28 September 2013

On an academic conscience (1)

A friend and colleague (he's both) and I are contemplating a new book. Broadly speaking we want to get behind the simplistic prescriptions about teaching (after school onwards) in the textbooks, and give more experienced practitioners (those of them who still have the energy and enthusiasm) something to get their teeth into to develop their work further.

So I've started with a mind-map of possible topics... I know what I want to say about them. Most of them have been touched upon very briefly on my sites. My co-author is doing the same thing. But we are stuck with the academic mindset (which usage perhaps needs to be distinguished from Dweck's—stop it!)

I am just emerging from Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. I'm very impressed and almost persuaded, but I confess I have skipped and skimmed to get to the point of emergence. [696 A5 pages of main text . 40 pages of endnotes in 8pt font (I guess--no, the typeface and size is not identified on the ID page) and 32 pages of References in 6 or 7pt]—and he has been lambasted by critics for lack of evidence for his argument. Clearly quantity does not guarantee quality in this sphere, but he is careful to set out the limitations of his methodology.

The book is an argument—not quite a polemic, but a case. But he is an academic and he has fallen among academics (Is. 6:5). They are indeed his own tribe, but that only fuels both their viciousness and pedantry.

Robert Wright's Nonzero; history, evolution and human co-operation ("A work of genius" according to Bill Clinton [who he?] on the blurb) covers some of the same ground. But as one of the endorsements enthuses, "Wright carries his learning lightly". [334pp octavo main text; 51pp of sometimes quite discursive endnotes; 15pp bibliography--yes, I know bibliographies and references are not the same, but I'm going by their own labels. I refer to the UK Abacus edition of 2001. Octavo is about 80% of A5.]*

Wright is a journalist. Their code is more permissive.

I've been listing the topics I want to address, and despite my general familiarity with the field, I find myself staring into the abyss. To claim academic respectability for my contribution, I really need to be familiar with everything in the field. And that of course means that the field gets ever narrower, until our own conventions have proscribed me from commenting on anything which matters in the real, messy, world.

My abyss (not having the resources of Pinker, who acknowledges around 70 helpers--and who wouldn't be flattered by a request for assistance from him?) is contemplating never being able to make any general point with sufficient academic authority to be taken seriously. Or more significantly, being paralysed by the thought that I shall never be able to say anything...

And if I do want to claim academic respectability, I shall waste years of my life boring myself silly in order to check and dismiss reams of academic dross of no conceivable interest--generated by taylorite/stakhanovite bullsh*t-generation targets...

Er? In the space of 508 words, I have moved from naive enthusiasm to jaded trudging. What happened? Increasingly, academicism has that effect on me

And I haven't mentioned ethics committee clearance.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(wasn't that by some guy called Snow, or Winter, or something?)

* But I can commend Wright. His The Moral Animal is the first—and I think the best—of his three major books, but they are all impressive and readable (his reading of Jesus in the latest book is very uncomfortable—and all the better for that).

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