By Noah Bergam (VI)
George Orwell once wrote that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
I wish Orwell could have seen Twitter.
But look––this isn’t a rant about social media per se, or even political discourse. I want to talk about “slovenly” language specifically as it relates to the learning experience. The word of the day is “interesting,” a word used and abused so often inside the classroom that it’s become a default response, an easy out to intellectually discourse.
If we want to challenge ourselves as learners, we ought to ponder: what does “interesting” really mean? How long does the comment at hand capture the imagination? Does it trigger new thoughts and connections?
Maybe you had a genuine intellectual dopamine rush. You’ve dug deep, and you’ve found that there’s really no justification except an appreciation for the underlying beauty of a Faulkner passage or a clever computer algorithm. That’s okay. To an extent, it’s necessary. We all ought to stop and smell the roses every once in a while, especially in fast-paced, lecture-heavy STEM courses. But when it comes to the humanities, where student insight reigns supreme, we should be more mindful of our language.
After all, we don’t write book reviews in English class. We write critical essays, make evidence-based arguments in our writing––and we should expect no different from our verbal discussions. The core issue with “interesting” is that it effectively cuts out the need for justification, turning commentary into a passive, antiquarian pursuit.
As we saw earlier, Orwell voiced his concerns about the feedback loop between words and thoughts. But while Orwell speaks of language that is “foolish,” I’m more concerned with that which is vacuous. We have a word at our disposal that can mask critical thought and make the classroom far more comfortable than it ought to be. In the drain of hybrid learning, we have every incentive to use this word to patch up complications, misunderstandings, turning discussions into strings of weak non-sequiturs. Whether you are a teacher or a student, I implore you to be cautious. “Interesting” makes Zoom learning more remote than it has to be.
And no, “fascinating” is not better. Maybe we could hear “scintillating” a little more often, but ultimately, all these one-word substitutions reach the same dead end. There’s no easy answer to the linguistic dilemma at hand. It takes a community-wide consciousness to limit our use of the i-word. If you hear it, ask for follow-up. If you use it, provide some.
Keep in mind your agency over language. If you want a classroom that’s more than just “interesting,” it starts with you.