Plain, but not simple: Plain language research with readers, writers and texts (Kim Garwood)

I’m very interested in the subject of plain language and recently had the opportunity to advise on the wording of some forms and documents for students at my college. There is a certain tension in academia between the need to communicate ideas clearly and the feeling that certain aspects of meaning can be lost if plain language is used.

Kim Garwood’s PhD dissertation examines this very topic. I am only partway through it but so far it’s fascinating!

Course Syllabus as Infographic

In one of my online instructors’ groups there was a discussion about graphic syllabi. I’ve been trying to think of ways to make information more accessible for my upgrading students–I teach pre-Grade 10 English (Fundamental), Grade 11 equivalent, and Grade 12 equivalent, so there are varying levels of literacy involved here. Interestingly, I’ve realized that even students with high literacy levels (my Grade 11 and 12 equivalents) process information differently than I do/did when I was in school, and part of my job is helping them parse things like relatively difficult to access scholarly journal articles.

I know some people feel like it’s coddling to present information in a simple to parse way for students, since it’s our job as educators to help them learn to navigate a world that isn’t necessarily going to adapt for them. However, as I participate in more discussions about plain language, universal design for learning, and indigenization, I see very few downsides to presenting the basics of what is needed to navigate my courses in an easy to understand way. I’m still going to teach them how to read a scholarly journal article, but I don’t need to obfuscate (deliberately or not) my contact information, the expectations for the course, or when their assignments are due.

I came across a really interesting article on presenting information on your syllabus as an infographic. The author provides a thoughtful take on whether graphic course syllabi are useful:

Curtis Newbold: Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic?

I’m not sure how effective infographics would be for all course syllabi. But I do know that there wasn’t a single question during this May term course from students about what was due, when it was due, and what my expectations were. That is rarely the case when I use my much-more-thorough syllabi in other courses. Is more being lost in our syllabi when we give too much information? Should we be reducing content for clarity by using infographic-style communications in the classroom? My initial reaction would be probably.

Canada 150/Resistance 150

I’ll be teaching First Peoples English again this fall, and I am thinking about basing an assignment on responding to the discussion on Canada 150/Resistance 150. Here’s what I have so far–feel free to download and use it in your own classroom.

For background:

This year marks the 150th year since Canadian Confederation. The sesquicentennial has been branded “Canada 150” and there are plenty of celebrations planned. The Government of Canada Website says

This year, the Celebrate Canada festivities will be bigger than ever! They will highlight the evolution of our country from its Indigenous origins (with National Aboriginal Day); the contact with the French and the birth of our Francophone heritage (with Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Fête nationale du Québec et de la Francophonie canadienne); through to more recent waves of immigration that have led to the development of a diverse and inclusive society (with Canadian Multiculturalism Day). These major celebrations will culminate with celebrating Canada Day.

Despite the efforts to incorporate indigenous people into the sesquicentennial, Canada 150 sits uneasily with many First Nations and Aboriginal people.

#Resistance 150 is an alternative to Canada 150:

a project intended to highlight the many ways Indigenous peoples have historically resisted, and continue to resist, what many see as discriminatory and assimilationist policies of the Canadian government, such as those regarding pipeline construction, access to drinking water and child welfare funding gaps. Perhaps most importantly, the Indian Act itself.

In this CBC article, Adam Beach speaks about balancing his role as an indigenous artist with being one of the 150 Canadians asked to be an ambassador for Canada 150.

On The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti interviews several indigenous activists about their opposition to Canada 150 and the alternative awareness raising activities they have spearheaded.

The Elements of [Bureaucratic] Style

Sometimes when I’m teaching students about passive voice I use the following example:

The decision was made to raise tuition.

I ask them, who made the decision? Of course they have some guesses, but eventually we determine that the point is, you can’t actually tell from the sentence.

In “The Elements of Bureaucratic Style,” Colin Dickey examines United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’ recent use of language that obfuscates and minimizes the airline’s own responsibility for an incident where security dragged a passenger off the plane, while simultaneously implying that the passenger was an active agent in his own violent takedown. This goes beyond the passive voice and employs something he calls the bureaucratic voice:

We tend to think of the purpose of style guides as helping students to write clearer and more effectively. But increasingly, the far more important side of composition pedagogy is teaching students how to read. And teaching students how to spot and decipher the bureaucratic voice must become an essential skill.

The very best dissection of this phenomenon I’ve seen is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar” (McSweeney’s). The last line, while not unexpected, is a sharp blow.