Word choice and unintended messages: Career critical skills, not ‘soft skills’

Although there are so many things to comment about word choice and the unintended messages in higher education (e.g., demographics, inclusion, micro-aggression and more), I will focus my musings on concept of negation (‘non-‘) in our word choice especially the pervasive use of “soft” in our everyday language within and about academia.

Negation is defined by Merriam-Webster as “something considered the opposite of something regarded as positive”.  Unfortunately, we hear words used to describe  ‘something’ and ‘non-something’ frequently when referring to those things that are often considered dominant and therefore perceived as having more value in higher education.  The word choice usually results in creating or reinforcing dichotomies.  A few examples come to mind – English-speaking, non-English speaking; resident, non-resident alien; research university, non-research university; academic, non-academic.  I can understand the use of ‘non’ as a matter of convenience and fewer words but its use does send messages that I hope we might not intend.  And sometimes it seems understandable to make a point such as the use of sexist vs non-sexist language but I still find the word choice somewhat problematic. Why don’t we choose words with the same goal in mind but are more affirming and inclusive? Like ‘inclusive language’ that is more than non-sexist.

Examples of negation and the concept of something and ‘non’ something have been identified in other ways as well.  For years, those of us in higher education and associated with higher education have heard and used the language around academic discourse as the ‘hard’ sciences and the soft sciences.  Also common is the reference to the soft skills or non-cognitive skills when discussing skills desired to complement education in (cognitive) disciplinary knowledge and understanding including interdisciplinary content.

To counter the perception that some academic disciplines (e.g., STEM+ in particular) deserve the adjective of ‘hard’ (a positive in terms of the importance and value given to the word ‘hard’), I have used the phrasing of hard science as stated by others and then change ‘soft sciences’ to ‘hard-to-do science’ that includes and acknowledges the value of and the challenges associated with research in the social sciences, arts and humanities.

Similar discourse exists around the word choice of soft skills and non-cognitive skills. Examples of these skills include leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving and problem posing, ethical and professional behaviors, work ethic, interpersonal relationship, collaboration, adaptability, innovation and creativity and more.  Although I realize that there is an entire literature on the value and importance non-cognitive skills, the terminology still seems inappropriate and misleading. It sets up a binary that certain skills are cognitive and other are not. I would argue vehemently that these skills involve a great deal of cognition and are not easily developed or honed successfully but need to be.  The word choice of soft skills also implies that these skills are easy to learn and to implement. And indeed, they are not.

Leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving and problem posing, ethical and professional behaviors, work ethic, interpersonal relationship, collaboration, adaptability, innovation and creativity are skills which are desired by future employers and required for success in the workplace.  As such, opportunities to develop and programs to utilize these skills have been incorporated into graduate education recently. The Council of Graduate Schools is leading this effort nationally and the Virginia Tech Graduate School provides many opportunities for graduate students to better prepare themselves for the careers that they will likely pursue.

Given their importance, let’s call these Career Critical Skills.  Words (and actions) do make a difference!

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