Shape-Shift Reality With Words

Poets and writers know the importance of choosing the precise word to describe a character or a feeling. Those choices are purposeful and usually the result of many revisions. But does that kind of careful approach to language have real-life applications?  Linguists think it does.

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A study on the use of words and metaphors to describe a problem has revealed some important information about how the words we choose can shape both the problem and the solution.  Mitch Moxley, the author of a  Slate magazine article called “Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality?” gives an example to illustrate his point. Suppose you describe the economy as being stalled. What do you do?  Jump-start it, of course, just like a car. A quick, rough solution. But what if you describe the economy as ailing? That word conjures up images of sick people who need long-term care and attention. As a policy maker, you begin to look at different kinds of  solutions rather than a quick-fix. A simple shift in language moves the solution in a very different direction. For more information and a deeper explanation of the University of California San Diego study on linguistics by Professor Lera Boroditsky, take a look at Moxley’s article.

As someone who studied linguistics in college, I am keenly aware of the power of word-choice to shape perceptions and attitudes. That’s why I object so strongly to using business language to describe people. And when I read that some college administrators refered to students as output, I knew I had to write about it. It was as if the language was reducing the people in the classrooms to products coming off of an assembly line. And I reject that notion of education.  My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features this poem about the harm of using business language to talk about education–a deeply human and individualized process. The poem, “Value Added Teachers” was first published in New Verse News. I hope you enjoy it.

Value Added Teachers

She feels frustrated
as she rumbles around in cramped offices
with all the people shouting
Words don’t matter.

Especially when she hears graduates
of the university
referred to as output.

When people become output
there’s no need for nurture.
Sewage pipes have output,
as do factories that churn out row after row
of standardized parts.

In cramped classrooms and windowless lecture halls
teachers are gauged by their productivity–
here every human complexity is reduced
to a series of data points, quantified and measured
success or failure—positive or negative output.

These days she no longer relishes
seeing joy or surprise or the flash
of an ah-ha moment on her students’ faces.
Instead of planning for a field-trip to the meadow
for a sensory experience,
she spends time trying to quantify
commitment, measure amazement,
and determine a cut score for
how much inspiration one needs
for a journey into the unknown.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

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