Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jargon, Silos, and More Fish Metaphors (In That Order)

Babble in Babel

One of the reasons I began this blog is to persuade experts in particular lines of work to acknowledge and consider the ideas of those in disciplines other than their own.

Business people call these divisions "silos." It's proof of concept really. Those with MBAs of found jargon to exclude everyone else from the conversation, especially, I suppose, from anyone with a different education, like those on farms, from whom the word was most likely taken.

My idea is that if you round up all the people who have the same goals for people in their charge -- which, according to my interviews, seems to be almost everyone -- and come up with a common vocabulary, people would learn what they need to know from the time they start kindergarten through the time they retire.

Once Upon a Time . . .

I told a story about a year ago about attending a conference for primary school teachers to learn to teach writing. Everyone in the room had some colleagues in common -- except me. When it came time to introduce myself and what I wanted to get out of the day, I explained that I had taught at Brown and wanted to know how my kids knew what they did and were so weak in other related thinking skills.

The shock to me: I was the only university teacher any of these people had met other than their own.

Teaching to a Standard

How can primary, middle, or high school teachers teach to a standard if they don't know what it is? In fact, how can any of these people get their students jobs if they haven't also consulted with industry?

The only sort of person who connects each stage of learning for a child (and adult) is an administrator. From school to school, from school to university, from university to industry, we've got administrators screening people about how they learn.

And how one learns was the number one priority of every person I interviewed -- from teachers to policemen to C-level executives.

Shouldn't the principal stake-holders -- those for with whom these kids will learn the next stage of thinking -- have a say in all this?

But I Digress . . . .

My name is Annette, and I am a recovering academic.

I was never your ordinary academic, however, and that's probably why I no longer dwell in the Ivory Towel (as my mother calls it). There is a large group of us who were interested in what is true rather than what is clever, although the latter is always fun when the former is the priority.

I had a conversation with a non-academic friend of mine two days ago (let's call him Sam), and he couldn't understand why the university people with whom he was negotiating a deal to build their technical infrastructure were so nasty to him.

Sam stopped formal schooling with a BA. When asked by academics if he has a PhD, he replies that he has a Masters and Johnson. From what he tells me, most of the people in the room usually don't get the joke.

That Smarts

Sam is one of the brightest and most creative people I've ever met. He also gives others credit for being as curious and excited about new ideas as he.

Then Sam started working for institutions of higher learning. He found that not only would professors not admit they didn't know what he was talking about, they'd insist that he was wrong.

Sam is from the practical innovation side of business. A babe in the woods when it comes to scholarship (even what has become known as business scholarship). In other words, he acts on ideas rather than writing them down.

Now please believe me when I say -- I'm not generalizing about all academics. Just the very insecure ones and those who give up common sense in favor of cleverly worded nonsense. These categories are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Academics as Bottom Feeders

My explanation is that the profession itself has become so distorted that, particularly in the liberal arts and social sciences, academics have been forced to become bottom feeders.

In order to survive, teaching can't get in the way of publishing.

This is what the highest standard of education has become.

Any idea, no matter how inane, is fair game, as long as no one has found it before and it can be defended, even by the most fantasical series of arguments.

Living in the depths, where there is hardly any light, sight naturally dims and visual field narrows. After a while, turning on the lights can be painful. Also, once it's clear that the fodder for publications consists mostly of left-overs, university dwellers can feel pretty embarassed.

Not surprising that they would want to bite the hand that flicked the switch.

Back to the Point (What Was It Again?)

To come full circle here (I'll bet you didn't think I could), the way one discipline thinks about another -- and each about itself -- has got to change.

It all comes down to language.

Get rid of jargon, and you've got transparency. Once you can see what's being said or done -- in terms of other things that are being said or done in other fields -- priorities will shift.

Would become the leader in his field (as happened in the 80s) by making a huge career out of pounding out book after book on gender casting in Shakespeare?

Would he have a top job if a theater historian would reveal that his premise is all wrong? That in Shakespeare's time, casting was part of the joke and not part of some obscure counter-culture revolution?

Imagine all such academics without the protection of jargon, without the ability to obfuscate, examined by people who actually know what they're talking about.

Imagine these poor souls being forced to find another job, a more useful pursuit, like, say, digging ditches or trying to cure cancer.

And imaging those at university learning from mentors who were not intellectually opportunistic and who were genuinely interested in their students' development.

So What to Do?

In order for real innovation to happen and be recognized, for someone in one discipline to either collaborate or expose the frauds in another, each has to be able to understand what the other is saying.

Imagine what a shift would happen if this same principal were applied to a more lucrative field -- say, business. What might happen to the stock market if every genuinely innovative mind had the vocabulary to converse with every other?

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