Key Term Inconsistency: Thinking Through the Vacuum

This entry focuses on the work of maintaining fidelity to a particular meaning when employing a Key Term. As mentioned in the introductory page to Key Terms, each academic discipline has a particular discourse (language, use,  and practice) that structures how we use language and create meaning in our Arguments. The discourse we join is full of terms with meanings unique to our discourse community that frequently differ from the meaning of the term outside of our field of study. Sometimes, the meaning of the term changes within our discipline as the criticism that employs the term evolves. Dialectic is a good example of a term that has evolved in the field of Critical Theory since Hegel made it famous back in 1807. Part of our job as academics—as members of a community that helps create and shape knowledge—is employing theoretically rich key terms in a consistent and cogent manner throughout our arguments. Often, despite our best efforts, our use of key terms goes awry, especially when it comes to terms with a rich or contested history.

Like many of the revision strategies presented in this guide, “Thinking Through the Vacuum” is a labor of love. It takes time. But we believe that this will prove to be time well-spent. Ultimately, this entry encourages you to practice a kind of mindfulness in employing your key terms that will, hopefully, render the advice below superfluous.

Note: Consider reserving this revision strategy for your most important key terms. The key terms that power your argument, influence the critical dialogue your hope to join, and shape your intervention. This entry assumes that you have already done the work of defining your key term(s) earlier in your text.

Step 1: Identify your most important key terms.

Step 2: List your key terms in a document separate from your text. This is The Vacuum. The space apart from the context of your key term’s usage. In the vacuum, define your use of each key terms you listed.

Step 3: Search for (CTRL+F or ⌘+F) and mark (underline/highlight/bold) one of the key terms you defined in the vacuum.

Step 4: Define the use of the key term you searched for conditioned by the context of the term’s usage. If editing on paper, scribble the definition in your right margin. If editing on the screen, use the comment function of your word processor.

Step 5: Compare the definition of the key term defined in the vacuum with the use of the term identified in your essay. Ask yourself, do my two definitions of my key term align? If yes, great! You’re all set. Move on to the next use of your targeted key term. If not, pause and reshape the use of your term in context so that it aligns with the definition of the term in the vacuum.

Step 6: Compare your definitions of the term in your marginalia. Ask yourself, is my use of the term consistent throughout my paper? Do I employ the same version of the term throughout my essay? If I use the term differently from one instance to the next, do I signal the change in term-use to my reader? If yes, great! You’re all set. Way to go. If not, pause and reshape your use of the term so that you remain faithful to a discrete definition of the term or add a “signal phrase” prior to your employ of the term that warns the reader of your new use of the term.

Step 7: Repeat steps 3-6 for each of the key terms defined in Step 2.

Not sure if your meaning is clear? Check that your key terms are consistent employs a similar revision strategy to this entry on key term inconsistency. Check it out!