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Word Watching
November 15, 2011 - 8:44pm

Often when writing blog posts or papers, I end up dissecting not just a policy or educational issue but also the specific terms in which it is being described and discussed. I start to pick apart the terms and limits of the discussion alongside my engagement with the argument. Far from being a quirky habit, this kind of attention to language is a key element of much of the work I do.

My fascination with language use emerged partly from an early interest in media representations and the ways in which they could obfuscate what seemed like “real life”. Why did the language in the news not “match” the things I had experienced or read about elsewhere? Could language be “hiding” something? If so, what was being hidden and how? I became fascinated with propaganda, mediation, and ideology, my curiosity piqued by the immediate context of the 9/11 attacks and the second Iraq war.

Later after returning to university, I learned about critical theories of communication and linguistics. Linguist Norman Fairclough emphasizes that language use involves conscious as well as unconscious choices, and plays a role in the maintenance of social structures and power relations. Foucaults ideas highlighted the larger formations into which institutional practices and everyday exchanges of words might coalesce over time. Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis focused on technologies of communication and their effects on the nature of what is communicated.

As well as learning the content of the curriculum, I began to understand what was constraining it:  the context of the institution (the university). I became interested in the relationships between pedagogy, communication, and governance, which led to my research focus on language and institutional change. Universities were employing forms of “strategic planning”, borrowing from the realm of management science. These forms tend to assume a need for change not only to the practices of the institution but also to its culture, and I wanted to examine the role of language and discourse in this re-formation.

The study of language raises deeper questions about reality, agency, and knowledge. To me the way language is used is very important, but not in a rigidly determinist way. I don’t believe that words precede thought or determine the limits of thought, or that words can dictate to us what to think. Neither do I agree with the idea that all reality is socially constructed. If any one thing characterizes all language and language use, it is their inherent complexity. This was part of what drew me to study the way language works in social life. Language is reflexive, not merely reflective or constructive; while it re-presents (aspects of) our reality it also has an effect on that reality, given the way we act on our attitudes and beliefs.

When a word is used over and over without a definition being provided, there is an assumption being made. Assumptions are always necessary in language—this is how we can agree on the meanings of words without having to re-define them every time we have a conversation. But consider how many words we use regularly without necessarily having more than a limited, functional grasp of their meanings; words like knowledge, discovery, creativity, innovation. These words are embedded in policy documents as well as in the everyday language of people participating in academic institutions. They’re the same, often nebulous, terms that are used to frame debates on crucial academic issues.

More specific clusters of words can come to be associated in our minds with entire programs of policy: performance, accountability, flexibility. Efficiency, evidence, choice. Each of these terms takes on a function constructed on a scaffold of presupposition; each can be identified as playing a role in a “discourse” (corporate”, managerial, neo-liberal). Many academics, angry and frustrated with new programs of governance, have an extremely negative reaction when these words are used. This kind of reaction tells us something about the depth of inter-connection between our language, our experiences in the world, and our emotions.

Hence the struggle over language—it can define the evident parameters of a debate, helping to exclude or minimize facts, experiences and viewpoints that don’t fit with a preferred version of events. As Fairclough (1989) reminds us, language use is a choice, whether conscious or unconscious, and abstractions are usually realized in specific material ways. Critical awareness of language means never taking for granted the terms of the discussion, or the ways in which those terms will be translated to help produce –or stymie—versions of change.

Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D. student working on research in post-secondary education, policy, and governance. She is a regular contributor at University of Venus and can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and at Speculative Diction at University Affairs.

 

 

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