I’m in the middle of shortening an essay for publication (on which more soon, I hope), which means I have the pleasure of excising all the interesting-but-peripheral tidbits. Here’s some text that used to be a footnote (retuned a little to make sense here).
One way of thinking about a classroom is as a place of knowledge transmission. From this perspective, it’s intriguing that classrooms often evoke an intriguing phenomena that involves, not knowledge-display or knowledge-transfer, but precisely their opposite, performances of ignorance or what might be called “negative knowledge.” Karin Knorr-Cetina has written, in examining the fixation on possible causes of error among experimental particle physicists, that “negative knowledge is not nonknowledge, but knowledge of the limits of knowing, of the mistakes we make in trying to know, of the things that interfere with our knowing, that we are not really interested in and do not want to know.”
It’s worth pondering whether this category applies to a sort of anxiety about knowledge that I’ve often seen in American grad school classrooms. What I’m thinking of is the kind of conversation where people drape their statements in a shroud of qualifications, qualifications that communicate no propositional content but nonetheless index the epistemological anxiety and low epistemic rank of the speaker. These phrases are all too familiar: perhaps, it seems, in a sense, it would seem to me, to some degree, kind of, sort of, it appears, arguably, I would argue that, on one level, I could be wrong but, you know, you might say, I’m not an expert but, umm, I don’t know anything about X but, etc., etc. Such awareness of fallibility can also appear as a kind of corporeal knowledge, in posture, gesture, and tone: nervous laughs, pulling at one’s hair, avoiding eye contact, and the like. I can remember times in my first couple of years of grad school when, at the very thought of talking, my voice shook and my heart beat wildly. And it’s often the least authorized, most institutionally peripheral and lowest-ranking participants who feel this way — which is to say, in short, that epistemic hierarchy in the classroom can get written onto academics’ bodies and flung throughout their conversation.
When I first was thinking about this question, a friend of mine, Ben White, responded with an interesting comment:
What’s really interesting about the sorts of qualifying statements we make (‘In my opinion,’ ‘Perhaps,’ etc.) is: a.) one (i.e., in my experience) one can be supremely aware of doing this and the artifice of doing so, and one can even want to stop doing so, but nevertheless find oneself continuing to do this. A rhetorical compulsion generated by the social context, perhaps. But, b.) there is a strange circularity to these performances: the qualification, deprecation, etc. of one’s own comments in class, on the one hand, indexes the position of the student as unknowledgeable vis-a-vis the professor. On the other the hand, such qualification is something that can be and is deployed as a particular discursive strategy. If I reflect on my own classroom utterances, it seems to me that there is probably a positive correlation between the extent of qualification of a comment and the certitude I have of that comment. In other words, I think I’m more likely to qualify something I think is completely right on, and something that I’m pretty sure everyone would assent to (i.e., something that I think will be acknowledged as a ‘good point’). Just as much as there is anxiety related to performing poorly, there is also (at least for me) an equal (if not more intense) anxiety associated with performing well. I think there are interesting relations between this sort of anxiety about approbation and the hierarchical, competitive structure of the classroom setting.
I rather like the idea here of thinking about the anxieties of becoming marked by success. Any anthropology of elites presumably needs a theory of the social and psychological dynamics of being high-status. At the same time, for some possibly ideological reason, I’m very averse to thinking of a classroom as having structures of competition. As something of a social determinist, I tend to see the idea of “competition” as amounting to some combination of prior social determinations and sheer random chance; I’m not a big believer in the primacy of individual will or talent. This said, I wonder if this resistance to a concept of “structures of competition” isn’t another one of those intellectual lacunas in cultural anthropology: it becomes difficult to think about something like “competition” as a social form, to say nothing of the relation between competition and classroom knowledge-making.
But for the time being I just wanted to call attention to these curious classroom moments where people announce their nonknowledge. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen this phenomenon much in France. But then, I’ve been mostly looking at relatively introductory philosophy classes, and lower-level students are seldom the most talkative.