Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

On the Instability of Disciplinary Style: Common and Conflicting Metaphors and Practices in Text, Talk, and Gesture

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

On the Instability of Disciplinary Style: Common and Conflicting Metaphors and Practices in Text, Talk, and Gesture

Article excerpt

Every day, people grope to describe what a particular piece of writing looks and sounds like. When asked how he understood style in scientific writing, entomolo- gist Claudio Gratton1 laughed, commenting that scientific writing seems almost "style-less" because it "all kind of read[s] the same way." Journal editors in ecology and entomology, he said,

certainly don't allow um embellishments in the language, it's pretty kind of dry language, it's pretty straightforward, and uh, you know, parenthetical comments are not very much seen, clauses are discouraged, so it's- again, how do you say, in the most efficient way- how do you say what you need to say.

He then contrasted scientific writing with "creative writing," where "you kind of weave this yarn that springs surprises on people." He enjoys reading it, he declared, but advises students to forgo it in their scientific writing.

Claudio characterized scientific writing with adjectives like "dry" and "straight- forward" and distinguished it from "creative writing," which occasions features like "embellishments" and "parentheticals." Underlying his representations of style are metaphors and other figures. "Dry," for instance, is a metaphor that compares the writing to a physical quality (not wet) to indicate absence of emotion or adornment. The transcript above is not the whole representation of the interaction, however; it omits information like intonation, facial expressions, and gestures. When Claudio called scientific writing "dry," he flattened his right hand and glided it from his left to his right side. He repeated this gesture for "straightforward." This gliding- flattened-hand gesture itself conveys multiple figures: his hand becomes the dry text and/or his mind experiencing the text, and the gliding motion and flattened surface indicate smoothness and lack of disturbances or surprises in the reading process. With figurative gestures like these, which, scholars of metaphor and ges- ture argue, embody an individual's knowledge of the world, Claudio is enacting his experiences with style and his beliefs about how texts should communicate.

Students in Claudio's lab, researchers whose manuscripts Claudio reviews, and writers of all ages and settings will, at some point, receive style comments containing terms and gestures like these. Often, these judgments are mystifying. What does dry mean, exactly? When shown a particular stretch of language, would Claudio and his readers agree on its dryness? Would they consider the gliding-flattened- hand gesture an accurate representation of dryness and straightforwardness? To what extent are such style descriptions agreed upon, and uniformly practiced, in a particular disciplinary community?

As I describe below, scholarship both within and outside of writing and lan- guage studies has often assumed that particular "discourse communities" have particular styles, and much style research to date has limited itself to analysis of texts or pedagogy. However, style is not inherent in texts: its meanings are a joint enactment of writer and reader. Attention to how styles are received and how writ- ers manage the many tensions that emerge as they write, read, and respond tends to be absent from research and practice. Using discourse-based interviews (DBIs) and analyses of metaphors in talk and gesture, I examine how coauthors interpret each other's writing, attending both to how writers represent style (in their talk and gestures, often with metaphors) and to what they actually do in their texts.

In the data I will present, Claudio, Ashley (Claudio's former PhD student), and Sarah (Ashley's postdoctoral advisor) described scientific writing style in similar terms (e.g., "clear") and with similar gestures (e.g., depicting linearity), revealing common metaphors and, thus, shared understandings of how communication should work. But all three disagreed over many stylistic choices in their coauthored manuscripts, justifying their positions with these terms and gestures. …

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