Unintentional Knowledge: What we find when we are not looking

Julio Alves (director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning and of the Writing Program at Smith College), The Chronicle Review, June 23, 2013

Unintentional Knowledge, Julio Alves, knowledge, education, online learning

Most of our knowledge is incidental and tacit instead of intentional and explicit. What are the implications of this for teaching and learning, since by definition tacit knowledge is very difficult to teach? Honors education is on the right track: Make learning as experiential, active and immersive as possible.

While digital tools make research more efficient and evidence mounts that link-heavy hyper-reading actually rewires our brains, students’ reading of books and reading skills keep declining. We discussed this all of last semester in our colloquium, The Web’s Impact on our Mind & Future.

What are we losing now that those serendipitous journeys through the stacks of the library become increasingly rare and short, given that most knowledge is incidental? What are the implications for the quality of learning, teaching, and research?

Julio Alves imagines such an increasingly hypothetical journey and its many potential benefits along the way with the example of a student researching the economic policy of degrowth and its impact on global poverty by tracking down Serge Latouche’s Farewell to Growth instead of microtargeting articles online and in databases.

Here is what he concludes:

These library journeys feel like a waste of time to students, but they are of immense value. Incidental knowledge may not be of immediate use, but it will become the fuel that powers acts of creativity and discovery to come. Students can see the holdings and make decisions for themselves instead of allowing an algorithm to decide for them. […]

Traditional, linear reading is less taxing than hyper-reading, and as a result allows us to comprehend and retain more of what we read. We can make a similar argument about research. Compared with digital-database mining, traditional stack-based research is slower, less overwhelming, forces closer attention, and as a result, allows students to build sophisticated knowledge in a measured manner. Books also encourage close reading and rereading (in my experience, at least). Stack-based research produces more-original, creative work, as students make individual decisions about which texts to consult.

I am not making a plea for a return to the good old days. Discover, Google, Wikipedia—these are all wonderful tools. They bring us benefits I could not have imagined 20 years ago, and they should have an important place in our lives. But at what cost?

We need a greater awareness of what we are losing in overprivileging digital tools, and a better balance of digital practices and traditional ones. We must preserve the slower, more thoughtful approach to reading and writing. Part of our mission as teachers is to counteract the preferences that students bring with them and to help them adopt those that enable them not just to gather and scan information efficiently, but also to pursue their interests more purposefully—to encourage them to think and write more deeply, more reflectively, and more creatively. Only when that happens will education be truly transformative.

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