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Meta Assessment

August 15, 2005

I’m on a committee for a statewide library project, which is not as bad an assignment as it sounds. We were recently invited to include the project in a study, and so we reviewed the proposal for the research. The words took us into classic “committee” territory.

The proposal is titled: “Inter-state Meta-assessment of Chat Reference Services.” No, I don’t know quite what it means, either. What’s a meta-assessment, exactly? Or even approximately?

I prefer titles such as “What works for statewide chat reference services.”

The introduction begins: “This proposal describes a proof-of-concept of a meta-assessment of statewide virtual reference services …” It’s a style of jargon that is rampant in education, academia, business, government … almost everywhere.

Coincident with the arrival of this proposal … oh, heck. At the same time, we got this book in: “Death sentences: how cliches, weasel words, and management-speak are strangling public language” by Don Watson, an Australian writer who was also a speech writer for a prime minister. He has seen the style up close.

I can’t really hint at a remarkable coincidence in the arrival of this book, since the tide of this kind of language has been rising for a century, and the book would have hit the nail on the head at any time in the last 50 years or more.

The book is not merely a collection of cheap shots. Those are fun, of course — from management-speak like “core commitments going forward” to military-speak like “attrited” or “downgraded the enemy force” or “on message.”

In a brief discussion, Watson takes Iraq War journalists to task for staying “on message” — not only for abandoning a noble tradition of war reporting but especially for permitting such abuse of language.

Watson discusses the abuse of public language across public life, and he laments it. Plenty of the anecdotes are funny, but the book is also disquieting for revealing the ubiquitous dilution of meaning in so much of public discourse.

It can seem hopeless in the blurb industry. Every novel is “richly imagined” and “deeply moving.” Even the back of Watson’s book has some: “scathingly funny and deadly serious” and “brilliant … tempered by sorrow.” In fact, these are accurate to a degree, but suitably excessive.

When you read a job advertisement that says “eye for detail, ability to multitask, creativity, confident ability to communicate, amicable personality …” do you really get a good idea of what they want? Likely, they don’t know, or they’re flat out not saying.

I chuckle sometimes when I see ads detailing a long list of apparently sophisticated skills and knowledge, and at the end comes the phrase “ability to lift 50 lbs.”

Watson discusses how in our times cliches seem to spread everywhere across social, educational, and occupational boundaries. For example, not long ago, “customer” was understood to be a purchaser or client at some kind of commercial establishment.

“Now libraries, universities, and nursing homes have customers instead of readers, students, and patients. Taxation departments have customers instead of taxpayers or citizens …”

This may be fall-out from the noble pursuit of “customer service.” I know that the library world revisits this now and then — what shall we call our “customers”? Right now, most use the word “patrons.” I’m used to it, but I’ve never much liked it.

I could go with “readers,” since statistically reading is what most of our users visit the library for. But it’s not quite right. We have listeners and lookers, too.

I may try something like “meta-literati” …

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