Home List of Titles An imperfect vocabulary: Raymond Williams’ Keywords and its relevance to the terminologies of higher education: the case of the word 'critical'
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- An imperfect vocabulary: Raymond Williams’ Keywords and its relevance to the terminologies of higher education: the case of the word 'critical'
- Moore, Tim
- Raymond Williams is one of a number of theorists, who in their understandings of the nature of culture and discourse, has insisted on the fundamental polysemy of words; that is to say, that no simple one-to-one correspondence can be said to exist between a word and its meaning. In his seminal work Keywords, Williams (1975) offers his own account of the multiple and variable meanings of certain key terms - what he calls that “imperfect vocabulary” that characterizes contemporary social life (eg. ‘culture’, ‘democracy’, ‘class’). While there is a certain genius in Williams’ sketches of each of his terms, the fundamental contribution of Keywords lies in the author’s suggestions for how we should negotiate this semantic indeterminacy. Instead of seeking to refine and delimit the meaning of such terms, Williams suggests we need to recognize such ‘imperfections’ as matters of “contemporary substance”, and as “variations to be insisted upon” (p.21). In this paper I draw on Williams’ idea as a way of understanding the challenges faced by students in their negotiating of the special language and terminologies of modern higher education. As a case study, I consider the word ‘critical’ – a term ever-present in higher educational discourses, and one somehow increasingly oppressive of students. Through the analysis of a number of textual samples, I show how the term is used in highly variable – even contradictory – ways in different contexts of study. In line with Williams’ position, I argue that the way out of such confusion is not to seek to fix the definitions of such terms (“to purify the dialect of the tribe”, as Williams has described it), but rather to explore these contingent meanings as they are realised within specific disciplinary practices.
- Publication type
- Conference paper
- Research centre
- Swinburne University of Technology. Faculty of Higher Education, Lilydale
- Paper presented at 'Key thinkers, Key theories: The contribution of theory to ALL practice' Symposium, Lilydale, Victoria, Australia, 22-23 November 2012
- Publication year
- Higher education; Language; Keywords; Williams, Raymond
- Swinburne University of Technology
- Publisher URL
- Copyright © 2012.
- Peer reviewed