The Knowledge Gap

Posted by: | March 30, 2007 | 12 Comments

I don’t want to draw attention away from the post below. Read it, too. But that’s why I’ve hidden this one behind a jump. But don’t let that stop you from reading this one, either. Read it all! Just remember there’s two new posts tonight. We’re busy.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the Ubyssey. But in a way it is. See some people, including Gina, have taken the Ubyssey to task for what they see as shoddy reporting on campus affairs. My opinion is slightly different. Would I prefer them to be a more campus-centered paper? Of course – if they don’t, who else will? (I draw a distinction, though, between covering AMS minutiae and campus affairs; the latter are important, the former far less so.)

But my issue with the Ubyssey isn’t really an issue about the Ubyssey, it’s about the campus political machinery as a whole. However, I’ll use the paper as an example. See it’s my sense that those who write the paper don’t have enough of a knowledge base to adequately cover what’s important – heck, they don’t have enough knowledge to know what’s important in the first place. It’s really hard to cover, say, the development of a new campus plan or the OCP, MCP, MOU, or amendments thereto without already knowing what all those are, what they mean, and how they inter-relate.

Now be honest – who here actually knows what they all mean? My guess is there’s maybe ten students who do.

Let’s be clear – I don’t fault them. It’s a very rational ignorance. The required information is very high-cost – it takes significant energy to educate yourself to even the baseline degree necessary to understand these things. And to someone who’s a student, has a zillion other things, it’s just not worth it. It really isn’t.

I also don’t think it’s just the Ubyssey. I think the vast majority of the student political world is the same way. The vast majority don’t have the baseline understanding of how development politics work – they just don’t like big buildings. Most don’t understand the budgetary process or Policy 72, but don’t like when tuition goes up. Again, I don’t fault this (much).

Why? Because nobody’s taken the time to educate them. This information is very high-cost, relatively inaccessible. To get all the background info is difficult enough – to synthesize it into accessible forms without dumbing it down is a challenge unto itself. We’re all students with lots on our plates.

So what’s the solution? It’s for those who know the stuff to get out there, spread the word. Produce the one-sheets, the backgrounders, make sure there’s a baseline level of knowledge that’s far more broad than the AMS executive offices. (Don’t think all student politicians have this. Far from it.) There’s so much knowledge and information tucked away in our brains, and it’s just going to waste up there. Also, don’t assume our constituents (and readers) don’t care. They do – nobody’s just ever told them why these things are important. (“They spend your fees” doesn’t make the AMS important, by the way… get a better answer.)

My humble suggestion: if you’re rich in knowledge, spread it far and wide, and don’t chide those whose knowledge level isn’t up to yours. And if your knowledge level ain’t so great, listen and learn from those who’ve done the legwork. Ask! There’s a good chance they’re willing to talk.


12 Comments so far

  1. Gina Eom on March 30, 2007 6:47 am

    Hey Tim, I agree with the general message here, but I have to raise a few nuances.

    Individuals have different baseline aptitutes for learning.

    Just look at how Maayan just came out of nowhere and is now already far more versed in university issues than say, a journalist who has been trying to report on it for months or heck, even years.

    There is no homogeneity in capability that constitutes individuals, nor is there a guaranteed baseline of competence merely drawn through university admission.

    Some people are just not very good at understanding things. And no matter how many meetings you set up to explain it to them, or to spoon feed it in pallatable bits, I am unsure if some cases can be salvaged.

    /disheartenment out

  2. Tim Louman-Gardiner on March 30, 2007 6:55 am

    Maayan’s more versed in this stuff than most student politicians, too. She’s a bit of a freak (in the best possible way).

    Your point on peoples’ ability it digest information is well-taken. Some people can digest it well, some can’t. I find it hard to criticize someone who tries, though.

  3. Paul on March 30, 2007 7:41 am

    You’re definitely on the right track Tim. One of the unfortunate things about having editors (usually) switch every year is that they leave right about the time they start figuring things out. I’m sure it’s similar to what AMS execs experience. Just when you’ve built up some contacts, know what all those acronyms mean, bam! year’s over and someone else comes in armed only with a transition report.

    It really sucks.

  4. Tim Louman-Gardiner on March 30, 2007 7:53 am


    Yep. And even the most thorough transition would be of no help, because it would be too long, dense, and do nothing to remedy the cost of information.

    And re: editors, it’s hard to know what’s important, what’s consequential, if nobody tells you. Which is why there’s a significant reliance on UBC public affairs for the “researcher of the week” stories. The knowledge curve is steeeeeep.

    Maybe an informal beer-y meeting with some AMS types, not to take over, but for mutual education, at the beginning of a term?

    And again, I add that I’m not just talking about the Ubyssey here. Sure this is a response to that conversation, but it applies to the entire student political world. And much as you folks might like to claim otherwise, you’re part of the complex, like it or not ;-)

  5. Gina Eom on March 30, 2007 8:02 am

    One of the unfortunate things about having editors (usually) switch every year is that they leave right about the time they start figuring things out.

    I’m confused Paul. I was under the impression that before becoming editor you’re expected to volunteer for the paper for at least a year during which you could take some time to dapple with university issues.

  6. Maayan Kreitzman on March 30, 2007 8:38 am

    Freak or no freak, I don’t find this alleged knowledge gap debilitating. Tim is absoloutly right: the most efficient way to learn things is by listening to people that know things- whether they know you are listening or not. Sponge-like. And, well, after hanging about for a small while, connecting your reading to a face to a policy to an overheard convesation isn’t so hard.
    I think that some people do have an annoying compunction about “giving out” the order – and that’s really what this type of information is, an ordered system of stories that makes sense – they have bought so dearly through their experience, research , and relationships. That’s why people like Darren are so incredibly valuable – they simply spill information freely to anyone who takes the interest and asks a few non-imbecilic questions.
    Simple backgrounders and summaries could be great (though google is your friend for that type of thing too): even getting a vaugue feel for something allows the person to understand much more when they come across another reference, or a more recent tidbit, or a more in-depth document.
    So should the AMS, or the university be taking upon itself to make a short primer of current issues? How is a seed of rudimentary knowledge to be disseminated?
    Personally, I think it ties into the media culture on capus more than the behavior of it’s leadership or government (though there has to be the connection somewhere). I think that what VFM started, and what VFM in future years will continue to generate is a larger and more powerful media culture on capus. At Wednesday’s AMS meeting Matt spoke of encouraging VFM entries to begin their coverage early in order to broaden their range of coverage beyond just elections. This is the key: over the course of some years, VFM contestants that stick around (like us!) will have formed a good profile of established but innovative blogs, papers and (I hope!) audio media. These will promote a culture of sharing – especially if the people running these media are a mix of “invoolved” and other people. That’s because the urge to uncover things when you have somewhere to write about it is rather strong – and if you have all sorts of juicy knowledge just waiting to have the cloth whipped off it with an iron-chef flourish, some good write-ups will materialize quite readily, I suspect. So to all you retired and tired hacks – many people can learn from all the baggage you’ve accumulated. Getting other stakeholders appart from students involved in the media culture is important too. Professors and others have perpectives to offer that may alleviate the depressing narcissism many of the undergrad-type papers suffer from.
    For AMS issues, I think updating the goddamn meeting minutes more often would be a bloody start…no, I won’t go off.

    Basically, I think that as a vital, interactive, “uncovering” media culture is created, students will realize it and use it. And, (not to be patting this blog on the back toooo much, or anything) with VFM, I think that’s the direction we’re going.

  7. Paul on March 30, 2007 10:36 am

    Gina –

    Yes, almost all editors have extensively volunteered for the paper. But does being an arts rep make for a seemless transition to VP external? You know how to write stories as a volunteer, but you don’t know how to find out about them (usually the editor would assign them to you – but that’s you now).

  8. Tim Louman-Gardiner on March 30, 2007 5:30 pm

    Paul, that analogy is spot-on.

  9. Spencer on March 30, 2007 6:49 pm

    Definitely something to include in the AMS Communications Strategy.

  10. Paul on March 30, 2007 7:06 pm

    Well actually, it’s more of a problem with regards to University officials than the AMS. We built up some contacts pretty quick with students; it was trying to get someone inside the VP finance office, for example, to let us know what was going at the University level, that was the problem.

  11. Gavin on March 31, 2007 8:50 pm


    “Let’s be clear – I don’t fault them. It’s a very rational ignorance. The required information is very high-cost – it takes significant energy to educate yourself to even the baseline degree necessary to understand these things. And to someone who’s a student, has a zillion other things, it’s just not worth it. It really isn’t.”

    This is highly accurate, and I would say the question of how to inform people adequately to engage effectively in governance and planning processes is much larger than just UBC.

    And I’ll go further than that and make the not very original point that something like facebook makes a huge difference on this front, as a somewhat unintentional example of the burgeoning potential of e-citizenship. What more logical way is there to reduce the transaction costs of gaining knowledge and contributing to dialogues? What makes more sense as a mechanism of distributed governance (or lobbying, or activism) than, say, a wiki-based, highly hyperlinked knowledge base generated by a linked in social network?

    In the “Building a Culture of Engagement” campus planning policy document we submitted to the university during my term, there was a substantial push to use the power of new media to engage the campus. Quietly, a lot of it has been implemented wholesale. I would argue that, albeit imperfectly, the Campus Plan process has made substantial strides in the direction of e-consultation, dragging certain departments kicking and screaming into the late 1990s. It’s just a matter of taking it as far as it needs to go to really make a difference, which requires education decision-makers who, with all due respect, haven’t evolved past email.

  12. alougheed on April 2, 2007 6:49 am

    I remember when I first joined AMS council as a widen-eyed newbie I was overwhelmed and confused. I had studied Sheldon’s “AMS Councillor handbook” (complete with poem) rather thoroughly but it didn’t help when acronyms were being thrown around left and right, and when the history of funds and things weren’t made explicit. I remember meeting up with Spencer Keys, former AMS President (note: history to the name), after my first AMS council meeting or two and he asked “how did you find it?” and I remember answering along the lines of “flustering”. It took a couple of months before I started noticing how to get things done.

    As Mayaan has brought up here and in dialogues about SUS council, it is important to preface discussions with some history and overview, so those behind the information barrier can at least be given a chance to catch up and make more than just decisions, but informed ones.

    Also, we should pressure Peets to write a book.

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