Monday, October 20, 2014

Official Style in the University's English Department

The official style, the ace the bureaucrats play when looking to confuse the innocent laypeople and the tricky, inaccessible language of the “Terms and Conditions” portion of a simple Internet exchange, oftentimes (and ever more often), creeps its way into daily life. Even academics, who typically pride themselves on excellent grasp of language, cannot apparently resist the temptations of the official style. The statement on the English-Literature homepage (access here) acts as a description for the department, a sort of “what we do here” explanation designed to entice prospective students to the program. Because the intended sphere is that of students or prospective students, one would assume the language used would be vibrant, exciting, but most essentially, easily accessible. But in this respect the statement falls short.
With the casual use of practices like noun substitutes, prepositional phrases, coordination, absolute phrases, and subordination the official style in the statement is easily tangible. Though it may at first seem to be merely an accidental slip into passive voice, it is deliberate and occurs in the most persuasive passages of the statement, for example, “In addition to helping students cultivate aesthetic sensibilities and multiply their reading pleasures….” This is a fantastically over-worded phrase that seeks to prove to the reader that the English-Literature major is both a sophisticated and a relevant area of study, and slips in a prepositional phrase for good measure. The official style is used in the various passages to foster both a sense of exclusion as well as to beckon in interested parties. Using the official style in writing gives the voice of the piece a certain tone, one of a stuffy scholar imparting wisdom to a child. In this manner, the piece lords over the laypeople that do not know how to manipulate language in the same manner as the scholar. The use of official style puts the passages on a pedestal, a subtle impression of the famous academic ivory tower that academics climb in order to turn their noses down on the less educated. This gives their intended audience a tangible example to grasp on to, something to strive for. But between the statement’s more official passages, plain speech is used in order to foster a sense of camaraderie, in order to ensure that a major in the English department seems achievable. That camaraderie is only used, however, so that the official style can severe it in the next sentence, to remind the reader that their choice of major requires skills they do not possess, that the ivory tower is not something that they have access to yet.
When evaluated with the readability scale, the average grade level is nearly seventeen (the reading level of a college graduate), a four-grade difference from the freshman or high school seniors that makes up the largest body of their targeted audience. The statement’s genre is that of informal, communicative writing; its purpose to inform students about the Literature program offered at UW-L. This is a genre that is not unique to the statement on the university website, rather, it is the genre that is used by several other school’s Literature departments’ statement. When looking to compare the statements from the websites of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (access here) and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (access here), it is clear that UW-L’s statement is not on par with its competitors. UW-EC and UW-M’s statements are both much shorter, with much less official style. In this statement, clarity and easy accessibility are favored above sounding advanced. Why, then, does UW-L’s statement favor the official style over plain, to-the-point speech?
The adopted ivory tower speech/official style stems directly from the insecurity that most humanities departments are feeling in the age where a preference on the sciences is undisguised. As the number of undergraduates who are picking English as their majors continues to be ever fewer in number, the desperation of the already nervous department feels only increases. The result is the statement on the Literature department’s homepage. The use of the official style is, I believe, a sort of defense mechanism by the department to prove their relevancy and worth in an age that places little value on the written word. But their efforts, unfortunately, largely fall short, as most are driven away from the inaccessible language, rather than enticed into looking further into what UW-L could offer them.
            While the authors of this piece may walk away from this statement satisfied, sure that they have lured prospective university students away from other programs and universities, the students that are exposed to the statement are less than impressed. After viewing a handful of students’ distaste for this statement in a previous class, I believe the general atmosphere was one of bewilderment that UW-L’s Literature program beat out all the other programs they considered before deciding on a school to attend. While those in the department, as well as the students, can attest to the fact that UW-L’s English program is highly commendable, this is not conveyed through the statement on the website. However, while most would agree that the statement is highly problematic, it is not beyond the realm of assistance. Adopting aspects of plain, direct speech would serve this statement well, while still conveying the overall message: that an English degree can take you anywhere you want to go.
To conclude, the official style is used to both condescend its audience as well as beckon the students closer, in a very odd hybrid style of writing that shifts voice dramatically several times throughout the piece. In one sentence, the scholar lords from his ivory tower, but in the next offers a hand with which to guide the student along and forward. The use of official style unfortunately does not succeed in persuading its readers to pursue a major in English, and maybe perhaps even discourages them from looking further into UW-L. But though the official style is decidedly out of place in this work, the statement is not beyond the realm of redemption. 
Taylor Parrish, English 313, 20 October 2014

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