Archive for the ‘pragmatism’ Tag

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.