Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Annoying words grad students love

with 7 comments

I hear these words a lot, in class, in seminars, at conferences, wherever an academic lurks in the shadows. And they don’t mean anything. Mostly they are ways for us to sort of sound smart, to pretend like we have something to say, when we really we don’t but we feel the need to participate anyway. Okay, so this is really limited to humanities and some social science fields (history falls into one or the other category, depending on the institution, but that’s another topic). Also, let me say that I use these words. And so do my friends. And my teachers. But I just find these words very frustrating. Either they have no meaning at all, or they are used instead of perfectly normal words that would do just as well. Also, feel free to add comments and contribute more to this list. I’m sure it will grow.

1) Problematize

Grad students always want to “problematize” things. They frequently say things like, “I want to problematize this issue by looking at it through X.” As far as I can tell, what they really mean is: “X is interesting.” Even more likely, they mean “X is interesting to me, have you thought about it? Can your project become more related to my interests?” Even when it’s more benign, it’s usually, “I want to make a comment, but don’t really have anything precise to say, so I’m just going to say X.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word means: to render problematic; to view, interpret, or analyse (an issue, discipline, etc.) as a problem or system of problems to be solved. But that is seldom how grad students use it. We really just mean, I’d like to relate things X to thing Y. So why don’t we just say that? “Problematize” is really a word we use when we don’t know what we’re saying.

2) Complicate

Very similar to “problematize.” How many times does someone’s hand shoot up at an academic conference, only for the eager questioner to say: “I’d like to complicate this question by introducing gender.” Or race. Or religion. Or class. Or a trans-national focus. The OED supports this definition: to make complex or intricate (as by the introduction of other matter); to render involved or complex. But this doesn’t make the term analytically useful. Again, this is because we often don’t really know how these things complicate the issue. In fact, they don’t necessarily make things more complicated. They might just make them different. Or they might do nothing at all. But we always want to add complexity, even when there is no complexity to add. Like Avril Lavigne says, “Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?”

3) Unpack

Students in the humanities are surrounded by suitcases. “Let’s unpack this argument” or “we have to unpack this document” or this quote, or event, or whatever. Why can’t we just examine it, or analyze it? Why the silly metaphor? Where are we traveling to that we need to unpack so much?

4) Tease Out

Unlike “fleshing out,” which makes a little more sense (as in, to flesh out an argument), “teasing out” is more delicate and thus more annoying. We try to “tease out” the details from a certain source. Why can’t we just locate them? Here the OED tells us the roots of the metaphor: to separate or pull asunder the fibres of; to comb or card (wool, flax, etc.) in preparation for spinning; to open out by pulling asunder; to shred.. It even goes further and gives us a the precise definition of to tease out (fig.) is: to extract, get out, obtain, esp. by painstaking effort. But is this effort so extraordinary? I mean really we’re just reading some document and saying, “oh, when it says this, I think it really means that.” So it’s really just a deeper re-interpretation, but not some complex spinning procedure. So how about dropping the metaphor and just going ahead with the close reading?


Written by David Weinfeld

February 10, 2010 at 17:00

Posted in Academia, Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. yes! thank you.


    February 10, 2010 at 17:49

  2. Whenever I see OED I think of Infinite Jest.


    February 10, 2010 at 17:52

  3. Ha! Nice…
    I hate when people say “This argument is problematic.” Well… what the fuck is the problem with it? Just say “The Problem with this argument is…”


    February 10, 2010 at 17:55

  4. Thankfully I’m in a field that relies more on annoying math than annoying words. But nevertheless, we still get our fair share of “unpacking.” Loved this post.


    February 10, 2010 at 19:15

  5. In response to #3 – you have a lot of suitcases because you have a lot of academic baggage. : ] To use another dopey metaphor, you all in grad school with your own fish to fry.


    February 11, 2010 at 23:48

  6. […] interesting ways, of course using the notion of mutants to complicate these matters (oh, no I used the term complicate! the next thing you know I’ll be trying to problematize […]

  7. I once heard, ‘but you haven’t gendered it yet.’ No, I haven’t. Guilty as charged.

    Dr Stephen Etheridge

    July 6, 2015 at 10:50

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