the weight of words

“Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes, they bring the world into focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception.”
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Confession: I love beautiful words. I enjoy peeling back the hidden meanings in poems and finding the perfect word to describe a feeling. Diane Ackerman is one of my favourite writers and she has the ability to use words in the most sensuous and tantalizing way. Her book, “A Natural History of the Senses”, oozes with luscious descriptions of fragrances, exotic tastes and more.

Words from my favourite poems are sticky in my mind, even years after I first encountered them in university….thinking of the spring as mud-luscious” (e.e. cummings), frost as “spectre-grey” (Thomas Hardy), and a pike having a “malevolent aged grin” (Ted Hughes).

language can sometimes feel like the tangled rosebushes that surround the castle in a fairy tale

While I love how beautiful words can be, I also know that language can sometimes feel like the tangled rosebushes that surround the castle in a fairy tale. Maybe you have felt this before too? Have you ever joined a new group and found yourself struggling to join in discussions because you don’t know the shorthand, the names, or the context needed to understand?

Years ago when I started my MA in English, I discovered the program was much more theory-based than my undergraduate degree had been. I didn’t know the names of all the critical theorists and felt completely out of my depth. It was difficult to join in discussions in or out of the classroom and a part of me felt ashamed that I didn’t know this “language”.

Looking back now I realize that being able to talk about theorists or concepts had no relationship with intelligence or understanding but, at that moment, it felt as though I wasn’t smart enough to be in the Program.

I wonder how many other students feel this way when they encounter a discipline for the first time. Do they feel anxious and ashamed? Is it to be expected as they become “apprentices” in their field?

Another confession: I feel the profession of librarianship is also weighed down with jargon and difficult words. When the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy was unveiled in 2016 I liked many of the ideas behind it but not the dense and puzzling way that it was written. While I love beautiful words, my biggest pet peeve is when things are written in a way that requires a dictionary at hand to read. It felt, to me, that lofty words were deliberately chosen to create the tone of an academic research paper rather than a practical document to support librarians in their teaching and learning efforts.*

From fitness I know that creating an environment where we are working together towards a goal rather than setting myself up as an “expert” or a “performer” is a much better way of engaging all levels of student. For my own teaching I do try, as much as possible, to avoid words (e.g. “iterative”) that might make students feel uncomfortable if they don’t understand. I think it’s also helpful to reassure students that it is okay if they find it challenging to know the best words to search and that it’s normal to feel that an academic article is difficult to read and understand. To talk about my own struggles trying to figure out a new vocabulary of theorists and theories that I had never worked with before.

I believe that if we can work with students to a) familiarize themselves with the language of their discipline (which will affect how they do research) and b) speak about library research in a clear and accessible manner (stripping away complicated language), we can build their confidence to do effective research. So let’s try to tear down those tangled roses around the castle, at least in the library!

So I would love to hear YOUR thoughts on words and language…have you ever felt like an outsider because you didn’t know the ‘correct’ things to say?

*note: this is just my personal opinion and I know many colleagues who like the higher-level thinking in the document!

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