What does that mean?: Blog Entry

‘The nature of your performative research is hermeneutically phenomenological.’ Is it? Great. What does that mean, please?
‘Using cognitive and ideological data, find a way of expressing the hypothesis inter-disciplinarily.’ Will do. What does that mean, please?

I’m learning a new language, it’s called academia. The grammar is the same, but the vocabulary can be impenetrable. I’m a smart girl (in both the English and American sense: I read books and I wear clean clothes); I love English and delight in choosing my words, but I can’t speak the language of my MA yet. I have therefore decided to be as tough on my master’s as it’s being on me. My hand shoots up, I interrupt my teachers and I ask, constantly: ‘what does that mean, please?’

We’re living in a very clever world, a world where information won’t wait for us to catch up, and a world in which words are used as tools in an argument, and currency in negotiation. I’m all for that, and I even play that game myself - I’m pretty good at it. However, I will not sit back and let information go over my head because I am not familiar with the definitions used to communicate it. There’s a huge difference between not understanding the idea, and not understanding the words. I refuse to be a victim of either. There’s a stigma attached to asking for the meaning of a word. In our adult lives, there are certain words we’re supposed to know the meaning of, but what if there’s a frequently used word or phrase that everyone else seems to understand and you’ve simply missed out on it somewhere along the way? No matter how involved, interested, pro-active or present you are, there will always be some things that simply pass you by- there’s absolutely no shame in asking. I think it’s admirable and courageous.

It’s the same with cultural references. I was once accused of never having a childhood because I couldn’t relate to popular programmes from the years I was a child. This hurt deeply. The fact is, my high school was 30 miles away from my home and the bus went along the back routes and took 90 minutes to get me home each night. I would arrive home long after the popular cartoons and teenage telly was over. I was made to feel like I had done something wrong or missed out on something vital to my pop culture development. There are major books and films and programmes I’ve missed simply because, well, I just have. I’m sick of the gasp of disgust and the unintentional, but still deeply hurtful incredulous phrase: ‘what? You mean you’ve never seen Star Wars?’

No, I haven’t seen Star Wars, I don’t know the difference between it and Star Trek. No, I haven’t seen all the Indianna Jones films. No, I haven’t read any Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games, and yes, I have yet to experience The Sopranos. I have, however, seen and read many other things, maybe some you have never heard of, my laughing accuser. To have missed out on a programme or not know the meaning of a word when everyone else seems to be an expert on it can make a person feel inferior or even incomplete; and it’s a dangerous practice.

I have never, and will never, allow a word I don’t know to be used without asking for a definition. I figure life is too short to pretend to understand when I could use it as a chance to become more informed. I don’t know if this is a female issue, but I do know that many women I know fear to admit they’re unfamiliar with a reference in front of men for risk of appearing stupid. No! The stupidity lies in the pretence. We let people bamboozle us with jargon and that’s what makes us weak. Strength is found when we speak up and ask up.

I had a boyfriend who said that he felt he could ask me the questions he’d feel embarrassed to ask anyone else. Questions everyone else seemed to know the answer to on subjects he’d simply, somehow missed out on learning about in his life. He asked me some pretty amazing questions (hurriedly whispered into my ear at social events), things that I was surprised had passed him by. He is an intelligent, talented and thoroughly informed person, but we can none of us know everything and some things, sometimes, slip past us. I did the same to him. I came to rely on him not to laugh at me but to realise I simply hadn’t learned this particular fact yet, for whatever reason. He would begin by saying ‘you know how we can ask each other dumb questions and the other won’t judge? Well…’ and I did the same. We became each other’s ‘stupid question buddies’ and it was marvellous, it was a lifeline.

I have carried this practice on with my students. The world of theatre is vast and full- as with every profession. There are so many references, plays, writers, movements, theories, actors and facts – we’re allowed not to know the more obscure cult references but some major ideas can get missed too. Confession: I’m a master’s theatre student and I know squat about Artaud. Really, didley. I have noticed when I make a reference and my students don’t know it, same as I will notice when someone I’m talking to doesn’t know what I’m talking about and it’s far more obvious than perhaps we think. I tell my new group at the start of each term that I will be their ‘stupid question buddy’. I give them all my email address and encourage them to ask me privately if they don’t feel comfortable asking in front of the class. I may not know the answer, but I will find it out and get back to them. How many unfamiliar subjects do you frequently reference while crossing your fingers and hoping that you’ve got away with it? Language is social politics. The way we use it says so much more than the ideas we actually want to convey. There are two great words for it: ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’. They are linguistic tools. ‘Convergence’ is when you try and match your manner of address in order to connect more fully with your conversational partner. ‘Divergence’ is the opposite. That’s when you actively use language that distances yourself from your partner.

I’m working on turning the gasp of disbelief around, and I ask you to do the same. If someone says they haven’t seen ‘Breaking Bad’, tell them that they are incredibly lucky to have that still to experience. Tell them it’s a fantastic programme and you’re jealous that they have yet to see it because you wish you could watch it again for the first time. There is a huge difference between a person saying they have never read something and a person saying they can’t be bothered because it sounds stupid. The latter are the people you can dismiss and waste no more time talking to. The former are the ones to focus on. If a person has seen the film or read the book and hated it, they are even more worthy of your conversation because a difference of opinion makes for the most fulfilling interaction.

Anyone who is interested in anything is interesting. Those who choose not be informed, those who do not ask questions, are not. You don’t have to know everything, but you do have to ask. Confusion is good, as long as it’s active and enquiring.

Stick up your hand. Ask, ask and ask again, and judge thee not those who have not seen Breaking Bad.

(C) Jade Allen 2014

What does that mean?