Word of the Week! Paradigm

Copernican Solar SystemOur blog is back from Fall Break. Has Fall Break become a paradigmatic part of student life? I suspect that I just misused an honorable academic word, as many others have done, so let’s look deeper.

I learned the word from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book,  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the author notes:

Attempting to discover the source of that difference [between debates in the sciences and other fields of study] led me to recognize the role in scientific research of what I have since called “paradigms.” These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.

Kuhn’s 1957 book, The Copernican Revolution, does an even better job of explained one particular “paradigm shift.”  After we had a sun-centered model of our solar system established, we never really could go back.

The adoption of Kuhn’s idea in the nearly 60 years since has been astounding, from boring corporate Powerpoints to often opaque, and occasionally silly, literary theory. Before Kuhn, however, what was the status of this overly popular term?

The OED traces our word to “post-classical Latin paradigma,” meaning an example. Examples range back to the 15th Century. I’m surprised that the entry’s usage frequency is six of eight. The definitions clarify what sort or example a paradigm can be. It’s closest to Kuhn’s notion as a “pattern or model, an exemplar.” Kuhn’s own usage for science gets its own set of definitions. I hope that this sense of the word endures. Kuhn, in defining paradigms, provides us with a paradigm for academic immortality, the best any scholar can hope to have in a busy world.

Use our word carefully. I write a bit for Hemmings Motor News, and I and other readers recently sparred over misuse of the word “iconic” in regard to car designs. Now I think that some designs, say the Jaguar E-Type, are paradigms: they establish a pattern that every other maker of sports cars tries to capture.

In terms of pronunciation, remember “brother, can you spare a dime?” from the Depression-Era classic? That’s your clue.

Spare us a few words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of heliocentric solar system courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Praxis

PraxisApologies for a late post. I’ve been working on a different deadline, and the Friday afternoon cutoff for a Monday Spiderbyte notice slipped by, well, like a ship in the late afternoon.

We have an excellent word to make up for that tardiness, one I employ in every class where I train our Writing Consultants. Sharon Condrey, UR’s Director of Tax Compliance and Payroll, nominated a word that enjoys a good deal of academic usage; it could also prove very helpful in business settings.

I learned “praxis” as a newly minted teacher of first-year composition at Indiana University.  According to the OED, praxis is of mixed Greek and Latin parentage. It came to me through the writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and political radical (radical ideas among grad students were nothing new in the mid-80s, nor are they today). Freire very much intended to employ the Marxist notion of the term, that is, the application of economic theory to everyday practices. In a less charged political sense, that was how we applied ideas then new to the writing classroom, through pedagogy such as guided peer-review, collaborative learning, and subtle yet powerful methods for “pre-writing” when drafting essays.  This is where I got my notion of making writers prepare a “bias statement” early in the writing process, then keep it with them as they attempt that neutral and nuanced voice of the Academy.

Peruse the OED entry and you’ll find political and linguistic meanings for praxis, yet all of them are “performative” in some manner.

I tell my writers and Consultants what David Bartholomae’s theory of “Error Analysis,” where nearly every error signals a mistaken intention, not some mortal sin, is the “soul” of Writing-Center praxis. Our praxis makes some faculty and writers mad that we do not proofread papers. I have patiently explained that that level of “doing for” a writer is not only unethical but also unproductive:  writers need to know where and why their intentions went awry and then, only then, we teach them. This is hard work, but this praxis of writing centers presumes that writers can learn by doing, that repeated errors provide clues to their intentions, and that most error is systematic in some manner.

That series of axioms, derived from Bartholomae’s and other scholars’ theories, led to our modern praxis. Think, now, about a modern office that involves any degree of creative work. Don’t the “open office” layout, guided teamwork, and a flatter hierarchy all come from a theory about how we work best together? Otherwise, we’d still be in the top-down, if colorfully drunken, world of Mad Men. Don Draper and Roger Sterling were fascinating characters, but I’d not want to work for them. Would you?

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Consilience

Biologist E.O. WilsonThanks to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers for this one. It’s a good pick, an older word that came back into academic use after what appears to be a long absence. The term hit my radar screen in the late 90s, when an except of Biologist E.O. Wilson’s book by this title appeared. Wilson sensed that we needed more consilience in our thinking, as a culture. He examines subjects as diverse as a the Humanities, genetics, environmentalism, modern physics, and neuroscience to see how knowledge jumps together in unexpected ways.

These are good lessons for us, but how to use the term? To quote the OED entry, one achieves consilience by observing how “different groups of phenomena” jump together. In Wilson’s account, such events help us arrive at new knowledge.

Let’s consider climate science, urban planning, and ergonomic design as outcomes from understanding how consilience works. On college campuses, too often we silo our knowledge into discrete, often well-defended, boundaries governed by our academic departments. Wilson makes the case for a convergence of disciples in his book, yet consilience is a particular type of converging: it seems to arise suddenly and in unexpected ways.

How do we harness the power of consilience?  Yes, there are strong interdisciplinary efforts on my and other campuses, but there’s often not enough informal consilience that might, for instance, use the lessons of speculative literature to predict how a nation might react to a crippling cyberattack, a first contact with another intelligent species, or the development of superbugs strongly resistant to all antibiotics. Such topics come up in books such as Dies the Fire, Contact, and Earth Abides. 

If I may be so bold, Carl Sagan was a master of employing ideas that arise from moments of consilience, such as radio-carbon dating and observations by radio telescope. His popular show Cosmos was one long exercise in consilience, aimed to educate generalists.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Photo of E.O. Wilson courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Registrar

HIgh Density Filing System

Last year, I covered “syllabus” as our word for the first week of classes. It’s one that many students never encounter before arriving on campus.  Given the ancient history of universities, there’s no surprise that many words unknown beyond our gates crop up.

Some terms, like “campus,” “curriculum,” or “physical plant” enjoy broader usage, but I could not immediately think of anywhere else I have heard “Registrar” employed. Students learn quickly that our Registrar’s Office does a fine job of setting up enrollment systems, guaranteeing course-credit where credit is due, tallying units of same so a student my gradate correctly.  But where did they get their name?

Several British officials have held the title, including one roughly analogous to an American Justice of the Peace; this much I learned from the OED’s entry. Thus any official or office charged with keeping civil or clerical records could be a Registrar. In US parlance, however, at first I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Then I recalled  that at the last election I saw a reference to our Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.

Thank a Registrar for your vote getting counted, the diploma hanging on the wall, or the transcript your employer requested.  The OED has this usage dating to the early 18th Century. For other meanings, our word goes back to the 16th Century and probably earlier.

So when you call upon the Registrar this semester, tell them you appreciate the assistance: their work makes this place possible as an official, degree-granting entity.

Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such largely invisible services: I wish I had a photo of the UVA Registrar’s vast filing system from the 1980s; they provided the State of Virginia with my official transcript, proving my degree so I could take a tech-writing job for the Department of Corrections. My duties for DOC involved proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records for an early database, OBCIS (The Offender Based Correctional Information System), now mostly a footnote in the history of corrections; the data have been merged with other databases, into what I hope remains an accurate set of records.

We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to storing paper; we needed only a small conference room to do the OBCIS coding. We managed paper files for over ten thousand incarcerated felons and an equal number out on parole; the files all moved about on an automated retrieval system. The core of this was a giant conveyor belt for floor-to-ceiling file cabinets. If a Parole Board member or the Governor wanted a file, it needed to be available at the counter in no more than a couple of minutes. Peons like me? We waited longer. The facility included advanced fire-suppression technology that did not use water. Loss of records, none duplicated, would have been catastrophic. We’d have lost release dates, psychological profiles, and opinions by members of our Parole Board.

It could be mind-numbing work, but we kept a supply of coffee handy and kept reminding ourselves that mistakes might delay a person’s release or hasten it. In a different DOC job a few months later,  I had the wrong inmate show up at my office for a pre-parole interview. He admitted that he got a free ride in a police car and a meal at a different jail. He was a non-violent offender and very affable, but no one believed his story. I gave him a cup of coffee. The next day, we got the right guy in for his chat.

Today, an incorrect entry in an electronic record and be annoying, even damaging, but with backups on and off-site, one hopes that we can avoid chaos.

Addendum for August 28: thanks to reader Marybeth Bridges for this medical reference from the UK, replete with British spellings:

A junior doctor undergoing specialty training under the UK model of graduate medical education. Under the Modernising Medical Careers programme, juniors complete two years of general medical training—the so-called Foundation Years (FY1, FY2)—after which they compete for National Training Numbers (NTNs) and begin specialty training (as specialty registrars), often beginning in the 3rd year after graduating from medical school.

Registrar posts are often described by the year of specialist training expected of the appointee—e.g., year anaesthetic registrar SpR3 is a reasonably experienced anaesthetic trainee.

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Storage system photo courtesy of Police.com. Get one for your files at home! You know you need one!

Word of the Week! Epistemology

Death of SocratesWhat can one say about “A borrowing from Greek, combined with an English element; modelled on a German lexical item”? Pretentious, perhaps, yet our word, Epistemology, as cited by the OED in the last sentence, has an everyday use in academe. It’s of recent origin, like much of modern science itself, dating from the mid 1800s.

Simply put, it’s a “theory of knowledge” but as I will explain, so much more. When one thinks hard about it, everyone’s use of data, ways of analysis, and presentation of results hinge upon that field’s epistemology. In my own, English, we have several theories of knowledge.  Sometimes they get us in trouble with those outside the profession, partly because we sling around words like epistemology or hermeneutics regularly (WordPress spellcheck does not even recognize “hermeneutics”).

If I’ve not convinced you yet that “theory of knowledge” does not work accurately in place of our word, consider that the OED also adds that our term distinguishes “between justified belief and opinion.” Every wise fool, in Socrates’ sense, has an opinion beyond his realm of understanding, something not justifiable. As the doomed philosopher puts in in The Apology, the artisans he questioned about wisdom, “because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” That same error applies today. Would the epistemology of quantum physics inform the study of Chaucer, or vice versa?

For that matter, while this week’s word is not found beyond our ivy-covered walls, the idea behind it remains sound. Would I presume to tell the HVAC guy which circuit has failed, unless I had knowledge of electronics and that type of system?

Have a word worth pondering? This blog will continue all summer. Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Referee

“Referee” sounds simple enough to sports fans, but in academic parlance the term has much the same meaning. The OED shows us the common link: many circumstances where a neutral judge or arbiter or official must make a decision.

When one submits work to a refereed (or peer-reviewed) journal, the arbiters are not just the editors of the journal, but a panel of informed professionals in the field. I found the University of Texas Libraries as well as my own campus library offer fine guides on this.

The verb “referee” is quite similar.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: Ivory Tower

This week we begin a new monthly feature. And the timing, in our second week of classes, is spot-on appropriate.

For new students who may have forgotten the concept, a metaphor is a type of figurative speech calling a person or thing something it is not, such as “John is a real skunk!” or the famous parables in the Bible, with the Kingdom of Heaven suddenly becoming a mustard seed.

Now on to our first academic metaphor.

We think, commonly, of “The Ivory Tower” being the haunt of cloistered academics.  Where on earth did that come from? French, actually. The OED Online traces the origin of our term to the second quarter of the 19th Century, from tour d’ivoire, as a place of sanctuary from the world and its troubles.  The image is older, going back to (thank you, Wikipedia) to The Song of Solomon 7:4:

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”

The similes and metaphors just pile up here, rather odd tools of seduction, and in this book of the Bible they get racy, fast. Have a look yourself.

In any case, I find it fascinating that none of the examples provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as my antique version of Webster’s New Collegiate, show the drift in meaning to academia, especially toward the negative sense that political pundits often use to attack us. Only The American Heritage Dictionary sheds a little light (another metaphor!) on our phrase, noting a place of “intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.”

I have many colleagues who would argue that our business in the Ivory Tower is very much about everyday life, especially how to live it in a considered and enlightened way, but this post is no more an op-ed than it is a look at the Bible’s salacious metaphors. Yet that final definition gets us to the pejorative sense of the term. Other ages had Lotus-Lands. We moderns are only left with an ivory tower.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 of St. John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Syllabus

For the first week of classes, I thought to feature a word appropriate to the season. So what is so special about that document, online nowadays, that lists assignments, schedule, and policies for a class?

Not much, really. In sum, it is but a concise summary of a subject to be covered, a compendium, a list. The OED Online dates modern usage to the 17th Century. In Antiquity the term may or may not have had the same meaning, so it may not qualify as a loan-word from Latin.

I came to like the term; it mightily confused me as a first-generation, first-year student at The University of Virginia in 1979. It was to be the first of many bizarre  terms that I encountered. Many of the new-to-me terms were Latinate, as alien as Hittite despite my four years in a Catholic high school where the priests could speak Latin. Consider that we “proctor” an exam, end four years of undergraduate work with a “commencement,” earn Latin-phrased honors such as cum laude, and labor in the Grove of Akademos, the source of the word “Academy.”

So as you peruse (or write! the hour is late!) your syllabi for the upcoming academic term, be on the lookout for other traces of academia’s Classical heritage.

The Word of the Week will appear every 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Monday of the academic year, with a new entry, Metaphor of the Month, for our first Mondays.

Please nominate a word (or metaphor!) useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Subfusc

Once again, Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. This time he picked one that was completely new to me. As Dr. Bunn put it in an e-mail:

It can just mean gloomy, apparently, but it can also mean “the formal clothing worn for examinations and formal occasions at some universities.” In Dorothy Sayers’s novel set at Oxford, she uses it to describe clothing in dark, subdued shades, suitable for wearing under academic regalia. I always think of it on graduation day.

Only one of my American dictionaries has a brief entry, supporting Professor Bunn’s conclusion that the word is British English, not its American cousin. The OED Online provides both senses of the word given above, as an adjective or noun. The Latin roots are plain, sub + fuscus (dusky). We have a similar derivation in obfuscate and obfuscation.

As recently at 2006, the Times of London noted that “Undergraduates at Oxford University have voted by four to one to retain subfusc costume when sitting examinations.” They voted again to retain it in 2015.  There are other specificities for subfusc at Oxford. As I learned from this article about the differences between it and Cambridge, subfusc means “a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women.”
The customs surrounded academic regalia have crossed the Atlantic far better than the word itself or, for that matter, the often subfusc weather of the British Isles. While I cannot find meteorological examples of the word, it certainly works in that context.

The image of a subfusc sky with the light just returning is my own, taken at twilight in Kenmare, Ireland in 2011.  The academic regalia of Oxford comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.