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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 29th 2012, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
Welcome back, Shannon. I have missed you and your teaching adventures! I enjoyed your article, it reminds us that we need to adapt our language to our audience, be they students or contemporaries.
Thursday November 29th 2012, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great observations! I wonder how your professing colleagues will respond. I hope you will be developing some tropes, perhaps some nuanced tropes. I trip across them all the time in humanities and social science papers.
Friday November 30th 2012, 8:19 AM
Comment by: carlos C. (miami, FL)
thank you Shannon...great Hemingway will love to read your article
and Pico Iyer might be jealous.
Friday November 30th 2012, 10:25 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Among philologists, like you "Professor" Reed, you are indeed "professing" and expressing well the dilemma facing most adults attempting to communicate clearly with other adults.

In this context, many fellow word lovers would remind us of Churchill's famous speech in his effort to mobilize the English Spirit during WW II.

Had he called for circulating fluid(blood), perspiration(sweat), laboriousness(toil), and lachrymal engagement(tears), England might well have lost the Battle of Britain.

There is value in the simple three, four, and five letter Anglo-Saxon words. They elicit clear mental pictures, e.g., cat, dog, and cow, versus feline, canine, and bovine. They appeal to feelings, to gut reaction. They are visual images that are more than vague abstract concepts.

One professor of speech, at whose feet I sat, noted the following in this regard: "If you want action from your audience, use a predominance of Anglo-Saxon words in what you say. If you want people to compliment you on the beauty or profundity of your thoughts, use English derived from Latin - often polysyllabic expressions." As that professor was teaching people who would be addressing other adult listeners, he suggested (finally) that we combine the two basic streams of English. This seems to be part of what doing and with an admirable degree of sensitivity to your students I might add.

Recall a time when a child has asked for the meaning of a word you have spoken. If it has been a Latin based word, like "constellation," often what one does is to "translate" it using source words from the Anglo-Saxon, such as a "group of stars." One has selected words with concrete images behind them - much easier to visualize.

With college age students one can try doing such a "one-two punch." This is especially vital when giving assignments. You can gain their intellectual respect by claiming that they will be astronomically rewarded by fulfilling a particular responsibility, and then tell them they'll be a star in your mind for doing the task. Being a preponderantly visual culture, mental pictures are also easier to remember. (Literally, you know that writing an assignment on a chalkboard or a sheet of paper is invaluable.)

Equally important, as you likely know, is the tone with which you bring your words (along with the body language). If the students sense that you respect them, they'll usually reflect that back. Tasteful, well placed humor, also can be a great ally. You're not an entertainer, but the wise "prof" can be entertaining.

You might ask, "Where does this dude get off pontificating like all this?" I did have the good fortune to teach children from first through eighth grade for twenty-nine years, plus four years of learning/teaching high school students about history and English, and sixteen years of sharing with college age students what to do in the classroom.
I'll soon be joining the ranks of octogenarians, so I guess I've paid my dues.

Here's one last unoriginal thought worth pondering: students seldom care about how much you know (or how you say it). More often they want to know how much you care. You dig?

Keith Mac, Maui, HI
Friday November 30th 2012, 11:33 PM
Comment by: mac
oh, c'mon
Sunday December 2nd 2012, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Betje K.
Fun reads, especially KM's comment about using Anglo-Saxon words to incite action. Please share more of your mentor's wisdom.
Having admired esoteric French authors during most of my academic career, I am now a born-again late-blooming admirer of the Musketeers "deployed" by Dumas (a face-saving phrase attempting to tie my comments to Shannons while not doing battle with spelling the possessive of a proper noun ending in "s"). From all my years translating French to English, a single instance jumps out as the perfect cross-language correspondence in meaning and sound: One for all {and} all for one! Un pour tous {et} tous pour un! Merci, Monsieur Dumas, for this invigorating sentiment made all the more palatable by avoiding alexandrins and iambic pentameters in favor of Jingle bells, jingle bells...
Tuesday December 4th 2012, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree wholeheartedly with Keith Mac from Maui. Short words, tactile words, plain words, direct words--yes, yes, yes!!

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