Friday, September 19, 2008

Getting to who

As an undergraduate, I didn't place any importance on the fact of who wrote the book or article we were reading, except in a few kinds of courses. I was an English major, and in our literature courses the relevance of the author seemed self-apparent. The only other class where I can remember paying attention to this was a philosophy course, and my reasoning was probably similar: This is a course where you read the big works of important (mostly dead) people.

Why not in the rest of my courses? Because they were "just textbooks." In some cases, this was in fact true, but to my undergraduate mind a scholarly book about the development of the Gatling gun was in the same category as the heavy, glossy, intro to physical anthropology text.

This way of thinking makes perfect sense up until college. In high school, everything you are assigned to read is in a textbook, except in some English classes. The author of a textbook disappears behind "objective facts"; it's the job of a textbook author to pass on received wisdom, not make novel arguments. One geometry textbook differs from another in its pedagogical approaches, not in the theorems within.

In graduate school in the social sciences,* authors are radically important, except in the case of some quantitative methodology texts such as introductory stats. Almost everything you read is a scholarly argument for looking at things in a particular way, not a rehash of the known. Once you have a firm grounding in your field, the author's name will usually tell you more than the work's title does.

By the time you get to be a faculty member, the centrality of the author seems self-evident. As an undergraduate you'll see glimpses of this, when Professor Smith says to read chapter 5 in Jones. And the students are slightly baffled by this, thinking, "Why can't he just call it the green book? Or 'American History Since the Civil War'?" Because the author's name is seen as irrelevant - yes, less important than the color of the book!

This is one of the disconnects between the faculty way of thinking and the student way of thinking that seems to affect almost all students, not just the underprepared ones. (After all, that's how we think in ordinary life, too - referring to "that article in Harper's", not to "the latest Malcolm Gladwell piece.") It is a disconnect I've never seen addressed. No one explains to undergraduates the difference between a textbook and other kinds of (modern, non-fiction) texts used in the classroom. No one tells them why authors matter. It's simply assumed. Then when students go on to graduate studies, they struggle to learn this lesson by osmosis, leading to a great deal of frustration on everyone's part.

* Certainly in the humanities too, minus the statistics books. I'll leave it up to the scientists to say how it is in their fields.


Smanda said...

Yes, of course this is true in the sciences too.

turducken said...

Thanks, Scientist!