Keeper of The Flame, Alive or Dead

I have previously written about how challenging it can be to make a contribution to Wikipedia in an area where someone knows much more about the subject. Certain editors assume the role of particularly vigilant gatekeepers. For example, try to make any comment about Van Morrison and you are faced with Agadant, who assumes the appearance of knowing more about Van Morrison than most, and has little apparent interest, from his or her contribution history, in writing much about anyone or anything else. I was caught in the Agadant gate when trying to make some contributions in relation to Them, the band that initially brought Morrison to fame.

In July of 2004, the Ottawa Bluesfest held “Gram Parsons Day” . (I know, what “blues” in Bluesfest here…) Featured were Bernie Leadon, Herb Pedersen and Chris Hillman, all of whom had been instrumental in developing country-rock music–Hillman in particular. It was Hillman, along with remaining Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn, who brought Gram Parsons into the group and then produced the seminal Sweetheart of The Rodeo album in 1968. Another person appearing was Sid Griffin. He spent his time lecturing the audience on the significance of Gram Parsons, in a tone that assumed that he knew more than most about the life and times of Parsons. He had written a book, contributed liner notes and produced a television special on Parsons. My impression at the time was that Griffin had defined his life through Parsons. The audience became quite restless at being treated in such a pendantic manner. While there are apparent fanatics on Wikipedia in terms of knowledge of Parsons’ life and legacy, they appear to operate more collectively, as may be evident here .

As it later turned out, Chris Hillman had reconsidered performing that day, because he was becoming increasingly irritated with this musical godlike quality being accorded to Parsons, while Hillman’s own pivotal contributions to country-rock music were often overlooked. “Gram Parsons Day” didn’t enhance Hillman’s motivation to perform.

In music and in other areas of knowledge, people will often define themselves as being THE expert; no one can possibly know more. Academics are prone to this, be they musicologists, art historians or otherwise. Some disciplines seem to be more fluid–finance and accounting come to mind–where it seems impossible to be an expert on anything, since the more one knows, the more one appreciates how much one does not know. How can one ever isolate particular accounting information as determinative of an investment decision? Expertise is impossible, in such circumstances.

Matters are no less fluid in areas of history or biography. In addition, to define oneself as an expert on Van Morrison or an expert on Gram Parsons shortchanges one’s knowledge of potential interrelationships, such as any relationship or influence between Van Morrison and Gram Parsons.

Perhaps this is why one appreciates a larger personality in journalists who, while they may be experts in particular areas of research and reporting, are constantly moving onto another story, the framing of which involves a new lens. Journalists generally do not publicly assert expertise in anything, other than perhaps journalism.

Assuming a role as a gatekeeper of knowledge seems to be largely self-limiting and self-defeating. It can also be misleading, as I found when I went to Sid Griffin’s website. He turns out to be much more than Gram Parson’s hagiographer, though one wouldn’t have known this at the Ottawa Bluesfest six years ago.

About brucelarochelle
This entry was posted in Communication of Knowledge, Community of Scholars, Music, Wikipedia. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Keeper of The Flame, Alive or Dead

  1. How do we professors demonstrate our expertise to others? We are professional gatekeepers, and one of our major roles is gatekeeping. We ensure that those admitted to the sacred circle are at least moderately qualified. So, how do I show someone that I am knowledgeable and worthy to be considered to have an expert opinion? I think experts are required to criticize. How do I show that I have an opinion worth listening to unless I criticize the last guy who offered his opinion? If I say, “Oh yah, that’s good, I’m OK with that”, people are apt to think I wasn’t listening, or have nothing worthwhile to contribute.

    I once submitted an article for evaluation to a prominent Canadian journal (the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences). Eventually I heard from the editor that he had to send the paper to a third referee because one of the original two had blown off the work and produced a totally worthless evaluation. Eventually the third ref approved and I got copies of all three reviews. The one whose work had been judged worthless had simply said that it was a good paper and should be published. His/her replacement had more or less agreed (though sometimes its hard to tell in amongst the criticisms that they really do agree) but had included a long list of required make-work. So, I learn from this that simply approving someone else’s effort is unacceptable, for someone supposedly expert in the same area.

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