30 July 2015

Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides


There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)



The extremity of the guide was actually why I found it useful pedagogically. Inevitably, the students would find some of the ideas ridiculous, alienating, and even angering. That makes for good class discussion. In at least one class, we actually talked about the section that got Donald Trump and Fox and apparently everybody else so upset — the recommendation to be careful with the term "American". Typically, students responded to that recommendation with the same incredulity and incomprehension that Trump et al. did. Understandably so. We're surrounded by the idea that the word "American" equals "United States", and in much usage it does. I sometimes use it that way myself. It's difficult not to. But I also remember a Canadian acquaintance when I was in college saying, in response to my usage, "You know, the U.S. isn't the whole of North America. You just think you are." Ouch. And then when I was in Mexico for a summer of language study, at least one of our teachers made fun of us for saying something like, "Oh, no, I'm not from Mexico, I'm from America!"

We don't have another good noun/adjective for the country (United Statesian is so cumbersome!), and the Canadians can say Canadian and the Mexicans can say Mexican and so we kind of just fall back on American. And have for centuries. So it goes. But it's worth being aware that some people don't like it, because then as a writer or speaker you can try to be sensitive to this dislike, if being sensitive to what people dislike is important to you.

This and other recommendations in the guidelines lead to valuable discussion with students because such discussion helps us think more clearly about words and language. The guide had some helpful guidance about other things that people might take offense to, whether the gentle, somewhat mocking offense of my Canadian acquaintance and Mexican teachers, or more serious, deeper offense over more serious, deeper issues.

It all comes down to the two things that govern so many writing tasks: purpose and audience. (When I'm teaching First-Year Composition, I always tell them on the first day that by the end of the course they'll be very tired of hearing the words purpose and audience.) If your purpose is to reach as wide an audience as possible, then it's best to try to avoid inadvertently offending that audience. Just ask anybody in PR or marketing who didn't realize their brilliant idea would alienate a big, or at least vocal, section of the audience for whatever they were supposed to sell. Ultimately, you can't avoid offending everybody — indeed, it's hardly desireable, as some people probably deserve to be offended — but what offends different people (and why) is useful knowledge, I think. In any case, it's much better to be offensive when you're trying to be offensive than when you're not trying to be and discover much to your surprise, embarrassment, and perhaps horror, that you actually are. (As we used to say [before we were people of advanced age]: been there, done that.)

Advice about inclusive language is similar to advice I give about grammar and spelling errors. All of my students should know by the time they've had me as a teacher that the prohibitions against such things as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions or starting sentences with conjunctions or any number of other silly rules are just that: silly. They often lead to bad writing, and their usefulness is questionable at best. However, I think every writer should know and understand all the old and generally silly prohibitions. Why? Because you will, at some point in your life, encounter someone who really, deeply cares. And you should be able to explain yourself, because the person who really, deeply cares might be somebody you want to impress or convince about something.

In fact, that's why I give my students my long and probably very boring proofreading guide. I want them to impress me, and I don't want my pet peeves about language and usage to get in the way. (No matter how anti-hierarchical we all might want to be, ultimately I'm the guy responsible for my students' grades, and so it's in their best interests to know what my pet peeves are.) They can dismiss my pet peeves as silly or irrelevant if they want, but they can't say they don't know what they are. Indeed, if I say to a student, "Why did you use 'he/she' when my proofreading guidelines specifically say I would prefer for you not to use that construction in my class," and they respond with a thoughtful answer, I may not be convinced by their logic, but I will be impressed that they gave it thought; if, on the other hand, they respond, "Oh, I didn't read that, even though you said it was important and could affect our grade," then I will not be impressed, and my not being impressed may not be a good thing for their grade. Such is life.

But really my purpose here was just to say that despite all the horrible things said about that poor little language guide, I will miss it. True, it shouldn't have looked so official if it were not (I, too, thought it was pretty official, though clearly it was not binding and was little read). The UNH statement is wrong, though, when it says, "Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university." I don't like the idea of speech codes much, either, because speech codes sounds punitive and authoritarian, but guides — well, I like guides. Guides can be useful, especially if you're feeling lost. As a university, we're a big place full of people who come from all over the country and the world, people who have vastly different experiences, people who use language in all sorts of different ways and have all sorts of different feelings about the languages we use. It can be helpful to know that somebody might consider something offensive that I've never even given a second thought to, and helpful to know why that is, so that I can assess how much effort I want to put into rethinking my own language use. The guide to inclusive language had its flaws, certainly, but it was a useful jumping off point for conversation and education. I'll continue to have similar conversations with students (my own proofreading guide has plenty in it to talk about and debate), and will continue to think such conversations are not about somehow curtailing speech, but are in fact about freeing it by empowering speakers to be more aware of what they say and how the words they use affect other people.