On Professor Speak
I have a thing about verbal tics. It started about the time I began teaching Lawyering at NYU Law. At the time, part of my job description was to help train students to become skilled oral advocates in multiple settings. It was also my first real exposure – eight years out of law school – to the legal academy, from the other side. So as I started my law teaching career by focusing, among other things, on effective communication skills, I simultaneously began my own process of acculturation to law teaching as a profession.
Part of that process included learning the ins and outs of how law professors talk – what I’ll call “Professor Speak.” Based on my entirely-unscientific observations, some of the primary features of Professor Speak include beginning many or most sentences with “So . . .” (others have mentioned this, and it’s by no means limited to law teaching, or even to the academic setting), peppering sentences with interjections of “sort of,” and ending sentences in “right?” (although folks seem to throw in “right?” all over the place these days). Now, I’ll confess that I was somewhat aware of my changes in speech pattern, but I considered my new affectations part of becoming a law professor, and part of speaking credibly like one. That is, until my husband, who’s a federal prosecutor and gifted (if I do say so) trial lawyer, asked me, “Why are you talking like that?”
And that got me thinking: Why do we talk like this? As a new law teacher at an elite institution, I thought adopting this vernacular would make me sound smarter, somehow, and more legitimate. But I’m no longer convinced, and even if that were true, I have reservations about this particular trend.
Here’s why: Although many law professors consider this job to be primarily about scholarship, we are also teachers, and teachers at professional schools. Part of our job is to train our students to communicate directly, and forcefully, paring away unnecessary and ineffective words, and tailoring their speech strategically to audience. (As a Lawyering professor, I would cringe to hear my students dot their oral arguments with “like”!) So why aren’t we doing the same thing? While our classroom parlance is certainly more informal and colloquial than, say, the way we write our law review articles (and don’t get me started on the way we write those) what is the value added in all those “so’s,” “sort-of’s,” and “right’s?”? Not much. In fact, ever since my husband pointed out just how much my manner of speaking had changed, I actually pay attention to these verbal tics. Not just in classrooms, but in meetings, job talks, panels, and presentations. And to be honest, they can be downright distracting. Often they’re simply verbal placeholders – the “smart” way to say “um,” or “uh.” So while I am by no means perfect, I’ve tried to be more mindful about my own professional speech. And to be better about modeling the kind of professional communication skills I hope to inculcate in – and ultimately have come to expect from – my students.
My dear friend and law school classmate, Molly Bishop Shadel, teaches some terrific courses at UVA Law with titles like “Hallmarks of Distinguished Advocacy,” “Oral Presentations In and Out of the Classroom,” and “Advanced Public Speaking.” I’m told she even does seminars for law professors.
Maybe we should sign up.