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24.9.02

They say that having something in writing makes it more official and authoritative. But I'm finding the opposite to be true in my History of Geographic Thought class. Prof. Turner has written a number of articles on the topic, and several of them are on our reading list. I've found that his ideas about the history of geography are easier to question when I read them than when he says them.

Part of it may be his personality. He's got that self-assured Texan attitude that makes it hard to disagree with him when he says things in class. Whereas reading his ideas gives you time to sit back and think, and formulate a critique. But I think there's more to it than that -- Prof. Peletz had a very different, much less forceful, persona and yet I found myself implicitly agreeing with his in-class assessments of the topic while being intensely critical of his book. Academia (particularly at higher levels) trains us to look at the scholarly literature as parts of a debate, open to question and playing off against one another. Reduced to paper, Prof. Turner is just another voice in the conversation, another viewpoint to look at. But in class, a professor takes on some of the role of a mentor. He comes with an agenda of what students should learn from the class, and students look to him to provide that expertise.

It goes beyond the difference between "teacher" and "researcher" roles, though. I think the internet may have gotten us used to investing less authority in the written word. Things that are written seem sort of shouted into the abyss, put up for readers to look at and choose from. But speaking is more personal. The message is targeted at a particular person, and the connection that establishes -- the trust implied in the act of exchange, rather than leaving something to be picked up by someone else -- invests the message with a kind of authority that writing has lost.

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