Textbook Definitions: Activating the Categories of an Expert’s Mind

Posted on September 2, 2012 by


Watched the Indian classic 3 Idiots a few weeks ago.

Thinking about one scene where the main protagonist, “Rancho”, gives a simple definition of a machine with examples from real life.

The professor chides him for that explanation. In contrast, the professor celebrates a definition given by another student who gives a spot-on “textbook”, complex, definition of a machine.

Rancho goes on to demonstrate the absurdity of the proposition of expecting textbook definitions in ordinary life.

I’d been thinking a lot about textbooks, infrastructures, and categories, particularly Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker’s work from 1999.

They’d laid out the proposition that, categorizing or labeling something in a category, usually means “putting that something into an infrastructure or algorithm.”  By putting something into an infrastructure or algorithm, you supply a way or manner to respond to that something.

For example, in Mexico, you might label a slow reader a “burro.” By labelling them a ‘burro’, that means you put them into the slow-reading class, and respond to that individual as you would other slow-readers in that group.

The student in the video above by using, a combination of nouns not readily used in ordinary life, seemed to give the professor more categories to respond to.  It stimulated the professor’s imagination and encompassed the breadth and depth of machines.  

In comparison, the protagonist Rancho’s definition, didn’t do much but explain to the common person.

It highlights this reality:  Expert knowledge and language is perceived to be > applied knowledge and common vernacular language, still.

Still trying to figure out why that is.