The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday September 23rd

Column: Cut out, or explain, the jargon

It’s so late that it’s now three in the morning, and you have to get a reading done for a class. But you keep reading the same paragraph over and over, drowning in superfluous terminology and words you are failing to comprehend. And you implore the academia gods above to provide some understanding of the material, or at least give you a less long-winded and verbose text next time.

I think we’ve all been here at some point. 

Reassuringly for students, the more ingrained in a discipline you become, the more comfortable you will be speaking its language. The problem is, once you become fluent in a discipline’s vernacular, you forget what it was like to struggle to comprehend the language of the material. You no longer sense the distance you once felt between yourself and the wordy code you learned to crack.

This is a complex that makes academic language inaccessible to most people. Outside the insular hold of knowledge in universities, how can people get their hands on the public policy initiatives or the histories that directly impact them? How can we make academic writing both relevant in their fields but accessible to the masses? I think it starts with cutting out unnecessary jargon. 

Sometimes changes in a subject’s language merits explanation. The shift from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ is a classic example; ‘global warming’ is both a simplification of extreme environmental conditions where some areas of the world are getting hotter and some colder, and the term ‘global warming’ carries with it a lot of stigma. 

On the other hand, climate change captures the range of long-term effects, mostly caused by humans. And while it recognizes that the earth is warming on average, it captures a wider array of environmental consequences. 

This ever-changing language landscape can have the unintended consequence, however, of leaving people on the fringes of academia behind. 

This is a call for simplicity and clarity in academic writing, as well as a call for us all to demonstrate the principle of charity in conversation — seeking to understand the speaker’s point as opposed to pulling apart the words they use to express that point. 

Linguistics are descriptive, not prescriptive, meaning the substance of what people say far outweighs how they say it. 

At the DTH, we even have a “style guide”, which serves as a resource throughout the editing process so that there is some cohesion in the articles we publish. It includes niche, technical prescriptions, but also provides rationale for verbiage and stylistic choices with cultural implications — such as the capitalization of Black when talking about race. 

Professors can do the same in creating an accessible terms list, defining and contextualizing relevant vocabulary that would help all students start on the same footing.

There are often valid reasons for being precise in the words we choose, but when we get caught in the weeds it can make conversations exclusive. We should be striving to welcome more open conversations in academia, and this comes from being inclusive in our language, first and foremost. 

@savannahfaircloth

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