When this picture was taken, I was actually thinking about trees. Photo credit: D.J. King, (who does some wonderful portraits and lives in Calgary, if you happen to need such a thing.)
You might not be surprised to hear that I’m big on metacognition. It’s one of my things. It might actually be my thing.
I have struggled with this, because in the academic world I was brought up in, one does not become an expert in process, one becomes an expert in object. The topics in most courses are existing thoughts and models of the world, not where those came from or what to do with them. When we write papers, we are expected to summarize the results of our thought processes, not to expose the thought processes themselves. (This mistake tends to lead to such comments on undergrad papers as, “rambling and incoherent.” This may be true. It might alternatively be, “circuitous and experimental.” One is bad writing, the other art. Avant garde or confused? Sometimes only time will tell. Although usually? It’s just bad writing.)
When I was studying physics, I was interested in the experimental methods, not the outcomes of the experiment. I fear that I didn’t care about the crystal structures of halogenated methanes, although the idea that you could use particular methods on particular materials intrigued me. I liked preparing samples, running experiments, figuring out what experiment might work next… but the main body of the work was in analyzing the data, sitting in front of a computer doing the same thing again, and again, and again.
When I was studying education, I was interested in what claims could be made and how to support them. I like teaching. No, I love teaching. I live for the moment that the eyes light up! But I don’t just want to teach the things I already learned. I want to teach people how to learn. Why are doing this? What’s the point?
When I was working with faculty members to develop their courses, I was interested in (and tasked with) the structure, not the content. I designed a course about designing courses. I’m all about the framework.
Until very, very recently, I have considered this a flaw. A failure in my character. An inability to commit to one line of investigation and see it thought to its conclusion. Occasionally, I have despaired. OK. Frequently, I have despaired. I am a generalist, I have said, in a world that rewards specialization. But it’s not quite true. I have been telling myself a false story, one which is attached to a model of The University as The Place where thinkers go. If I can’t find a place there, I can’t be a thinker. More recently, The Media has supplanted The University. If only I could get something published, if only somebody in a place of judgement would deem my thoughts, my writing, my self worthy, my existence would be justified. It would be OK to be a generalist. I would have value in the world.
So here’s a different story for me to consider: I am an expert in metacognition. What have I done for 10,000 hours? I have investigated my own thought processes, the nature of thought, the support of truth claims, the structure of disciplinary knowledge, the construction of coherent models, and the ways in which teachers and students communicate their models to one another. I have constructed and torn down so many possible ways of knowing inside my own head that it’s a constant renovation project. I have thought deeply about thinking. I have been reluctant to make these claims, because they are the landscape of the philosopher, the professor, the specialist in the discipline. I tend to believe that I’m not entitled to form a critique of something until I have succeeded at it, and my strongest critique is of the structures in the education system, particularly the post-secondary education system. And then I think, “Well, maybe I’m just bitter?” I ponder, construct, deconstruct, consider, philosophize… and come back again and again and again to, “People are going to say that I’m just bitter because I couldn’t make it as an academic.”
I still love the university! It has libraries, and theatres, and people to talk to, and frankly, it pays the bills. (“Many of my dearest friends are professors,” she protested feebly.) But honestly? There’s some truth there. I’m a little bitter. I’m a little frustrated that I have never found my path, that I’ve never had a full time permanent job, that I have become an expert in something that everybody says is so valued in our society, but that I can’t seem to find a way of turning it into gainful employment other than by trimming off the majority of the skill and finding a market for the portion that is left. I happen to think that it is wasteful to have me working at a job that only requires a high school diploma. I find myself apologizing for my education, which is both too much and inadequate, depending on where I stand.
Well, no more, I say! I’m thinking about thinking, and I’m proud! My next two posts are going to be titled, “I see your Levinas and raise you a Wittgenstein” (which is about internet comments and the limits of knowledge. I promise it requires no knowledge of either Levinas or Wittgenstein.) and “Why are we here, anyway?” (which is, tangentially, also about internet comments). There will also be, as time goes on, “Writing about Writing”.
All of which is an elaborate precursor to saying that I’m back, and that I’m in transition to taking my own writing seriously as a tool of engagement with the world. I’m willing to be subjective because I’m a subject! I have a position. And part of my position is that we generalists need to find a different way of being in the world, one that doesn’t require us to leave behind, immerse, drown, or amputate parts of our selves. When we judge ourselves by the same standards by which we are judged, those of the specialist and the expert, of course we are found wanting. We can’t change that part of the world, but we don’t have to subject ourselves to it. (See what I did there? Subject/subject. Noun/verb. Actor/acted upon? Oooh! I love when words do that.)
And then we need to find new ways of making a living. Because waiting for the path to appear? That way madness lies.
(I know. I’ve thought about it.)
Filed under: Essays and Musings, WorldView | Tagged: discipline, education, philosophy, storytelling, thinking, truth, work | 9 Comments »