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.

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4 Responses

  1. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Meredeth,

    I agree, as I wrote about “so” on this blog this time last year, http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2009/09/so.html, months before the references in NYT and Prawblawg. It was inspired by Dave Hoffman’s kindred post about linguistic clutter, and provoked criticism over at the Faculty Lounge blog: http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/09/so-the-sequal.html. There’s apparently too much to say about this topic yet little evidence the litter is being cleaned up.

    Larry

  2. Jessie Allen says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. While I’m not going to defend saying “so” in order to sound smart, I do think there’s a function for verbal place holders and the various equivalents of “uhm.” First of all it gives you time to think. Secondly it lets others know that is what you’re doing. Both of those things seem okay to me for a law professor in a classroom. To the extent they’re not okay in court it’s because as an advocate you’re supposed to be maintaining the fiction that there’s nothing to think about — you’re position is so clearly right that there’s no room or need for further rumination. You’ve got all the answers. It’s way different for teachers — or, for that matter, for most people in most situations. Maybe the strange speech is the lawyer’s ultra cleaned up, spare, no tics style. Incidentally, I will admit that as an appellate lawyer I occasionally deliberately through in an “uhm” or a “so” before responding to a judge’s question — sometimes to give the impression that I was thinking about an answer that I had memorized days before.

  3. Matt says:

    Two thoughts: First, people pick up the verbal tics and habits of those around them mostly subconsciously, so people need not be doing this to “sound smart”. They are often enough not “doing” it in an active sense at all.

    Secondly, as to qualifiers like “sort of” and others, they seem to me to have a clear place in academic speech that they would not have in an oral argument. The two activities are just quite different. An academic or scholar doesn’t, or shouldn’t, want to claim any more than she can strongly support. An advocate will often, with good reason, do more than this. If I saw an academic making an argument or a presentation in the same way that a lawyer in court did I’d find it very off-putting and probably inappropriate. In academic or scholarly work the qualified and careful is, I think, more often the right choice.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    In a classroom setting, saying “right?” actually can have a purpose: It can be a query that prompts students to either express understanding or continued confusion. It shouldn’t be overused, but it can have a purpose if used sporadically. (To be clear, I don’t use it myself, but I can see it can have a purpose.)