seem over-complicated and very legal. 
     While the terms on “Your Content and Conduct” continue on for another three points, we can clearly see from the first three how the text is set up. As a whole, this section has a readability grade level of about 14, meaning you would need at least 14 years of education to fully understand what it says. This can be in a large part due to the number of words per sentence, 21.2, that the passages average. The terms of service for YouTube concern all of the site’s users, as well as the YouTube staff and the legal teams who are dealing with the copyright laws the terms include. 
     In the text, there doesn’t seem to be any purposeful additions of words to completely throw off the average YouTube user who may have taken the time out to read through all of the terms. Strangely enough, these terms of service seem to be more user friendly than some others. However, I have not investigated the rest of the terms of service. The user-friendly nature of this section may be in order to establish the rules for YouTube as a “community.” Since the “Content and Conduct” section directly concerns the user, it makes sense that it is slightly more readable than other sections. We can only hope that after hitting “accept” that those more complicated legal terms don’t come back to haunt us. It might just pay off to read through the terms of service you read. You might understand more than you think if you take the time to pull each line apart. 

--Rachel Gerlach


ELHJ: To Be Credible or Incredible?

                Power and credibility: two concepts attached at the hip yet always seeking to be greater than each other.  We unintentionally throw ourselves into a Catch-22; we gain credibility to establish power yet seek it to become credible in our desires.  While endless sources could be plundered and scoped for this paradoxical conjoining, I have chosen to examine the English Literary History Journal (ELHJ) article “The Cosmic Synthesis in Doctor Faustus” by Robert Ornstein.  Thus, I believe Ornstein’s article shows itself as a creature of a hyper-competitive environment in the need to be a superior argument.
                Understanding the argument requires understanding the environment it was created within.  At a first glance of the ELHJ on the John Hopkins University website, the journal’s foremost concern is that “ELH publishes superior studies that interpret the conditions affecting major works in English and American literature” (John Hopkins University Press).  Three words into this description and we’ve hit a snag: superior.  We’ve stumbled upon a measurement of worth, an enigmatic concept that freezes us in our tracks.  As we read further, we are dismayed to realize the statement gives no clarity into how the journal establishes this “superiority.”  Does it mean the most creative or most provocative?  Are we judged by how comprehensive the article is, or by how many thoughts the author can fill into each sentence?  This entire page could be riddled with potential questions without receiving a single answer.  All potential contributors have to go on is this abstract concept of superiority and “wing it.”
                Given context, we can now follow Ornstein’s approach to the superiority complex.  His article on the various character relationships in Marlowe’s play is deliberative and inspires unique understandings of “King” and “Clown” characters found in numerous medieval dramas.  While I personally find some of Ornstein’s arguments to be dense and sluggish, I give him credit in using less group-specific jargon in displaying his thoughts.  Until the final two paragraphs, most of the essay appears to be standard pomp and flair, as far as University-level analyses go.  Then, from way out of left field, he busts out the big guns: “Marlowe adds new dimension to the Morality framework” (Ornstein 172).  Where the majority of the essay dealt with character development, we’ve drastically switched gears into the religious/philosophical ramifications of the play.  Even so, the status of Doctor Faustus as a Morality play has been debated for years.  Why pull this aggressive curveball?  One word: superiority.  By claiming the work creates a new level to the common understanding of Morality plays, Ornstein attempted to one-up previous notions of the drama, and obviously succeeded.
                Essentially, we find ourselves in a system that prides itself so heavily on having the most superior analyses of literature that elitism is the only mode of understanding in which these contributors work.  Rather than seek new and potentially brilliant comprehensions of texts, these authors bind themselves to dig in the same old holes, each time going “deeper” than a previous contributor.  The more we observe, the more we realize this isn’t a vehicle of expressive thought but a coliseum of words and claims.  Otherwise, we could argue the competitive work asks contributors to delve further into their arguments, creating more powerful pieces.  Also, a compelling counterargument could be made that the environment these papers exist within are a particular niche and hold themselves to a stronger standard.  Then it becomes important to ask: do these standards promote greater thought or greater limitations?