Social Science and Catching Light


The other night in #tiegrad we found ourselves discussing the different paths of the graduate student in the so-called ‘hard’ and more social sciences. Our instructor – while extremely reluctant to paint with a broad brush, so leave the pitchforks where they are – noted that the ‘hard’ or natural sciences tend to direct their students’ reading and research toward the topic or question to be examined, whereas the social sciences (and perhaps education especially) encourage students to engage this process for themselves, charting their own course toward a unique research question.

Naturally there will be exceptions to either case, but the observation raised for me a tension in epistemology we have been looking at in Philosophy 12 this semester, between knowledge which can be discovered and knowledge that is created.

Again offering something of an oversimplification, the (applied) mathematician strives to explain the natural world by introducing theorems which correspond to observable phenomena. Engaged with Plato’s world of things, the classical “hard” scientist similarly seeks to discover knowledge about the world outside of the mind. While a total objectivity may be elusive, the general type of knowledge sought in these disciplines is viewed with a more objective air, in which case the tendency for graduate students – themselves looking to create knew knowledge in these fields with the publication of theses and dissertations – to be guided up to the edge of the gap needing to be crossed before being let loose on their own studies.

The social scientist, whose own subjectivity is impossible to separate from the phenomena being studied, attempts to bring an unbiased and unique eye to their field of research, and thus may benefit from supervising professors who are reluctant to guide ‘too much.’ Knowledge about poetry and history or economics and education cannot be considered neutral, and as such may be more willing to see its field of understanding as knowledge (or meaning) created rather than discovered. 

Now, this is all as I have tried to qualify a grossly oversimplified and binary view of a philosophy of science that may not hold much water beyond the sense of understanding it grants me for the moment. But the idea presented itself in a few-weeks old post from Alan Levine, who likes to take pictures:

But I’d been thinking about something I probably operate at a more instinctual level, from experience with the camera, there is a feeling when I am in certain places, or noticing the way light is highlighting vividly, or when it is absent, or when shadows and light have interplay. I cannot pinpoint it, but its a gut feeling in those moments that there is interesting light at work. And that means I then amplify my awareness and look more intently as to where I might find it.

You see, most of photography is done by figuring out how to remove most of what you see, that is composition by cropping out with just the camera view finder.

The idea of “composition by cropping” speaks to (my crude interpretation of) the social-scientist’s endeavour, to interpret a signal in the noise, something potentially made all the more difficult by the advent of “social scholarship,” which Kris Shaffer describes in a recent post:

But for me lately, Twitter has more specific problems. The signal-to-noise ratio is far from optimal: it’s becoming harder to sift through the stream to find the really good stuff. The trolls are also multiplying — even within communities that have for many years been quite amicable places to inhabit. Harassment and threats are headlining. And users are discovering the horror of trying to report (and have removed) illicit and violent materials that victimize children.[…]

Maybe this is just the world. Maybe wherever people are, both the best and the worst will come out. Maybe we were lucky for a few years as social-media-inclined academics breathed the fresh air of the “open” Web 2.0, while the trollish members of the academic breed fought their last vitriolic battles on email listservs. Now that the trolls found Twitter, and Twitter wants (needs) to monetize us all, the party’s over. I hope not, but maybe that’s just how it is.

I don’t want to discount the rest of the argument Kris makes, or drastically repurpose his words here for my own ends, as I find myself sympathetic to not only his sentiments but his solution, to write “in more open, more user-controlled domains, as well as in critiquing the corporate tools that we do make use of.”

But I do want to return to Alan’s idea of cropping, and catching light:

I have been noodling if there is a similar process at work when swimming among the firehose of information in a space like Connected Courses or the whole damn web in general. Is there a sense you get when just scanning, of something like “good” or “interesting” light in photography that takes you to interesting ideas?

Is it a clever title? a turn of a phrase? a provocative link? a vague link that does not indicate where it goes? The familiarity of the source url or the curiousness of it? What are the suggestions in the flow that help you clue in to what tends to be more interesting than not?

Because, I conjecture, if you can hone your senses for seeing nuanced suggestions of good/worthy/intriguing ideas out there in the information flow, you can get much more out of it than just getting soaked.

While I’ll leave it to the physicists to argue with their own supervisors about what their lit reviews need contain, I think this approach is what makes our grad work in education so equally baffling and beautiful. What is true of photography is also true of meaning made and knowledge constructed. To return once more to Alan’s post:

the approach of thinking about my photo approach, and then thinking about it again in reflection works as a process to refine my ideas. It’s not a matter of being “right” on a subject or touting your book/article/etc, it’s about a practice of the mind.

Because apart from the discovery of nature, the pursuit of mind is indeed a process to be engaged, and engaged again, in solitude and company.

Then engaged again.

A few thoughts on the return of Chris Hadfield to Earth

It’s over, already?

This glorious stretch of time when everyone and everything “anyone ever knew” was being photographed, watched over, and sung to sleep by a Canadian hurtling around the planet a dozen times every day, has come to a close. But then, it seems a beginning, too.

Alan Levine marks the occasion by wondering:

How sadly strange and unique does it seem to find a public figure who inspires, yet is humble, has fun, and lights that spirit of optimism. It doe snot happen in politics, our sports figures and pop culture celebrities ring more as ego focused money chasers. Why are there so few who humbly inspire by example?

Countless times in the past few months, I’ve been moved to goosebumps, lumps in my throat, or the overwhelmed sensation that brings the unexplained tear to the eye by Twitpics, – you can see my house from here! – Soundcloud recordings, and of course, the Youtubes. And I don’t know if it’s necessarily that the idea of ‘space’ itself is so awe inspiring, or that this opportunity to behold the life and times of an astronaut has been transformative in some way that interviews and newscasts and Discovery Channel documentaries offered in the past weren’t.

Rather, an article shared by my Twitter friend Sava posits that our collective wonder at the glimpses Commander Hadfield offered us might be the result of our gathering familiarity with the near cosmos, and what this might portend for the future:

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting,” Clay Shirky has argued, “until they get technologically boring.” The same may be said of space. As a destination — as a place, as a dream — space may be, ever so slightly, losing its former mantle of foreignness, its old patina of awe. Instead, the final frontier may now be experiencing the fate that befalls any frontier: It stops being a frontier. Its settlers come to think of it, more and more, as an extension of what they know … until it becomes, simply, all that they know. Until it becomes the most basic thing in the world: home.

Space is becoming ordinary. And that means it’s about to get really interesting.

Whatever the reason though, it has been a marvelous ride to share in, Commander Hadfield. You showed us our home planet and took us with you into space, showed us pieces of the future, and broadened the boundaries of our imaginations.

Thank you for all of that, and that which lies ahead.

The Silver Bullet in Teaching Mathematics: Computers

How many other subjects are deserving of this same heat, though:

Just because paper was invented before computers, doesn’t mean that you get more to the basics of a subject by using paper instead of a computer in teaching math.