Sunday, May 1, 2016

“Bizspeak” as Newspeak: George Orwell and the Language of Higher Education

by Mark DuCharme
A colleague recently called my attention to certain problematically vague phrases from the Colorado Community College System (CCCS)’s 2015-2025 Strategic Plan.  The phrases listed below reminded us both of George Orwell, for reasons which shall be explained if they are not indeed already evident to those familiar with his work.

Key Strategies
Key Performance Measures
Operational Measures
Transform Workplace Experiences
Measurable Outcomes
Hybrid Educational Delivery
Redefine Value Proposition
Culture of Inquiry
Evidentiary Decision-making
Disrupt Old Models
Summative Analytics
Learning Object Repositories
Education without Barriers
Value Proposition
Engagement Strategy
Feedback Solicitations

Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950) (“George Orwell”) published, in the last few years of his life, two of his most significant works, in my opinion: his masterpiece, the novel 1984, and an equally provocative essay titled “Politics and the English Language.”  Both works, despite their obvious genre differences, are political in motivation and make the argument (though in the case of the novel, perhaps less overtly) that language use can have political implications insofar as it can affect thought, meaning and understanding.  In other words, shoddy language use ultimately leads to shoddy thinking, and the result of that is that citizens become more likely to think uncritically, accept questionable claims, and so become more pliant.  Orwell was particularly concerned with the political consequences of this phenomenon; while I share his concern, I would extend it to include the consequences to our profession, as such shoddy language use becomes more commonplace, and thus more accepted, even in academic settings.

For most who teach in higher education, it should come as no surprise to learn that certain buzzwords are now the norm, at least in emails and other communication from administrators, department chairs, and the like. In addition to the terms listed in the document, other familiar jargon includes such phrases as “student learning outcomes,” “student success,” “teaching with technology,” ad nauseum.  Not all of these phrases are inherently meaningless, depending on how they are used, of course.  Some, arguably, are unavoidable.  But as Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade notes, in John Huston’s classic film The Maltese Falcon, “look at the number of them.”

And indeed, the volume of jargon use is growing, almost exponentially, within higher education.  How can this be?  Aren’t the learned, after all, supposed to be less prone to the use of clichés and buzzwords?  Isn’t the avoidance of such prefabricated usage often part of what we (are supposed to) teach?

To understand why this growing use of jargon is problematic, it is helpful to look more closely at Orwell.  While it is widely known that his 1949 novel 1984 paints a picture of a dystopian, futuristic and totalitarian society, few who have not read the book grasp the subtleties of Orwell’s critique.  While there are other points to consider, the one relevant to our discussion here is his notion of “Newspeak.”  To fully understand this term, some background may be in order.

Orwell introduces his readers, just a few pages into the book’s opening chapter, to the concept of “Newspeak”: “The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue in Newspeak— was startlingly different from any other object in sight” (Orwell, 1984 7).  One of these startling differences is, indeed, the slogans prominently displayed upon the building’s exterior:


Since each of these is an oxymoron, Orwell’s irony should be immediately evident.  One soon learns that “Newspeak,” the “language” these slogans exemplify, stands in contrast to “Oldspeak,” the former language of “Oceania,” the country in which the troubled protagonist Winston Smith lives (a fictional nation clearly intended as a reference to England).

Without going too deeply into the subtleties of the plot, its twists and further references to language and its obfuscation, it ought to be clear already, even to those unfamiliar with the book, that the turning of meaning on its head through official jargon (“WAR IS PEACE,” etc.) has something to do with the way that the character known only as “Big Brother” maintains his totalitarian control of Oceania and its citizens, including Smith.

Of course, all regrettable political consequences cannot be characterized as totalitarian.  And certainly few if any academic institutions can be characterized in such a light.  The claim I am making is not such, but rather that, even perhaps among well meaning colleagues, sloppy language use leads to regrettable outcomes.

Orwell makes this claim even more explicitly in his 1946 essay:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts….  A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. (emphasis mine)

Aren’t academics, no matter the discipline, supposed to be critical thinkers— or in other words, “people who should and do know better?”  Surely such critical thinkers, such erudite scholars and writers, would not and could not accept such bureaucratese, such vague and often thoughtless and, indeed, uncritical language use.

But yet we have.

I do not claim that there hasn’t been grumbling from colleague to colleague in shared or adjacent offices, at departmental or even social functions, or the like.  I do not claim that things haven’t been whispered, or in some cases private emails exchanged.  But by and large, we have just accepted it.  And the reason— the larger reason, which I will only point to and hint at, but not fully analyze or examine in this missive— is that the professoriate itself is a bit on the defensive these days.  Most professors at most institutions are adjuncts and have little pay and even less job security.  Since many of us work second or even third jobs in order to support our teaching “habit,” or else overcommit to too many classes at too many institutions in the wild hope of making ends meet, we have little if any time to analyze the rhetoric of administrators’ emails we constantly are barraged with but seldom if ever read.  Our more fortunate tenured or tenure-track colleagues, or the equivalent, may also be distracted from such analysis, since at many institutions tenure itself is under at least implicit threat, if not outright attack, and many at institutions at which this is not yet the case are understandably just a little bit concerned.

Yet, without getting into the host of problems raised by the lack of meaningful shared governance at many institutions, including mine, or the perhaps even greater number of problems which result from vastly unequal pay for equal or comparable professional work, let me get back to the problem with language use in the academy, focusing on the examples from the CCCS’s 2015-2025 Strategic Plan.

As I noted earlier, while some of these problems may be unavoidable, just about all of these examples are vague, and many are outright nonsense.  I seriously doubt that any of them would pass muster for Orwell, were he alive today.  I also doubt that most would pass muster in student papers, at least for the best writing professors.

To clarify what I mean, let’s look more closely at the “bad [writerly] habits” Orwell pointed to in his essay.  Among other things, Orwell cautioned against the use of “dying metaphors,” “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words” (“Politics”).  Where, I would ask, is one or more of these faults not evident in the document in question?  I find very little meaning in any of them (e.g., “Redefine Value Proposition”).  The vast majority are vague to the point that would, I imagine, have made Orwell cringe.  (What, for instance, is the difference between “Key Strategies,” “Key Performance Measures” and “Operational Measures?”  Do these phrases mean anything individually, and if so— which I doubt— in what way do their meanings substantially differ?)  Many of these phrases (e.g., “Disrupt Old Models,” and my personal Owellian favorite, “Learning Object Repositories”) sound like little more than contemporary corporate or business jargon— what might be termed “Bizspeak,” in other words.

Indeed, I would argue (with the exception of “Culture of Inquiry” and perhaps one or two others) that that is essentially what they are.  And I would argue that Bizspeak is our contemporary equivalent to Orwell’s Newspeak.  And Bizspeak has of course taken over the corporate world (as those of us who teach but also hold second or third jobs therein know far too well), but that, I suppose, is to be expected.  But Bizspeak, like a rampant virus or infestation, has now spread to the academy.  (This is of course at least partly the result of the attempted neoliberalization which has been going on since the 1980s, but in fuller force more recently.  However, that is another matter which is beyond the focus of this essay.)

Orwell argued in “Politics and the English Language” that “the decadence of our language is probably curable.”  If he was correct, in that text written about two or three generations ago to a broad if literate audience, then I would argue that now, in our era of incessant and execrable linguistic corruption— if you doubt me, just try grading a stack of undergraduate papers with any eye to good writing, competent rhetoric and clear meaning; or else, just try reading what passes for journalism these days, on much of the Web and at least sometimes print—then I would argue it must largely be up to “people who should and do know better,” in Orwell’s phrase— to set things right for the future of education , writing, scholarship, and especially of the profession.  Those people are academics themselves, as well as writing teachers at all levels; those people are writers, scholars, thinkers and all who recognize the problem Orwell pointed to and its contemporary application.  We are those people, and I think it is largely up to us to do something about all of this.

While it may, of course, be unwise to reply to the college president’s email with a rhetorical analysis critical of his jargon— and while many of us are sadly powerless to otherwise resist the encroachment of “Bizspeak” into the already jargon-heavy vocabulary of our profession— there are at least two things none of us is powerless to do, whether one is a first-semester adjunct or a distinguished emeritus full professor or a scholar or writer currently not teaching.  We can all resist the encroachment of Bizspeak into our own thoughts; this may sound simple, but indeed it is probably the more important and more difficult of the two tasks, given the ubiquity of this new “language” in our world.  Yet if you accomplish this first task, the second should be relatively easy: We can all resist the encroachment of Bizspeak in our own writing and communications.

As people who profess (yes, there is a pun there, and it is intended) to be scholars, teachers, writers and thinkers, isn’t that what we should be already doing?  Isn’t that the least we can expect of ourselves and our students, and, indeed, that our profession can expect of us?

Works Cited

“George Orwell.”  Encyclopædeia Brittanica.  Encyclopædeia Brittanica, Inc., 2016.  Web.  26 Apr. 2016.

Huston, John, dir.  The Maltese Falcon.  1941.  Perf. Humphrey Bogart.  Warner Brothers, 2000.  VHS.

Orwell, George.  1984.  1949.  New York: New American Library-Signet Classics, 1964.  Print.

---.   “Politics and the English Language.”  1946.  Mount Holyoke College.  Trustees of Mount Holyoke College, n.d.  Web.  26 Apr. 2016.

Strategic Plan 2015-2025. Colorado Community College System, Aug. 2012, 1-12. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.