25 July 2011

O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show

I have suggested in the past that July is as bad, in its way, as January for gardeners, and this weekend was as bad as it gets.  My outdoor activities were limited to getting up very early and watering the tomatoes, and then coming out about 8 in the evening and watering them again.

The rest of the time I spent indoors, mostly either reading or writing, though an unpleasantly large portion of Sunday afternoon was spent in a darkened room, wishing that the light wouldn't be so loud.

The tomatoes are doing fine, by the way.  Some day I may present my grand unified field theory of tomato cultivation, but today is not that day.

Instead I'd like to offer for consideration an essay that appeared in the New York Times last week:  'An Academic Author's Unintentional Masterpiece,' by Geoff Dyer.   Leaving aside for the moment the particular case of Michael Fried, who seems to stand as the Horrible Example for an entire class of academic writers, I agree that the convention of announcing your intentions in academic writing is an irritating tic.  Is it as prevalent as Dyer seems to suggest?  Did I just gloss over it in the past (i.e., ignore it as a tic?)  It does seem more common now than it did, but perhaps that's because it's finally become irritating enough for me to notice it.

I do know that when I was a young girl in Catholic school, I was taught that God loves good writing, and that banal little constructions like 'in this essay I will argue that ...' were not merely lazy and inelegant but actually sinful.  From conversations with faculty and fellow students when I was an undergraduate and postgrad I gather my high school was not the only place that taught that belief, though perhaps the public schools couched it in less theological language.  And when I, in my turn, taught high school English, I tried to pass along that same idea.  My argument to my students was that first, the essay itself should make it obvious what the argument is, and second, 'I will argue that' is a weaselly sort of expression, up there with 'I feel,' and 'I believe.'  In an academic essay, I don't care about what your feelings or beliefs are.  I want  to know what you know.  I did stop short of suggesting a student mention any such failings at his or her next confession.

Anyway -- was I just safely enclosed in a bubble of unusually thoughtful, un-self-absorbed writers during my time in the academy, or has the weaselly authorial 'I' become more intrusive in the years since I left?

Sir Philip Sidney

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...