Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Favorite Buzzwords and Phrases Used by Educational Administrators, and What They Really Mean

Back when I was still an academic, my wife and I noticed that administrators at all levels of education tended to fall back on a ready reserve of stock words and phrases.  Like all experts, including those in the supposedly more rarified air of higher ed, they use jargoned language to boost their authority by implying that they know something that other people, usually the faculty, don't.  One increasingly hears these terms in our increasingly fatuous public discourse on education, where, like a virus, words like "accountability" attack the listener's brain and render it paralyzed.  Luckily, I currently teach at an institution that has eschewed most of this heinous bullshit.  Here are a few of the key terms I have noticed, with their real meanings broken down as a public service.

This term is borrowed from the corporate world, where "flexibility" means "we want to hire temporary and "part-time" labor so that we can keep our employees low-paid and compliant." This same meaning can apply to the use of adjunct labor in academia, but usually when administrators say they want the faculty to be "flexible" they mean "shut up and do as you're told."

The research data shows/studies say
Whenever administrators try to push a new initiative that the faculty don't like (especially in terms of assessment and online courses) they will silence their opponents by saying, "there are studies that show that this really works." Keep in mind that they don't actually present this data, or go into any detail as to how it was compiled, or even offer their own reasoning. The "studies show" gambit basically boils down to "I can't actually offer a convincing argument for why we're making you do this, just do it because we said so."

Student/child-centered learning
I am all for "student centered learning" in the abstract. My current institution actually practices it, but many administrators who invoke it do so only to make themselves sound good.  "Student centered learning" has become a well-worn cliche, and really another way of saying "do whatever makes the customers happy."

Again, I'm all for transparency, but in my line of work "transparency" is a one-way mirror. When the higher ups tell the hoi polloi that they want transparency, they really mean "we're going to be looking over your shoulder no matter what you do."

This word has gotten a lot of mileage recently, and has been used as a rallying cry for attacking teachers and knee-capping professors. Of course, it is faculty who are always held accountable (and mostly the vulnerable untenured variety), while administrators are never evaluated. As my wife likes to say, accountability really means "do our job so we don't have to." As for me, it also means "don't forget who's in charge."

Administrators love to claim that they are going to bring innovation. They often fancy themselves to be innovative, creative minds who must move the lazy, hidebound faculty into action. The word innovation, however, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. I've read a lot about the shenanigans that led to the financial collapse, and bankers used to throw around the word innovation to describe extremely risky practices that exploited loopholes in regulation. Similarly, academic and school administrators call things of questionable value that benefit their CV "innovation." For instance, forcing the university to use an entirely new software program for its admissions and academic records when the old one is doing just fine is a common "innovation" that the "innovator" will put on his/her resume when looking for the next step up on the academic ladder.

This one is so tricky and laden with landmines that I should devote a whole post to it. The new assessment regime in our universities, in all its bureaucratic insanity, is like Dickens' Circumlocution Office combined with something straight of Jonathan Swift with a dose of Orwell thrown in. Let me just say that the word "assessment" has become as amorphous in its meaning and application as academic terms like "modernity" and "transnational."

Any other terms worthy of being added to the list?


Anonymous said...

By 'innovation' you wouldn't be referring to Banner would you?

It's become the tail that wags the dog at my school. Not far from where you were.

Terry said...

Same for government agency "administrators." I'm convinced that the first day of Administrator School, the first thing you have to do is throw your humanity into the Admin Incinerator. Seriously. I've never met one who wasn't a faux human.