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Speaking Out

Six Tools for Cutting Edges With

Since a number of the members of the standing and cringing faculty have confessed to me their inability to understand certain terms that are being bandied about this One University with increasing frequency, it has seemed clear to me that I should attempt to define the most important of these as my contribution to the new "Understanding Across the University" program.

1. Cutting-edge program. This has two meanings. First, it refers to trendy academic enterprises that are able to lop off great chunks of money with surprising ease. Unfortunately, like razor blades, these programs get dull sooner or later, and must be disposed of.  The term also alludes to the tone of voice used by members of prosperous departments or schools when they talk at meetings.

2. Computer literacy.  A computer is an electronic gadget that is designed to promote the sale of something called software, which is always very expensive and never quite right for any given purpose, except for "educational games," of course.  Literacy, as is well known, refers to the ability to read.  Thus, the term means the capacity to comprehend and to enjoy brochures from IBM, Apple, and the like, without having to rely totally on the illustrations.

3. Strategic planning. This is a process by which sub-sections of the University, after the expenditure of considerable time and energy, send reports on what they want to be when they grow up to some administrator, who reads them, giggling and shaking his head incredulously, before he dictates memos saying that their budgets have been cut in half. 

4. Disburse. There we have a cleverly allusive term that has become part of Pennspeak in connection with the demise of SPUP, in such sentences as: "The faculty of SPUP will be dispersed throughout the University."  Given the usual meaning of the word, "to expand, to pay out, " its use suggests the faculty members should be thought of primarily in terms of money.  This is a common enough view, but, in this case, cunningly couched.

5. Outreach. This term covers various attempts to convince the people of the Delaware Valley, who think that this university is a land-grabbing, elitist, and self-serving institution, that they have it all wrong.  The most recent initiative along these lines is a scheme that will permit residents of West Philadelphia, as they walk back and forth to the 30th Street Station, to use the bathrooms in College Hall.  An earlier effort, a series of lectures on "The Divine Comedy as a Way of Life," broadcast from a low-flying blimp, is reported to have had a concussive impact on South Philadelphia.

6. Consultation. This is a slippery term often used in university governance.  Like so many terms used in that context, it defies exact definition, and it is my turn to confess that I am not absolutely sure what it means at Penn, but its usual meaning in higher education can be adumbrated, perhaps, by a short fable, as follows: Every now and then the biggest lions in the land were moved to call the rabbits together for a conference.  Surveying their quivering noses and trembling hindquarters, the biggest of all the lions always asked them on these occasions if they would mind if the lions did pretty much what they wanted.  The rabbits, on these occasions, always shook their heads and scampered away, but later consoled themselves by saying nasty things about the lions in private and by leaving droppings in front of the lions' dens when the big cats were busy elsewhere.  Of course, it once came to pass that a large group of hares, more powerful than rabbits although diminutive in stature, managed to catch a lion off guard and scratched him severely, but that is another story, entitled "How the Lion Got Caught by Short Hares."

Any questions?

Clifton Cherpack, Professor of Romance Languages


Originally published in Almanac October 26, 1982




Cherpack Letters Index: