Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Deep in the Ethos: The Vocabulary of Professor-ing

It's been about three months since I started my job as a teaching assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Since doing so, I've not just left behind Brooklyn for the 'Burgh, and "Fuhgedaboutit" for "Yinz want some food?"; I've also adapted my vocabulary, too. The words I use in my classroom now are different from when I taught high school. This is a challenge, and one I've been interested to watch my students — all first-semester freshmen — take on, as well.

This isn't the first time I've had to make a pedagogical switch in language. Before I began teaching secondary English, I taught preschool. (What can I say? I like to teach all of the children.) For example, I learned to stop saying "program" (as in "Program your paper with your name") and start saying, well, "Make sure your put your name on it." That one was fairly obvious — I can't imagine what my class of razor-smart 14-year-old girls would have responded if I had told them to "program your names" — but others were less instinctive.

The same is true at the college level. I'm able to make the switch from saying an assignment is "mandatory" and instead say "expected," for example, since I understand the wording helps students move from the realm of Doing-What-They're-Told to Wanting-To-Do-Their-Best. But other words that I hear creeping into my vocabulary — "ethos" and "deploy" and "positioning," for example — don't always seem, well, necessary. Are they? Does it matter if I use them or not? What messages do I sent with my word choice in my classroom?

The Kids Are Not All Right

One of the biggest challenges for me is simply remembering what to call my students. They are, for the most part, no longer minors, and calling them "kids" (as I've caught myself doing to my colleagues) says more about my age than theirs. I tried to avoid "kids" when teaching high school, too, and settled on "Ladies and Gentlemen," an attempt at the oxymoron of casual formality that seems even odder now in a college Composition class. What to use, instead? "Folks"? "Everyone"? "Y'all?" I usually settle on "guys" but am often left contemplating those recurrent twin problems of American English: We don't have a plural "you" and we don't have an equivalent of "guys" for women (Don't even suggest "gals," y'all!).

These are not deeply pressing problems (although I hope someone is working on them) but it does speak to one of the main distinguishing traits of the college classroom vs. the high school classroom: tone. When I taught high school, the underlying tone was, usually, one of engagement, as in: Isn't reading The Crucible interesting and fun? At college, the tone is better described as a tone of inquiry: Isn't it interesting to read this and then write about it in order to learn? "Ladies and Gentlemen" works perfectly for the first classroom; perhaps "Young Hearts and Minds" would work better for the second?

In any case, tone is important, and the words that I use convey the tone I'd like to set for my class. Being particular in how I address, and think about, my students helps to remind them that things have changed: high school is over, and more is expected. And in every class, I am reminded that my students are being asked to grow their vocabulary by leaps and bounds. I teach but one of their five classes, and each promotes the acquisition of new words at a phenomenal rate. College is, of course, at least partially about gaining knowledge, so that's a good thing.  

Positioning Your Ethos

And yet. While more is certainly expected from my college freshmen than my high school seniors, is the vocabulary used to express that expectation necessary? The syllabi and textbooks of this first semester are full of words such as "positioning" and "ethos" and "structure." Aren't these just gussied-up terms for ideas that could be expressed more simply?         

I certainly suspected that was so. When I arrived at orientation for teaching at Pitt, two words oft used in our training confused me to no end; I heard a great deal about asking my students to "position" themselves in dealing with a text and even more about exploring the "ethos" of something or other. It took me several days to admit to myself that I truly had no idea what exactly was meant by either of these, and I researched them. As it turned out, these words ended up becoming either end of a scale I often thinking about, a scale that ranks words from "necessary" to "fancy."

"Positioning" was not very difficult to grasp, in the end. It just meant, well, you know, to position oneself, as in, "Look at how the author positions herself in the debate her article seeks to illuminate," or, "How do you position your stance to the same argument?" This was not so different from how I would have expressed it to my high school students: "What does the author think about this?" "What do you think about this?" When my college-level students were confused by the language, the latter sentences helped them understand what was needed. I'm not suggesting that "positioning" doesn't convey a certain nuance, but I wasn't, in the end, convinced that the nuance was necessary. This was the "fancy" end.

On the other hand, "ethos" — which is usually used here to mean the fundamental spirit or character of a culture that forms the basic beliefs thereof — wasn't so easily subbed out. "What is the ethos the writer explores in this passage about Ancient Rome?" is not the same as "What is the fundamental character of Ancient Rome?" Fine, then: score one for college vocabulary. "Ethos" is a unique idea I'd never discussed in my high school classes, and one that the freshmen needed to understand how to use.

Back and Forth

So far, then, I've been trying to make the best choices I can about vocabulary. My students are, too. Some words are clearly helpful — it feels more accurate to talk of "structuring" an essay rather than just "writing" it, as we would have in high school. The former is not just a "fancy word," as one student declared, but a better, clearer way of describing a process.

And some words are, perhaps, "fancy" but necessary: It'd be hard to read Walker Percy's essay "The Loss of the Creature," which extensively explores the idea of sovereignty if one doesn't understand what is meant by "sovereignty." ("Oh! So, it's not just being a king or queen!" one student observed.)

But, at times words used in academic writing are, to my mind, kind of silly. One essay question in my teaching manual suggests that I ask the students what techniques the author "deployed" to make his point. A perfectly reasonable question, but why "deployed"? It makes me think of a squadron of submarines moving through the Pacific, deployed to find the enemies' ships. Couldn't I just ask them to note what techniques the author "used"?

It may seem a minor point, but an overemphasis on fancy words can create confusion for a reader who may otherwise grasp the concepts explained. Even worse, at times those fancy words are deliberately attempts to perplex. A student not quite sure of her point might send in a cavalry of high-level vocabulary words to run the professor/reader down. It works in the reverse, too. I cannot be the only professor who's ever resorted to a litany of big words — "the hegemony of the ethos of the proletariat" may have come out of my mouth recently — in the face of an argument that she wants to shut down.

The Takeaway

From what I've observed, each level of scholarly pursuit creates its own vocabulary, from the unique sentence "After Snack, it's Quiet" in preschool to "Reflect critically on your progression in your craft" in college. The ability to navigate these different vocabularies is a requirement for succeeding in each venue, of course, while the ability to step back from each unique word or usage, and question its need, is a much-less noticed skill. However, it, too, is necessary, I believe, if I desire my words to be apt, not fluff, as well as helpful to my students, not paralyzing.

In teaching preschool, I asked my students to leave with a "Remember!" In high school, we talked about "take-aways," as in "What's the take-away from this lesson?" In teaching college, I find myself at the end of class asking my students to "think about that." It's not especially catchy, or current, but those words, I find, get the job done.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.