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8: Field

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    A field is a group of people, the texts they write, and the things they do, to generate and circulate knowledge related to a particular idea or question. The concept of field reminds us that, especially in our public or professional lives, we almost always write and read in the context of other people, previous texts, and particular goals, and success typically requires familiarity with the way our field works. Learning how people in a chosen field communicate with each other is one of the purposes of attending college. 

    A field is not static. Even an expert in a particular field is never done learning: as new texts and practices emerge, and as people move in and out of a field, the nature of that field necessarily changes. Moreover, many fields overlap with each other, especially as people and texts and ideas move between and among fields. Networked communication today may increase the speed at which a field evolves, may facilitate access among fields, and may also blur the line between expert and amateur. 


    History of Fields 

    Even the most rudimentary texts can inaugurate a new field of study. Consider the Neolithic Revolution (900-700 BCE), when humans began cultivating plants and animals for food. This was a complex endeavor that required farmers to remember and convey large quantities of information. So Neolithic farmers invented pictograms (simple writing) that they used to count and measure their products. Then, something astounding happened: as farmers reread and analyzed their own records, they began to see larger patterns of success and failure. During droughts, some crops failed; in rainy seasons, certain plants thrived. 

    When farmers realized that their records held the key to deeper intellectual and practical knowledge, the field of agriculture was born. To identify important texts in our own field, we can begin by considering the simplest records all around us: the notes, logs, and instructions we use to track our own progress and plan our work. 

    But it would be difficult to make sense of all the ephemeral records without shared methods for systematic inquiry. By 300 BCE, agriculture had spawned so many fields of study that it would have been impossible for one person to become an expert in them all: botany, medicine, astronomy and meteorology, just to name a few. How could these fields coordinate their efforts to turn information into knowledge? Aristotle devoted his life to answering this question. Famously, Aristotle developed a taxonomy (classification system) that outlined how the fields fit together. But he also introduced a system of logic that allowed experts to reason from particular cases to universal principles, thus formally linking together practical and academic knowledge. 

    Of course, it would be very difficult to study hundreds of years’ worth of texts on one’s own. In the Medieval to Modern periods, the first institutions of higher education appeared to guide novices through the process of acquiring expertise. These early institutions prepared students for three main fields: medicine, theology and law. Because early universities had no meeting place or campus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the early university was made of texts. These texts included written texts described above, plus a new type of multimodal text we know as the lecture in which experts in a field discoursed with other experts and students. These lectures included plenty of back-and-forth interaction. No matter what field we belong to, we can identify the higher education requirements necessary to become an expert—and the interactive texts (like lectures) that guide and facilitate our reading. 


    Fields Today 

    Digital technology has transformed texts, the ways texts circulate, and therefore the ways members of a field communicate with each other. The field of music recording and production is an interesting example. In 2019 we interviewed two Columbia College Chicago musicians in order to get a sense of how people become members of contemporary fields, in this case music. Rocco Sabatino of punk band Bad Jokes and Dj Buschauer of “radioactive rock” band The Radiomen talked about their art, from composition, to recording, to distribution, to touring. Because the field has been transformed by digital technology, from accessible home equipment for writing and recording to circulation systems like Bandcamp, local music production isn’t as different from “the big leagues” as it used to be. 

    Sabatino and Buschauer shared an understanding of a Chicago scene supported technologically by social media collectives, such as a DIY Chicago Facebook group and the ChiVibe online community. They each discussed the value of live performing, where you share energy with audiences and peers. But a lot of their field work occurred electronically in the contemporary music field, where bands distribute songs, information, and promotion online instead of via the demo tapes and press kits of old (Sabatino; Buschauer). 

    So how does it begin? In the creative world of Bad Jokes, Sabatino and bandmates compose and record using the affordances of software and simple apps: “We all file share. We use Google Drive, Dropbox, and save ideas to phones, forwarding demos to each other.” Buschauer, too, discusses The Radiomen members recording lyrics and riffs on the voice memo app to send to each other: “You can create everything in one track from different rooms in different places,” adds Sabatino. Further, “You can have GarageBand going on your MacBook and have FaceTime open in another tab and be talking to the singer who’s giving you notes on what to do.” You don’t need to be in the same place to make a record. 

    When the time comes to circulate and market the songs, different online platforms come into play. While Spotify and iTunes are the go-to for audiences accessing new music, musicians often take advantage of a middleman. Sabatino also discussed the affordances of DistroKid, which is so helpful to local bands. He distinguished its affordances from those of Bandcamp: “We had this record, Too Fat to Skate, in Bandcamp, but no one really uses it unless you’re in music. The real thing that matters is how people can wake up in the morning and turn on Spotify to find Bad Jokes. DistroKid is simple—you send them artwork, songs, credits, legal stuff. We pay about $30 a year and they circulate it to Spotify and everything. They do it all at once. And they track your earnings.” The affordances of technology in this field include creating new markets that aid circulation and free up artistic time for musicians. 

    Sabatino and Buschauer were both well-versed in the current language of the field at that time. The nature and success of streaming, the common platforms and technologies, the money—all are factors that shape the field and thus their understanding of how to make work that circulates there. One can tell that local musicians have to become as smart about management and marketing as production and performing, all activities that involve different forms of writing.
    Some readers will be familiar with all of this, but to some it might shed light on specific technologies and methods that characterize the field of music around 2019, when these interviews were conducted. And we know music and marketing will change and evolve in the future; one thing participation in a field demands is staying abreast of the latest developments in professional practice. 

    Learning about the professional practices of their field has increased these musicians’ passion for their work. Sabatino stopped the interview to express concern for how we’d fit all he had to say into only one chapter: “There’s so much to talk about. You’re going to be hard pressed to narrow it down.” Buschauer also volunteered unsolicited follow-up interviews, knowing how extensive and expansive a conversation about the field of music would be. For all of their expertise in the field, Sabatino and Buschauer care most about the music itself and its effect on their audience.  


    Fields and Other Concepts 

    In this example, the concept of field can help us think about the difference between success and failure in one’s own profession, but the concept of field also helps us think about and evaluate the expertise of professionals in others’ fields. This assessment of others' credentials is especially important when we rely on these other professionals for our own professional (and other forms of) well-being. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, threw a powerful spotlight on the importance in our culture of the credentials of the field of medicine. The medical profession has a long tradition of rigorous higher education; one cannot enter the field without years of study. This education includes reading and spoken interaction to ensure that professionals correctly apply knowledge from texts to the practical problems of human illness. 

    Now, a new generation of patients enjoys unprecedented access to medical texts online. These texts include expert texts from PubMed, articles on WebMD written for laypeople, and patients’ experiences represented on online forums. Even before the pandemic unleashed a tsunami of medical discussion, from publications in scientific journals on the latest progress in vaccine research to dangerous misinformation circulated by scammers, most of us encountered this information through the common practice of Googling our symptoms. However, there were also more troubling phenomena. Television celebrity Jenny McCarthy, for example, drew public attention decrying the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, which she believes caused her son’s autism. Many concerned parents as a result rethought their own positions on childhood vaccination and its effects on child development, with potentially dangerous results. 

    As early as 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that spurious online information posed problems for doctors and patients (Jadad and Gagliardi 611-614). Patients have legitimate concerns about being able to understand discussions about their own health and health care, pointing to a need for the medical field to adopt some different rhetorical strategies for dealing with patients who bring their own reading and research to the exam room. But can public challenges to medical credentials, to the profession’s definition of its field, even harm our health? 

    Many would argue the pandemic produced devastating problems that emerged from the superficially harmless phenomenon of ordinary people discussing the work of a field of experts. Because of the widespread circulation online of unscientific individual opinions, patients are refusing life-saving medical aid such as vaccines. The digital revolution has shaken the core of the field of medicine, requiring doctors to reconsider how medical texts circulate and impact the spoken text of the doctor-patient relationship.  

    Fortunately, we can return to the key concept of field to evaluate the mélange of information we find online. Because we know fields are made of texts, we can begin with a commonsense assumption: texts within a field are probably more credible than texts outside it. To determine whether and to what extent a digital text situates itself within an established field of study, we need to ask three questions: 

    • Did the author draw on other texts in the field? 

    • Did the author use the field’s research methods? 

    • Did the author complete higher education in the field? 

    The concept of field not only helps us evaluate others’ texts, but it can also offer a powerful tool for motivating our own writing. Consider the way most high school students are taught to write. At the beginning of their first writing class in college, new college students feel most comfortable expressing personal opinions on topics like abortion and veganism. Then, when we are asked to write a college-level term paper for history or biology class, we suddenly face a type of writers’ block known as the blank screen problem. The first time we must write a paper on a topic we have no opinion about (cellular mitosis, for example), and it feels impossible to move forward, we stare at the blank computer screen; a blinking cursor stares back. 

    But the concept of field reassures us that we are not writing alone in a void. Thousands of scholars have produced texts on our subject, and we can stand on the shoulders of these giants to compose our own text: The term paper. In other words, we can solve the blank screen problem by writing with the field. We can do this by using the concept of kairos (seizing the opportune moment) to discover new motivations for writing—motivations that arise from an entire field of study instead of just our opinion. 

    How can the concepts of field and kairos solve the blank screen problem? Imagine a college student, Sharon, who is writing her first term paper for American history class. Right now, Sharon is staring at the blank screen in a panic; she has no paper topic or plan for writing. Remembering the concept of kairos, she decides to seize the opportune moment to write about something timely. Several films and videos have recently debuted depicting Black history during the antebellum period preceding the Civil War: Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave and The Story of Catcher Freeman, to name a few. Sharon knows these depictions are controversial, so she decides to seize the opportune moment (kairos) to research antebellum Black history. 

    At this point, Sharon has identified a topic but she has not developed her unique angle. A general paper on antebellum Black history would be uninteresting to historians, who have read much about this topic and may have even served as consultants on movies such as Django. To satisfy the history field’s exacting standards of kairos, Sharon must contribute a fresh insight to the conversation. 

    While researching credible sources on her topic, Sharon eventually notices that something is missing. There is much scholarship about nuclear family relationships in antebellum Black America, but little on extended family ties including grandparents and grandchildren (scholars refer to this as a “research gap” or “gap in the knowledge”). From her own experience, Sharon knows that these ties are critical to transmitting the family’s history to a new generation. Sharon decides to fill this important research gap by writing her paper about family ties between grandparents and grandchildren in antebellum Black America. What began as a blank page now represents a unique contribution to the field of history, albeit from an undergraduate’s perspective. After careful research, Sharon is ready to write. 


    Looking Ahead 

    Field is a concept that shapes your education, since your faculty and courses are organized by departments that are shaped by shared academic, creative, and professional fields. Courses offered by these departments not only convey information about the subject matter, but they also teach students how to participate in professional discourses, to adopt the perspectives, methods, and standards of the instructor’s field. The assumption that coursework confers expertise, and that expertise confers credibility, is a core value of academic fields. 

    When we study one field over a period of many years, we undergo the process of transitioning from novices to experts. This transition is a gradual one. In fact, as we gain expertise, we feel as though we are taking steps backward. For example, our confidence in our own knowledge often decreases as we gain expertise. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning 1121-34), and it helps explain why people with limited information leap to confident conclusions. Let’s return to our example of the medical profession to take a closer look. 

    Imagine a college student with a bad sore throat. As his illness progresses, he will likely Google his symptoms. When the student visits the campus health clinic the next day, he is convinced that he has strep throat based on information that he found on the Internet. However, the physician remains uncertain about what is causing the student’s illness and orders several tests. The college student and the doctor in this scenario demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger effect. A novice (college student) is quite confident in his knowledge, but the expert doctor’s years of study and practice have taught her that symptoms can be deceiving; many of the severe sore throats that she has treated have turned out to be caused by viruses. 

    If becoming an expert makes us less confident in our own knowledge, then how do we know that we are learning? As we gain expertise in our chosen field, we begin to notice aspects of our field that we may not have noticed when we were novices. These subtle shifts in perspective do not mean that we have become experts, but they are signs that knowledge is maturing into expertise. Not only can we recognize and celebrate these signs of progress, we can also cultivate these shifts in perspective through study and practice. 

    The first sign that we are developing expertise is that we begin to see our field as an assemblage of conversations, including unanswered questions, debates, discussions, and disagreements. When the physician treats a sore throat, she thinks of many debates with her colleagues (carried out through published research and in-person conversation) regarding when to suspect strep throat and whether to prescribe antibiotics. Second, we notice patterns in the way that the conversations in our field unfold. Certain key terms and texts (important books, articles, and other sources) keep coming up over and over. Listen to doctors talk to each other about treating patients with sore throats, and you are likely to hear about viruses and bacteria, the twin problems of overprescribing and antibiotic resistance, and the challenge of meeting patient expectations. See, for example, Butler et al., “Understanding the Culture of Prescribing: Qualitative Study of General Practitioners’ and Patients’ Perceptions of Antibiotics for Sore Throats” (637-42). These key terms provide threads of continuity as conversations about treating sore throats ebb and flow within the field of medicine. 

    Once we understand the key terms and texts that constitute the conversations in our field, we can begin contributing to those conversations. Conversations in a field are never settled once and for all, and new and novel contributions have the potential to shake up even the most timeworn conversations. For example, as recently as 2018, one medical study found that an anti-inflammatory spray can provide meaningful, lasting relief for viral sore throats (de Looze et al. 79-83). This study contributes to an ongoing debate about sore throats and the overprescription of antibiotics by identifying a non-antibiotic drug that doctors can prescribe to meet patients’ expectations for pain relief. As you pursue your own career goals, try to pay attention to the conversations around you: What key terms come up? What texts are considered authoritative? What open-ended questions seem left unanswered? By noticing the conversations that emerge, merge, and diverge around you, you will be able to build upon others’ insights, and contribute your own insights to the conversation. 


    Fields in AI-Assisted Writing 

    As we have noted with all the examples in this chapter, fields are in constant states of change, reacting to, adapting to, and sometimes even causing widespread cultural change. As we saw with the effects of the new degree of access to medical information online and non-professional’s skepticism of the field of medicine, the impact of digital technology, especially, on the practice of writing can be multifaceted, ambiguous, or ambivalent. 

    Such is the case with artificial intelligence (AI), where we are only beginning to witness and experience the effects it might have on writing, culture, and representation. The field of artificial intelligence has recently introduced changes to the practice of writing that pose significant challenges to the way fields have historically operated. Writers have traditionally established credibility in fields by learning, even internalizing, a field’s distinctive writing practices, from its core concepts to its central theories and debates, to its technical vocabulary, to its methods of using and acknowledging source material, to the relative prestige of its different venues for circulation

    The advent of recent developments in artificial intelligence that allow web applications like ChatGPT not only to use existing information to invent new texts but also to make texts automatically conform to the writing practices of specific fields means practices like conforming to a certain source citation style, like MLA Style in the humanities or Chicago Style in the social sciences, no longer warrants the author’s awareness of the field’s larger context. Since that entire process can now be automated with a new degree of effectiveness, since artificial intelligence can “learn” in seconds the rhetoric, vocabulary, and style of entire genres and fields in seconds, the kind of intellectual work that used to be considered the cost of entry into a field has shifted, if not decreased, in value. 

    In the field of law, for example, the ability to do the arduous work of researching and reviewing every example of case law relevant to a particular issue or argument, the ability to cite legal precedent for one’s opinions, has long been considered a cornerstone of legal expertise. Learning to do and to remember this research is a foundation of legal education, especially in the first years of law school. Artificial intelligence now has the capability to find this information and factor into its generation of text, leaving many lawyers wondering how their expertise will retain its value in the future. But there are serious risks if one depends on ChatGPT for these forms of expertise. 

    Indeed, the jury is still out on that question (pun intended). In May of 2023, lawyer Steven Schwartz, arguing a personal injury case in New York’s Southern District court, presented a brief to the judge that he was soon compelled to admit had been composed by ChatGPT (Bohannon). The judge, Kevin Castel, said he immediately recognized that much of the case law cited in the brief was entirely fictional (Maruf). What lawyer Schwartz did not know is that ChatGPT does not simply cite existing examples, but invents new ones that sound relevant and plausible, that conform to the discourse and the standards of the field of legal writing even though they are made up. That mistake cost lawyer Schwartz $5,000 and a formal sanction for the court, and notoriety in the international news that will likely have significant impact on his standing in his field (Mangan). There are similar examples from the sciences, where credible-sounding research cited in a paper was, in fact, made up by ChatGPT and did not exist—at all. 

    Perhaps researchers will be able to refine artificial intelligence so that it can restrict itself to existing cases and produce more credible briefs. Perhaps attorneys will learn to craft more sophisticated AI queries to produce preliminary drafts they will then refine. Perhaps courts will attempt to develop sophisticated AI detection tools to better police the boundaries of their field. Perhaps fields will de-emphasize rituals of inclusion or exclusion like citation styles or the memorization of huge amounts of core information and re-emphasize that critical knowledge of a field’s core information is the ultimate determiner of one’s validity in a specific field. A combination of some or all of these possibilities, plus many other unanticipated changes, is entirely likely, but fields, having adapted to every technological change since the birth of agriculture, are likely to find ways to adapt and endure. But perhaps it’s best to gain one’s expertise and credibility in what we might call more traditional ways. 


    Fields in 3D Printing 

    Fields are one example of our culture’s systems of division and classification. Technological advances (like AI) can destabilize an individual field’s understanding of itself, but it can also call into question systems of categorization themselves. 3D printing, a phenomenon like AI that is becoming more widespread and more integrated into the operation of daily life than most of us understand, may be one such disruptive technology. The familiar cultural and economic ecosystem of manufacturing, for example, tends to treat design, production, and distribution as separate phases of a larger integrated process. 3D printing, however, allows the designer access to and control over the production process in ways that do not conform to long-standing assumptions about the roles of individuals, fields, and whole sectors of society are divided.   

    How will our understanding of fields change in a culture and society in which the route from imaginative thought to written expression to production of material objects as a result is different than it has been before, crossing the boundaries of fields and of types of fields—our old distinction between white-collar fields that focus on ideas and blue-collar fields that focus on things—in new and different ways? 


    Writing with a Field 

    Writing with a field is not an all-or-nothing process. As we progress through higher education, we gradually begin to write less from our individual perspective and more from the perspective of our chosen field of study. Writers at any level can take advantage of the affordances that fields offer to writers: a well-defined set of topics to write about, a wealth of expert texts on the topic, and clues to interesting new topics to explore (i.e., the “research gap” described above). We can begin to write in a field by asking ourselves questions like these: 

    • What’s the official name of my field? Or: What field is this class about? 

    • What are the boundaries of my field? 

    • What are the central texts that make up my field? 

    • What current world events or problems involve this field? 

    • What’s missing when I explore scholarly sources in this field? What research would I like to see that is not there? 

    • What genres do experts use to circulate ideas within this field? 

    • What rules do these genres have for writing with alphabetic text and images and

    • arranging ideas? Am I required to follow these rules when writing for this course? 

    • When I have learned to write with my field, what new ideas of my own do I hope to circulate

    To return to the blank screen problem, consider this: Most first-year college students can expect to spend some time feeling mocked by a blinking cursor. As we encounter different fields of study and interact with the texts that constitute them, our ideas begin to push the cursor along—transforming the once-blank screen into a sphere of interest, inquiry and action. 

    As noted above, the COVID-19 crisis starkly revealed the ways in which a field can be an active part of public discourse, as public health professionals aced the challenge of circulating critically important but often highly field-specific information to the public in an atmosphere of skepticism, debate, and malicious dis- and mis-information. Public health communication from the pandemic provides complicated examples of how the same information can be presented in multiple ways by and for divergent fields. 

    In July of 2020, the premier scientific journal Nature published an article titled “ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 Vaccine Prevents SARS-CoV-2 Pneumonia in Rhesus Macaques,” announcing major successes in the testing of AstraZeneca’s experimental COVID-19 vaccines on primates (van Doremalen, Neeltje et al.). Similar information, with discussion of its implications for the larger vaccine development process, was announced by the US government’s National Institutes for Health in an August 2020 press release for science journalists (“Phase 3 Clinical Testing”); journalists reported the news in an August 31, 2020 CNN report (Kane); the same vaccine development process was subsequently tweeted about by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, promoting the British origins of Astra Zeneca and much of the laboratory research (@BorisJohnson). Comparing and contrasting the use of alphabetic text, the affordances of images and other media in the texts, the different ways ethos is constructed for different readerships, the specific ways sources are used and acknowledged, can help us see how awareness of field prompts attention to multiple critical decisions about writing, broadly conceived. Writers can then gather examples of different kinds of texts about their own topics to help them understand the different fields that are stakeholders to the cultural conversations they want to participate in and the writerly decisions that must be made to best reach those fields. In every case, writers should ask these key questions about field: “To whom am I writing,” “what is the best, credible evidence I can find to support my points,” and “what do I expect my audience to do with this information?” 


     Works Cited

    Bohannon, Molly. “Lawyer Used ChatGPT In Court—And Cited Fake Cases. A Judge Is Considering Sanctions.” Forbes, 8 June 2023,  

    @BorisJohnson. “Incredibly exciting news the Oxford vaccine has proved so effective in trials. There are still further safety checks ahead, but these are fantastic results. Well done to our brilliant scientists at @UniofOxford & @AstraZeneca, and all who volunteered in the trials.” Twitter, 23 Nov. 2020, 1:45 a.m., 

    Buschauer, Dj. Personal interview. 2019. 

    Butler, Christopher C., et al. “Understanding the Culture of Prescribing: Qualitative Study of General Practitioners’ and Patients’ Perceptions of Antibiotics for Sore Throats.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 317, no 7159, 1998, pp. 637-642. content/317/7159/637. 

    de Looze, Ferdinandus et al. “Meaningful relief with flurbiprofen 8.75 mg spray in patients with sore throat due to upper respiratory tract infection.” Pain management, vol. 8, no. 2, 2018, 79-83. doi:10.2217/pmt-2017-0100 

    Jadad, Alehandro, and Anna Gagliardi. “Rating health information on the Internet: navigating to knowledge or to Babel?” JAMA, vol. 279, no. 8, 1998, pp.611-14. doi:10.1001/jama.279.8.611. 

    Kane, Andrea. “AstraZeneca says it will ‘follow the science’ as it enters Phase 3 trials in the US.” CNN, 31 August 2020, 

    Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, 1999, pp. 1121-34. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. 

    Mangan, Dan. “Judge sanctions lawyers for brief written by A.I. with fake citations.” CNBC, 22 June 2023, 

    Maruf, Ramishah. “Lawyer apologizes for fake court citations from ChatGPT.” CNN, 28 May 2023, 

    “Phase 3 Clinical Testing in the US of AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate Begins.” NIH, 31 August 2020, Phase 3 Clinical Testing []

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