Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Tao of “incredibly”

I have only recently begun to pay proper attention to the conventions of academic writing. It's not something that I have covered systematically with my students. I tend to take my cue in this regard from the material in the courses I am teaching. But recently I have begun to realise how important it is. Academic writing has its own conventions and its own style. It is important for students to develop their own academic voice as they progress through their studies. I do believe, firmly, that it should be their “own” voice, not just one in which they have taken on the jargon of whichever academy they're in, made completely impersonal. There's a debate about whether academic writing should be impersonal. I tend towards the view that it should be formal but not necessarily impersonal. I know many will disagree with me, but the search for impersonality eventually removes the soul. In my opinion. It's very important, I think, for academics, among whom I include students, to speak in their own voice, although with the register of the academy.

The key characteristics of academic writing are that it is:
- formal. It uses proper sentence and paragraph construction and relatively formal language – not colloquialisms etc
- precise – where description is concerned it must be accurate
- tentative – when conclusions are being drawn, they should not be too definite – in academic study all conclusions are hypotheses, there to be tested, ready to be disproved. Thus we say, for instance, “This suggests that...” rather than “This demonstrates that...”

The reason that I have been thinking about this just lately is that I have noticed more of my students using the adverb “incredibly” in their assignments. I have begun to score it through and write “No, it is not” beside it. This word alone has finally made me decide to pursue the issue of academic voice properly.

Note to students. If you have used “incredibly” in one of your assignments, you have used it in a place where it cannot possibly mean what it says. For instance, “The Benin bronzes are incredibly beautiful”. The bronzes are there in front of you, they are beautiful. Their beauty is, self evidently, credible, otherwise they would not be there. The word “incredibly” is not just loose, it is actually self contradictory, and completely useless in this context.

The reason students use it is that, of course, it is popular in common parlance. I don't mind that. Ordinary language uses words loosely, metaphorically, poetically, and develops with them all the time. What it gains in mood, spontaneity and timeliness it loses in precision. You do need to lose some of the spontaneity in order to gain precision. But if you gain precision, your vocabulary expands, because the riches of the English language lie within your reach. Think of the words you could use to describe the beauty of the Benin bronzes:

amazingly, astonishingly, especially, fabulously, strangely, uncommonly, abundantly, conspicuously, eminently, emphatically, exceedingly, exceptionally, extremely, highly, immeasurably, immensely, incalculably, incomparably, inimitably, intensely, notably, powerfully, remarkably, strikingly, superlatively, supremely, surpassingly, tremendously, extraordinarily, greatly, highly, noticeably, particularly, profoundly, superlatively, surprisingly, truly, unusually, wonderfully....

You could even use “very”.

But do not use “incredibly” in an assignment. Ever.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tool and use

While at ICEW, I heard two presentations in succession about the benefits of mhealth – what the use of mobile phones, particularly 3G, could be for patients. All sorts of ideas mentioned and all sorts of benefits. I found it very exciting but a colleague sitting next to me found it difficult because there were so many problems of implementation in the way. One he suggested, which I agreed with, is that so much depends on how medical personnel use the technology, which made me instantly think of my own surgery back home. This is good activity theory territory; how people use the tool determines the object of the exercise.

One person here talked about emailing his doctor and getting a reply back by text. I can't do that. I live in the richest corner of one of the richest countries in the world. Our doctors refuse to use email with patients, and haven't even heard of texting. They have a wonderful patient appointment system, but the patients aren't allowed to use it. They have to go to the surgery or phone in to make an appointment. If you're ill you don't want to go to the surgery just to get an appointment, so you phone up first thing in the morning along with everybody else, and you have to keep phoning or leave the phone on ring back for 20 or 30 minutes till you get through. And this is to a village surgery with six doctors and about as many nurses and support staff. They even now have a computerised arrival system, a big plate by the front door with a note on it that say “Touch the screen to arrive”, (which is a bit disconcerting because I have arrived, otherwise I wouldn't be standing there reading the screen).

When I'm in the surgery, I get to know a lot of other people's business. The receptionist takes phone calls and starts talking to the patient about what the condition is. Often the receptionist has to speak loudly and clearly, so everybody in the waiting room can hear and can deduce the caller's identity and condition. There is plenty of technology available that could reduce that loss of privacy, screens round the phone, boosters for the voice so that the signal could be increased rather than the receptionist having to shout but the surgery has never considered installing any of it. (I have great respect for one of the receptionists who has developed a linguistic and grammatical technique that enables her to get information from the caller without telling the rest of the room what that information is.)

All of this technology has been used in this surgery for the benefit of the staff, not for the patient. The communications technology is used to keep the patients at arm's length. Technology that could be used to protect patients' privacy is simply not used. It's a clear lesson that technology never works by itself. If you make a piece of technology available, you always have to take into account how people are going to subvert your intentions for their own purposes.