An interview with Chris Cummins

Chris Cummins is the course organiser for LEL 1A and also teaches Statistics and Experimental Design, Psycholinguistics, and Pragmatics.

What are you up to at the moment?

Portrait of Christopher Cummins
Christopher Cummins

I was just going to read the LEL1A midterm essays. It’s a stylistically interesting mix: some people have decided to jump right into things, while others have decided to position their answers to the question in a broader context, sometimes an extremely broad context, the whole of linguistics in some cases.

There’s one I’ve seen that presents everything in the form of a Socratic dialogue.  I haven’t looked at it properly, but I’d be interested in knowing what the tutor makes of it.  I mean, it’s a dialogue between the student and the tutor, who is named.  I don’t know if they know that the tutor is going to be marking it.  

What’s your opinion on cute essays?

Well… I guess in this context I quite like the fact there’s some kind of break from monotony.  But I think it is… how can I put this nicely?   It’s a difficult genre to master.  There’s going to be quite a high ratio of misfires to successful essays if you’re writing that way.  And it really invites the marker to form a subjective judgment that might have little to do with the actual content.  I’ve moderated a couple that were unusual in style in various ways and a couple of them, as I recall, the markers liked, and a couple, the markers really didn’t like.  It’s an academic judgment: is this too wild, too left-field to function as an answer to this particular prompt?

We’re training them to produce academic prose and, in a way, they’re throwing out one of their chances at it.

Yes, in essence.  The expectations set out for this particular essay are rather nonspecific in terms of its style.  But I’m not expecting any kind of literary pyrotechnics.

Are literary pyrotechnics ever appropriate to an academic essay?

I guess they could be. I don’t know what your take is on what constitutes something that’s well-written.  I think you could come up with a sort of sense of well-written that means something adheres to the conventions of academic writing.  And I suppose the dictum about “you can only break the rules if you first master the rules” applies.  I would be a bit concerned if someone was constantly producing pieces of work that deviated from the expected format in lots of ways, especially when there might be fairly explicit guidance that something a little more conventional is required.  

At the same time, I do like the idea that people would then put some thought into how they are conveying ideas in addition to what their ideas actually are.  I do think that linguistic writing at the professional level is often quite disappointing in that regard.  I’ve read quite a few books that left me surprised by the fact that people who love language enough to want to devote their life to it nevertheless produce really dry, unreadable prose.  Anyone who wasn’t tremendously engaged in the questions wouldn’t keep turning the pages.

Are there any linguists who break with that?

I thought you would ask!  The name that comes to mind is Gumperz, although his work is nowhere near my area.  But I remember reading his work and thinking this is actually really engaging in its own terms.  

When I’ve been reading across topics in linguistics, sometimes I’ve found the work interesting but the way it was communicated was a little less stimulating.  And sometimes the way it was communicated was pleasing but the work itself seemed a bit shallow.  A few times it comes together.  

Looking at that shelf there I see Anne Cutler’s Native Listening.  I remember enjoying that as a read.  And Levelt’s History of Psycholinguistics, I thought, was terrific.  It’s a really imposing book, and it covers a lot of material that could be dry in the wrong hands.  I was really impressed with what he did with that.  There are definitely exceptions.  

It is not necessary to be an exception to make a living at it, which is a little bit worrying.  There is a realm of books out there whose content I probably would have found tremendously stimulating and exciting and important, but which I just never got through because I just couldn’t assimilate their content.  I couldn’t cite specific examples.  I’d better not, anyhow.

If it’s not stylistic excellence that will get a student’s work to the distinction level, then what will?

In terms of content, I guess it’s a command of the subject matter and some evidence of individual original thought that goes beyond what we’d expect at that particular stage or level.  In terms of style, I guess it’s nice when the style supports that. It’s nice to have those original thoughts signposted, so that you know when somebody is stating agreed and established facts, when they’re making claims that are already abundantly backed up, and when they’re speculating or making claims that are more like directions for future work.  So I guess that sense of knowing that people are in command of not only the material but also the status it all has relative to the field in general.

So the academic discussion instead of just the subject matter itself.

Yes, I think that’s definitely a plus.  I suppose that the typical distinction-level essay doesn’t necessarily have a noticeable style, but still strikes you as nice to read. There are good points and it’s clearly written and readable, and it demonstrates that some care has been taken with putting the thoughts in the correct order.  Rather than just collecting information, they’re curating it and arranging it and making sense of it. Nothing special; nothing fancy.  The examples that are special or fancy in some way are probably a bit rarer.

I suppose there are many pitfalls, but is there anything that you see over and over again?

I think that people start out overwriting in some sense.  Trying a little too hard to reach a kind of style or register that they think is appropriate to the subject matter.  Trying to write in a sort of overly intellectualised way.

What would that sound like?

I feel I’m being a bit of a hypocrite, because I’m probably producing unnecessary relative clauses and marked non-standard syntactic constructions right now, just trying to put these thoughts in order.  But when people are unnecessarily indirect in their syntax.  When they use a big word when a small word would do.  Worse, they use a big word that has a slightly different sense than what they appear to mean by it.  You don’t need to impress me with how you’re expressing this thought; just express the thought.  Is that something that speaks to you?

Entirely.  There are plenty of difficulties inherent to the subject matter.  There’s no need to add to the difficulty by showering it with complex expressions.

Yeah, I think that’s a very good way of thinking about it, actually.  I suppose that’s the thing.  You could spend your time either understanding this idea properly or trying to think new thoughts, and then get those ideas down on paper in some way that’s comprehensible to a reader.  That’s good.  Or you could say, well, I’m not going to think about it any more; I’m now going to just dress this thought up in the most elaborate costume I can find for it.  That’s not so good.

Did you enjoy writing when you were a student?

I did, yes.  It’s difficult to reconstruct how I felt about it as an undergraduate – immediately after that, I worked for a couple of years as a technical writer for a software company.  And that is a very unstylish writing genre.  But practical.  And that was a really useful experience to me in terms of helping me write subsequently in a professional capacity.  

And I’ve always enjoyed creative writing.  I still do.  But I suppose there’s something of a distinction.  In academic work, I feel myself trying not to overdo it, trying not to let the style detract from the content.  If I’ve got something to say, I’d like to put that out there as frankly and directly as possible.

Did you ever get any particular advice that made a difference in how you write academic prose?

I think not in linguistics so much as during my time as a maths undergraduate.  I was told to write more concisely, and there I really do mean concisely.  You know, don’t use a sentence if a formula will do.  I think that’s probably not advice that we would give.  We’re not usually saying “don’t bother with paragraphs; just produce a list of bullet points”.  Although sometimes that’s appropriate, in the context of a presentation for instance.  A lot of people put too much content on their PowerPoint slides at first.  But you don’t want to read out the entire content of your slide; you’re trying to work with it in some way.  I suppose that thinking in terms of brevity then is useful.  You’re looking not so much for the thing that expresses what you’re going to say, but the thing that triggers the thought that you want the audience to have.

Are there any processes or rituals that you follow when writing?  Is there something you do to make it all easier to get through?

Not really.  I write a lot, but I spend a lot of my time when not writing thinking “I really need to get on with that”.  And when I do write I end up trying to do too much in one go.  If I need to write 10,000 words over the course of the next two weeks, I’ll end up writing it in the first three days, and then staring at it to see if I can change anything.  And then giving up after about five days and submitting it.  

I’d like to be more even-paced and take a little bit less out of myself when I write, I think, but I don’t have any good advice on how to do that.  I either find that it’s not happening at all, in which case I just need to go away and do something else and come back at a more propitious moment to see if I can put some words down then, or it’s going sufficiently well that I don’t want to stop, even to sleep.

Do you think students are making mistakes in how they go about trying to write?

I think people are intimidated by word count in a way they shouldn’t be.  They think that some number of words is a lot, when actually, by the time you’ve set up what you’re going to say, attempted to say it and brought the thing to a close, you consume surprisingly many words.  Words get spent very easily.  I think it’s much harder to keep to the length when writing on a particular topic than to use it up.

I had a first-year student last year who, having been set a fairly open question, produced a first draft of about 5,000 words, and was told to cut it down to 1,500, but came back with about 3,000 and said “I’m sorry, but I can’t take any more out of it.  It is what it is.”  And I sympathise with that, because I’ve spent a lot of time in my professional life taking more and more words out of my writing, trying to reduce a 7,000 word paper to 3,000 words, because short papers in a particular journal have to be that length, or trying to distil down a really very brief 2,000-word experimental report to 1,100 words so it will fit in this tiny little submission. So I think people underestimate how easy it is to write something that fits the bill in terms of its superficial properties like having enough words or being on the right topic or, indeed, disclosing some kind of useful understanding.  

The technical writing experience helped me, because when something has to be out on a particular schedule, there are limits on how good it can be, and you can’t always wait until it’s as good as you’d like it to be.  “Can we have another week?”  Well, no. The product is shipping now, and it needs this manual with it.  People sometimes idealise, and say “this isn’t good enough” or “this isn’t as good as it could be”.  Well it’s never as good as it could be.  Nothing is.