The Pedant’s Stance

The writer who assumes that it is enough merely to write an exposition of what he happens to know on the subject will produce the kind of essay that soils our scholarly journals, written not for readers but for bibliographies.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

Today we might say such articles are written “not for readers but for citation indexes.” As far as the writing goes, the point is the same. The imperatives of academic publication too often set up a barrier between the writer and the reader. In our determination to get our work past our editors and reviewers, we forget that good writing primarily has to get through to our readers. Fortunately, the problem can be solved quite locally. You don’t have to reform the entire journal system (though, by all means, please do!); you just have to insist on writing for a reader you respect. Yes, you also have to please your editors and your reviewers, but there’s no reason to let them force you to write badly.

The pedant’s stance, Booth explains, “springs from ignoring the audience or overreliance on the pure subject.” In fact, it sometimes stems from the writer’s outright resentment of the reader — such as when students fixate on the (undeniable) fact that their reader is their teacher. Booth reminisces about a student whose style he describes as “sneering”.

What he is saying is something like “you ask for a meaningless paper, I give you a meaningless paper.” He knows that he has no audience except me. He knows that I don’t want to read his summary of family relations in Utopia, and he knows that I know that he therefore has no rhetorical purpose. Because he has not been led to see a question which he considers worth answering, or an audience that could possibly care one way or the other, the paper is worse than no paper at all, even though it has no grammatical or spelling errors and is organized right down the line, one, two, three.

This also happens in the journal literature, when writers direct their sneering at their editors or the infamous Reviewer 2. A good editor, when such a paper comes across their desk, would immediately reject this tone and send the paper back to the author for revision. I think it’s a misplaced sense of fairness that gets such papers through, and which also sometimes gives students better grades than they deserve. Teachers and editors simply empathize too much with the writer’s resentment of the conditions they’ve been given: “He knows that he has no audience except me. He knows that I don’t want to read his summary…”

But they should realize that this is irrelevant. An editor is reading on behalf of the journal’s readers, a teacher is reading on behalf of the other students. They are representing the writer’s peers and they’re trying to determine whether the paper provides an occasion for dialogue between them. The teacher’s and the editor’s boredom with their own job is entirely beside the point — except of course in that it stems from the the same misunderstanding, the same un-rhetorical stance. They, too, could enjoy it more.

The pedant’s mistake is to imagine a reader that comes to the text with no knowledge of the subject and holds no opinions of their own about it. Instead of imagining a reader who has read Utopia themselves and come to their own conclusions, they’re trying to spare the reader the trouble of reading Utopia. (As Booth points out, the pedant resents having been forced to read it in the first place.) Note that this means the pedant does not grant the reader a rhetorical footing of their own. There is no ring in which to spar, no floor on which to dance. The writer fails to take up a critical posture and doesn’t grant the reader the ground on which to take one. And this is why pedants are so universally disliked (even at university): their arrogant air corresponds exactly to the embarrassment you expose them to when you challenge their claims (about the family relations in Utopia, for example). They simply don’t expect criticism, they don’t expect to be challenged. When you do, they take it as a kind of effrontery. They’re insulted.

All of this is actually visible, even audible, on the surface of a pedant’s text. A pedantic text has a recognizable voice that indicates an audience that is to sit silently and receive instruction. (The root meaning of pedant is “schoolmaster”.) Indeed, to call it a “stance” is already to give it too much credit, since it is barely standing itself (and certainly expects the audience to remain seated). It is often leaning … hunched over a lectern. It might be better to call it the pedant’s drone, and it goes on for 45 minutes and then allows five or ten minutes of polite questions. Any attempt to engage with it will be politely deflected and then avoided at the drinks reception afterwards. I’m sure I seem a little too experienced in these matters, but I hope we can agree that your papers should not, in any case, conjure up this image!

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