Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say (if you can)

When my wife and I were dating, we had a discussion about lying. We had probably been listening to some Hank Williams’ lament about cheating hearts and the conversation wound its way to truth and truth telling. These were the kinds of conversations we had before children ruined our brains.

In typical English phd fashion, I told her that we can do nothing BUT lie. Truth, whatever that may be to each of us, resides in the brain and we are only capable of using symbols (words in this case) to try and capture that truth. Since symbols are never the things they represent, we will always lie to each other. I’m sure, at such a moment, she was wishing she had married a chemist or kinesiology major.

This conversation comes back to me at the ISSOTL conference here in Hamilton. I’ve listened with great interest as people try and develop a language that seems suitable for discussing teaching and learning but we are failing. It’s certainly no fault of the participants (myself included). This is my first time here and I will say I’m impressed. First, this is a conference where people wear jeans and seem genuinely interested in teaching and learning. Many conferences about teaching and learning are peopled by suits who are really focused on networking, job hunting, or seeking their next consulting gig.

But even here, earnest as we are, the terms are elusive. If we discuss students as “change agents,” what do we mean? Change what? Agents of what? I think the group-speak might assume some liberal, progressive agenda, but what about other change that challenges our assumptions of education? Do we want those change agents? And, someone wondered, change agents for whom? We in higher education server a variety of contradictory masters, not the least of whom is our own intellectual ideology, like politicians, students, parents, administrators, the public, and others.

This difficulty of communication really struck home in a discussion of undergraduate research yesterday. We asked questions regarding the impact of changing demographics on undergraduate research. The data tells us that students who engage in undergraduate research projects are more likely to persist to graduation, but our anecdotal experience tell us most students who participate in undergraduate research are white, economically privileged students with high entrance scores. In other words, these students would have graduated anyway. Would participation in undergraduate research help the economically underprivileged student with average scores graduate? More importantly, once we dig down, would that student even want to do undergraduate research as we define it? Our undergraduate researchers must dedicate hours to either lab time or individual library time and, if at all possible, travel to conferences (they are like mini-mes). The kid not particpating probably works 20-30 hours a week. When in the world is she going to go to class, work in the lab, take 3-4 days off for a conference, and work to pay her rent and increasingly high tuition? She’s also not doing a study abroad in case anyone is interested. Have we forgotten in higher education that when most people travel it’s called a vacation and they don’t get paid for those days?

My point to my wife way those many years ago wasn’t that truth doesn’t matter or that I planned to cheat on her someday. My point, made badly by a boyfriend to a girlfriend seeking reassurance (she married me anyway), was that we have a tendency to waste our time playing with words. Yes they matter. Lord knows everyone realizes that our words can be used for us or against us when the bean counters in the administration or the government meet and it’s important for us to play the buzzword game, but we of all people must realize it’s a game.

Instead, we need to ask other questions about worthwhile programs like undergraduate research, change agents, and study abroad (etc). As we struggle with the best ways to teach students, instead of getting hung up with definitions, we need to ask who our programs are inviting to the table? And why those people in that way? And, perhaps most important, we need to stop worrying about what we call it and focus more on who are calling. Most of all, there are times when I have to remind myself that talk doesn’t cook rice, as the Chinese proverb tells us. We can’t always know what we mean, but we can always mean what we do.

Academics are an easy lot to make fun of. I’ve been to conferences and heard papers about “Queering Hawthorne” and seen presentations arguing that video taping student presentations helps the improve (one–who cares?; two–not duh?), but the papers were delivered by people struggling to understand the world around them and working hard to articulate those ideas in ways that would help students think and explore the world around them.

The ISSOTL conference has the same kind of people: honest, good folks trying to help students think critically, become good citizens, find jobs, and, at the end of the day, become smarter. Even if we have no idea what any of those words mean.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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