Category Archives: academic protocols

“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

“Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

Reading extensively in an author’s works, or even with deep involvement reading a single work by an author, can lead us to feel an intimacy with the writer that is almost like a personal relationship, albeit one-sided in that only the reader is aware of the relationship. It’s also possible to fall in love with, or develop protective feelings for, a character in a literary work (again, one-sided—alas, if that character is Lord Peter Wimsey and the reader falls so deeply in love with him that no flesh-and-blood man can compete…). But even then, the reader does not begin referring to the writer, or the character, by nickname, in the case of the character, or first name, in the case of the author. In an earlier time, not even the characters called each other by first name: how late in Pride and Prejudice before Elizabeth Bennet permits herself to call the man she comes to love anything but “Mr. Darcy,” for instance?

Students, on the other hand, seem to get chummy very quickly with the characters and authors they read, blithely throwing protocols to the wind.  At its most extreme, this practice can blow a student to some pretty strange places. I once had a student who wrote that her favorite composer was a German gentleman called Bay Toven. (Evidently she knew of him only by way of her ear…) After the first sentence, she referred to him for the rest of the paper simply as “Bay”: “Bay could not hear his own music, being unfortunately deaf.” This was, remember, her favorite composer.

On a side note, I have to mention that some students don’t use any kind of name for their professors. In the last few years I have received many emails that begin simply “Hey.” I might not mind so much if they went on, “I just had to say THANX for that great class!” But they rarely do; usually it’s “I lost the syllabus, so could you send me another one?” or “I worked hard on that paper and think a C is too low of a grade.” Yeah, Hey.

But let’s get back to Phillis.

“Phillis” is Phillis Wheatley, a serious and delightful poet of the eighteenth century, the second published African American and first published African-American woman. Named Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa as a slave, and Wheatley for the family who bought her in Boston, she showed aptitude for classical languages and literature at an early age, talents the Wheatleys supported and helped to develop. She was freed at their death, but had never truly been treated as a slave while with their family; they had even traveled to England for her sake because they thought she had a better chance there of being recognized as a writer. My students expect protest poetry from her, but what they read instead is elegant verse in the forms and styles popular at the time, and expressions of gratitude for the life she lived.

The poem my student is referring to is one of the latter: “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises the good fortune that brought her to a land where she could become a Christian. The poem is lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose “racial” ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers. Here it is, although you can follow the link above and read it at The Poetry Foundation with links to more information:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Would you refer to her as “Phillis”?

Now, let’s get to my other problem with this sentence: the word “reverences.” Of course my student didn’t mean “reverences”—that is, “regard[s] or treat[s] with reverence,” “reverence” here meaning “honor or respect felt or shown” or “a gesture of respect, such as a bow.” He wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked him why he thought Phillis was bowing to Cain in line 7. But he had heard, on many an educated lip, “reverences” used in the way he uses it, meaning “refers to,” and he wanted to use it too. He hasn’t read many educated papers, though, or he would know that the mot du jour he heard is not “reverence,” but “reference.”

He’s chosen a word that’s doubly wrong: the one he’s written doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (and is completely bizarre when used with Cain!), and the word he thinks it is shouldn’t be used that way either. But I may be the last living objector to the use of “reference” as a verb, and especially as the kind of verb he’s trying to use.

What ever happened to words and phrases such as “alludes to,” “refers to,” “makes reference to,” “mentions,” “points to,” “compares…with”? I know English is a living language, but “references” as a verb seems to have swept all these other, more traditionally correct, terms suddenly away. I hear it from the mouths of scholars as well as the mouths of babes; it peppers academic papers so thickly as to cause sneezing. Why it caught on I cannot say, unless it just sounds so intellectual? or is so lazy? or maybe both?

Here’s friend Webster’s New Collegiate as of 1973, which to me isn’t so long ago:

“Reference (n): 1. the act of referring or consulting; 2: a bearing on the matter; 3: something that refers, as allusion or mention, something that refers a reader to another source of information, consultation of sources of information; 4: one referred to or consulted as a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made, a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment, a source of information to which a reader is referred, or a book such as a dictionary or encyclopedia concerning useful facts or information.”

Webster does acknowledge a verb form: “Reference (vt): 1: to supply with references, to cite in or as a reference; 2: to put in a form, as a table, adapted to easy reference.”

Neither of these definitions describes the usage employed by my student (and so many, many others).

“Phillis” doesn’t reference Cain; she makes reference to, or refers to, or alludes to Cain. She’s not interested in his opinion, his authority, or his recommendation; she isn’t suggesting that he is a source of information or turning him into a table. Actually she’s using a then-popular figure of speech in an interesting way: the conflation of “black” of skin and “black” of sin implied in the simile becomes one single attribute, and since Christians pray that God refine their own sin-blackened hearts they should also recognize that people who are black can be “refined,” or purified, to fit their souls equally well for heaven. She is urging Christians to view people of the “sable race” as their potential fellow angels. Her mention of Cain is, then, a learned allusion, full of conceptual substance, not a “referencing.”

But I’m afraid that this is yet another battle I am doomed to lose. Once an error or grotesquery becomes widespread among multiple classes of users, one aging prof, armed with no matter how mighty a sword, can’t withstand it. I fear it is too late for the blithe users of “reference” as a verb to have their sin refined away, because far from recognizing it as a sin, they hold it in an unbreakable embrace—yea, reverence it.

I’ll just have to try to become deaf to it. Like Bay.