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Jonah Fabricant '10: A retreat from pedantry

As shopping period ends and books are cracked open, most new members of the Brown community make an acquaintance they didn't encounter during orientation. This meeting is a veritable rite of passage: an introduction to the strange academic jargon that reverberates off the walls of every department and classroom on campus.

Professors at Brown and their admiring students are incredibly fond of developing jargon. Sitting down in an introductory class in any discipline is likely to feel like stepping into a new country with its own language, norms and expectations. Learning how to talk the talk in your area of study is half the challenge of your first year.

This is all well and good. Working with complex ideas and methods would be nearly impossible if we didn't have shorthand ways of referencing them, and academic buzzwords are hardly unique to Brown. However, when used outside of the classroom, academic jargon has a different and rarely desirable effect.

This is what the editors of GQ magazine were implying when they labeled Brown the "douchiest" college in America this summer, partly because our students are most likely to toss around the word "hegemony." The Herald's editorial rebuttal ("A letter to the editors of GQ," Sept. 9) did a fantastic job of defending us from the charge of "douchiness" on most fronts, but declined to take on GQ's charge that Brown graduates annoy their coworkers with self-important verbosity. There's a good reason for this: the description of the offense is probably true and definitely "douchey."

This particular GQ criticism cuts deep because many Brown students do tend to get carried away with their use of complex terms. Empowered by their new academic lexicon, students from the Ratty to the SciLi start to sprinkle these terms about indiscriminately. Words discovered in discussions of French literary criticism or theoretical physics seep into our everyday conversations — where they don't belong.

The most obvious reason these terms shouldn't be thrown into casual conversation is that it often leads to their abuse. I cringe every time I overhear someone in line at Jo's talking about a process that is "totally dialectical" or "subversively heteronormative." More often than not, usages like these are just fancy ways of dressing up mundane observations, like "those two things are opposed" or "I'm gay, and that offends me."

When this is the case, bringing these words into the picture is unnecessary at best. After all, academic jargon is intended to increase clarity; used in the wrong social context, it instead serves to obscure simple points and exclude the uninitiated from the conversation.

This leads to the other reason casual use of specialized vocabulary should be avoided. As the GQ editors observed, using these words makes you sound like a douche. Even if the usage is perfectly appropriate, the more erudite among us could do everyone a favor by doing a cost-benefit analysis before dropping the big ones. Think: Is the added precision I would gain by introducing an unusual term worth the resulting loss of simplicity?

Including everyone around you in a conversation is an undervalued courtesy. While some people on campus are tempted to throw in references to their studies in order to impress their friends, they would do well to remember that just knowing and using academic vocabulary is not a point of pride.

Though misuse of academic jargon is grating, my criticism shouldn't be taken as advice to avoid the difficult concepts these terms are meant to describe. One of the unique aspects of life at Brown is the opportunity to make friends with people in other disciplines and to learn from them. You might have noticed that there's a decided lack of certain kinds of jargon in this piece. I tried to avoid using as examples terms I wasn't completely comfortable with.

Any familiarity I have with concepts from outside my discipline comes from conversations with friends immersed in different fields and jargons. People can and should discuss what they are studying and how their fields might intersect or conflict. Instead of using rarified language to have these exchanges, undergraduates have the opportunity to sit down and really explain difficult ideas to their peers. Such conversations can be infinitely more informative than trying to pick apart arguments in an unfamiliar field on your own.

Also, first-years who do run into a lot of particularly verbose jargon fiends should know that Brown provides resources to help demystify their musings. Undergraduates living on campus can make free use of the Oxford English Dictionary online. The OED covers specialized academic words you won't find in Webster's. Once you start using it, you'll quickly realize how much you'll miss it once you move off campus or leave Brown.

I have nothing against intelligent and rigorous discourse, but students at Brown would do well to think about whom they are speaking to and whether academic jargon is the best way to reach their audience. If they did, we might be able to work our way down to second-douchiest college next summer.


Jonah Fabricant '10 is a public policy and philosophy concentrator from West Orange, New Jersey. He can be reached at jonah_fabricant (at) brown.edu.
 




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