Teaching epistemology

For years students and colleagues rolled their eyes any time I said anything about epistemology. Once, famously, a paper submitted for a major international conference was accepted with revisions, one of which was to explain what that was because the readers (all holders of PhDs mind you) didn’t know what epistemology was, and (apparently) were unable to look it up or otherwise figure it out. Sigh.

But then epistemology became an important part of the science of knowledge organization, originating in papers by diverse scholars, leading to panels at international ISKO conferences and eventually even two anthologies (Smiraglia and Lee 2012; Ibekwe-SanJuan and Dousa 2014). Epistemology, how we know what we know, is one of the two major poles in a domain-centric knowledge organization.

So the question arises, how can we teach it without getting everybody dizzy from eye-rolling? I took a stab at it recently and I think it worked out nicely. In my introductory course in KO I often begin class discussions by asking the students to post an observation about some thing that has some order. This time around I got everything from a grandmother’s farmer’s market vegetable table to how big-box hardware stores hide microfiber cloths. I enjoy responding to each post, pointing out the nature of the organization–hierarchy for the vegetables, for example. It helps to point out to them that everything everywhere is organized in some manner, not just libraries.

This time I followed up with a secret epistemology discussion by asking them to post something they absolutely knew for sure. I gave them a couple of examples: “I know George Washington was president because it’s history I was taught; I never met the man. I know the speed limit on Lincoln Memorial Drive is 30 but I’d better drive 70 or people will plow into me or drive me into the lake. I know this because it happens to me daily. Of course, we have here examples of historicism and empiricism (okay, facetious empiricism, but if you live in Milwaukee you’ll get it). They did a great job. Here’s a table of a few of the things they came up with:

fastest routes to campus empirical
swimming must blow air out your nose empirical
Rush has 3 members … historical
death and taxes historical
difficult to buy a car with manual transmission empirical
get out of the pool if there’s thunder and lightning pragmatic
yellow mustard eases pain of small burns empirical
pick from the back when shopping pragmatic

 

I think it turned out well, and although we didn’t go further into epistemology in this introductory course, it allowed me to reference this discussion at the end when they were exploring the heirarchies in DDC numbers assigned to specific resources, which subtly makes the point about the role of epistemic stances.

References

Ibekwe-SanJaun, Fidelia and Thomas M. Dousa, eds. 2014. Theories of Information, Communication and Knowledge: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Dordrecht: Springer-Netherlands.

Smiraglia, Richard P. and Hur-li Lee, eds. 2012. Cultural Frames of Knowledge. Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag.

The order of all things*

p. 83-84: Descartes made one of the first attempts to explain the concept of the affections in his last book, The Passions of the Soul of 1649 …. Descarte’s book was followed a year later by the Musurgia universalis of the “last Renaissance man,,” Athanasius Kircher …. Kircher was very much a believer in music not only as a mirror but as a fundamental element of Creation itself …; music was not so much a reflection or approximation of God’s perfect design, but an emanation of the divine Itself. Kircher’s motto was: “Music is nothing other than the knowledge or the order of all things.”

James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

 

Sinecure and credentialism

I’ve been reading a book by Randall Collins. His book The Sociology of Philosophies (1998) made a major impact on me. In a direct way, and it was for this reason a dutch colleague referred me to the book, his demonstration of splits and concretizings of intellectual circles gave us an hypothesis to use in domain analytical research. It boiled down to the notion that no school of thought can tolerate more than six theoretical paradigms (or ideas if you prefer) at once without either splitting apart (schism, as it were) or ejecting competing points of view until a tolerable level is restored. I first went looking for this in the evolving domain of music information retrieval and sure enough, as a new research interest it opened its arms widely and expanded rapidly, but once query-by-humming had been achieved the society (it had been first a symposium, but at this point it became a society with bylaws, officers, and a scope statement) quickly reigned in acceptable research. Others have found similar evidence (Hoeffner in Social informatics, for example, LIU diss. 2012).

It’s a marvelous book all by itself of course, if very long. The critical realization I had while reading it was that I had spent almost two decades working with doctoral students who not only were not forming a school of thought around my work, but likely would never conduct any research after their dissertations, and certainly would never contribute to growth of my theory of instantiation. (Although, to be fair, near the end of my time at LIU several students did take up domain analysis and contribute to the cumulative effect of domain analytic research in knowledge organization, although to the best of my knowledge none of them has conducted or published any follow-up work.) And with that I determined to move elsewhere while I still had energy to take on new students.

Somewhere last fall I read about Collins’ much shorter 1979 work The Credential Society, and I’ve just finished reading it after proudly hauling it to Copenhagen, Heraklion, Amsterdam and back. It also is a remarkable work, hence this post, and I think it will have something to contribute to domain analysis, although at present I’m not quite sure how.

The book is about the myth of technocracy, that as society evolves and technology becomes more complex and we become ever more highly educated so as to deal with technology and (here’s the myth) therefore society gets better, people get richer, everything becomes more egalitarian, etc., etc. You’ll recognize the myth. In a short 220some pages Collins shatters this myth, demonstrating that no amount of education has made any difference and neither has technology. In fact, the only evidence about career and social status that makes sense is the age-old truth that (male) children follow in their father’s footsteps in both career and social status. I know, you want to protest, and so do I. My parents weren’t professors (but, my biological father was a musician and my biological maternal great-grandfather was an ordained pastor … hmmm). As usual, I’m not doing the book justice, you’ll have to read it.

Two things stood out for me. First the notion that we have accomplished a sinecure society. Sinecure, he writes, means literally “without care” and refers to a job in which there is actually little work. Collins points out that society has succeeded at installing a sinecure society by making most work into what once would have been leisure. Most of us read, write and think as work these days. Once upon a time that would have been a life reserved to only those who did not need to work.

The other idea, and here probably is the connection to domain analysis, is that professions secure their concretization and hence their survival with rather medieval approaches to credentialism. The easiest example from the book is the practice of medicine, which has the highest status and salary potential in our society, and for which the education (which is lengthy and expensive) has almost nothing to do with the practice except to confer the credential. As Collins shows, most medical practitioners learn on the job from other practitioners. But the mostly upperclass male medical doctors have succeeded with their credentialing in shutting out all other actors in healthcare from orderlies to nurses to social workers, most of whom labor for little in feminized professions. I know, this isn’t pretty. Collins takes on engineering and law too, but I won’t go into that here.

Along the way his narrative about the evolution of higher education in the US through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is about the clearest explanation I’ve seen, although it is consistent with the same trajectory painted by Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club (erm, can you paint a trajectory? oh well, a topic for another time). All of us who make our livings and livelihoods as professors ought to have a better sense of how things got this way and I recommend both books for that reason.

I’ll keep pondering this of course. I think somehow we might be able to discover that a concretized domain is also somehow credentialed. Evidence of that might be useful for determining who the relevant actors are in the evolution of a domain ontology at any given moment. As it said, it needs some pondering.

 

Cataloging rules, Michael Gorman, memories ….

I’ve been working quite a lot lately with RDA, and that also means working with AACR2. (A paper called “Bibliocentrism Revisited” was presented at the 3rd Milwaukee Conference on Ethics in Knowledge Organization; it will appear in print in Knowledge Organization later this year. I also have just taught music cataloging entirely with RDA, which was an experience, all the while rewriting Describing Music Materials, which will appear in a 4th edition conformed to RDA soon, I hope.)

Somewhere along the line one of those helpful boxes on the right of a search screen showed me an autobiographical work by Michael Gorman, Broken Pieces: A Library Life, 1941-1978. I was looking for something to read on a short trip so I ordered a copy (ALA Editions, 2011). I was surprised I hadn’t heard about the book before.

I worked for Michael Gorman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Libraries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was then head of music cataloging, which at various times was a department of the music library or a division of technical services (long story for my autobiography!). I remember early in our acquaintance, we met at a social event in town and chatted briefly about cataloging rules, because he was then finishing AACR2 and I was then becoming more active in CC:DA, the ALA committee that in those days was responsible for the ALA position on catalog code revision. I remember he told me he had a copy of the draft I could read through, and I remember that I did read through it and was startled at all of the uproar about basically nothing.

I also remember that when the Library of Congress decided not to implement AACR2 for awhile (3 years eventually), he decided we would go ahead at UIUC. This was remarkably problematic for music cataloging, because rules for the construction of music uniform titles had changed, and rules for name headings had changed. It meant we had to recreate authority records for almost everything for awhile, because unlike book libraries where the imposition of old name headings helped ease the way, we had a smaller set of composer’s names for whom every record had to change and every work needed a new uniform title. Nobody else in the world was interpreting AACR2, and that meant we had to go it alone for rather awhile. And that meant our productivity plummeted. I do remember the pivotal meeting where this was discussed–I’ll save that story for my autobiography too.

At any rate Michael’s book is interesting. There is rather a lot of childhood and young adult narrative before he gets to the “library life” part. His stories about moving from England to Champaign-Urbana are fascinatingly funny. I was living there at t he time, of course, and remember it well. But then there is quite a lot of fascinating detail about his work in public libraries as a young man, and about the technology then in use in the 1960s and 1970s. His narrative about the development of AACR2 helped me fill in some gaps in my own memories. I had hoped for rather more about his time at Illinois, but then, this narrative ends in 1978, so perhaps that will be forthcoming.

We don’t often include descriptive cataloging when we talk about knowledge organization. On the face of it, descriptive cataloging is not obviously a part of conceptual ordering. But the resource description part of it is a form of knowledge representation, and the indexing function of ordering works by name headings is form of alphabetical classification. Names of “creators” form classes, within which the titles of “works” form divisions, and the representations of specific pubilcations grouped variously form subdivisions. Insofar as works are conceptual ideations, their ordering is a form of conceptual ordering.

It is in this phase that we can understand the importance of the argument that took place around the writing of AACR2 about what was called “main entry,” because it really was about how to name these classes. There is a long history of attribution of creativity to iconic names of creators (i.e.,”authors”). How to preserve that function without the mechanical superimposition of a name above a title transcription wasn’t clear at the time. Lubetzky was both right and wrong on this; the creator-title citation was critical to keep as the name of a class of works, but the Animal Farm-ish approach to which access point was more equal than the others was not. In this RDA has made a small step forward, by separating resource description from ordering of works.

Vanishing point

Recently our research group hosted the Third Milwaukee Conference on Ethics in Knowledge Organization. It was chock full of good things, and I’ll try to write about that later.

It was the occasion of the publication of our group’s second book Ontology for Knowledge Organization.

As part of the celebration we had a small “exhibit” of our two books (the other one was the 2012 Cultural Frames of Knowledge) and some example issues of Knowledge Organization together with some posters provided by Ergon Verlag.

Curiously, all of the example issues of KO and some of the “for-sale” copies of our new book vanished into thin air.

Posted June 16, 2015 by lazykoblog in Uncategorized

Who’s Afraid of Joe Tennis?

All of us in this business know how bruising it can be to get referee reports on our research papers. Even when the referees are gentle and helpful it still is embarrassing to discover the errors we’ve made in our texts. On the other hand, it’s a good thing they were found before publication. Of course, in double-blind peer review we are relying on the system for gate-keeping to make certain publications are original and rigorous and also that the research is replicable. That’s really the role of the referee.

Unfortunately, often referees produce really unpleasant reports. I know many of us have experienced this because we talk about it all the time at conferences and in the hallways at school. I really don’t know why referees find it necessary to be so rude, but it happens for sure. When I can, as editor, I edit the referee reports making healthy use of ellipses to leave out vitriol and just give the authors the critical commentary needed to revise the paper.

All of this is prelude, of course, for the most outrageous peer review I’ve ever received. Of course, I do not know who the referee was, although I suspect when I get done here, whoever it was, will recognize the points I’m going to make. Oh well, that’s why this is a blog ….

Clearly, whoever it was either knew who I was to begin with or sussed it out from the methodology and context. Let’s face it, in a small field like knowledge organization we all know each other well enough to recognize each other’s writing. And often we have the situation of being one of only two or three authors in an area, which leads to a lot of self-citation in order to cite the most relevant prior research. Be that as it may, whoever it was reads my editorials in Knowledge Organization–the ones that are simple bibliometric analyses. I have limited space of course, and I try to focus the editorial as commentary on the evolution of the domain. But I also deliberately state that I am just giving a few simple metrics. I always post my data files here, and encourage others to download those files and take the research further. So far as I know, nobody has ever done that.

But, please–here is what this anonymous blind reviewer wrote: “Two or three observations and we move on … or maybe there is really nothing more that can be said? … Are we supposed to do the analysis ourselves?”

Umm, yes, that would be the idea!

Okay, I took the point and extended the analysis into excruciating detail in the final version of the manuscript. But, yes, the idea of science is that we all work on the same problem sets to try to advance understanding! Please!

But, the title of this post comes from the best, which I’ve saved for last. I had quoted a paper that I believe will be seen as seminal by Joe Tennis (you know, author on subject ontogeny, knowledge organization domain analysis, ethics, etc., and current president of ISKO?). Not wanting to copy wholesale (because, that’s not what we do in science, is it?) I made reference to the article and cited one or two points. Here is how this referee indicated more detail would be useful: “but most of us … will
not necessarily have time to read Tennis.”

!!!

Well, I want to reply, “you’d better find the time!” For goodness sakes, people, this is why we have text referencing. If you haven’t read the paper being referred to, you are supposed to go do that!

Sigh.

Posted January 6, 2015 by lazykoblog in peer review, writing

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Boundary objects or Herding cats?

We have received some fascinating manuscripts for Knowledge Organization recently. Some of them come from outside KO but with a bent toward information, others come from disciplines completely apart from ours. All of them speak directly to our domain about the phenomena that comprise our science. All of them were problematic in peer-review.

If we are going to thrive as a science principally concerned with knowledge, then we must be open to learning what others have to teach us about our own phenomena. There is, I suppose, a fine line between accepting work that does not fit into our discussion because it fails to acknowledge our domain, on the one hand, and work that in essence contributes to our domain even if the authors have naively underrepresented their intersection with our domain. Was that diplomatic enough?

We have to show these authors where the intersections are, we have to point out the boundary objects. Then we have to suggest how the papers can be reconfigured to speak more cogently to our domain. It is, curiously, the realization of epistemology within our science. It is how we approach true interdisciplinarity.

And then we have to take it one step further by stopping ourselves from wandering off aimlessly or turning our backs on new ideas just because they did not spring from within a culture of classification. We have to reach across those boundaries and invite conversation. It is hard work, but it is essential for the advance of KO as a domain.

Posted September 14, 2014 by lazykoblog in epistemology, interdisciplinarity, Uncategorized

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