Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Learning the Thing in Itself

A connection with Regnery Publishing isn’t the only thing that brings Ben Domenech and David Horowitz together: Neither has a clear understanding of what it means to do the real work on a topic before publication.

In Domenech’s case, this led to his use of the words of others. For Horowitz, it leads to acceptance of simplistic cut-and-paste as research.

A decade ago, in his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (New York: Pantheon, 1996), James Fallows wrote about the star journalists who “parachute” in for an interview as the capstone of a story. By doing so, they miss:

a reporter’s immersion in new information that will shape his views. Through the process of listening, learning, testing assumptions, and letting themselves be surprised by new evidence, reporters decide what they think is true enough to write.[…] The star journalist who is working from briefing papers and a set of proposed questions is an actor rather than a real interrogator. He lacks the background to ask the right follow-up question or to recognize when the person being interviewed has said something surprising and new. (58)

Both Domenech and Horowitz want that “star” position and, like so many today, both expect others to do the real work for them—Domenech just taking that work without attribution and Horowitz merely creating a slap-dash collage and calling it serious research. Neither understands the point Fallows is trying to make, that one has to immerse oneself in a topic, study it, and live with it, if one is going to write about it with any real understanding.

Many of the pieces that Domenech plagiarized in are film reviews. Having written a book on home viewing of movies, I know something about the topic of film. While preparing the book, I watched many hundreds of DVDs and even went so far as to buy a 16mm projector and start collecting the short films marketed for home viewing starting even before the advent of sound. Oh, and I read, and read, and read about film. This, on top of decades as a movie buff and collector of videotapes. At the end of it all, even after I had finished my book, I had more confidence in defining what I don’t know about movies than what I do--but I had learned a great deal, and did feel that I had become a real expert in my target area. Even so, I would not now be willing to set out as a movie review on any but the most amateur level: There are so many films of the last decade I would need to see first, and so many reviewers I would have to read.

In a rush to further his career (rather than his knowledge), that’s what Domenech, apparently, did not do: immerse himself in his subject matter until he had enough confidence to write about something he really did know. Instead, he wanted to simply be that star journalist who gets the recognition while others have done the work. So, he considered the writings of others simply as the “briefing papers” Fallows refers to—perhaps even seeing what he did as something not that far removed from what Mike Wallace has been doing for decades.

In a rush to further his political agenda (rather than his or anyone’s knowledge), that’s what Horowitz, certainly, did not do: immerse himself in his subject matter until he had enough knowledge, up close and personal, to write from a position of real knowledge. There’s no sign in his book The Professors that he examined the syllabi of the professors under question to really determine whether they are indoctrinating or teaching. There are no interviews done by Horowitz or his staff with colleagues of the professors. There was no attempt to survey students who had taken their courses. In other words, there was no real research at all (Horowitz’s disingenuous claim to “prosopography” notwithstanding).

Here again, I can speak ‘from the belly of the beast,’ having dived back in to academia recently, making a new career for myself after more than a decade as a shopkeeper. Contemporary American academia is complex and frustrating, with any number of problems that need solving. Making judgments about it from far outside, however (as Horowitz does), isn’t going to help, for the view is distorted. Horowitz makes decisions about academia through a fog of other people’s words, not through real knowledge.

Sometimes, it is necessary to do that (which is the purpose of “prosopography”—not that Horowitz even is really using that technique), but it is a poor substitute for direct, hands-on examination. The thing is, it takes time to really learn a subject. I have been back in academia only five years now, and am just beginning to feel I have a real handle on its contemporary situations. Horowitz “parachutes” in for lectures, talks to a few right-wing students, leaves, and claims that, somehow, he has gained real insight.

What both Domenech and Horowitz are doing is taking shortcuts so that they can achieve some other goal—fame and achievement of political agendas. Like so many of us, now, they aren’t at all interested in the process, in the hard work that goes into really learning about something. Real research, real learning, requires something else: to come to know a field, one needs to concentrate on it, not on what one can get by using it.

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