Academic Language and Barriers

I work at a college where I manage the school’s curriculum. As part of my job, I have to review and correct spelling errors in course descriptions, which led me to come across a few courses which completely baffled me. The first course description reads:

In this course, we will engage in intensive embodied research through a collection of training counter rituals aimed at releasing enculturated oppressions in the body. Going to the edge of our physical limits is important for this release and we will enter through a combination of rigor, rhythm, and recuperative practices. We will “pump” various rooms (dance studio, club, and grassy knoll) to sense how place/space affects our research materials.

Through training in (e)feminized movement modalities, sparring scores, solo states, and group provocations, we will address the body and performance space as a site for transgression, transcendence, and transformation. This course is part of the Creative Campus Initiative. ​

Here’s another example:

This course will address the sociology of medicine, health, and illness from a range of critical perspectives and theoretical vantage points, including feminist social constructionism, actor network theory, the governmentality literature, queer theory, neomaterialist feminism, and disability studies. We will examine current manifestations of medicalization, health and illness, and biosociality as social products of the neoliberal context and will pursue both illness and disability as sites of social struggle. We will consider the promise and limits of social constructionism in understanding the sick body and the disabled subject; we will address the medicalization of impairments as well as trends in psychiatry; we will look at the emerging transnational trade in organs, cell lines, and bioinformatics and consider how sociological frameworks can contributing to understanding these.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with any of the ideas these classes might present. I just have no idea what those ideas are, based on these course descriptions.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples, but they aren’t as outlying as one might think. Course descriptions, syllabi and course readings can sometimes become forests of specific terms and ideas. This is a necessary evil at times; there’s no way to briefly describe the ideas behind dialectical materialism, so we gave it a name. Academic jargon can take on a life of its own though, and that is where the problem lies. Academics do important work, and then often lock that work behind a wall of specialized, opaque language which can keep knowledge from the very people who would benefit the most from it.

I took a great class as an undergraduate student called “Race and Urban Space,” where we learned about how the physical structures of cities often segregate people by race and class. This class was invaluable for someone like me. I have very poor spacial understanding, and it’s hard for me to understand how physical space works. I’m not exaggerating here- I get lost all the time, I can’t estimate height or weight with any semblance of accuracy, and my physical space is often cluttered because I can’t arrange things efficiently. Reading about how physical space is organized along racial and class lines is the only way I can understand such a concept, because I can’t simply look at a sidewalk and understand what its physical dimensions mean. Yet the reading was often borderline incomprehensible. I would write notes as I read, trying to make sense of the messages, and then toss those notes out after the professor explained what the author was actually saying. The concepts themselves were difficult enough for me, but the academic jargon the author used compounded my lack of understanding.

In one of those essays, the author used the word “anglophone.” That’s a word I understood, but its use frustrated me so much that I had to stop reading for a moment. If you Google the meaning of anglophone, you get a very simple answer: English speaker. The word “anglophone” does not communicate any special meaning that the phrase “English-speaker” doesn’t. This isn’t substituting “blue” for “periwinkle;”  while a potentially annoying distinction, those are actually two different colors. There is no practical or useful distinction between anglophone and English-speaking, except that the former sounds more academic than the latter. “Anglophone” is not clear, direct language for most people, and thus presents a barrier to understanding. True, it is a barrier which can be traversed with a dictionary, but why erect any language-based barriers, especially when there is a simpler phrase which conveys the exact same meaning?

Those language barriers made it difficult to share the essay I was reading. After having the meaning explained to me, it was clear that this was important research that might make a difference in someone else’s understanding the way that it had for me. I wanted to share the essay, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone who had any questions about it because I’d barely understood it without a professor’s help. That professor’s help cost $5500, the cost of the course. Without my scholarship, I would have never been able to decipher that essay, and all of its important information would have been lost to me.

When you read the course descriptions above, can you honestly say you know what they mean? You’ll learn about “actor network theory” and “group provocations,” but do you have any idea what that means for your daily life? I sure as hell don’t. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but these terms are dropped into, of all things, a course description with no context, explanation or other means of grounding them. This is the kind of language which discourages parents and young adults not only from applying to college, but to exploring new ideas if they do attend. Language is supposed to convey ideas and create understanding. If I’ve read your words and have more questions than answers, what was the point?

College and education are important, but we know full well that not everyone can afford college. Even if we can’t provide the credential to every person who might need it, we can at least strive to provide the information to those who crave it. That requires access, and the most basic level of access for information is the language which conveys it. Words matter, and they can be a welcoming hand or an intimidating maze. When academics write with jargon-laden sentences, they can end up talking only to each other- other academics and students who have access to their specific language and its context. Plain language is the easiest way to democratize access to knowledge. It can certainly be fun to piece together the meaning of a new word or phrase when reading for pleasure, but when the research being conducted has to do with race, class, health and other crucial issues, people are often reading for their lives. Language shouldn’t be another hurdle people have to overcome to empower themselves with knowledge.

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1 Comment to "Academic Language and Barriers"

  1. February 23, 2017 - 9:18 pm | Permalink

    “Race and Urban Space” was one of my favorite courses. But, like you, I would read, reread, write, and then
    Realize how wrong I was when I got to class.

    I currently observe how we use language in higher-ed at even more of a base level. My students
    are so lost when it comes to the college lingo. What’s a bursar? What’s an advisor? Why does
    spring semester start in January? What’s a pre-req? What are credit hours? What’s an elective?
    What’s Blackboard? What’s an extranet? What’s FASFA? Everyday, I dimistify some piece of
    Higher education.

    In the first day of classes I ask “do you know what a college advisor is?” Maybe one person
    I still brave enough to answer. I then ask how many people know what a guidance counselor is,
    and it begins to click….

    It’s a devistating barrier.

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