'Quality control' in academe

Thomas V. DiBacco

August 25, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

LAST SPRING, I attended my final faculty meeting for the year, hopeful that the semester would end on an upbeat tone. I was coping, even enjoying myself a bit, until the faculty overwhelmingly approved the following experimental course, Total Quality Management (TQM):

"The mission of the course," read the accompanying course description, "is to establish an environment to optimize the opportunity of the stakeholders (students, instructors, direct and indirect customers) to benefit from an experience which represents a thorough immersion into systems, processes with the resulting optimization of quality, all in the context of both learning about these processes and experiencing optimization strategies in the immediate environment of the course."

Is it any wonder academics have difficulty making their imprint in the real world?

The irony is that TQM is supposed to be about quality, high standards, or keeping one's nose to the management grindstone so that a business operates with the precision of a fine watch. Yet my colleagues who devised the description for the course exhibited a total lack of quality in communication.

I've collected other examples of the muddled prose of some aca demics. Here's an example from a statement on contemporary challenges in higher education:

"But having a focused purpose in mind helps it continually prioritize its goals and objectives within the cross-currents of issues and new circumstances that continually pound on it."

What does that mean?

Here's another on administrative styles in academe:

"Few activities have the mark of only one person, and nothing is consummated poorly."

So much for the meaning of consummate.

Even ads for academic books provide little insight to their subject and probably too much about their supposed merit:

"The selections cover issues of pedagogy from active learning to teaching and learning in a professional school to the synergism of research and classroom teaching. This book is a publication of the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program."

Well, so much for that sterling program.

My favorite is from an academic accrediting agency that advises business schools on the means to achieve accreditation:

The curriculum should "provide students with the common body of knowledge in business administration," and "programs shall include in their course of instruction the equivalent of at least one year of work comprising the following areas: . . . (e) a study of administrative processes under conditions of uncertainty including integrating analysis and policy determination at the overall management level."

How's that for useful information?

The tragedy of gobbledygook in academe is that there appears to be no shame for this subversion of the English language, let alone a penalty. The more confusing the prose, the more likely colleagues are intimidated, less likely to show their own supposed ignorance by questioning the literal mess.

To be sure, it's one thing for academics to write in tongues to one another, but it's quite another to bequeath this legacy to students who venture into the world with convoluted sentences, ambiguous buzzwords and, worse, the conviction -- derived from emulation of their mentors -- that their literary skills are sound.

A person who cannot write clearly is uneducated, no matter the credentials, and professors would do well to heed the words of early mentors on Total Quality Management:

"Reading," wrote Francis Bacon in 1625, "maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man."

And "in every man's writing," wrote Thomas Carlyle two centuries later, "the character of the writer must lie recorded."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University in Washington, D. C.

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