Readers’ Forum: The problem with college readings

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Books sit on a shelf. Joe Wirthlin believes textbook language has the potential to be too specialized. (Universe Archives)

As a new semester dawns and incoming freshman open their textbooks, many might be surprised to discover a new language. While their textbooks may be in English, the language before them is riddled with strange, unnatural phrases that baffle the mind. Instead of clear and concise descriptions, these textbooks and readings are filled with jargon and complicated phrases. 

How many students have stared at the first page of their assigned reading, their minds refusing to understand the words printed before them? How many have read the same sentence over and over again, desperately trying to pull any meaning from the language at all? This situation is often made fun of, because we have all been there. We all know what it is like to study a piece of literature and not understand what it means. 

Instead of saying “This study focuses on journalists,” one of my textbooks uses the phrase, “The unit of analysis for this study is the journalist.” Both of these statements say similar things, but the second phrase uses needlessly obtuse language. Does anyone ever say “the unit of analysis” in their daily life?

Now, this language is familiar to many intellectuals. In fact, much of the language is specialized to help these individuals get their message across to professionals in their field. But this language has the potential to become too specialized. 

Isn’t this specialized language a form of gate-keeping? A way to keep the uneducated away from their precious knowledge? The specified language seems to say that only those who put in the time and the effort should be rewarded with this knowledge. Those who do not care to put in the time and effort should not be given the answers they seek.

As students, we are thrust into this world of complex language with the assumption that we will eventually understand it. Otherwise, we will be relegated to the sidelines, moved from major to major to find something that “simple minds” can actually understand. This does not have to be the only solution.

There are a number of articles being published now that are accessible to all readers. While they do utilize specialized language, they take the time to define the words being used, as well as use those words in context. Readers are given multiple ways to understand the language being used, without feeling stupid for not understanding them. 

As the rising generation of scholars, it is up to us to buck that trend. Yes, some phrases describe meaning better than others, but those phrases can be explained to those who are still learning. By allowing readers multiple opportunities to understand the language being used, these readers will then grow in their understanding of the topic of study.

Many people like sharing what they know. However, a sign of true knowledge is the ability to explain it to someone in a clear and concise manner. If people cannot understand the language being used, then the author of the article does not allow others to understand them.

Joe Wirthlin

Troy, Michigan

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