Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.
I recently finished a graduate course on issues affecting higher education, and I wrote my final paper on Information Literacy (IL for short). The concept’s been called several different things over the years, or parts of it, at least – critical thinking, library literacy, source proofing, skepticism, etc. IL is all of that and more, as a way of thinking about the world around you and having the skills to be able to not only critically think about a source, but to be able to find the information you need given your level of accessibility. It’s a bit like understanding that a Hollywood star probably isn’t the best person to get vaccination information from, regardless if she has a bunch of likes on her YouTube video, or being able to trace a “fact” seen on Facebook back to it’s original source. Or even just being willing to use Google for 10 seconds to see what other sources might be reporting a particular event.
It would seem IL, and gaining skills to navigate our crazy, digital world, is overwhelming and unending. Because our world is constantly changing, and the speed of that change is increasing all the time, Information Literacy isn’t a set of skills our can just “get” and be done with. Not only does the information change, but how to access it changes. For a lot of people, it’s simply just too much work to make sure the information you believe to be true is actually correct, and they wouldn’t know how to go about checking that, anyway.
A lot has already been written on how to gain these skills, so I won’t repeat their work here. But for just a taste of the herculean task of how to acquire this skill (much less learn the traditional content matter, remember I’m a college professor), here’s the American Library Association’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which does a much better job of breaking down what information literacy is and how to teach it than I can in a blog.
I’ll write more in a bit, but I seem to be having trouble accessing my posts from the visitor side. So, if you see this, leave a comment? Thanks.
I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit depressed as of late by the state of things in this country. In my field, I’m often asked for my opinion about topics of current affairs, or other generally complex subjects. But that hasn’t seemed to have made difference about how people view me, and other “intellectuals” in general.
I recently had a conversation with one such individual who had, in the past, asked for information on a few topics. But as soon as I gave them an answer they didn’t like, the “discussion” turned hostile.
“You think you’re so smart.”
I’ve heard that phrase, used as a way to try to shut me up, pretty much my entire life. I can recall hearing it specifically as young as third grade, and by a teacher. I didn’t have any tact as a child (still don’t have a lot, I just don’t have it in me to be less than usefully honest), but it stuck with me, that the teacher seemed to be threatened that I actually knew something more about whatever it was than she did. I don’t remember the exact subject, just that I was right and she sneered at me, “You think you’re smart, huh?”
Huh? Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong?
Of course, I now know that the phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it has been well documented. Those with a little bit of knowledge about a subject tend to think they know more about it than they do, and they are more confident about the accuracy of their knowledge than they really should be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as confident as a child in my own knowledge as I was, but when I know something, I know I know it. Simply put, no one has ever been able to gaslight me other than myself.
But back to my original question. Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong? To me, this gets at the heart of what’s happening across the country. Many who try to argue with me will accuse me of Appealing to Authority, or saying something is correct “because I’m smarter than you”, even though this is considered a logical fallacy and frowned on in the Sciences. I always try to bring evidence to bear in a discussion – a peer-reviewed journal article, verifiable data, ecetera. And that frustrates people “talking” to me, as they want to “win” the argument.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
Recently, I’ve finished reading an article published about research on how to help students tell apart fact from fiction, or more precisely a factual statement (regardless of the statement’s accuracy) from a statement of opinion. This work, conducted by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida, can be read here. The researchers found strong links to our ability to tell the difference between a factual statement (The sky is blue) and an opinion statement (A blue sky makes people happy) to our overall worldview. If the statement matches our already established ideas about how the world works (let’s go with political parties here), then we are more likely to think the statement is factual. And it becomes more and more difficult to be convinced that it not only isn’t a factual statement, but isn’t even an accurate “fact” the more strongly it matches that worldview. Because we’ve tied our personal identities into that worldview, or that political party, so if it’s wrong, then that means I’m stupid, which just can’t be, because stupid people are bad.
Whew, that was a steep rabbit hole.
That slide from discovering something you thought was true isn’t to “stupid people are bad” is called Reductio ad absurdum, or “reduction to absurdity”, and is considered another logical fallacy. But it explains a lot, to me, about why anyone would want to continue to think something incorrect was true long after they’ve been shown mountains of evidence to the contrary.
There’s a great scene in The Big Bang Theory between Sheldon and his mother, which goes something like: Mrs. Cooper: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Sheldon: But evolution is not opinion, it’s a fact. Mrs. Cooper: And that is your opinion!
Because you’ve wrapped your entire self-worth and value into your opinion being fact, you now can’t separate the two. So the person who pointed that out to you becomes the problem, which makes you double down and use another logical fallacy to continue to be “right” – attack me personally. Known as an “Ad hominem” argument, it means that if you can make the other person out to be a “bad” person, their argument must also be wrong, right? Or telling me that while I might be right, I’m “saying it wrong”, which is better known as tone policing.
There’ve been a lot of logical fallacies in the media and in our own personal discourse in the last few years. Maybe I’ll write about that soon.
So, as I’ve said, I’ve been a bit depressed lately. Because I’m fed up with the Ad hominem attacks simply because I pointed out that your opinion isn’t fact. But I keep doing it anyway, because I honestly believe that you deserve to know.
Too many people, to my mind, get jealous when I talk about some of the “other” places I’ve visited and lived: Scotland, Mexico, Peru, Germany, and more. I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to explore a nice chunk of the planet.
But there’s always so much in your own backyard worth exploring. Just because it’s right next to you doesn’t mean it’s not amazing. You don’t have to go see something “other” to explore. No where else have I found that more true than Wyoming. Where, quite literally, every square mile is a historical or geological treasure. I love Wyoming. In the Southeast of Wyoming is Devils Tower, with Mount Rushmore only being a couple hours further. In the north, YELLOWSTONE. Amiright? In the Southwest, it’s the Oregon Trail, The Green River Formation, Fossil Butte, and the Red Desert. And there’s so much more.
A great way to start exploring what’s right next to you is to google your state travel/tourism website. These websites are designed to explain to someone from out of state what’s so exciting about coming to visit. Sometimes, you might not even have heard what’s interesting about your local area, simply because there’s no one giving talks or designing web sites geared to locals. Wyoming has a fantastic site, at Travel Wyoming. Heck, the Continental Divide, or the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming, is something that’s in every science textbook. And in Wyoming, you cross it twice driving on I-80!
If it’s cultural sites that interest you, there’s so much to see. It’s always good to stop at the historical markers in your area, and they’ve even made it easy for you to find them with an app (there’s an app for everything). Just search for “historical markers” in your app store on your smartphone. Sometimes, just ask your neighbors for suggestions. Every area has a “special town” that’s decided to do things differently. Near me, there’s Heber City. It’s just across the boarder in Utah, but it includes the Zermatt Resort, modeled after a “Swiss Village”, which is pretty funny, as I lived in Switzerland for several years.
Start driving. Take the bus. Carpool with friends. Walk. Try as hard as you can to make time in our incredibly busy lives to see something new. Someone asked me recently how I find time to do “all the things I do.” It always comes off as flippant, but my only answer is “You only live once.” If you don’t make the time now, there’s no do-over. No one will feel bad for you that you didn’t get the chance to experience the world we’re so lucky to be born into. Make the time.
I am always excited, and a bit surprised, when I learn something new about myself. Especially as I’m nearing a half-century in age. And if I have the chance to learn something BIG about myself, I really sit up and pay attention.
So it was when I watched the TNT series The Librarians for the first time. (https://g.co/kgs/MFHF6m) One of the characters, Cassandra, is a synesthete. In the show, all five of her senses are “cross-wired” in her brain, meaning that she sees numbers as flavors, hears words as musical notes, and memories have texture.
I had never heard the word before, which is a rather noteworthy occurrence for me. I watched the first episode with some skepticism, and afterwords went directly to the Internet to determine if this word, and the episode’s description of the condition, were real. Because they had just described something I had experienced my whole life, without knowing that not everyone experienced it as well.
Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived along with one or more additional senses, such as sight. Other forms of synesthesia join objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sense such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). So, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.” A great web site for more information on synesthesia is here: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html.
I was stunned after just a little bit of research. I had never thought that my ability to remember a phone number was particularly special. Useful, yes, and people had commented on it on occasion, but nothing significant. I would always just say, “I just remember the sound the number makes on the phone. Bee boop beep, beep beep beep beep (that’s 254-4444, if you’re wondering).
I had discovered I’m slightly colorblind just a few years before this (colorblind females are only 2-3% of the general gene pool). Which explained a lot about my childhood and my inclination to wear colors that others think are “weird” (I love blue and pink together, and green and yellow). But it also explains why I never thought much about why I’m always choosing differently than others, when I was made fun of for those choices pretty regularly in school. I’m definitely not as “cross-wired” as the fictional Cassandra, who basically used her synesthesia almost like a super-power in the show, but it gives me a way to examine my perceptions from an outsider’s perspective. I simply have a different relationship to my senses than most people do. What do you mean, you don’t think numbers have sound, that words have colors, and inanimate objects can tell you their true names if you listen right after talking to them? 🙂 Yes, all of my stuffed animals have names, and my cars. The feel of touching them “sounds” like a name….
This new understanding of what I experience has been an eye-opener for me to understanding myself and the world around me. I’m not “bad” at math, but word problems have always been frustrating, as they seem so “noisy” and filled with extraneous information. I would always say that they sound to me like “Two purple trains running on pancakes are about to crash into a McDonald’s. How many milkshakes will it take to build a new golf course?”
And yes, I’ve actually said this to students who complain about doing their math homework ;), because I then explain the way that I figured out to do these problems, which is to take the sentences apart and concentrate just on the information you need to solve the problem. I had never realized before that there actually wasn’t that much extraneous information, but my brain was connecting the train to the sound of driving through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for breakfast. Yikes. Maybe that’s why I really liked calculus, and still hate statistics. Too much information in stat problems, when clearly my brain is supplying even more.
Two of the main characteristics synesthetes experience really stuck out to me. One of them is that the experiences are involuntary – I don’t have to think about “what I see/perceive”, I just do, which is specifically why it hadn’t occurred to me before hearing the condition described that I was “seeing” anything different than anyone else.
The second characteristic is that the “crossed sense” is projected – I don’t see a color of the name in my “mind’s-eye” or hear the sound of numbers inside my head, but experience them outside, just like a normal physical sense. I see different colors of the written word on the page, I hear the sound of the numbers as if someone were playing the keys on a piano, and feel the shape of the numbers when I say them out loud. Though not all synesthetes perceive the same things, and not all synesthetes even have their senses linked to the same other senses. I seem to have more cross-wiring than most, but it makes me wonder if there isn’t more cross-perception out there than is widely accepted, with almost everyone having maybe at least one sense crossed with another. How would you know, if you had always experienced the world in a certain way, that it was not how everyone else experiences it?
I honestly find it even hard to describe to others today when they ask what I see or feel, such as what the number six sounds like (I’ve been asked this recently, and the answer that popped out of my mouth was that “six sounds round” which even I know sounds ridiculous, but there you are), or what color their name is. I have to see the letters of their name to tell them this, and that’s a different experience from hearing their name, which has a sound associated with it for me.
Artist Melissa McCracken has spoken about what she perceives when she hears music. It’s pretty amazing.
Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky are some other famous artists who painted the sounds that they heard.
I really like Dr. Eagleman’s explanation. It tells me something about why I prefer a keyboard that makes the tradition “clickety-clack” sounds when I type to a flat keyboard with no real keys. And that’s something that I just learned about myself in the last 5 minutes.
I was recently asked to name a few of my favorite authors. I thought it would be an easy question to answer… and then I proceeded to over-think the question. What, exactly, does that mean, favorite author? Isn’t it the same as asking what one’s favorite books might be?
After pondering the question for a time, I decided that, no, one’s favorite authors are not the same as one’s favorite books, as there are books that I adore but don’t care for anything else the author has written, and there are authors whom I’ll read regardless of the genre or topic the new book they’ve written is in.
My beginning criteria for favorite authors quickly became those authors whom I’ve read 4+ books from. I made the definition more than a trilogy, as most authors nowadays will be almost forced by the publisher to write a trilogy for the sake of money, and just because I want to know how the story ends doesn’t mean I really liked the author or the writing. I’m also straying away from authors whom I’ve only read one “story arc” from, meaning that just because the series included seven books, that doesn’t mean they’ve made my favorite authors list. While this leaves out the wonderful Harry Potter series, as to date I have had no chance to read any of JK Rowling’s other books or stories, it does provide insight on what I might think makes a good author.
My favorite authors are those whose writing compels me to seek out more of their work, rather than just grabbing the next book in the series. The writing adds to my own soul, if I’m allowed to wax poetic, and I feel the world would be a poorer place without their ability.
And yes, I know I’ve given this question and possible answer WAY too much thought. 🙂
So, here’s my first five. This list is in chronological order of when I first read a book from that author, rather than by if I think they’re the “best”. I hope you find my reading journey from childhood interesting.
Maybe later I’ll write on my favorite book series. It’s also an interesting thought that I can think a particular series amazing/fantastic/must reread many times, and yet never really feel the urge to look up any of the author’s other works. Hmm.
Dana’s Favorite Authors:
Laura Ingalls Wilder
I wanted to be Laura for most of my childhood. I had read all of the books in the “main series” by 4th grade, and in 5th grade I gave a presentation on the entire series. In 6th grade I read her biography, and in 8th grade my town librarian helped me to request copies of the articles she had written for the local newspaper in Springfield, MO. In high school I started reading the new books published based on her notes on the lives of her grandparents.
While some of her books discuss Native Americans and African Americans in ways we find unacceptable today, a closer reading of her work shows that she did not agree with everything being said around her, and neither did her parents. She even edited her first edition to correct language about Native Americans that she had not meant as offensive, but later found out it that was. I’ve always loved that about her, that even at nearly 70 she understood that she wasn’t the one who gets to say what’s offensive to oppressed groups. As I grow older, I only learn to appreciate her more.
I’ve read every single work by Asimov that’s been published and is accessible. I even, when I was about 12, started collecting old science fiction magazines that I found at used bookstores so I could read his early stuff. I’ll admit, though, that I’m not a huge fan of the Foundation series.
His short stories are some of the best I’ve ever read, however, and I’ve always emulated my own writing to his. Robbie will always make me cry, and if you don’t like the novelette The Bicentennial Man, then it’s my firm opinion that you don’t have a heart.
Jean and her writing were crucial to my own development as a writer when I was a teenager. Her Star Trek books are still my all-time favorite, and she’s the first author I had ever written to who responded. She’s the one that really set me down the path of fan fiction, that it was Okay to write about what you love, and her own “fanfics” of Star Trek are still some of my favorite stories ever. Her Savage Empire series is incredible.
Marion Zimmer Bradley
I found Hawkmistress! in a used bookstore when I was about 14, and then preceded to harass my local library for more of her work. I zipped through the rest of the Darkover series, and then read Mists of Avalon. I then ate up all of her short stories, and was heartbroken when she became ill. The books printed in the Darkover series since her death are good, but they are clearly not the completed work of Bradley.
One of her essays on writing explained that she thought of Lew Alton as “her own voice”, and that was the first time anyone had told me that I could write in a “voice” that society said was a man’s.
I’ve re-read Jane Eyre about twice a year at least since my first year of college, and it never gets old. I’ve read her other three published books – Shirley, Villette, and The Professor. I’ve also read her short stories of the Green Dwarf, but I’ve never been able to access her poetry. I’ve read several biographies on her, and heck, I even re-read her letters added to the front of several of her books, honoring certain literary giants of her day. Her writing is beautiful, and her life was tragic. There hasn’t been a movie version yet that I’ve felt did the book justice, though the version with Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds comes close.
Just to point out, many of my favorites here have written what we call “fan fiction” today. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’m also aware that most of my favorites are women, though that wasn’t by design. Maybe I’ll write another blog soon on that specifically. But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these amazing writers. And a little bit about me.