Ran across this presentation on the front page of Slideshare today. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the application of Long Tail thinking to being an educator and a Political Scientist lately, and also what it means for political activism and campaigns. This is one reason why I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan – to think through the implications of what John Robb has referred to as the Gaussian-Paretian Thinking Debate.
At any rate, I find this presentation on “Fuzzy Tail” thinking to be a nice corollary to The Long Tail. The university is still operating on a 19th century model of how to organize knowledge, which was reinforced by a drive for a certification process beginning in the late 19th-early 20th century. This is old thinking, a vestigial stump about as valuable as an appendix, I think. David Weinberg’s excellent Everything is Miscellaneous really illuminates why we may not need to break things down in such a fashion anymore, so long as we pay careful attention to the metadata.
And if disciplinarity is breaking down, then the importance of becoming a generalist, especially one practicing what Dan Pink would call “whole-minded thinking,” becomes ever more important. I’ve tried to practice this in my own career, moving from Ph.D. student who skirted the research-activism border to Research Director at a university research center, to applied work at an economic development non-profit, and now back to a college Lecturer. In my teaching I’ve tried to “acquire” a variety of courses (American Government, Intro to Political Theory, Kentucky Politics, Appalachian Politics, Culture and Politics in the Third World, and soon American Political Thought) which may seem to be disconnected on the surface and structure them so that if you take all of these courses with me, they add up to a larger line of inquiry and thought. Even moreso within the classes I teach, I’ve tried to blur methodological and epistemological boundaries – using odd research techniques, critical sources, non-traditional texts (online readings, comic books, now video games) to really shake up what it means to be a student of politics. In a sense, acting as a multi-disciplinary/multi-media Political Scientist helping his students to prepare for a post-Political Science/post-disciplinary world. but it can be tough to build the future in a structure overdetermined by the past. However, this is the call of Long Tail, and “Fuzzy Tail” thinking.
Isn’t that what being an engaged academic is all about? Not political indoctrination or careerism, but building the intellectual infrastructure of the future and watching what patterns emerge?