Whilst

Up to my (shall we say?) knees with marking and just want to consider one little word. Actually it’s a word that stands for a whole set of assumptions about academic writing. Whilst.

It reminds me of the Grandma who once, in the springtime of the world, came to pick up her grandchild from Nursery. The unfortunate dialogue went something like this:

Granny: Hurry up, Mikey, we need to go.
[Mikey continues to play]
Granny: If you don’t come soon your headteacher will smack you for being naughty.
[I don’t normally intervene and certainly not to contradict a carer but I wade in]
Me: I’m sorry, Mrs S, but we don’t ever smack children; please don’t give Mikey the idea that we do.
Granny: But I’m giving you permission to smack him. Insofar as you are in change in this establishment I am permitting you to exercise your rights in loco parentis.

Now, this isn’t about smacking or school-based discipline or home-school relationships, but voice. I can see what I did wrong there – but I still think Mikey needed to know I wasn’t going to hit him – but listen to Granny. She didn’t normally talk like this, but she changes gear massively with that Insofar. The awful phrase in loco parentis just adds to the sense that this person is claiming some kind of authority by sounding, well, as if they have some. My dreaded signal while (sorry: whilst) marking does the same. What it too often introduces – like Granny’s insofar – is a sort of strangled over-writing (I still feel much the same about the new(ish) translation of the Roman rite liturgy, if I’m honest, with its sub-Cranmerian verbosity but that is by-the-by).

When I see whilst I have to acknowledge that sometimes it does sounds better.   I suppose I could write “don’t use this:” after all, I do have a button in Grademark that just says “Avoid,” but whilst has so much hanging on it I feel I need to explain myself.  No-one (in my modules at least) will get marked down for just using whilst, or even (usually) for the occasional “you” or an odd lapse in references. My hunter instincts may be roused, but I will not routinely chase the hare. Does that metaphor work?

I could have called this blog post “please consider keeping your sentences shorter and more straightforward: you will be able to “lead your reader” more effectively if you make less use of phrases such as ‘through this research journal article  it has been discovered…'” but I don’t think it’s as catchy, even though I use that phrase (or similar) often enough when I give written feedback. What whilst says to me is “I’m drowning here: how the fuck do I make myself sound like the kind of people I’ve been reading?”

And that is a challenge that assignment feedback can hardly start on. How do we give the complex and sometimes mixed messages about how to join the writers’ club? What about the comment “missing apostrophe” or “italics not needed in Harvard”? How is a student to know where to start with all of this? Or, to make this personal, how do I take my chatty, ranty blog posts and change the voice to get an article from this idea or that?

Students, young writers be aware at least of this:

You are not joining us in an exercise of perfection, but in a struggle for clarity.

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