Community of Trains, vol. 5

I began this series struck by the proposition made by the book The Knowledge Illusion. In this book, the authors, Sloman and Fernbach, claim that thought (as in thinking) is not exclusively an internal process. Our minds are hardwired to mine for information outside of our own heads, and they do so with such efficiency that we are weak to understand (or attribute) the extent to which our thoughts and ideas are actually communal.

And I thought, in what sense are our ideas about trains and modeling communal?

In each blog, I have set out to investigate various ends of this question, and regardless of my musings, there is one incontrovertible conclusion: If the scientists Sloman and Fernbach are right, then there is correspondence between the quality of our ideas and the quality of our community.

Think about the implications of that statement. "There is correspondence between the quality of our ideas and the quality of our community." This is a significant observation. How does one unpack a statement like that?

How does one break from the academics of this statement and understand it in practical terms? Or in other words, in what ways is your thinking about trains better because of your modeling community? According to Sloman and Fernbach, it can be outside of our ability to know because of how our minds are wired.  

The notion that the quality of our ideas are better when we are citizens of better modeling communities invites an questions about how to have better communities. And, it feels appropriate to end the blog series by saying something to this end. That said, the more time I spend on that thought, the more I feel disinclined to write anything because I feel overwhelmed by my inability to say anything meaningful. Either, what I write is a tautology--which means that a statement is true by form (like 'we need better communities!), or it is pedantic, or it is a platitude. And, it almost always reveals that I am wholly unqualified to be writing about what makes communities better. (Social scientists everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief!)

The truth is, communities are complex, and if Sloman and Fernbach are right, we may be physiologically unable to see all the paths by which we are interdependent. But for what it is worth, I believe that the social enterprises that undergird our interactions in this hobby are contributors to the state of the hobby itself.

So, how is your thinking about trains different because of your modeling community?

If approached from this side, it may be difficult to say--and that is Sloman and Fernbach's point. However, we can work the question from the other direction, as in what is your community? If our communities promote an awareness of and respect for the prototype, if they encourage the development of new skills, and they reveal new points of view, then we may presume that our thoughts are influenced in these directions. These are the seas into which our minds cast its net. The correlation is such that there is an implication. We grow in the direction of our communities. So really, if we want to know how our thinking about trains is better is influenced by our communities, all we really need to ask is 'what is our community?'

So, I am doing something.

Up until last year, there is no railroad prototype modeling meet in the Intermountain area--despite being an area with a lot of people and strong modeling contingent. Odd, right? So, I have taken the lead in organizing a meet for the Intermountain west. The event is called Mountain States RPM. In case you are in the area, it is this Saturday (September 9th) at the Roundhouse & Machine Shop in Evanston, WY.  [Insert comments about shameless plug here, see Facebook page, etc.]

My hope is to create a space where there are numerous touch points to connect people vis-a'-vis relevant, content-driven interactions. Model railroading is a sophisticated hobby. Our interests as participants are diverse. Thus far, the response has me optimistic.  

Blaine Hadfield


5 Responses

Ricky Keil
Ricky Keil

September 12, 2017

I like the idea of Communities of Practice, I think we see it more often than we realize. From my own personal experience, Free-mo has both forced me and encouraged me to be a better modeler. We learn and conform because of the national standard and then from the local groups we are affiliated. However, when we have larger setups with multiple groups, like the one in conjunction with the Mountain States RPM, it exposes us to even more ideas and different approaches and ways to think about common and not so common problems or challenges. Expanding out into the greater model train community, we see many sub-groups. Whether separated by scale, era or prototype versus tinplate, each community has its own practices and I might add, biases. However, at the edges of each of these communities, you find people learning from each other and then taking those lessons, sometimes at risk of ridicule and rejection, into the heart of those communities. It goes even outside of model railroading, how many have admired and copied the techniques of the military modelers and their ability to create a sense of realism with their finishing and weathering techniques. I am definitely analog versus digital in my learning. I absorb much better when something is demonstrated to me and I can interact with the author. Reading or watching videos seems to only get me part way there, but the critical interaction between modelers is what has helped me and events like RPMs, Free-mo setups and other clinics have help spread practices and updated techniques that help us flourish.

loren casey
loren casey

September 09, 2017

I see a straight, simple confirmation of this community principle. Attendence at RPM meets/identifying yourself as an RPM type person. Without RPM type people, this entire wave of more prototype modeling, and hence, higher standards on rolling stock/scenery/operations/control systems might well never have happened. Perhaps Exactrail,et al, would not exist except for Joe D’elia and others who started the RPM movement 25-30 years ago. Granted exceptional modelers always existed, look at the NMRA national convention entries back through history. However, that level of modeling was generally not attainable for the masses. Breaking down the NMRA structure/pedestal was the primary focus of the early RPMers IIRC. That was the genesis of this community. I wouldn’t have such high standards(and subsequent paralysis of most projects…sigh) if I didn’t identify with the many other like minded individuals who aren’t really individuals any more. Thoughts?

Ramon Lewis
Ramon Lewis

September 06, 2017

“However, I believe the motivational driving forces that create the community must be built upon personal relationships and the strength of said relationships.” I agree with Matt’s statement. At university I am exploring “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) concept as introduced by Wenger and Lave in 1991, principally in education and gaming environments BUT I can see aspects in which our modelling community can fall within these patterns. A definition for CoPs: “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. Reading through Wengers writings, he brings up competences and how they are increased at the community level through social interactions (social learning) with members gaining identity through their membership of that CoP. In our Modeling Community there are many CoPs with members interacting at various dynamic levels of participation, with many being in more than one CoP. For example a competency may be as simple as creating realistic ballast through multiple processes, with these processes being disseminated through the community while being evaluated and bettered. Essentially I believe for our Modelling Community to flourish we need a welcoming social community, willing to investigate all areas of the community’s competences and share that information whether it be brand new, historic, or traditional. So to everyone enjoy our hobby and be open to pass ideas around and participate even if it only a little.

Matt Martin
Matt Martin

September 06, 2017

I would tend to argue that the community is only as strong as the participants willingness to build a community therein. The lack of effort, laziness, or whatever you may like to call it could detract from what we perceive as a potentially strong community. Case in point, I see you have invited several big names such as Spring Creek to the Intermountain RPM meet. What motivating factors drive people like Dave and Deb to attend such shows? Certainly the first answer is most likely to be monetary, that is intrinsic. However, I believe the motivational driving forces that create the community must be built upon personal relationships and the strength of said relationships. Without them your community falters and falls apart, the willingness of the community to give is no longer there. Your gift to our modeling community has been significant in impact in a myriad of ways just through your employer alone. Adding to that now, are the RPM meets, informational exchanges, and willingness to not just participate, but to also be at the forefront of the hobby’s community involvement. So the question I have for you; What intrinsic motivations drive your community involvement?

Brian Holtz
Brian Holtz

September 06, 2017

Hopefully the railroad community has answers to better replicate railroad history in our Modeling. For example your 4750 Magor covered hopper for Western Pacific. Where were they assigned?and where were they most frequently shipped?and via which routes?

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