[Happy 200th post!]
Let me get this out of the way first: I like Chris Blattman. He’s a political science and economics professor at Yale, and I like his writings on economic development and public policy. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to name a post on his blog that I disliked. ‘Recently’ happened when Chris wrote “Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers,” a post that left a sour taste in my mouth.
Some of the priggish rules that he would like you to follow:
- Use proper greetings
- Capitalize and punctuate
- But not too many exclamation points
- No emoticons
- No fancy typefaces or stationery
- Be demure if you ask something
- No quotes from famous people in your signature
I won’t argue that those rules aren’t practically helpful (mostly as a signaling mechanism), but I would like to see them slowly fade away and die without anyone turning their head. Please – don’t promote them! Geez. (And what the hell, man? Be fancy and archaic, but don’t use fancy typefaces because then, you know, you’re trying too much? Come on.)
The academic stereotype is of an all-knowing, somewhat egotistical white man in an ivory tower, but the academics that people respect are the ones who spurn that image. They’re the ones that are funny and talk like everyone else. The ones that you would want to have a beer with. The ones that use emoticons. The shining stars in academia are those researchers who are pushing boundaries and discovering new knowledge. How is it that people on the cutting edge of their field have trouble leaving behind archaisms?
So people stuck in the past, get with the times. The times are informal and are focused on getting your point across, not on figuring out whether to put your period inside or outside of your quotation marks. Language and grammar change. Go with those changes. (Or do you still use “thine” as a second-person singular genitive?)
I find economics to be pretty straightforward and I certainly understand signaling. (In this case, following writing rules signals that you know the rules that well-educated people should know.) But in terms of communication, tell me for example why it’s important to capitalize the first letter of every sentence? (And don’t tell me that it makes it easier to identify the start of a new sentence. I doubt that non-capitalizers like my nineteen-year-old brother have trouble figuring out where sentences start and end.)
Separately, Chris’s commenter Nicole has a reasonable point as well. Professors are paid by their students (indirectly) to teach them, which includes their being helpful and responsive. If a student has a valid question, respond to it – even if the student has a quote from a famous person in his signature. Be approachable, not pedantic.
Okay, deep breath.
Chris, don’t hate me. You’re a smart guy and I love the random stuff you dig up online. Keep posting awesome things about the marathon and electoral rigging, Post more cool maps and continue being a reasonable voice somewhere between Jeff Sachs (thumbs down) and Bill Easterly (thumbs up!). Chris Blattman, I like you. Now quit being so proper.
*I’m not advocating that people ignore Blattman’s rules in all contexts. For example, I’d rather not see an emoticon in a JAMA paper but I don’t mind seeing one in a text or email. When things change, follow. When they don’t, well… follow.
posted by jay