Negative knowledge in the classroom

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.

8 thoughts on “Negative knowledge in the classroom

  1. Interesting post! I think that what you call ‘negative knowledge’ is an important form/category of knowledge. I don’t favor supplicating to professors, but I strongly favor attempts to characterize our uncertainty. I guess the same information can often be framed as knowledge or non-knowledge. Distinguishing between teh two might be considered a matter of which way of thinking about something is more cognitively natural.

  2. I think that, more than anything, this may be a Western thing. At the language level, English contains far more qualifying terms than most other non-Western languages. Which is why, when Westerners interact with, say, Koreans for the first time, they often come away with the impression that Koreans are pushy and blunt. The reality, of course, is that Koreans don’t really have an organic, non-clunky way of saying something like “Baseball is my least favorite sport,” so they just say the equivalent of “I don’t like baseball.” The potential for misunderstanding becomes clearer in more sensitive situations, when for example, Westerners are expecting a statement like “the steak could be better” and the Korean instead says, simply, bluntly, “I don’t like it.”

    Also, in the West, it seems that typically the burden is on the speaker to make her/himself understood. This may explain why our language is often riddled with qualifiers. Our impulse is to avoid being misunderstood, and one way of achieving that end is by staying away from statements marked as absolute and/or definite. On the other hand, in Korea (and probably much of the East, especially Japan and China), the listener is responsible for understanding the speaker. This is reflected at the basic sentence level, where only information that is absolutely essential to understanding resides. In English, it’s the exact opposite. We are constantly reintroducing subjects and objects to make extra sure that our listeners understand what we’re trying to convey.

  3. Max, that’s very interesting. I’m assuming you’re not talking about Koreans talking to anglophones in English, right? Presumably Koreans speaking english might be apt to say things more simply because it’s not their native language, but it would be something very different if Koreans even speaking among themselves were far more, for lack of a better word, “blunt.” Which did you mean?

    I’m especially interested in your second paragraph; linguistic anthropologists would have a field day investigating that kind of phenomenon (culturally variable burdens of comprehension, if you like). It does seem to me, though, that although there may well be these kinds of general cultural differences at work, that can’t be all there is to it — because it seems to me that, in the United States for example, certain social or institutional situations elicit this kind of qualifying behavior more, or differently, than others. For instance, there are grad students that are really awkward about talking in a seminar who would be totally at ease and confident in themselves if they were talking about how they got wasted at the bar on friday night. So it does seems to me that there’s something to think about how the institutional situation of graduate school induces these qualifications more than it happens elsewhere. Yeah?

  4. In reference to the thing about Korean people being perceived as “blunt,” I’m talking about how they speak not only to one another in Korean, but to Westerners in, for example, English. Like most non-native language speakers, Koreans learning English as a second language often just translate what they want to say from Korean into English. In Korean, if you don’t like something, typically you don’t say something like “This is not my favorite.” You just say “I don’t like this” or “This is bad.”

    As far as the cultural differences are concerned, I agree that it has a lot to do with how we interact at different levels of influence and power. In the East, for example, I think that language is more direct and straightforward, and the less power you have in an interaction (for example, a young wage worker interacting with her/his boss), the less likely it is that you’ll be speaking at all. In the West, the less power you have in an interaction, the more qualifiers you’ll use to convey your points (since qualified statements are less likely to cause unnecessary disputes that may reveal weaknesses in intellect, reasoning, etc). Graduate school is a nice test bed for this kind of research, because the power dynamic is so apparent, nearly tangible, and it seems that professors, in particular, are quick to pick up on and grind away at certainty. I’m not sure if that’s because professors are simply prone to exercising critical thinking faculties, or if it’s a response to their position being challenged (i.e. they are the only ones allowed to make definitive statements), or a mix of both.

  5. Just to explain further: The way I understand it is that Korean is a more direct, blunt language, specifically because the listener is considered responsible for the way a statement is perceived. If they misunderstand, it’s because they didn’t perceive the statement in the right way. So Koreans can say to each other, “This steak is bad” and nobody gets offended, because the statement itself is understood, by other means (immediate context, body language, tone of voice, etc), as “This is not my favorite.” The speech is softened during the perception phase, by the listener. In English, on the other hand, it’s the speaker’s responsibility to impart meaning. If we say things bluntly, listeners assume it’s because we want to be understood that way, because we could easily have softened our speech if we’d wanted to.

  6. it sounds like karin is talking about known unknowns…what did rummy say we should do about those, again?

    In all honesty, I think it’s going to be hard to fit negative knowledge to the expressive habits of grad students, if only because a grad student is still not a bonafide knowledge-producer. I think you’ll find more traction exploring competition as a social form (think natural selection and the free market) and the results of repeated attempts to exorcise it from the uni classroom.

  7. Hi Alex,

    Yeah, Karin herself has expressed qualms about having her analytic categories re-deployed in a classroom context. I don’t really understand her objection or yours, to be frank. The difference between a grad student and a professor is in my view one of institutional status and professional experience, not of epistemic status. In my view, one can perfectly well have “negative knowledge” in a classroom; it’s just that the social implications of performing that knowledge are quite different in the context of pedagogical evaluation than they are in a laboratory or publication situation. But do you see things differently? At a minimum, I don’t think you can just assert that “graduate students aren’t bona fide knowledge producers”; that needs some kind of argument.

    Re-reading my post, I think a better objection would be not that graduate students aren’t “bona fide” knowledge makers but that Knorr’s “negative knowledge” refers more to things like data noise, failure modes in experimental instrumentation and the like; it doesn’t have so much to do with the sorts of qualifications of statements that I’m invoking here. On the other hand, one might say in response that “negative knowledge” in the classroom is a matter of indicating one’s skepticism about one’s own epistemic capacities — as if it was the speaking self itself that constituted the instrument of potential epistemic failure in the classroom situation. Or is that too obtusely worded to make sense?

  8. Also, about “competition,” I have to say I’ve never been very interested in it as a form of social practice — it interests me more as a rhetorical trope and ideological construct. But if YOU want to develop your analysis of that point, I would be very curious, even eager, to hear your conclusions.

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