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Don’t Let the Jargon Divide Us

As the new stewardship director, I have been tasked to write an occasional Stewardship Blog.  The vagueness of this assignment and other biological knowledge that I have stuffed into my brain make this task more complicated than it seems.  First, I have to consider my intended audience.  Some readers may be fellow biologists, some may be bankers or mechanics, and some may be high school students interested in choosing a career similar to mine.  That being said, anything I write must be approachable and easily understood by all.

A quick Google search tells me jargon is defined as, “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” We all use jargon in our chosen professions and we are all guilty of forgetting that others may not know our special words.  Further, when jargon ambushes us in a conversation, we are often afraid or embarrassed to stop the conversation to ask for a more complete explanation.  This is why I have decided to discuss my life experiences with scientific jargon in my first blog.

My first real biology class was a general course specifically for biology majors. The long hours my professor had dedicated to earn her PhD had molded her into an intimidating a source of knowledge.   As she thoroughly explained every topic, I instantly noticed that some of the words used were new to me.  I may have heard them before, but I could not use most of these words in a sentence.  Like any eager student, I put in the work and learned her language.  The glossary of my biology text book became my new best friend.  I remember having dinner with my dad and lightly venting about how, “the professor refuses to dumb things down so our class can understand.”

Fast forward a couple semesters when I started conducting undergraduate research. I was sampling ephemeral wetlands with dipnets and minnow traps to identify adult and larval amphibians and their egg masses during the breeding season.  The previous sentence is an example of how versed I had become in biological jargon in a relatively short period of time (and I will clarify that sentence in more detail in a future blog).  At another dinner with my dad, I was telling him about all of the exciting research opportunities and anecdotal conclusions from our work.  My dad stopped me in my jargony ramble and reminded me that not too long ago I was complaining about all the fancy words from that first biology class.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.  My classmates had both began this chatter of science and recognized that this language can cause a disconnect between the scientific community and others.  We had discussions, both in class and in private, about how we would not allow jargon to stop us from clearly communicating our beloved subject to the rest of the world.  Some of our professors even provided papers and strategies on how to avoid this road block.  Yet, we all continued to learn more new complicated words.

When I began working professionally as a biologist, I was lucky to work alongside a multitude of experienced, well-informed biologists.  The language I had learned through my education facilitated my training in ecological restoration.  I still had to stop at times and learn a new word, like the active ingredient of an herbicide or the entire subset of jargon dedicated to prescribed burning.  One obstacle I came across was explaining to family and friends what I do for a living.  I would tell people that I’m a biologist and that seemed to pose even more questions. So, instead I switched up my title to habitat manager.

For most people “habitat manager” was relatable enough for them to either engage in a discussion or bow out before the inevitable glazed over look of disinterest came over their face.  At one point, I taught my seven-year-old daughter to tell people that I “purge native ecosystems of non-native and invasive species to promote biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency.”  She would regurgitate this jargon loaded sentence to innocent inquirers verbatim.  I still wonder about the probable looks and questions that she received when I wasn’t around.

My first blog as stewardship director isn’t about the wonderful world of science around us.  I’m going to instead make a promise to explain this natural world in a way that everyone can understand.  I will not give up my fancy words.  In fact, I may force you to learn a few new words along the way.  In exchange for this promise, I would like anyone reading this blog to promise to ask questions when something isn’t coming across clearly.  We, as an organization, take a lot of pride in being responsive to questions.  My email is ewright@thenatureinstitute.org and all of our email addresses can be found on our website.  Remember, there are no stupid questions. I probably just didn’t explain it well enough.

Science,

Eric

 

Eric will be speaking on invasive species management at the free upcoming “Invasive Species Workshop” held at the Old Bakery Beer Co.

Click here for more details on the upcoming workshop

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