Tech startups have a jargon problem. Is it the same problem that graduate students have?
Josh Horwitz over at Quartz says that Internet startup culture has a jargon problem “that seems to be getting worse.”
“Content.” “Platforms.” “Synergy.” “End-to-end.” “Solutions.” It’s nearly impossible to find a startup at the conference that doesn’t resort to jargon when describing itself.
These words sound technical and informed. But they mean nothing, and they make it difficult for ordinary people to understand what a company actually does. In an effort to either sound smart and attract investors, or to simply dress up an otherwise boring product, startups that rely too much on jargon end up alienating the users they want to attract.
Are graduate students the academic equivalent of an Internet startup?
Both groups are trying to gain entry into a specialized community, and to do that both groups have to master an insider’s code. But to outsiders who want to know what both groups are up to, the insider’s code can come across like big, smart-sounding words that are more sizzle than steak.
I want to think that this problem is at least ironic, if not especially acute, for graduate students in rhetorical studies. In studying rhetoric, we study communication that makes things seem to be the case. We are experts in how language can make something small seem like something big, or something bad seem like something good.
So here’s the puzzle: The very same specialized jargon (“Discursive formation.” “Materiality.” “Constitutive.” “Articulate.” “Imaginaries.”) that we use to explain how communication makes things seem to be the case, (for instance, all those words can make it seem like we are scholars of communication) can nevertheless seem to untrained ears as a cover that we use, as Horwitz puts it, “to simply dress up an otherwise boring product.”
In other words, our specialized academic jargon can function rhetorically—especially among outsiders who take rhetoric as a synonym for hot air—as “mere rhetoric.” The experts in rhetoric need rhetoric to seem like experts.
Like the tech startups in Horwitz’s story, are startups in rhetorical studies susceptible to relying too much on insider jargon when we talk about our work to non-specialists? Like the snake that eats its own tail, does mastering the specialized jargon about rhetoric make it harder to speak in plain terms about rhetoric? I understand that jargon enables specialists to talk to specialists. But Is our effort to gain entry into a specialized community hampering our ability to speak publicly about our subject?
Or is this a problem that isn’t a problem?