Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On jargon

Away from the brouhaha of current HE policy developments (TEF, Brexit, Diamond Review, HE and Research Bill …) and back to an initial purpose of this blog – the art and science of management. I caught myself the other day speaking jargon without knowing it. Perhaps a word or two on jargon might be a good idea.

What is jargon anyway? I think there are two distinct uses, one acceptable (and for which we have a different name) and one bad.

The acceptable is when it is genuine technical language, used to denote a concept which is clearly defined and understandable, but which cannot be expressed more simply by other words. So, subject benchmarking is a jargon term within the world of higher education quality assurance: it refers to the use of agreed statements in different disciplines which set out shared expectations about capabilities of graduates in a discipline, expressed in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It’s a lot easier to say subject benchmarking than it is to repeat all of that last clause. So as long as those involved in the conversation understand that this is what subject benchmarking refers to, then all is well. It is helpful jargon, as it enables communication to be shorter and more focused, and therefore potentially, more complex ideas to be expressed and developed. Humanity 1, World 0: well played, everybody.

There also unacceptable jargon, which I think comes in two flavours. The first is where jargon conceals disagreement. Think about hard Brexit and soft Brexit. At the moment these terms have great currency in political and news discourse. But do they have a clear meaning? I’m not sure – it seems more that they are used as continuation of the remain-leave debate, without much reference to the legal, financial or political realities of the UK’s leaving the European Union. Please note that I’m not trying to make a point here about how or whether Brexit should happen, simply that the terminology used in the debate isn’t helping us. (I blame Mrs May for this – if she’d managed a less tautological line than Brexit means Brexit we might be able to engage more seriously with a serious issue).

The other flavour is where the jargon passes the test of meaningfulness, but fails on significance. Either because the material isn’t important (says who!) or because it isn’t about something that you’re personally interested in. Here’s a wonderful example. Jargon here is an interesting expression in the English language – I use technical language, you use jargon, they are unutterably trivial.

Is the use of jargon ok? Well, I think it is, as long as all of those involved in the discussion know what it means. And if it’s useful language to them, then they’re being smart. But often communication goes beyond the immediate audience, and if this might be so, perhaps better to cut down on jargon, or at least define your terms up front.

And what of business speak? On the radio a couple of weeks ago I heard a big data expert talk about drilling down into users of social media. That’s not a good image, and immediately tells you why jargon isn’t always appropriate. And don’t get me started on filler jargon such as ‘on a going forwards basis’ …

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