Leading Scholars on Confronting Categorisation
With Julia Bullard, Patrick Moran, Kerry Wilbur, Leah Macfadyen, and Muhammed Abdul-Mageed.
This year’s group of Leading Scholars have set about tackling some difficult questions in their series on Challenging Differences. Following Hannah McGregor’s talk on Podcasting as Feminist Method, the second talk in the series confronted categories, their strengths and weaknesses, their usefulness alongside their inadequacies.
The hosting scholars came from diverse academic backgrounds, and each one explored the ways in which categories can help as well as hinder their own research areas. Patrick Moran raised questions about the anachronistic application of modern categories to the study of medieval manuscripts. Using the eleventh-century Song of Roland, Patrick explained the insufficiencies of categories when it comes to comparing manuscript differences.
In more modern scholarship, Kerry Wilbur expressed frustration over the conversion of students into numbers for their assessment in healthcare programs. How does one create a grading rubric for communication and compassions? And why do we keep trying? The inevitable cognitive biases of markers leads to inconsistent, and unconstructive, categorisations.
Leah Macfadyen then discussed the risks of collecting and using data on individual students. Data is often simplistic, static; it is often historic or outdated and thus incomplete. Learner identities and competencies are in constant flux, but a reliance on data categories does not take this into account.
Muhammad Abdul-Mageed transitioned into the topic of machines and categories and the various biological inspirations behind recent technical advances. Muhammad raised many questions: With such rapidly changing technological environments, how do we evolve our categories to fit? How do we categorise art that has been partially computer-generated? How would we begin to categorise the ‘living machine’ that was made recently using frog DNA and artificial intelligence?
Led by Julia Bullard, the questions delved into whether categories even exist. The general consensus said no, but that they nonetheless seem to be a fundamental part of human existence. Categorisation is subjective, as are categories, because they come from human thought. This should make us humble and remind us of our limitations. We live under a nomothetic fallacy, a belief that naming something solves its problems, but we should be more critical about the way that we categorise.
The talk closed on an important and thought-provoking note that exposed fully the problem with categories: is a hotdog a sandwich?
Mairi Stirling Hill
Department of English Language and Literature, UBC