Friday, December 28, 2012

Does Willful Ignorance = Arrogance, or Something Else. A Riff on the Obtuseness of Some of Dick's Colleagues.

Hiram riffed on something,
and I am riffing on as well.

I have a colleague who thinks
Captain Kirk was in Star Wars.

I have a colleague who borrowed
a lawn mower once and was surprised
it was not electric or a "pusher."
"Gasoline mowers are terrible for the environment."
You're welcome.

{The same colleague doesn't own
 a rake.}

I have a colleague who said he had trouble
parking on campus on a Saturday.
He wondered why the area around the stadium
was so busy.
We have a Division 1 football team.

I have a colleague who overheard
me playing a Rolling Stones CD
and he asked me, "Is that Elvis?"

I have a colleague who likes to say
he doesn't watch TV, but you can't stump him
on Downton Abbey trivia.

I have a colleague who questioned
why one of the junior faculty was
teaching a course about "Duffy" the Vampire Slayer.

MOST of my colleagues willfully deny
things like Twitter, pop culture, the E! Channel,
et cetera, and et cetera.

Now, I don't know everything about everything,
but I am aware that there are Batman movies
{swoon, Val Kilmer.}

I know something about the major sports,
and could pick Phil Mickelson out of a lineup,
and Roger Federer, and Lionel Messi
{and I can pronounce the latter's first name.}

The implication is, always,
that my colleagues are "above" whatever
the thing is they act willfully ignorant of.

To what end?


  1. I definitely sympathize, Dr. Tingle. I have had some doozies in the past, colleagues who act so dense about contemporary culture that I'm embarrassed to be around them.

    And the "no-TV" people.

    I don't care if you watch TV or not, but those who don't can't shut up about it, and it's always with such condescension. Go read your Milton, nutballs.

    1. Hey hey HEY -- no dissin' Milton!

      OTOH, one of my favourite stats showed that people who claim not to watch television actually watch, on average, 6 hours a week.

  2. Even worse is that they brag about their ignorance. I'm not saying that pop culture knowledge is equivalent in value to chemistry or literature but being proud of your ignorance in any field is never a good idea for a scholar.

    On top of that, they are now out of date. One colleague still boasts that he doesn't understand what a Blackberry is. Everybody in earshot looks at him, asking, "Who doesn't know what a Blackberry is and who cares what a Blackberry is now, anyway?"

    These are indeed trying times for us all.

    1. Alvin Toffler wrote about this at book length in his 1970 best-seller, "Future Shock."

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    3. Why should not knowing about popular culture be bad for a scholar? Does knowing about somebody who warbles pop ditties help in solving an equation? Will having seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster make writing computer code easier?

      I fail to see the relevance.

    4. Here's the relevance: your students will likely say exactly the same thing about the relevance of your course to their lives, even if it's computer programming or physics and they are engineer-wannabes. Now you know why I keep up with Beloit college's "Mindset List" each year.

    5. They would have questioned the relevance whether or not I knew anything about popular culture. I was there to teach them about, say, fluid mechanics, not some pop diva.

      I made my course material relevant to what they would be dealing with out in industry by using examples from my personal experiences or, perhaps, some related historical anecdotes.

    6. Not following the comings and goings of our consumer/pop culture is fine. In some ways, it's admirable to focus on interests with the most lasting value. However, my colleagues delight in their ignorance of popular electronics and pop culture. I don't criticize them for their lack of knowledge or lack of interest - that's entirely reasonable. I do get annoyed when people are proud of their ignorance, regardless of the topic, as if there is absolutely nothing to learn. It's an especially poor behavior for a scholar, an occupation that is devoted to learning more, especially of topics that others may find of little value themselves.

    7. Yeah, well, Lord Snow's talked about "The Two Cultures" in 1959. Since then, the sciences won in decisive victory. I often wonder whether the rest of humanity is smart enough to handle the consequences.

    8. Rather than worry about popular culture, I added to my knowledge by learning about things outside of my discipline. Part of that came from my time in industry where I had to deal with people who not only weren't the same field of engineering I was, they may have been in other occupations. Also, many of the concepts that I studied as an undergraduate showed up in other areas, such as dentistry and medicine.

      Much of that was both relevant and useful to what I was doing and I used it in my lectures. It was certainly more useful than knowing whose music video went viral.

    9. I don't think pop culture is necessary for our scholarly lives, but in my case, I just want colleagues who aren't narrow and obtuse. I've had both kinds, and the ones who know that it's 2009, er, I guess it's 2012 now, are much more enjoyable to be around.

      That line in Dick's note about the football stadium - that happens to me all the time. "Why on earth are all these people here, on a SATURDAY," one colleague of mine always says.

      "Oh, sorry, Studious Samuel, but we're playing Kent State today. It's even on TV, oh wait, you don't have one. Can I lend you my rake?"

  3. As a no-tv person myself. I'm usually rather embarrassed not to know about shows. In the other hand, I'm hugely proud that my family and I are largely ignorant of all the advertising.

    1. As you should be. Avoiding the advertisements, which are not always family friendly themselves, has long term value to children.

    2. I once had a colleague who was totally fascinated by "Survivor" shortly after it went on the air. He urged me to watch it because of all the plotting and duplicity that happened.

      I reminded him that if I wanted to read about such things, there was a fellow by the name of Shakespeare who wrote plays for a living. One of them was about someone named Othello.

    3. Yep.

      And amen on the Shakespeare comment.

      We have 1 tv. Just got a blu ray player as a present. Don't have cable. Highly selective in what we watch, what we let our kids watch. Seems to me to be a better approach than a wholesale ban on pop culture.

      And I agree with Beaker Ben's comment about the willful ignorance being dangerous for a scholar. If nothing else, being able to relate at least a little bit to the pop culture helps proffies connect to students.

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    5. BC:

      I wanted my students to be aware of what they might deal with after they graduated using examples from my personal experience in industry. I figured that if they saw that much of what they were being taught might actually be useful, they might have paid closer attention. Their future paycheques could well have depended on it.

      Pop culture is of little relevance when one is, for example, designing the piping layout for a natural gas dehydration unit. Knowing how to prepare drawings and select parts is.

  4. The "I don't know nuthin' 'bout no TV" people are annoying, but I think it's normal for people to be ignorant about parts of culture they don't care about. I have no clue who Phil Mickelson or the other sports figures RTPhD mentioned are. Other than baseball (and then just one particular team) I simply don't care about sports. That's not something that makes me "better" (or worse)---it just is. There's a difference between "I don't know who that is because that's not a subject I follow." and "I don't know who that is because I'm smarter than you."

    A few of RTPhD's example are funny though. I especially like the "why is parking so bad this weekend?" one. Even as a grad student, when I couldn't name a single player on our team, I still knew when the parking lot by the stadium would be full on Saturday and if we won or lost...

  5. I was the resident weirdo in the department I used to teach in, and it wasn't just that I had more education than everyone else and belonged to Mensa.

    I preferred to read scientific and technical journals or the New York Times instead of one of the local newsrags, which was little more than T & A fishwrap.

    I was never much of a sports fan and gave up on following the local teams years ago. The fact that I'm a sports agnostic was reason enough to make me a social pariah.

    I largely gave up on commercial TV some time during the '90s and seldom watched while I was teaching and rarely do so now. While my colleagues were all agog about shows like "Seinfeld" or "Friends", I preferred watching a documentary or a performance of, say, Richard Wagner's "Parsifal" on the public channel.

    Did that make me a lesser person? I don't think so. While I know people nowadays who could tell me all about the latest shenanigans of whatever celebrity happens to be enjoying his or her 15 minutes of fame, they can't tell me anything about, for example, what the Higgs boson is and what its possible discovery signifies. Who's the weirdo now?

    Oh, and by the way, the only Biber worth listening to is a chap whose given names were Heinrich Ignaz Franz, not some popular pipsqueak whose surname is spelled a bit different.

  6. Here's a major advantage of being a non-TV person: I got to miss much of the 2012 presidential campaign. Oh, I got enough: I did see the 47% video on YouTube. Frankly, because TV has such a low signal-to-noise ratio, I like to think that my reading, supplemented by Internet video, informed me of the issues better than the average voter, not that there was much (or really any) discussion of them.

    Neil Postman commented on how TV has taken over every aspect of contemporary culture, much to the detriment of contemporary culture, at book length in "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Essentially, he points out how politics, news, religion, and of course education have all devolved into entertainment: as he wrote, "There's no business BUT show business."

    Your more nerdly academic colleagues show that smug, reverse snobbery, because they like to think they spend their time on things that matter, because they have lasting value. I'm inclined to agree with them, since pop culture sure doesn't do that.

    I must confess, with some chagrin, that I don't know who Taylor Swift is. I can see from the picture that she's an underweight young blonde with red lipstick. Frankly, it's downright unhealthy for a man my age to be taking any sort of interest in a girl that age.

    I do know who Led Zeppelin are, because I saw their big concert in Tampa in 1973, the one where they broke the record set by the Beatles. I did that when I was in high school, a good time for one to be doing that sort of thing. They were great, by the way, and I only paid $15 for the ticket, unlike their 2007 O2 concert.

    I don't think that willful ignorance is ever good. When it comes to pop culture, though, I think that St. Paul had some choice words (despite my many other disagreements with him):

    "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

    (Again, lest I get yelled at for this: you don't have to believe in all of it, or in some of it at all, to see some wisdom in some of it.)

    1. More to the point: almost none of my engineering majors have ever seen "2001, A Space Odyssey," and almost none of the general-ed students have ever heard of the Marx brothers. That, I think, is disturbing.

    2. Several years ago, I attended a dinner session for the local IEEE chapter. I sat at a table with some senior electrical engineering students and one of them happened to see that I had a hand-held amateur radio transceiver clipped to my belt. He asked what it was and when I explained that I was a ham and what the radio was, he and his fellow students were amazed.

      They'd never heard of amateur radio, let alone what it's about. I shouldn't have been surprised. Some time later, I met their department chairman at an alumni function and when I mentioned the subject of amateur radio, and how it might be a good educational resource, he brushed it off disdainfully.

    3. NLAN, you are making Dick's point well in your comments.

      Nobody is asking any professor to teach pop divas to their students, or NFL football. But shit, you do live in this culture, right? I mean, it's not all Othello and ham radios is it?

    4. I had a hand-held amateur radio transceiver clipped to my belt.

      I call bullshit on this one. It's a hilarious line if it's made up. If it's real, then I'm sorry.

    5. Kimmie:

      Apology accepted. The radio was a multi-band FM hand-held transceiver. It's about the size of a bar of soap and it's a terrific radio, especially in emergency situations. (At the risk of being pendantic, look up the Yaesu VX-7R.)

    6. Hiram:

      Just because I lived in this culture while I was teaching didn't mean that I had to constantly make references to it in my lectures. Most of my students were more concerned about how the course material related to what they'd be doing once they graduated and got jobs.

      I didn't deliberately inflict my knowledge of different subjects ranging from astronomy to classical music and opera on my colleagues. At the same time, if they insisted on yakking about the previous night's episode Ice Road Swamp Zombie Dancers, I either ignored them or went some place where I didn't have to listen to it.

    7. kimmie, you may now realize that these radio devices are customary attire at IEEE conferences. What you almost cetainly don't know is that these gadgets are the ONLY atire that engineers wear. They have the wildest fucking time at these meetings.

    8. I suspect this is the explanation for 802.11a. Ben that was hilarious!

    9. Ben:

      Your last comment reminds me of the preamble to the Flanders and Swann song about thermodynamics.

  7. Here are two more quotes of ancient wisdom, both from Cicero (the old, dead Roman dude, not Al Capone's home town):

    "The purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present."

    "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."

    Our students have serious problems with both points here, but this is much of why they're in collee. Now you know why I read Beloit College's Mindset list when it comes out every year: you're more effective of a teacher when your students aren't rolling their eyes at you.

  8. As a result of a series of coincidental employment matters, I've ended up working with a bunch of vegans. That's cool with me. Though I'm an omnivore, I limit the amount of meat that I eat, I make a point of eating lots of veggies, and I live an environmentally-conscious life. So I'm down with the cause, as it were.

    However, what rankles me is the amount of time that these people, with whom I spend a minimum of 40 hours a week, devote to telling me that they are vegan: "Because I'm a vegan, I don't eat there." "That platter of cookies that the department chair ordered really pisses me off because I'm a vegan, and there aren't any vegan cookies there." "Because of my lifestyle choices--being a vegan and all--certain overseas travel options just aren't realistic ones for me."

    Moreover, veganism apparently makes these people wholly ignorant of the world around them at this very moment: "Does it take a long time to cook a Thanksgvising turkey? I wouldn't know because I'm vegan." "Beer! They sell it in cans now? I wouldn't know because I'm vegan and I don't drink." "There's a television network called the Food Network? I wouldn't know because I'm vegan and therefore don't own a television."

    I swear, I never thought that chocolate chip cookies would ever make me want to punch so many people so many times.

  9. I have on several occasions made some non-committal noise or other when asked about something like the Uni's top-ranked hamster hockey team, then have admitted, when pressed, that no, I DON'T follow it, then have had to endure the verbal scorn and disdain of the person who brought it up, with the implication that I don't DESERVE the great and glorious honor of a position at this wonderful institution.

    Maybe it's just as OK for someone to choose not to follow some element of modern culture, as for someone to follow it passionately, as long as we refrain from claiming the inherent superiority of either choice.

    1. And I have also had the experience of being harassed by militant NON-vegetarians just because I chose (without a word about it to not eat the turkey at the Thanksgiving 'do.'

    2. I wish people would not trash other people's choices! I agree it is a real problem and all kinds of people do it. It's obviously caused by insecurity.

      The worst (IMO) is the mom thing. The mom things, I should say. Stay at home? Work? Childless? Had a kid? When? Early? Late? Career tanked because of it? Or it didn't, you managed to do it all with bells on?

      Fuck all of it. Whatever. Our lives are our lives. I find that women LOVE to judge each other based on their reproductive choices.

    3. Parents, sometimes, can be just as bad. I remember one former colleague who just wouldn't shut up about his children. Almost every week, he'd pin another picture of the kiddies on the lunchroom bulletin board or fill our internal e-mail inboxes with them.

      It became rather tiresome after a while.

  10. I love this comment thread. Good stuff.

    What I'd say is, I don't give a shit what your thing is: no tv, vegan, my ham radio is on my belt, etc. It's when people use that as a truncheon.

    1. I'm sorry: what's a ham radio? We cave dwellers rely solely on roots for nourishment, and eclipses for entertainment, and we're superior for doing so.

    2. According to an old Broomhilda comic strip, you need copper wire and mustard to build one.

      The term "ham" is used to refer to amateur radio. When and where it originated appears to be lost in the mists of time. This link gives a good explanation:

  11. All I know is that my fairly extensive pop culture knowledge (and corresponding degree in American Culture Studies) helped me win a buttload of cash on Jeopardy. Just sayin'. But if you want to see defensiveness, try being in a graduate program with folks getting their PhDs in popular culture! (and at a time when postmodern jargon was at its height...ugh!)

    1. Kudos on the Jeopardy win, Dr. J! It seems that popular culture programs still have a pretty big chip on their shoulder with regard to their place in the academy (for reasons that this post addresses, at least in part). But as with any other discipline, there are both good and bad ways to approach pop culture from an academic standpoint, and there is such a thing as good and bad science -- see the recent post about retracted studies as a prime example of how science can take a turn for the bad!

      There will always be a faction of the academy who wants all us humanities types to go back to learning Latin and reading nothing but dead languages. Best to ignore them and worry more about how the ways we live & communicate now will influence the future.

  12. I just look back to see what Hiram had said that Richard was responding to and it was me! Who knew.

    I love Led Zeppelin though I can't listen to it day and night. I don't like Taylor Swift much or know much about her music. In fact I often take pleasure in my extraordinary wonderfulness in not knowing much about Taylor Swift's music. I look at myself in the mirror and say "you look like the sort of person who doesn't like Taylor Swift!" and I give myself a high-5. Then I hang out with my snooty friends and we all poke mean-spirited fun at those who do like Taylor Swift, or even know anything about her.

    I can tell Elvis from Stones from Led Zeppelin. I can't tell Swift from Avril what's-her-name. I'm beginning to be able to pick out Justin Timberlake because he was hilarious in "Bad Teacher".

    Actually, I'm 55 and I just figure at my age there are things I'm allowed not to know about, and Taylor Swift is one of them.

    I do know about Twitter (though i don't use it), blogging (which I do), FB (which I spend too much time on), and Google+ (though nobody seems to use it). I know Captain Kirk was not in Star Wars because Mr. Spock was my very first crush. I don't watch TV because we don't get cable but I watch Netflix ALL THE TIME, so I'm pretty much caught up on any series more than 2 years old. I used to feel uniquely virtuous in not getting TV but since we got Netflix I have had to relinquish my condescending self-righteousness there.

    I'm not interested in sports; I can talk hockey, a little bit, from long acquaintance with people who like it, but that's it, and I don't watch or follow any sport. I'm allowed to do that because I'm female. I figure that an interest in sports is the same as an interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I know all about) - some people have it, some people don't. Of course I think there is a pure and unique virtue to knowing about Buffy, but as far as I can tell people who know about football feel the same way.

    Yes, I feel superior to those who know about football but not about Buffy. They feel the same way about me. No doubt it would be a good thing if hobbies weren't connected to hierarchical class structures. I'll think about that.

    My apologies if my lack of knowledge of Taylor Swift offended anyone here. But if I borrowed a lawnmower I promise I would say "thank you", even if it were a gas mower.

  13. Professor Tingle, I'm sorry. I used to be that person when I was a grad student. But I've grown up.

    As a non-cable TV person who never bothered to buy a digital converter but lurves Netflix, I still am willfully ignorant of ads, "Fear Factor," and "Sex and the City". Now, however, I rely on a set of stock responses that work (I hope) to allay the Snoot Factor.

    Student: "You know that ad with the cavemen for insurance?"
    Proffie Galore: "No, should I? Can you send me a link?" (In case it's worth using as an illustration or object of critical thinking in class.)

    Relative: "Have you seen xxx series?"
    PG: "No, should I? What's great about it?" (In case it's worth watching or at least helps me understand the relative better.)

    Occasional Friend: "Remember that xxx episode on 'Sex and the City'?"
    PG: "No, should I?" (Because it will keep friend talking so I can eat my sandwich without having to hold up my end of the conversation.)