Monday, May 14, 2012

Academic English

This little gem of academic English (in the sub-genre educational methodology) appears in my "LAST complimentary issue of The Language Educator" a publication of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages under the heading "YOUR RESOURCE FOR RESEARCH: Don't Miss the Spring Issue of Foreign Language Annals" and I guess it is a digest of one of the articles.  The heading for this particular digest is "Learning Complex Grammar in the Virtual Classroom: A Comparison of Processing Instruction, Structured Input, Computerized Visual Input Enhancement, and Traditional Instruction"
This study investigated the effects of processing instruction and structured input on the acquisition of the subjunctive in adjectival clauses by 92 second semester distance learners of Spanish.  Computerized visual input enhancement was combined with processing instruction and structured input in an attempt to increase the salience of the targeted grammatical form for Web-based delivery.  Visual input enhancement was operationalized as word animation of subjunctive forms.  Four experimental groups were compared with traditional instruction.
I found this description almost completely incomprehensible, and was reminded of the observations of David Foster Wallace in his essay "Authority and American Usage" in the collection of essays Consider the Lobster (Back Bay Books, 2007): "The truth is that most US academic prose is appalling – pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead." (p. 81, fn. 25)

I wondered a few things.  First, would it be possible to use Mr. Wallace's string of adjectives as sort of a checklist students in English (or other) classes could use to pick apart examples of this sort of writing, identifying words or phrases or clauses or whole sentences which could fairly be described with one or more of these adjectives?  Obviously students would need to ascertain the meaning of the adjectives first, which might provide a nice vocabulary expansion activity.  Mr. Wallace writes in kind of a high register.  Second, is his list, while pretty impressive, completely comprehensive?  I.e., could we add things like omphalocentric, solipsistic, turgid (perhaps already there in pompous and inflated), or would extending the list be another fruitful task for students?  Third, why does Mr. Wallace deviate from the conventional spelling of "sesquipedalian?"

[hiatus of a couple months]

On further consideration, I am inclined to be more charitable.  After all, in any academic or professional discipline a certain amount of jargon is inevitable, maybe even healthy.  The theory is that a shared terminology facilitates the exchange of ideas.  Complex or complicated concepts are abbreviated to a few words and participants can kick them around without elaborate explanations every other sentence: processing instruction, structured input, visual input enhancement, and so forth.  Even so, that penultimate sentence is a doozy: Visual input enhancement was operationalized as word animation of subjunctive forms.  Is this word animation thing like dancing verbs, or what?  Do they sing too?

[hiatus of a couple more months]

Oh why bother whacking away at this puffed up hooey?  Bill Watterson put it better two decades ago than I can now:

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