Reading between the lines: Why administrative jargon is failing us

| Contributing Writer

Editor’s note: This article includes discussion of sexual violence education. 

Like clockwork, the arrival of a new class of freshmen signals the influx of commentaries on the freshman experience, each with their own pithy one-word conclusions. Anxiety. Excitement. Opportunity. Impostor syndrome. There is a great deal of truth in all of these. But, as a freshman myself, I’d like to supply my own pithy one-word conclusion: the freshman experience is one defined by expectation. 

There are, of course, the more obvious expectations. Your parents expect that you’ll get enough sleep, your friends back home expect that you’ll be partying a lot, and your uncle expects that you’ll have to deal with the rainy weather (he still thinks you’re studying in Seattle). 

But, geographically-challenged relatives notwithstanding, setting the expectations of 1,800 otherwise utterly naïve incoming undergraduates is ultimately a job for the administration. Over the course of Bear Beginnings, freshmen go through various programs to acclimate them to campus life, whether it’s through WUSA groups or lecture sessions. Perhaps the most subtle way the administration communicates what expectations the freshmen should have is through distributing brochures. “Subtle” is, admittedly, a misnomer. Over the course of a week, I gathered enough brochures to fill up the entire paper bag I had received for the explicit purpose of storing brochures, and even then I had a few brochures left unaccounted for.

I’m not alone in this, either. On the final days of Bear Beginnings, the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center hosted its own program: a student-run play called “The Date,” designed to teach the fundamentals of consent, relationship violence, and mental health issues. The show is RSVP’s flagship program, and with good reason. Directed, performed, and written by students, “The Date” is the kind of play that can send the football player sitting next to me into a fit of laughter, invest a thoroughly cynical group of 18 year olds with the dramatic tension of an unrequited romance, get half the room snapping their fingers to a pointedly accurate line, and then silence all of them with a moment of earnest introspection.  Halfway through the play, one of the characters, in a moment of crisis, recruits their friend to gather information on mental health services provided at the University. The friend walks off the stage and comes back on with a bag. 

A bag full of brochures. 

For the next few minutes, both actors recite, word for word, the descriptions of different services as written on their brochures. The deadpan delivery of this blatant infomercial earns a surge of laughter from the audience. 

If the crowd’s reaction was any indication, this is one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true: there has always been a tension between creating services that put students’ needs first and then marketing them in such a bland and detached way. If we are to criticize student services for not connecting with students, however, we should admit that the criticism cuts both ways. I certainly could not rightfully say that I had taken the time to get well-acquainted with the RSVP Center,. 

I decided to change that.

The RSVP Center is, speaking from personal experience, difficult to access, located on the fourth floor of Seigle Hall. So, as the elevator rushed upwards on a late Friday afternoon, I stood alone, looking at my distorted reflection in the metallic walls. As I entered the room, I was immediately greeted with wooden panels containing well-lit, crisp photographs of smiling actors, like something out of a pharmaceutical advertisement. And, right on the front desk, sat a pile of brochures. 

The Center’s exceedingly professional sheen, however, belies a more complex story. Like “The Date,” RSVP owes its origins to student activism. Its specialists coordinate with dedicated undergraduate volunteers to facilitate “The Date,” promote sexual health, work with community leaders, and disseminate educational materials as part of a large outreach campaign conducted by the Center. The Center also provides therapy and counseling services, and is an invaluable resource for survivors and interested students alike.

It is a testament to the passion and commitment of the RSVP specialists that they took the time out of their day to field an interview about their work in the downtime between two meetings (that is, their actual work). And yet, in spite of everything, as I sat through the interview, I could not shake the feeling that everything I was hearing sounded like it had come verbatim from a brochure. 

Frankly, this phenomenon is not limited to RSVP — if anything, it defines how we talk about sexual violence on this campus. Why is it that the University’s new policies regarding the expungement of sexual misconduct from student records have been defined with vague and unclear bureaucratic language which needlessly equates the severity of sexual misconduct with drug possession? Why is it that, in the wake of the infamous Red Zone, a representative of the Title IX Office offered an analysis as banal as students’ “boundaries [being] tested”?

The truth is that a detachedly professional tone is expected of our institutions, and it is an expectation that constrains the ways organizations can act and the ways that students can interact with them. We are simply incapable of imagining the possibility of having open and clear conversations. That’s the most frustrating part of the problem — we could so easily strengthen the relationship between the administration and the students it ostensibly serves. We just choose not to. And yet, everywhere, the school has continued to reinforce this damaging expectation. 

Stilted language and jargon-filled paragraphs are a standard feature of all administration resources, not just the brochures. From the embarrassingly marketing-laden websites to the contrived allusions to a commitment to diversity, the expectation that we students should treat the administration as an external, distant entity is very quickly and clearly communicated to us freshmen. Is it any wonder that we treat brochures as punchlines? 

If anything, the manufactured separation of the student body from the administration is what cloaks the administration from the full repercussions of its worst decisions. Every confusing policy decision is rendered an act of God, with each Student Life writer a hapless oracle combing through layers of dense and unreadable text to craft their own interpretations, which are then confined to the pages of this newspaper. Is that really what constitutes open and clear dialogue?

The truth, of course, is that a plainer statement would be easily rejected outright. And so, the school has willingly embarked on a policy of obscurantism, hiding power not by making it invisible but by making it inscrutable. 

Just as I have no doubt that the scriptwriters of “The Date” do not disdain student services, I do not intend to specifically criticize either the RSVP Center or Title IX Office. They simply exemplify the inherent contradictions of simultaneously expecting stifling professionalism and earnest communication to coexist. Yes, their work is commendable. But it is commendable work done in spite of a campus culture that fully expects to ignore the exact kind of language those organizations employ. Is it not a sign of despair that organizations with the full force of the administration’s support must treat the act of talking to students as “outreach,” as if it were an uphill battle? If anything, this uphill battle is one that we willingly inflict on the RSVP Center, solely because of our broken expectations of what a student-administration relationship should look like.

Every freshman I’ve talked to has told me that “The Date” was a unique and special experience. It’s not exactly hard data, although the RSVP Center rightly deserves praise for its work. But I have greater ambitions. We must work towards a time when “The Date” is no longer anything special or groundbreaking, when policies no longer require extensive interpretive news columns, when our administrators feel they can speak honestly and frankly with us, and when joking about pamphlets isn’t funny anymore.

What does that mean? It means we should no longer tolerate administrative silence when key issues are raised. It means good policy must also be clear policy. It means we should call out sugarcoating and equivocation wherever we see it. It means supporting crucial organizations, such as the RSVP Center, not just through student engagement but through an active restructuring of their relationships with the student body.

So, when the class of 2027 arrives at Bear Beginnings with their own naïve expectations, when the pithy one-word conclusions start rolling in, and the various campus organizations redesign their brochures, I only have one request: 

Save your paper.

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