I study, teach, and write about things that non-English professors also encounter every day: words and images.
A defense of jargon? They do it in the sciences so why can't we in the humanities?
I love the examples used to illustrate the jargon used by literary scholars.
You know, the everyday words of literary scholarship.
The Professor Evan Gottlieb, the author is certainly tuned into a serious problem when he begins with what is certainly a very accurate summary of his experience with students' opinion regarding their high school English and Literary Reading experiences.
"When I tell people I'm an English professor, I frequently get one of several responses. When it's "You're not going to correct my grammar, are you?" I can reassure them that I won't (even if I can't help doing so in my head). Then, depending on the nature of their memories of high school or college English classes, I often hear something along the lines of "I always liked/ hated a) reading novels, or b) writing essays about them." Those who disliked English are usually satisfied when I respond sympathetically; those who remember such activities fondly are generally happy to reminisce about them."
These recognitions are probably not too far off in verifying the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts 2004 (updated in 2007) studies.
see 2004 report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America: http://www.nea.gov/pub/readingatrisk.pdf
see 2007 update To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence: http://www.nea.gov/research/toread.pdf
Those reports, specifically focusing upon literary reading, contain startling data regarding the literary reading habits of 18-24 year olds; those who have recently graduated from high school. When asked to self-verify whether they could claim to have read as little as a single poem, short story, novel, or play within the preceding 12 months, only 52% could reply in the affirmative. And, this includes those who went on to college.
In a sense, we might conclude that nearly half of the students in the author's classes were among those incapable of passing the low bar distinguishing literary readers from non literary readers. Do we blame this alarming data on "kids these days" or on "those darned iPods" or on "TV" or the "Internet?"
I don't doubt that literary reading is facing significant competition from other distractions, but what if excessive attention to literary minutiae is also playing a role in turning students off to the pleasures, and thereby the benefits of literary reading?
It is unclear as to whether the author's students are lower division or upper division or graduate students. Among those who are upper division or graduate students, as well as among those who have have achieved "Literary Scholarhood," the use of professional jargon, particularly the jargon reaching the levels of minutiae/sophistication used as examples, is probably appropriate and to be expected by those students who have self-selected a focus upon literary reading.
In lower division coursework, a healthy dose of deeper literary analysis is certainly also appropriate whether students are going on to major in English or not. It is the last opportuntiy to instill an appreciation for literary reading at deeper levels as a life long endeavor. However, at the same time there is a delicate balance between enticing and discouraging lower division students into or away from developing a life long reading habit.
If the NEA reports are to be heeded, should we be concerned that we may be failing at nearly the same rate we are succeeding in that regard; even if reading a single poem, short story, novel, or play in a year is the qualification for claiming success?
And, if we take the same question back to the high school English classroom, shouldn't we be concerned that the NEA reports find an even more alarming finding among 18-24 year olds who do not go on to take any college courses? Among that group, those who can not pass the test of self-confirming that they've read at least a single poem or short story or novel or play in the preceding 12 months is somewhere in the neighborhood of 37%!
There is an argument in favor of scholars' use of sophisticated jargon amongst themselves. There is an argument in favor of scholars using sophisticated jargon with students studying to become literary scholars themselves. And there is even an argument for introducing advanced levels of literary analysis to undergraduates regardless of their future career choices. This is also true in high school. However, on that scale of increasing sophistication of a developing appreciation for literary reading there is a parallel issue of the degree to which that jargon turns away more interest in life long reading than it attracts.
It might be useful to compare the argument made by Professor Gottlieb and the argument put forward by actor AND PROFESSOR Alan Alda, also published today...
"Today, the award-winning film and television star is on a mission to teach physicians, physicists and scientists of all types to ditch the jargon and get their points across in clear, simple language.
The former host of the long-running PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers" is a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science, which has just been named in his honor.
" 'There's no reason for the jargon when you're trying to communicate the essence of the science to the public because you're talking what amounts to gibberish to them," Alda said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.' "
Alda, makes a serious point not addressed in this Professor Gottlieb's article. And that is the professionals in every field need to also consider the impact of their specialized jargon upon the general public.
One need only wonder about those who deny global warming, or evolution, or carbon dating, or who believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time to verify the dismal levels of comprehension upon which a significant percentage of the voting public base their votes.
If the deepest levels of sophisticated learning in science and math and history and the arts proves to only be of perceived value to scholars, then what exactly is their responsibility for passing on the value of their knowledge to the rest of us? If not the scholars, whose responsibility is it?