Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Late Night Infomercials

I could use some feedback on this--feedback of the nurturing sort, of course.

I come from a background of scholarship. I understand the difference between "Do my research for me" and "Have you run across any other examples in addition to what I've found so far?" The former is definitely not okay; the latter is perfectly acceptable.

"What do y'all think caused World War II?"--not okay.
"I'm trying to track down a book I heard about on Jewish humor in the camps."--just dandy.

"Give me your whole dance program."--not okay.
"Where did you find that version of Opera Reel?"--okey-dokey.

"Transcribe and update your vintage patterns for me."--not okay.
"Do you think that when this 1850s pattern mentions 'rabbit wool' it means angora?"--fine.

If I am interested in a subject, I research it, then use my research in the classroom, on the dance floor, in knitting. In more academic circles, I expect to present my research and discuss it with fellow scholars. If someone asks me a specific question, I try my best to answer it. Talking about what I've learned is exciting. Talking about it with other people who are also researching is even more so.

I'm thinking that not everyone feels that way though, especially if he or she does not come from a community where three hours of debate is considered intellectually invigorating. I'm thinking that some people are threatened by even general questions about their research.

I've been dealing with a particular knitting question with an acknowledged expert in the field, although given the field, he or she is what would be called an "independent scholar," meaning not affiliated with a particular institution.

Over the past few years, each time any newbie asks general questions about historic knitting, the newbie receives absolutes and blanket statements, such as "this yarn looked like this" or "they never did that." I have asked this expert follow-up questions or for clarification on those absolutes (not as a competing scholar, but as an interested student), only to get answers along the lines of "My notes on sources show me ..." or "I'm drawing conclusions based on what I've read."

Questions for further information, for clarification, or for specific references result in repetition of vague comments about "notes" or "sources." I absolutely don't mind looking up things for myself, but it's better to look something up in the 1817 edition of The Knitting Teacher's Assistant than it is to find "my sources."

I'm starting to feel like I'm watching a late night infomercial, where for only 3 payments of 39.99, I can learn the secrets to a clean colon and a healthier life, but I'm going to be stuck with 13 feet of mucus in my digestive tract until I fork out the cash.

Sorry for all the anonymity. Since I was comparing historic knitting to academia anyway, this quote from Henry Kissinger seems appropriate:

"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

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