What’s in a name

This week, as I and those I talk with have been mulling over Bibliographic Instruction, Information Literacy, and Transliteracy, I keep circling around to thoughts about the act of naming concepts — particularly concepts that sit at the heart of a group’s raison d’être. Names are powerful things, holding within themselves layer upon layer of articulated and unarticulated meaning, meaning that cannot be consistent from person to person and that cannot stay consistent over the course of time, since cultural context inevitably shifts and changes.

In the messy transitions implied by the introductions of new names that overlap with and build on concepts that came before, what do we gain? What do we lose?

I think we gain opportunities and motivation to examine our practice, to have difficult discussions, to encourage and pull stragglers along, to mollify and reign in renegades, and to shift emphasis from one point to another in the vast matrix of professional goals.

I think we lose a sense of the complexity of our past. New concepts or emphases do not spring fully formed into being, and new pedagogies retain large portions of old pedagogies, but a new name assignes concepts and pedagogies an artificial start date.

To complicate this even further, new names in pedagogical concepts seem usually to have the foundational goal of eradicating ineffective teaching, but the reality is that there will always be ineffective teachers. That’s an entirely separate issue. This goal, then, will never be realized but yet will spur the shifting of the old name’s layers of meaning to emphasize outdatedness, simplicity, lack of imagination, homogeneity.

Names are shorthand, simplified or problematized from moment to moment depending on context.

What’s in a name? People’s hopes, and people’s fears. No small thing.