Posted tagged ‘jargon’

Experiencing a nasty turn

May 26, 2014

I’d like you to read the following passage, but I feel I should warn you that it may be a distressing experience:

‘Based on constructivist epistemology, the linguistic turn puts forward a conception of history as a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality (White, 1987). Textualism presumes that whatever is taken as the real is constituted by representation rather than pre-exists any effort to grasp it in thought, imagination, or writing.’

The passage is taken from an article by an American social scientist, entitled ‘Introducing the “linguistic turn” to history education’. But what does it mean? I am not querying the academic prowess of the author; indeed I am deliberately not naming him or her because I am not trying to make an ad personam point; countless other academics write in similar style.

I came across this passage recently when I was referred to it by another scholar. I could not make out what the author was intending to say; I couldn’t even work out what ‘turn’ meant in this context. Indeed much of the article was, to me at least, completely impenetrable. But when I asked a former colleague what he thought of it, he assured me that you could not hope to be published unless you used this kind of style; anything easily accessible would be considered an example of dumbing down.

It is not just that the extract is hard to understand, it also displays a penchant for Romance verbiage. This includes ‘constructivist’, ‘epistemology’, ‘conception’, ‘textualist’, ‘reality’, ‘constituted’ and so forth. One of the  five rules suggested by Henry Watson Fowler in his classic book The King’s English was that writers should prefer Saxon to Romance words, and that their style should be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid’. Much of today’s academic output, particularly in some disciplines, has turned all of that on its head and has gone all out for inaccessibility and complexity. Too much writing leans heavily on jargon and on the apparent belief that knowledge is the property of a cult.

Nobody is suggesting that you can publish a worthwhile academic treatise on quantum mechanics in text that anyone could understand. But history education does not need to be presented as a form of quantum mechanics. There is no need to create and deploy a secret language that uses complex codes. Accessibility does not betray an aversion to critical thought. It is time to bust the jargon.

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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.

Fighting clichés going forward

October 5, 2010

Further to this blog’s campaign to reduce the use of clichés in conversation and reports, I am grateful to Marlys Harris for her list (and the additional ones mentioned by those who have added comments to her piece). Here are some of those in her list that I detest most:

• Could we go offline to discuss this?
• At the end of the day
• I can’t wrap my head around this
• Bandwidth (when applied to something other than computing)
• Low hanging fruit
• To circle back.
• Take-away (where no food is involved)
• Win win situation.

Do feel free to add your own clichés.

Solutions, solutions

October 7, 2009

At a meeting today in another university a professor from that university, in describing one of its teaching programmes, called it a ‘learning solution’. At another university I visited recently the restaurant menu was headed ‘catering solutions’.

I have to admit I have a particular dislike of the word ‘solution’ used in this way. It seems to have entered common usage via marketing jargon, where every unnecessary product or service could be labelled a ‘solution’, to make it appear that it offered something useful in addressing real life problems. I really hope that this kind of nonsense doesn’t now become common in universities. We have enough jargon as it is.

Re-baselining jargon

April 21, 2009

Actually, I don’t know what the above title of this post means. I have googled ‘re-baselining’ and found several examples of its use, but no indication of its meaning; I cannot even tell the meaning from sentences in which it appears. But I know it’s a word, in at least someone’s opinion, because the spellchecker on my computer accepts it.

But whatever it means, it has been banned by the UK’s Local Government Association, as it is included in a list of jargon not to be used by British local authorities. Some of the words and phrases are banned because they are clichés: these include ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘horizon scanning’ and ‘value added’ (though not, to my dismay, the terrible ‘going forward’ which has become such a verbal tick with many people). Others are banned because they are impenetrable, such as ‘predictors of beaconicity’ and ‘coterminous stakeholder engagement’. And ‘re-baselining’.

At the same time British police have also been instructed to stop using what is being called ‘ploddledygook’ (with reference to Enid Blyton’s policeman ‘Mr Plod’), and to avoid phrases in reports such as ‘exited the vehicle’ when they meant ‘got out of the car’.

Universities are also notoriously fond of jargon, and like most jargon users often don’t realise they are even doing it. We often bombard school leavers with marketing talk that includes ‘modular’, ‘continuous assessment’, ‘dissertation’, ‘learning outcomes’ and the like – not to mention a whole mountain of incomprehensible acronyms like APEL (‘accreditation of prior learning’, if you must know – and don’t ask me why the ‘E’ is there…). And when you get on to a university committee, if you’re not familiar with the jargon you might as well switch off, because none of it will make any sense whatsoever. But if you wish, you can consult this very helpful glossary of such stuff offered by the University of Sussex.

Speaking in impenetrable phrases is not a sign of sophistication or advanced excellence, it is a sign of intellectual laziness and of a failure to understand that we must be accessible as well intelligent. I think I’ll start right here and draw up a list of words and phrases I’ll stop using. Suggestions for entries are welcome.

Oh, and if you know what ‘re-baselining’ means do let me know, and I’ll have learnt something.