Buzz words — not words about bees (though there is plenty of noise about bees these days in higher education and beyond) — but words and phrases that get reiterated often enough that when one hears them one of two things happens: a kind of droning, buzzing sound occurs such that the word disappears and is rendered meaningless OR the word of phrase seems to screech and swirl, filled with more meaning than one can even imagine. Either way, buzz words and phrases both summarize and, alas, sometimes stand in for actually doing something. They often refuse — or at least resist — analysis. They are deployed to identify sides in debates — or positions in politics.
Examples abound. Here is my top 10 list of buzz words/phrases for the day. They appear here in no particular order. In most cases, I share the values — I just want to nudge us to express ourselves more clearly. And, more importantly, to be heard as deeply and seriously meaning what we say. So, here are a few “provocations” around some of our favorite buzz words.
1. Diversity: I actually care deeply for the ways higher education is — and is not — diverse. By this I mean at least the following aspects of diversity: ecological diversity (viz., that there are a range of kinds of educational institutions and that these are not homogenous); representational demographic diversity (among students, faculty, staff, boards of trustees, etcetera) in terms of gender, race, class, socioeconomic status, etcetera; intellectual diversity (by which Imean not that all ideas are equal, but that where there is legitimate controversy, multiple approaches are evident); curricular inclusiveness (this is not a balance argument, but an accuracy argument); and more. I used to prefer the phrase “inclusive excellence” devised to make very very evident that excellence and inclusion (aka diversity) are not opposites — and thus a phrase deployed against those who imply that excellence means that diversity is impossible.
Diversity does matter; there is evidence that it has educational benefit. And yet, we are failing to sustain a system that is more rather than less inclusive — both on financial grounds and on many other grounds. We are allowing whole genres of higher education to wither away (coordinate colleges; single sex colleges; HBCUs; religious institutions of some sorts). And, we are failing on the economic diversity front, as taxes pay for less and less of higher education’s costs. Equally concerning — we continue to be a society where some populations are more likely to be in prison than in college, and some, well, not so much.
Perhaps, like those who moved to the phrase reproductive justice from many other preceeding terms, we want to enforce a commitment to educational justice — access, graduation, affordability, and inclusion.
2. Excellence: What college seeks to be mediocre? Not one that I can find. What does excellence mean specifically? I return to Bill Readings here, The University in Ruins. If excellence is empty, how will we know if we achieve it — or fail to do so? I would return to Monty Python, but I have never really been a Monty Python fan — and so will leave that to you, fair reader.
3. Transformation: Apparently, higher education in the United States is bent on change — changing individuals (and transforming the institutions themselves as well). The words frequently means the change from childhood to adulthood, or from a life where one’s passions remain unknown to a life following one’s passions, or from a jobless future to a powerful and meaningful future. We are transformed by it — and we transform it — in an endless loop of change sometimes dubbed “continuous improvement.” Yes, education should be life-changing. Hence, colleges that change lives. But (and I do mean but): what does this mean beyond a marketing assertion? And, is it really a floating signifier for . . . what?
4. Accountability: I believe we ought to do what we say and say what we do. I fail sometimes, but I do believe this. And, I believe that higher education is not exempt from the need to do so. Nor are we exempt from the need to provdie evidence for our arguments. And yet, we seem to be constantly treated as though we are utterly unaccountable unless and until we offer our arguments in a form that is peculiarly driven by politics. Am I wrong? Probably. But does that provoke a useful discussion? I hope so.
5. Global: This term seems, in many instances of mission statements, for example, to be a synonym for international. And, yet, elsewhere it has a distinct meaning that is particular to an understanding of globalization. The latter seems to me to be a key scholarly and theoretical use, while the former seems to mimic a kind of popular meaning. Here, for example, terms abroad, those long lost children of the world tour of the 19th century, seem to be assumed to be about education rather than tourism. And, global citizens, are I think, assumed to be both responsible citizens and, perhaps, capitalist citizens. Yes, I think recognizing and reflecting on both the nation state (and its demise), as well as global (and local) interconnectedness is critically important for us all. Education is not an isolationist project nor ought it be an imperialist one. Hmmm.
6. Entrepreneur: This is, like much of the language of higher education these days, an import from the world of business. And, it is an intriguing one — like innovation, and nimbleness, for example. Each of these reminds us not to be stuck in a rut. And, it reminds us to make new things. More importantly, it reminds us of what I take to be a core academic value: to avoid being risk averse. Entrepreneurs are not risk averse. Yep — that is the whole point of academic freedom, right? If you are not sure that the terms higher education (or college or university) and entrepreneur belong together (except, peerhaps, as a program within a business school), click here and see what you think.
7. Work Force Development: This seems to me to be a long-widneed way of saying that we need to be employable. And, of course, we do (well, most of us do). The question is: what is a route to being employable? Is that the best way to ask what the best education is? How are words like career, job, work, different? Are they also similar? What about having a meaningful work life? Hmmm.
8. Interdisciplinary: Ok, this is one of my favorites. There are a whole range of related words: transdisciplinary, antidisciplinary, nondisciplinary, disciplinary, etcetera. All of this is really about how we organize knowledges — and whether working together across areas of intellectual engagement is important. Yes, it is. And yes, we have institutionalized areas of inquiry, labelled them disciplines (and disciplined ourselves to perform them in certain ways) and then deemed them a-historical transcendently important entities. Not so much. But: not all work across intellectual areas is alike. And not all disciplinary work is bad. So: what counts? Why do we value it? How do we value it?
9. Value Added: Here is another business term that is popping up everywhere. It is important — what do we get for our dollar? For our engagement? For our work? What is the value added (not to mention our value proposition)? Here I just have one provocation: in what way are values (as in morals, ideals, etcetera) related to this use of the term value?
10. Student Debt: Yes, debt is too high for students emerging from higher education in recent years. (Or perhaps recent decades.) And, I am concerned. We all should be more than concerned; we ought to worry. W ought to do more than worry; we ought to act to change the world of higher education to avoid this. The term, though, often masks the human realities of the problem — and that is why the term is on this list. The reality is, actually, worse than the phrase indicates for many many people. Too many.
Of course, this list could go on. But, for today, this was a list on my mind, and a few comments, hopefully provocative enough to get you thinking — and commenting away.