On The Role Personal Insecurity Plays in Academic Discourse
In David Bartholmae’s article “Inventing the University”, he states that in order for the student to succeed in the university as it was currently (1985) constituted, the student must, “invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language, while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand and the requirements of convention, the history of discipline, on the other.” The “mimicry” of language and terms in the academy is one that I’m fascinated by twenty-five years after the initial publication of this article.
As an undergraduate Philosophy major, I found myself in situations that mirrored the kind Bartholmae speaks of in his quote. I would be in class discussions in which I had limited prior knowledge on the subject at hand and yet was expected to articulate arguments as if I had already been taught the material. This experience was incredibly disheartening for someone who was interested, but did not know that the way to knowledge in that field was to learn as much of the language as possible and never let on that you didn’t know the rest. I ended up switching majors to English. Now, obviously some of this is a bit of an exaggeration. There were students in the Philosophy courses I took that did understand the language and concepts and went on to succeed in that discourse. I do not believe, though, that everyone was honest with the amount of material they knew. It seems to me now that most of what went on in class discussions was not dialogue, but simply a linguistic smoke screen of technical language devoid of new ideas or understanding.
In other words, one coping mechanism for finding yourself in a public situation where you don’t understand the language is to throw out an idea and use terms that you hope will confuse people to the point where they just nod their heads and agree with you. The problem with this process is that the idea you’ve suggested never truly gets engaged, while at the same time, you walk away thinking you had some sort of intellectual breakthrough; when really all you were able to do is to distract those in the room from thinking about what you were actually saying.
Where does the inclination to mask our true knowledge come from? Why are we so often afraid to own our ideas once we put them out to be evaluated in the academy? The answer, may be simpler and at the same time, harder to swallow then we realize. Peter Elbow in his article “Reflections on Academic Discourse” identifies one of the main reasons this kind of linguistic smoke screening occurs in the academy: personal insecurity. In reading his student’s work, he claims to hear in their writing, “a note of insecurity or anxiety”. This doesn’t end with the students, either. He goes on to say that he’s “noticed that faculty members are usually more anxious than students about sharing their writing with each other. Of course faculty members have greater reason for anxiety: the standards are higher, the stakes are higher, and they treat each other more badly then they treat students”. In his analysis, Elbow has called out a key problem that is occurring in academic discourse. Those members that feel the need to throw up the aforementioned smoke screens are afraid of something.
Some may say that fear and anxiety is a natural part of the experience of the academy; you must learn the discourse in order to be able to feel comfortable contributing to it. I would not disagree with this. There is a sense in which some kind of learning must a occur. The thing I would disagree with, though, is that for many students entering the academy, knowledge is expected, not taught. I would further argue that using language that excludes people does not help to “weed out” those who are not worthy of contributing to academic discourse. Rather, it rewards bull-shitters and counterfeiters. This does nothing the help the university. In fact, it means that the academy is pulling out some of the good plants with the weeds. Students learn to focus on the way in which they present their topics and learn that they will be assessed not for their ideas, but for their method of presentation.
This problem is a cancerous one. Some may argue that universities are graduating just as many “competent” students as they ever have. They may enter a college classroom and hear technical terms thrown around by twenty and twenty-one year olds and get the impression that real learning is happening. The problem, more specifically though, is under the surface of all that we see in the academy. In rewarding the counterfeits, you graduate thinkers who are great at using all the right words. But they may not be as prepared to come up with their own ideas as their degrees say they are. If the academy is not a place of creativity, it becomes like a dying solar system. It spins and spins and spins, and eventually dies because what the academy doesn’t need is mimicry; what is necessary to the existence of the academy is honest, risky, “I think I want to create a means by which computers can interface with each other through wires” type creativity. The academy must constantly be in conversation with itself in order for it to fulfill it’s role in society (the creation of new ideas and the criticism of current ones).
Finally, the ability to think critically and come up with new ideas is not something that we as a society can afford to only expect of a few elitist linguistic experts. If technical language keeps a certain sector of the population from learning skills that will help them become more responsible consumers of ideas (the argument here being that consumers who don’t evaluate ideas before they consume them could accidentally consume something toxic, and then pass on that toxic idea to someone else to consume, causing the chain to go on, unbroken), then the university is doing the rest of the society a disservice. And for what? So that a few students and professors can sit around in musty libraries, smoking pipes and feeling smug about the fact that they can use the word “didactic” in a sentence without having to explain in the vernacular what they mean by it?
The answer to this problem is not to destroy the academy. It’s not even to banish technical language. What will help this problem is to lose the bullshit. Instructors need to reward new ideas, even if they aren’t expressed in the language of the academic journals. Create classroom spaces that can be accessed by both those with technical knowledge, and those new to the discourse. This is, in fact, the harder way to structure the academy. It requires honesty and transparency in every session by both students and teachers. Both have to risk failure and being wrong in front of their peers. The benefits, though, are so great, that it should make it worth the risk for those of us intending on being a part of academic discourse for years to come.
 Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing Problems. New York: Guilford, 1985.
 Elbow, Peter. “Reflections On Academic Discourse: How It Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues.” College English 53.2 (1991): 135-55. NCTE Journals. Web. 30 Aug. 2012.
 Elbow, 147
Justin is a BIOLA graduate and is currently a Graduate Teaching Fellow studying creative writing and literature at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, Ca. His work deals mainly with issues of identity. He’s currently working on a collection of short stories (and possibly a novel). He’s been married to his beautiful wife, (and creative muse) Kaitlyn for just over a year and a half now.