The edge of knowing

Several times recently I have become aware of the limits of knowledge, and what it is  like to feel uncertain and unknowing.

In writing group, I gave feedback on a paper about teaching grammar to young children. Unfortunately, I came of age in an era of Australian education that refused to teach grammatics. The limit of my knowledge: a verb is a doing word; a statement I have subsequently discovered to be false, or only partly true. At the risk of stating the obvious for some readers, verbs can be doing words AND saying words, sensing words, relating words, or existing words.

I have an excellent tacit knowledge of grammar, but reading a paper on its teaching made me aware of the limits of my understanding. To familiarise myself with linguistics terminology, I looked at first year lecture notes. (My university has an online learning commons—that is, lecture notes for most courses are open to staff across the university). So much I have not learned.

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Once a week, I volunteer at my son’s school for 45 minutes of individual reading with children in his class. The five and six year olds guess words more often than not. From week to week, their learning is palpable, as is the pleasure in their achievements. It’s amazing to witness their progress after only 15 weeks of school.

My daughter’s high school recently hosted an evening program on adolescent development. The teenage brain is a truly frightening place! (The raising children website has a good summary of the back-to-front development of the brain during adolescence). Referencing Dweck’s work on growth mindset, the school psychologists reinforced the power of ‘yet’ (for our children and ourselves).

I can’t do this … yet.

I don’t know this … yet.

This week I read some new (to me) theoretical work. I am impatient. I want to gulp it down and regurgitate it for a paper I am writing. I want to perform an institutionalised reading. I need to slow down and sip the reading. I don’t understand it … yet.

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‘Threshold concepts’ is Meyer and Land’s well-known phrase for how learners navigate difficult or troublesome knowledge. As they describe it in their seminal (or should I say oeuvral?) work:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

This ‘portal’ or liminal phase of learning is marked by unknowingness and uncertainty.  It is a transformative time during which shifts in subjectivity occur. The learner is a different person on the other side of the portal. As Kiley and Wisker (2009) characterise it in the context of doctoral education, the liminal state is defined by change and oscillation:

This altered identity often comes after a liminal period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt, something akin to the transition within a rite of passage … Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one … It is while in this state that doctoral students are often likely to feel ‘stuck’, depressed, unable to continue, challenged and confused.

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My colleague Jayde Cahir and I wrote about our experiences of liminality as doctoral candidates (‘What Feelings Didn’t I Experience!’: Affect and Identity in PhD Writing, published in Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin’s edited collection Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers).

Did you experience any identity shifts during the process of writing your dissertation?

Agnes: Becoming a mother completely changed me as a person. It consequently changed my research – in fact, my whole orientation towards feminist theory changed … [It] meant a great deal of change and uncertainty. I felt completely different … I think this was an element in my subsequent transition to a different discipline – one dominated by a practical rather than a theoretical orientation.

Jayde: At the beginning of my candidature I felt that I was ready to ‘become’ an academic but as time went on I found that I was asking myself questions like – do I want to be an academic?  And why am I ‘doing’ a PhD? Looking back this was most likely due to the anxiety that I experienced while writing my dissertation but in saying that, the process of writing and research during my doctoral education made me seriously question who I was and where I was going career wise.

What became apparent to us in writing about our learning experiences as doctoral candidates and early career academics was that liminality was ongoing. We never reach a state of complete knowingness.

What did you learn during the process of transitioning from doctoral candidate to early-career researcher?

Agnes: This was a huge learning curve as I changed disciplines. I became a student again, enrolling in a higher education qualification, which prepared me for the shift to a new discipline. Three years on, I still feel that I am establishing myself as a researcher and a writer.

Jayde: I think the key thing that I learnt … was how much more work there was to do. Even though I had spent four years developing and improving my skills, I was really only at the beginning – again.

Photos in this post were taken on a recent family bushwalk; same spot, camera pointing in different directions.

We cross one threshold, only to encounter another. I am keenly aware of this, once again, as an academic and as a mother.

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