Thursday, June 7, 2012

Value Added

In 2004, Ken Jennings won 75 consecutive matches of T.V.'s Jeopardy quiz show, winning over two and a half million dollars before being bested by another contestant.  Jennings, most recently, was called out of Jeopardy past player's exile in 2011, along with all-time Jeopardy money winner Brad Rutter, to compete against, and summarily be trounced by, an IBM supercomputer called Watson built expressly for the purpose of playing Jeopardy against humans.  

(Incidentally, if you missed out on watching history in the making, or you simply want to learn more about the cutting edge computing and artificial intelligence embodied in Watson, then I highly recommend you watch the following episode of PBS's NOVA: The Smartest Machine on Earth.)

Anyway, when Jennings isn't appearing on T.V. as one of the best Jeopardy players (statistically speaking) of all-time, he's busy parleying his fifteen minutes of trivial fame into a successful career as an author.

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed his first book about (what else) trivia and trivia buffs, entitled Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.  Jennings is a funny and insightful author who writes books that anyone can find enjoyable, even if they tend to be about topics many people wouldn't normally be interested in.

I'm currently reading his second book entitled, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.  The book is about... well, admittedly I could probably better tell you what it's about once I finish it, but generally, it's about the importance of maps, cartography and geography to humanity now and across the ages.

I was reading this book when I came across the following passage, which I'd like to briefly recreate for you here:

Imagine the poor geographer trying to explain to someone at a campus cocktail party (or even to an unsympathetic administrator) exactly what it is he or she studies.

"'Geography' is Greek for 'writing about the Earth.'  We study the Earth"

"Right, like Geologists."

"Well, yes, but we're interested in the whole world, not just the rocky bits. Geographers also study oceans, lakes, the water cycle..."

"So it's like oceanography or hydrology."

"And the atmosphere."

"Meteorology, climatology ..."

"It's broader than just physical geography.  We're also interested in how humans relate to their planet."

"How is that different from ecology or environmental science?"

"Well, it encompasses them.  Aspects of them.  But we also study the social and economic  and cultural and geopolitical sides of --"

"Sociology, economics, cultural studies, poli sci."

"Some geographers specialize in different world regions."

"Ah, right, we have Asian and African and Latin American studies programs here.  But I didn't know they were part of the geography department."

"They're not."

(Long pause.)

"So, uh, what is it you do study, then?"

And... scene.

I think Jennings has hit here, explaining the plight of the poor misunderstood geographer, on an important misconception amongst all of academia that I've been ruminating on for quite a while. In academia, 'what do you study?' is what the Buddhists would call a question wrongly put (vlogbrothers / John Green shout out!).  The disciplines in academia all seek the same thing; to understand how the world (the universe?) works and how that knowledge can inform us and our decisions.

Ken Jennings goes on to say:

(Geography is)... made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place.  Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning -- there are geographers studying all these subjects and aspects of geography taught in all of them.

I think, then, that the question rightly put would be, 'What is the lens through which you have chosen to see the world?'  This is what I want my college students to know, degrees are little more than marketing ploys invented by colleges and universities to entice prospective students; no different from ploys like whitening agents, or mint flavoring in toothpaste.  The power (and saleability and value) of your educational experience is directly proportional to how well you learn to explore questions from far and wide through the lens or lenses associated with your field of study.  Geographers use the lens of place and spatial relation while chemists explore the same fundamental questions through the lens of chemical interactions and computer scientists look through the lens of information theory.   

Computer science students (and software enigneers and M.I.S. professionals) are not primarily valuable because they can write programs, or use computers better than someone self-taught at these things; but because they can help society (and their bosses) better and more deeply understand the complexities (and occasionally the answers to) problems that have nothing inherently to do with math, or programming, or even computers at all.

In academia, there might be room to argue about the power of our respective lenses (a tempting but, I think, dangerous prospect), but there's no room to argue about how well we've carved out our fields or how important our areas of study are, because our true areas of study, thought about complexly, must necessarily completely overlap.      

1 comment:

  1. This is why I cannot enjoy movies. I am always looking at the world through a feminist lens. And through the feminist lens, the world and it's entertainment is an awful place, indeed.