Are Professors “Scribes?” I think therefore I’m not…

In a recent blog post, Stevie Rocco wrote that “Professor X is a scribe.”  She wrote that as part of a larger conversation which grew from a critique of Cole Camplese’s presentation at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tech Forum and his defense, and I encourage you all to go read the post.

In reading her post, however, I find that while I agree that when it comes to “how” content is delivered a “professor is a scribe” may be correct, I believe that is unfortunately a rather narrow view of the role of the professor.

Back when the printing presses were gaining ascendancy, they replaced the scribe, because they were doing what the scribe was doing–copying someone’s words for others to read.  Scribes had to be worried, since printing presses ostensibly would make fewer *random* errors than scribes would. (That said, the printing presses could easily replicate the same error by the hundreds, and now millions.)

The people who at the time should have (and probably were) most excited by this revolution were the authors.  Those people who spent time thinking, researching, and writing the texts that were now being made available at a far faster rate.

Professors are not mere scribes.  Professors are experts in their field of study, who are contributing to that body of knowledge through that research, and then share that “research informed knowledge” with the world.  One way they share that knowledge is through publications, another through presentations and talks, and finally (and perhaps most importantly) professors share it by educating the next generation.

So professors are not scribes.

Who should be worried that they can be considered scribes?  Instructors.  Those people hired to teach materials developed by someone else, without having a rigorous, peer reviewed research stream of their own.  They are simply vessels through which others speak.  THAT can be easily replaced by well-designed technology.

That said, professors are certainly worried.  Rightly so.  Not that they will be replaced, but that people seem to think they can be.

As I have written before, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Andrew Keen‘s book “Cult of the Amateur.”  He argues that experts are essentially being pushed out of the arena and replaced by those whom I will call the “dabblers.”  These are people that some would say “know enough to be dangerous” but are not well-versed in the detailed specifics to be experts, and therefore unable to deal with the nuances.  In fact professors, as an integral part of their earning their terminal degree, learn the research methods necessary to truly understand the data they are viewing.  Regardless of whether one is a Hebrew Literature scholar or a theoretical physicist, the opinions of the Professor are informed by their understanding of how to interpret their data. Without such a background all interpretations are considered valid, and truth becomes subjective.

I am anything but a technophobe, but I am concerned that, as we start touting the role of youtube, facebook, twitter, and Wikipedia as ways for students to share their knowledge about materials, we fail the students.  We allow them to elevate their views, their perspectives, and their understanding of the material while simultaneously dev0lving the role of professor as mentor, guide and expert.

Let’s all work to enable better ways of helping students grasp material, but please, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that professors are “just scribes.”


2 thoughts on “Are Professors “Scribes?” I think therefore I’m not…

  1. The domain “professors” includes a lot of “scribes;” but not all professors are scribes . . .

    It has to do with the definition of “Research.”

    A. Collection and processing of existing knowledge

    B. Discovery/creation of new knowledge

    [Many would argue that A is not “research” at all; that things like advocacy, staff work, etc. fit “A” but do not actually generate any “new knowledge.”]

    Research Definition A: Includes Scribery
    Research Definition B: Does Not Include Mere Scribery

    So, yes, a whole lot of professors (and not for nothin- what’s your definition of “Professor?”) are happily scribing away . . .

    Steve Swartz

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