Responding to Overnaming in Academia

library photoToday, Matthew Boedy wraps up his four part series on overnaming. See Post 1 here, Post 2 here, and Post 3 here. For other work by Matthew at the ESN blog, including a series on the academic job search, click here

In this four-part series, I have tried to think about one particular aspect of language: naming. In describing the appearance of our central problem called overnaming, I suggested that when we speak with a moral knowledge we are in fact showing our original sin. But when we speak ethically, we recognize the presence of good and evil in all our words. In the third post, I suggested two key responses to this fact: relinquishing possession of language and risking the identity that comes from that possession. In this post I want to think through how that might work out in higher education.

Let me state the obvious: it is really hard and sometimes felt as impossible for academics to do these two things. We are people with ‘doctor’ before our name or many letters after it. We are the people who think for a living. We lecture. We know stuff.

And we use words to show off. We can talk all day about the humility of learning from our students, the mindlessness that is working for a professionalized university, or the sheer cognitive dissonance many of us feel when we enter a church where intellectual activity usually means merely “applying the sermon.” We need to get this out in the open.

We are the worst offenders of overnaming. I will admit it, if no one else will.

But the very fact that we are academics also, I think, makes us the best resource for responding to overnaming. We have worked with words. We have seen that language isn’t a window; it is a complex host of motives, egos, sins, and blessings. For every wonderful, beautiful sentence we read and write, that same sentence should make us pause, not in awe. We are the chiefest of sinners and so can be the apostle of ethics.

How might relinquishing possession of language and risking the identity that comes from that possession work in the academy?

First, it means getting out of our disciplinary silos. Cross-disciplinary research and teaching is a hot trend now. The recurrence of this age-old topic still means letting go of trying to convince those outside our discipline that our discipline is better. In rhetoric, we call this the ‘big R’ problem. As in, is it Rhetoric or rhetoric? It is a matter of importance (i.e. funding and number of students). Yet a cross-disciplinary action means questioning disciplinary definitions (i.e. ownership) of words like pedagogy, communication, or truth. (And yes, Rhetoric owns all three.) That means teaching students to see broadly, not instrumentally. It also means noting that the university is not a competition or business, but something less based on results.

This may seem all idealistic and abstract to you. So let us move on to risking identities. Brass tacks, indeed.

If to speak ethically we have to risk the identities that ownership of language gives us, then that starts with “I.” And whatever unhealthy way we have defined it: professor, intellectual, or teacher. Many wise people note we shouldn’t put any other identity on ourselves other than ‘child of God’ or Beloved. This is indeed a corrective to the career identity. It is also a simplified identity—less of an overname. Thomas Merton once said he was dismayed at “dentists” who wanted to show their Christian identity through their job. He said, just be a dentist. Simplify your title. Because Lord knows there are plenty of others in the university who have extensive titles. Instead of spending our time defining ourselves against other titles, rest in the one that is wide enough for growth and tight enough to sustain it.

It also means risking the identity of essential. If we don’t own language, we can’t be the last definer of our own words. We don’t get to decide what others think, feel, or ‘get’ from those words. We as authors are not the only essential for meaning. That doesn’t mean we don’t write, but write differently. That means in teaching we are more explorers with students, than dictators of what they should know. It means less outcomes, yet deeper ones. It also means we are open to change whether it be in terms of discipline or department.

In claiming our identity is essential to language, we overname some word—its possibilities, its power. When we name ethically we open up the name to different possibilities. Very practically, this is a way to more productive research. What problem can we create from the problems already stated? What space can we define in the research from the very discrete spaces already made? I am not refusing authorial intent, but refusing intent as the only way to knowledge.

In the end, speaking ethically is not a cure for overnaming. It is merely a response—a faithful presence amid a world deformed by its knowledge of good and evil. It means constantly striving toward an unknown goal, constantly redirecting grace toward selves constantly changing.

Let me finish on some open-ended questions. How does the question of identity left open as a question affect your day? Have you even asked that before? How does using language in a way that does not show possession affect your writing? Have you even asked that before?

Have you ever spoken ethically? My prayer is you begin.

Image courtesy of geralt at

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Matthew Boedy

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BS) and the University of South Carolina (MFA and PhD). He enjoys books by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. His research interests include the rhetoric of evil, ethics, and professional writing.

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