This summer I took over 40 hours of professional development related to curriculum design and on-line teaching. One result of this experience was my own reflection on the use of words. Not just any words, but what I call amplified words. One definition for the word “amplified” is; cause to become more marked or intense. It seems to me to be a good definition for the way words are recently being used in the three arenas in which I work; academia, business and the church.
Let me give you a little background on this professional development so you can get an idea of why I began to reflect on how we use certain words. One of the tasks involved in this training was to write Student Learning Outcomes (SLO). This task was important to learn because SLO’s are mandated by the U.S. Department of Education and therefore required by academic accrediting agencies. You will find in most college courses that the SLO’s are stated on the Course Syllabus. Basically, SLO’s are used to clarify what students can expect to take away from the class.
There is now a whole industry that has built up around how to write a proper SLO. There are books, seminars, and SLO specialists waiting to assist you in writing the proper SLO statement. And although there is apparently money to be made in the teaching, writing and evaluation of SLO’s my point, in this blog, are the words they use to write them. If you are interested in the increasing complexity of establishing the most successful student learning experiences just google “Bloom’s Taxonomy” and you will have your hands full. In the meantime, you have to memorize as many “action verbs” as you can, because action verbs are the words required for writing in the correct format for Student Learning Outcomes.
I am sure my blogs have revealed that I am not the best with English grammar. But, as the famous line from the plague scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail says, “I am not dead yet!” So to improve my skills both in English grammar and in writing SLO statements I am learning about action verbs.
According to YourDictionary.com, “Action verbs are verbs that specifically describe what the subject of the sentence is doing. These types of verbs carry a great deal of information in a sentence and can convey emotion and a sense of purpose that extends beyond the literal meanings of the words.” The bold is mine because it captures the point of this blog. Writing these SLO’s got me thinking. I am being asked, through the use of action verbs, to convey emotion and a sense of purpose beyond the literal meaning of the word. The idea of conveying an emotion beyond or to some greater degree than normal is not just in the profession of education but it seems to be a common phenomenon within other fields and in our society here in the United States.
For the most part I am fairly straight forward when I write to or talk with people. Usually I am calm and the words I use can be taken for their literal meaning. Occasionally, my words might be more marked or intense….say, if someone cuts me off on the freeway…. then I want their understanding to extend beyond my literal words! When I take my kids to a theme park like Six Flags and we ride a monster roller coaster, with the feeling that our lives are on the very edge of extinction, we try to describe the experience in some extensive emotional way. We don’t do this for every family experience we have, just for those that indicate we reached a richer, deeper, or higher plain then the normal everyday plateau.
The other day I asked my daughter if she would like to get some frozen yogurt. She replied, “Awesome!” Is this the same kind of “Awesome” I feel when science reveals to me the intricacies of the created order? I don’t think so. The awesome my daughter uses is a kind of slang, a watered down version that means she would like to go get some frozen yogurt…particularly if Dad’s paying for it. Although I would like to think that going out with her Dad would cause or induce awe; or inspire her with an overwhelming feeling of reverence, and admiration, the true definition of awesome, I doubt very much that this is the actual case. Like the biblical strongman Samson, who lost his strength when his hair was cut, and then was blinded by his enemies and used as a common slave to grind wheat, some powerful words have become weak slang used only as common filler to meet a requirement.
In education, we write SLO’s to fit a format that will be acceptable and conform to the requirements of the institution but the wording is just that “wording.” It is shoe horning in as many action verbs as we can. We don’t want our student to just comprehend humanities or religion we want them to classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, paraphrase, convert, distinguish between, extend, give examples, summarize, and translate them. Maybe, with all this amplification of comprehend I am just like an old cowboy who would adjust his hat and say, with that Clint Eastwood glare, “Well Madame, that’s what I said when I used the word ‘comprehend.’”
This amplification of words isn’t just a scourge wrapping itself around the field of education. Business can suffer from this curse too. With my company I assist clients in writing mission and vision statements and company core values. In the process I have had the opportunity to read countless examples. In many of these statements the amplification meter is all the way in the red zone. Here are just a few quick examples:
“Nordstrom works relentlessly to give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible.”
Albertsons: Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.
Ameren’s mission is to generate electricity, deliver electricity and distribute natural gas in a safe, reliable, efficient and environmentally sound manner. Our vision is to be the recognized performance leader of the U.S. electric and gas utility industry. Being a performance leader means we will achieve operational excellence, industry-leading customer satisfaction and superior financial performance.
The point is not to malign these companies or even state whether these mission statements are good or bad. I can look at mission statements in another blog, but I do want you to notice the bolded words which I believe characterize the use of words in many vision and mission statements. We almost become immune to the words real meanings and there intensity.
What does it mean to be “relentless focused” or to “constantly strive?” When I take it at face value it sounds to me like there is some kind of psychosis present. Not that I am a psychologist but if my kid was relentless focused on something I probably would take him to a psychologist. Although, I am sure my wife and daughter would love to have the most compelling shopping experience possible!
Well, the church isn’t any less susceptible to amplification then education and business.
Here are some mission statements from churches:
Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
East Goshon Mennonite Church: Our vision challenges us to Passionately Follow Jesus, discovering Jesus’ practices of loving, inviting, equipping and living. We desire to love and look like Jesus in our world.
Epic Church….don’t need to read our mission statement the name says it all. (This is not really what they said, or their mission statement, but I thought the name fit the point!)
Even in my own denomination I see the amplification of words in a mission statement that says, “The Reformed Church in America (RCA) is a family of churches in the U.S. and Canada radically following Christ in mission together.”
Again not to take away from these churches, I am sure they all have powerful ministries that have effectively influenced their communities.
The truth is we live in a society that loves to amplify words, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. But words and their true meanings, as Richard Lederer has shown us in his numerous books on the English language, do matter.
There are times when we need to use words that will “amp-up” the meaning of what we want to say. We need them as a part of our vocabulary! There are times when we want to be most compelling, or radically following, but not all the time.
I think the tendency towards the overuse of amplified words is the desire to be relevant to our own pop culture; unfortunately we are creating immunity to the power inherent in these words. The spoken and written word is one of the most powerful ways that humanity can express itself. This human expression is a beautiful balance between commonness and amplification, an honest portrayal of a richer, deeper, and higher experience because there is a normal everyday plateau. When we respect this balance society is closer to a true perception of reality, and that’s a society I can comprehend.
John M. Scholte, M.Div.
Professor of Religion and Humanities
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!