Hey, are you, like, a teacher?
A lost new student is nervously asking for directions on the stairs here in the M.C. Escher Building. Or maybe I need some more commas to capture it: ‘Hey, are you, like, a teacher?’ No, that looks like way too many commas for how she said it. It’s always, like, fun to, like, imitate the language of, like, kids – especially if you don’t actually do it right and it drives your teenage children insane and makes young academics feel, like, they’re even more hip and cool with, like, youths. You sound like a totally lame wannabe to anyone under about 85 or something. And nobody says that anymore anyway. In fact, just talking about it is lame.
I sometimes get emails from students, even ones I don’t know, that start with ‘Hey’ and end with ‘Seeya’. A colleague of mine wonders whether students should be picked up on things like this so that they learn to communicate in more formal situations in order to do well for themselves in life. I generally let this kind of informality pass, but it does make me think about the kinds of communication skills that students need and how they acquire them.
When a new communication skills unit was being planned, some of the first comments I heard in my faculty were things like: ‘Good. Some of the students we get in these days wouldn’t know where to place a comma if their lives depended on it.’ (Picture Angelina Jolie’s nervous hands defusing a terrorist nuclear weapon.) In addition to the attractions of clarity for the reader, at least some of the demand for comma therapy and the like comes from a small black spot in most people’s hearts that believes in absolutes of correctness in language (and punctuation), as if they’re immutable laws of the universe rather than social conventions appropriate to different contexts and changing over time.
Colleagues in the Business School tell me that money is a good motivator – so maybe we should teach students about the Million Dollar Comma case, or have them read a letter-to-theeditor young-people-today what-are-they-teaching-them complaint by some employer about modern university graduates, so that they can learn the market value of communication skills. Not to mention the potential taxation implications of singular they.
There’s more than a bit of truth to the idea that you go to university so that you’ll sound like somebody who went to university (and put commas where they do). A large proportion of students want to communicate effectively and understand that there are social conventions for communication in different contexts, and are therefore motivated to work on their communication skills (and not just commas). But there are quite a few other students who need to be convinced.
A small-scale fictive study was conducted in a university tutorial class (n=25). Participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire consisting of five items. Perceived career value of academic skills was investigated using a five-point discrete visual analog scale indexed from 1 = Strongly disagree to 5 = Strongly agree. The median score was 3 for the item Academic writing develops skills that are valuable in non-academic careers. This result is interpreted as indicating that it looks a bit like they were probably pretty evenly divided on the point.
Even with specialist communication skills units, we are all still tasked with selling the value proposition that effective language skills are mission-critical learnings for a successful career in global arenas. If this is to gain traction with the client group, we need to talk to this issue and give space to new thinking about the ecosystem of our unit frameworks. Sure, it’s a challenge that needs to be managed and there’s the risk of some pushback, but with the right drivers in place we can circuit-break that. It’ll be so awesome. Who better than a university to teach people to communicate well, and appropriately.
Published in UWA News, 15 October 2012