Guff

It’s just struck me that journalist jargon is almost always intended to cheer people up, while educational jargon is designed (perhaps not intended!) to drag everyone down. Take ‘credit crunch’, which means ‘a high probability that you are going to lose all your money’ (I know that’s not strictly exact, but my O-level Economics, grade 3, is not going to save the day here). It sounds rather an enjoyable thing. Credit! Good! Crunch! Tasty! I’ve always thought credit was a misnomer. It means ‘debit’. When you have a credit card, you just delay the process of debit.

Anyway. In education, especially since the mid-1980s, but not to suggest that there wasn’t plenty of earlier guff, there continues to be a high level of guff. It’s stolen from the same management-speak that supplies government with phrases like ‘sustainable delivery’. It may have peaked, perhaps. Its golden age was about 1988, when ‘Total Quality Management’ were the buzz-three-words. I see someone has tried to write an article about TQM for Wikipedia, and has been ticked off for using jargon! There is no other way to describe TQM, however. I was quite struck at the time (I was in FE management, and we were all issued with TQM manuals, rather, it occurred to me, as the Chinese were issued with the Little Red Book, which has a smack of TQM about it, as we shall see) with the way in which the words delivery and quality became, almost overnight, endemic.

But as I said, education was not short of rubbishy words before that. One, which has persisted in many forms, was module. If someone used the word module, they were signalling that they were interested in changing the way a course was taught, as if they had taken the system to bits, and were interested in re-assembly. The college I worked in had taken the timetable to bits, and found that, rather than lessons, there were modules on the floor. A module duly became the unit of time taken by a lesson. Since this was identified as 45 minutes, but subsequent discussion thought that 90 minutes might be better, everyone taught double-modules. However, since this was an technical college which had recently become a sixth-form college (and sixth-form is another redundancy which persists, by the way), the word ‘lesson’ itself seemed a bit, well, school-like. So did the word ‘teacher’. And at this college, to which many teachers had been transferred from schools which had had their sixth forms taken away, the teachers were paid on a salary grade which defined them as lecturers. And since lecturers had a bit of university posh about it, lessons became lectures.

As for the timetable, another ‘school’ word, this had been organised on a sheet of paper with columns on it, five in all, from which students (formerly ‘pupils’) picked their choices. You couldn’t pick two from one column or they would clash. The sheet of paper looked like a grid. So in no time at all, the timetable became known as the grid. The result of all this was that 16-year-olds came bowling into a place where they had a double-module in a grid column with a lecturer. What always amazed me was how quickly the students grasped the lingo, and started talking it themselves. Like many of the teachers at the college, I joined in my twenties. After twenty years, the whole language was completely ingrained. When the newspeak of TQM came in, it was simply grafted over the existing mess of jargon. Only modules bit the dust, having been appropriated for other purposes.

When I awoke, after nearly 30 years, and started to work at the nearby university, I suffered considerable bewilderment. Since I was part-time, I became a teaching fellow. (I am actually simplifying this for you, I should say.) At an early meeting, I was asked straight out, in a meeting, if I had been empanelled. I had no idea. My neighbour helped me out: “He means, are you an RT.” What?! It turned out that, to teach at the university, I had to be a Recognised Teacher, and that this was determined by a panel.

But, oh, TQM. I am afraid I never took it seriously, and once dared to tell the then Principal, in a meeting, that “we must all costs avoid rigid departmentalism”. He was actually pretty pleased with this TQM-ish outburst: until I pointed out that it came from Mao’s Little Red Book.

Must go: see if my Credit Crunch is in meltdown.

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