We hold a meeting at the end of the academic year where there’s only one thing on the agenda: what’s going on with our students as they try to make sense of information? We always have some assessment data to go over, but we also talk about how classes went and what we’ve seen at the reference desk. We talk about what we could do better next year, but some problems are perennial. How can we work with faculty across the curriculum more effectively? How can we help students find something meaningful in the work they’re doing when they seem so anxious, focused on deadlines and grades? How can they see themselves as participants in a fascinating conversation?
Part of the challenge of that last question is that it’s not easy to enter scholarly conversations when the others doing the talking have PhDs and do a lot of name-dropping. That's hard, but being able to find scholarly papers is not as important as learning why research matters. You don’t have to be thoroughly trained in laboratory or fieldwork procedures to get a sense of the scientific method. You don’t have to become a whiz at statistical analysis to understand that data can be valuable if you interrogate it the right way. You can get a sense of how to think historically without going to graduate school. That’s sort of the whole idea of a liberal arts education.
We’ll probably never find the perfect recipe for our instruction. But if nothing else, I hope students learn that there are time-tested ways to seek the truth, that some ways are going to get you further than others, and that we don’t have to do it all ourselves, that people have spent entire careers digging deeply into hard questions.
This week I noticed some cases where it would have saved a lot of grief if people asked the experts. Veteran political journalist Cokie Roberts got a shellacking on Twitter for doing a Q&A about the history of abortion law, saying she didn’t believe abortion services had been advertised in the 19th century because she couldn’t find any ads, saying the history of abortion is as fraught as its politics. (I’m not exactly sure what she said because the transcript has been corrected.) This is a perfect example of a common rookie search mistake. Language changes, and there were reasons to use coded phrases when referring to things like women’s bodies in a 19th century context. If you’re searching the past, even if its digitized, you need to do a bit of linguistic time travel. (Oops.)
Then there was the Tweet in which a tech entrepreneur who’s having second thoughts suggested we should start a new field so people can study how society and technology intersect. Maybe there should be courses or something. And, as has happened any number of times before, scholars who have been studying this very thing and teaching courses about it for years wearily raised their hands. Um, hello? We’ve been here all along. Maybe you should read some of the books we’ve been publishing? (The entrepreneur clarified all that scholarship was valuable but he's envisioning a field for real engineers. Halp.)
And there was the nightmarish moment when, on live radio, an interviewer pointed out Naomi Wolf had misunderstood a legal term that she relied on in a new book. The book is based on work she did for a degree in English, not history or law, and she assumed “death recorded” in court records meant . . . a death was recorded. Common sense, perhaps, but it would have been wise to run her ideas past a historian familiar with Victorian-era British law before going to press, let alone on air. (Oh my gawd.)
Scholars bristle when their work is overlooked, not surprisingly. Sociologist Philip Cohen does a good job unpacking this impulse at The New Republic in view of the Wolf radio interview. He thinks we all need to get better at “lane-hopping” – being able to work across disciplines by making connections with experts in other fields and sharing that expertise. Better to stick together, he argues, than to insist people should stick to their own lane (or assume someone else’s lane is a dead end because someone in it had a very public crash). Again, this is sort of the idea of a liberal arts education – expertise matters, but it’s a collective enterprise and (Cohen points to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking) we will do better if we are open about our own ignorance while being willing to share what we know.
I guess that’s what I hope for our graduates – that when they run into a question that matters to them, they don't just Google it, they think “I wonder who’s spent some serious time studying this?” and that, once they've found out who those people are - they're on Google too, after all - they value what scholars do enough to put some trust in what they have learned.