Titles, Academic and Otherwise

This is a guest post from Bok Blog contributor Stephen Tardif

In a few short weeks, students will submit the first written assignments of the semester. When they do, their teachers will find that—well before the leaves turn red—their prose will already be a fine shade of purple. Indeed, many examples of undergraduate grandeur will be found even before the first sentences of their papers: “From Myopia to Mystery,” “The Language of Violence,” “Art as Miracle,” “Eros or Eschaton?”—these are but a small sampling of their typically soaring style (and all, unfortunately, the author’s own). But while loud labels like these may seem somehow off, many instructors struggle to articulate the unwritten rules surrounding titles to their students. Easy to demonstrate, hard to adopt, and almost impossible to adapt, the conventions surrounding titles are surprisingly complex.

For example, the International Herald Tribune’s Rendezvous Blog describes the problems involved in finding a French equivalent under which to release the recent film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a title so resistant to translation that the movie ultimately appeared in France under an entirely different English name: “Happiness Therapy.” Yet the studio had little choice, since the film’s original title combines two entirely idiosyncratic English language idioms. “Silver lining” can be traced back to the description of a cloud in John Milton’s masque, Comus (where, interestingly enough, the phrase describes a cloud in the night sky), while “playbook” is, of course, a synecdoche for a sports team’s proprietary strategies. Neither one would survive a literal rendering into French.

The strategy of strange combination at work in this movie’s title points toward the other needs it serves. In its review of the movie, The Globe and Mail remarked that there are more than a few romantic comedies which focus on “quirky outsiders who find a common bond.” Thus, one important function of its title is to differentiate and distinguish the film in an ever-crowded field, which its counter-intuitive pairing neatly achieves. As the late literary scholar, Fr. Walter Ong, observed:

the most generalizable recipe for particularization is ultimately oxymoron…which present-day culture celebrates ad nauseam not only in avant-garde literature but also even at the more popular level in such creations as its names for race horses (Starbait, Coastal Whisper, Up Come Pence, Seattle Slew, Sonny’s Halo) and its names for rock bands (Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead).

But, at the same time as it ensures uniqueness, the oxymoronic title also telegraphs sameness. Popular culture rewards nothing so well as the novelty of slight differences, and the “high concept” movie pitch (which often takes the form: “it’s x meets y”) illustrates its surprisingly low tolerance for new things.

Such formulae show that innovation is itself a form of rule-bound imitation, while illustrating a much older function of titles, too. The novel commonly known as Robinson Crusoe actually bears a title which is a comprehensive summary of its plot:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. 

Before they needed to create interest or compete for attention, novel titles previewed synopses of their stories to their potential readers. As Franco Moretti observes in his article, “Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles,” it is only when the novel began to navigate the opposed needs of messaging and marketing that their titles became “half sign, half ad,” the place “where the novel as language meets the novel as commodity.” 

The twin functions of titles in crowded markets—and the way these functions change with scale—brings the topic of academic titles into sharper focus.  The titles of undergraduate papers sound they way they do because they vacillate between the artless delivery of information and the ambitious articulation of vision. Few do both simultaneously, and academic departments often prefer that they not even try. The University of Cambridge’s “Notes on Approved Style for History PhD Dissertations,” for instance, encourages clarity above all else. Yet the academic titles which most undergraduates will encounter in their readings will, indeed, strive for both the communication of information and the expression of vision, a tension which explains not only the ubiquity of their standard form—phrases, colons, and lists—but also the tropes particular to them. Two-word titles often boil complex theses down to a memorable binomial pair, while the laundry lists which follow the often-obligatory colon do the work now performed by keywords, hashtags, and metadata.

To improve the titles that students employ, teachers should take time to identify the various functions they may serve and encourage them to identify one which their titles should do quite well. Without this guidance, students will simply deploy the imitative mechanism which is so essential in so many other spheres of their undergraduate careers. Imitation, however, goes only so far in this case because the best academic titles perform a third function, too: they forecast content, they pique interest—but they also flatter the erudition of their readers with allusions which signal a shared archive. The Program Era tips its cap to The Pound Era, while books such as Of Grammatology and On Rereading evoke the de and peri of Latin and Greek philosophical tracts.

In this sense, academic titles might be more like the monikers of movies than one might initially suspect since they, too, achieve their differences by means of derivation. Scholars clearly know how to do things with J. L. Austin’s famous title, and their intellectual projects are often announced in already familiar terms.  But this allusive landscape has the curious effect of leaving a wide opening for titles with a plain style: Gordon Tesky’s recently published, 640-page, un-subtitled tome is called The Poetry of John Milton, offering its reader neither preview nor pretense. The academic equivalent of an honest trailer, Tesky’s title offers an instructive model for essay-writing students and scholars alike: the body, and not the headline, of a piece of writing is where a good impression on the reader will be made.