Sunday, June 7, 2015

Nobody knows it all. Except the idiot in the room.

Originally I was planning to write a 'starting out' blog, as most of these will be roughly chronological, but I was thinking a lot this week about the idea that 'everyone knows that' being particularly prevalent in Academic worlds...

The ideas in this blog really apply to all stages of a PhD/Academic life/Life in general. The basis of this being; you don't know until you know. That is the idea that we don't all know everything at any point, but in academia we constantly fear that we should/everyone else does.

1. The most obvious things are only obvious once you know.
2. Sometimes you only know when someone tells you.
3. Someone else's 'vital information' is redundant to someone else.
4. Nobody, I mean nobody knows it all (no matter what they think)

Written down that looks obvious. But thinking about it in an academic context (and drawing on a couple of experiences) that isn't always the case.

1.  The most obvious things are only obvious once you know. 

This is true in academic research as well as broader academic life. What's 'obvious' at the end of the whole PhD or even just a short piece of research isn't going to be obvious at the start. It's obvious that 2 follows 3 but you didn't know that until someone taught you. The same goes for your research. Don't let more experienced academics or other PhD-ers bring you down with your so-called 'ignorance'. We've all traveled different academic paths to get here, and while they might have written their undergraduate dissertation on a particular writer/theorist/method, it might be something you're just coming to. So sure, once you've read that book/tried that method it might well be the obvious choice but just because you don't instinctively know it doesn't mean you're wrong or stupid.

This came up for me many times at inter-disciplinary events. I've ended up working in a quite interdisciplinary way. Which is great, I love it, I think more people should work that way (well I would) but it does have its pitfalls. For one it has a bit of  'Jack of all trades' meaning 'master of none'. I'll obviously have done my research into the area I'm crossing over with, but can't expect to be as knowledgeable as someone whose whole focus is that area. So the most obvious reading/ideas there aren't obvious at all.

In both of these situations I've always felt honesty is the best policy. Admitting you don't know something but prefacing it with the idea that you're interested and willing to learn. It's also ok to admit that you have no idea what a  thing is. Better to admit you don't know and ask for advice than to play along as though you do and then be caught out.

That said, occasionally, just occasionally, faking -it-till-you-make-it is a valid approach. Particularly for things you  remember sleeping through or skipping at Undergrad (or even A Level)

2.  Sometimes you only know when someone tells you. 

Following on from the above; all these people had to be told/taught these things at some point. Whether it was through formal tuition, or individual research.

In an ideal world all our research would follow a logical path that led us to all the things we needed. And often that is what happens, you read something that leads you to something else, that leads you to something else. But of course things slip through the net. Again in an ideal world your PhD supervisors, fellow PhD-ers and random strangers will also lead you to the information you need. But again things slip through. And often those people who are supposed to be helping will be telling you how 'obvious' it is or how you 'should' know this already. What they forget is that they had to be told it once. And by told I mean either through actual instruction or reading it themselves.

It's like driving a car. None of us got in a car and knew how to do it. We had to be taught. And then later we learned from experience, sometimes by crashing into a wall that had been there for years (never happened I swear)...the point is that we all had to learn, and often we had to be told. Whether that was where 4th gear was or a more violent 'WATCH OUT FOR THAT WALL' none of it is naturally there.

The also goes for academic protocol, or how things are done. Your supervisors weren't born knowing how to apply for a conference, format a journal article or fill in a grant application. They either had someone tell them, or they learn the hard way (like driving into the wall) and it really infuriates me when more experienced academics expect some sort of miraculous knowledge form PhD students or young academics. (young career wise, none of us feel young I assure you)

This leads nicely to

3. Someone else's 'vital information' is redundant to someone else.

A a recent example of of this personally was being torn apart by an academic on twitter for my ignorance of a specific jobs listing. Firstly, why would you call someone ignorant for that? surely that's a scenario where you just do the altruistic thing and say 'hey this is probably useful' but instead I was treated like the most ignorant idiot for not knowing it, and told it was no wonder I didn't have a job. As it turned out, it was a listing for American jobs. I had no interest in (nor ability to) apply for/take an American job so it was no wonder I hadn't come across this particular 'vital' resource. Not only was it not vital to me, but actually utterly irrelevant. So I was called a multitude of things, shamed for my ignorance of what was actually entirely redundant to my existence.

This applies to research as well as the wider context. Even your supervisors may have 'vital' information that they think absolutely must be in the piece. They may be right, they may be passing on information that you never thought about (as above) but also, they may be coming from their personal 'must have' list of research content.

I had an experience like this with Foucault (of Fuck-coult as I would very much like to refer to him) now don't get me wrong, Focualt is an important guy. I think, as above it's really important to pass on the Fouc-info. I do not however believe that Foucault is vital to every PhD written. And in my case, for what I ended up writing, was not relevant. Ultimately I ended up Fou-less in the final draft, and that was the right thing. While my supervisor was originally coming from a place of informing and supporting research development, nothing is 'vital' to your research in the end result if you don't believe it is.

This applies across academia, in research itself but also a lot in 'ways things are done'. And also what is 'vital' for you to do. There's a lot of bullshit talked about what you 'have' to do to be 'successful' and I'll address that in another blog post What I will say here is take a balance of the above points here; that you may not know about things until someone tells you (and this might not be until your final year or beyond) but these things that you're told are 'must haves' or 'must dos' might not be for you. Use your brain, your initiative, and make a call for yourself because:

4. Nobody, I mean nobody knows it all (no matter what they think) 

You'll meet plenty of academics who think they do. And fair warning conferences are the worst for this kind of posturing. It can be like a Peacock party with each posturing for most worldly wise academic. But beware those who try to tell you what to do, without knowing you.

Beware a supervisor who knows it all too. The best supervisors will be learning from you, as you develop your research. The best colleagues later on too.

And if you ever catch yourself thinking you now know it all, best to leave academia and become a politician.