Looking for Trouble: paying attention to word associations in learning and teaching

Daphne Loads  I’m an academic developer where my job is to help university lecturers to develop their teaching. Sometimes we do this by contributing to the academic development literature.  But this isn’t always successful.  Academics from other disciplines often fail to make connections between ‘our’ literature and their practice.  It is possible (and many of us try) to langauge transparentcommunicate effectively with a wider audience by providing clear explanations of specialist terms, making disciplinary assumptions explicit and avoiding unnecessary ambiguity.

This translation requires a careful focus on the denotations of the words we use – their strict literal definitions stripped of unnecessary ambiguity and associations.  However denotation is only part of the story because language is not transparent.  A word bears the marks of how it has been used in the past and is still used in other contexts: it has connotations.  This is most obvious in poetry, but applies to all language, including disciplinary terminology.  Some connotations are idiosyncratic, while others are more or less widely shared.  Becoming aware of the multiple associations of the words we use can help us to think more deeply about their meanings.

Trouble as a case in point
What would an uninitiated reader make of the frequent references to ‘trouble’ and ‘troubling’ in the academic development literature?  He or she is likely to be unaware of some shared disciplinary connotations of the term.  For example, Land’s (2003) account of ‘troublesome knowledge’ implies that trouble is actually a good thing, characteristic of the kind of unsettling that is required if important learning is to take place.  In ‘Troubling our Desires for Research and Writing within the Academic Project’, Peseta (2007) departs further from dictionary definitions of trouble as pain or distress that must either be avoided or suffered.  Here it has connotations of agency: it is the practitioner and researcher in academic development who is doing the troubling, stirring up something that is at risk of becoming stagnant, and creating ripples of influence.  Of course the reader will bring her or his idiosyncratic associations with them.  Perhaps ‘trouble’ was their childhood nickname, or perhaps they remember Elvis singing ‘If you’re looking for trouble…’

A reader who has not reflected on these and other connotations risks missing or mistaking current disciplinary meanings of Gender trouble‘trouble.’  Judith Butler (1999) provides another delightful example of the value of reflecting on the connotations of familiar words. In the preface to the first edition of her book Gender Trouble she says that it was thinking about ‘trouble’ that provided her ‘first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power.’ When she was a child:

‘the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble all to keep one out of trouble. Hence I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task how best to make it, what best way to be in it. ‘(Butler, 1999, pxxvii)

It is this kind of serious play with words that can bring us into contact with their hidden and often telling associations.

I suggest that academic developers can help our colleagues to enrich their understanding by paying attention to the connotations of the words we use.  When talking about learning and teaching we should encourage exploration of the wide connotations of the words we use, as well as their narrow definitions.  We cannot expect colleagues from other disciplines to immerse themselves in our discourse.  However we can use simple exercises like asking them to play with words to bring out their hidden associations.  ‘What does trouble mean to you?’ can make a much more engaging start to a paper presentation than the more conventional definition of key terms.  By paying more attention to the connotations of the words we use, we may reduce confusion, enrich communication and even create new meanings by exploring hitherto unacknowledged associations.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity New York and London: Routledge
Land, R. (2003) Agency, Context and Change in Academic Development International Journal for Academic Development 6(1) 4-20
Peseta, T. (2010) Troubling our Desires for Research and Writing within the Academic Development Project International Journal for Academic Development 12(1)15-23


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