Sunday, April 13, 2014

Human Sexuality is Complicated is Simple

             The plain style is more accessible and straightforward; it avoids trickery that is often associated with the official style. We’re taught to value the official style of writing so much that often we forget the importance of reaching broader audiences—and even how to write in plain style ourselves. We may stumble upon articles written for the general population, but then assume they are biased or slightly uninformed, when in reality nothing can exist without some bias, even peer reviewed, scholarly journal articles. Everything is situated, yet we really only trust what we understand as “objective.” By only trusting or accepting the official style we fail to acknowledge our own privilege (who has access to these pieces?) and ignore the location of the author.
In the video Human Sexuality is Complicated, Hank Green (one of two users of the YouTube domain ‘vlogbrothers’) addresses the stigma and misconceptions surrounding human sexuality. While plain style uses simple language and sentence structure, the title, despite using the word “complicated,” actually implies that the video will aim to simplify a difficult and complex topic.
To me, human sexuality is absolutely fascinating. The majority of reading I do for pleasure generally consists of articles written about the experiences of other people (usually those who are marginalized) in an attempt to be more compassionate. I’ve had to learn to value others’ opinions and identities, due to our problematic culture that teaches us the opposite, because I demand that same respect. However, not all people are interested in understanding human differences (which is just fine, as long everyone is respectful) or have not been informed about social justice enough to critically think about inequality in society. If topics surrounding equality or sexuality are not important to a person, then who is actually going to watch a video about these very points?
I stumbled upon Hank Green’s video on a website titled Everyday Feminism. I frequently find articles to read here, mostly because they validate my viewpoint, discuss matters that interest me, and further open my mind to recent or upcoming feminist issues. If I didn’t find feminism significant, however, I would’ve never thought to visit that website, and therefore would never have viewed this video. While the vlogbrothers seem pretty liberal-minded, based on the videos I’ve watched, surely their nearly 2 million subscribers are not informed about all of the topics they touch on (including myself). Of the 1.5 million views the video has, who is actually learning something new? Who is accepting this information and not brushing it aside as ‘liberal or feminist propaganda’? Based on the comments (from both Everyday Feminism and YouTube) most people seem pleased with the points Hank makes in the video. There is some pushback for various reasons, but most of these commentators get shut down quickly. For example, from Everyday Feminism, one person left a comment critiquing Hank’s style: “Great but short and limited explanation of a complicated issue.” Another person replied saying, “Short is about all that non-academics can cope with these days. Maybe he'll write a book, with footnotes and Harvard referencing, then put it up for peer review. But it stands less chance of entering the popular imagination. Ornery folks have to think too, now and again.”
While neither commentator seems to be newly informed about the complexity of human sexuality, it’s clear that the idea that Hank’s use of simple, plain style has the potential to reach more people than a complicated, in depth study written for gradate students or those with specialized skills—in other words, an article written in the official style. Assuming that a group of people somewhere has learned something new from this video, this successful communication can be directly attributed to Hank’s application of the plain style.
Hank first explains his location (something that can usually only be done when writing in plain style) when he says, “But first allow me to acknowledge that I’m not a sociologist. I’m also a straight white man who doesn’t have to worry about a lot of the hate that a lot of other people do have to worry about. But my goal with this video is I want people to understand because I think understanding will lead to less hate and also less self-hate.” He is indicating that what he says is not objective, the opposite of what most people understand as credible. By disclosing this personal information, that he is not qualified through formal education or personal experience, he is positioning himself so that viewers may understand his interpretations of sexuality based on his experiences as a privileged person. This way, he acknowledges that his intent is not to speak for anyone, but to create more understanding and less hate among people. His honesty is refreshing, which makes him seem trustworthy, as opposed to impartial or detached, two traits often displayed in official style writing. On the other hand, claiming to be an ‘average Joe,’ makes him more relatable (and again, trustworthy).
Hank also uses first person and easy-to-understand language in his video because he is actually speaking to his audience. Because we often speak different from how we write (plain versus official), the everyday language used in the video is simple enough for even a child to understand. One example says, “We’re gonna start simple: what’s going on down here, in between the legs. That is your sex, your biological sex…And as interesting and complicated as this is, the rest of it is much more complicated, so I’m just gonna move on from here, because we all kind of get what sex is.” His language is so plain that it could actually be considered nonstandard English. While many argue that straying from standard English can cause confusion, everyone knows what the word “gonna” means. Using “gonna” also gives his message a conversational tone, which allows me to place myself into his argument. Focusing on the syntax of the first part of the quote, it’s grammatically incorrect, but makes perfect sense. This use of nonstandard English is informing people about a complicated topic without sounding overly knowledgeable or pretentious.
One of the greatest ways Hank implements the plain style into his video is when he mixes in some jargon. While jargon is usually reserved for the official style, when describing a topic like human sexuality, in which many people are (ironically) clueless, some definitions are required. Hank says, “Now moving to your heart (your metaphorical heart, of course). This is who you are to attracted to: men, women, all genders. Again it’s a spectrum, and that spectrum includes intensity because there are people who don’t feel strong sexual attraction at all. That’s why asexual is a sexual orientation. A newer idea that I was happy to be exposed to yesterday on Tumblr is the idea of romantic orientation. These are the people that you wanna have strong intimate relationships with, but it sort of separates out the idea that sex has to be the goal, or end point, or end-all-and-be-all of every intimate relationship.” In the transcript of the video on Everyday Feminism, the important terms are italicized or written in boldface. By doing this, the reader’s attention is brought directly to the important terms, and nearby are clear definitions. The reader (or viewer) can then use those terms confidently in conversations; it excludes no one.
While I believe that Hank’s video was probably successful in communicating accurately, simply, and being inclusionary, I also must acknowledge my own location, just as he does. As someone who is heterosexual, I have a fairly narrow view of what it’s like to exist in a world that doesn’t legitimize my experiences or identites. While I see no problem with simplifying sexuality into terms that everyone can understand (to an extent) this may make sexuality seem less important than it actually is. The plain style may be so simple that the article really has no merit. Everything is much more complicated, as the title suggests, than Hank has the time or knowledge to address. By being too simple, other perspectives are left out, which can alter the ‘truth’ of what Hank is saying. No matter if his video was incomplete or lacked exposing more truths, I believe his simplification implies that everything he says requires further investigation. Like Hank said in the beginning of the video, his intent was to spark “understanding” and “less hate,” and in that regard, he was much more successful than any official document on sexuality I’ve ever read.

Emily Schulz

The Oversimplification of How-tos

The Oversimplification of How-tos

                                Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit at their own discretion; therefore, the cite has received poor credibility ratings throughout its lifespan. It is widely known that Wikipedia is not and should not be used as a primary source of information, yet most of us use it rather frequently because the cite is often the top result after a google search. The writing style varies from Wikipedia webpage to webpage because there are many different authors contributing topics, facts, and ideas. WikiHow is a spin-off of Wikipedia and it focuses on how-tos; WikiHows are often written in plain and non-specific language. This is important to note because it often leaves out valuable, accurate, and necessary information.
                                For example, in the WikiHow, “How to Sing Better if You Think You are Bad," the 57 authors fail to provide useful information. The article includes five steps that claim will turn a bad singer into a good vocalist. One of the largest issues is that the instructions are vague. For instance, in the second step it says to practice vocal exercises loudly without damaging the throat. But, how would a poor singer know at what point they might be injuring their vocal chords? Point being, their information is not specific enough, especially sense it is geared towards an audience of not only beginners, but untalented beginners.
                                This vagueness reappears again in tip number five when the authors instruct their audience to drink warm drinks and to avoid ice cream. It is unclear whether we are supposed to drink warm drinks habitually, or just before singing. Also, I’m unsure as to why an author chose to include avoiding eating ice cream. There are plenty of other cold foods and beverages a singer might want to stay away from right before performing. It seems a bit odd that in such vague information they included a specific item such as ice cream.
                                Another aspect of this article I have an issue with is the tips do not follow the objective of turning a bad singer into a good one. These tips may help an already gifted singer perform better, but telling someone to drink a lot of water and stay away from ice cream will not miraculously make someone a good singer. For example, in step three the article says to practice tongue twisters. I do not see how a tongue twister will help someone be able to hit the appropriate pitches and notes within a song. In other words, the goal of the steps and the steps themselves do not match up.
                                Thirdly, the instructions are drastically over-simplified for the targeted audience. In step two the directions state to, “sing numbers from one to five ascending and descending in pitch”. However, it is not that simple for someone who is unable to sing to do this exercise; if you cannot sing, you clearly cannot sing in pitch. There is also an additional tip at the end of the webpage that suggests a person makes friends with others singers in order to become a good singer. But, where does a person find good singers, how do they become friends with them, and how will simply being friends with someone improve singing ability? These tips are useless stated as they are—more information and context is necessary to even have a chance of being helpful.
                                The level of usefulness of this specific WikiHow depends on the audiences’ purpose for using it. For instance, if an elementary school aged child needs facts for a class report on how to become a better singer, these tips might work in this context. These tips are not necessarily wrong, but they do not hit the bull’s eye either. This might not matter as much for a low level project such as an elementary school report. On the other hand, an adult with an enormous longing for becoming a better singer will not find much luck with WikiHow’s suggestions. This person may be completely annoyed by the over-simplification of the topic, or less commonly, they might devote their time to abiding by these tips. In the latter case, the person will learn quickly they do not know how to execute most of the provided suggestions. Another person may stumble across this site while looking for information on how a good singer can become a better performer. This person may actually find beneficial information such as practicing tongue twisters, pitch scales, and drinking warm beverages. Although the goals of the article do not match up with the provided tips, these tips might match up with different goals of a person browsing online.
                                The authors’ motivations are more difficult to understand; however, I believe their main purpose was to provide quick and easy information for the public to understand. I do not believe the authors had a passion for singing and genuinely wanted to help readers become singers. It is also possible the current title of the work, “How to Sing Better if You Think You are Bad,” is not the original title of the work. Because Wiki sites allow changes to be made to articles at any time and by anyone, the original title could have been something completely different; thus, changing the objective of the entire article.
                                There are clear holes in this how-to, but it is not an isolated problem. These types of how-tos are everywhere—especially on the internet. When you google how to do a specific topic, Wikipedia and Wikihows are often the top few results that appear. I believe people--myself included--use Wikipedia sites because of the immediacy the articles provide. It is much easier to access a Wiki webpage than to obtain a technical book, or pay for and attend a class on how to become a better singer. Another reason for choosing Wikipedia is that, for the most part, many of the webpages provide accurate background information. People know this to be true; therefore, people have begun to trust the information as being, at least somewhat, legitimate. In general people may trust how-tos more than they should because they are unfamiliar with the topic they are searching—otherwise they wouldn’t be looking up how to do something.
                                A benefit of Plain Style writing is that it is often reader friendly. The basic language appeals to a wider audience of people because it often does not include complex information, formatting, or vocabulary. It is easy to use and access Plain Style because it is everywhere on the internet—making it free to computer users. The consequences of Plain Style are that it is often vague, over-simplified, and it omits important information. Grave consequences are not going to be a side-effect from the WikiHow on how to be a good singer, but there might be more impactful consequences on serious topics written in the Plain Style. For instance, over-simplified and vague EpiPen instructions can have enormous life altering repercussions. It is important to understand the implications of the Plain Style of writing before creating or relying on the information.
-Madison N. 

The Plain Style

There is an interesting quote about plain style: “The plain style . . . is completely unadorned. It is straightforward and void of any figures of speech. It is the style of much contemporary newspaper prose. Cicero thought it was best suited for teaching, and indeed, the plain style is the idiom of the best schoolbooks of our age” (Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight Over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. Univ. of California Press, 1990). Plain style, just as its name implies, is a platform for everyone to understand. Unlike official style, it strips off the sophisticated ornament such as figures of speech, leaving the core information only.

I choose the summary of book one (part one) of native son from spark note. Native son is one of the famous novels of Richard Wright, which tells a story of a black boy- Bigger Thomas who killed a white female accidently, and how the whole society including black people, white people as well as communists react to his killing. With flesch-kincaid reading ease of 74.4, flesch-kincaid grade level of 6.6, average grade level of 7.4, the text is a  7th grade average reading level. The summary has 923 words and 63 sentence, whereas the first part of book one has approximately 30 pages. The summary basically consists of important plots of the story in terms of chronological order, which happens to be the content that my professor will discuss in class. Consequently, I don’t have to spend much time reading thirty pages. Instead, I can only spend 10 minutes or so to finish my assigned reading, and I still can participate in the discussion. Other than that, if I read the summary in advance, I can follow the professor’s instruction easier because I can locate myself in context to analyze professor’s questions. Therefore, it is no doubt that using Spark notes is a good way to save time in reading. Especially nowadays, “time is treasure” has become most students’ motto. As a student of UW-L, I have 16 credits for this semester. Each subject has a strict homework schedule. Once I fail to finish my assigned homework, it is so hard for me to follow the schedule again because other subjects will take up my time.
Nonetheless, I miss lots of details embodied in the story. Basically, the summary is a display of the fact. Further, the summary often uses active voice, which intends to show the actions clearly like “who kicks whom”. For example, the text summarizes the opening scene with two sentences: “A huge black rat runs across the floor. Vera cowers and Mrs. Thomas jumps on the bed while Bigger and Buddy frantically to kill the rat.” From the two sentences, we can see what exactly happened, but other than that, we get nothing from the summary such as “how did Bigger kill the rat?” The novel involves more descriptions of actions: “Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their conspiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.” Obviously, we can see character’s reaction through the words like “paused, holding and strayed.” When I read the novel, I can feel as though I were in the actual scene. Also, through their facial expression, I can tell how nervous they were when they faced the rat, which helped me to figure out the traits of the characters. Furthermore, the pieces of description of environment such as “thinly plastered walls of the room” and “garbage dump” contribute to locating readers in the context of the story. It is hard to judge whether plain style is good or not because it largely depends on the specific situation. As we can see, although we can save much time reading plain style, we kind of omit the valuable parts from the original intention of the authors. We know “when, where, what”, but we don’t know “how”. What’s more, sometimes I feel that plain style is more like a well-done steak without any expectation. The narrator tells the story in a pretty dry way, which leaves no space and imagination for readers. I find a really interesting quote: “Just as some women are said to be handsomer when unadorned--this very lack of ornament becomes them--so the plain style gives pleasure when unembellished. . . . All noticeable ornament, pearls as it were, will be excluded; not even curling irons will be used. All cosmetics, artificial white and red, will be rejected. Only elegance and neatness will remain. The language will be pure Latin, plain and clear; propriety will always be the chief aim” (Cicero, De Oratore). It compares plain style to an unadorned woman without any make up or splendid outfit because plain style doesn’t use lots of rhetorical devices in order to minimal redundancy. And Most of the time, plain style only uses rhetorical devices for clarity rather than for embellishment.
Despite of its merits and disadvantages, spark note has become the most popular study guide especially for students of universities. It had been recorded that 24372392 hits per week on October 2002. The famous motto of spark note is “when your books and teachers don’t make sense, we do.” Sometimes our text books are obscure, and some of them are occupied with theoretical arguments. It is hard for students to get the point in a short time. Additionally, when professors try to make the text clearly, somehow they can’t fulfill students’ expectation because some professors get used to official style in terms of speaking and writing. I am not saying that the professor can’t make the point clear, but they might make the point become harder when they teach students with high level language. This motto implicates that spark note translates high level into plain level, which contributes a lot for readers to make sense of the ideas of the book, to make sense of what professors say. Therefore, spark note becomes an irresistible website among students because of saving bunch of time and getting a better grade easier.
On the other hand, our professor might not be very happy that students use spark note all the time because it is a kind of cheating. What’s more, it has become a concern that students will lose the ability to analyze the textbook, to digest the knowledge by themselves. I think that “make sense” is not enough for students. The purpose of students is to train their ability to learn rather than gaining the fruits directly. Plain style, to some extent, shuts up all of the possibilities to develop. If plain style cover and dominant every field of study, it will not come up with fresh challenges and expression.
Let’s think of the people who have already graduated from colleges. In contrast, they prefer to use official style to demonstrate their authority and credibility rather than using plain style. It becomes a paradox that what students learn in college doesn’t contribute to what they do in the future. I begin to question that how to connect plain style with further development of language? How can we not separate plain style from credibility and authority?

By Chuying