Let's say what we mean

Dissemination is not enough; communication is the goal - and that requires us to drop the jargon, argues Sally Taylor

April 2, 2009

At a time when, at long last, the White House is once again home to a great communicator - a man whose route there was marked by great oratory and deft use of language - perhaps we should revisit the age-old question of whether the higher education sector's use of language for external communication impedes or enhances what it aims to achieve.

I come from the arts, and when I first started running the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange (LCACE), I half-joked that I would put a jargon-buster section on our website because so many terms used in higher education need translation for the real world.

Do, for example, the words "enterprise", "innovation", "knowledge transfer", "investment" and indeed "research" mean the same thing outside the portals of the academy?

You could argue that it doesn't matter very much if Joe Public doesn't understand the terms, because it's none of his business. But increasingly it is, and the fact that a translation job needs to be done does not sit well at a time when, for example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is trying to increase the integration of public engagement and knowledge exchange in its funded research and when ideas of public value are being increasingly questioned. Some academics may be outraged at the idea that research should be instrumental in such a way, but times they are a-changing. To suggest, as I heard an academic argue at an Institute of Ideas debate, that the pursuit of personal knowledge is enough and that this by itself contributes to the greater good of humanity is not only extraordinarily selfish and short-sighted but also will be increasingly out of kilter with the modern world view.

There is also the issue of the obfuscation of language in many academic presentations. I would hesitate to suggest that this is deliberate, but after a few years in academia I am not so sure. I was recently at an event co-hosted by the AHRC and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to launch a document on innovation to an interested professional audience. Some of the language used was so technical that I believe I was not alone in my bafflement. "Knowledge is not the same as the algorithmic properties of information or its Aristotelian and Cartesian representation as unbendable and unbending nuggets of reality" to quote from the report - translation, anyone? The emperor's new clothes syndrome may be present here: people are generally not keen to show that they haven't understood, so the assertions pass by without being interrogated.

Similarly, I have recently been assessing a set of applications under a research scheme judged jointly by academics and non-academics. The best applications were very clear, and despite the fact that I am not an expert in the relevant areas, their simple, persuasive use of language made their remit and purpose easy to see. But this was not the case with all applications, and this is a real problem if academics are going to fight their corner against other calls on public funding at a time of cutbacks. To paraphrase a Times Higher Education headline last year, sheep farmers do need to be persuaded of the point of PhDs. The use of language that helps rather than hinders the dissemination of the aims and outcomes of research to the outside world is critical.

Those of us who work on knowledge transfer can be equally guilty of using language unhelpfully. The use of words in such a way as to suggest that knowledge resides solely in universities - such as the term "knowledge transfer" itself or "enterprise", which implies that universities engaging with external parties seek only business and profit - are a barrier rather than an asset in partnership working.

We must be receptive to the organisations we work with and tailor our approaches with sensitivity and precision. There are huge gains to be made if we all bear this in mind. Let's not allow language to stand in our way.

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