One of the most interesting books that I read this summer was Virkapukuinen kieli (“Language in a Uniform”). This book is over ten years old, which once again confirms that novelty does not rule the book market. I was fascinated by the book’s approach: the articles examine the kinds of assumptions that governmental prose makes about its readers. Editor Vesa Heikkinen describes how citizens are viewed in a municipality’s communication strategy: the municipality is the active player; the citizen is mainly the recipient of actions. Typically, citizens are referred to in the plural, while an individual dealing with the government becomes a customer. In the same vein, residents tend to be seen as the source of opinions and questions, while the municipality itself is the source of knowledge and accuracy. Heikkinen says that it’s not realistic to go on about interaction when the citizens and the municipality are treated by the communication strategy as different kinds of beings. “Municipal government sees itself as a higher entity, a kind of overseer in charge of the important things.”
The readers of the Word of the Week, helping to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Word, have chosen their favorites from the list in the contest announcement. Competition was tight, but the top two words emerged from the pack. The winner for the Finnish version of the column was googling, and for the English version, picturing Angry Birds. Out of nearly 350 votes cast, the names of 11 submitters were chosen at random during a session at the FCG Forum on June 6th. Congratulations to these prize winners—we’ll contact you directly—and thanks to all the participants.
The Word of the week column will be on vacation in July and returns in August. Have a sunny summer.
The annual contest is over, the Language Police have identified the top ten offenders, and 2013’s Jargon of the Year has been chosen. The finalists were the following: a 20-page press release, a departmental reply to a proposed city council measure, and an extract of minutes from a governmental meeting. The merits of the governmental press release, according to Eija Kallioniemi who submitted it, were its length and the “upper-management droning” of its language. The maintenance department’s response to an initiative to allow local groups to use idle city facilities was an outstanding example of official jargon, with rolls of ponderous language shrouding the basic idea: “No, let’s not; it’ll be expensive.” And here’s an snippet from those meeting minutes: “The Museum and Science Center perceives its function firmly within the overall framework called for as part of collaboration with producers of art throughout the preliminary stages of building design as part of each project undertaken in collaboration with the Real Estate Department so as to determine the role played by art in the aforementioned projects.” This year, the jargon forum participants chose finalist number two. One factor in the choice was the use of classic jargon: instead of talking about “suitable premises,” it describes “the features and locations relative to the suitability to purpose of the premises in question.” Similarly, “low budget” is transmogrified to “the city’s meager appropriations pertaining to building repairs compared to the existing requirements for of the renovation.” Thanks to the voters, as well as to everyone who submitted candidates. As always, we hope for better (and clearer) official writing.
It’s the first week of June and once again the time to choose the year’s worst jargon. But─why select the jargon of the year? Isn’t it just unpleasant to highlight a random bad document? The purpose of the contest is to focus on how we use language in the public sector; we use a particular example to draw attention to the genre. As Lari Kotilainen, “the protector of the Finnish language,” has recommended, we want to raise a ruckus about hard-to-read text─but with a twinkle in our eye. Public sector documents cannot be seen as a product of a single writer. They are almost always written collaboratively, subject to official guidelines set by higher-ups. Ulla Tiililähas insightfully commented about the bureaucrat’s dilemma: on the one hand they are trained to write clear documents to comply with the Administrative Law, and on the other hand they often must use a poor document template they’re not allowed to alter. The individual who produces the final version within an organization typically lacks authority to make substantial changes, which means officials on every level need to apply principles of understandable communication. If you have a good example of jargon run amuck, please send it by June 3 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Association of Finnish Non-Fiction Writers celebrated its 30th anniversary last Thursday at Finlandia Hall. The best part of the program was a panel discussion about changes in our knowledge environment. The panel was chaired by Arto Nyberg, and the participants were Mikko Lehtonen, Markus Leikola, Kirsti Lonka, Hanna Nikkanen and Fredrick Rahka. The discussion was stimulated by the usual anti-Internet suspects: knowledge is becoming superficial, the number of new books is decreasing, and literacy is going to collapse. Fortunately, these aren’t ideas the debaters cling to. In fact, they support all forms of reading and writing.Kirsti Lonka noted that the author is not the same person after writing a book, because he has reorganized his store of knowledge. This knowledge building is so important in learning that students need to actively create content and not simply take in what’s presented. It’s fine with Markus Leikola that people seek information from the Internet, as long as they assess the quality and are willing to go to the sixteenth Google result page and even further. According to Mikko Lehtonen people imagine that in the past there was a golden age of reading, compared to which things have declined greatly. If ever there were such a golden age of literacy, he says, it’s our own.
The Finnish version of Word of the Week celebrates its tenth anniversary this spring, and the English version is joining in. To mark the occasion, we’re choosing ten words and asking readers to vote for their favorite. Voting, in either language, makes you eligible to win one of ten free-book prizes. One person will win a gift card good at the Särkänniemi amusement park here in Tampere. Probably that’s a Finnish-speaking reader, but someone who reads the English version each week may have long wanted to dine at the Näsinneula restaurant at Särkänniemi. So choose your favorite from the following options: build-a-book, FAQ, Gutenberg galaxy, in-depth discussion, online text, picturing Angry Birds, textbook case,textrovert, tone control, and Twitter message. You can vote via the online form below, or by sending an email to email@example.com. If you’re in one of our training sessions, you can be retro and fill out a paper form. We’ll announce the winning word in June, draw for the prizes, and notify the winners via email. Good luck – or, if you read the Finnish version, onnea!
My work has always involved popularization; I often interpret research when writing for or speaking to a broader audience. Academic circles have often looked askance at such popularization, but now the attitudes are changing. One example of this new appreciation is a recent book, The Popularization of Science, which says that the objective of popularization is “successful interaction with people who are not working in the same field of science.” The book’s 14 articles deal with topics like media relations, tensions between scientific and popular writing, and techniques of clear writing and speaking. Johanna Vaattovaara encourages scientists to derive from their research new ways of understanding current problems. According to A.-P. Pietilä a popularizer balances serious issues and light presentation to hold his reader’s interest; he must simplify, sharpen, personalize and dramatize.Krista Varantola brings up the ethics of popularization − you must give credit to whoever originated the idea even when you write a textbook or a magazine article. Markku Löytönen wishes that non-fiction would include many “reading planes”: the opportunity to browse, view images, search and read closely. Although you may have read many of these ideas in previous books, The Popularization of Science is worth reading.
I listened to a panel at SITE 2013 that dealt with teaching skills for digital citizenship. Among the skills the panel recommended: media literacy, cyber ethics, online communication skills, and knowledge of both open resources and those behind paywalls. Panelist Joke Voogt offered some levels of competence: a passive user understands what’s going on, an active one uses web resources, a competent user is able to interact online, and a skillful user also knows how to influence others. My own wishlist includes some practical skills: When teachers find an error on Wikipedia, they fix it instead of complaining. Students check other sources beyond the first hit on Google. Journalists avoid generalizations like “online crowds” and “internet users”, especially if they’re referring to comments from their magazine’s own forum. Entrepreneurs give up clumsy surreptitious advertising in social media and instead offer their products openly. People stop getting angry about strong opinions in blog posts – and bloggers will share those strong opinions with style but not with rancor. As long as I’m making wishes, maybe people will make a habit of acknowledging the original source when sharing material on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else.
Last week I attended the SITE 2013 conference in New Orleans. Many presenters summarized recent history and speculated about the future. They reminded me of Osmo A. Wiio’s finding that we overestimate the impact of technological change in the short term but underestimate it in the long term. The educational use of technology tends to spread slowly, according to its pioneers, but the eventual effect will be revolutionary. Keynote speakers Milton Chen and Paul Kim strongly supported the view that education must be connected closely to the real world: we need tools to enable learning everywhere, all the time, and not solely inside the walls of a school. On the Internet, you have to provide an easy, stimulating platform where students organize their own activities, and students will teach each other. Paul Kim predicted that in the future, formal grading may become obsolete; evaluation will be done by students, who will recognize and reward the contributions made online by their peers. He himself gave endorsements on LinkedIn to participants in his MOOC. Mariana Patru from UNESCO was concerned about the geographical and gender-based digital divide, which mobile learning may be able to narrow. Education cannot remain in the pre-digital era; digital age teachers need to update their skills constantly in professional learning communities.
I’ve just read the book Conflicting Science Policy by Antti Hautamäki andPirjo Ståhle. They contend that universities are grappling with the conflict between the expectations of the marketplace and the ideals of scientific inquiry. Universities should not exist simply to help maintain the economy; they also have a broad educational mission. Citing the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the authors argue that technology and economic status are insufficient to ensure well-being. We need the humanities to teach people skills for democracy. The key idea of the book is that the university should influence the development of society more actively—for example, by addressing such problems as climate change, aging and sustainable development. These difficult problems cannot be solved solely by research within a single discipline. They call for a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving, and for cooperation among all stakeholders. The authors go on to say that a country like Finland can’t compete directly with the dominant Anglo-American universities; the annual budget for Harvard is 3.7 billion dollars, while Helsinki University’s is 830 million. Therefore Finland should choose its own path, developing itself as a center for science and innovation, whose universities focus on solving mankind’s wicked problems through interdisciplinary collaboration.