documenting the war on passivesTo make a long story short, I am teaching a class in dissertation writing for international students. They bring me projects representing years of work, and they need help with the language required by their disciplines to get a dissertation accepted and passed. Sometimes their advisor tells them, "Using words like I, me, we, our, etc. is the mark of an inexperienced writer." One would think this is an injunction to use the passive, but there are actually several ways to deal with this command.
Other departments scorn the passive, or at least tolerate active constructions like "I will show that..." or "We found that..." In fact it could be said that there is a wide variety of dissertations being accepted at this university today, and essentially a wide variety of commands being given to internationals and others writing dissertations, so that you have to tease out of the dissertation writer what is expected, before you can reasonably assume that you are giving him/her good advice. As a dissertation proofreader I find myself knowing several grammatical ways of talking about what happened in a project, but not necessarily knowing which will fly within the department or, at a wider level, which will sound good in the field. The social sciences are the home of the war on passives, which basically overhauled the traditional paradigm and replaced what could be termed as expectation to use the passive with scorn for the passive; international students are in essence caught between. They don't know what Microsoft Word means when it encourages them to avoid passive in favor of active; they also don't know what an advisor means when he/she says to "never use I"...
We asked our students to provide model dissertations, and then we read them carefully. Most were accepted by Texas Tech in the last ten years. Not all had perfect grammar; in fact, a wide variety of grammatical mistakes were tolerated and in some cases, it was clear that grammar wasn't important at all, in comparison to the ideas or the study itself. The dissertation, though, is important; it represents a scholar's arrival in the field, the cornerstone of his/her expertise, authority, and reputation in the field, and it lasts forever as an ongoing record of scholarship and work.
My wife is a full professor in sociology, and maintains that the war on passives dates back to the 90's and has its roots in feminist theory. How can you remove the agent or the one who saw or did the action, when that agent will so clearly color the results? To her it was incredible that a professor who called herself feminist could still tell students to remove I from all writing, since it contradicted an ideology that insisted on taking responsibility and noticing the actor who found, collected, studied the data. Remember that it was tradition, the advice of the elders, to remove I, we, etc., from this kind of writing. Throughout various departments, tradition was maintained even as the content of studies became rigorously more modern, up-to-date, and radical. The professor in question had simply passed on traditional academic advice to writers, not questioning whether this advice might also change along with the adoption of modern ideologies and their integration into academia.
One can avoid I, we, our, my, etc. and still avoid the passive, which one's computer is now reminding us is archaic, undesirable. One does that by animating ideas, studies, and projects. This research concludes...This study found...This data show...etc. It's hard to tell whether modern language has made this kind of construction necessary, right, or even more common. Does anyone else cringe when studies become able to do such things? This kind of construction results, often, when the writer has acquired both the distaste for the passive (encouraged by Word grammar-check) and the traditional injunction against using the personal pronouns. Does this mean the formal academic writing now requires a certain detachment from reality, in the sense that you have to let inanimate actors do the work that they shouldn't do, or take on life that they don't have? I intend to find out.
My wife says another thing, however, that I found interesting. She said, it's not the dissertations that matter, since virtually anything can be accepted by a committee, and much of it is not read very widely outside of that committee. It's the journals that matter, and what they require. It's the journals that you should read, because they are setting the standards, and defining academic language as it is. Training to be a PhD student is essentially training to write and express oneself in a discipline, and if this process is not up to a standard, the newly-minted Doctor, who goes off to be a professor somewhere, may never publish again. My internationals are protected from this sad fate, mainly by being so good in what they do that they get a lot of help in the other areas, until they truly understand how to publish and keep publishing. It's interesting, and it's what keeps diversity in our world.