Saturday, October 12, 2013

Write Officially, But Don't Write Off an Audience

     As a student, I spend hours of each day submersed in texts.  Texts filled with jargon I have been trained to understand and complex ideas that I am expected to pick up on before my class next meets.  While the arguments and topics of these texts vary, one thing is fairly standard across the board, the primary manner in which the central thesis is delivered to the reader of the article is all too frequently a highly elevated technique that alienates readers and obscures arguments.  Or rather, the style used is what is considered the “official style”.  A tone and approach heavily favored by academics, the official style is useful but problematic depending on the audience.  When used sparingly and with clarity, the official style can elevate an argument and lend credibility to an author.  However, this success is only possible if multiple audiences of a text would be able to understand the language used.
            The fluid nature of Literature means that in many cases one novel can attract a wide variety of readers or scholars. Toni Morrison’s body of work holds a beautiful example of this. A black, female, American author, Morrison writes novels about the coming of age of African American women. Her work attracts scholars of Young Adult literature, African American Literature, and Feminist Literature to name just a few.  Jane S. Bakerman’s article “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison” explores the importance of the initial sexual experiences of various characters in Morrison’s works. The article was originally published in American Literature journal, the readers of which cover a wide variety of scholars.  Bakerman uses some aspects of the official style to give herself credibility, and accurately represent her argument.  However, by avoiding other aspects, she doesn't alienate the wide variety of audiences who might be attracted to the research.
            This example found on pages 550-551 of the original article showcases Bakerman’s unique use of the official style very well.
Throughout the article, Bakerman uses only pieces of the official style at a time.  Here, we see limited jargon, and complex, but to the point, sentences.  Too often, complex sentences use strings of “to be verbs” combined with propositions in order to fit a large number of ideas into a single sentence.  The most complex sentence here is located in the middle and starts “While, in a sense, …” This sentence is long at forty-two words, contains seven verb phrases, but only 1 prepositional phrase.  The sentences itself is difficult to read because of multiple emphasized words.  However, Bakerman contrasts the complex-ness of the sentence with simpler word choices, and keeping a singular idea in focus.  By not using all of the elements of official style simultaneously, Bakerman avoids the alienation of audiences.  Keep in mind that Bakerman uses minimal jargon as well; the most prominent instance is the phrase “preparatory initiation episode” which is explained contextually in the rest of the sentence.  While scholars of Adolescent Literature may be familiar with this idea, those who study other forms might not be.  Once again, Bakerman is using her linguistic skills to allow all audiences to understand the complex concepts presented.   
This example, pulled from much earlier in the article averaged a grading of 11.9, roughly that of an American High School senior. 
The two paragraphs next to each other show that Bakerman is using a wide variety of voices combined with in the article.  In this example, the ideas are moderately complex, but the wording and sentence structure are simple. 24.3 words averaged in 4 sentences puts the example at a higher level than plain text (generally near 7th grade) but below that of what the audience would be assumed to have (14th and higher).  Again, Bakerman makes the effort to not use the more confusing aspects of official style, but instead uses the passive voice and complex sentences with simpler vocabulary and to-the-point emphasis. The Official style is not an enemy of new or seasoned scholars, but rather a tool used by many to add an air of academia to their work.  That is exactly how I took Bakerman’s limited use of the Official style in her article.  She was discussing what could have been a simple idea, and allowed her academic voice to be strong but efficient in representing that idea leading overall to a well formed well represented argument. 

            Initially, when reading the article, I thought that because I study Adolescent Literature and Literature focusing on the “Other” I may have been too close to the core audience to see if Bakerman was alienating with use of the Official style.  However, after looking closely at the well-crafted ideas, I began to understand that Bakerman doesn't alienate the multiple audiences that could be drawn to her work.  Instead, she picks and chooses her sentence construction carefully in order to allow a wide variety of readers to understand an important aspect of Morrison’s body of work.  This is turn means that the cross-pollination of ideas can filter through all Literature Academic Sub-Categories and influence a greater number of scholars.  

R. R. Watson 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Official Style Forcing the Issue in Educational Discourse

The field of education is always looking to move forward in theory, pedagogy, and practice, and the most common method for proposing these new ideas comes through published research in peer-reviewed academic journals. This learned community shares and evaluates ideas that are then utilized by not only teachers and administrators, but by pre-service teachers and students alike. This community relies on a certain level of groundwork knowledge that all involved in the field will have a basic knowledge of, and these ideas circulate throughout the professional discourse. One such piece of information that is currently relevant is the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in most states as the basis for knowledge based curriculum in public schools. These standards have opened the door for a large amount of discussion on best implementation practices, with a large amount of variety on the techniques most advised.
One journal that prides itself on being on the cutting edge of educational reform and ideas is the journal of “American Secondary Education,” published three times per year by Ashland University Dwight Schar College of Education. Writing exclusively on current issues, this journal is one of the few that publishes research and articles on contemporary topics in secondary education in America. It comes as no surprise then, that the article “Young Adult Literature and The Common Core: A Surprisingly Good Fit,” written by J. Ostenson and R. Wadham, would appear in the pages of this journal. Addressing two hot-button issues in contemporary education, Young Adult Literature (YA Lit) and The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), this article raises the issues that contemporary teachers and administrators would be keenly aware of within their own schools. This article could help if they were actively seeking out solutions to these problems.
Young Adult Literature and The Common Core” focuses on the main ways that YA Lit can be used to meet the CCSS goals for literature, and also argues that YA Lit should supplant the traditional texts used in secondary schools across America. The authors argue that YA Lit engages students in texts, and is a better way for young readers to see themselves in Literature and to gain an appreciation for Literature. Proposing an idea that will challenge the traditional concept of Literature education in
educational philosophy, the authors are putting two different perspectives in contradiction. These perspectives are two prominent schools of thought in educational philosophy, traditional and progressive. Traditional thinkers are likely to be resistant to the change that is suggested by the goal of this argument, which would remove the traditional approach of using canonical literature. Replacing this standard would be progressive approach, as teachers would begin to use more YA Lit in the
classroom. Therefore, it would appear that the authors, despite having a valid argument, already will face a challenge in reversing a dominant, longstanding belief on the best practice of teaching literature.
In addition to that challenge, the authors’ prose in the piece also seems to work to undermine their argument. By employing a steady use of euphemisms to refer to student ability, they hope to convey an additional sense of importance to their work, hoping to establish extra credibility for their claims. They also appear, again through euphemisms, as well as verbose prose and complex structuring, to hope to impress the peer reviewers who decide whether an article is fit for publishing. Despite these prose based drawbacks, the piece itself still functions well as an argument for their intended audience, due to the audience’s familiarity with these techniques being utilized in Educational Literature, and their understanding that arguments like these are needed to advance the field of education.
It’s worth considering, however, that the intended audience of this piece has multiple aspects and perspectives. Two communities involved in this discourse are pre-service teachers hoping to flesh out their understanding of the educational field, and current teachers looking for ways to change their approach to education that best aligns with contemporary theory. These communities would be more likely to focus on the parts of the arguments that contain valid, usable information, and be less active in critiquing the work. Two other, more involved levels of community are those creating the discourse, and those who are reviewing and evaluating the texts. These groups would be more active in noticing weaknesses in arguments, and would be more active in critiquing the text’s value as compared to other artifacts and ideas in the discourse community. We can assume that the faults in the prose would have a different effect on these different communities, and would alter how different people react to the ideas in the text.
Looking at one specific sample of prose, we can point out several of the features of prose style that the authors use that threaten to weaken their argument.

Perhaps the most important goal identified by the CCSS is developing independent readers who can interpret complex texts on their own. Here again, YA literature can help because it ameliorates some of the challenges that classic literature poses to teens (A) (Gallo, 2001; Santoli & Wagner, 2004) while maintaining a sophisticated treatment of themes and characters (B). By providing our young students with accessible and relevant texts, YA literature encourages students to read more and gives them the confidence that they can independently navigate complex texts (C).”

In underlined segment (A), the authors are stating why the believe YA Lit is important for usage in schools, because it helps reduce the issues that students have when addressing difficult texts. However, when discussing, in underlined segment (B), their use of the official style seems to contradict their claim. By framing YA Lit as “maintaining a sophisticated treatment of themes and characters,” one wonders if this study is any easier than those of classic literature. The overinflated euphemism used detracts from the point they wish to make, that YA Lit is easier to understand, yet also address the same literary techniques. By framing it in such a verbose manner, the authors appear to be looking for ways to make their argument stronger without providing support, a cheap way to gain credibility.
And in underlined section (C), the authors make an euphemistic claim through the official style, that appears to lend importance to the phrase. Yet in the context of the sentence, the phrase means little more than ‘read hard books by themselves.’ Again their use of the official style to look for extra credibility seems to undermine their assertion that YA Lit is actually more effective due to the ease of access that it can offer younger readers. In the next selection from the text, we again see the authors using euphemism to add a heightened sense of importance or meaning to their phrases, even though they would already accomplish their goal without the added components.
In examining the next selection, the underlined sections will focus on areas that the authors use the official style in hopes of adding importance and lending credibility to their stance.
The arrival of the CCSS provides a significant opportunity to reexamine practice and the goals we have for developing literate graduates. As teachers seek to build classrooms where students are engaged in meaningful, authentic activities related to reading, the Common Core provides solid standards to pursue. We encourage teachers and administrators to consider strongly the role that young adult literature can play in meeting these standards, especially in terms of the complexity of texts we should be using with students. Young adult literature can satisfy the demands for quantitative and qualitative complexity along with the canonical pieces of literature that have traditionally dominated instruction in classrooms. Moreover, this genre holds significant potential to motivate young readers and to provide them with meaningful contexts in which to practice and refine the important literacy skills they will need to be successful, independent, and skilled readers.

In each instance, the authors include an unneeded modifier in a phrase, even though the idea would stand alone without the modifier. This extra emphasis has the role of adding urgency and importance to the argument, by stressing the authors views. The large amount of modifiers creates an elevated style of prose, which the authors hope will drive the audience to consider them experts on this topic, and will lend them credibility. Believing this is needed to have their uncommon, progressive view upheld as the correct way to approach literature, the authors are manipulating their readers stance on the argument through the official style.
Because the progressive view is hoping to gain footing as the dominant perspective in education, the authors’ use of the official style seems to reflect a belief that they must force the issue, and make their ideas as important and relevant as possible. Using the official style to inflate the importance of their argument threatens to weaken the overall effectiveness of the piece, however, the argument is still effective for certain audiences. This is because the communities involved in this tension will react differently to the ideas. Many of the high school and preservice teachers that will encounter this text will be inclined to the progressive ideal, and will find the argument important enough to overlook some attempts by the authors to overstress their perspective.
The other parts of the community interacting with this text may also overlook the authors’ stretch for relevance due to the journal it is published in, which supports new ideas that push the forefront of educational theory. So while the authors may seem to over inflate their importance, that is their strategy for establishing the relevance of their argument, and for this find themselves more likely published in journals like “American Secondary Education.” To impress others who are creating and judging discourses being produced for this journal, the authors’ need to find a way to set their argument apart, even if it’s by creating a sense of importance that is not inherently carried.

Finally, the authors avoid most other elements of official style throughout their writing, managing to strike a balance between straightforward prose at some points, and euphemistic, insider-language based prose at others. So while J. Ostenson and R. Wadham at times threaten to undermine the inherent importance of their topic with the overbearing presence of the official style, the topic’s importance eventually wins out. As long as the reader is aware of the authors’ attempts to stress their viewpoint’s importance, they will be able to decode the inclusions of the official style and make realistic judgements on the texts importance for themselves. 

by: Brandon Noble