Sources and Methods #15: Andrew Abbott


Andrew Abbott 101:

Personal website

Book: Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials

Speech: The Aims of Education Address (for the class of 2006 at the University of Chicago)

Show Notes:

“You may have heard from some people that there’s a revolution in research and that it is easier than ever before. I don’t need to tell you that this is nonsense. You know from firsthand experience that research is confusing and daunting, as indeed it has always been. We are no closer to revolutionary improvement in library-based and “found data” knowledge than we were thirty years ago—more likely the reverse. The new tools in fact make it harder than ever for students to learn the disciplines of research, mainly through sheer overload.” - From Digital Paper

6:15 - My students [at the University of Chicago] today are completely overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that’s available to them on the internet, and they’re particularly overwhelmed because they don’t have any clues about how to make judgements of quality.

9:52 - Students come into the world thinking that the internet is the model of knowledge - whereas for my generation, students came into the world prepared by print. Of course we read plenty of junk print, don’t get me wrong. But we had a notion that when it’s a serious paper, we go to the library and start looking in indexes. Students today don’t have that - they have the internet. Students generally have very little idea of how to find things systematically and moreover they don’t know how to find high quality stuff.

12:50 - What is going to happen to libraries is that these buildings will be repurposed, the same way most churches are being repurposed these days. That’s because administrators have space problems, and they see the library as a waste of space. That’s what’s going to happen - not at the top of the research system, but throughout the system.

The stunning William Rainey Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago

17:56 - We’re definitely at a ‘use it or lose it moment’ for libraries. Teachers need to start teaching their students how to use libraries, or they’ll simply be taken away.

20:11 - Reading itself is clearly in rapid decline, both among my students and in fact my colleagues. You can see this by looking at page number citations. I proved this by looking at Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and showed that when the book first came out, about 17% of the references to it had page numbers - so not just Kuhn 1970, but Kuhn 1970, page 26. Now that number is down to 2%, and what’s clear is that the vast majority of people citing Kuhn have probably never read the book.

22:05 - We’re moving to a point where everyone in the world thinks everything can be abstracted... This notion that you can get to ‘the point’ and extract ‘the point’ has become central to people’s thinking about how knowledge works. Well, that isn’t the way knowledge works, and we’re actually in a bigger crisis about this, than about libraries. The bigger problem is that students coming up don’t actually know what knowledge is. They only know what the internet is. And the experiential message of the internet is that everything has an address somewhere, you just need to find it, you just need an address. Of course, that’s not what knowledge is. Knowing is not knowing a web address. It’s assembling things, it’s making new things in your own head. The internet only teaches you to find things.

23:57 - Take the example of Hobbes. I ask students to write a paper on Hobbes. They read the three or ten chapters of Hobbes, they underline the sentences they think were the important ones, and then they put those in a list or a file, and they say ‘Hobbes said so and so’ and they write a bit about that, and then they say ‘Hobbes also said this’ and write about that. It’s bizarre. They have no idea they need to comprehend Hobbes’s argument, and then respond to the argument, not to the bits from which it’s made. But if you ask them to summarize Hobbes’s arguments, they’ll present you with lists of bullet points, because they’ve been taught in classes that Hobbes can be presented as bullet points. So in many ways the teachers are to blame, but the whole concept of knowledge as it was understood by the mid-20th century is just under very serious attack right now. And it’s hard to see how that’s going to be changed much.

31: 09 - But the question is - do we actually have judgements of what is better knowledge? So I decided to research that a few years ago, and I look at complaints of the Research Assessment Exercise in Great Britain. And I looked into problems in the RAE. And they asked in their questions ‘what is excellent research?’ and I read all of those responses.

Link to abstract of Dr. Abbott’s paper on the results of this research here, summarized below.

33:07 - So, it turns out we know only three things about excellent research. The first is that you can’t measure it. The only people who believe it can be measured are the statisticians, not surprisingly. Second thing is that nobody can recognize it except for us, ie the discipline. The public doesn’t know, we know. The third thing is that it’s new. That’s it. Excellent research, then according to these academics, is something that can’t be measured, that we recognize, that’s new. That’s the grand total of what people told the RAE board about what excellence in research is. That’s pretty bad, we need to come up with some better definitions. I’ve been trying to come up with these, particularly in disciplines that are not cumulative - mainly the social sciences.

47:07 - The problem with student approaches to the world today is that they don’t think they need to know a lot. They don’t believe in memorization. You don’t need to memorize the entire Bible - but you do need to know the important names because then, if you’re reading it, the entire page will ‘turn blue’ like hyperlinks. You won’t necessarily know what’s on the other end of the hyperlink, but you’ll know it’s a hyperlink to something. So the point is - in order to browse, you have to have a fair amount of stuff in your head already. Students gradually discover this over projects, as they get more stuff in their head. Browsing is a casualty mainly because students don’t realize that one of the things you have to do early on in a project is a fair amount of background reading and a lot of memorization to just kind of get the stuff into your head, so that as you read, you’ll recognize important things. This is just a basic part of associative thinking.

49:08 - Early on in a project, you need to start memorizing. You need contextual knowledge for a project. And importantly, it provides a canon. And this is a way of solving an overload problem. Canon’s aren’t about excluding anybody, they are about solving a problem of ‘too-muchness.’ Actual disciplinary canons are not so much about coming people out of our discipline, but more that so we can all have something to talk about, that provides a common language.

55:01 - Second, simplification helps fight overload. Wikipedia seems new, but we’ve actually had books around like that for hundreds of years. Simplification helps the task of knowledge. You have to think of memorization in the context of the problem of overload, this huge problem that we all face all the time, and has been true essentially since the existence of the book.

57:01 - Writing is suffering, and part of the reason is the amount of writing people do. Important to remember that historically, the notion that everyone who reads works carefully - the notion that that person is always going to write something is not there. Many PhDs in the US through the mid-20th century published only one or two papers. I’m sure if you looked at the Oxford dons of the early 20th century you’d discover they didn’t write much - they spent all their time teaching and giving lectures in the schools.

Nowadays we have these beancounters running everything so everyone is writing everything, including graduate students who certainly have nothing or not much to say, so much of the emphasis on writing is purposeless, and exists mainly for personal advancement, which is a whole separate issue.

1:02:15 - If you go to any web development site, it will tell you that the level of language to use on a website is optimized at about sixth grade, or the age you would be at at 12 or 13. So internet sites tend to use really dumb language, and it’s dumb writing. And this is what students are contacting day and day again. And the rest of it is student blogs and posts, much of it flatulent. So students, even those with a great deal of training, have simply not contacted as much good prose. Generally, the best students I have have generally limited access to excellent prose. And you write what you read. So when I start teaching writing, I have students read a lot of different stuff, to expose them.

1:08:31 - Students of mine have enjoyed the exercise of developing a controlled vocabulary. And by doing that at the start of a project, you avoid the panic at the end of a project of wondering how you can keep your work well defined and logical, so at the end you don’t have to magically figure out how to put it all together.

1:15:20 - Deep down, I myself have never been much interested in applied knowledge. The modern social system is so productive in terms of its ability to generate useful, wonderful things that enable people to have good lives, that this society could afford to have huge proportions of its members dedicate large portions of their lives to research that has no practical implications whatsoever. We have an absolutely wonderful system and there’s no need for any of us to work as hard as we do. So we ought to be able to afford a huge amount of knowledge for its own sake. But obviously we don’t have that.

1:28:03 - What is the future of knowledge? It’s what we make it. It’s not out there to be discovered by some predictive algorithm. It’s out there for us to find it.