My last twenty-hour yoga teacher training weekend intensive featured a full day of anatomy lessons. It was great! Jesse Enright came, with a bag full of variously sized bones and skeletons, and some other props, and we all worked on learning some of the technical terms for bones and how they move.
We stood up and practiced a kind of anatomy-dork “Simon says”: flex your left shoulder! pronate your right wrist! extend your right knee! invert your right foot! both feet dorsiflexion! adduct your left forearm! It was embodied pedagogy of the best kind.
But here’s what knocked my socks off: you know that what we call ‘the hip socket’ is just the colloquial term? The joint in question is referred to, medically, as the “acetabulum.” All the bones have Latin names. It’s all very precise and sciency and much more objective and important and learned than our analogic or metaphoric terms like “knee cap” or “collar bone” or “shoulder socket.” Doctors and scientists use the real words, the science words, right?
You know what “acetabulum” means, in Latin?
It means “small vinegar bowl.” Because the joint looks, to a vinegar-bowl-using anatomist who devised the term, like a a small vinegar bowl.
There’s another bone, inside the whole shoulder apparatus, a little knobby pointy thing. It’s called the “coracoid process”. Want to know what that is in English? “Like a raven’s beak.” See?
As a culture, we’re so very quick to draw hard lines between objective, scientific domains and squishy, subjective humanities domains. Even those of us who might decry the hierarchy this creates sometime even forget that this is a forced and ideological distinction in many ways. This is disingenuous. Anatomy is metaphorical, and, as my teacher suggests, speculative.
Speculative? Yes. Did you know that until a couple of months ago, humans only had four ligaments in our knees, but now we have five? Yeah. I’m going to guess that fifth ligament was there the whole time, but anatomists and doctors and other scientists just learned not to see it because they were told there was nothing there. Hm.
I’m going to let you assemble your own conclusion from this. Maybe it’s about how becoming a student in a new domain of knowledge can really add zip to your day job. Maybe it’s about the inevitability of metaphoric thinking. Maybe it’s about how jargon serves sometimes to clarify, but often to mark the boundaries of a community of knowledge and exclude outsiders. And maybe it’s about how sometimes the stories we tell ourselves turn out to be really wrong, and yet somehow persist in the face of a million knee surgeries that might daily correct the record. Maybe it’s about why we’re so invested in the difference between objective and subjective even when this distinction keeps collapsing in on itself. Huh.
Copyeditors. I love them. Actually, I love all editors who engage in a sustained way with my writing (so that leaves you out, rejection editors!). I guess I have to admit I even like peer reviewers too. (But only the ones that accept, or at least revise-and-resubmit
me my work.)
As you know, I hate writing. Writing is the means by which I discover what I am thinking, and thus the type-laden screen is the medium wherein I almost immediately thereafter come to see that most of those ideas are half-baked, malformed, inadequate, too scary, derivative, under-theorized, over-theorized, too jokey, or just garden-variety awful. Naturally, I seek to avoid this. However, the writing eventually must and does get done, little by little, day by day, until either a requisitioning editor or a fed-up husband demands that it must be sent off. For review.
Why I love peer reviewers: they catch my errors of thinking, of reading, of citation, of methodology. This is invaluable. On those occasions where I think their suggestions are wrong, my writing and thinking get sharper in the act of defending my own stance. Usually they’re right: I’ve been immoderate here, slap-dash there, pulled a punch on my main point, hidden my conclusion in the middle of the third-to-last paragraph, not stated my Big Idea loud enough or soon enough. It might seem paradoxical, but knowing that reviewers are going to catch most issues of substance makes it easier for me to first put .docx file to email attachment: if my deepest fear is that my inadequacies as a writer and thinker will be exposed to the world, it is in fact reassuring to know that two or three people stand at the edge of the precipice, ready to arrest my hurtling dash over the side. They only sometimes seem to stick their feet out to hasten my flight to oblivion, and sometimes … they’re right.
Why I love editors: they allow me to turn writing into a conversation. I’m revising a big, mainstream, legacy writing handbook, with the mandate to liven up the tone and to bring the research and writing sections into the Internet age. My managing editor answers all my questions about why something needs to be there twice, or if I dare to end a sentence with a preposition at. She catches my booboos (and rampant informality). I don’t feel alone, because she not only demands that my drafts appear with regular frequency, but also indulges me in author-editor conversation. This boosts my confidence immeasurably: she’d tell me I’m a total doofus well before I get all 500 pages done, right? RIGHT???
Why I love copy-editors: they see the verbal tics I don’t realize I have; they find the ideal writer-me in the dross of my overworked prose. That is, they clean up my writing of repetitions of phrasing, idea, grammar, and more. That is, they save me from the blindness I have around my own writing, as a practice of setting particular words on a page in a particular order. (See what I did there? Can you guess my tic?). Just tonight I got a copy-edited version of an article back from an editor. It was gorgeous; it was all the copy-editor. Sentences deklunked! Tics softened! Ambiguities eliminated! He probably made 40 small interventions in an MS of 8000 words. I accepted every damn one of them. Thank God: I like this new version so much better, even though it still sounds completely like me. Only without so many semicolons, and without so very many ‘that is’.
All writing is collaborative, even our sole-authored projects. I would be sunk without reviewers and editors. The genius in the garret without these supports is a rambling loon; with these supports, she is a published writer.
My grade 9 homeroom teacher, the fearsome Mr Uzwyshyn, taught me to eschew obfuscation. Actually, that’s not exactly true, because he taught me never to use a ten-dollar word where a ten-cent word would do.
(Also, he taught me to avoid cliche, so I should probably reword that last sentence.)
The point is: Mr Uzwyshyn, may he rest in peace, would have a stroke if he worked at the university today. And by “university” I mean mine and, I’m willing to wager, yours too.
For one thing, Mr Uzwyshyn did not believe in actioning things. In those days, we barely accessed things, and we certainly didn’t incentivize behavior. I cannot imagine what would he make of trending toward research constellations (a group of stars?) instead of hiding in our traditional silos. We did not blue-sky in grade nine homeroom. Low-hanging fruit was an insult, not an easy win. A win-win in Mr Uzwyshyn’s class meant explicitly not ramping it up, since taking things to the next level meant a visit to the principal’s office. (You can bet we hit the ground running.) He would not have understood the concept of synergy nor the constituency “stakeholders”; he was entirely uninterested in cultivating success on the bleeding or any other edge. His idea of competency was to teach us to speak in a way that did not cause anyone to shudder unpleasantly. That was, you might say, his vision and his mission.
Mr Uzwyshyn explicitly taught me to distrust the verb enhance. I can still hear him. He’d call one person up to his desk to read their essay aloud (sorry, Mr U, but non-sexist simplicity trumps noun-pronoun agreement) while the rest of us beavered away at grammar exercises on our own – yes, you read that right: no deliverables, just quiet grammatical work. In the midst of this silent toil, his impactful voice: “Say what you mean!,” he would boom at some luckless classmate. “How does the diction ‘enhance’ the meaning of the poem? Does it make the meaning clear? Say so! Does it make the poem stronger? How? Does it improve the quality of the writing? Demonstrate! Enhance is an empty word. Go back to your desk and rewrite your essay from the beginning!”
Good ole Mr Uzwyshyn. Never big on student engagement. But a helluva teacher.