Image courtesy of Steven Mileham

I hate shopping. If I was to describe my experience as a shopper, for clothes especially, it would best be summed up in one word: survival. I am not one to go from shop to shop to find the best deal. As a result, I’m not terribly picky. If the clothes generally fit and they don’t clash too badly, I’ll get them. Therefore, my closet is a terrible mishmash of things that don’t necessarily go together, but I try to make it work. This shirt is blue, these pants have blue in them, and this tie is greyish-blue so they must go together. I have gotten pretty good at finding combinations that ‘work’ and I just grab those ‘sets’ in the morning. No wasting time checking to see if something else might work better. It’s “good enough”.

I sometimes wonder if we are like that with words. We grab stock phrases and throw them together as collocation ‘sets’. They are “good enough” for what we need to accomplish. We rarely stop to think about what we are saying and how it may be interpreted. It often takes someone bold enough to speak up to help us better understand the consequences of our words.

In my generation, I’ve seen a shift towards political correctness to the point that it has become the brunt of many jokes. I believe there is a real need to think through the words we choose, but when we force it upon others, there is often the opposite response than that which we would desire. People  need to make these words their own; they need to embrace the change for intrinsic reasons, not just because they are pressured to conform. By simply telling people not to do something without showing the deeper reasons why, the changes will only be surface deep.

An example that stood out to me this week was an internal document from General Motors (GM) leaked to the media. In it, there is a list that GM says contains “speculations, opinions, vague non descriptive words, or words with emotional connotations.” These words should not be used by service personnel when describing what is wrong with a vehicle or a part. GM suggest using words that “contain only engineering results, facts, and judgments”. Of course, the media is running with the story that GM must be muzzling their workers as part of a PR spin. Maybe that is true, but I can’t help thinking that GM is correct. The use of speculative, opinionated language is not helpful and should be avoided in situations like this. The problem is that GM failed to demonstrate why these words are not very helpful. Consequently, people feel muzzled and we end up with headlines like the one we see from Time Magazine: These Are The 69 Words GM Employees Were Forbidden from Using (emphasis added). Were they forbidden? According to the GM document, the list of words were examples of vocabulary that was speculative and vague. It was never meant to be a list of forbidden words.

Last weekend, I was at the TESL Canada conference in Regina and I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop by Suresh Canagarajah on translingual writing. It was a fascinating session and I am still in the midst of unpacking all that was said in that time together. One of the examples he had us look at and discuss came from an essay by a Chinese Malaysian student in an ESL classroom*. In it, the student used the phrase “can able to” along with the ‘correct’ usage of the modals can and may. This phrase was confusing to the instructor since it appeared that the student understood the grammatical usage of modals, but seemed to have deliberately chosen this phrase to be used in certain situations. The teacher inquired and found that the student had used her English dictionary to find two modals that when combined together created a new meaning that she felt was missing from English. Her understanding of may as “to gain permission” and “be able to” to mean ability could come together to mean “ability from the perspective of the external circumstances”. To this student, the individualistic societies that are dominate in cultures that use English is missing a phrase that gives permission within the group to do something on behalf of the group. It could be done with a lot of rewording, but this phrase seemed to work for her. It was the ability of this student to stand outside of the culture of the language that gave her the insight to see how incredibly individualistic that English had become. She carefully chose these words and the result is that myself along with others are left to think about our own language and the cultural baggage that is carried with it.

I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but some of the words and phrases that are being used by teachers and other educators contradict the information they are sharing. Teachers may be talking about being more open to student differences and becoming more aware of the need to think of students as part of the learning process, but the vocabulary being used shows a side that keeps the teacher in the seat of power and control, doling out punishment to those that don’t conform. Okay, it isn’t that bad, but the words or phrases do make one wonder about the understanding of those that are not adhering to the norm. This is especially true for instructors who have not had the proper training in regards to understanding things such as mental illness or personality differences. I am deliberately not using the phrase or words that I have seen over and over again due to the fact that it may be misinterpreted as a directive much like it did for GM. This isn’t a list of ‘don’t say that’ or ‘you are terrible if you say that’, it is a call to others to stop and consider what it is we say and do that may be interpreted by others as judgemental when that is the opposite of what we are attempting to communicate.

I am working with my EAP students on essay writing and we are spending a good deal of time evaluating sources and evidence. I am attempting to do my best to not influence their decisions, but I know that some of them have never done this in their own culture and I want to help them see how easily data can be misinterpreted or twisted to fit a certain group’s agenda. One student was struggling with the word ‘misconception’ in a summary. I mentioned that it is a emotive word that really can only be taken negatively and asked them to choose a word that didn’t add their own opinion to what the author was stating. To this student, they couldn’t understand why this was ‘adding’ to what the author was saying since this student was certain that the writer would agree with them. For those who are not familiar with the nuances of the language, this can be really difficult to understand just as it would be for us in their culture and language. Providing students with vocabulary without the proper tools to understand the cultural or emotional understanding that drags along with it is not very helpful. We need to help them see the intricacies of the language that can be clues to the reader or the listener to what the author is really trying to communicate. When we don’t take the same amount of care or time as writers to think about these changes, we start to fall into the same trap of failing to be critical in our thinking.

Even in this post, I have likely chosen a few words that tip the meaning in one direction or another, giving you the reader insight into what I was attempting to communicate “between the lines”. Some of that was intentional, some of it done out of naiveté regarding the baggage that comes along with the things I was saying. My hope is that we can become more aware of what we say and how we say it when communicating with others, especially online. It is in this forum of almost faceless communication that words become even more valuable, and potentially dangerous.

* This example is taken directly from the article by Min-Zham Lu “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone” 

4 thoughts on “Choosing

  1. Interesting point and one that might be difficult to pin down when comes to different levels of communication and people involved in the communication process. I like what Freire says about reading, “The reading of the world preceds the reading of the word.” Our previous knowledge play a huge part in understanding what we read and also hears as I understand it, and because of that even if someone makes the right choices regarding vocabulary, still the reader might not be able to grab the message as it was intended. I know your point is about writing. But let’s consider the reader too. In an online communication, as in any other circunstance, there ought to be more exchanges than just assumptions. Instead of making assumptions, we could ask questions about a particular point not with the interest of proving a point but to understand what the other person is really trying to say and then take the dialogue to another level of discussion.

    For instance when you say that,

    “words and phrases that are being used by teachers and other educators contradict the information they are sharing”

    Does it mean that the beliefs stated by the teacher, in this case that “we ought to be more open to students differences and becoming more aware of the need to think of students as part of the learning process” does not match the activities/tasks/exercises, communication between the teacher and the learners, etc.?

    So in your comparison of the two instance, 1) the teachers beliefs and 2) the teachers practice you concluded that there is a discrepancy. Or seem to be one?

    “but the vocabulary being used shows a side that keeps the teacher in the seat of power and control, doling out punishment to those that don’t conform.”

    What words do you think would demonstrate this power/control with more proeminance in the teachers/educators discourse?

    I wonder when I am socializing my beliefs and narrating my own experiences whether they might come accross to others as contradictory. Although contradiction in this case might not be clear-cut as the choices we make on a daily basis does not depend only on our beliefs, but also they are a response to the demmands and beliefs of others imposed on us. As I prefer to see the classroom interactions as an endeavor to achieve more understanding not so much about others but about myself, I tend to see those dialogues for understanding even when they occur in L1 with my learners/colleagues as an attempt to understand them.

    Next read of your post will be reflecting on the role of the teacher as you state here: “We need to help them see the intricacies of the language that can be clues to the reader or the listener to what the author is really trying to communicate. ”

    I’m glad to be back on reading blogs. Your blogpost always makes me think further. Thanks!

  2. Wow, thank you for the comment, Rose. Very insightful and complementary as always, even if you may disagree on some things. To me, you are a good example of someone who understands how to communicate online with others. Thank you.

    I think we are generally on the same page, Rose. My point, whether it came across well or not, was that we do carry in a load of assumptions and beliefs into any conversation, whether that is in writing or reading as you stated so well. Yes, my post was on writing, but the reason I wrote this post is due to the role of being a reader online and noticing things that could have been interpreted incorrectly and may even be harmful. My hope was that others would take more time to think about how this could be seen through the various lenses.

    I am careful to give the example I mentioned in the post as I do not want those who wrote it to think I am targeting them. To be honest, this particular phrase gets used a good deal online and I don’t think those who use it are entirely sure what they are communicating. It is a common enough phrase that people do know that it carries a negative connotation, yet they choose to use it when talking about certain students. To me, someone who uses this phrase to talk about this group of students would know that it is communicating a controlling type of language, but still use it. It may be just simple carelessness, or it may be deliberate. Either way, it communicates more than the words themselves do. And it isn’t just me who sees it. Others inside and outside of the educational community make comments that reflect the same understanding that I talked about in the post. It was actually for that reason that I chose to write the post. Sure, I could just say the phrase, but as I said in the post, it is a broader issue that needs to be addressed. Therefore, I will still keep from sharing that phrase.

    I will give two different examples which float around on social media circles. The first is this: “Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer deserves to be” or some variation of that. This quote has been around a long time and has been reworked in various forms where ‘should be’ is substituted for ‘deserves to be’. No matter how you read that, it is communicating something beyond educational technology. It is making the assumption that the person who is being ‘replaced’ has deliberately chosen to teach the way they do. Also, it states that there is a standard that is set and measurable about what is the best way of teaching, and you don’t conform to it. No matter how you slice it, it is harsh and undeserving.

    The other example is a sign that has become popular amongst teachers to put on their classroom door. The one variation I have seen the most says, “Sorry about the laughter, volume, chaos, and mess, but we are learning.” This bothers me on many levels and what it is stating is that unless we have all of those things, you aren’t learning. Also, it starts with the word ‘sorry’ as if to apologize, but it is that ‘rub-it-in-your-face’ type of apology which says they really aren’t sorry at all. Instead, they are saying, you are too traditional and conforming and unless you change, your classroom will be boring and awful. My question is, what about the introverts who work best in quiet and orderly systems? Are they not learning unless they are loud and chaotic in their approach? What about those who don’t want to be the centre of attention? Are they holding things back for others? It is a loaded statement and I don’t think people who share it actually think through what beliefs they are communicating by posting this sign on their door.

    It is difficult because even in my sharing these examples, I am communicating my beliefs and are stating that those who use these are wrong. To be honest, I am making assumptions that may go beyond the scope of what is being said. I am only trying to give some examples of how things can be interpreted differently than the words themselves. This is why we need to be careful.

    Well, that was a blog post on its own. Sorry about that. I probably should have cut things off earlier. I’ll leave it there and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this as well.

  3. Nathan it is so good to discuss your blogpost and your ideas. It not only help me understand you better but also to get to know you better. I can see much clearly now that you expanded your thoughts in this dialogue with me. Thanks for taking the time to read my comment and reply. I appreciate that.
    There is a great benefit of revisiting a text, rereading it more than once and revisiting our own beliefs. I try to be descriptive with my own posts and refrain from judgments which I know it is hard thing to do. I use a model that I learned years ago during a CPD in my school to guide my practice, which has been benefitial ever since. That is planning the action- putting into practice/observing – reflecting – re-planning – and so on. The most difficult part in this model had always been to use the appropriate language, something that I have to say improved a lot with blogging. Then, through iTDi Courses with John F. Fanselow I learned that are instances of the language I use which offer different views of the same situation. This year course with John FF my focus is on analysing my class transcripts/events. It takes time and effort on our part to improve on something and avoid things like the ones you point out to happen. That takes reflection but in the right away. If we reflect through our judgmental lenses and lacking careful examination of what we do and say, it will not only be biased but probably as you mentioned above the statements will be a form of prejudice which as teachers we gotta be very careful about. I feel now much more confident to also work on this with my learners in class. I have been using different forms to promote reflection with learners and soon I’ll be able to help them see what is opinion, judgment and facts. 🙂

    There is always more to say… especially me! I love have conversations. 🙂

    Big hug from not so sunny today Brazil!

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