Category Archives: academic

If it is L, it must be Language

Yesterday I was reading along in my current brain candy book (Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King if you must know) and came upon a felicitous phrase. I stopped and savoured the phrase. “There are only six results, a very small catch in the vast fishy sea of the Internet…” I sat in the coffee shop, sipped my double cappuccino and smiled at the image of “the vast fishy sea of the Internet.” Nice work Mr. King. Well put. Words are fun, and words well connected can be beautiful. I wish more academics tried to find felicitous phrases for their work.

In my (becoming) infamous Epistemology post I talked about Language and how words help us figure out what we know. In that post there is a long quotation from Rowan Williams’s book, The Edge of Words, about the interplay between words and knowledge. That book is one of the best I’ve read on the importance of Language. It is not the easiest book to read – there’s lots to think about. As I read it I had to keep stopping to think. If I was with someone, I’d read out the paragraph that made me stop to think. Not everyone found the ideas as fascinating as I did, but if you like Language, find a copy of the book. Read it.

Recently I’ve read some different books that deal with Language. In the one I’ve not yet finished, one language, an alien tongue spoken by exotics from another world, is always called Language. It has a capital L. Native speakers of Language cannot lie. Humans who learn to speak Language (and only a few humans can actually do so) can lie in Language. Native Language speakers find this ability fascinating, and try to do it themselves. Because Language does not allow for lies, Metaphor is impossible. Metaphors are lies. Similes are possible in Language if the point of comparison actually exists. The point-of-view character in the book has been enshrined in Language as a Simile because she performed an action at one time. One Simile in the book has to repeat his action every week so the verb-tense in his simile is correct. I’m only half-way through, so I’m not sure where this book is going, but lets just say that there is a Language-centred Crisis on the planet in question. If you want more of this, read Embassytown by China Miéville.

In two other books, both by Salmon Rushdie, language games and stories told play a large part in the narratives. Haroun and the Sea of Stories has more language games. The sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life refers to more cultural stories and traditions. Both of these books exemplify the beauties of language in many ways. You should go read them.

Language is an enormous part of who we are and how we think. We forget that sometimes because it is so close to us and obvious. Sometimes books that tell us stories about Language, or play with language, or take us to the edge of words help us remember how vital language is to us, and how beautiful it can be.

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K is for Knowing

I talked about Epistemology, the discussion of How We Know Things, previously in this blog. This is a twist on that discussion provoked by some recent reading.

The recent reading provocation came from a book called Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. In this book Ward convincingly argues that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia to represent or embody the character associated with the seven planets of the Ptolemic astronomical system followed in the Middle Ages. Lewis describes this system in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ward argues that the Narnia books then embody the images of the planets, so that, for example, the Jovian character is embodied by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When we read The Discarded Image we contemplate the medieval world system; when we read Narnia we enjoy it.

Lewis distinguished between knowing a thing by contemplating it, and knowing a thing by enjoying it. In what has become a famous example, Lewis talked about a light beam seen in a dark toolshed: the beam can be seen and contemplated from outside itself, or can be enjoyed by standing within the beam and seeing other things by its light. Light is difficult to describe when one is enjoying it. Everything else is illuminated by it – it pervades our understanding of everything around it. We contemplate something from outside; we enjoy it from inside.

I found an example of the difference between knowing about something and experiencing it in 1 Kings the other day. The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, and after she had been given the royal tour and conversed with the king, she said “It’s all true! Your reputation for accomplishment and wisdom that reached all the way to my country is confirmed. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself; they didn’t exaggerate! Such wisdom and elegance—far more than I could ever have imagined.” She’d heard reports, but these reports were nothing compared to the experience of being in Solomon’s courts and conversing with him.

Then I got to wondering if one’s worldview (often cultural) is an example of things we enjoy first, and contemplate later. We are immersed in our view of the world. It pervades the way we understand everything. It includes attitudes toward others that are often described by –isms: ageism, racism, sexism. We see from the outside other worldviews or cultures, and contemplate them. It is fairly easy to poke holes in the things seen from a distance, from outside. It is much harder to see the faults in things we enjoy from the inside. It is also difficult to listen to others criticize our worldview or culture, the lights we see by. I wonder if we need both to learn to step outside and contemplate our own thought-system, and also figure out how to get inside and enjoy another. Lewis thought one way of doing this was reading literature. I think he may have been onto something there.

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Jargon starts with J

Wikipedia, that omnipresent source of all online knowledge, has a nice reflection on the usefulness of jargon. Jargon helps those who are members of a particular field communicate with one another. At its best, it aids communication. At its worst, of course, it is exclusionary, allowing only people within smaller and smaller circles to understand what is being said or written. The smallest circle is the circle of one, where the author/speaker only communicates with him- or herself.

When I began this alphabet, I thought I’d be discussing Academic Jargon At Its Worst, the sort of exclusionary use of language that can make outsiders resentful. (That kind of jargon is discussed and defended over here.)

I have been accused of using that sort of language myself. Once I suggested that our church youth group study be on the Pentateuch. My co-youth leader said, “But I don’t think you should call it that.” My response was why not call it that? Pentateuch isn’t a difficult word. It is used by scholars, sure, but it is also understandable to many outside the scholarly world. Why not use Pentateuch, and define it, thus expanding the vocabulary of our youth?

I try not to use language in a way that obfuscates meaning (look it up), rather to be clear in what I say, realizing that I do need to define words I use at times. I think that sometimes Academic Jargon becomes a problem when people start talking about a concept, using vocabulary that can be misunderstood. Definitions are important. Of course, sometimes Academic Jargon is used to confuse people on purpose. That sort of confuspeak should be avoided. Clarity is a part of the point of academics writing. We generate knowledge, and should pass that knowledge on in appropriately understandable language.

Jargon can be a helpful shorthand for insiders in a field. It can also impede communication. How do you use words? Do you provide definitions, or at least allow people to ask for definitions as needed?

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I is for Interpretation

I is for Interpretation.

This could have been an H-word: Hermeneutics. H, however, was reserved for Historiography, my current nemesis. Interpretation, or Hermeneutics if you prefer, can also be difficult, though we do it all the time without really thinking about it.

Interpretation can be difficult particularly when texts that come from a context very different from that of the reader. I am a Protestant woman, living in the twenty-first century in Canada. That is a brief description of my context. When I read a text by (for example) a Catholic woman living in the fourteenth century in England (Margery Kempe), I have difficulty understanding that text well. In order to understand Kempe well, I look for information about her historical and geographical context. I look for information about how she might have used the English language differently than we do at present. Then I can begin to see how she might make sense in that context.

Lots of times in theology, when we talk about Interpretation (or Hermeneutics) we are talking about reading and understanding the Bible well. Reading the Bible well is much more tricky than reading Kempe. The Bible is made up of ancient documents, with the most recent being almost 2000 years old, and the rest much older than that. Further, these documents were originally written in Greek and Hebrew, and are often accessed in translation. Languages are used differently in different places and times. I’ve written about the process of figuring out the figurative use of language in the Psalms in this blog, where bones could stand for the whole body, or possibly be figurative language for the essential core of one’s being. Our current figurative use of bones in English might be completely different than the figurative use made of bones 3500 years ago (or more) in Hebrew. Sometimes we forget that when reading works in translation.

Interpretation – we do it all the time (you are reading this and assigning meaning and weight to it almost unconsciously as you do so), we too easily forget that we need to do it (what do bones represent really?), and often we need more information to do it well. What does this mean? How can I better understand it? These are the questions that begin Interpretation.

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H=Historiography

Historiography is the fancy-pants word for the writing of History. It also means a theory of how to do this writing of History. Since I’m working on writing about a woman who is dead, that means I do historical writing. Historiography, both the method I should use and the writing of this History, plagues me.

How do we access the past? Memory. And then if the past we access is outside living memory, we used documents and artifacts, things left over from the past that can be studied and read. All documents and artifacts require interpretation, which will require another entry in this alphabet. It’s a good thing I comes after H.

There are all kinds of ideas about and practices of writing history. One way of writing and thinking about history is the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory turns history into biography, where only some biography counts – the lives of Great Men, whatever and whoever they may be. Note the non-inclusive language. Only Men need apply for greatness in most versions of this theory. While many historians have turned away from the Heroes Make History! way of thinking about the past, I think this kind of historiography infects many of our ways of thinking about the world. When defining “greatness” in humans, we think about history and how history will evaluate people. Those who are remembered are great. The rest of us are not so much. If history has not remembered a person, then they must not have been great, or had much influence. I’m not at all sure that this is true. I’m also not at all sure how to counter this reduction of history into biographies of the great.

Other ways of thinking about history include the shape and trajectory of history. Is history circular and thus repeat itself? Or should we picture history as a line moving toward some future end yet to be revealed? Does the line trend upward (progress!) or downward (doom!)?

This entry took me ages to write. I’ve been thinking about it and writing it and re-writing it (both in my head and on paper) since the last entry in this alphabet was published. I have several ideas of metaphors that undermine and counter the Heroes Make History! line of thought. There’s also quite a lot to say about memory, documents, and artifacts. In the end, I’ve talked most about the historiography that I think is faulty and infects our thinking, but given you nothing to replace it. Keep reading.

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G, Great.

Great starts with G. Please don’t confuse GREAT with GRATE, we aren’t going to cook today. (That was grating but it got the urge to make that pun out of the way. Finished groaning? Good, let’s go on.)

In this academic alphabet, Great will also stand in for other often-used evaluative words, including, but not limited to, the following: significant, important, pivotal, seminal. Most people who think, teach, and write about their thinking have some fond idea of being evaluated by their peers and successors as a great, or significant, or important person in their chosen field. They’d like to be outstanding in their field, though they are not farmers. (Sorry, pun filter slipped for a moment there. Got it back. Let’s go on.) But what does it mean to be Great?

There has been some thought lately about what might or might not make a nation great. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Great Men theory of history. But no one seems to be able to clearly say what it is that makes a person great. Is it what they do? What they think? Who they influence? And why do we strive after greatness? Or do we strive after fame, and think that means we’re great? Is greatness equivalent to fame? Or is something else going on?

So many questions, and the answer probably is “it depends.” In the dictionary something or someone who is called great has qualities significantly above normal or the average person. So a great book is significantly above the average or normal book. A great thinker is significantly above the average or normal thinker. In order to figure out whether anything is great, we have to know what the average or normal level is for that thing. I’m not sure we do that well at all. What criteria do we use in our evaluation? Do we call something great just because we LIKE it? And, since no book or person or idea is perfect, what imperfections might topple the item from our pedestals of greatness?

I think it might be more helpful in historical writing (which is what I’m working on at the moment) if things were just allowed to be interesting, and we didn’t always have to argue that something was Super Significant or Great or Seminal. Are average or normal events not worth speaking of?

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F=Force

Last summer I read a book called Woman as Force in History. I have an old, worn, paperback edition printed in the 70s (the cover design gives it away), but the book was originally published in 1946. In it, the author, Mary R. Beard, argues that women have always been part of history (the events that actually happen), they are just neglected or forgotten when the stories of what happened were written down. I will probably come back to Mary R. Beard’s views on history later in this alphabet. Today let’s talk about her use of the word FORCE.

As you may or may not recall, my first degree is in engineering. Aerospace engineering even. Rocket Science. This means I did a fair bit of physics, and even taught physics to high school students for a while. I keep finding physics words popping up as I read theology and history. I find I am not particularly fond of the way physics metaphors are slung about in these other disciplines. Beard’s title is my way into this particular rant.

I will concede that Mary R. Beard may not have thought of her phrasing “woman as force” as provocative or even having anything to do with some guy Newton and classical mechanics. She wrote this book in the shadow of the second world war, when forces deployed meant armies and navies and air forces. Air FORCE – that word again. Possibly she meant Woman as Force! to suggest an army of women acting through history. She does not, however, clarify her particular use of the term. I kept thinking of physics and F=ma and W=Fd and vectors. (To translate briefly: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and Work done equals force applied multiplied by displacement. One notes that if one combines the two equations, Work=mad. Hmmm.) Beard’s use of the term FORCE was slightly distracting and reminded me of all the other times I’ve seen physics metaphors that don’t quite work when one knows something about the physics.

Other physics concepts that have been more distracting than helpful out of context:

Quantum anything. Most recently, I’ve noticed a book called Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. This appears (I’ve not read the whole thing) to take up the idea of quanta, discrete bundles of energy, and talk about this idea as if it explained God. The author is a woman of some talent and energy, but I’m not sure why she thinks it necessary to dabble in quantum metaphor, something physicists themselves claim is difficult to understand well. (I had a flashback moment when the author turned out to have written the songs and been part of the nuns singing on “Joy is Like the Rain” one of the few vinyl records available to play at camp when I was growing up.)

Uncertainty, as in the Uncertainty Principle (is the cat there?) or Relativity. These ideas are so often poorly used in general conversation and thought that I hesitate to talk about them here. Please do note that in physics, uncertainty applies at the atomic scale, that is, when things are very very small. Relativity applies when things are moving very very fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Despite what the movies say, we don’t know how to travel that quickly.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces. I encountered these two in a book I otherwise liked very much. I tried to find other words to substitute for them to get past the fact that I kept using physics to shoot down the author’s literary arguments because of his poor choice of metaphor. I think his arguments had merit despite the metaphors.

Possibly no one else finds the poor use of physics metaphors distracting. Let me know what you think. I think people should stop using these metaphors unless they know the physics.

May the Force Be With You.

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E…e…e…e… Epistemology!

Epistemology starts with E.

You know that is a good thing. But how do you know? That is the really big question isn’t it. How do you know? Epistemology. That’s how you know.

Now, if you google “How do you know” you find a movie, and apparently “That’s How you Know” is some kind of movie song. Knowing if someone really loves you is all anyone actually wants to know, at least on the internet. Epistemology doesn’t help with that. I bet you could do well if you wrote a song on Epistemology – there aren’t enough philosophy songs in the world. Oh wait! There’s a song called Epistemology!! Humph, never mind, it is mostly about love again.

OK, Epistemology, how you know. Words are part of figuring out what we know. Language is how we express what we know, but also how we find it out in the first place. Here is a long and interesting quote from Rowan Williams that plays around with language being part of how we know:

“Yet language is unmistakeably a material process, something that bodies do; so thinking harder about the oddities of language may help us see new things about bodies, indeed about ‘matter’ in general; it may open up for us some thoughts about how the material world carries or embodies messages, how matter and meaning do not necessarily belong in different universes. And the sheer diversity of the ways in which meaning is embodied and communicated should leave us with some puzzles over the way in which speech generates such a huge amount of apparently superfluous untidiness and eccentricity. Instead of moving calmly towards a maximally clear and economical depiction of the environment, our language produces wild and strange symbolisms, formal and ritual ways of talking (not just in religion), a passion for exploring new perspectives through metaphor and so on. Unsurprisingly, it also learns how to use gaps in its flow, moments either of frustration or of overwhelmingly full significance, moments when we are brought to silence, as part of its continuing search for an adequate response to what is ‘given’, the search for ways of ‘making sense’.” [From the introduction to The Edge of Words, Bloomsbury, 2014.]

E is for Epistemology, a word that stands for all the ways we explore what we know and how we know it. Words help us make sense of the world. Part of the way we know what we know is by talking about it. Epistemology: more than just another love song.

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D is for Dialogue, internal and otherwise

Self: So if I write this as an internal dialogue, is it really a monologue?

I: And if there are three internal speakers, is dialogue actually the word to use?

Me: But loads of people use dialogue for conversation between more than two speakers don’t they?

Self: Back up, back up, why on earth do we want to talk about this word anyhow? We should start there.

Me: Right, right. Ok. Why do we want to talk about “dialogue”? I? You seem to have some ideas about that.

I: Two reasons. First, I keep saying that my teaching style is “dialogical”. I want to unpack that a bit. Second, I’ve got this conference paper on dialogue in children’s books teaching the Bible and theology, and I think more research in that area could be interesting.

Self: Hmm. Ok, so let’s talk about the teaching style thing first.

Me: Well, what do we mean when we say our teaching style is dialogical? What does an ideal classroom look like when teaching is dialogical?

I: That’s just it. An ideal dialogical classroom is not ideal at all in many ways.

Self: Yeah, everybody talks at once, lesson plans go out the window in the first five minutes, and the same idea gets hashed over so much it is dead by the time class is over.

Me: But that just means that the ideal dialogical classroom is different from other ideal classrooms.

I: Sometimes I think it should actually be the DIOBOLICAL classroom, instead of the DIALOGICAL classroom.

Self: Ha!

Me: Don’t interrupt. An ideal dialogical classroom is one with a small enough class (possibly fewer than 15 people in the room) to have a real conversation about the topic to be covered. A real conversation involves people listening well to one another, not just formulating their own fixed response to the points being made. It also involves a lot of preparation by everyone involved, not just the teacher. And teachers in this case are really facilitators.

I: But that is most of the problem isn’t it? No one prepares adequately. I might be prepared as the teacher or facilitator, but if no one else is prepared then everything goes sideways.

Self: Does it actually go sideways or just in random non-predicted directions?

Me: That’s the other thing about dialogical teaching. We need to be prepared for the unexpected, and allow things to go sideways if sideways is where the conversation goes.

I: I guess the thing I find frustrating is when it feels like I’m doing all the heavy lifting and things actually don’t so much go sideways as nowhere. Sideways could be interesting. Nowhere is not.

Self: Yeah and in all those conversation books, the adult or teacher manages to keep things going, either by telling the children or students when to stop being ridiculous, or by giving the information in the actual lesson.

I: No, not always, there’s that one book where Mother and Mary are discussing what Mary has read. Those are more like the ideal Me described. Plus there’s only the two characters. But the adults in those books do direct conversations pretty obviously. Can teachers ever direct conversation?

Me: Why not? If a teacher is a facilitator, then the facilitator’s job is to keep conversation going and keep it going in the agreed direction. The trick is getting an openly agreed upon direction, instead of the facilitator having a secret agenda direction.

Self: Hmmm. We need to think about this more. Can we actually have a dialogical teaching style in a large classroom setting?

I: And can I actually say my preferred style is dialogical?

Me: What about those conversational books? Do they provide guidance for this kind of teaching, or is it all about adult coercion?

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C=Cite

That’s right, cite is today’s word, as in cite your sources properly. Always provide citations, not sightations. The trick with cite is it has homophones. They tend to throw people off their game. Let’s review these tricky sound-alike words.

CITE – the word for today, refers to listing or naming the source of a quotation.

SIGHT – has to do with seeing, and if it is a noun, it could be something that you see, often that is extraordinary. Tourists go see the sights of the place they are visiting.

SITE – has to do with a location in space, or cyberspace. An archeological site is the place people are digging. A website is a location in cyberspace.

To really mess it up, it is possible to cite the site you caught sight of the other day. Or you could sight-see at the archeological site you saw discussed in the article you cited.

One more time:

CITE – make references to books or other sources of information

SIGHT – the ability to see the things around you or (possibly) the things you are looking at around you.

SITE – locations in geographical or cyberspace.

Don’t mix them up.

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