Break The Cycle of List-Addiction (Or, Just Say No To Flabby Logic)

For some reason, a bunch of the manuscripts and job documents I’ve been dealing with this past week have shared one fatal flaw. The flaw is list-addiction. It’s the oddest thing. I hardly ever saw lists in client writing, and now I can’t open a file without tripping all over them.

I suspect that maybe excessive list-writing was there before but I just hadn’t yet learned to see it as the problem that it is.

The fact is, too many of you are addicted to lists in your writing. What does this look like? Well, something like this:

In sum, my dissertation uses interviews, surveys, textual analysis, and internet research in order to explore the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace on the social networks, family connections, and romantic relationships among a range of undergraduate students at large universities as well as small colleges, in order to analyze the differences in usage patterns by variables such as race, gender, sexuality, and age.”

Sigh…..

The list is the weakest, flabbiest, wimpiest, and most cowardly form of a scholarly argument. It is basically additive instead of analytical, and it simply piles on new variables instead of doing the work of winnowing and ordering them to make a clear, focused argument.

List-addiction is epidemic among young scholars who are trying to please everyone instead of fighting the good fight of declaring an argument and seeing it through to its singular conclusion.

If you find lists in your job documents, and this would include lists of methods, fields, variables, and in particular courses that you propose to teach, remove them immediately.

This one in particular: “I am prepared to teach any of the following courses on your course listing: ANTH 101, ANTH 102, ANTH 124, ANTH 125, ANTH 303, ANTH 364, ANTH 401, ANTH 402, and ANTH 499, as well as other courses as appropriate.”

Gheesh. Come on, people! Who wants to read a list of course numbers? (Do you think I’m making this example up? Oh, I assure you, I’m not.)

With lists like this, you sound like a grad student. Someone desperate who is trying to please everyone with no confidence in her own distinctive profile.

Some lists are necessary—sometimes you must list the texts you study, the methods you utilized, or the topics you cover.  The litmus test is not the appearance of a single list, but of a series of lists. If you have lists in every sentence (and beware the hypnotic overuse of the dyad as well), or almost every sentence of a paragraph, then that is list addiction.

A professional will, by contrast, take a single variable, method, field, or course, and demonstrate, with evidence, its centrality to her core research project and pedagogical vision. She will take a stand, and be prepared to defend it. And that courage of conviction—manifested in the choice of one thing as the best thing—is what makes a scholarly reputation, and incidentally, gets tenure track jobs.

 


Comments

Break The Cycle of List-Addiction (Or, Just Say No To Flabby Logic) — 14 Comments

  1. An interesting post and argument. I think that listing is probably so pervasive because many are taught it as a writing style from grade school on up. “Your first paragraph should list three things in a topic sentence. Subsequent paragraphs should examine each of those things in detail.” That is the basic tone of what I remember from English class on up with variations appropriate to academic level. So my question, is all listing bad? The ANTH 101, 201, 301 etc. example surely seems to be, but your concluding comment seems to leave open the door for having an introductory sentence that is list-oriented which then gets expanded upon in detail….or should we abolish all listing, and if so how does one convey a multi-part argument in a opening paragraph?

    • There are things that have to be listed, like, for example: “my work is interdisciplinary and draws from the methods and theory of xxx, yyy, and zzz.” The occasions that you want to say, “letter from my references xx, yy, and zzz will be arriving under separate cover” is another. Ie, generally in the “admistrative” side as opposed to the scholarly. For the matter of the dissertation description, for example, you can have one substantive list: “my project examines three populations of social media users—xxxx, yyyy, and zzzz– in order to examine the variables shaping their usage patterns,” and then move on to substantively explain the significance and findings of the three populations, and how their study leads to a conclusion. That is not a list of the type that I’m referring to, because it INCORPORATES these variables into an overarching analysis and argument. I hope the distinction is clear.

  2. but in defense of listing course numbers…it shows that the candidate has checked out the university catalog. Perhaps list the general name of the course and then in parentheses the institution’s course name and number? The latter strategy would show the candidate has done the requisite homework on the department and institution…

    • It is good to do research and show it; it is bad to blind the reader with an undifferentiated list of letters and numbers. You will want to refer to 1-2 courses, by name, that you would teach with perhaps a word or two about your approach. That does far more than a long list.

  3. Pingback: The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not really…) | The Professor Is In

  4. If a junior faculty taught a large number of undergraduate and graduate courses, should they not list them?

    In the last 4 years I taught 7 different undergraduate courses and 2 graduate courses.

  5. I’m having trouble seeing how
    “my project examines three populations of social media users—xxxx, yyyy, and zzzz– in order to examine the variables shaping their usage patterns,”
    is an improvement on:
    “my dissertation uses interviews, surveys, textual analysis, and internet research in order to explore the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace on the social networks, family connections, and romantic relationships among a range of undergraduate students at large universities as well as small colleges, in order to analyze the differences in usage patterns by variables such as race, gender, sexuality, and age.”
    Not only is the former repetitious (the word “examine” appears twice, as does user/usage), it takes out all of the specifics. I get that listing can sound desperate when it comes to potential course, but I’m just not sure how this person could have efficiently summarized the multiple methods, objects, and variables of their a research project without using lists.

    • The larger issue o list addiction is very real. People fall into an unconscious habit of listing, listing, listing, sentence after sentence, para after para, listing in every sentence, sometimes putting multiple lists into single sentences as well.

      Listing the facts of an issue—a set of methods, a set of texts, a set of courses—is not the problem. it’s the epidemic unconscious writing tic among academics that if one thing is good, three is surely better. The dyad is a particularly common form of this, but endless dyads are rarely seen in isolation, but usually interspersed with lists of 3-5 elements throughout the document, as well.

  6. Pingback: List Addiction, Cont’d: The Dyad | The Professor Is In

  7. Pingback: Gerund Addiction and Word Repetition–Two More Scourges | The Professor Is In

  8. “The list is the weakest, flabbiest, wimpiest, and most cowardly form of a scholarly argument.”

    …is meant to be ironic, right?

    “The list is the wimpiest form of argument.” You’re right, that *is* better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>