The Academic Community

If you are reading this book while enrolled in college, you are already a member of an academic community. What, you may ask, is the big deal? I'm in school, I'm studying, taking tests, writing papers, and getting grades—as I've done since first grade. What's the difference? Well, this time there may be a difference that could influence everything you write. Let's look at the nature of a college academic community.

College and university communities were established to study something called the truth. Each discipline pursues, investigates, and teaches some small part of it: the sciences investigate what is true about the natural world, the social sciences the social world, the humanities the individual world, the arts the aesthetic world, and so on. Of course, truth is seldom packaged in tight disciplinary units, so understanding something fully often requires the crossing of disciplinary lines. The most extreme case may be the study of literature, in which to understand what is true about a single novel by Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf you may need to know some history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, economics, and/or politics. In some cases, new hybrid disciplines have been created at the juncture where one pursuit of truth meets another—for example, biochemistry, psycholinguistics, and social anthropology.

To establish truth about the physical world, scientists have developed a particular way of asking questions and looking for answers which is called "the scientific method." Finding out biological or chemical truth requires similar methods but different tools. Those who investigate the social world—sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, geographers, and anthropologists—have, in many instances, adopted the scientist's methodologies. They often find that the social world is even harder to pin down for examination than even the most distant star or complex microorganism.

To establish truth in the so-called humanistic world, humanists—philosophers, literary scholars, and historians—have developed a potpourri of investigative methods, ranging from the scientific to the imaginative and intuitive. In contrast, practitioners of the arts—musicians, composers, poets, novelists, playwrights, directors, actors, painters, sculptors, and dancers—do their best to escape classification of any kind. Neat disciplinary categories become increasingly messy when you realize that historians study social behavior but are usually called humanists, and that psychologists, who study individual behavior, are usually called social scientists, as are the geographers who study the physical space of the earth.

Furthermore, the professional schools of business, law, education, agriculture, health, natural resources, and engineering have put together their own specialized programs to train people to do certain highly specialized work in the larger community. As part of the process of training, these schools require at least an introductory-level knowledge of the different disciplines.

Despite these differences, many fields of study make assumptions about teaching, learning, and knowledge that have more in common than not—which is why we can even talk about the academic community as an entity. In fact, if you look at the modes of establishing truth in disciplines as different as history and physics, you may be more surprised by the assumptions on which they agree than those on which they differ. For example, both historians and physicists depend heavily on close observation for the accumulation of facts on which to make generalizations, which they then try to disprove. Biologists and English teachers, too, may have more in common than meets the casual eye.

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