Sift and Winnow....and a Few Other Steps

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)


“Sifting and winnowing,” a phrase originating from a university committee’s defense of a late 19th century professor who held views at odds with a key state political figure (, has become a common piece of academic vernacular.  The literal meaning of the words “sift” and “winnow” don’t need defining, but in the context of higher education, they have come to symbolize the pursuit of knowledge.  Perhaps because I am an institutional descendent of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the infamous case of Professor Richard Ely was heard, I’ve come across this phrase countless times. I’ve often wondered, though, whether it really captures what it has come to represent in academia. It seems to me that it stops a little short.


Sifting and winnowing has perhaps never been more critical in academia given the virtual tsunami of information and resources now available on any topic, no matter how granular.  When I attend to a course that I am updating or creating for the first time, I search my institution’s library for peer-reviewed material on each topic to be covered, seek advice from colleagues who have relevant expertise, and also turn to the internet.  There are many high quality non-peer-reviewed resources available that are worth considering as teaching tools.  I still must judge for myself the accuracy and legitimacy of each resource.  This step is likely implicit in the process of winnowing, but it is worth being explicit about it in today’s wild west of information.  It can sometimes be tricky to determine the original sources of information presented as factual, or sort out objective kernels of information from ones that are derived from a personal or political agenda.  Critical consumption is necessary to verify such content. 


At this point, I am left with a smaller pool of potential teaching resources.  I’ve sifted, winnowed, and verified.  For any given topic, I select one or more items to work with, and begin the process of re-working and adapting the material to meet the needs of my particular group of students or professional audience.  My objective is to improve upon these existing resources by integrating information across them and from my own knowledge base.  Much like the process of developing a research paper, I credit the authors of the original resources, and attempt to add further value to the topic at hand.  Hopefully, my contributions enhance the knowledge base. 


Finally, I need to consider how to impart the enhanced information to its intended audience.  Should this knowledge be delivered orally? In bulleted lists on a set of lecture slides? With a graphical representation?  A case study? Should I consider an assignment that guides students toward self-discovery of the core concepts?  What is the most effective mode of delivery—In person? On-line? Written material?  A video clip? This ultimate transfer or sharing of knowledge is arguably the central mission of a college instructor.   It is also a critical step in the pursuit of knowledge, since shared information begets additional thoughts, criticisms, and ideas. 


Sifting, winnowing, verifying, enhancing, and transferring information doesn’t roll of the tongue as easily as the original phrase, but I think it may capture the pursuit of knowledge more completely and accurately.  Attending to each step is necessary because knowledge is neither static nor perfect.   We should never be complacent with what we currently “know.”  The pursuit of knowledge requires continuous effort to not only challenge the status quo, but also to communicate new thoughts and questions to students, professional peers, and the general public, who in turn will raise new thoughts and questions.  This process, in its entirety, is what the pursuit of knowledge is really about.

First published on LinkedIn on June 20, 2016:

Image: © NatashaBreen

Sky blue backdrop with flecks of white powder