Dumb Rules

Kevin Gover, head of the National Museum of the American Indian, was addressing staff members at the museum over the summer and remarked that he likes rules.

My initial reaction was that, gosh, this is an odd thing for an American Indian to admit. But Gover (Pawnee) was trained as an attorney, so it made sense.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought about how we try to control our lives. In my case I grew up in a household full of rules and control. We accused my mother of being a control freak.

Her own upbringing was frenetic: moving from town to town with alcoholic parents and never knowing what the next day would bring. No wonder she clung to rules.

I feel a little guilty this time of year when I’m grading papers because a large part of grading is about rules. This is especially true for graduate students whose work conforms to a set of rules about scholarship, research and methods. There’s a certain format and pathway to writing scholarly papers, and it can drive you crazy.

As a journalist, I had to write in the inverted pyramid style, loading the most important information up-front and tapering off with less salient details. It’s hard at first but you get into a rhythm. I learned to be a quick writer (my editor wouldn’t let us revise) and to get to the point immediately.

Going to grad school meant learning new rules and I found them ridiculous. Scholarly writing is dull and circuitous. My advisers would hand back papers loaded with marks and, after attending to the comments, I’d get the revisions returned with even more marks. Seems like I could never satisfy them.

At some juncture I developed the chops needed to write academically and now I’m the one grading papers and returning them full of red marks. My task is to help guide the students through the unfamiliar maze of scientific writing, which makes little sense to most of them.

It’s not the rules that are important; it’s more where they will lead you. It’s kind of like the movie The Karate Kid, where the master insists the lad repeat the same moves over and over: wax on, wax off, or, in the newest version, jacket on, jacket off. The rules seem dumb until you put the moves into context and then realize the rules are just guideposts to the process of martial arts or, in my case, scientific writing and thinking.

I just hope my students don’t give up just because the rules are dumb.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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