Posted tagged ‘acronyms’

Linguistic fog in the academy

July 30, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I had a telephone call from an old friend, who works for a voluntary organisation that is currently trying to enter into a partnership with a small group of universities. He had just come from a meeting with representatives of the institutions. ‘About half way through the meeting’, he told me, ‘I suddenly realised that the whole discussion was being conducted in a foreign language. They probably thought they were speaking English, but that’s not how it sounded to me. It seems that academics are unable to get through a single sentence that does not have at least one incomprehensible (and unexplained) acronym and one bit of jargon that no outsider can understand.’

He has a point. People who work with me in Robert Gordon University know that I stop the discussion the moment an acronym appears – and at first that meant I was stopping the discussion every minute or so. At least I can learn them, but for outsiders this is not so easy, not least because the acronyms are different in each institution.  It seems to be impossible for us to avoid acronyms for committee names, and for processes, programmes, strategies, plans, buildings, even people. And this alphabetical cocktail is then enriched with jargon that only insiders can understand. The result is a kind of mysterious incantation that sounds like some pagan ritual.

But this is wrong. The academy is not some obscure cult that seeks to protect its rites from non-believers. It needs to be able to engage with the wider community. So if you are an academic, drop all your acronyms, abbreviations and jargon. Go and make some sense. You know you can.

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The CDA solution

May 13, 2009

I am intending to launch a new movement shortly: the CDA (Campaign to Defeat Acronyms). The need for this became apparent to me when, recently, I attended a meeting between some university people and a number of people from business and the voluntary sector. One of the university people was purporting to explain various developments in higher education, but what he was saying was probably totally incomprehensible to anyone from outside academic life – indeed, anyone not working in the Irish university system. He was talking about PRTLI, the HEA, the DRHEA, SFI, CSETs, RGAM, IUA, HEFCE (oops, that was an English interloper), IRCHSS, and lots more besides. One of the businesspeople looked on as if he had stumbled across some strange cult with its own ritual language. Eventually he interrupted and said – ‘Look, I don’t want to be rude, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about’.

My university friend was a little put off by this, but for a moment he tried to avoid the acronyms. However within about 30 seconds he was happily back to talking about IRCSET, and the businessman’s eyes glazed over. I helpfully offered to translate whenever an acronym came up, and after that we got on fine.

What is it, I wonder, that makes universities such fertile soil for this? Why do we need to find a boring name for everything and then compound it by turning it into an acronym? Don’t believe me? Well, if you work at a university whenever you next attend a committee meeting ignore the actual content for a moment and just count the acronyms on the fingers of your hands as they are mentioned and see how long it takes to get to 10. I’ll wager it will be fast enough for you not to have missed any important substance. We are in particular addicted to applying them to the names of academic or (even more likely) administrative units, to plans and strategies, to buildings, to sets of rules, to committee names, to absolutely everything. The trouble is, it’s an addiction, and you cannot easily will yourself to stop. It needs a thorough detox. You need a friend or colleague to remove the alphabet from your reach for a few weeks or even months, while you practise saying whole words.

But like every campaign to address an addiction, you’ll feel really good when at last you can manage to get through the day without an acronym. I’ve managed it now for about five weeks. Every day I’m getting better.

My next initiative is going to be my ‘Going Forward Outside the Box Campaign’ (also known as my anti-cliché campaign), but that’s for another post.