Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Crime of Cant

"Of all the cant that's canted in this canting world, the cant of hypocrites may be most common, but the cant of lawyers is the worst." -- Tristram Shandy

I probably misquoted that a bit. (My commonplace book is in my other cell phone.)

Linguistic scolds always assume a general posture of pursed lips, wagging finger, and wide eyes when "u rit yr txt," and they refuse to "be proactive" when they "do lunch." However, the same will write, in their own professional journals, "Moll's Newgate conversation with Jemy reveals a formidable challenge to this critical shibboleth" (Melissa Mowry, found here). Or an article might be titled, "The role of statistical preemption and categorization in a-adjective production" (March 2011 issue of Language). And we all know that Laurence Sterne, of Tristram Shandy had not experienced the misery of business speak or education jargon. I recommend this dictionary of Business jargon, although it misses the genuine horror of the phenomenon. As for education-speak, it is as impenetrable as it is unnecessary, and it admits neither light nor any effort at finding its bottom. This is a serious list, meant to help. Its sincerity testifies to the humorlessness and Mobius strip nature of this language. This one is designed to help people pass for MEd.

Why do we do this?

I do not mean, "Why do we use jargon?" I mean, "Why do we castigate it," we scolds? If I can explain this, this axiomatic principle, perhaps I can lay out as a handy tool why this is a lifelong, consistent and positive philosophy and not a "conservative" position, not "luddite," not "retrograde."

Let me take a small piece of text with jargon in it.
This is the abstract of an article by Amy Topper submitted to Developmental Education: Time to Completion. It has not been peer reviewed and is not yet published. I found it via the ERIC database. This should lead you to the entry in question. If there is any loss in the links, I apologize. I quote:
Using data from Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, this issue of "Data Notes" investigates the number of attempts it takes students to complete all developmental education courses to which they are referred. Subsequent gateway course completion and overall persistence are also examined. Three-year outcomes were analyzed and disaggregated by developmental education subject (English and math) and the level of developmental education assignment. Students referred to developmental math were more likely to attempt the class than were students referred to developmental English. The data show that the number of developmental education course attempts and the student's referral level are both inversely related to successful gateway course completion, regardless of subject. Three-year persistence rates were positively associated with developmental coursework completion, but not with the number of developmental coursework attempts.
This is admirably clean writing. In fact, I feel certain that you can understand it, and I quite agree with its observations. However, there are some few things in there that will make my point. "Gateway course?" "Persistence" and "outcomes?" "Level of developmental educational assignment?" "Successful gateway course completion" is on top of that. If we look at the first two of these jargon terms, we will see all that we need to. I picked this sample because I can translate between the worlds ("discourse communities") of college English teaching and blog reading, I think.

Once upon a time, someone argued that we should not call a course that taught basic syntax or mathematics "remedial." If a student perceived that she or he was being written off or called a failure, then that student would conform to such expectations and fail. If the school told the student that he was bad at English, then he would fear English. Therefore, the argument went, it was better to say that these classes were simply gateways, just neutral value classes that could allow a student access to the college's curriculum. I think this is a fine argument, and I agree with it. However, when I use the term "gateway class," just as when the author did, I am passing on that argument in a tight little word bomb. I am giving my assent and assuming it, allowing no discussion or examination. When I use jargon, I buy the argument, agree to it, and perpetuate it, and I silence any examination of its assumptions.

So, measuring student "persistence?" Does this mean that the students would sometimes disintegrate? Or has the author not solved peek-a-boo yet? Actually, the word's meaning is basic enough, but here the word is jargon because it appears not as itself, but as an antithesis, as a replacement. "Persistence" is the word we read, but, when we do, we almost silently supply the words it replaced: "not drop-out." Measuring student persistence means measuring the students who do not drop out of the class.
So what's wrong with dropping out? Well, when you or I say "drop out," we are implying several nasty things. We came up with the term in Education circles in the first place, and so it was that some other Educator pointed out that "drop out" suggests that the person ceases to exist. Well, Jamal was here, but he dropped out of the system, fell away, ceased to be our concern, went off the grid, became an unperson. Additionally, a person "drops out" as an active verb. In the 1960's, Leary's disciples tuned in and dropped out on purpose. The quality of quitting is not constrained in the drop out, where struggling students who stop attending are often forced to stop or driven to stop and feel passive in the process.

Therefore, the argument went, we have to stop talking about drop outs. Instead, we need to study the positive quality of "student persistence." Students who have the quality of trying, the quality of wishing, of working, and how we can foster that. I agree, generally.

This, though, is the heart of the hart. "Student persistence" is the same blunderbuss mistake that "drop-out" was. It discounts the dropping out student as much as the other term ignored discouragement. It blames the instructor as much as the other blamed the student. However, because this argument is passed on in language rather than in propositions, we do not get to debate, or even think about what is being said. We must consent to the point of view to even read the danged paper.

In the paper on Moll Flanders I quoted way up there, the author talks about a "formidable challenge to this critical shibboleth." Well, that term, "shibboleth," is inherited from a particular literary critic, and using it marks both a familiarity and agreement with that school of thought. Further, it suggests that there is an us vs. them war going on in the matter of interpreting a novel from the 1720's, as if one's value as a progressive depended upon fighting dead critics. This warfare, and these arguments, are all present in the word choice, and the assumptions, which are tremulous, not merely shaky, are nowhere to be debated. (I think the critic herself is quite bright, and if we strip this posturing, she has an insight in the article.)

Therefore, and I apologize for taking so long to get to the point, the reason to oppose jargon is not that it's new. We should welcome words from slang or foreign languages that offer meanings not present in English. (I like "homeboy" as a way for English to get pisano, but it's already a dead word.) We should pour acid, though, on all language that passes jargon, and especially that does so unknowingly. Jargon is a way of pushing unexamined arguments and unthought assumptions further and further from the light of logic and human life.

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