Friday, March 29, 2013

Seeing All Sides: A Critique

By Madeleine G.

I found my text through the EBSCOhost database through the UW—La Crosse online library. Access to this website is privileged because of my status as a student. For example, finding this specific article via a Google search would not be simple, which I will address later in this paper. I chose this particular article because working in teams is a difficult task to perfect, and I wanted to see what certain scholarly articles had to say about group work. Three professors at the University of Central Florida wrote the article, most likely for a college class. It is very detailed and specific, with an abundance of elements of the Official Style.
            Often times the Official Style has higher grade levels and lower reading ease. Here are the readability statistics for this article:

Readability Formula

Grade Levels

A grade level (based on the USA education system) is equivalent to the number of years of education a person has had. Scores over 22 should generally be taken to mean graduate level text.

Readability Formula
Average Grade Level

The most prominent element of Official style that I noticed right away was word choice. It is extremely wordy. Take, for example, the second sentence of the article. “This resulted in unanticipated forces acting against the entry and the ultimate destruction of the craft” (Shuffler, M.L., Wiese, C.W., Salas, E., & Burke, C.S., 2010). ‘Unanticipated forces’ is an interesting choice to use here, when the authors could have stated it more simply and not as abstract. Instead, they could have wrote, ‘Since the satellite was built incorrectly, it destructed.’ This is a much more direct statement, and easier to comprehend for a broader audience. Another example is, “Shared leadership may be particularly important to virtual teams, where team members’ separation from the leader and from one another may necessitate the distribution of leadership functions” (Shuffler, et al., 2010).  This first part of this statement is fine. It is the second part that I take issue with. It could instead read, ‘Shared leadership may be particularly important to online teams, where separated members of a team call for the spread of leadership within the group.’ This sentence is in plain English and easier to understand. A third example is the following sentence: “Furthermore, we present propositions regarding factors that may aid in reducing any hindrances in shared leader behaviors brought about by virtuality and distribution” (Shuffler, et al., 2010). An alternative sentence could be: ‘We provide ways to help minimize complications when working in virtual shared leadership situations.
After further analysis of the passage from this article, I felt that although the authors were writing to their desired audience, I do not think that it needs to be in the official style. I think that it is used in this piece because it is speaking to privileged people who have access to work in or operate virtual teams. I also find it contradictory that when working in teams, no one writes to each other using official style, especially in virtual teams. In fact, virtual teams may rely more on video technologies rather than actual writing. This article is most certainly written to those privileged enough to obtain the article and also to understand it. What of those who are not able to work in virtual teams, or are not at a leadership status? What if the leaders in charge are being intentionally or unintentionally harmful to their subordinates? One example I think of is the tragic case of The Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. These questions lead me to the main idea of activity systems working within the text of this article.
For the purpose of this assignment, I will be focusing on the students and professors at universities that have the opportunity to access the article. The mediating artifacts are the online .pdf file, through the EBSCOhost database, which requires a login and password. To the authors’ credit, they did provide a translated Spanish version of the title and abstract, which is interesting. They must have been thinking of others in their activity systems when writing this piece. The authors are most certainly writing to inform and to teach future leaders, while offering ways to be effective and minimize negative consequences when they write, “…we present a set of propositions regarding specific leader functions whose sharedness may be differentially impacted by the degree of virtuality and distribution within a team. Furthermore, we present propositions regarding factors that may aid in reducing any hindrances in shared leader behaviors brought about by virtuality and distribution” (Shuffler, et al., 2010). The desired outcomes for the authors and the readers would be to successfully work together in teams with multiple leaders to prevent events such as The Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, or as they say in the article, the Mars Climate Orbiter satellite. These examples also go to show that they are not always achieved in practice, as can happen with desired outcomes. Rules and norms in the activity system that may not be typical are people who have immoral intentions that may come across this article, who use the leadership tactics provided for negative reasons. I also think of those who this article may be useful to, but cannot access it. Even business professionals most likely do not have access to the database because of the login and password process, where the information could be potentially very beneficial. Because of these reasons, there are various communities involved in the activity system at work in this context, specifically college students, professors, and business professionals. In terms of divisions of labor within the activity system, they are wide-ranging, and what truly sparked my interest when analyzing the activity systems within the text. The article blatantly separates the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ through the use of language and technology. The official style is one that is often taught in institutions of higher education. These are people who have power over those who do not even have the opportunity to learn about how to get power via this article.
The Official Style does have its purposes. In this particular context in the article, it is used appropriately for the authors’ perceived view of audience. However, after a more critical analysis, it is apparent that this prose style is not always appropriate to use. It can be very exclusive to others and also further separates the line of privileged and under-privileged. The reason why I do not think this article should be written in the Official Style is because it is relevant, important information that should be readily available to those who need to access it. It would be beneficial for those who want to learn more about the concepts and ideas in the article. Overall, it could be much more simplistic and therefore more relatable to a broader audience to include more people in the activity systems.

The Hidden Dangers of Rugby

       The liability waiver is a document every rugby player and coach must read and agree to in order to play rugby on any level, high school, college or club in the United States.  It is a part of registering for USA Rugby.  Signing this waiver is a part of “cipping” or Club and Individual Participation Program.  Being a member of USA Rugby provides a member with liability and accident coverage for incidents that occur during sanctioned events. The accident policy is an “excess accident medical policy” with a $1500 deductible if you have primary insurance and a $3000 deductible if you are uninsured.  Due to the aggressive nature of rugby, it is easy to understand why USA Rugby would feel it necessary to have potential members sign this waiver.  However, this document is written at a nineteenth grade level, and is incomprehensible to most, if not all, rugby players and coaches.  The liability waiver uses many examples of the Official Style, such as complex sentence structure, including many, appositives, slow sentence start and shapeless sentences.  Due to the overwhelming amount of complex sentences and the high grade level of this document, it is unethical for USA Rugby to have its members sign a waiver that has the players and coaches give up right that they may not understand they are giving up.

       The rugby waiver is written at a nineteenth grade level.  This is a third year graduate student level and most rugby players are high school or undergraduate students.  The first element of the Official Style that one will notice when reading the contract are the complex sentence structures, including a shocking amount of appositives.  This is common in legal documents, because it is an easy way for the lawyers to cover any possible loopholes.  While reading this waiver it is easy to get lost in appositives.  USA Rugby’s waiver covers every possible activity that is included in playing rugby.  
“Risks may arise out of contact and/or participation with other participants, spectators, equipment, field, facility and/or fixed objects; falls, collisions, rough play, and other mishaps; exposure to adverse weather conditions and/or high altitude; flaws and defects in equipment and facilities; irregular field conditions; and negligent field maintenance, negligent officiating, negligent coaching and negligent participation”
This sentence uses appositives in order to cover the entire range of causes for how someone could get hurt playing rugby.  The verbose, shapeless, run-on nature of this sentence makes it difficult to follow and read even though the language is relatively easy to understand.  By the time the reader reaches the end of this inclusive list, they have forgotten the point of the sentence.

       The document defines rugby as anything “including but not limited to warm-up, training, practice, games, clinics, travel and social events (referred to herein as the “Activities”)”.  There are many examples in the document were a group of things are listed and given one common name like “Activities” to refer to them in the remainder of the contract.  The use of these groupers makes the document impersonal and so more difficult for the less educated reader to relate their actions to potential consequences.  The average rugby player may not realize the document releases USA Rugby from liability for harm or damages that occur during the social time after games.  

       The liability waiver also uses the classic Official Style “is+ preposition clause” in the sentence, “If any provision of this document is determined to be invalid for any reason, such invalidity shall not affect the validity of any of the other provisions.”  This sentence is not only “is + preposition clause,” but also a shapeless and ambiguous sentence.  After reading it over a couple of times it is still difficult to comprehend.  Another element of the Official Style in the waiver the use of slow sentence start with almost every opening topic.  “In consideration for the privilege of the Participant’s participation in the Activities, the undersigned hereby…,” this is a slow and complicated way to say “in order to play rugby, the member agrees to...”  This form of Official Style seems formatted especially to lull the unsuspecting reader into ignoring the important words that follow.

      The liability waiver adds protection to its members, but it also takes away rights that the average rugby player does not comprehend they are giving signing away.  In the middle of the waiver, it states that the signer is taking responsibility for all risks including those that occur due to negligence. The signer is accepting all responsibility for lost opportunities, and giving up their rights to sue for damages. It is unethical for USA Rugby to use the Official Style to promote their self-interest.  In this document USA Rugby is trying to protect the club from legal action while warning the potential member of risks; however their use of the Official Style serves their interest alone.  

      Why is the use of Official Style in liability waivers so universally accepted? As discussed in this paper, it seems unethical for any organization to use such complex language when the majority of their potential members do not have the educational level to understand the personal implications.  It seems highly unlikely that the average rugby player would decide against participation if the document was written in language they could understand. This makes the decision by USA Rugby to continue the use of this document seem enigmatic and unscrupulous.  Signing the contract and becoming a USA Rugby member does give you some limited medical benefits, but overall the contract protects USA Rugby more than it does their members.  If one does not sign this waiver they cannot play rugby in the United States.  In this way USA Rugby is using the Official Style to hold power over their members and adding dangers to the game of rugby.  
By: Sarah Lechner

Getting Reelected: Officials use The Official Style to remain Official

In February 1989, seven year old Melissa Moreina and her mother were attacked by a pit bull in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In the ordinance that followed the attack, all pit bulls in Miami-Dade county were officially illegal. The ordinance was written by Robert Ginsberg, the Dade County attorney, for the County Board of Commissioners to discuss and vote on.  The County Board of Commissioners is made up of 13 elected commissioners representing the 13 districts of the state. While the county attorney is usually the author of ordinances, it’s the County Board of Commissioners that decide whether or not the ordinance will be enacted.
All of Miami-Dade County’s legislation, including this pit bull ordinance, can be found on the county’s government website. The attack on young Melissa spurred a huge public outcry against pit bulls and the county commissioners began working out a solution to what people were calling “the dangerous dog epidemic.” The ordinance is part of a large number of activity systems; the state of Florida, the county of Miami-Dade, humane societies both in Miami and around the state, veterinary offices, animal rescues, police stations, fire departments, and all the citizens of Florida. The most relevant activity system that the ordinance is a part of, and the focus of this article, is what I like to call, the political arena. The political arena is the abstract place where candidates try to win voters by any means possible in order to get elected or reelected. Everything that a politician does is part of the political arena, from kissing babies to making speeches.
Most laws and ordinances are direct results of the public having an issue with something going on in the world. In 1989, a little girl was severely injured by a pit bull, so the public wanted something to be done about it. According to the ordinance, “this  article is intended to utilize the authority and powers of Metropolitan Dade County in order to secure for the citizens of this County the protection of their health, safety, and welfare.”  However, because the ordinance is part of the political arena, it is clear that there are other motives at work. Specifically the desire to get reelected and remain in power.
The official style runs rampant in the political arena, especially in legislation. In this ordinance, the official style is used for three main reasons; one, it helps maintain the commissioners positive appearance in the eyes of the public; two, it allows enough confusion in order to protect the county from getting sued in the event that a mistakes is made; three, it is the prescribed norm of behavior for legal documents to be written in the official style.  
While the whole text is rife with the official style, the three key characteristics of the official style found in this text are passive voice, shapeless sentences, and verbose phrases. An example of passive voice is “Humane destruction of the pit bull dog by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.” This phrase hides both the subject and the action. The subject is neatly tucked away at the end of the sentence (the court), while the action is hidden behind the euphemistic phrase “humane destruction.” They couldn’t just say, “we will kill your pit bull” because they want to remain in a positive light in order to get reelected. An example of a shapeless sentence is  Technical deficiencies in the dog's conformance to the standards described in subsection (b) shall not be construed to indicate that the subject dog is not a "pit bull dog" under this article.This sentence is particularly confusing, but once translated it becomes apparent how important it could be to the owner of a boxer. This sentence basically means that even if the dog in question doesn’t conform to their standard pit bull appearance, it can still be considered a pit bull. This means that the county could declare your boxer a pit bull and kill it, but you couldn’t sue them because even if it didn’t look like a pit bull that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a pit bull.  In the long run, this would hurt the commissioners image and hurt their chances of getting reelected, but in the short run it might appear that they were just trying to do their best to protect the citizens of Miami-Dade County.
Another characteristic of the official style used in this legal document is verbose phrasing. Verbose phrasing can be found in many legal documents because the legal team wants to try to cover all their bases and to conform to the standard official style. An example of verbose phrasing in the pit bull ordinance is, “No pit bull dogs may be sold, purchased, obtained, brought into Miami-Dade County, or otherwise acquired by residents of Miami-Dade County anytime after the passage of ninety (90) days after the effective date of Ordinance Number 89-22.” And even though it would be simpler to say “It is illegal to bring or buy a pit bull in Miami-Dade County starting 90 days after this ordinance” it would not be considered appropriate in a legal document because it doesn’t cover all of the possible scenarios.
The official style in this text is designed to create a positive opinion of the commissioners, to conform to the standard legal code style, and cover up any possible mistakes that the county might make. However, the ordinance has a readability level of an 18.5 grade. This means it has low readability and the average Miami-Dade County citizen is not likely to understand the ordinance in its entirety. But on the surface, the ordinance’s purpose is not to be understood. It doesn’t matter if people fully understand the entire ordinance as long as they understand the gist of it: pit bulls are illegal, pay a fine, register your dogs, etc. Its not to be argued, its not to be torn apart and scrutinized, it’s a law. The commissioners put this out on the table and it doesn’t matter to them that you understand it fully as long as you mostly understand it and you follow it. Even focusing on the ulterior motives of the ordinance, getting reelected, it doesn’t matter if the citizens fully understand it. The citizens will get the basics, pit bulls are now illegal, and presumably this is what the public wanted and since the commissioners are doing what the people want, at least in this instance, its stands to reason that they will get reelected.
Its also entirely possible that I’m being pessimistic about the commissioners and their motives. It is possible that the commissioners are convinced that the public is in danger and that it is their job to protect the people from pit bulls. Its possible that my bias against this particular ordinance (not only do I love pit bulls, but I believe breed specific legislation does not reduce the number of dog bites), is affecting my view of the commissioners and the real reason behind the ordinance. And even if the commissioners are just doing the public’s will, isn’t that what they are supposed to do? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the commissioners want to get reelected because they were elected to serve the people and if they are serving the people in order to get reelected, well then at least they are doing what they are supposed to.
It is also important to note that even though it was the County Board of Commissioners who voted on the ordinance, it was Robert Ginsberg who wrote it. This critique only focused on the motives of the commissioners, but perhaps I should have focused on the motives of the author, after all, he is the one who employed the Official Style. It could be that Robert Ginsberg had a personal vendetta against pit bulls and wrote the ordinance in order to confuse the commissioners who were voting on it. The average reading level of most people is 7th grade, but what’s the average reading level of the County Board of Commissioners? It’s possible that they didn’t know what they were voting on, only that the people wanted it. But that is a subject for another critique.

By: Pearl C.

Isolation through the Official Style

            The article I used to study the Official Style was titled, “WikiLeaks, Anarchism, and Technologies of Dissent”. I chose this piece because the Official Style is typically present in the development of political philosophies such as anarchism, and technological documents often take the stand-point of either expert knowledge or “for dummies” writing. Before I could understand the context in which the article was published, I had to understand the nature of the publication. Antipode, a self-proclaimed “Radical Journal of Geography”, offers a variety of peer-reviewed papers from geographers and scholars. They “offer a radical analysis of geographical issues [with the] intent to engender the development of a new and better society”. Plainly stated, their aim is to explore global issues from a non-mainstream viewpoint to aid society. I focus here on one excerpt that showcases the Official Style, and then use it to answer the following questions: Does this article, through use of the Official Style, “engender the development of a new and better society” as claimed by Antipode, and what does this mean for the larger context of Official Style use?
            The article evaluates the claim made by opponents of Wikileaks, that the group is anarchistic, by evaluating the characteristics, technologies, and underpinning politics that could support the claim. Curran and Gibson use many aspects of the Official Style to showcase their claim to expert knowledge. The screenshot of the paragraph provides multiple examples of the Official Style, and has an Average Grade Level of 18.2. Paring out a single sentence from this section highlights many of those elements:

Wikileaks, Anarchism, and Technologies of Dissent Excerpt
Inspired by the altruistic, anarchical elements of hacktivist culture, the anti-statism of crypto-anarchism and utilising the anarchic infrastructure of the Internet and hacker software advances for the purposes of leaking, WikiLeaks seeks to make information free so that the power and privilege of governments and corporations dissolves and the “conspiratorial power” that it argues maintains their deceptions, disappears.

            The sentence is verbose, weighed down by the continual use of jargon, and repeated strings of prepositions. By the time you finish reading the sentence, you have to jump back to the start in order to understand the entirety of the context. In this case, the reader must understand the philosophies that underpin altruism, “anarchical elements of hacktivist culture”, and “the anti-statism of crypto-anarchism” to place the ideas within the wider framework that the article builds. Furthermore, the slow opening of the sentence delays the point that the sentence is trying to make: the framework of WikiLeaks seeks to dissolve the power of governments and corporations by making information free.
Outside of the language that was used, I focused on the context for which Antipode is written and read. Non-scholars and scholars alike can submit their papers to the journal. The papers are evaluated by an editor, and if selected, are then peer-reviewed by an expert on the topic before they can be published. Publication of an author’s work, then, is contingent on their own expertise and originality in topics regarding geography and radical perspectives. This means that even though non-scholars can be published, they would need a great deal of expert knowledge on these subjects.
These articles are then collected into the Antipode journal which is searchable in an online library (Wiley-Blackwell). The library acts as an archive of cross-discipline content, ranging from agriculture to veterinary medicine. These articles are viewable on a pay-per-view basis, or through a library that has purchased access to the archived content. In order to read Antipode, you either need to be a self-motivated non-academic with money to spend, or an academic with access to the database through another system (such as a library).
The combination of using the Official Style and the limitations of access to Antipode route back to my initial question: Does this article “engender the development of a new and better society”? In the short version, it does not. The use of the Official Style and the limited access to the article may hinder readers’ understanding and the widespread reading of the article. However, the expanded version has to look at the article in context. The article is written with the intent of being viewed on a smaller scale by those who are familiar with the nuances of academic language and the Official Style. It is possible that the article meets the aim of Antipode, but through the use of the Official Style, it also limits who is able to shape the “new and better society”.
The activity system aligned with the article is largely academic, but this falsely assumes that scholars are the only group capable of bettering society. This case also implies that texts written in the Official Style are intentionally difficult for the average American (or those with the average seventh grade reading level) to understand. Unless written to an average reading level, groups such as Antipode do not create a ground for “a better society”, but instead continue to limit it. If the language of the Official Style imposes limitations, how can it lead to the development of a better society? Or if a better society is to emerge, what standards do groups use to judge what that means in the larger context? While the article may lead to new developments in thought, it is also necessary to evaluate what other elements are being cast aside as a part of that process.

 -- Mitch Marty



The Official Style: Redefined for Computer Programmers

The Official Style is typically found in contexts such as research articles, contractual or legal documents, scientific reports, or corporate reviews. But the style can be found outside of these contexts, as well. And each respective field requires information to be presented in different ways; thus, each field ends up with its own definition, or perhaps a dialect, of the Official Style. But some fields might have completely different rules of the Official Style. The usual forms, such as latinate diction, complex sentences, wordiness, and shapelessness don’t always apply. This is the case in the computer science field, where programmers become used to the Official Style as it exists in their field. This article is one example of the Official Style as programmers are used to it.
The article was written by an author through Oracle, the company that created the Java programming language. The author assumed that readers of the article would only be programmers in need of basic information pertaining to interfaces. He does, however, include information on where to find articles about more detailed aspects of Interfaces. The author also had to understand that each reader/programmer has different needs, has received a unique education, and learns in specific ways. (For simplicity, the rest of the article will use the word ‘reader’, which pertains to the programmers that access the article.) Because the author was tasked with writing an article to define the basics of an Interface for all readers completely, he also had to make it as widely accessible as possible. The Official Style of the Computer Science field offers guidelines on how to do that successfully, and the author follows those guidelines. If the article were to be written in a more creative or plain matter, the information the author is trying to convey might not be displayed in the best manner and it would fail to achieve its purpose.
            While learning languages, computer programmers become used to seeing certain problems. Obviously a problem must exist, otherwise there would be no reason to write a solution. So authors of educational texts tend to set up generic hypothetical situations for programmers learning the language in order to help them understand how a portion of code works. While it is a credible and easily understandable approach, it leads to some unfortunate bi-products in the writing. In this article, the author sets up one of these situations for the reader early:  “For example, imagine a futuristic society where computer-controlled robotic cars transport passengers through city streets without a human operator.” Because the situation is being established for the reader, the author is forced to use a slew of infinitive phrases: “ make the car move...,” “ command the car...,” “ modify it...” The combination of this and the lengthy hypothetical situation presented can make the section of the article seem choppy. But this is one feature of the Official Style in the Computer Science field, and it makes the article accessible to the largest number of readers.
            At times, the article uses language that suggests it is shying away from a professional tone and moving towards an informal tone. As the author establishes the problem which persists throughout the article, he says, “Automobile manufacturers write software (Java, of course) that operates the automobile.” The middle quip, “Java, of course,” brings the formality down a bit, and reminds the reader this is a hypothetical situation. The idea of Java programs running cars is far fetched and sounds like a joke to computer programmers, but the author has to set aside reality in order to bring the problem down to a level that every programmer can relate to. While these kinds of examples lack creativity after reading even just a few, the broadness and simplicity of such problems allows the widest variety of programmers who access the article the best chance of understanding it.
A screen shot showing a code-example used in the article.

            There are a few sections of the article which would seem like jargon to someone not meant to read the article, that is, someone who doesn’t understand computer programming. “When an instantiable class implements an interface, it provides a method body for each of the methods declared in the interface.” These are everyday terms used by programmers, and they can account for the articles readability, which is about 14. However, the article also contains lengthy sections of text which is meant to be code, throwing off the readability scores. But this is just another aspect of the Official Style in the Computer Science field. Often times, leaving out section of code like this would render the article completely useless. The Official Style requires that code be included in articles and texts such as this; it is usually necessary for the reader to fully understand the topic material. So if the readability is adjusted by ignoring all sections of text that are code,  the readability score changes to 12.5. The change isn’t much, and the score shouldn’t be taken to mean the exact grade level, either. Many programmers might not start programming until college or later, but might be able to read well at a 14th grade level or higher. So the readability scores are nearly useless to this article.
            The average person wouldn’t be able to find many elements of the Official Style in this article. But this article isn’t meant for the average person--the usual rules of the Official Style do not apply. The author tailored the article in the Official Style of the Computer Science, using a simple situation and portions of code to explain the subject matter in the greatest detail. The Official Style might not always be creative or fun to read, but it is the best choice for clear communication.

By Ethan B.