Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wood's Writing Guide: State, Don't Believe

As a professor I often reflect on how students can write better essays. One suggestion: Lose phrases like "I think" or "I believe."

If you're a student, especially if you're taking courses in the social sciences and the humanities, you've probably written a similar phrase once or twice. In many of those courses, professors like me allow - and even encourage - folks to write in the first-person.

Moreover, some of those assignments might actually leave room for you to express your beliefs and philosophy. For instance you might be asked to reflect upon how something relates to your personal life. In that case you might write something like this:
"Watching the State of the Union address reminds me of Thanksgiving at my own house. Once a year the family gets together and performs the old rituals. Everyone plays their roles, but conflicts still always seems to seethe below the surface. Of course, I believe that conflict can be useful. Thus I smiled when Justice Alito mouthed 'Not true' during President Obama's 2010 State of the Union speech. All families need a crazy uncle who's not afraid to tell the truth."
As a reader, I may agree or disagree with your analysis. But I'd have no problem with you writing "I believe" in an assignment that seeks that sort of personal reflection.

At the same time, such license generally does not extend to assignments that ask you to advance an argument or express an opinion. In these cases, you are undoubtedly affected by your beliefs. But your audience will rarely find those beliefs to be sufficient as a means of proof.

Consider this hypothetical prompt: "What was the most significant technological innovation of the 20th century?" Sure, you might believe that the atomic bomb was more important than the invention of penicillin. But you are actually being asked to advance an argument that requires different forms of proof.

In this case you are expected to deploy facts, statistics, testimony, illustrations, and other well-reasoned proofs to advance your claim. Your beliefs, though certainly related to your thinking, contribute little to supporting your claim. Indeed, phrases like "I believe" add unnecessary delay, requiring the reader to sort through the phrase before getting to your point. [She believes. Does that mean she doesn't know?"]

Of course you might be inclined to add "I believe" precisely because you don't know with 100% certainty. As a student you might wish to admit that your assertion comes from limited knowledge. You know a little about this topic, but you don't claim to be a subject matter expert. Thus you "believe," or you "think," or you offer this claim "in my opinion."

Even so, don't do it.

When you are asked to state an opinion, you can remind yourself, "I don't know everything about this topic, so everything I say can be questioned." You can even write that phrase in your first draft when you're still sorting out your arguments. But when you submit your final draft, search your document for unnecessary modifiers like "I believe" - and remove them.

When the time has come to express your opinion, state it simply and clearly, with no prevarication. Offer multiple forms of proof, considering the standards of your reader(s), not just your personal preferences, and then keep an open mind for contrary responses. When you're tempted to write, "I believe that the atomic bomb was more important than the invention of penicillin," cut those first three words.

State your claim and make your case.


Alena said...

What about the gender implications of the use of "I believe" as a hedge? This phrase might be used, particularly by some women, to create room for disagreement without damaging relationships. Sure, I think that the atomic bomb was a more significant invention than penicillin, but if you think differently, that's ok. We can disagree on the content level without endangering our relational level of communication because we just have two different beliefs. Hedges, tag questions, and overpoliteness are not necessarily the sign of a hesitant or weakly phrased argument, they might be the sign of a person who cares more about harmony than expressing themselves "forcefully."

Alena said...

And of course there are hedges ("often" "might be") in my own response. Because, you know, maybe you'll disagree. And maybe I'm wrong. Regardless, I believe we'll still be friends. :-)

Andrew Wood said...

You raise a fair and compelling point, challenging me to reflect upon some under-considered implications of my note. Your comments also bring back happy memories of courses I took in the OU gender studies program, where I learned to consider various "ways of knowing" while gaining an appreciation for the gendered implications of agonistic persuasion. Thus you have an ally with me.

And it's true: When we speak of a "generic" audience (and I certainly imply one with my note), we almost invariably naturalize an audience of privilege. Even so, I hold to my statements. A person may wish to hedge for any number of reasons. S/he may wish to employ an invitational approach, or she might be trying to affirm some relational context. And, as you write in your response, some groups may be especially inclined to hedge. At the same time, the choice to hedge carries risks, particularly in an audience composed of folks who may not understand or respect the tactic.

Without trying to escape the troublesome implications of my reply, let me state directly: My rhetorical strategy reflects a dominant (maybe even a domineering) code of speech. Yet even if we both seek to challenge and unsettle dominant codes - at least those that do more harm than good - we are unwise to teach our students that these codes either do not exist or should not be mastered.

From this approach, I admit the power dimensions of my writing instruction, and I encourage students to challenge that power. So when a student rebuffs my expectation to follow some [dominant] code of writing (say, to produce clear, simple, concise topic sentences or craft correct APA citations) I invite that student to reject that code, but only when she or he has first mastered it.

Why? Partially because even the most apparently power-laden codes contain some useful logic. Mainly though, I am troubled when I observe writers who zealously reject codes (or invent their own) less because of the brilliance of their counter-statements and more because they aren't willing to follow any code with consistency.

So I teach a code of writing that reflects a disciplinary apparatus (even at the risk that I have become a tool of my tools). I admit it. I profess it. I do so because I know that in any revolution - in racial patterns, in gender roles, in class relations - those who would change the language of the world must first learn its most subtle principles.