In a Tortoiseshell: In the following excerpt, Nisha Chandra uses the conventions of a speech for the imaginary opening of Princeton’s medical school to craft compelling analysis, guided by her definition of key terms. Continue reading →
The nutrition facts label. A familiar sight, and a cause of angst for so many people.
Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), most foods that you buy in grocery stores are required to have nutritional labels; notable exemptions include produce items.
These labels, found on anything from oatmeal to canned beans and oreos, are highly standardized. In academic writing, conventions describe “the accepted standards of various elements…such as paper format, voice, tone, diction, and citation style.” Nutritional labels are a fantastic example of the role conventions play outside of an academic context.
Nutritional labels are required to list the various nutrient values for one serving of the product, including calories, a fat breakdown, a carbohydrate breakdown, cholesterol, sodium, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. The labels also calculate “daily value percentages” of these nutrients based on FDA nutritional guidelines. There doesn’t seem to be much that can be changed on the labels, save for the actual numbers displayed in each category based on the product.
In academic writing, conventions can feel like a monolith: to be taken seriously, you have to follow certain stylistic rules. But, there can be ways to stray from the rules that are beneficial. This is also true in the realm of nutritional labels (and I’m just talking about the nutrition facts box, not any external claims or labels like organic, gluten-free, etc.)
Take the nutrition label for a package of Dulse, one of my favorite kinds of seaweed.
One of the first things you may notice about the label is the blue: the “Nutrition Facts” title and the lines around and within the box are not the traditional black. It probably depends on the person, but I’d say the light color makes the label a bit less frightening and monotonous. Another remarkable difference between this label and one that follows conventions more strictly is the list of nutrients at the bottom. Although they are unrequired, this list includes iodine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, Chromium, Magnesium, and Vitamin B12 – showing off the nutritional powerhouse that dulse is.
You may have noticed certain elements are missing from where they usually are on the label: saturated fat, cholesterol, Vitamin D, among others. Instead, underneath the rather lengthy list of nutrients that are present, in small print, is the line “Not a significant source of: calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, or calcium.” These changes are allowed by the FDA and produce a simplified label that focuses attention on what may be seen as the “healthy” aspects of the product. These ways that the dulse flakes disrupt conventions of nutrition facts are somewhat common among a certain niche of products marketed as “health foods.” In this way, while breaking general conventions of food labels, this product does adhere to another, but much more exclusive, set of conventions.
Thus, even on nutrition facts labels, there is room for creativity – to make the argument pop out. That said, when you go grocery shopping, please be wary that sellers aren’t breaking too many of these conventions.
As I relax and enjoy the remaining days of winter break, I have admittedly fallen into the trap of binge-watching Netflix shows. I’ve watched The Queen’s Gambit, New Girl, The Great British Baking Show, and Derry Girls, but one has stood out from the rest — Bridgerton. The show can be described as an early-19th century version of Gossip Girl that follows the lives of the eight children of the elite Bridgerton family. An anonymous writer under the pseudonym “Lady Whistledown” releases pamphlets divulging the gossip of London’s high society during the social season and reports the highs and lows of its many balls, promenades, and afternoon teas.
As someone who has taken on the pandemic uniform of sweatpants, slippers, and unwashed hair, Bridgerton is the perfect escapist show. The beautiful, sparkling gowns and carefully constructed hairstyles remind me of the fun of dressing up for social events and meeting new people. The show’s 19th century setting is particularly entertaining and convincing because of its adherence to 19th century social conventions (as far as I’m aware of them).
From the costumes to the dialogue to the social rules that control the lives of the characters, these conventions provide some structure and consistency to the show. For example, the young women in the show carry “dance cards” to the balls, which their potential partners must write their names on to secure a dance that night. The suitors come to the women’s homes, bringing flowers and gifts to express their interest. The whole process of proposals, engagements, and weddings also follow 19th century customs and are organized by the couples’ parents. These customs, while antiquated and often sexist, create opportunities for drama — who is dancing with whom, what gifts do the suitors bring and whom are they visiting, how and when are the weddings arranged? In this way, the conventions in Bridgerton are the template upon which the excitement of the show builds. They might not be the most obviously important part of Bridgerton, but the conventions of the social season guide the events of the characters’ lives.
Similarly, the conventions of a paper play an important role in guiding the writer, although they might not seem as vital as thesis, evidence, or analysis. Just as the different social events, customary language, clothing, and backdrops in Bridgerton must be historically accurate, the sections of a paper, the tone and voice, the formatting, and citation style must follow the discipline-specific conventions. A history paper that used APA citations or a scientific article without a detailed methods section would stick out like a scene in Bridgerton in which the costumes suddenly became skinny jeans and tank tops or the characters decided to meet each other on dating apps instead of in ballrooms. The conventions of a certain field might seem tedious or unnecessary, but a well-crafted paper and a well-crafted period piece must both be consistent in their customs.
The next time you find yourself cursing the process of checking citations, confirming that you’re using the correct voice, or redoing your paper’s format, try thinking of yourself as the director of a period piece like Bridgerton, where the details make a difference. Ultimately, adherence to proper conventions make your paper consistent and ensure that all the important information gets to your reader.