I stopped going to meetings at some point in 2008 when the meaning hollowed out of my profession. The loss of actual content of the spoken word making it impossible to handle meetings without raising genuine fears for my health. Uncontrollable gurning in response to ‘targets’, ‘leadership’, ‘engagement’ and ‘psychological contract’. Code for the unspeakable subtext of alienation, exploitation and command and control management.
So it was with a certain degree of nervous anticipation that I found myself in a departmental meeting the other week and noticed a new term peppering the power points “going forward”. This phrase is the psychic equivalent of explaining twitter to your mum. Where do you start?
Firstly in relation to space and time honestly we don’t have much choice but to go forward. Bit blunt for a Monday morning but there’s not much any of us can do about hurtling towards our own mortality.
Secondly moving forward isn’t always the preferred option in higher education. There’s a case for moving backwards to a time when we failed students and we actually read books. Hot desking in HE has led to academics receiving memos across the UK telling them that actually having books is unsustainable. Yup, read that statement again and think about where that takes us. Forward?
Thirdly, if you strip out the meaning of words you pretty much scupper any possibility of changing anything. I come from an activists’ tradition of emancipatory learning by another beautiful bearded bloke, the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire. This is a model of education built for working people to help them over throw the external and internal oppressors that deny the possibility of change and being your own leader. It’s a model that insists on being able to think freely and question assumptions about what the world is like, and that we do all that radical stuff essentially from talking to other people. It’s a million miles away from a model of power points, elevator pitches and using phrases like ‘going forward’ as weapons of mass destruction against authenticity.
In this tradition words are powerful stuff. They name what’s happening and help us understand what’s actually going on rather than the sanitised versions of reality we exchange in seminars and staff meetings. When we get the chance to say words that mean something to each other it changes our perceptions of reality and with it the distinct possibility that we might want to change the world. Maybe more importantly exchanging stuff of meaning between people teaches us how to be human at work.
Now, I don’t wish to put forward the grandiose idea that by being an activist you get to change the cosmic order of things. In one sense, we are all ultimately defeated by life in that it is finite and our impact on others is limited. But how we frame ideas and where we use them matters. Who says them, what words they use and the freedom to express all matter. Without this meaning we are cast into a world of verbalism, a soul sucking exchange of nothing between people that should know better.
Words only matter when they mean something so make it your priority today to say something with real meaning to another human being at work.
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