From knowing to not knowing and back again: a student’s tale

This will be a fairly personal musing on the process of becoming an academic scholar, and the iterative and challenging nature of it. Here, I am referring to the journey from the first year of undergraduate studies to graduation three or four or more years later, and, for a number of graduates, the journey into Masters and Phd study beyond that.

In my professional life currently I have two roles: I am a PhD student, but I also work in a writing centre, with undergraduate student writers. My work is focused on helping students to make sense of what they are learning about so that they can write about their knowledge and learning in new and varied forms, that show their lecturers and tutors that they are becoming people who know things. This is perhaps quite a simplistic way of looking at the matter, but this is, in essence, why students write: to demonstrate their ability to work with and communicate knowledge in the forms recognised by the disciplines or environments they are working in. In both of these roles, I have been thinking about this: what is involved in this process of becoming someone who knows and can demonstrate that knowledge, and be recognised as a knower? How can I, as both a student myself and someone who works with students, unpack and understand this process so that I can be more successful in both roles?

I will reflect on my role as a student first. I have been studying, on and off, for fourteen years now, and I am not yet finished. There was quite a long gap – five years – between finishing my MA and registering for my PhD. It took me a while to feel ready to take on this challenge, largely because I shifted fields as a result of the work I was doing during that time. So, I not only took on a hugely challenging task in the form of writing a PhD thesis and all that goes into that, I also took on the task of reading, thinking and writing my way into a new field of research, knowledge and practice. It has been, to say the least, a humbling process, even though it has been quite rewarding at times, and certainly interesting. It has been humbling because of this thing of knowledge and knowing, and the feeling of empowerment and confidence that comes with feeling that you know – what to say, what to write and how to make sense of what you hear and read and fit that new knowledge into what is already in your head.

I don’t often feel that I know, these days. The theory I am drawing on is very new to me, and at times very dense and incomprehensible, even. In my previous field and studies I felt I could speak and write and read with far more confidence, and when I hear people speaking about their research in that field, I feel this wonderful sense of familiarity and being ‘at home’. I have not yet reached this place entirely in my new field, but I am not completely in the dark either. I move between knowing and not knowing – between definitely,  maybe and I have no idea! – fairly often, and it’s not always easy. It’s often frustrating and I find it hard to stay motivated and keen when it gets really tough and I have loads of other pressures on me, from work and family and life in general.

This leads me to my role at work, in the writing centre. I work with undergraduate students who are on this journey from not knowing to knowing, and myself and the writing tutors work to help them make enough sense of what they do know and what they bring with them to tutoring sessions so that they can communicate this knowledge effectively and appropriately. My experience on my own learning journey has been a useful starting point for reflecting on just how frustrating and even alienating this process can be for students who are new to tertiary learning, and to the different ways in which disciplinary knowledge is taught and needs to be learnt and communicated. [It must also be recognised that in addition to this challenge many students in South Africa who come from poor home and school backgrounds have many other educational, personal and financial challenges that further add to their already full plates.] Learning is an iterative journey – students at any level move between knowing and not knowing and back again many times as they encounter new arguments and theories and practices. And the process of learning and integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge is a constant one that will continue beyond the university.

A big part of what tertiary education needs to do is to support students in navigating this iterative process by giving them the tools they need to manage this process effectively, inside and beyond the university. A writing centre is one space in which students can learn useful tools for connecting dots using language, and for practicing the different forms of communicating their knowledge to their peers in ways that will be recognised and rewarded. It is also a space, importantly, where is it okay to not know (at least for a little while :)). As a student and a tutor, these spaces where one can not know and muddle through to a place where knowing seems possible and things are clear, and then move back into a space of doubt and confusion (knowing and hoping it won’t last long!) is so important. It is important because I can be in that space with others who are on the same journey, but perhaps at different points along the way, so there is support and recognition and validation; it is a space where the doubt, confusion and questioning are recognised as a necessary and useful part of the iterative process of learning and becoming and coming to know, rather than viewed as evidence that one is not coping or in the wrong place.

I know, because of my own self-knowledge, and my previous learning experiences at university, that the confusion and doubt are not permanent states, but only part of the process. If I hang in there and keep reading and writing and asking questions, I will get to where I need to me. But, my experience has shown me that many undergraduate students, particularly those from poor socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, do not always have that same kind of self-confidence. For many the not knowing is overwhelming and the challenge of staying motivated and engaged in the learning process is too great.  One of the ways in which I think we could help these students is through creating more spaces, in and outside academic departments and disciplines where not knowing is recognised as a part of the journey towards knowing, and where the iterative and complex process of learning can be seen as such and supported in relevant and creative ways. I am proud to work in one of those spaces.

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