Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shrewd Shrew

Today's post is about linguistic registers. Everybody speaks in a register, much in the same way that we all speak a unique dialect. (Anyone who disagrees, or is unfamiliar with this concept, a quick google search on "dialect" should appease the uneasy.) The distinction I would like to make for this post between a register and a dialect is that of regional versus socio-professional. Thus, the difference between a Texan and a Abendonian is a dialect, but the difference between a medical doctor and a philosopher is a register.

I have two profs whose speech patterns couldn't be any more different. Both are consistent with their personalities; the first one is pretty laid back and easy to talk to. He says things like, "Poetry is difficult. Poets intentionally made them difficult. So don't be worried or feel stupid if you find yourself asking simple questions like 'who's Alison?'". The second professor is significantly older, and seemingly a lot more rigid. He would say things like, "Poetry is difficult. I have graduate students who struggle with this stuff, so of course you would too. If you didn't, I don't deserve my pay cheque."

It's convenient that both profs have said similar things for me to compare. The first prof obviously has a better sense of the emotional response of human beings, and more specifically, that of students. The second clearly attempts humour to try to arouse comradery with the students, but who likes being told they're stupid?

But aside from the inherently condescending tone that the second prof dons, he has a second tactic to try to win our favour. He'll sometimes switch out of his professor register, and speak in words that aren't considered appropriate for an academic.

Like when he was lecturing on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. "A shrew is, in today's terms, a b*tch," he says, with much emphasis, seemingly deriving pleasure at being able to say such a naughty word in the classroom. "A b*tch," he repeats, for dramatic effect, or for himself?

Of course, there really isn't such a thing as a register police. Although if he starts saying religiously offensive things, I'm sure committees will soon have his head. But personally, I feel that there's a limit to what a professor is able to say, especially in the classroom. If a student were speaking with the professor individually, I don't have any qualms about him breaking things down into such base terms. But a lecture is different. A level of professionalism and decency is expected.

I suppose one good thing about having such profs is that I can learn (by contrast) how to be a good prof, or at the very least, to be an inoffensive one.

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