Sunday, July 10, 2011


I have been spending my "relax" time doing something not very relaxing--working on a textbook proposal. Textbook proposals are a lot of work--not only do you have to do your market research in terms of other similar texts, but you need to put together sample chapters (some publishers only want one, most want three--the one I'm querying wants three), and you have to have other peripheral documents like a curriculum vitae (fancy term for resume) and a list of potential reviewers. None of this is unreasonable, but it is a lot of work, especially considering that most publishers don't want you to query them with a finished product. They usually want to be involved in the process.

Writing the chapters has been tough, because I am limited in the amount of sources I have available in my home library. For all the books I have in this house, there are some topics where my holdings are sparse. Having most of the academic libraries around here closed or on limited summer hours doesn't help, especially since I have to write in between taking care of my household tasks, and I have to work full-time during the week. Since I am not writing the final product, I just want to give them an idea, but I also don't want to over-rely on one text, or inadvertently regurgitate the work of another author. This is especially true in cases where I only know a little bit about the person I'm writing about, or when I've only had access to a few of their writings.

This raised a question in my mind--how much "knowledge" of a topic is enough? What makes you an "expert"?

On some grand scale, we never really "know" anything. There is the old saying that a wise man knows that he does not know. Much of the method of Socrates demonstrated this fact; he would question the "experts" to get to the root of a subject, only to find that they really didn't know very much at all. This made him decidedly unpopular, but it's an ugly fact for the ego--there is only so much that you know.

For every book I've read on the subject I'm working on, there are probably ten I haven't read. My reading list could fill a football stadium right now. And the books I have read already might come close to filling a football stadium. Compared to other scholars, I start to wonder if I've read the "right" books. I comfort myself with the notion that other scholars must do this as well.

Pierre Bayard wrote a book that I actually read a few years ago, entitled, "How to Talk About Books You've Never Read". He notes that the great writer Umberto Eco has said that you don't even have to hold a book in your hands if you pay attention to what others have said about it. I'm sure a lot of this goes on in literary circles. In any event, Bayard argues that we don't read books to memorize their content, and we certainly can't read everything that's out there. We should understand a book's place in our library, as the books we choose speak more about ourselves than about the book, its author, or the author's intent.

Maybe this says a lot about the acquisition of "knowledge". We seek to know about things that tell us about ourselves. We become passionately interested in topics because they relate to our own inner life, the thing that we know the best. If this is the case, then "expertise" tells us more about the expert than about his or her subject. This makes learning much more subjective rather than objective. There isn't a single person out there reading this (or not) who hasn't had to slog their way through some assigned text that they have no interest in. In such cases, nothing is ever remembered about the book--except the title, maybe a line here or there--and I would bet those lines are remembered because they were mentioned by a professor in class.

As a professor, I want everyone to be interested in my subject, and to make it interesting. But, to use the old expression, we can't all "tap dance and spit nickels" for our classes. Even a basic understanding of many subjects requires effort on the part of students outside the lecture hall (and a fair amount of attention inside). And what I find fascinating someone else might find utterly boring. And vice versa.

There has been an unpleasant trend in universities in recent years, allowing the students to grade the professor. While there are some truly awful professors out there, I would say that overall this is a huge mistake. Students will declare a class "bad" because it was "too hard" or "not interesting enough". Yet you hear many stories about how years later, the person suddenly realizes the value of the class. In short--students don't know enough to know whether a professor is good or not, unless the professor really falls down on the job.

Which brings up another point--a lot of the time, when asked to give presentations or lectures, the presenter will be nervous that they'll come across sounding stupid or foolish. The fact is that most of the time, the audience knows little or nothing about the topic, and anything known by the presenter comes across as a world of knowledge. It's like the phenomenon surrounding parents and computers. Even if I only know a little about computers, the first time I figure out a problem on my mother's machine, I am suddenly an "expert", and will receive a call about every difficulty she is having with the Internet, with her Excel spreadsheets, with her e-mail. Usually they're questions I can't answer until I come over and look at it. This is because the knowledge I have is not a memorization of every program--it's a basic knowledge of how the computer works.

That's probably true in scholarship as well. I once heard that in library science, 80% of peer reviewed articles were basically re-writes of other studies; very little of it was original material. People will write what they have to for tenure, and they'll likely stick to something "safe" (something already well researched). So, if you're familiar with core readings, you don't need to know all of the peripheral material to get by.

In any event--I have to remind myself that there's no need to scale Mount Everest, knowledge-wise. Almost no one else has done it, either.

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