Trying to stay ahead of the demand

It has been a very busy couple of weeks. We had family in town for a week, then of course there's the daily Henry maintenance. On top of that, I have some outstanding committee work to do and several research projects: an article, a book proposal, a book review, and an article proposal. I'll be lucky to get even half of those done, I imagine.

Then we leave to see my family in a few weeks. Henry's first plane ride...any suggestions? Is the pressure going to make him miserable with ear pain?

Off the subject, but it's been on my mind: Andrea Lunsford said, in 2005 I believe, that research is needed about the concept of "common knowledge." This was at the IP Caucus meeting, by the way. She's right, of course; common knowledge is a nebulous concept in classroom practice. I'm wondering, if you were to do a research project on this topic, how would you start, assuming your goal is to historicize this concept? I can think of two ways, neither of which may be very good:

1. Search JSTOR for "common knowledge" in quotes

2. Find all the composition textbooks you can get your hands on, locate the section on plagiarism in each one, and see if there's a reference to common knowledge.

One goal would be to see if common knowledge is defined in any other way besides the following:

1. The magic number 3: if you find a piece of information in at least three of your sources, you may consider it common knowledge and not cite it.

2. By contrastive example (I admit I do this in my own teaching): Some examples of common knowledge that you wouldn't need to cite are a.) Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; b.) the key to losing weight is to eat foods low in fat and calories and to exercise; c.) breast milk contains the mother's antibodies, which can help keep a child from getting sick. An example of something that is not common knowledge would be: Congolese diamond miners who were banished from Angola are dying from and spreading yellow fever. Obviously I got that somewhere specific.


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"common knowledge"

This is a great topic because students are very confused. For example, in an intermediate argument class at Oregon State, I told a student he had to identify Daniel Pearl. The student said that was common knowledge, so I asked the class for a show of hands. No one else had ever heard of Daniel Pearl, which also shows that "common knowledge" is audience specific. What's common knowledge for biochemists is not necessarily common for rhetoricians. What's common in Oregon might not be common in Louisiana! The "3 sources" rule seems problematic because it depends on which 3 sources would be satisfactory.

Even with a "common knowledge" event, there can be elements that require citation. Students are not expected to cite the event of 9/11, but if they mention the number of deaths or the names of the alleged pilots, I think they should cite that.

Please let us know how your project develops.

Sara Jameson

Common Knowledge

2 Board Alley
Sara, I find myself nodding to your comments. I wonder if common knowledge really only exists within a stable (for whatever reason--I'm not attributing values to stability)community and if the notion of "commonality" isn't far more flexible than we were ever taught (I'm a product of the sixties and seventies middle class).

Common knowledge

In my classes, I present common knowledge as knowledge that is commonly available, not necessarily that is commonly known. The example I give most often is that Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Not many people actually have those dates memorized, but nearly anyone could find the information in a standard reference work.

That's why the magic number 3 rule works. Just because you find something in three sources doesn't mean it's commonly known. It does mean your audience has a reasonable chance of finding it even if you don't cite it (and the purpose of citing it, I assume, is to help them find it).

I'm wondering, however, if the Internet changes this definition. When Daniel Pearl's name was first commonly known by an audience of journalists, it wouldn't have been found in a standard reference work such as an encyclopedia. It would, however, have been very easy to find on Google. It's possible for a fact to be available in seconds even if it's been published in only one source anywhere. It's a fact, for example, that you have mentioned Congolese diamond miners in your blog. That fact exists in only one place in the world, so far as I know. Yet anyone with access to Google can find it as quickly as their typing speed and Internet connection will allow.

My feeling is that we should stick with the traditional definitions of common knowledge (and I realize I haven't offered any input on how to determine what those definitions are), but be alert for changes in the definition based on new research methods. People (even professional scholars) may start to wonder why they need to cite something that can be found in seconds online.

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