Tuesday, 3 March 2009

My Quarrel with the Use of Second Person

I have just finished reading a text excerpt from my Foundation Unit reader. It was on the subject of Hume and Quantum Mechanics. It was written in the second person.

Roughly, the article followed this kind of style.
"You are at university, sitting in the lecture room and listening to your philosophy professor talk about Hume, and you start to think about something that happened in your physics class."

Obviously that is not in any way a quote from the actual book, or else I would have had to reference it, shock horror. I probably have to anyway. The writer is Wesley C. Salmon. No I didn't make him up.

I have this to say to Mr. Salmon. I respect that you have tried to reach your audience in a new way, but you have annoyed me greatly. I DO NOT enjoy physics or even understand the concepts involved in studying physics. I am not reacting very kindly to your supposition that I would. It made me disengage with your text immediately.

In fact, the chapter reminded me of Choose your own adventure. Does anyone remember those? They used to be based on ideas like: You are a rockstar. I would be reading along and suddenly this would happen.

a) go out and buy all their albums to research because you have never heard of a band called Mick Jagger before (go to page 45)
b) make up some imaginary engagement to get out of it (go to page 67)
c) jump at the chance and beg for five minutes to fix your hair and make up (go to page 99)

I never had a problem with those really. They took up time and kept me out of mischief. But the other thing was they had to carefully keep the audience in mind. It seems to me that use of second person in academic writing is like academic writing for four year olds. It completely ignores the fact that while the sentences are simplistic and the narrative structure entertaining, the subject matter is far too complex for the average four year old. So what I am saying is, I start reading second person and immediately lose all ability to successfully comprehend academic text.

Face it people. Academic writing is supposed to be scary and difficult to read. There is no getting around it so stop trying.

By the way, thank you for the comments everyone. Yes, I am one of those difficult girls at university. STAR is doing my head in. I got Derrida for my Oral Presentation. Oh the joy I can be sure to look forward to.


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