Impress vs Express

In a recent blog post by Sachal Afraz which he titled “The trouble with academia: Write to impress or write to express?” he questions the academic paradigm.  He notes how “We are teaching university students that the language they use must consist of ‘impressive’ vocabulary and sentences must have academic syntax. The result is a fake, pretentious manner of prose that the author constructs to appease teachers and hit the word-limit while sounding ‘academic’. “  His discussion reminds me of our class discussion of “standard English” and my own experience in academia.  I remember my college freshman year when I had to write my first English paper, I would often use the thesaurus in order to replace words I thought to be “high school” words with bigger words that I thought to be “college” words.  This created more stress for me and restricted me from expressing my true thoughts.

Afraz also notes that “Compulsive use of difficult vocabulary is compared to the young actor who overacts just to show off his entire range of expressions.”  There have been many academic articles that I have read through the years that used complex and difficult “standard English.”  Thinking back, it feels as though their purpose was more to impress than express, as Afraz notes.

Afraz also points to a TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson where he suggests that the current academic paradigm is outdated.  Sir Robinson notes that the current academic system is industrially based and that it follows a factory model (ringing bells, separate facilities, specialization, etc).  He states that the current academic follow is an economic platform and is not suitable for this age, because the economic future is uncertain. He notes that it used to follow that if you work hard and go to college and graduate, you will get a good job.  But this is no longer the case as jobs are no longer guaranteed after college.   He suggests that we must focus on divergent thinking, which is kind of like thinking outside the box.  He mentions a study where a group of kids were tested on their ability to think divergently.  The study first tested them when they were in kindergarten and found that 98% of them would be considered “geniuses” and as they got older, that percentage got lower and lower.

I believe as future educators, we must follow the advice of Sir Robinson and Afraz.  When teaching, we must allow and encourage our students to think divergently.  When they write, we must deemphasize their need to impress, but allow them to express their own ideas in their own ways.



by | October 22, 2012 · 5:26 pm

3 responses to “Impress vs Express

  1. jorgegarciae

    I’ve seen that TED talk and always found it a reasonably impressive talk, but a critique a Professor I had last semester stuck with me, and it realities to the idea that “it used to follow that if you work hard and go to college and graduate, you will get a good job.”
    The problem here, basically, is that it treats as a given that the world is the way it is, rather than it is the way it is because of policy and political choices. For those who were given access to college in the 50’s-70’s, jobs were guaranteed partly because some people were kept out of college and partly because society was committed to having jobs available for those people. When others (minorities, women) demanded equal treatment, the policy response was to no longer do this. The factory model of education is problematic, but it is not the only model, and it is not a model that is experienced in equal measure by various sectors of society.
    This ties into the larger issue of “using academic language.” Academia is obviously a valued and to some extent powerful discourse, and a student who seeks to use its words is seeking to sound like an insider *because* that discourse is a discourse of power and respect. Part of the issue then is that the home discourses of the student, their “natural way” of speaking and writing are not valued in academic discourse even while those ways of speaking and writing are valuable.


    I’m sure we all have read a paper by a fellow classmate or friend that was overly wordy, as if that somehow made the paper better. I think most of us college students (especially English majors) realize that there are certain “big” words that actually do have a unique meaning and may fit the context better than a simpler word, while there are others that are meant for mere ostentatious display (how’s that for a “big” word?). However, I would always rather see a student–especially a middle or high school student–strive to use show-off words than just settle for whatever vocabulary first comes to their mind. I would also point out that different words help the flow of a written text, depending on whether they sound well placed together or have a good rhythm. I do agree with the overall point of this article, though: the most valuable thing we can teach students is how to express themselves properly. Teaching them how to use vocabulary to express themselves will not only help them with their writing, but in their articulation as well. Even if a student graduates high school without ever writing another paper in his or her life, teaching students how to formulate coherent and well-formed sentences will help them in many future situations, whether it be a job interview, a legal battle, or in sending professional emails and letters, or just in winning an argument with a friend or family member!

    I certainly agree that college is being pushed on high school students too hard. You know why? College is a HUGE industry. A lot of people have a lot of jobs and make a lot of money off of college kids. These college kids then graduate with a massive amount of debt and no idea what to do with their degree in, say, Ancient Egyptology.

    I think the most important thing as a teacher is to emphasize that there are different sorts of intelligences. There are people that are academically intelligent, there are people that are emotionally intelligent, there are people that are artistically intelligent, there are people that are manually intelligent (as in, they can build, create and fix things) and there are people who are athletically intelligent. I would encourage any student to capitalize on his or her natural talents, and sometimes the best way to do that is to NOT go to college, IMHO!

  3. I feel the “impressive language” is something I enjoy using. I don’t enjoy it for the simple fact that I may receive kudos or acknowledgement for the array of “fancy” words I’ve ascertained over the years. I use them because it makes me feel good to know that I have learned a word and the way in which to use it, and being able to prevent myself from using words that can be viewed as repetitious in a paper. I can understand that if one does focus too much on the vocabulary of a paper the focus of one’s thoughts can go astray. Yet each person is not the same so who is to say if the person is merely trying to woo another as oppose to doing what is considered normal to them.

    Despite the uncertainty of the future I think it is important to obtain new words regularly so that one won’t be looked at as using a word to impress another rather than just someone having the ability to say how they feel they way they want to.

    I do think that what Sir Robinson and Afraz stated has great significance, and being able to express yourself is crucial but what if part of expressing one’s self is utilizing unordinary words or substituting a word like flirt for coy? As long as the choice of word is not problematic to all when constructing a paper why should the “impressive” approach be deemphasized? I think the standard does and will vary from person to person.

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