Last weekend my wife and I finished watching the latest of The Librarian TV movies. The protagonist is a bespectacled thirty-something bookworm with scores of university degrees who finds himself employed as the secret guardian of an untold number of legendary objects. Part of the job involves adventuring across the globe to recover items that aren’t yet safely ensconced in that collection. Frequently, his survival depends upon esoteric bits of knowledge he gained during his many years of school, and part of the character’s charm is the delighted manner in which he spills forth details about a particular plant or architectural feature or ancient language or whatnot. Not that the villains appreciate that, of course. I had to chuckle when in this most recent episode, one of the antagonists suddenly erupted, “Must you always speak in whole paragraphs!”
This being TV, of course, those “whole paragraphs” still consist primarily of language understandable to the average person. While the specific genus and species of a flower the Librarian points out might be unfamiliar, for example, the rest of the words in his speech are straightforward. The scriptwriters avoid any tendency toward the bombastic or recondite language that might be expected in portraying such a learned person. The result is delightful. The Librarian comes across as ever knowledgeable but never stuffy.
Often, in the writing of high schoolers and undergraduate students, I see something of the opposite. In an attempt to present themselves as knowledgeable, these writers strain to use language or sentence structures somewhat beyond their comfort zone, and the result makes for fuzzy reading. The blame may very well lie in the texts we assign to introduce them to topics for discussion. I’d argue that far too many scholarly publications have been unnecessarily esoteric (going for baroque) in their use of language, as if the authors sought to protect their circles from invasion by those without sufficiently high-minded vocabularies.
Perhaps that’s changing. For example, earlier this week I read “Writing in the 21st Century,” an eight-page report published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in which NCTE past president Kathleen Blake Yancey discusses the past, present, and future of language instruction in the U.S. The information covered in this report is relatively heady—I had to pay attention and, in places, reread a paragraph or two to make certain I followed—but the language itself is refreshingly clear. Just as with the fictional Librarian, I felt the authority of Yancey’s knowledge without the pretentiousness of inflated diction.
As teachers, we might encourage this sort of straightforward language in students by not only assigning more written summaries of readings but also asking for critiques of the actual language of those readings. After all, if a student is able to convey the message of an article in simpler language than the original, did the original actually need the more difficult language? In-class discussions of this sort might be especially valuable, both teasing out the meaning of a difficult piece and making students more critically aware of language use itself. As they learn that not all “learnéd” language is necessarily effective, their own writing is likely to improve—as writing always does when the focus is on communication rather than attempting to impress.