Your subject is made of words

Scientists, your subject isn’t made of Bunsen burners, tripods and test tubes. Geographers, your field trips are brilliant, but geography isn’t made of sand dunes, isobars or population surveys. Business studies teachers, hiring, firing, delegation and direction are not at the centre of your subject. Whatever you teach, your subject is primarily made of words.

In a very real sense, teachers aren’t direct practitioners of their subjects. This is the root of the insulting saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” In the main, students and teachers are theorists, exploring their expert disciplines through the realms of articulated speech and written words, rather than through fieldwork or direct experience of the phenomena in question. Geographers, for example, teach their students all about earthquakes without ever needing to experience one first-hand. Biologists don’t often undertake dissections as part of their classroom instruction (though it can be a valuable and enriching experience when the opportunity arises). Business teachers don’t need to take their students into an office to help them successfully pass the business studies exams.

The point is, words are the medium through which students will access most of the knowledge and skills available within the domain of your subject. In fact, each word is a vehicle for knowledge, as we have already discovered. When our students can correctly and independently deploy the vocabulary of your subject, they demonstrate their knowledge of the concepts of your subject. Even in art and design, technical processes require verbal instructions and explanations. When the best art teachers model cross hatching, mono printing, the grid method or construction lines, they simultaneously explain what they are doing and why, using the language of their subject to manifest their thought processes throughout the artistic process. The same is true of mathematicians. The numbers and symbols of maths are certainly a wonderful, beautiful and universal language, but during teacher explanation and modelling, words are the medium used to transfer subject knowledge from the mind of the teacher to the minds of the students.

“We need words to think about, and we need words to think with. Your internal, subvocal voice can’t begin to make sense without words.”

Therefore, teachers and students are wielders of words. Every teacher must embrace the fact that they are responsible for teaching their students to read, write, speak and listen more effectively. It is not the job of the English department to do this alone. Your subject is made of words, too. You must do your part. Happily, most teachers, understand that this is our shared responsibility now, regardless of our subject specialism.

When I consider the idea that my subject is made of words, I can’t help but visualise an enormous mind map that contains all the words of my subject. This hypothetical mind map could be almost limitless, sprawling out as each word acts as a node, connected to closely related words by neuron-esque connections. This image of a massive mind map of words is, for me, a perfect visualisation of the interconnected schemata that, we are told, the human mind uses to organise our various categories of knowledge. I think that words and knowledge are inextricably linked. You can’t really know a thing without the words to know it through. Maybe this isn’t true in terms of some procedural or kinaesthetic knowledge. I know how to open my hand but I can’t name all of the muscles, ligaments, bones and physiological processes involved. However, in terms of academic knowledge, I’m confident we would be lost without words. We need words to think about, and we need words to think with. Your internal, subvocal voice can’t begin to make sense without words. Once these words are in place, related words stick to them. Words stick to words; knowledge sticks to knowledge. And this neurological web of words, in a very real way, is the verbal manifestation of your academic subject. Your subject is made of words.


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