Whose Jargon? Or, All of us Creating Teamwork Inventing Opportunities Now

Earlier this month NPR ran a piece decrying academic “jargonitis.” (What is “jargonitis”, you ask? Well….) That in itself is hardly news. The jeremiad against academic language (jargon, theory, “academic writing” altogether) is a familiar extension of the ivory tower vs. real world dichotomy (sorry: idea that two things are different) that shapes so much media coverage of higher education. Naturally, dividing things in this way does important, though possibly sometimes inadvertent, political work: it suggests that the academic world is not part of the “real” one, and implies that taxpayers or consumers in the real world are footing the bill for egg-heads who — as their wilfully obscure language shows — exclude and despise them. It also lays a clever trap for academics, since calling their critics uninformed or even anti-intellectual merely validates the criticism, while embracing the critique means accepting self-appointed representatives of the “real world” (who are usually in fact representatives of much narrower interests) as legitimate arbiters of scholarship.

To be fair, the piece that prompted this post was focused not on higher education but on education (and “edujargon”) more generally; but since the questions it raises relate to a wider genre that’s not important right now. More to the point, there is some truth in the criticisms that this story and others like it make. Academics do use jargon (for good reasons as well as bad), and they can write badly (though that often has nothing to do with whether they use jargon or not). Some of them, frankly, do ignore the world, or at least the specific communities, around them. Sometimes the reasons for that are understandable, even “structural” features of the academic job market: after eight years at Ivy League U, a recent PhD with (let’s say) liberal politics, a spouse tied to Major City X, and a serious student debt load may regard moving hundreds of miles to a rural satellite campus of Red State State for a poorly paid one-year teaching gig as at best a necessary evil; anyway, she won’t put down roots there, because she literally can’t afford to — after a year she’ll be moving on, if she’s lucky enough to have something to move on to. Sometimes, no doubt, it’s just because they’re jerks.

But of course all the same things, except maybe the job market part, could be said of any professional group. (“Nurse, could you hand me the little knife and the grabby things? And please blow some more sleep medicine up this man’s nose. I don’t want him to wake up during the cutting-him-open-to-take-out-his-spleen time.”) As the piece in question (following Merriam-Webster) defined it, “jargon” refers to “technical terminology” — the vocabulary that any group of specialists in anything use to capture the ideas or name the tools that make up their specialty. And this makes nonsense of the article’s subsequent claim, made without any argument beyond an invocation of Strunk and White, that “jargon is not good writing.” Jargon, defined as the article defines it, is neither good nor bad writing; it is a vocabulary suited to a particular audience. It can be applied inaccurately, directed to the wrong audience, or used for the wrong reasons. But to assume that anything beyond a 1000-word vocabulary (the NPR story’s bar, borrowed from the xkcd Simple Writer) is simply bad writing, while it does produce amusing circumlocutions, is wrongheaded (sorry: not right in the head). For a bunch of reasons.

First: as anyone who specializes in anything knows, details make a difference. Calling something “data-driven”, for instance, is actually not quite the same as saying “we should decide things using numbers” (not all data are numbers; not all numbers are data). Aiming for clarity is a good thing. Encouraging imprecision is not.

Second: as the last example shows, jargon, in the sense of technical terminology, often saves time by condensing complex ideas into simple terms or phrases. To return to Strunk and White, by all means choose the ten cent word over the twenty dollar one. But if you need fifteen small words to not quite adequately convey what a couple of medium-size ones say, whose time are you saving? In other words, jargon rightly used makes communication easier — at least among those who share or can look up the relevant vocabulary (which is to say, those for whom jargon is by definition designed). Audience is everything. And there is more than one legitimate audience.

Third: the notion of jargon, as used in articles like this, actually lumps a lot of very different phenomena (sorry: stuff) together. The examples given in the NPR piece range from clumsy buzzwords like “teacherpreneur”, to phrases like “best practices” that are shared across the professional and business world, to fairly ordinary terms such as “efficacy” — a five-dollar word, tops. Each of these may bother particular audiences (“teacherpreneur”, for example, makes my skin crawl), but for very different — importantly different — reasons.

Fourth: lumping all this together ignores the different sources of different bits of jargon — and, therefore, the different purposes and interests that they serve. As instances like “best practices” indicate, a lot of what gets decried as academic jargon is not specifically academic at all. An increasing proportion of the jargon that crowds the academic landscape today is managerial or corporate. It advances no academic agenda (not even the nefarious one of elite exclusivity). And, one might add, edujournalism does as much as anything else to spread it.

Fifth: criticism that relies on this lumping confuses a question of vocabulary (how familiar are the words that academics use?) with questions of intent (are words being used to reveal things, or to conceal them? what kinds of things?). These are separate questions, and in fact a lot of the moral force claimed by knee-jerk opposition to jargon as such really reflects concerns about the purposes of those behind it. Addressing those concerns properly, however, requires un-lumping different kinds of jargon, examining their uses, and tracing their origins. Which brings me back to the real world.

When I graduated with my BA in History from the University of Maryland (Go Terps!) in 1999, I found that my job prospects were of two basic kinds: (1) office temping, and (2) industrial temping. The latter had its absurd, alienating side: I once spent two weeks alone in a warehouse destroying Samsonite suitcases with a knife. But this was nothing compared to the weirdness of the call center where I (briefly) trained. Besides learning how to assemble a headset (and that this was to be done each morning before punching in, not on company time), how to avoid appearing to correct a customer’s mispronunciation of a product name (yet without ever mispronouncing it myself), I was taught the following… slogan? motto? mission? found poem?, helpfully broadcast in acronymic form on a banner above the cubicles:

ACTION: All of us Creating Teamwork Inventing Opportunities Now

Whether because it was my first brush with the motivational sloganeering of real world HR/management/marketing, or simply because it was such a fantastically clunky effort, I’ve never forgotten it. In fact, with each new corporate-sounding initiative that descends from higher up the ivory tower, I think of it more and more often.

Now, ACTION was not “jargon” in the NPR piece’s sense. It used everyday words. It encapsulated no specialist knowledge — no “knowledge”, really, at all. It excluded no-one from any conversation (what conversation along such lines would any sane person want to have, on one of his or her carefully monitored breaks?). But it did share something with a lot of the jargon of real-world (corporate, managerial, ed-tech) provenance that one hears in academic settings today: it was bullshit. More specifically, it was a vaguely euphemistic and self-serving obfuscation of real interests and conditions. All of us Creating Teamwork Inventing Opportunities Now gestured, albeit inarticulately, at a venturesome band of comrades toiling gaily towards better things for each and all; whereas it actually referred to a windowless barn where individuals were employed on sufferance and paid badly for dull and relentless work with no prospect of significant change. Similarly, in academic settings, jargonitic invitations to “grow your research” or focus on “capacity building” are often really injunctions to produce more with less, substitute quantity for quality, and subordinate genuine research questions or teaching needs to institutional fundraising goals. Such things are, as a colleague of mine recently put it, “top-down demands masquerading as opportunity” — and nothing is more real-world than that. I don’t think we can do without the sort of “jargon” that’s really just technical terminology. But I’d love to get rid of the other kind.

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