Language and crowd-sourcing

I’ve started work on the actual writing of the actual project and right now it feels like all I’m doing is poking around the edges  to see where the entrance is.

Before I got past my first paragraph, I ran into a language issue. I am arguing for the use of porn worker (and other sex industry worker) voices as secondary texts on equal footing with academic secondary texts. (Secondary because I will be using them to help me understand my primary texts, which are the two porn films I’m writing about.) I am not comfortable calling these texts “non-academic” because of the way that sets academic as the default and implies that the other texts are somehow lesser. Less rigorous in their thought, less informed, less impartial, etc. As one of my commenters said, “”Academic” is too often a word privileged by its own meaning, though- it is intended to convey (often specialized) learning and a great deal of study, which has the effect of lending it gravitas, deserved or not.”

That quote is a result of bringing the issue to my facebook wall, where I ended up with a 37-comment thread that gave me a lot of think about (and the brilliant term “community emergent”).

I’ve included some of the quotes, with my expanded thoughts on the suggestions, their supports, and what it means for the language I might use (any critique of the suggestions is not a critique of the suggester – the help yesterday was invaluable):

First, the wording of my question – “I need a word that means “writing by people who are not academics” that does not have the problems inherent in “non-academic” (which I see as problematic because it makes academic writing the default and therefore privileges it). Alternatively, I need to be convinced that “non-academic” is not as problematic as I think it is. Help???”

The responses – “Some people use “professional” as it implies expertise without assuming academic standards/rigors.” – This was really interesting, because it separates expertise from standards/rigors, and says that expertise can exist anywhere (true) and that academic writing is held to a specific standard (theoretically true). Similar to this was the suggestion of “non-scholarly” and “non-peer reviewed.”

In both instances academic writing is assumed to be held to a different standard. And this is true – the worker writing I want to include is not peer-reviewed, it often does not use a recognized citation format, etc. But I balked at both of these suggestions, because although they do not actually indicate that the standards are met and the peers doing the reviewing are impartial, I think that is implied (though later commenters disagreed).

This issue of language is fairly emotional for me – I have a visceral negative reaction to the idea that academic writing has more value, is more informed, etc. I think that emotional response was actually getting in my way yesterday, because I was reading into suggestions such as these a hierarchy of writing which still favoured academic writing. This emotional reaction is relevant to my research process and to my writing process, because I would like to keep in mind that my readers may also have an emotional reaction and I’d like to be as clear as possible in my writing to help mitigate that.

“Layman’s terms” was suggested, but feels, to me, like a phrase that refers to the language/word choice of the writers I want to cite, rather than to the type of writing itself (some of which is as full of jargon and insider-speak as any academic work, it’s just a different regional dialect).

Then, “I think that forcing one vague term instead of writing out the actual specific terms is problematic.” Bam! Of course, my goal of finding a specific word rather than articulating the reasoning behind that word choice is problematic! It is problematic precisely because of the reactions I had to the first few suggestions – without clearly articulating the meanings of the specific terms, the reader is left to interpret and may, as I did, bring their emotional responses into the interpretation. That obscures my meaning, and runs the risk of setting up other linguistic hierarchies accidentally.

Immediately following that comment, “I think simple is better always. Make what you’re saying easy to understand and more people will grasp it and not zonk out.”

Similarly, “I agree that “simple” can work extremely well in many different settings. Simple doesn’t have to mean simplistic. It can enhance clarity and it can pair well with brevity and judicious use of jargon.”

I tried to synthesize those two points and came up with – “… writing by workers involved in the sex and pornography industry and writing by academics observing the industry”

“Book smarts vs Street Smarts” was suggested, and I found it really interesting. When I hear “book smarts” it calls up the flip-side of the “rigorous academic standard” image – here the academic is ensconced in the ivory tower, nose in a book. The hierarchy of ways of knowing is flipped, here. I loved this suggestion, though not for my project since I am hoping to flatten the hierarchy rather than invert it.

Similar to the suggestion to keep it simple, “I personally see no problem with ‘non-academic’. I don’t see it as creating privileged status. I consider myself ‘non-violent’ which doesn’t mean violent is the default. Ya know? I understand who you’re talking about when you say non-academic.” This is the comment that made me realize how strong my emotional attachment to the issue and the language was/is, and how that emotional attachment would not be true for all (or even most?) of my readers. My facebook is full of insight!

The idea of “non-academic” being a word that does not privilege academic writing was supported by other commenters, “I don’t see “non academic” as priviledging “academic,” esp with the quality of writing one can find online in blogs etc these days, both by people who have never been through academia and by people who teach/write in academia and either write more “popularly” in blogs or online “magazines” for lack of a better word (b/c I’m having word-finding problems today) or who have made their academic writing available online and have had that writing dovetail into various lines of discussion, both academic and non-academic, simply due to subject matter and interesting, sometimes new, points being made.”

Following those points, “I’d probably define it in the list you constructed then put non academic in brackets. Then use non academic subsequently.” Basically, remove the hierarchy through the use of specific definitions, then use the simple and easily-understood term (now removed from the hierarchy) throughout. Smart!

Then – “Community emergent?” This thrilled me, not only because I love the way it allows for the sex work industry to be a community (with the positive connotations that word has for me) but because it creates a framework that allows me to discuss the writers who are both academic and industry workers. It breaks down the binary that I hadn’t even realized I was constructing. And that is always a good thing!

Other people felt similarly, “community emergent sounds good- it very precisely defines the material without being overly wordy (and, hence, can be used repeatedly in text), and without depending on other writing for its definition via counterpoint.” The last point, regarding a definition that doesn’t depend on other writing, really resonated with me.

“Experience-based” and “experiential” were also suggested, and both are good.

At the end of the thread, I felt like I had a much better understanding not only of my own emotional response to the issue but also of the potential language available to me. Crowd-sourced academics. I love it!

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