Emerging Plain Speak

Among my many travails on the trip to Houston, I had to go to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital. A staph infection on my left eyebrow had swollen the eye beneath almost totally shut.

I was staying in the part of Houston that is literally the medical center. So, not wanting to possibly lose an eye, I high tailed it to an emergency room.

It was a good experience. At one point, the nurse’s aid came by to check on me before she went on break. We started chatting about television, and then she asked me what I did for a living.

I struggled with what I always struggle with when speaking to someone outside the wall of the university. As soon as I say, I am the program manager at UNT’s Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, I might as well have said I am a programmer for some school’s Central Study Inwhatzitswhozitswhyzits.

Blame it on the pain killers, but this time…

KB: “I help researchers at UNT study the problems created by overspecialization.”
NA: “Oh yes? Is that a big issue?”
KB: “It has led to a lot of scholars not talking to each other unless they are in the same area of study.”
NA: “So they get too narrow?”
KB: “Yeah. It can put a real wet blanket on creativity.”
NA: “I’m surprised… they always seem to be publishing new stuff and doing new studies.”
KB: “Oh there is plenty of information being generated by the specialists. Almost too much.”
NA: “Hmmm… I heard on Oprah–or maybe it was Bill O’Reilly–that the internet has more stuff on it now than one person could ever manage to comprehend. Is that bad though?”
KB: “Not necessarily. Maybe the more info we have the more chances we have for solving certain important problems.”
NA: “Making the world better through scientific progress…”
KB: “Yep. But maybe all the info sidetracks us, especially when the researchers are so focused on the specific target of their studies, they lose the ability to share what they find with other researchers. And they are blind many times to what someone in another field has done that could give insight to that particular thing that interests them.”
NA: “Sounds like when a doctor won’t listen to a nurse about a patient.”
KB: “Very much so. You deal with this every day, I bet.”
NA:  ”It happens alot. You watch Nurse Jackie? Its like that, only not so much adultery and drug abuse.”
KB: “Haha… I like that. University’s have that kind of thing too. Experts in some fields think what they are doing is more important or more profitable to society than what experts in another field are doing. In my case, I’m a philosopher…”
NA: “Really? So what do you do?”
KB:  ”I try to think about how things can be made more clear, seen more plainly. And I try to help folks in giving birth to their own notions. Like a midwife…”
NA: “Now there’s another one physicians don’t like much. At least OB/GYNs.”
KB: “Haha! Yeah, a lot of people think philosophy is mumbo jumbo… does not help that we speak in a highfallutin  bunch of fifty cent words.”
NA: “OMG… I hate it when Doctors come in and start throwing around a bunch of those big ass terms at a patient. I mean, I get that it helps us pinpoint what is wrong with someone, but people need to be able to understand. Don’t you think? Sometimes they get so frustrated.”
KB: “Exactly!  But I will tell you what… I struggle everyday to make myself more plain spoken. Yet when you got all those words, so you can say in two words what might take a paragraph… well, hell, who wants to waste time? And there is something to being exact. But the thing is, besides the frustration people often express, there is the chance they will think you are trying to make them look stupid or that you are being a pretentious know-it-all.”
NA: “You don’t seem pretentious…”
KB: “I’m on hydrocodone…”
NA: “Haha… yeah, I guess that brings you down a notch or five.”
KB: “Well, it certainly does NOT make me want to use the jargon I have learned over the last twenty years… those words are real tongue twisters.”
NA: “Throw me a couple…”
KB: “Oh hell… ummm… okay. I am an existential phenomenologist.”
NA: “Now that sounds like a specialty.”
KB: “Yeah, it is a two word way of saying… “I try to account for how things appear to us as standing out from other things.” How stuff is differntiated from other stuff. But especially how you or I stand out. Like we stand out from the room… you know, we are in the room with each other. I am here, you there, in this place. If anybody walks past, we stand out against the wall and the bed and the machines.”
NA: “And each other?”
KB: “Yeah. Right. We are together, however we are also apart.”
NA: “Hmmm… so what was the place you work at?”
KB: “University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity.”
NA: “Now that is a mouthful. Interdis…”
KB: “…ciplinarity. Basically, like I said before, I aid researchers at UNT study the problems created by overspecialization, especially in the sciences. But since everyone tries to model their work on how the natural sciences do research, the whole university system suffers from being over disciplinized.”
NA: “I could use some more discipline in my life, let me tell you! I can never keep on a diet.”
KB: “Well, having discipline or determination is not a bad thing. Its being disciplinized, taught to see things in a regimented way and use one kind of method to try to solve every problem.”
NA: “So being disciplined–yes, that’s the right way to say it?”
KB: “Yeah… go on…”
NA: “Being disciplinized is really that narrowness you were talking about. You can’t see very far…”
KB: “Sometimes, the most overly disciplinized thinkers cannot see past the microscope on their lab table or the poem in a book. So we study how to get beyond the narrowness. We don’t say, have no discipline and take no training to master a specific field of research. We just try to break down the artificial walls separating thinkers, get them to see what then breaks into their life without the barriers, and encourage them to break out of their classrooms, labs & offices into the everyday world and talk plainly about what they are doing.”
NA: “Hmmm… I like that. You want these researchers to discover all the possibilities they are missing when their heads are down.”
KB: “Yep. We are not saying that doing things this way has not led to some great advancements. I mean, look at where we are now… standing in a  monument to disciplined research… a hospital. We cannot cure everything or solve every health issue, but we’ve come a long way from the days they put leeches on you for almost everything.  I mean, I didn’t ask to be brought wherever when my eye swoll shut.”
NA: “Sure. You do need people with special skills.”
KB: “Of course. When my teacher got sick with cancer, he had to start seeing an oncologist. He had some other health issues, but the cancer took priority. I found the oncology clinic worlds different from the other specialists he would see.”
NA: “Yeah, cancer doctors are different.”
KB: “His doctor’s office had all kinds of ways of doing things to encourage recovery, from twelve step meetings to group therapy to meditation to chemotherapy & radiation. Lots of possibilities. But other specialists were so concentrated on one part of the body and the established ways for dealing with health issues associated with that one part, well… they usually could not see the whole man.”
NA: “I like it… I have to get back to work. Can I read anything about this philosophy stuff and your project?”
KB: “Sure thing. Let me write down our website…”

When I was leaving, the triage nurse asked me what I had done to her nurse’s assistant. The young woman apparently had been going on about our conversation.

“Oh… passing time. Practicing plain speech with a good person. You know, I feel better already. Thanks for taking care with me.”


This entry was posted in Interdisciplinarity, Public Philosophizing, Transdisciplinarity. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Emerging Plain Speak

  1. Kerry Walker says:

    Good story Keith. This plain speak language you effectively describe can be the key interdisciplinary communication tool to take us all beyond our individual disciplinized ‘code’ languages.

  2. Shawn Anderson says:

    Keith, this was a great post and reminds me of conversations that Ingrid and I used to have.

    When she was thinking about changing careers, I suggested that the look for a company that needed a bi-lingual English/German speaker. Her response was always – “I cannot do that, because I never learned Business English” – to which I would respond – “there is no such thing – English is English”.

    Returning to the States after 20 years, I realize how wrong I was.

    Each tribe (wither it is social / economic, generational, professional, etc) that we join requires that we adapt a new lingo in order to be accepted as full member. This lingo helps to define the tribe and provides a differentiation among the other tribes. In many ways this lingo does create a more “exacting” language, increasing efficiency and accuracy. However, this also creates a barrier to entry for outsiders.

    If we can find ways to simplify our communication so that the different tribes can gain a better understanding of each other, then maybe we will be able to find areas where the tribes can come together and discover something completely different than expected. As an example — http://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_rhodes.html

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