Labor Relations Prose:
Victim of Imperatives
ROBERT E. DOHERTY
THOSE who have studied
the literary outpourings of industrial and labor relations specialists
have probably come away with the notion that our "field" is
in a bad way. There are reasons why this should be so, and they cannot
all be attributed to the low quality of the people who publish in this
subdiscipline, although that is no doubt a contributing factor. In many
instances the reason for our bad reputation can be found in the requirements
laid down by our chief gurus.
The first of these is
that the methodology used and the accompanying data-gathering*
procedure are deemed to be vastly more important than the subject under
discussion. Now designing methodologies is an enervating activity. It
taxes the creative urge and dulls our aesthetic sensibilities, causing
us to approach the actual writing of our manuscript in a state of exhaustion.
Second, all articles and books must begin
with the author pointing out the errors of commission and omission made
by those who have gone before. There has, in fact, been an uninterrupted
sequence of putdowns on studies dealing with the impact of technology
on job satisfaction dating from Professor Joel Rugmantle's recent article
in Industrial Relations Quarterly all the way back to an obscure
piece by Erasmus. It is understandable, then, that we find in journal
articles opening sentences such as: ‘The literature on labor turnover
abounds with faulty regression analysis,' or ‘Many researchers on strike
propensities have tended to neglect...' This, too, is a taxing business.
There are not many good ways remaining to ridicule the competition. We
come to the second paragraph, our creativity spent, just too tired to
be concerned about the niceties of grammar, style, syntax, even spelling.
A third reason for a general slovenliness
of style can be found in the requirement that our work be highly quantitative.
The longer and more complex the mathematical equations and the fewer words
a manuscript contains, the better its chance of publication. Professor
Philander Cadwallader's recent article in Labor and Personnel Relations,
for example, had only 11 words in its 26 pages. We prize such scholarship,
but this format does not, one must admit, give authors much opportunity
to sharpen their literary skills.
Finally, no editor would accept an article
that did not contain certain key phrases. All arguments must have a "central
thrust," if they are intended to be taken seriously, and it is required
that an alternative be preceded by "viable," lest the reader
think we did not really have an alternative in mind after all. Since 1975
editors have demanded a liberal sprinkling of "interface" (used
both as noun and verb), and rejection is assured should an author write
"at this point" or "at this time" rather than the
required "at this point in time." It is good to have these words
and phrases at the ready; it is easier to use them than it is to think
up expressions all by ourselves. Their frequent use does produce a certain
sameness in our prose, however, and I can understand why some should object.
It is for these reasons that I urge readers
outside the fraternity to exercise patience and, if the spirit moves them,
a modicum of charity.
Robert Doherty is Associate Dean of the
New York State School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University,
and what we want to know is how come other schools have literate, widely
published scholars as administrators?
DARK SUSPICIONS arise
as we read more and more of the writing that comes†
from the teacher-training specialists. And why not? Who is teaching teaching
to those teachers who can't seem to teach much reading or writing? All
those jargon-besotted administrators--where did they learn how to write
that stuff? Someday we'll explore such questions, but for now let's warm
up on this excerpt from the works of Jan Weaver, the Dean of Professional
One of the problems in official matriculation
occurs because after the Advisors and Dean have recommended admission
and a letter offering the candidate admission to the program has been
sent by the Office of Admissions, the candidate must pay appropriate
fees and have a paid receipt before they are completely admitted. In
assisting Graduate Program Advisors recently, I have discovered that
the Advisors are not aware that the individual student has not, for
some reason, paid the appropriate admission fee and that is the reason
why the student's name is not on the list. Therefore, if you have contact
with the student, you might wish to ask whether or not they have paid
all fees and returned their letter of admission to the Office of Admissions.
Let's start with elementary things--stuff
we used to teach in the lower grades before we learned all about life-adjustment
and that we had to chew blubber in order to interrelate with the Eskimo
experience. In the first sentence we find a missing comma, one failure
of pronoun agreement, and one mildly amusing redundancy in "paid
receipt." In the second sentence we see a curious malfunction of
the perfect tense, the absurdity of "the individual student,"
as though to distinguish him from some collective student, and another
redundancy familiar to all teachers of freshman composition, "the
reason why." In the third sentence there is another failure
of pronoun agreement, doubled this time in "they" and "their,"
and the nasty indelicacy of having "contact" with the student.
That's the easy part. Next we wonder how
that "official" matriculation is different from mere matriculation
and the "officially admitted" student from the student who is
merely admitted. What about those "appropriate" fees? Have some
rascally students taken to paying inappropriate fees just to trouble
their hapless Advisors?
From the garbled syntax of sentence two--this
is the hard part, so pay attention--it would seem that names are missing
from the list because the advisors don't know that the students
haven't paid. The writer must mean that the failure to pay, of which advisors
may be unaware, has kept some names off the list; but to say it clearly
and smoothly in English requires a writer who can manage pronouns and
We can do that. First
we delete the opening phrase; it's just padding, and it's because of that
"recently" that the following perfect verb sounds so weird.
Then we write:
I have discovered that Advisors [Why A?]
don't know that some students haven't paid and that that is why
their names aren't on the list.‡
Next we consider the most grievous faults--the
failures of agreement in which a candidate becomes they and a student
becomes they and returns their letter. How could such terrible
things happen in an official document from a high-ranking professional?
Ignorance? Impossible! Ignorance of simple grammar in a Dean of Professional
Studies would trouble past bearing our habitual assumption that teacher-training
is related to education. So forget ignorance--it must be something else.
Aha! How about this? What would be the correct
form after a singular antecedent? He, of course. Everybody knows
that. But wait! That's a rank sexist slur. How about he or she
or he/she? Still sexist--he comes first. Maybe she or
he or she/he? Sexist again, but the other way around. What
to do? The hell with it! Stick in they. After all, who's going
to read the thing? Just a bunch of graduate advisors (Advisors?), and
what do they know?
Ask a Stupid Question...
GLASSBORO has so many
low-ranking, junior administrators that it's hard to find them useful
work. We don't even try, in fact; we just find them things to play with.
George Wildman and Robert Harris are co-chairmen
of the Task Force on Recruitment, Retention, and Image. We don't know
how they produce their prose--whether by one as told to the other or by
taking turns word by word--but here's how it comes out:
In the first two sessions of the Task
Force, the group explored the task facing them. Discussion ensued during
these sessions concerning the goals and objectives to be accomplished.
The Committee began the task of gathering supporting data by virtue
of reports supplied by the offices of Admissions, Counseling, and the
Registrar. Considerable time was spent attempting to define terminology
as a basis for functioning, and much thought was given in an attempt
to identify some of the major concerns which the Task Force would be
facing in its work.
The first, second, and fourth sentences
of that paragraph say the same thing, although the fourth does
add that bit about defining "terminology [terms?] as a basis for
functioning." The third sentence actually has its own thing to say,
but only that they "began the task of gathering." Does that
mean that they began gathering or that they began getting ready to gather?
This sentence also uses "by virtue of" as though it meant "from."
Never ask a junior administrator to say something straight out. He'd rather
be knocked flat in an airport by O. J. Simpson. (Good idea.)
Since the combined salaries of the twenty
members of the Task Force must be more than half a million dollars a year
we're glad to report that their labor has had some results. As early as
their second meeting, they divided themselves into three "interest-area
subcommittees" (shouldn't that be sub-Task Forces or Task Forcelets?),
one each for Recruitment, Retention, and Image.
They did more. Each interest-area subcommittee
undertook to "define its term."
Now you would think that any fool could
define recruitment, retention, and even image, although
why that should be necessary is not clear. We have to guess that many
members of the Task Force were unacquainted with those words and needed
Discussion ensued by virtue of input, and
tasks were explored. Thought was given in an attempt, and time was spent
By the next meeting, each "interest-area"
subcommittee had defined "its term." Here's what they found--as
a basis for functioning:
the institution's philosophy and procedures by which we attempt to attract
students to continue their education . . .
retention: the ability of the college
to hold students who are pursuing a degree program (B.A., M.A., including
image: the reflection of reality
Post Office Box 203 Glassboro, NJ 08028
Published monthly, September to May
R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
and a cheery grammatical
to just about Everybody!
* Nobody has talked about "facts" or "information"
for at least fifty years. back
† A real professional
would say "emanates." Since "emanation" can correctly mean "the flowing
forth of effluvia," this may well be a case in which jargon beats judgment.
‡ Back in those dank dark ages of dismal drill and
monotonous rote learning, a sixth-grader could have told you that that
"that that" that that sentence contains is needed. (A new record. The
previous record was held for centuries by: He said that that "that" that
that dean had written was wrong.) Now that most of our mouths are gummed
up with blubber, even professional deans find two thats in row
just too much to manage. back