COLUMN: When There Are No Words
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 20:10
You are sitting in class, perhaps diligently taking notes, maybe absentmindedly drifting from thought to thought as the lecture’s test-worthy terms pop in and out of daydreams—suddenly—the professor is yelling, pacing the length of the classroom, and gesturing frantically! If daydreaming, you refocus, scan the board and projector, and realize, with some confusion, she is yelling about the impact of colonialism on the self-perception of the native peoples of Africa and its reflection in literature. I hope everyone has witnessed this—maybe not about post-colonial literature, maybe not yelling, but excitement—too much excitement for the seemingly inconsequential details of scholarship.
An overly excited professor works himself into a frenzy over the variant script forms used by Essenes in Qumran or (substitute the minutia from your scholarly field of choice here). Having been with this professor for the better part of the semester you can see the importance, understand his excitement, and feel the excitement yourself. The weight of an entire field of study, thousands of hours of research, hundreds of years of scholarship, rests on a bullet point of a slide. You are about to reach the summit, from which you will be able to survey the vast expanse of knowledge—like Simba surveying his future kingdom.
You then leave class, meet a friend for lunch, and try to describe to them your momentous trek up the mountain of knowledge. You fail miserably. Your friend’s face displays a mixture of boredom and confusion and you smash into the disappointing limitations of your expressive abilities. Part of this may be attributed to the differences between passive and active skills, as one can understand the technical language of a field much sooner than one can speak it fluently. The real limitation lies, however, in the fact that descriptive, effective language shrinks one’s circle of discussion partners.
The further into any field you progress, the more technical vocabulary you acquire. Examples of this can be found in any upper-level course that requires some previous knowledge of the subject matter. Classes like this assume some knowledge of the discussion at hand and largely skip descriptions of the most basic aspects of the field. This is extremely important, as this is where progress is made, where learning happens. If you had to retrace the entire history of your field for every class before you began with the topic of the course, you would never learn anything. As a bonus, technical language is super fun. Or, at least, the ability to communicate is fun. Whenever someone jokingly (or not so jokingly) refers to himself or herself as a nerd, or admits to nerding out over a reading for class, it is because of technical language. The linguistic ability to express the importance of the things you find most important is thrilling. The problem is, the moment you are using the most descriptive language is the moment you have the smallest audience. The only people who will be able to understand your reference to “trophic cascades” or “imagined communities of romantic nationalism” are those who have also spent time with the subject.
The limitations of effective, descriptive, and exciting language are present at every level of communication. As experience and learning become increasingly more specific, it becomes increasingly important to foster the ability to relate our learning back to general knowledge. Working to “make relevant” the knowledge that is being refined within a field seems backward. The nuances and caveats of the technical language have to be glossed, in part, to make sense of the material for those not trained in the field. This makes it seem as though things are being dumbed down, but the process of distilling that mound of facts and arguments into the essentials is the process of learning. If you cannot place your specific, technical knowledge within the framework of your field and then within the broader context of general knowledge, you have not learned much.
Because of the above, two things become surprisingly important: metaphor and the core curriculum. It is vitally important to be able to draw examples from material outside your area of study that explain your findings and make sense to a wider audience. If you cannot do this, you will be stuck talking to those nerds in your major-restricted philosophy (biochemistry, math, poly-sci, etc.) courses. They are not all that bad, but you do not want them as your only company. To utilize effective analogies and metaphors you need a ground of common knowledge. The job of the core is to provide this, among other things. Real learning is a theology student describing the importance of biblical interpretation to a political science major using the constitution as an analogy, or a chemistry professor referencing a medieval historian to make sense of a complex reaction. Learning is in the communicating. Go teach someone something you learned today.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.