Saturday, April 23, 2022

No One Should Care What Kate Turabian Thought About Style

I have recently had to write and turn in my dissertation.  To do this, I had to adhere, at least somewhat, to the stylistic whims of Kate Turabian.  Which has been a painful process.

Who is Kate Turabian?  She is a former bureaucratic pencil-pusher who leveraged her tiny bit of control over dissertation layout into a world-wide empire enforcing her anal-retentiveness about margin widths and heading formats through a book she wrote explaining how she liked things to be.  Because she had to approve dissertations at the University of Chicago, students had to do whatever she said to graduate.  She herself never even finished college, and never wrote a dissertation.  She certainly never wrote a college term paper using her made-up style.  She just made others follow it.  Margins on the left should be 1.25" while the right 1"?  Appendix titles are only 1" from the top margin, but chapters 2"?  It doesn't matter if it makes sense, you just have to do it, or you can't get your PhD.  

And that's all her wikipedia page should say about her.

You know the security guard who thinks because he technically has a badge that he can commandeer your car?  That's Kate Turabian, but with academic writing.

Except she's worse.  The one security guard is the one security guard.  But imagine that one security guard writes a manual, "A Manual for Guards of Security," setting himself up as the world expert on how to properly guard buildings and parking lots, and it involves asking three hundred questions, checking the glovebox, and making the driver submit to a field exam, and now every security guard in the entire country insists he has to do this because it's part of the manual, and you have to let him because he decides who gets past the turnstile.  That's Kate Turabian, but with academic writing,

You spent six years taking classes in natural sciences, performing research, analyzing data, manipulating equations, connecting theory and experiment.  You've presented your work to audiences of scientists, written papers in journals, and finally defended your dissertation research to a committee of professors.  

But then after all of that, the real task is an old lady with a ruler, who is going to tell you there should be indentations after subsections but not subsubsections (because obviously).

Now, I should be more fair.  In principal, I understand the need for standards.  Subsections should not be set with bold in one place and then italic in another.  You should be able to distinguish a subsection from a section based on the heading.  The margins shouldn't be so wide that the page is mostly blank space.  I get that.  And since most normies use Microsoft Word instead of TeX to write absolutely everything (I've had students hand in C code written in Word), I can understand why some set of rules is important.

And in the age of typewriters, when students had to manually set bold, italic, etc., I understand that making a list of which to use where helps to standardize everything.

But if students follow a consistent style, if they use structural organizational tools in their word processer to automatically control style, if things look professional and organized, if the term paper conveys the information without distraction over formatting, then it doesn't matter if page numbers are centered on the bottom or typeset to the top left.

And that, arguably, is one of the places where obsession with Turabian style falls on its own sword.

The point of standardizing style should be to make the formatting disappear, leaving only the text.

If a professor is going to pull out a ruler to measure your term paper to make sure it's a 4ex indentation in a new paragraph, then it is serving the opposite purpose.

Kate Turabian had some opinions about how papers should be formatted.  At one point, students at the University of Chicago had to care about her opinions, because she loved using her power over them to make everyone respect her opinions.

All of her opinions were arbitrary.  They were based, ultimately, in her whim, in what she thought looked prettiest.

A lot of her choices do NOT look the prettiest.  Most of her choices look butt-ugly.

Her insistence on ragged-right typing instead of justified text maybe made sense with typewriters, but not in the age of computer typesetting.  Her choices for title headings are dumb, changing from emphasized, to not emphasized to emphasized.  A paper typeset using her rules looks unprofessional, like some hack who doesn't know how to use a word processor wrote it up, pressing each key with his index finger.  Like a rough draft of a 5th grade book report before your mom spellchecked it.

Turabian style looks unprofessional.

And yes, those are also my subjective opinions.  And my subjective opinions are equally as valid as hers.  The only difference from her is I'm not trying to force all of academia to adhere to my subjective opinions.

Were I to receive a term paper written in Turabian style, I would just grade the content of the paper.  I wouldn't tell the student he has to go retype it in TeX using Computer Modern font and standard report class outlines for sections and subsections.  I wouldn't  pay attention to how ugly and illegible it looks.

But people in the Turabian cult do.

Why does the Turabian cult exist?  Why do we continue to care about her opinions?  She has passed from her post in Chicago, and no longer holds power over grad students.  She has passed from this world, and can no longer hold out her ruler of terror to tell us the margins are too wide.

Why do we continue to care what she thought?

It is of course unsurprising that a low-level pencil-pusher, with no formal education and completely unqualified to comment on academic writing, but with supreme power over those with the highest level of education, would make up and enforce and insist on all manner of arbitrary and stupid rules as though they descended from on high.  That's going to happen.  It's part of human nature.

What is impossible to understand is how she indoctrinated so many academics into this cult of hers.

I would like us, as a country, to just move on.  Instead of enforcing some dead woman's arbitrary opinions, let's just instead ask for consistency by asking students to use internal organization tools in the word processors, rather than laying everything by hand.  And if it's typeset in TeX or similar, then you can be assured it will have consistent style and organization.

No comments: