Sunday, March 24, 2019

Too Secure for Words: Academia's Plain-Language Problem

I recently heard a news story on WESA-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Pittsburgh, on a program at the University of Pittsburgh on coding. It seems that some zillions and zillions of jobs are going unfilled nationwide, and some eight thousand in the Pittsburgh area alone. The story said that mid-career professionals who were contemplating a career change was the perfect applicant they were looking for the program.

Now, some of the details of the story escaped me because I tend to lose the broadcast about the time I pass Robinson Town Center west on 376, but they story made it sound like Pitt was practically giving away slots in this program, and that all kinds of financial aid would be offered, etc. Of course, this sounded too good to be true, and it was no doubt just my imagination filling in the gaps in the transmission anyway.

A drawing I created in a Pitt studio class I took as an elective in 2007, taught by Kenneth Battista.

As an adjunct college instructor, by definition I am always contemplating a career change, so over the weekend I went online and sought some more information. First, I searched "WESA," "University of Pittsburgh," and "coding." The only stories that came up were from 2017, not 2019. Then I searched just "WESA" and "University of Pittsburgh." Bingo. The term of art was "cybersecurity."

So I went to Pitt's School of Computing and Information web page, and sure enough, they referenced the WESA-FM story; apparently, it had been part of a big push to publicize their program. They had a link to "Request Info."

When I clicked on this, it took be to a form to fill out that for all practical purposes was a semi-application: name, address, highest level of education, contact information. At first I balked, but then I filled it out. There was a pull-down menu that asked me to identify the program I was interested in.

Of course, neither the word "coding" or "cybersecurity" appeared on the list. There was a certificate in big data analytics, telecommunications, and something called "security assured info." I took a wild guess that "security assured info" equaled "cybersecurity." But it was only a guess.

My curiosity completely satisfied, I immediately lost any interest in pursuing the subject any further. But it brought to mind how incredibly obtuse academia can be.

The incident reminded me of another six years ago, just after I had earned my PhD at Pitt. The administrator of the Department of History of Art and Architecture, my program, asked me if I planned to apply for a Visiting Lecturer position; there had been an email sent out, and the deadline was the next day.

I had received such an email, but I had assumed that it was an announcement about somebody visiting the department and offering a lecture; in the throes of turning in my dissertation and completing other stuff in preparation for graduation, I had ignored it.

Mind you, I understood that graduate students often hung around the department teaching for an extra year or two; but in two years as an undergrad and six as a graduate student, I had never heard that position referred to by the term "Visiting Lecturer."

Of course the application required a number of letters of recommendation that could not be requested in time, so I lost a full semester of employment. But this had been only the most recent in a long series of frustrations I had experienced in academia because of obscure terms.

A pop art piece I created from blown-up clip art in the Commercial Art program at the Livonia Career Center in 1979, under instructor Dan Welch.

There are lots of phrases - colloquia, curricula vitae, seminar, and so on - that exist in higher education but that people seldom use and no one ever defines. One is expected to absorb such terminology by osmosis - what Pierre Bourdieu terms habitus (not to mention zillion Critical Theory terms like habitus - don't get me started), or you will be completely fucked.

Now, I'm a pretty dense person, but even I can get the hang of something if it's an actual thing, and if a subject is explained to me (or at least the information exists somewhere that can be located). I can pick up the lingo if it is actually what people call things. (I recall it took my years to discover that the hyper-intellectual gibberish surrounding contemporary art was called critical theory or simply Theory. Go figure.)

But to have terms like "security assured info" and "Visiting Lecturer" and never use them in everyday speech is to keep a list of passwords that the uninitiated will never find. It's willful obscurity for the sake of obscurity.

Academia is filled with such blind spots (if blind spots can be described as filling something); I can't tell you how many times I missed opportunities in my eight years at Pitt simply because there was no correspondence between everyday language and a list of technical terms that only appeared on forms and applications.

There are other barriers in college - there is more to this habitus thing, in other words, than merely language. Most careerist academics who make it in the highly competitive fields of humanities research, for example, are at least second generation academics - they come from families whose parents are tenured professors. First-gen scholars who come from the skilled trades, such as I - my parents were talented people who worked with their hands - lake the proper collegiality (meaning dishonesty and an instinct for ass-covering or plausible deniability) to make it into the tenured ranks.

But plain language - of the lack thereof - should be an easy one to overcome. That obscurantist language persists in academia indicates that higher ed is still run by people who are really only interested in pulling up the ladder. If you're not familiar with that term, look it up.

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