“Towards” As A Specialized Academic Word

One pleasure of being a not-young (but obviously still euphemistic) academic is that one has published enough to be able to indulge in brief fantasies about articles or books one would like to write but never will. So although I’m working on a book with Wild Bill and on other projects, I occasionally conjure pretend-articles.

So yesterday, for about ten seconds, I imaged an article title “Towards An Ethics of Public Service” and indulged in a quixotic fantasy about citizens crafting the rules affecting lobbying, conflicts of interest, and so on–as opposed to our current system, whereby public officials allegedly police themselves; and we’ve seen how well that works, from city councils up to Congress and the Pentagon, and at the upper level, “service” seems chiefly to be a graduate program in lobbying. “My M.A. thesis at the Pentagon was on bribery!”

Then, however, I got interested in the word “Towards” in academic publications. In everyday life, it’s a perfectly serviceable preposition. “The septic tank is over towards that boulder.” “We were driving toward Santa Fe when the thunderstorm hit.” Dimly, I seem to remember that Fowler and other usage experts even have advice about “toward” v. “towards,” but I’m too lazy to reach toward the shelf and pull Fowler off it.

Lassitude aside, my main point is that . . . where else but in academia would “towards” be an acceptable title for something accomplished? When I was helping my father build houses for a living, I don’t recall his ever declaring the job was over, pointing at an unfinished structure, and telling the owner, “Well, there it is, ‘Towards A Completed Home’!”

To be fair to academics (why?), they are all engaged in provisional work in the sense that in humanistic, social scientific, and scientific research, one is foolish to imagine one is providing final correct answers. Social scientists and scientists are probably better than humanists at remembering this; often untethered to evidence, often working by means of muddle method, humanists can indulge in hubris and declare that THIS is the way to read Dickens. At any rate, Darwin knew he was just starting a conversation with Origin of Species, whereas his panicked society reacted as if he had provided a final answer. He had more or less provided (or amplified) a new paradigm, which was understandably shocking, but he was still speculating.

Creationists use this state of incompleteness against “evolutionists” all the time. “It’s just a theory,” they cry. “And scientists change their minds all the time!” To which scientists respond, or so I imagine, “Well, of course we change our minds–especially when data changes. It’s the scientific method.”

Probably, however, fewer academic products (articles, books) should have “Towards” in the title, partly because it sounds stuffy, and partly because it may betray false modesty. In most cases, the author has in fact reached a conclusion (we hope) and is not merely moving towards one. So in the title and piece, say what your conclusions/theses are, and the readers can provide the broader context of ever-evolving knowledge.

When politicians aren’t using “towards” in the demotic way (“As the limo was heading towards C Street, I took a wad of cash from the lobbyist”), they seem to use it either a) quasi-militarily or b) as an excuse.

Example of a: “As this campaign heads toward New Hampshire, it’s picking up momentum!”

Example of b: “We’re very hopeful about the progress towards stopping the flow of oil in the Gulf.” “Tlansration”: “Oil gushes into the Gulf.”

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2 Responses to ““Towards” As A Specialized Academic Word”

  1. michaeleriksson Says:

    I have never previously reflected on the word “towards” (be it in academic publications or elsewhere); however, my spontaneous reaction to “where else but in academia would “towards” be an acceptable title for something accomplished?” was one of confusion: Does it really refer to something accomplished? In my impression, a more traditional sense is typically implied, e.g. “with this work, I provide a guide on how X could conceivably be reached”.

    • O. Says:

      Many thanks for stopping by and for your comment. My co-blogger thinks that you and I substantially agree and has contributed the following in support of common ground: ‘If I read you correctly, you meant that “Towards an Ethics …” is a bit puzzling because one does not mean “In the General Direction of an Ethics.” The academic has contributed to a discussion of ethics and therefore has created an ethic(s) already. We can see why Einstein might entitle something “Towards a Theory of Relativity” if he had not worked out E = mc^2. When he reaches a conclusion, no matter how tentative, he has a “Theory of Relativity,” not the makings of a theory that someday he’ll formulate.

      Your dad MIGHT have said, “Towards a home,” but would not have said, “Towards a house” if the house was built.’ –Wild Bill

      Note that when Wild Bill writes, “If I read you correctly, …,” he is probably revealing that my post could have been clearer. Thanks again.


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