Don’t Be Afraid of the Elephant in the Room

05 Oct

I have a problem. I don’t understand a lot of the techno-speak that’s being presented in the blogosphere. I’m pointing out Carl’s blog because he has a beautifully written sentence* that I just didn’t understand. Carl is writing in a technological context and speaking a language I don’t understand. Because I don’t understand the language, I can’t find the point he’s making, and it all becomes just so many words on a screen.

There’s an expectation of expertise here. By admitting my lack of expertise, I run the risk of losing the respect of my peers. These conversations are going on way over my head, so much so that sometimes I don’t know what question to ask. I have been intimidated away from asking a question. There is some wonderful writing out there, but does pretty prose matter when your audience just doesn’t get it?

I don’t feel that I can ask questions that I think sound stupid. I should be able to ask other historians the “stupid” question and know I’ll get a respectful response. My concern is that I’ll get a belittling response.

We need to be able to have a professional discourse on the issues at hand. That discourse needs to include space to admit confusion and ignorance, to ask a question without fear of ridicule, and to receive a respectful answer. We should expect professionalism and courtesy from our fellow historians and we should provide the same to them.

This issue is the elephant in the room. I am missing opportunities to learn. Please comment!

*Here’s the beautifully written sentence: “Norton discusses some of the cloud-computing-esque notions of digital cross-walking of standards-based data indices.”


Posted by on October 5, 2009 in Class


10 responses to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Elephant in the Room

  1. DeadGuyQuotes

    October 5, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Blogging in the context of the academic/professional environment is meant to expand the conversation not stifle it.
    If we, as student/professional historians, can’t demonstrate our own discipline and professionalism with courtesy and mutual respect, then we should expect no quarter from our peers. Ideally the blogosphere can allow, and encourage, a wide and disparate body of expertise to collaborate and aid each other which increases the collection of knowledge for the whole. In other words, if we play nice, we can all benefit.
    Z expresses a very real concern that demonstrates itself in silence in the blogosphere and, more troublingly, silence in the classroom. She suggests the silence may be a result of intimidation, either overt or covert. As was discussed in previous readings, reputation is a critical measure of a historian’s legitimacy. A blemish can have severe repercussions, not the least of which may be financial. On the other hand a founding principle of liberal arts is the validity of all questions. We must be free to ask questions in a respectful, professional environment.
    Good questions may require some effort and diligence on the part of the inquisitor, but all serious questions should be entertained. By failing to maintain an open and honest atmosphere of questioning and mutual respect for our peers, especially in areas where there is a lack of expertise, we run the risk of missing critical opportunities for intellectual discourse.
    In my personal experience, the collaborative world of web 2.0 (for more on, see my blog post – to be published by TUES) I have found the vast body of expertise helpful and constructive. There are incidents of arrogance and destructive comments, but the majority is helpful and friendly.
    In response to Z’s concerns, I offer the following conclusions/comments:
    1. Expressing a lack of expertise in a given area (especially something as different and technically challenging as emerging technologies) represents an intellectual honesty that opens the door for collaborative learning.
    2. Arrogance and obfuscation have no place in academic discourse.
    3. Respect is the underpinning of cohesive social order… Web 2.0 is just another place of social gathering… in our case, of academics.
    As Z and I spoke about this, I was informed that I wrote in over-the-top techno-speak. That is not at all helpful to my audience and, as she informed me, can be seen as arrogant and showy. Please accept my most sincere apologies. Further, please hold me to my pledge of respectful professional courtesy. I have about twenty years of experience in various technologies and I love dissecting the impacts of those technologies. If I can help you in any way, I also love sharing that information with others and helping others see the powers inherent in the tools available and emerging.
    Z and I want this stream to be a class-wide debate. Please weigh in honestly and openly. We look forward to your comments.

    — DGQ

    • theoldscholar

      October 5, 2009 at 10:01 pm

      Unfortunately it is very easy for the geeks in the room to get lost in our over-the-top techno-speak. It’s usually not that we are trying to be arrogant (except in Carl’s case). It’s more often than not because we are really excited about the neat things we can do with new technology and actually being able to talk with someone who doesn’t just think we are boring and arrogant is refreshing. My brother-in-law is an auditor and gets just as worked up about discussing accounting principles.

      I’m glad Zayna brought this topic up. When someone is in a new area they are hesitant about asking questions and looking dumb to their peers. It’s only natural. I majored in Engineering and Math before some of the other students in this class were born and have spent 30 years in computer science. Technology is the easy part for me, yet I am intimidated by responses I get on some technical blogs. Some people go out of their way to belittle a questioner with remarks like, “That’s easy, please go to a forum for beginners.”

      On the other hand, I feel intimidated when I listen to some of the discussions in class about some of the historical writing and research other students are doing. I don’t ask questions because I’m afraid people will think “What the heck is this geek doing here anyways?”

      I try to give good responses to people’s blogs, but reviewing some of my responses I can see where people might not understand what I am trying to say or worse they could take my responses as trying to show off. I am taking these classes just because history and technology are fun for me and love some of the projects people have proposed.

      Carl is right we need to be respectful and practice it in the classroom and in our web communities. I also apologize if I have gone off the deep end. Like Zayna, we all need to call time-out and ask for help or explanation when we don’t understand something, without fear of being thought stupid. We can’t afford to let these learning opportunities pass us by.

      • DeadGuyQuotes

        October 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm

        You calling me arrogant?!

        Now my feelings are hurt. BOTH of them. 🙂

        I hope that I am less arrogant than I am clumsy. But you are dead on it… we geeks get excited with new toys. It is a social dysfunction.

        — DGQ

      • lprice3

        October 5, 2009 at 10:37 pm

        “It’s usually not that we are trying to be arrogant (except in Carl’s case).” 🙂 I do enjoy – and get! – the humor in your blog posts!
        I’ve never found either of you, or anyone else in the class, to be arrogant.

  2. lprice3

    October 5, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Thanks, Zayna, for opening up this line of conversation, and also to DGQ for offering his perspective. This is a very important discussion because for many students, such an experience may not be isolated to the technical knowledge we are confronting in Clio.

    I too have had the same experience as Zayna with several blog discussions that were over my head. I confronted them in the way I confronted portions of Manovich’s work – appreciating the prose and comprehending that something important was being discussed, but only taking away from it a very superficial understanding. I came into this class feeling like I had some background in design and that it was to my benefit. I quickly realized that I was over my head and was certainly intimidated. Of course I never felt it was on purpose; as I know Zayna didn’t either.

    Asking educated questions in this context can also be difficult. My background in history affords me a solid foundation to work from – if I do not understand a particular concept, I can look back at what I DO know and ask questions accordingly. I have no such foundation for Clio. I have accepted that and moved forward accordingly, but as Zayna notes, it certainly has an impact on what I choose to blog about and what I choose not to discuss in class.

    I respect the opinions and knowledge of everyone in the class. I think this discussion hopefully will allow everyone to be more comfortable with the scholarly interchange regardless of our backgrounds or technical knowledge.


  3. colamaria

    October 5, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Great post! Good points, and made me laugh, too. In a good way, not AT you.

    Your sense of feeling lost in a world of techno-babble works in the opposite direction as well, like John mentioned above. My undergrad was engineering, and I worked in various technical fields for years, and often when I read works by historians who delve too deeply into theory or analogy, or quote some obscure work I’ve never even heard of, or use a ridiculous word when a regular one would do, I think “WTF is wrong with this person???”

    I think the issue is less about technical know-how, and more about plain old communication skills. Manovich, Foucault…I generally can’t stand what they’re saying, because they are unable to communicate on a basic and fundamental level in a way that people can easily understand. Great ideas get lost in a jumble of words. Technical people seem to be talking to each other, the same way that historians seem to be talking to each other. Often there seems to be an intentional exclusion of the average person, by both historians and techno-geeks.

    Can’t we all just get along?

    (disclaimer: my issues with communication aren’t with any of our bloggers, more the published material we read that often seems intentionally snooty)

    • theoldscholar

      October 6, 2009 at 4:06 am

      These are my feelings exactly. Many of the works we read turn me off because the author takes 30 words to say something that can be said in 3. They make obscure references and give you no clue where it came from. I think all fields come up with this jargon and the “inside knowledge” just to exclude others not in their field. That’s the way they feel important. My economics professor said that economics was just basic financial common sense surrounded by big words and incomprehensible theories to keep salaries high. Historians, on the other hand, seem to use incomprehensible theories to keep the salaries low. 🙂

  4. Zayna

    October 6, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Thank you all for commenting. This post is ENTIRELY about communication – the techno-speak is just an example of it. And, yes, historians are just as bad about overusing jargon as any other profession. The point I’m trying to make is that we need to feel comfortable enough with each other to both comment on blogs and speak up in class. When someone’s too intimidated to ask questions, we all lose out.

  5. gmucoxn

    October 6, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I’m in the same boat as you. I feel like I can be in over my head in this class as well. I’m just telling myself that by the end of class, I’ll have a better handle on things. So in December, I’m hoping not to be an expert, but to be on my way to proficiency. Computer-speak will only become more pervasive anyway in the future, so it’s good now that we are doing all this in a classroom setting instead of trying to play catch-up in 10 years, which you WILL have to do had you not taken this class and started now.

  6. stevieblaher

    October 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Zayna, you’ve brought up a great point. There have been many instances this semester where I’ve felt the need to just “smile and nod” at the readings or class discussion or blog posts because I simply had no clue what was going on. I’m definitely right with you when it comes to viewing the computer and related technologies as alien beings out to get us.

    However, since we are in a classroom setting (or at least in an educational atmosphere outside of the classroom) I think we’re all in “learning” mode. We’re all going to come away from this class having learned something and that includes from each other. That said, I doubt anyone would try to belittle anyone else for a lack of technical knowledge. We’ve got a pretty great group of people in our program with varied backgrounds and experiences. If anyone has a question for anyone else (whether it’s about technological or historical concepts) we should all feel free to ask the questions and get an honest, respectful answer. We’re all adults here and I think we can at least pretend to be mature.

    Given all that, I think it’s a natural problem that any “expert” runs into as far as using jargon too much. Whether it’s technology or history, when you’ve spent long enough studying it, it’s a language that you know—just as we know English or Spanish. Just last week I was discussing one of the readings for one of my classes with a friend of mine and after my little rant his only reaction was “Huh?” He wasn’t a historian (in fact, he’s not in any liberal art, he got a degree in science) so he had no clue what half of what I was saying meant. I didn’t even think about what I was saying since it made complete sense to me, but I had to translate into regular English so that he could understand. I think we all need to think about what we’re saying or blogging when it comes to this course. When you’ve written a blog, re-read it paying particular attention to how you word things. Think about whether or not it would make sense to someone with no real technological background and edit it accordingly.


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