David Wilson: dulled by academe's verbal chloroform

January 26, 2007

One aspect of the bureaucratisation of higher education is the relentless use of clichés - words (and variants of them) once innocent but now to be dreaded. They epitomise the wooden, soulless and routine claptrap of official conversation, course documentation, validation committees and staff development events that attempt to give educational activity some generic appropriateness that will especially reassure those managers who are inactive in teaching and research. Perhaps a part of the discussion about the nature and implications of academic freedom should reflect the insidious effect on it of the stunted vocabulary we are now expected to use in our professional lives. We should consider not just what we say but how we are asked to say it.

These overworked words - "outcome", "underpin", "embed", "celebrate", "innovative", "robust", "rigour" and so on - are the verbal chloroform that characterises our excessively bureaucratised environment and usurps good, expressive English. This is not jargon particular and necessary to a specialised field of professional work; rather it is lazy but obsessive overuse of exhausted terms, making them vacuous. They represent a poverty of expression approaching illiteracy. Of course, the word that has suffered the most monstrous violation through cynical overuse is "quality". It is beloved of bureaucrats but often stimulates feelings of bitter irony in academics, who have come to regard it as newspeak.

This triumph of form over substance has become as widespread as it is preposterous, just like the phenomenal epidemic of the "management professor". The claptrap is, of course, rather the language of the manager of academics than that of the academic, whose usual sympathy with English is often greatly offended. But such language has become obligatory. Unless you pepper meetings and official documents with it, you are thought to be incompetent, a bit strange or naive. This dangerous nonsense, sometimes called "edubabble", "educationese" or "eduspeak", has successfully poisoned all levels of education. And, if the cliches are questioned, your understanding of "quality assurance" and "best practice" is immediately put into doubt, or you are dismissed as negative or unprofessional. The way this language is used encourages unthinking conformity, but it might also fulfil a bonding function for some of its enthusiasts. Others of us avoid these clichés because they make us feel false, because we think they deserve a rest, and because we see them as throwaway, meaningless, formulaic, predictable and boring. What is so ironic is that the academic concern for truth, meaning and good use of English should be constrained by such a prescribed and disingenuous use of worn-out terms of expression.

Perhaps much of the blame for this problem lies with what is now often wrongly accepted as "educational research" - lots of the obvious, which has been re-researched, "revisited", repeated and convoluted to appear original, but functions in part to reinforce this hackneyed phraseology. Is it academic terminology? I think not. This chronically repetitive, sterile, insincere and irritating waffle reflects almost nothing. Will anyone join me in boycotting it? Watch out for further vulnerable words in the pipeline for the Brave New World treatment - I have seen "empathy" earmarked on module templates as a transferable skill.

Anyway, chin up, and I wish everyone integrity of outcomes for the new year.

David Wilson administers joint honours at Cumbria Institute of the Arts.

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