Technical terms

At a meeting I attended recently, someone joking referred to a multimedia presentation that someone else had made to show to undergraduate students as "information delivery for the ADD generation." There were chuckles all around.

I, on the other hand, did not chuckle; I tried to intervene but the conversation moved on and I didn't feel like being obnoxious and forcibly returning us to the issue. Plus, I like and respect the speaker; I am pretty sure that my colleague was simply making a joke, and didn't mean anything malicious by the comment. But the comment was worrisome to me in two respects:

1) the casual use of technical terms out of context always bothers me. "ADD" (and "ADHD") are medical diagnoses, and come complete with therapeutic regimens that sometimes include medication. Using the terms casually sounds, to my ears, like a bit of armchair quarterbacking, as though anyone (and not just trained medical professionals following reasonably clear and precise protocols) could look at someone and declare them "ADD." And this is silly at best and disastrous at worst: silly because it usurps the entire contemporary practice of medicine in favor of a lay opinion, and disastrous when it comes (as such lay diagnoses often do) with a set of idiosyncratic and bizarre "home remedies." As if just sitting an ADD child down in a chair for several hours a day, or removing the television, or forcing them to read aloud, or whatever, will somehow affect their ability to concentrate.

To my mind, one should reserve technical vocabulary for its precise usage, and one should be sure that the term used is both accurate and comes complete with its associated therapies and interventions and the rest of the conceptual and technical apparatus that professionals are supposedly trained to recognize and deploy. Otherwise one is not really saying anything, not in the correct sense.

I think I'm rather sensitive to this because of my autistic son. When my son runs around the room endlessly singing "Life Is A Highway" and reciting the opening sequence of his new favorite movie Cars, it's not because we're not disciplining him enough or because he wants to be annoying; it's because of his neurology and his own individual way of dealing with sensory inputs. As parents of an autistic child, my wife and I have learned to speak the technical vocabulary, and can offer informed lay diagnoses, but we'd never dream of trying to actually formally diagnose someone. We certainly have a bag of tricks that might be of use when dealing with someone who is autistic (or who has autism spectrum-like traits -- autism is a hard case here, because it's a spectrum of traits and issues; the NIMH website has a pretty decent breakdown, as does Autism Speaks), but that's a far cry from claiming to be a medical professional.

Calling someone or something "autistic" without knowing what the hell you are talking about -- or calling them "clinically depressed," or "bipolar," or "ADD" -- is just ridiculous. Either use the apparatus correctly, or leave it aside.

2) referring to a whole generation as "ADD," even casually or off-handedly, is a not-too-subtle form of dismissing them and their learning styles as somehow deficient or in need of therapeutic intervention. That's deeply offensive. "You just aren't learning right" is a tremendously reactionary way to confront any educational situation, I think; besides the fact that it puts the blame on the audience rather than on the communicator, it echoes the traditional complaint every older generation has about those who come after it: they aren't like us, they don't do things like we do, they have it so easy, they don't know about hard work. And there's the biggest problem, I think. The current media-savvy, media-saturated generation of undergraduate students (to say nothing of their younger siblings still in elementary school at the moment) experiences the world differently, and inhabits a different world than, their predecessors; this is not a unique claim, because every generation experiences and inhabits a different world than their parents and grandparents did. And this generation is used to jump cuts, multi-sensory inputs, and computers that are more like furniture than pieces of technology in that they are simply taken for granted.

This is what these students are used to; this is where they live. It is up to us, the educational professionals, to meet them where they live and help to facilitate genuine learning -- which is to say, genuine exploration of options and identities by the students themselves, and the production of learning communities in which that kind of educational work can take place. It is not up to us to make them suffer as we suffered, or experience as we experienced. We are not supposed to be cloning ourselves here -- we are supposed to be helping them learn. Offhandedly diagnosing them as in need of medical intervention (intervention that will in theory make them more like us) strikes me as something of an evasion of our responsibility as educators.

Yes, I suppose I may be overreacting to an off-hand comment, a joke. But the issues that the comment implies seem to me to be very serious indeed, and to cut right to the heart of the teaching vocation.

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