Academic language stifles learning

Anne Liners, Contributor

Last night, a friend of mine messaged our group chat to ask if anyone could help her write “an abstract in schematic form” for one of her midterm papers.

We talk about school a lot in this group chat. The people who were asked this question are all relatively successful upperclassmen at a variety of reputable universities: one has presented research at regional conferences, one is applying to law school, one to medical school, one is a writing tutor. Not a single one had ever heard of a schematic-formed outline.

Especially as I pursue upper-level coursework, I encounter words I have never seen or heard before. On top of the discipline-specific vocabulary that is necessary to operate a science lab or name a particular theory, academia has its own language. It consists of words that are almost never used outside of a university campus (at least in the same way), yet for some reason are expected knowledge for regular students. Discourse. Hegemony. Discipline. Indexicality. Schematic abstract.

Academia, as an institution, likes to show off. For most of its history, the university system has been nothing more than an elite club, where the “smartest” (read: the wealthiest, whitest, malest, Christianest) got to sit around and talk about big ideas. Part of the way that this boys’ club differentiated itself from the regular people was the development of a special set of jargon — vocabulary created for a specific topic — so that no one else could understand them. Then they started to make up special symbols for those new words so that anyone had to know how to read before pursuing these big ideas. Before long they realized that specific organizations of these words into complex patterns and structures could make reading even harder. Once this was accepted behavior, the belief spread that anyone who couldn’t communicate like an academic simply wasn’t smart enough to be one. In reality, they just hadn’t been taught the language.

These standards for communicating, mostly for writing, have continued into the school systems we know today. Most of the reading, writing, speaking and listening that happens at universities differs significantly from the ways regular people communicate. While academic language can be very natural for those who are fluent in it, a huge part of the reason for using fancified, language is simply to prove that you know how to.

Augsburg has done a lot to make itself a diverse and inclusive place. But it’s important to remember that the very thing we are, an academic institution, is intended to be exclusive. Even after tuition bills or deadlines, one of the strongest barriers that prevents people from being successful in universities is the way language is used. Especially for people from backgrounds where the type of reading and writing characteristic of academia isn’t typical, simply understanding and producing academic language can seem impossible.

Especially with students new to a space like Augsburg, or historically underrepresented within it, the priorities of language use need to be clear: teaching first and scholarship second. Students need to know that, no matter their linguistic background, they have the capacity to think about big ideas in interesting and exciting ways. Language needs to be used as a tool to help all students, not as a gatekeeper that only lets some students in. As we think about the ways that language of all sorts gets used in our school, perhaps our most important consideration needs to be how language can grant access instead of taking it away.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 9, 2018 issue.