On Writing: Bologna and the Borg

Two weeks ago in this column, my friend Lowell Ford wrote about the challenge of prison inmates to not become “institutionalized.” It’s not just a problem for inmates.


I’m teaching at UAS this semester, and the university requires instructors to include on their syllabuses each course’s university-approved “Student Learning Outcomes.” But the “SLOs” for the writing course I’m teaching are appalling; they are shamelessly verbose, often redundant, sometimes meaningless, in one instance incomprehensible, and in general poorly written. And there are ten of them for the class I’m teaching.

To give you just a taste here, or a whiff, rather: instead of telling students they will learn to talk intelligently with each other about writing, the SLOs say that students will learn to “demonstrate oral communication skills in whole and small-group discussions.”

Instead of learning to think critically, students will learn to “perform critical thinking.” Instead of learning to critique their classmates’ essays, students will learn to “apply critical reading to peers’ work.” Instead of learning to use computers competently, students will learn to “apply competent computer skills.” (What do these people have against adverbs?)

But the problem is not simply that the SLOs are verbose. This kind of institutional language is meaningless to begin with. I guarantee you that students won’t read them; they get a whiff of the “blah blah blah” that’s coming and read no further.

And faculty pay no attention to them, because they are so general as to be useless. What are “oral communication skills,” exactly, and are we really teaching them to students? Students have been talking clearly and effectively ever since they learned how as infants. What we’re trying to teach them is to write well, think critically, and be able to talk intelligently with each other about writing. (And don’t get me started about “whole and small-group discussions,” which is patently meaningless.) And as for computers, it’s a safe bet that our students know how to use computers better than most of the writing faculty.

Part of the problem is that this kind of language is coming to seem normal. It’s like California wine. It may not seem that bad in isolation—until you taste it after having a glass of a real Spanish albariño or Tuscan chianti. “Demonstrate oral communication skills in whole and small-group discussions” may not seem bad, until you realize that all it means (in an oblique and incomprehensible sort of way) is “talk with each other intelligently about writing.”

To be fair, this kind of institutional mumbo-jumbo (aka “bureaucratese”) began floating our way long ago. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw it coming 150 years ago and wrote about the danger of exchanging the values of a flesh-and-blood human being for those of an abstract and insensate institution. Twentieth-century writer George Orwell saw it coming in 1946, but thought it would come from the government, the real bureaucracy, Big Brother. Even Star Trek warned us about being assimilated into the Borg.

But Kierkegaard and Orwell both saw that this kind of institutionalization happens not by political control or military domination, but by language, by our becoming assimilated to a language stripped of any human vitality or humane meaning.

Indeed, several “random mission statement generators” online show how easily this stuff can be written without any human help whatsoever: the computer first selects from a list of vaguely meaningful verbs (all couched in future tense to make them sound vaguely imperative)—will implement, will demonstrate, will apply, will establish, will strive, will utilize, will maximize, will develop, will provide. Then the computer selects an equally vague adjective—concrete, specific, timely, verifiable — and then an abstract noun — effects, means, efforts, results, input, outcome, follow-up. Put them all together and — voila!

The organization will strive to utilize specific means and implement verifiable follow-up to maximize demonstration of concrete effects. Just so you know.

As a federal employee, I spend eight hours a day smack in the middle of Bologna Central, and yes, sometimes it comes at you fast: sentences that by the time they end have forgotten where they started; sentences that never knew where they were going in the first place; sentences that can’t possibly mean anything at all.

But in recent years the feds (and Alaska and other states) have been trying to get their agencies to write in plain English, to make government documents less bureaucratic and more humane, to actually communicate with real people instead of just throwing words at an abstracted “public.” My colleagues and our counterparts at the State struggle against business-as-usual bureaucratic conventions to explain our policies and regulations clearly to the people who have to live by them.

The irony is that institutions outside the bureaucracy are going the other way, inflating their documents with faux legalisms and bureaucratic jargon, with language that’s neither vital nor vivid, language that doesn’t communicate anything or help anyone get their work done, language whose sole purpose is to inflate. Inflate: it comes from the Latin word for wind, the same root from which we get our word “flatulent,” and this stuff smells like it.

And it’s not just the university. Even churches are getting in on the act. Take a gander at the Juneau Catholic Diocese’s recent “Pastoral Plan.” Count how many times the Diocese will strive and will implement and will develop and will maximize and will utilize all the specific means and concrete effects and verifiable follow-ups. I find it a little dispiriting to read about “maximizing the concrete effects of the sacraments,” as if they were just another marketing ploy in some corporate strategic plan.

We should be trying to make our institutions sound more like us; instead, we’re making ourselves sound more like them. Instead of making our institutions more humane, we’re institutionalizing our humanity.

But resistance is not futile. In this column I manage to insult three institutions that I consider personal benefactors —government, higher education, and the Catholic Church. As Shakey writes at the end of King Lear: when things fall apart, we need to say what we think and not what we’re supposed to. We have the responsibility and the prerogative to bite the hands that feed us when they try to feed us crap like this.


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