New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

The Good Word

February 13, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Family, Walt Anderson

Taking Stock and Investing in Shares

by Walt Anderson

Am I allowed to postdate a New Year’s Resolution?

Taking stock.  No, I am not talking about financial matters — something much more important actually.  The arrival of 2012 reminds me to reflect upon my life, not on transient accomplishments or on political or social disappointments.  Few of those things are lasting, scarcely more significant in my life than the taste of yesterday’s breakfast.  What was it that I ate, anyway?

What should be important is what I chose to share with others.  My vow this year — one that is much more realistic than how many pounds I will lose, how often I intend to work out, or what yard work I may or may not get to — is to open myself to greater sharing.  Sharing can take many forms, and my intentions are not limited to one form.  However, in this essay, I am indeed focusing on one thing — the written word.  For “in the Beginning was the Word.”

2011 brought one major change in my teaching — I started my blog.  “BLOG” — an inelegant word, but a portal through which my words can reach out far beyond the face-to-face contacts that have been my mainstay for a long time.  Oh, there have been books, chapters, and scientific papers where my words have reached others, but the beauty of the blog is its immediacy.  There are no middle men or women, no delays between thought and reception.  While I value the input of a good editor, in this case, it’s all on me.  My voice is unfiltered, my thoughts and emotions as I personally choose to express them.  I sink or swim with my own syntax (that sounds suspiciously, almost scandalously, financial, but it’s all about accountability).

The blog allowed me to stop focusing tightly on producing chapters for a book that could be years away before seeing the light of publication.  This has given me freedom unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

In some ways, my young life prepared me for this role.  During my college years and thereafter, including during a stint in Vietnam, I wrote long journal entries that I sent to my parents, then just to my mother when Dad passed away.  She circulated photocopies to other key friends and relatives.  I cringe slightly at the amount of paper that was consumed, though I hope that the content of those journal entries touched some lives and compensated for the trees that contributed their pulp (not that they gave up their cellulose willingly).

For the past twenty years, I’ve shared my passion for nature, for words, and for justice as I see it with my students at Prescott College.  I have received much in return, but my reach has been limited by the otherwise commendable fact that our classes are very small, most having fewer than twelve students.  I’ve taken satisfaction in watching them graduate and head out to change the world, and many write back that something I did or said profoundly influenced them.  We each generate concentric ripples, mostly imperceptible to us, but they touch other lives in small or large ways that we rarely hear about.  But that’s just fine.  The rock tossed into the pond sinks well before its radiating wavelets hit the shoreline, but the rock started it all.

If I take the time to write, I can react immediately to the discovery of breeding cuckoos or the seemingly irrational decisions of a politician.  Autumn arrives in a swirl of falling leaves, and I am not only there, but I can also announce its arrival to others who in their own ways sense the changing of the season.  When swans grace the nearby lake with their elegance in the golden glow of sunset, my photo can circulate as quickly as I can upload it.

Traditional scholarship is getting some new competition.  Scholars were an elite bunch, an incredibly small minority, who carefully guarded the vaults of knowledge and released what was, in many cases, strongly self-serving.  When literacy is a rare commodity, publication is a form of power, and it has been exercised in that way for many centuries.

Much early scholarship in the western world was religious, where the elders of the church dictated what lesser folks should know (and these often lived in fear for the fate of their very souls should they disobey).  The feeling of reverence toward a higher power persisted when philosophers, scientists, and other learned authorities (look at that word — authority) dispensed their own catechisms of knowledge.

Often writing in arcane subject-specific jargon unintelligible (perhaps intentionally so) to the lowly masses, the scholars held on to their privileged positions with jealous superiority.  No one could break into their ranks without rigorous filtering through a process that either conferred tenure or turned the candidate back out into the streets as a rejected pariah.  I know of a number of cases where the outcast was rejected because she was too popular with the students she taught.  A person more interested in helping students than in playing academic chess was certainly not to be trusted with membership in the special intelligentsia.

When someone like Carl Sagan or E. O. Wilson, whose scientific contributions were lauded, broke ranks and began popularizing science, they were ridiculed by some of their peers as “soft.”   Good, clear, accessible writing that anyone could understand was an affront and threat to some still adhering to a system of privilege that harkens back to medieval times.

The academy today at many universities continues the elitism, the cutthroat competition for priority in publishing.  This is nothing new; look at the despair and worry that engulfed Darwin when Wallace rather naively sent the somewhat-reluctant evolutionist a manuscript that succinctly outlined the theory that Darwin had been hoarding for years.

No longer could Darwin procrastinate as he sought to amass more data to bolster his argument for a thesis that he knew would be controversial.  His hand was forced.  Wallace was set to scoop him, and as in many races, only the winner is noticed.  With some coaching from his scholarly friends, Darwin submitted a paper that in effect shared the credit for the theory that rocked the world.  Wallace, perhaps with a deferential nod to the establishment in which Darwin worked, accepted that arrangement with humble gratitude, and Darwin was finally able to exhale.

When I was young, the author of a book was looked at as somewhat of a celebrity.  In science, not only was a long list of publications a necessity to get an academic position, it mattered which journals one published in.  This practice continues today.  Journals are ranked, so a published article ends up with an “impact factor” value.  One of my colleagues published an impressively original synthesis in the logical journal, the Condor, which is devoted to birds, but because that doesn’t have the “impact factor” of a journal like Science, Nature, or Ecology, he did not receive the credit that his work deserved when he applied for foundation support.  But this statistic is easily manipulated or abused in its applications; to me, it seems that the “system” was designed as another form of control.

The internet is rapidly bypassing the hallowed halls of intellectual elitism.  The wide-open access, the speed of delivery, the viral potential for ideas to ramify through networks without the filtering of peer review democratizes the spread of information.  Sure, we teachers caution our students to carefully evaluate the information that they find on the internet, for without peer-review, some pretty weird stuff can get out there.  But the openness of the system also allows some self-policing.  It is possible for just about anyone to use databases, to do intensive literature review without having to have a higher degree or a club card for an Ivy League reception.

When it comes to collecting data, I know scientists who hoard their information as if it were gold or platinum, but if they don’t get it out there for people to use, it might as well be lead.  Data are indeed valuable, but only if they foster knowledge; if they lie locked in file drawers or card files, perhaps because the collector has visions of publishing them “someday,” they will likely serve no one.

Recently I discovered a new book called Conservation for All.  The authors and editors have put their work out there without any expectation of a penny of reward.  Their rewards will come if people read their work and modify their behaviors even a little in the right direction.  I’m inspired by this, and it concurs with my New Year’s resolution to share what I know.

Writing and publishing are forms of nutrient recycling.  To collect data, stories, and insights without sharing them is like dumping everything into a nutrient sink.  Knowledge sequestered is knowledge unavailable to provide new energy to fuel life.  Images stored in boxes or in digital files, likewise, are images lost — potential light extinguished.

If I can keep my vow, words and images will emerge from the new blog as my investment in helping make a better world.  Feel free to spread these “shares” far and wide.

Walt Anderson is a naturalist, artist, photographer, and Professor of Environmental Studies at Prescott College in Arizona.  Formerly a refuge biologist, he pioneered a program of access and interpretation in the Sutter Buttes of California, the subject of two books. He has also led nature-based and photography expeditions around the world, most recently to East Africa and Antarctica. Anderson regularly blogs at GeoLobo.

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