Whatever happened to expertise?

Your friend read your essay. So what?


Photo by Jerry Bunkers on Flickr

Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur argues, as I gather, that the internet, far from being a wonderland of information and perspective, has become a overgrown garden filled with the weeds of foolishness and ignorance.

In short, he contends, expertise no longer means anything.

His thesis came back to me this week because of two strangely similar incidents. For a professor, there’s nothing strange about talking to students and learning that they’ve gone off track on an assignment. But this week I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern that Keen may wish to know about.

One student pleaded with me not to be too harsh with her plagiarized essay because, she said, she had asked a friend about it, and her friend told her that she didn’t have to cite her source as long as she changed some of the words. Her friend was wrong.

Another student’s mother called me up to say that her son was very upset at the grade he received, especially since he had asked “someone he knew” to proofread it and that person said it was fine. Someone he knew was wrong.

My fear is that this is just the beginning, and what I’m seeing is the first wave of students for whom expertise means nothing.

Though I have always resisted the notion that new technologies necessarily and fundamentally change the way we think, I can’t help wondering whether this trend is the fruit of the socially-networked world of the internet. In a world where Google searches routinely direct us to Wikipedia or other sites where the content is user-generated, students have become used to the notion that answers are all around us. If you want to know, you ask around, and it doesn’t matter who answers.

Thus the student who is unsure about a source or about whether an essay is on the right track or not doesn’t go the Writing Centre (even though a friendly staff expert visited the class and handed out her card) He doesn’t even consult the professor. Instead, he just asks his roommate and goes from there. It doesn’t occur to him that his roommate may not have any idea what he’s talking about.

If I’m right, the ramifications for university studies are sobering. After all, the best thing about university education is that students are brought into direct contact with scholars actively working with the things they are teaching. If you don’t care that your class is being taught by an expert in your field, if you don’t go to her office to ask questions, if you don’t engage in conversation after the class, you’re missing the best part.

When I heard Keen’s argument, I paid little attention. After all, surely people will still be able to tell what is the informed comment of those who know and what is not.

Now I’m not so sure.


Whatever happened to expertise?

  1. I definitely see this happening, too. In significant part, universities have become consumer-driven credential factories, with an emphasis on “the customer is always right.” Student careerists view professors as mere functionaries or as quaint relics of guidance and authority (and something utterly enigmatic called “the life of the mind”). The traditional place of the professor is fading fast. The professor is now often viewed as “just another guy in the room,” not much better or more important than anyone else. The presumption in our favour is giving way to “crowdsourced truth/value.” Consider the low or non-existent level of attention that so many students will demonstrate in class if permitted to Facebook etc. — even though they pay hefty tuition fees for the privilege of attending university knowing that we hold their cherished credential in our hands. You’d think that such a big investment of dollars and years would generate keen focus and serious cultivation. I figure that student careerists and some other types treat professors as they do their overly permissive parents — as pushovers who should simply give the squeaky wheel the grease. Aspiration, not just crude ambition? Standards? Bah!

  2. Once a person gets a bad mark because some friend failed to properly edit his/her essay, I am pretty sure he/she will think twice next time a friend offers council. It is natural that the first thing a student tries is the easy solution. Best lessons are learned from our own failures. Personally, the writing centre at my university is less convenient than asking my husband to read my essay, and the latter method proved itself to be very effective. One just has to find the method that works.

  3. This is spot on. I see it all the time; I always encourage and even bash on about seeing me or TAs for help. No one comes to office hours and no one asks for help. Then 10% of the class plagiarise and offer similar excuses to that furnished here, or, worse, try and blame teacher/TA for ‘not helping them.’

  4. In municipal Ottawa a mix of
    1:greed for the local wealth which is derived from national debt, and
    2:bovine stupidity excluding/erasing intelligence and hence the manslaughter of mathematicians (RIP Hobson, Kroeker, Tyas et al)and
    3: the complicity or related media CBC/TVOntario, Ottawa Citizen etc
    lead to
    a: potential recoveries of $7.3 billions from thieves.
    b: Potential annual savings of $28 billions by closing the corrupt and the useless,
    c: the growing per capita birth-right debt of $50,000 for a new-born Ontarian
    Arnold Guetta, mathematician in Ottawa Centre

  5. At my University (Newcastle Au) we were made to take an Academic Integrity module that tought us the different ways you could inadvertently plagiarise work. On top of that all work was submitted via a system called turn it in that would scan your work and compare to work turned in via other universities, published works and also the internet. You would then get a score indicating how much of your work was similar to that of others. It quickly tought you what was expected of you and the standard of the work you were expected to submit. In a world of instant answers via mobile technology it is easy to understand why the youth struggle to comprehend what is actually involved in getting work published. In the world of the typical Y genner, a facebook profile constitutes a published work LOL :)

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