Thursday, February 24, 2011

Information Versus Facts

Passion, Provocation and Meaning or Information?

This comes from a conversation I’ve had recently with a colleague as well as time spent planning some training for docents at my own institution. The question has come up in two very different settings, but similar contexts. Locally, a docent who is a college student has decided not to attend interpretive training, telling her supervisor that she has some experience with interpretation and knows what themes are, because they are the same as thesis statements. For one of my colleagues, training that she had planned is being resisted by some whale guides who seem to do a great job with facts, but provide no meaning, no connection between the tangible facts and intangible meanings.

Freeman Tilden, in Interpreting Our Heritage, makes a clear distinction between information and interpretation:

Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

So if interpretation isn’t the same as interpretation, what’s the difference? What in the heck does ‘revelation’ mean? Facts are things like weight, height, year, acre-feet, and age. By themselves, I think they mean nothing except as a description. Interpretation provides (or can lead to) meaning, context, relevance, and a passionate reaction by the audience. This, of course, ties in with another of Tilden’s principles:

The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Facts don’t provoke; they are either filed away or quickly forgotten. I have a theory that is half in jest, half serious. I really don’t feel the need to memorize facts. Facts can be found in books. If I memorize them, then the purpose of the book has been wasted, and trees have been harvested for nothing. On the other hand, I realize that I’ve collected thousands of facts over the years. I use them in my work and my life to make points. By giving them context and meaning, I’m using facts to create interpretation.

My colleague’s conversation with the whale guide included a comment from a visitor that she “likes facts.” Good for her, but so what? I think that as a society we tend to gravitate toward stats and superlatives. Biggest, smallest, most expensive, oldest, etc. all are interesting in the same way that we glance at tabloids in the supermarket checkout line. For most of us, they are just curiosities that are chuckled over and quickly forgotten. Facts really don’t mean much without context, and by focusing on superlatives, I think that we’re sort of creating a freak show in our heads.

There are several similar acronyms used to describe Interpretation: EROT (Enthusiastic, Relevant, Organized, Thematic) and POETRY (Personal, Organized, Enthusiastic, Thematic, Relevant, and it’s all up to You) are the two I run across most often. Key to these memory aids is the mention of relevance. I’m sorry to tell you if you haven’t realized it, but mere facts don’t have real meaning unless they are relevant to our audiences, and a fact dump just won’t do that. There may be a short term head nod, a quick “wow!” but there will be little or no retention or impact on our audience’s lives, which is a darned shame.

For the college student who believes that themes and thesis statements are identical, she’s close but not quite on the mark. I think that technically she might be right, at least as to the mechanics of a theme. To quickly review, a theme is a single sentence that expresses what we want our audience to know at the end of an interpretive presentation of some sort. They differ from topics in that they are expressed as sentences, and indicate context and meaning, not just a subject or topics. Here’s a topic:

Transcontinental Railroad

And here’s a theme:

Construction of the transcontinental railroad connected California and the West to the rest of the United States.

It’s a theme that could also be a thesis statement. It’s accurate, but kind of weak. It’s not compelling; it doesn’t cause the reader to think “okay, tell me more.” How about:

Construction of the transcontinental railroad made it logically possible for people to travel quickly across the continent, reuniting families, creating vast new business opportunities, and allowing California’s rich agricultural lands to feed a growing nation.

Now I’m interested! How were families reunited? Long distance travel was now much faster and less expensive. Men who had come west during the Gold Rush could now return home to see families that they had left behind. Families could come west to be reunited with their father. Extended family groups could come together, or even visit each other, going back and forth.
Manufacturers of machines and tools in the East now had new markets in the west. Fast and inexpensive freight allowed manufacturers to grow larger and develop economies of scale, to build huge factories served by rail lines, and quickly and easily ship their products across the continent to many users. This, in turn, sped up development in the West.

Fast shipping allowed agricultural crops, most notably fruit, to be shipped from California across the country. People who had never seen an orange could now get them inexpensively. By opening these larger markets, agriculture literally bloomed in the Central Valley of California, as well as across the prairie.

My second theme has much more depth. It’s provocative, contains some teasers, and contains three related concepts that all spring from one idea. This is quite different from a thesis statement used academically, even if it might technically meet the form.

For the two situations with people who don’t (or don’t want to) know the very real and important difference between interpretation and information or fact dumping, this might be a function of fear, or disinterest, or a fundamental misunderstanding of what Interpretation does for people and society. Maybe this is a symptom of a struggle in my profession as an Interpreter. We’ve never done as good of a job as I hope we would do with justifying our profession, and perhaps if we did, it would be simpler for people to understand the difference between Interpretation and information. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it’s a very important question.