Contrary to popular belief, humanities courses are not meant to facilitate the passing of knowledge from wise, old professors to eager, young students but rather to indoctrinate students with an inscrutable pseudo-scientific jargon, vomited from the depths of Derrida's tortured soul. In the natural sciences, technical terms have necessarily been developed to describe brand-new phenomena. But the liberal arts have adopted a vague vocabulary with two functions. It is a gauntlet thrown down to the students daring to think they can understand academia, and it is an infinitely moldable putty for filling careless cracks in theories and information. An academic willingness to skim along on a smooth surface of jargon may simply be lazy, but to the student, it is one more way to sequester academic knowledge in an elite and unknowable realm.
But please, theory wonks, don't think we are "othering" you. While we are interested in problematizing current jargon and perhaps reifying our discontent, we would merely like to explore the tension inherent in creating a safe academic space that constantly exploits the exclusivity of language.
Jesus Christ. Let's try that again.
We are not really condemning the more esoteric areas of study but rather trying to gain some perspective on the language used to describe their abundant theories. In fact, the use of more colloquial, clear, and specific language would allow more democratic access to the theories. Specific terminology can of course be an irreplaceable tool in understanding complex ideas. The problem is that this academic language is not always specific or conducive to learning.
This is unfortunate given the unbelievable opportunities for knowledge available at Columbia. It may hit you when you are descending the marble staircases in Butler at 3:00 a.m., or when your seminar runs a half hour overtime, or when you end up in a conversation about comparative welfare states in 1020. We vibrate at such a high frequency that the number of opportunities can be overwhelming. Many of us spend four years striving valiantly to pack all the classes we find exciting into eight short semesters. How many times have you heard that "Major Debates with Mamdani changed my life!" or "Hey, my professor wrote my high school textbook!"
But the ivory tower is not an immediately warm host. In seeking an education, students must ingratiate themselves by mastering lofty vocabulary. Even if professors are not deliberately contributing to this atmosphere, there is still pressure among students to spout off in rather unnecessary terminology. The effect is hard to deny. Students think they sound smarter than other students when they use certain words, creating shibboleths for the academic elite. The keys to academia become lexicon instead of logic, rhetoric instead of reflection.
Part of the problem may stem from efforts by the humanities departments to differentiate between their approaches. An anthropologist confronts an issue from a different perspective than that of a historian or a sociologist, and therefore seeks a slightly different vocabulary to reinforce the difference. At some level, however, this has descended into frivolousness. In our age of interdisciplinary studies, efforts at differentiation often seem unnecessary, even petty.
As students, we must accept our culpability as well. Try as we might to deny it, there is something sexy about speaking the cool kid language. No one wants to get caught looking up "epistemology" on Wikipedia. Somehow we all contribute to the culture, an unhappy byproduct of our communal love of learning. That, and our Hobbesian competition for grad school recommendations.
So, besides our collective sanity, what's at stake? We would argue the honesty of our own conversations, academic or otherwise. When someone talks about the "other," they are making nonspecific reference to elements of oppression, unfamiliarity, and fear. All "others" are not the same, and yet we can spend at least one session of every post-colonial class dedicated to arguing over who is and is not the "other" without actually learning anything new. These traps make it easy to sound intellectual without having genuinely engaged with the issues.
Perhaps by eliminating jargon like "other," we would be forced to more accurately describe what we are discussing. Rather than being "othering," is an action racist? Provincial? There are a million ways in which oppression can occur, and we reject the idea that there is anything productive about coming up with blanket terms, shiny and new from the pomposity wing of the Academy.
We would like to clarify that this is not an attack on elevated speech or eloquent expression. We are not out to attack "elitist liberal universities." In fact, we're huge word dorks. But accuracy is critical to the effective use of language in academia. If we are to take advantage of Columbia's embarrassment of academic riches, we may have to rethink the way we talk about them.
Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and African studies.
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