Friday, November 28, 2014

Where Is Your Knowledge?

If you know something, I always say, you can compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in 27 minutes. This sometimes starts a discussion about what you are allowed to bring with you into that 27-minute session, and sometimes a discussion about what sort of preparation is required. These two issues are of course related.

Let's start with preparation. On my rules, you are not allowed to do any "preparation" for your planned writing sessions. That may sound odd, so let me explain. A "planned" writing session is one that you have decided on at the latest the day before. At the end of the working day, you have decided when, where and what you will write (also, by implication, why and for whom you will write). At 5:00 pm today, for example, you might decide to write a paragraph between 8:00 and 8:27 am on Monday, in your office, that will say that Virginia Woolf thought novels communicate "the loneliness which is the truth about things". (Or, merely inspired by Woolf, and unsure what she herself believed, you may have decided to write a paragraph that says that novels communicate what Virginia Woolf called "the loneliness which is the truth about things". Do note the difference between those two tasks.) You have thereby chosen to write down something you know, first thing Monday morning. You have not decided to learn something by Monday morning. You have decided that you already know it, that you are, in that sense, already prepared.

It's like deciding you'll go for a 5k run on Monday. You're not going to spend the weekend getting into shape for it. If that is necessary, you should decide on a shorter run. Seems simple and obvious in the case of jogging, but it needs to be said in the case of writing.

What, then, does it mean to know something at the end of the day on Friday well enough to be able to write comfortably about it in your office on Monday morning? Notice that the place you will be sitting is part of the decision to write. In this case, you are predicting that you will know what novels do (or what Woolf thought novels do) in your office on Monday morning. What difference could the location make? Well, you may have a number of books in that office. I encourage you not to open them, however, unless you've clearly marked the pages you will be needing, so as not spend most of the 27-minutes searching through them or even succumbing to the temptation to actually read them. More usefully, your office contains the notes you have from your reading, and you can select the relevant pages from your notes, and lay them out beside your computer (or whatever you write on) before you leave the office for the weekend. With those notes at hand, then, you will know what you are talking about come Monday.

What this shows is that knowledge is not something you have in your head. Knowing something is a relationship you establish between, on the one hand, you memory, your habits, your imagination, even your hands, and, on the other, your notes, your books, your university's library, your data, and the vast complexity of the real world that it represents. When you know something you may not be able to quote your source verbatim, but you know exactly where to find it. (These days, of course, you may know only what search terms you can plug into Google to lead you directly to the source. There's something unseemly about this to me, but that may just be an indication of my age.) There is certainly a component of your knowledge in your head, in fact, in your whole body, (and it remains important to test our students for the presence of this component) but it does not suffice without the network of support that knowing something implies.

Still, my test remains those 27 minutes. If you can't decide in advance to write something down, and arrange a set of circumstances under which such writing can reliably happen, then you simply don't "know" what you are talking about. You may be very close. You may almost have learned it. But until you know how to set up a situation that lets you compose a coherent prose paragraph of least six sentences and at most 200 words in 27 minutes you have not reached that particular state of competence scholars valorize as "knowing". Keep at it. And later today, just choose something else to write about when you get in on Monday morning.


Presskorn said...

Where there's a will, there is a way.

Where there's knowledge, there is 27 minutes.

PS: The proverb "Where there's a will, there is a way" may, of course, be read through its American and facile interpretation, i.e. as indicating that wishfull thinking is enough for success in life. But it might also be read as stressing something more serious, namely a *where*. That is, the necessity of a (physical) place of organization for your goals, which should not remain mere goals, but must be implemented through a *way*. I intend my rewrite of the proverb to indicate something simliar.

Thomas said...

Where theres a will and a way, I usually say, it's probably going on.

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that one shouldn't will something impossible. The prisoner should not want to escape in a vain a general manner, but should form his will in a manner appropriate to his cell. That's not to say he should just accept his imprisonment, of course, just that his will should be looking for a way out.

Reminds me of a poem I once wrote, which included the line "A careful description of the desire to escape may indicate the bind.”

I sometimes talk of promises invoking Nietsche and Ricoeur, who call a promise "the memory of the will".

Applied to knowledge, yes, I'd say that you should not claim to know something if there's "no way you could write it" in a paragraph in 27 minutes.

Thomas said...

Nietzsche, of course. Here's the post about promising.

Lily Wilson said...

I would reduce this time to 20 minutes. :)