K is for Knowledge
Illustration: Amanda Woodward
When a student stumps me with a question in class, I've taken to defending my ignorance by explaining, "I'm a profess-or, not a know-er." I think the line is my own, but it may also be from an old episode of The Simpsons, today's number one cause of cryptomnesia.
Knowledge has been on my mind a lot lately. Much of the fall term was spent working on a team grant application in which terms like "knowledge mobilization" and "knowledge impacts" figured prominently. Because I don't tend to use language like this every day - "I'm off to spread knowledge, honey!" - I'll admit to considering these as buzzwords at first. But they soon had the desired effect of having me actually think about how our project would mobilize knowledge, what its impact could be. It also got me thinking about how I teach.
Part of me still subscribes to the quantity theory of education: throw as much as you can at students, because you can never be sure what will stick. We've all had the experience of talking to old students and being amazed when what they remember is an exchange, an aside, an anecdote that we had completely forgotten. We never know exactly what will fire our students' synapses. So in lectures in particular I offer plenty of examples, repeat myself, provide lists, repeat myself. And I get good teaching evaluations in these courses, because that's the way students want to be lectured to: they want to be able to understand what the professor believes is important and they want to be able to take notes. And I can hardly blame them.
Yet I think of an experience early in my career. I developed an environmental history lecture course for science students, and though it seemed like they were fully engaged and asking good questions, halfway through the term it became clear that there was considerable bewilderment about history as a discipline and what was expected of them. The following year, I did a much better job of laying things out in the syllabus and the opening classes - and the course didn't go nearly as well. Throwing the students into the deep end and having them flail around had forced them to think more.
In their 2000 book The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid distinguish usefully between "information" and "knowledge." Information is mobile, self-sufficient, self-contained. Knowledge, on the other hand, is much more difficult to convey because it cannot be separated from the individual who possesses it. The authors argue that even in this digital age there is no evidence that "information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people." Knowledge continues to demand the full involvement of knowers.
The Social Life of Information doesn't speak solely to educators, but it has much to say to us. Too often in teaching, we are content imparting information, hoping that somewhere in the process this will transmogrify into knowledge. But knowledge doesn't work like that. It involves, above all, the involvement of the person learning. If we want our students to understand our discipline, we have to do more than talk about it; we have to engage them in its practice. "[T]alk without the work, communication without practice is if not unintelligible, at least unusable."
I'm working to incorporate such ideas into my teaching. Last year, I revamped a 300-level seminar course so that the second half of every three-hour class was devoted to working with the students on their final essays, all which were on the same general topic of the environmental history of the Klondike Gold Rush. We attended a computer lab to do online research together, we talked about writing, we even spent time just sitting around the seminar table reading books, throwing out questions or comments as they came up. I took to thinking of the day in which this class met as Take Your Student to Work Day. But I still haven't really figured out how to incorporate such practices into my lecturing.
Back to my grant application. It's my practice not to let students know what's going on in my life, believing that (in the best possible sense) it's none of their business: they should feel free to knock on my door or ask anything of me without worrying that I'm too busy. But this past fall students could hardly miss that I was running around madly, weeping immoderately. My graduate public history class responded by taking the reins on their group project, a museum exhibit on technological development. The results were first-rate and included some features, like a 3-D exhibit mock-up, which were entirely their own initiative (see their work yourself, at www.invention2innovation.ca).
Ironically, I was so busy writing about knowledge impacts that my students demanded more of themselves than they might have otherwise, with a resulting knowledge impact. Whaddya know.
Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario.