Tag Archives: class

Writing Styles and Ethics

Consider this, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing a piece on what the people around you are doing. Sounds easy right? Sally eats a sandwich, and Bob reads a newspaper, done. But wait, the piece that you are writing needs to be in the form of a scientific report. Well, this little detail changes everything.

This semester I wrote a workplace analysis ethnography for my capstone course and it was probably the most frustrating experience that I have ever had writing anything. I am used to adapting my writing to fit the style that the paper has been assigned (MLA, APA, etc.). Typically if I am using MLA I write in a more personal and humanistic way, I use personal pronouns, and I use pathos to persuade my audience. On the other side of that, when I use APA I am usually writing a paper that includes research so I talk less about the personal characteristics of the people involved and more about whatever research was done on them.

The ethnography report that I wrote felt like an entirely different animal. As I wrote the paper I found myself painfully aware of the coldness of it. Scientific writing most often uses APA style but there is, I have found a big difference in a typical research centered article and a scientific article. I tried to structure my paper to resemble that of a science article, cold, clinical, void of any emotion and in doing so found myself questioning the ethics of the way that scientists construct present their arguments.

Let us not forget that the articles, and reports that we take as “fact” are indeed arguments, even the reasoning behind the style of scientific writing is an argument. Language and writing are ever-evolving. Charles Bazerman says in his essay “Codifying the Social Scientific Style,” from The Rhetoric of Human Sciences  language is “a human accomplishment,” which “must be constantly reevaluated and remade as the human world changes” (125). Science hasn’t always been as detached as it is today, it has changed and I’m sure scientists would like to think that it has evolved. Audubon for example was a scientist who recorded his findings on birds and plants in essays that he sometimes wrote in the forms of letters. This old style of scientific writing was accessible; one reading it could see the argument being made and then decide whether or not to accept it.

Today scientists construct reports that are unintelligible to most people. Why? Because scientists have an agreed understanding that the best way to communicate their findings is to remove any trace of pathos or humanizing qualities. If people don’t understand what they are reading they won’t question it right? But there is an ethical problem with this writing style. When information is presented in a way that the audience cannot understand they are cheated of the ability to make their own decisions about the information they are receiving. Scientific writing often assumes that the audience either knows nothing about the subject or knows quite a bit. Where does that leave us, your everyday people?

I cannot say that I agree with the style of scientific writing, or that I particularly enjoyed writing in the style, as I wrote I was faced with the overwhelming urge to change the style to something more reasonable. I understand the motive behind the control technique, but as a writer and a technical communicator, I say there has got to be a better way to communicate scientific information. Luckily, as Bazerman noted, language grows and changes as people grow and change. Maybe one day writers and scientists can find a middle ground between the old style and what is used today.

Reading is Power

Ever wonder why there are books on just about everything? We all had a favorite book that we read, or that our parents read to us, when we were children. If asked to explain why that book was our favorite one would learn the value in which we had ascribed to the story. Whether your favorite book taught you about good and evil, to never give up, or about the importance of friendship and sharing (like my personal favorite Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister) it taught you something. Books codify knowledge into a valuable, tangible object that can be reused and shared. Putting it simply the information found in books is the key to the spreading of knowledge.

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-high-quality-resolution-downloads-public-domain-archive-10As we grew our parents sent us off to school everyday where the same method of transmitting knowledge was applied by our teachers. Young, eager, and ready to absorb information with our sponge like brains we were handed more books. We got older and the books got thicker holding more information, more power. By the time I reached high school, the primary way to learn a subject was to read the textbook given on it. Why? Well if my above explanation wasn’t enough Bernadette Longo states in Spurious Coin “To summarize, we could (over)simplify this characterization to say that textbooks contain knowledge that purports to be exhaustive, important, useful, standardized, idealized, for the public benefit, and encouraging of systematized social stability through science” (p.71).

So by the time we hit college we understand one thing for certain if we know nothing else, and that is to read the book. The book holds all of the power by this point in our lives because we understand it to hold all of the information. The professors are people who are new to our lives and yes, they have to prove and protect their authority before we are willing to be swayed by their lectures.

Professors teach concepts, and then to prove why we should trust their authority on the subject, assign readings that reiterate what they say. It is true that the professor decides our fate on the grade in the course, to a certain extent, but the book is the key to information and the keeper of knowledge. Anyone who has taken a college course can attest to the fact that sometimes professors never use the book they assign, which creates a power struggle between the professor and the textbook and is extremely frustrating for the student, but that’s another conversation.

The point is by the time we have made it out into the working world we have developed a need for evidence, and we ascribe authority to whichever source can prove it’s information to be true. By adulthood we have adopted a way of knowing that has been shaped by our academic experiences, and more specifically the books that we encountered along the way.

I trust that there is a superior way of doing things because that is what my years of ascribing authority to textbooks have taught me. I trust that if I can’t figure something out there is a document or a book that can help me solve my problem. I put faith in the books that are assigned for me to read because my professors, authority figures, defer the power that they have onto the books that they recommend. I question what people claim to be “fact” until I can find hard evidence for myself. For this dependency on proof in the form of written evidence I thank the guy who said hey, maybe we should write this down.

Longo, B. (2000). Spurious coin: A history of science, management, and       technical writing.SUNY Press.