Academic register: Are we smarter than a 5th grader?

Another important area of study in Linguistics is register. Among other things, register refers to the degree of formality with which we communicate. We speak differently with our friends and family than we do at work. We speak differently in a courtroom than in a courtroom lobby. And we speak differently in academia than we do elsewhere.

In an interview about Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ Naomi Wolf discusses the groundbreaking impact of Friedan’s classic work. She praises Friedan for having the courage to release countless hours of research to a wider audience, rather than an academic audience. To do this, Friedan sacrificed the academic recognition that could have accompanied her work in order to reach a broader population who could potentially benefit from her work. The choice to write in a less respected register opened Friedan to criticism from academics, but led to a broad, longstanding appeal.

Wolf takes this point a step further by suggesting that academics write in such a way that we don’t even understand each other (!!).

This was a surprising admission to see from an academic. Academics often really embrace the large words and complicated nature of their findings. They manage to encode large amounts of information and complicated ideas in relatively small amounts of space. But are the conclusions and information that we publish limited in their usefulness by the academic register itself?

I’ve mentioned before that Linguistics is a very broad area of study. Coming to the field with absolutely no prior background, I was really struck by the different definitions of terms I used regularly in my profession, like reliability, validity, sampling, representative sample, … It took a while for me to adjust to the different context of those terms, and to the different lexicon and areas of focus in linguistics. And the more areas of linguistics I study, the more I find words and concepts from fields I have little experience with. I remember reading and rereading papers in my conversation analysis class, trying to understand what they were doing and why- and it took the whole semester for me to be able to imitate that academic genre and understand its power.

Clearly, the more experience we have with specific words and methods, the more easily we can understand a specific genre of academic writing. This is the academic genre at its best, and it enables us to reach complicated conclusions that we might not be able to make otherwise. But it is also quite restrictive. Nobody can be an expert in all fields, and research could potentially benefit from feedback from a much wider variety of fields than it often receives. This enforces a linguistic segregation represents is the academic genre at its worst.

Yesterday I attended a talk that involved areas and methods of study that I had never encountered before. I heard a talk about textual features that evoke emotion. The talk was heady, showing logical expressions and cognitive space diagrams, and involving some of what I believe is called semantic formalism. The text examples were mostly poems, which naturally add to the complexity of the analysis. The main points were that the use of complexity and negation in text add to the emotional wallop of a body of text. He used hypotheticals as an example of constructed negation that evokes emotion. After trying and trying to wrap my head around his points and their wider applicability, I thought of funerals and memorial services. I thought of how we use hypotheticals to make us cry and help the grieving process. I mentioned to the speaker that, as difficult as it is to wrap my head around his talk, I realized that we use these devices as tools to evoke emotion regularly in those situations.

In my mind, research is of the best quality when it is anchored in something palpable or readily accessible. As a poet, I have a distinct sense of trying to create contrasts and develop layers of complication as poetic devices. But that sense isn’t as visceral or accessible as grieving communication is.

I wonder what his research would have gained by borrowing from other registers. In my own research, I believe that explaining my work to my family or friends is a critical part of my research process. It helps me to make grounded conclusions, and it guides my research questions and methods. For yesterday’s speaker, surely it would help him to generate better, more wide ranging feedback from a wider variety of people?

At the end of the day, I went out for dinner with my kids. I mentioned the talk to my 10 year old, who loves to discuss emotions. I was surprised to see that not only did she ‘get it’ in one or two sentences of explanation, but she was able to generate some really excellent examples of these devices in a 5th grade register.

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