What’s The Real Meaning Behind All That Higher Education Jargon?
WASHINGTON — Happen to know what “scaffolded reading and learning episodes” are? Able to define “task-centered talking,” “bibliobaskets,” “academic villages?” How about “manifestation determinations?” Huh?
The world of higher education is chock full of catch phrases, both catchy and kitschy. Many education experts say the lingo serves a legitimate purpose. But others complain the amount of jargon has gotten ludicrous.
Take Dr. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education here. He says he’s sat through more presentations than he can count where his eyes glazed over with all the utterances of “crazy new terms.”
“There’s a tendency to make up new terms that no one understands,” complains Adelman, who, quoting George Orwell, notes that “abstractions are falling like snow. It takes an hour for someone to explain them [all].
“You just can’t use a word that means everything and anything,” Adelman says, adding that a prime example and his personal pet peeve is the term “diversity.” “It was coined by Whites to avoid talking about racial and ethnic problems.”
But Dr. Gary Sattelmeyer, a former English professor and dean at Trident College in Charleston, S.C., says that every field has its own parlance, words that make sense to insiders but would mean little to those looking in from the outside.
“I don’t think jargon is any more excessive in academics than in other fields. I would say the computer field is worse,” says Sattelmeyer, the author of the book, “An Insider’s Guide to Success in the Two-Year College.”
“It’s a question of audience,” he says. “When talking with people within the discipline, jargon can be an extremely effective way to communicate. Everyone understands it. Outside, people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Dr. Carolyn Callahan, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, contends that higher education’s phraseology changes more frequently than terms used in other fields.
Her fear? That overuse of exotic expressions could be a put off to students and parents. “It’s an educator’s job to communicate with them,” she says. “If jargon is thick, we can’t fully do our jobs.”
Callahan knows well the definition of “scaffolded reading” — “a planned reading program moving from simple to more advanced” — but acknowledges that “sometimes a whole movement will go by me and I won’t know about it.”
Dr. Talbert O. Shaw, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., contends that many education-related expressions simply are fads that don’t carry much substance. He doesn’t much cotton to jargon.
“I feel most are attention-getting, but I really don’t pay much attention to them. They can be catchy — but unless you know their meaning, they don’t help much,” Shaw says, adding most originate with those promoting a particular education theory.
But occasionally, he admits, he runs across some new phraseology with substance that catches his fancy. One of his favorites? “Digital divide,” which refers to the gap between those who have computers and those who don’t.
He’s not crazy about jargon either, but Dr. James Tschechtelin, president of Baltimore City Community College, believes it’s a natural evolution. He says some are “keepers,” while others quickly fall by the wayside.
Tschechtelin notes, for instance, that anyone who uttered virtual college a decade ago would have drawn little more than blank looks. His personal, perplexing favorite? “Learning college.”
“An outsider,” he says, “might wonder, ‘What exactly has the college been doing?'” Tschechtelin believes that most jargon originates with “people presenting an idea at a national forum.” Then everyone carts it home, he says.
Dr. George Vaughan, a higher education professor at North Carolina State University, believes the explosion of new expressions has, well, to borrow a phrase coined in another field entirely, taken on a life of its own.
“We have more than we should,” says Vaughan, who also serves as editor of a journal for two-year college professionals, the Community College Review. “In my opinion, there’s no use for it in formal writing. I think it’s a detriment and shouldn’t be used in our profession, nor with the public.”
The jingly jargon that bothers him the most, Vaughan says, are those terms taken from the world of business and applied to higher education. It really irks him to hear a college president called a chief executive officer, for instance. And he knows of at least one two-year institution that refers to its deans as “division managers.”
“It started four or five years ago, trying to copy the business world,” he says. “Here we’ve worked forever to get community colleges considered part of higher education, and suddenly people want to get into business management.”
Dr. Mark D. Milliron, president and CEO-elect of the League for Innovation in the Community College, contends that “it’s only natural for groups to create and use words or phrases that help define” them.
“We begin learning and using jargon in grade school,” Milliron says. “The ‘in’ adults call child and teenager jargon ‘slang.’ We bring it into our adult personal and professional lives.
“In short, to be an ‘in’ educator, you have to keep up with the new jargon,” he says. “The danger, of course, is that the use of jargon sometimes gets in the way of useful communication and works to exclude many of the people we want to participate in our conversations.”
The prime example? Milliron believes that educators must be careful when speaking with state legislators, who often control the mission and purse strings for two-year colleges. Administrators need to communicate clearly with them.
“If we rely too heavily on trendy educational jargon and make legislators feel like an ‘out’ group,” he says, “it’s our funding that may be on the outs.”
Jacqueline Woods, the U.S. Department of Education’s liaison to the two-year college world, recalls Vice President Al Gore several years ago urged federal workers to become more “citizen-friendly bureaucrats” and “talk in plain language.”
She contends that as colleges branch out and interact on a more grandiose and global scale, jargon could become a pratfall. But Woods is among those who firmly believes education-speak has its place.
Woods, who is African American, compares it with using so-called “Black English” in some social settings. “It’s our way of communicating,” she says. “But you have to know when and where not to use jargon.
“It’s a kind of code,” says Woods, who is a trained speech pathologist by trade and says she’s constantly bombarded with new terminology at conferences and seminars. “We may not realize it, but it gives validity to what we’re about.”
So what, exactly, is a bibliobasket? It’s a computer link for a bibliography that leads viewers to other related items and works. Alas, Milliron predicts more such jargon born of education-meets-technology will come down the pike.
He jokingly refers to such hybrid words as “the clash of the jargons” and notes that higher education officials seem to be particularly fond of what he calls “The Big Five” of techno-lingo: cyber, virtual, digital,
e- and I-.
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