Uncle Seymour had been invited to the University of Oxford to give a talk. He was being shown around the colleges by a fellow academic, and they walked past a worker cleaning imposing gothic stone structures. His English companion turned to my uncle and said, with a wry smile, "They collect the dirt and send it to Yale so they can put it on their buildings."
Thirty years ago when I first traveled to Oxford, I noticed the ways in which American universities had borrowed from the English: The college system; the college ties (both figurative and fashion); the dining commons; the serious drinking.
Yep, it seemed pretty clear. We copied them. That was a long time ago. Why, then, do so many American academics continue to ape the Brits? To be more specific: Why do so many American professors, many of whom have never even been to England, sign off their e-mail messages with "Cheers"? How many of those people ever speak the word without a glass in hand? What is the meaning of this?
We underpaid professorial types like to affect trappings of worldly sophistication. As a way of finishing up e-mail messages, "Cheers" is harmless enough, I suppose. But I'm wondering if it's not a symptom of something else, something more pernicious in academic prose.
I'm thinking about stiltedness and pretension. I'm thinking about the use of words like "shall." Who says "shall" anymore? What red-blooded, baseball-watching, Levi's-wearing, Bud-swilling Americans say "shall"? Really, what tweedy, pipe-smoking academics speak it aloud? Yet they certainly use it in their writing.
I've overheard students joking about a cowboy-boot-shod professor who slips into a Shakespearean accent. Not just while quoting literature, but also when reading aloud his class attendance list and syllabus. It seems to be almost unintentional, perhaps unwitting.
And I have no idea how "spot on" became suddenly common in American speech, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I hear it. I know that there's a phenomenon called "linguistic contagion" and that college campuses are good incubators for such viral explosions of expressions. But still, I wonder: Why do we want to sound British?
Perhaps there's some kind of class thing going on here. The minute an English person opens her mouth, a countrywoman can tell—or used to be able to—where she was born, if she went to university, and whether she's likely to make her living selling flowers. Americans have always had more fluidity in terms of class markers and regional speech, though, believe it or not, I still know people who think that anyone with a Southern accent sounds uneducated.
"Cheers" is like a toupee. If you look closely enough, you can see can the artifice. It's not doing the work it's supposed to do, which is, I think, to sign off with a kind of breezy sophistication. Instead, it's showing the effort of disguise. That kind of linguistic costuming is common in academe. Often we want to sound more aristocratic than our roots. And sometimes it goes the other way.
I knew a professor who not only held on to, but exaggerated, his working-class New Jersey accent (he's many decades out of the Springsteen 'hood) because it seemed to gain him street cred as a labor historian. Never mind that his father was a physician and that he went to elite institutions.
Another old friend, a world-renowned theologian, swears like a sailor. Whether he's talking to blue-haired Methodist church ladies or addressing an audience of dons at Cambridge, his language is the potty-mouthed cant of the bricklayer, his father's profession. He does this intentionally, he says, because he hates what the language of civility does to the poor.
Both men have been successful in their academic lives. There's some part of them that resists the pomp under certain circumstances, but their education and intelligence allow them to pronounce polysyllabic words with more than a whiff of authority. They are using their voices to insist that they have not been co-opted into a class system that makes them uncomfortable. It's the flip side of borrowing status by sounding Shakespearean.
But in academic writing, the charm of such quirky tics and accents often falls away. We tend to no longer sound like ourselves, and often move into stiff mimicking of works we read as graduate students. "It can thereby be shown" is a phrase commonly found in academic writing, yet hideous on so many levels it's not even worth discussing. Among others: "thus we can see," "ergo," "viz.," "in conversation with," "inasmuchas," "heretofore," "shan't." Look at your own work. How many similarly ugly words and phrases are you using?
In truth, I've dropped a couple of those bombs in my writing without thinking, or perhaps by thinking that they would make me sound smarter and more sophisticated. I have even resorted to using abbreviations in a dead language without knowing exactly what they stand for.
Look at your own work. How many similarly ugly phrases are you using?
It's fine to use words you would never utter aloud—as long as they are exactly the right words. It's great to deploy complex sentence structure, load up heaps of dependent clauses, build paragraphs that are as big as houses, as long as you are in control of the language and the meaning remains clear.
Often, when I work with academic friends on editing their journal articles or books, I get stuck and confused. I'll read a sentence aloud, and ask: What are you trying to say here? Or, sometimes, This is making my brain hurt! Then, if the person is a good friend, I will grab the computer and type in her spoken, off-the-cuff answer. It's always better and clearer. Lengthy Latinate phrases fall away. Passion comes into the prose. All the skills that serve her well as a teacher spring into action. Her explanations are lucid and don't sacrifice any of the intellectual complexity of the original tortured sentence.
When I'm doing editorial work on academic prose, I always ask: Why should I care about this issue? Always, my friends are able to tell me in ways that enable me to see the value in the work. When they are talking, they sound smart and funny and like the unique and delightful people they are. But when it comes to putting stuff on the page, some of them sound like academic drones.
Each of us has multiple personae. We all know plenty of academics whose selves before the Ph.D. were radically different from the people they became in graduate school. When in professional company, they drop the cadences of the West Virginia coal mines, the accents of the barrios of East LA, the twang of the Carolina Piedmont, and adopt the lingo of the professional scholar. And when they are relaxed, among friends, they fall back on the linguistic style that fits them most comfortably.
Obviously some material and disciplines lend themselves more easily than others to letting a voice show through the content, but scholarly work would be better if we encouraged people to write more like themselves, instead of in an unintentionally funny parody of what they think academic prose should look like. Sure, there are pieces of jargon and lines of coded language that you feel must be included so that your peers will know that you've done your time and deserve to be admitted to the club.
But that doesn't mean you have to sound like some inflated idea of a professor; you can express your complex and arcane ideas in ways that come naturally to you. And, yes, people who are not, by nature, casual or informal look as squeezed and uncomfortable as Wall Street bankers when they affect slanginess. Our prose should reflect who we are. Pascal wrote: "When we encounter a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man."
There are important distinctions that can be made just by using a term of art, an agreed-upon shorthand. There aren't that many ways to say "models" and "variables" and no good reason to reach for synonyms for the sake of felicitous prose. Technical language is an important part of many disciplines. I'm arguing here for a both/and, rather than an either/or, approach. Make it correct and precise for your field, but think a little about sounding like yourself—the best version of yourself.
Half a century ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills diagnosed the problem of bad academic writing: "Such a lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status. ... Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. ... To overcome the academic prose, you have first to overcome the academic pose."
Trying to sound more like yourself and less like a clone would make for a better and more interesting array of scholarly writing styles. Don't contort your prose to conform to some idea—probably mistaken—of what academe requires.
And in writing e-mails—at least if you're writing to me—please sign off with "sincerely" (even if you're not being sincere), "best regards," "Happy trails," or my favorite, "xo." Unless of course you actually are British, or have a champagne glass in your hand—then feel free to write "Cheers."