On being clear

This post is inspired by my stumbling upon a couple of people at twitter who champion academia being comprehensible and communicating itself in such a way as to not be exclusive and excluding. That I follow the grand total of 7 people on twitter, and most of what I’ve said there in recent months pertains to how much I dislike twitter, this is perhaps only a springboard rather than specifically to do with that platform. Interesting metaphors I’ve raised there, I now have visions of me bouncing about on a trampoline at a train station. Platform thirteen and three quarters possibly, a new entrance to another world. I will probably share it there but I lack enough understanding of how twitter works to know whether my doing so is likely to have much, if any effect. So please feel free to comment whoever you are and whichever direction you approach this from.

For pretty much the entirety of my adult life it’s been important to me that I can communicate in ways which will be understandable to whoever I’m talking to. Otherwise I see little point in saying anything at all. There are various historical reasons as to why I feel that way, so I will share them:

1 The first ten years of my working life were with people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. To communicate well with anyone loosely fitting into these categories requires you to be acutely aware of how that individual interacts with the world. It may be that they do so in non verbal ways, or incorporate unique perceptions and expressions. You must tailor the way you communicate with each person to that person. Since you are the trained professional who has a deeper understanding of these possibilities that is your job, not theirs.

2 For the following many years I worked as a therapist. This requires you to be an excellent and active listener, to be able to make sense of the mental and emotional constructs the person you’re working with bears, and then to be able to communicate with them in ways which they will comprehend. The better you are at this the better you will be at helping and supporting them and any changes they may be striving to make. Again, this is your professional responsibility, not theirs.

3 The university in Scotland I studied at operated a semester system and was based on the principle that you needed to study a range of topics as well as specialising in one. So while my degree was in psychology I also took modules in education, sociology, anthropology and English. In the last semester of my degree course I was one module short of an alternative subject from my main, which is when I took the sociology course. This meant that I was a final year student on a first year course.

It quickly became apparent that while I was well versed in all the jargon the teaching contained the new students weren’t. Many were anxious that they would fail their end of term exam because they were having to attempt to translate and spend much of their time trying to learn this jargon rather than explore the topic they had interest in. I ended up as a student rep and succeeded in getting a resit option introduced, which many found reassuring. It pointed up to me how unnecessary much of this jargon was, how it sought to exclude and allow entrance to a special smart or educated persons club rather than actually educate. Such jargon by and large did not add much to understanding, in fact in this case it was a barrier to it.

I understand and appreciate that any specialism will have terms, expressions, concepts, theories etc which are required learning to become well versed in that topic. But that doesn’t mean anyone with such a specialism should always use these when speaking to a wider audience. In fact I would suggest it’s highly ignorant to do so. I find myself wondering from time to time whether those in academia who feel the need to do this are, far from being elite or in the higher echelons of society, so insecure they need to make themselves feel special and better than everyone else. For truly, what is the point of academia if not to educate and to teach the joy of learning? How can you do that if those you are speaking to don’t comprehend what you’re saying because you are using language you know full well they won’t understand?



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