Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are YOU Adrift?

Arum and Roksa showed that, by and large, undergraduates only get smarter if they are enrolled in programs that require them to do a significant amount of reading and writing. Now, the older we get the less justified we are in blaming our schools for our failure to learn. Indeed, when I talk to undergraduates, telling them about Arum and Roksa's study, I always emphasize that this is not another opportunity to blame your program or your teachers for your learning problems. On the contrary, since reading and writing are individual activities that anyone can do on their own, and since there is no real mystery (unless you insist on mystifying things) about what you could read and what you could write, it is within everyone's power to stop "drifting" and start "sailing" at any time.

This, then, also goes for PhD students and early-career researchers who no longer have a "writing requirement" as such. There is an increasing pressure to publish, to be sure, but there is no teacher or program that specifically requires you to write. Apart from not satisfying the demand to publish, the problem with not writing is that you are subject to same effects on your intelligence as undergraduates. My fear (though it is not actually borne out by Arum and Roksa's study) is that, in an academic setting, which insulates you from the need to engage in other intricate practical tasks as well (like those carried out by carpenters and dentists), not writing not only fails to improve your intelligence: it actually makes you dumber. You are letting your mind degenerate.

Remember that scholarship goes on in a sea of prose. You can take that prose in passively, by reading book reviews and newspapers, watching the news, going to lectures (and watching them on YouTube). Or you can keep your keel and rudder and screw squarely in the water. It will keep you in control of the ship and this will maintain your sense of direction. No one may be asking you stay at the helm and steer. The ocean itself is your imperative.

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