Word choice is more than semantics


I recently read through some of early posts on here. I’ve been at this for over five years now, and I’ve evolved over that time. (As I hope all people evolve!) I’ve learned quite a bit, and I do things differently in a variety of ways.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that I have steadily shifted a lot of the terminology that I’ve been using for topics in the practice of science, and teaching, and higher education.

Words matter. Words usually have clearly established meanings, and when we take some phrases or words for granted without considering the subtext or implications of word choice, we can have some serious miscommunication.

A recent and extreme example of the Wrong Words was in a new theoretical paper that just came out in the Journal of Ecology, about models of sexual conflict in plants, in which maximizing the fertilization success by an individual can reduce fecundity of the individual being fertilized. The paper calls this mode of reproductive conflict “sexual harassment.” Considering the very clear meaning of sexual harassment in the human sphere, it does seem inadvisable to apply this to plants in 2018, eh? (By the way, if you’re looking for a party to blame here, please take a look at the lead editors of the journal and not the author or handling editor.) The journal is dragging its feet at making amends for this error in judgment, and this choice communicates a lot about unspoken priorities.

I’ve used a variety of terms in the early years of this site that I no longer use, or I would use in a different context. I thought I should be explicit here about some of these changes, because I think the meanings of these words can be consequential.

In the earlier years of Small Pond, the tagline was “research in a teaching institution.” Now, I look at that, and I cringe at that word choice. At the time, I was using the terminology that people used. And, for the most part, the terminology that people still use. But I realized over the years that using the terminology that other people use reinforces incorrect stereotypes and I needed to choose other terms, or come up with my own. I don’t think I’ve landed on a perfect way to talk about different kinds of universities, but I think using the terms “research institution” and “teaching institution” is a huge disservice to the community.

What’s my problem with the phrase “teaching institution?” I hope it is obvious: every university is a teaching institution. The University of Minnesota is a teaching institution. Cal State Dominguez Hills is a teaching institution. Yale University is a teaching institution. The University of Central Florida is a teaching institution. Arizona State University is a teaching institution. You get my drift. Do you have students and they’re being taught? Do you have faculty who are teaching? Guess what. You’re a teaching institution.

What’s the problem with “research institution?” Same thing, every university is a research institution. It’s an extraordinary disservice to the faculty and students of any 4-year institution in the US to call it a “teaching institution” so long as original scholarship is a part of job expectations.

You might have noticed that, of late, I’ve been opting for the terms “teaching-focused institution” and “research-focused institution.” What’s the distinction? Well, I do think that in the US, nearly all universities are either primarily focused on research, or primarily focused on teaching. Both universities might invest into both, but when push comes to shove, one really matters more than the other. Maybe you can be convinced of then when you look at tenure criteria of institutions, and what structures how decisions are made about what people really need to do to get tenure. At a teaching-focused institution, a person with great teaching and weak research might be able to get tenure, but poor teaching and great research won’t do the job. And the converse for a research-focused institution.

As for some other university terms that I’ve used here. The term “R1” is technically out of date — it used to be a category in the Carnegie Classification system, but they changed things up years ago. They apparently also wised up that broad university classifications are not that useful. But “R1” is still a term of art among folks to indicate universities that are major research institutions with a lot of grant funding and large doctoral programs. It’s where most of us get our PhDs, even though few of us return back to work at an R1 as faculty. So the term “R1” is useful to think about the narrow academic world experienced by doctoral students, and “non-R1” encapsulates the larger academic sphere that is typically less understood by those who have become professional academics within R1s.

Another term I’ve used here appropriately and inappropriately is “MSI,” for a Minority-Serving Institution. This is a broad category that can mean a variety of different kinds of institutions, including HBCUs, HSIs, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and so on. It’s hard to generalize about MSIs, though I’ve often done so in the past. A term that I’ve used once a while more recently is PWI – Primarily White Institution. That’s not a federal designation but I think it is can be a useful term to understand the composition of a student body.

I didn’t start out this way, but I’ve been using the term “regional state university” to describe campuses like the one where I am working now. I think this is a useful one, too.

I used to use the term “URM students” more often than I do now, and I now am very cautious to use it appropriately. URM stands for Underrepresented Minority. It doesn’t specify whether it’s about ethnicity, or other identities (such as first-generation in college, or immigrant, or having a disability). The reason I’m not too keen on URM is that it’s such a neutral word, but it’s describing a completely non-neutral phenomenon. It simply states that people in certain groups are in the minority, but it doesn’t say how or why they’re in the minority. It absolves the folks in the majority for creating the underrepresentation problem.

That’s why I’ve been more keen on describing folks as “minoritized,” rather than “underrepresented minority”. By saying “minoritized,” this places the responsibility for the underrepresentation in the hands of the people operating the institutions.

Another term that I’ve used previously, that I think should be used far more narrowly, is “disadvantaged.” On the face of it, it just says that a person doesn’t have the same advantages of other people. But what kind of advantages? Are we talking about money and access to prestigious institutions, or is there an implicit suggestion that the disadvantage might somehow be intrinsic, with respect to ability or motivation? Disadvantaged is too vague, and also too sterile. Instead, I’ve been saying “marginalized.” This term explains not that someone has disadvantages for some unstated reason, but instead, that they’ve been placed on the margins and that is what is inhibiting their access to institutions.

I used to refer to some institutions as “elite,” as this is very common terminology. However, I’ve come to realize that the use of that term reinforces false stereotypes about selective institutions. The term “elite” implies that the institutions themselves have higher degree of excellence than less selective institutions. Of course, some institutions are better than others. I think anybody who looks at UMBC (for example) will see boatloads of excellence, but still, it’s rarely if ever called “elite,” because it’s not focused on selectivity. If I don’t want to talk about institutional excellence, but instead talk about the advantage associated with highly selective institutions, then I’ve been using the word “prestigious.” Because, frankly, the education that students get at my institution, which scores low on the prestige-o-meter, is typically better than they’ll get from highly prestigious institutions up the road. And is the research coming out of my lab any less excellent than the research at “elite” institutions? Or from the other people in my department? We don’t publish a jazillion papers per year, but quality is high. So what makes elite places excellent? The architecture? So, we’ve got to separate excellence from selectivity, and that’s why I avoid “elite.”

For similar reasons, I’ve been steering away from “adjunct faculty” and now tend to say “contingent faculty,” unless it’s a person who has an adjunct appointment as a courtesy and an honor, rather than an opportunity to work hard for scant pay. When I was in college, I was in one class taught by an adjunct professor, Intro to Judaism. The professor was the head rabbi of the big temple in West LA — he came to campus once per week to teach this class as a visiting expert who wasn’t stringing together teaching gigs to barely pay the bills. He really was adjunct faculty. But “adjunct” typically fails to capture what the job usually is.

Another area where terminology is really difficult is describing the way that we teach in lecture courses. The terms “lecture,” “flipped,” “group-based,” and “active learning” tend to come with a lot of assumptions. What “lecturing” means to one person is often different to someone else. Lately, I saw a great operational definition of what constitutes “active learning” – it’s what happens in a classroom when the students are doing anything other than watching the professor. I think, as long as I keep explaining what I mean by the broad umbrella term “active learning,” I’ll stick with that one.

As for the term “mentoring,” I’ve previously explained how I think a lot of people are using the term “mentoring” wrong, and I’m careful to distinguish mentoring from advising, sponsoring, and supervising.

So, here’s my point: words matter. Even if they don’t matter to you, they matter to other people, and so that’s why they should matter to you. Because we should care about how other people perceive our words. That’s the whole point of communication, after all, is being perceived correctly. (I realize this might rankle some animal behavior theorists, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.) Some folks might read how I’m being picky about words and think this is about “political correctness.” To that I say: balderdash! The whole concept of “PC” is driven by a philosophy that it’s okay to go through life without considering the perspective of those who are being marginalized by their words and actions. I’m choosing my words to be more accurate, and in an effort to respect other people.

Have you changed how you’ve used some words in recent years?

3 thoughts on “Word choice is more than semantics

    • Thanks for the correction! I wondered what was up with the wikipedia page! So no more RU-H-3.4-mX$ and such, it seems. I think these classifications are like Myers-Briggs: they might mean something, but some folks read way too much into them.

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