Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wading through Stacks

Adam Graber directed me to this New York Times article about the consequences of digital (and hence, mashable) texts. The whole thing is interesting in its entirety, but what drew my attention was this quote:

“Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.”

This strikes me as a very real problem. It’s really easy to be a bad scholar. The task of refining your thinking and mastering your subject requires time, focus, and discipline—three things we have in short supply. For all their benefits, digital texts make it easier to veil poor thinking and inadequate mastery of the subject. The power of machine searching delivers a trade-off: a vastly greater pool of data with a vastly more superficial grasp of it. The efficiency of search obsoletes that horribly inefficient part of research, “wading through stacks of material.”

(Perhaps I should qualify my pronouncements: I obviously speak for myself, not for all of academia. My academic credentials amount to a master’s degree and a single journal article*. The temptations and follies I describe are my own.)

A few weeks later, Adam noted that Oxford University Press is trying to address these concerns. In brief, they’re producing “a straightforward, hyperlinked collection of professionally-produced, peer-reviewed bibliographies in different subject areas—sort of a giant, interactive syllabus put together by OUP and teams of scholars in different disciplines.”

The Oxford Bibliographies will no doubt have efficient search capabilities, quick retrieval of the desired documents, and a large pool of data in one place. But by foregrounding the texts that scholars have judged most important, they encourage you to wade through material that should be known, even (especially?) if it’s irrelevant or destructive to your thesis.

As you can tell, I like this image of “wading through stacks.” It sounds like a mixed metaphor, but it makes me think of walking the key shelves in the library stacks. The mass of (potentially) relevant titles thicken the air in that spot, slowing your pace to a shuffle. You look up and down the shelf, pulling out a volume, browsing, letting your mind quicken as your feet slow.

Interestingly, the library in which I picture myself wading like this is the University of Edinburgh library, where I spent a mere six months (as opposed to the four years at the University of Minnesota and three years at Trinity University). I suppose it’s related to the fact that British syllabi encourage more wading. Instead of telling you about the five required books and when you’re supposed to read each chapter, British syllabi give you a list of forty books and tell you to have fun. Read around, master the subject, and at the end of term, write a big old essay about the subject (which will be 100% of your grade for the course).

In my experience, this system results in lower grades but better habits.


*Forthcoming :-)

Monday, April 19, 2010

"It made me feel significant and connected to ancient traditions"

A little satire on Philippe the Postmodern Evangelist:

"Read it again, more slowly this time. I want to hear the poetic forms and imagine myself in the context of the ancient tradition."

That cuts close, that does.

HT: Lingamish

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

KFC's Double Down

This makes me feel so conflicted about being an American. Disgusted? To a point. Proud of my country? Absolutely.


A while back I posted a massive regular expression that finds Bible cross references. Something like that must be behind Logos's RefTagger, which I'm trying to get working on this blog. This is a test:

Gen 1:14
Gen 3:14
Matt 1:1
Phlm 3
Philemon 3
Rev 45:2

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

David Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd, comedy writer, writes about his dad, David Lloyd, comedy writer.

I had no idea that the man responsible for the immortal "Chuckles the Clown" worked on Frasier. No wonder that show was so funny.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The “Is that contestant on American Idol a Christian Scorecard”

It's a privilege to bring you a guest post from Jon Acuff, Christian satirist extraordinaire, author of Stuff Christians Like. Like a lot of Christians, I'm sure you're interested in supporting that worship pastor or soloist who's trying to make it big in the secular music world. Well, you're in luck. Mr. Acuff has written up a scorecard to help you add up the clues and hints to pinpoint the secret Christian:

26. After they make the final 12 they thank Jesus = + 2 points (Now we're talking. Everyone thanks God in big moments, but few people will drop the "J" word.)

To add up your score with over a 130 other ideas on this scorecard, visit

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Holy Saturday


Jesus played the man
He stared into the abyss
And for my sake, fell.

Thursday, April 01, 2010