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Online journal offers 'report on knowledge'

From the Feb. 13, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

The second issue of an online journal that aims to “reassert the value of critical insight and the role of public knowledge” has been published by a group of faculty members and graduate students at Princeton.

Volume 1, Number 2 of the Princeton Report on Knowledge features pieces ranging from an interview with President Shirley M. Tilghman on new initiatives in teaching at Princeton to a forum with two emeritus professors on the ends and means of pedagogy.

The first issue of the Princeton Report on Knowledge went live last spring. The editors intend to publish quarterly, highlighting “timely knowledge, expertise and insights arrived at through interactions at Princeton University,” according to the Web site.

John Borneman, professor of anthropology, said the idea sprung from a conversation with Gyan Prakash, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, and graduate student Leo Coleman about the need to share knowledge across disciplines. “We [also] wanted to alert intellectually oriented alumni to critical insights and ideas circulating presently at Princeton, since most alumni with whom we come into contact often hear only uncritical praise of Princeton professors without understanding how our disciplines are changing — topics, approaches, theories, etc., are all in flux,” said Borneman, who serves as executive editor of the journal with Prakash. Coleman and several other graduate students work as student editors.

The group collectively decides on themes and format, and then seeks individuals on campus and visitors who can address the themes. The editors also consider unsolicited submissions. “We are not replicating academic formats (from journals or public debates), but disseminate these contributions by means of short interviews, intensive forums, Q&As and reports,” Borneman said.

The first issue focused on elections and featured a piece on the concept of moral authority by classics professor Josiah Ober; an interview with novelist Salman Rushdie that included commentary on U.S. elections; and a debate among four Princeton faculty members on whether elections and democracy operate similarly across cultural contexts.

The second issue, published in late December, has “101” as its theme. It is intended to “survey the contemporary status of basic knowledge.”

“From outside the academy, there is an actual assault on knowledge, which is paradoxically twofold: objective knowledge in the natural sciences is undermined by proponents of a new ‘scientific relativism’ (as in debates on global warming and intelligent design), while knowledge in the humanities is mocked for the indeterminacy and openness of its interpretations,” according to the editors’ statement on the site. “Social sciences, situated between (and sometimes among) these two disciplinary poles, find themselves with declining enrollment (in disciplines like sociology), along with a general lack of enthusiasm for explanation, and a popular turn to belief and conviction over a rigorous evaluation of evidence.

“Such uncertainty affects how we teach,” the editors write. “We are forced to rethink how students should be introduced into particular fields of knowledge and what, exactly, they should be taught.”

Besides the Tilghman interview and the forum with emeritus professors Hildred Geertz and George Kateb, the issue includes a Q&A with physics professor William Bialek on a new introductory course that integrates chemistry, physics, molecular biology and computer science. In addition, recent campus visitor Chibli Mallat, a law professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut and human rights lawyer who has declared his candidacy for the presidency of Lebanon, discusses whether academics can apply their skills meaningfully in the political arena.

The graduate student editors for the publication come from a spectrum of disciplines, including anthropology, history, politics, physics and Near Eastern studies. They are responsible for generating ideas, soliciting submissions and editing. For the second issue, they also collectively wrote, along with executive editors, a piece on the role and transmission of basic knowledge in undergraduate and graduate education at Princeton.

“Working on P-ROK has provided an opportunity for me to communicate, or seek to communicate, at the limits of my training (as an anthropologist),” Coleman said. “Editorial work, I have learned, is very different from the process of developing a research project of one’s own — it requires a wider grasp and engages one’s curiosity in unexpected ways. It is important to note, however, that our contributors speak from positions of great authority and learning, and we aim to provide a place where that learning is valued; while the work of a graduate editor is necessarily interdisciplinary, the product reflects deep disciplinary roots.”

Other editors for the second issue were graduate students Gretchen Boger, Chris Darnton and Gasper Tkacik and former graduate student Mona Zaki.

So far, the response to the journal has been largely positive, Borneman said, and letters to the editor will be published in forthcoming issues. He has received letters from on-campus and off-campus readers alike, including inquiries from several alumni who wish to publish findings.

“People outside the campus in particular appreciate that we are taking knowledge seriously and yet without reverence, and try to transmit it without jargon or disciplinary barriers,” he said.

The journal received seed money from the Council for the Humanities and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. Kamilla and John Hurley, a 1986 alumnus from San Francisco, have provided funds to support the journal for the next two years.

The editors are considering several themes for forthcoming issues of the Princeton Report on Knowledge, including the effect on truth when knowledge is “spun” and what defines today’s foremost insecurities.

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