One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work. I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history…. Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool! This is why I love academia. People are creating knowledge here! Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about. Yep, knowledge.
What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge? What is knowledge? Wait! Don’t go away yet! I promise, it’ll be interesting. I won’t put you to sleep. Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you? Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.” Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power. Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America. We all want to feel powerful. Nobody’s angling to be powerless. Well yes maybe but… But let’s think this through a bit. Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential. You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things. But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do. So it’s the doing that matters. You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value. You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic. It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects. And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.
So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there. A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge. I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice. Ah. So it’s doing something. It’s in the doing. Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again. Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.
Orlikowski elaborates. “Know-how” is a capability generated through action. And this requires repeated actions. These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it. So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion. It looks that way because we keep repeating it. It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole. Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last. Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second. Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either. It’s also changing, growing, aging. Did you know that trees vibrate? Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change. There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly. It’s always changing. Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space. How you like them apples? But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…
What does this mean for knowing how to write? That’s what you tuned in for, right? I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules. That would be nice. Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve! Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat. Trade them with your friends. Trade them for money! But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space. Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind. No it doesn’t work that way. The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions. Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing. This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots. Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).
So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline. An interesting little thought exercise, no? It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient. It gums up the works. How do we know what’s right any more? Goodness me. But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were. That whole impostor syndrome. That anxiety. That feeling of inferiority. You can dial that back a bit. You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it. You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things. They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results. But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.
Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.
Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.