Spirals of competence, scaffolding, and the problem of knowing what we don’t know

Earlier this month I was asked to be the closing speaker at the Huddersfield History Postgraduate Conference, an annual event where postgraduate history researchers from Huddersfield and elsewhere give presentations about their research. This is an adapted version of the talk about learning and the research process that I gave at the end of the day (based on my original notes, plus marginalia, plus recollections of things I added on the spur of the moment and responses to some of the Q&A, so it’s far from being an accurate transcript of everything I said, but gives an idea of what I was talking about…

This isn’t the sort of talk that I usually give, but when the postgraduates organising this conference asked me to be the closing speaker, they asked me to talk about the satisfactions and challenges of research, thinking about my own experiences and the climate today. So I needed to make remarks that would be as relevant to someone researching, for instance, late medieval culture as they would be to someone researching the late 20th century, like I do.

At one point earlier in the afternoon I heard myself being referred to as the ‘main’ speaker, but I wouldn’t like to think of myself as that. I don’t feel like the main speaker at an event like this – you’re the main speakers. So my first act probably ought to be to abolish myself – but then it’s the same kind of problem as with the Marxist doctrine that on the road to Communism the state ought to wither away, but in practice Communist officials turned out to be quite reluctant to make themselves wither away…

Anyway: the point of a conference like this isn’t to sit around listening to lecturers talking at you, but for you to present your research to each other and to the rest of the department who are there to support you, and for you to hear about and comment on what everybody else is doing. It’s a way for you all to mutually support each other as researchers, and to build up the History community in and around Huddersfield. Hull and Huddersfield historians are building up more and more links themselves – I sometimes hear people referring (like John Prescott) to an ‘M62 corridor’ – and rather than thinking primarily in terms of departmental communities or even university communities, I want to encourage you to see yourself as part of a much wider network of postgraduate and early career researchers in the North, of historians and others with similar interests, of people with interests in the past whether or not they’re studying academically – all of these are networks where you belong and you have a place. And you’re going to need each other.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend all of the conference [I’d been teaching a class at Hull that morning], which makes it harder to carry out the closing speaker role of tying everything together and hopefully leaving you going away thinking: all this different work we’re doing is actually contributing to the same thing. Whereas what you may well be thinking is: ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so we can get away to the pub’ – or, ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so that I can get home and sort out dinner for the rest of the family’, or ‘so that I won’t be late for the job I need to go to after this conference is over today’. And all of those are valid responses.

But the reason for explaining about my timetable is because when I thought about the different things I had to get done today it brought home to me how, over time, the activities you find difficult sometimes become less so. So I’m going to start thinking about this as an example of the learning process, which I’ll then tie more closely into the process of research, and ramp up towards thinking about sharing authority, co-production, and some of the ideas that were coming up in the discussion at the end of the panel I was able to attend.

The spiral of competence

The first year that I was teaching was in 2007–08, in the last year of my PhD [at UCL SSEES]. I was teaching two seminars, one after each other, on a module called the History of Eastern Europe since 1856. I remember being so drained after those two seminars one after each other that I knew that was it, the only thing I was going to be able to get done on Fridays was to go in and listen to that lecture and teach those two seminars. I could get some reading done on automatic pilot in the afternoon and evening, but in terms of anything more active, let alone producing words or delivering more words, that wasn’t going to happen.

After a couple of years off from teaching during my postdoc [at Southampton], during the last year of my postdoc the history department there asked me to design a new first-year option on one of my research interests because they needed to offer some more options at that level. And the year after that was almost entirely a teaching year –  I had a teaching contract in London for half the week replacing someone who was on research leave, plus another module became vacant at Southampton for the same reason, then at the last minute Southampton also asked me to put my first year option on again. In terms of the range of teaching I was doing, not just in terms of topics but actual subjects, I felt like I was teaching across the full range of what I was capable of, which is a challenge that I wanted… and if I’d have been able to teleport between London and Southampton it would have been great.

If my circumstances had been different, if I’d had more people depending on the money I was earning with my time, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and anything I’ve gained from that combination of experiences, I’ve got to acknowledge that it was circumstances like not being a carer which made it possible to even have them. As a structure for getting the best people into the jobs they’re best qualified for, this isn’t good enough.

But at that time in 2011-12 where the amount of teaching I was doing had expanded so much compared to the first year when I was teaching, and the amount of different things I had to get done in the same day was also much greater, I would think – ‘wow, there used to be a time when two hours of teaching would knock me out, and that was it?’ I’d gone through a spiral of competence. The things I used to struggle with, I now had a routine for preparing for, and I was used to. And that creates space to struggle with new things.

At an early stage it might be – ‘I’ve actually got to design my own seminar tasks, how do I do that?’ And then later on – ‘I haven’t just got to mark assessments, I’ve got to work out what the assessments should be, and what skills I actually want this module to develop, so that I can use the assessments to test how well students have achieved them.’ And you go along the spiral of competence. The tasks you used to worry about become more manageable, and new space opens up. This is why people talk about ‘continuous professional development’. It’s how we get more experienced. Knowledge that was new becomes familiar, and that makes us ready to start learning and practising something else that is new now.

That doesn’t mean that the things you’ve done many times before suddenly take no effort. I still very frequently find myself in front of a blank screen thinking I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to put in here. That’s part of the process, I’m not sure it ever goes away. But what changes, with time, is that you’re able to have more of a sense of: ‘yeah, that’s how I felt the last time too, and then I did it.’

This is something that you’ll probably start noticing too, in some or other aspect of what you do. In fact you’re already further along the spiral when it comes to writing and researching than you were in the past. If you had to write an undergraduate dissertation, for instance, for many people that’s the longest single piece of writing that they’ve ever had to write. ‘How the hell do I write an undergraduate dissertation, at 10,000 words?’ It felt like everything you’d done over the last however many years of your degree was meant to get you up to that point. And now, if you’re writing a PhD, something that length would only be a chapter in a much longer piece of work.

So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, and for all of you there’s probably something in your practice as history researchers where you can recognise that. ‘I don’t struggle with that as much as I used to in the past’. Everyone will have something like that, because this is how learning works. Whether it’s learning details and information, or learning in a much broader sense, how to actually do something.

[During the Q&A, somebody asked me whether this meant we were always in a state of ‘conscious incompetence’]. The thing you want to get towards is ‘conscious competence’. And you can break this down into many kinds of things you do. [Helpfully, the conference venue had a copy of the Vitae ‘Researcher Development Framework’ – a breakdown of the many skills that researchers use – painted on the wall…]

rdfwheelWhat I like about the Researcher Development Framework is that it distinguishes all these different things that researchers do, and also gives a progression of what they can look like at different stages, whether you’re a postgraduate researcher or somebody who just won a grant worth millions of pounds from one of the research councils, so there are always ‘aspiration points’ that help you answer the question of ‘what should I be working towards next’.[1] (I could also have used the analogy of a ‘skill tree‘ in video games where you develop a character over the course of a game – the point is that you build competence in a certain skill to a threshold level and that opens up new things that you can then go on to learn, but advanced skills won’t open up until you’ve developed the prerequisites enough.)

How we know what we know

The week before the conference, I told the organisers that my title for the talk was going to be ‘The problem of knowing what you don’t know’. And I wanted to talk about learning and training, because this is what all of you are doing.

You’ve had very different experiences before now and the paths you each take after your current research projects will also go in different directions; also, your circumstances are different from each other right now. But one thing you have in common is that all of you are at a stage where you’re becoming independent researchers, with one or more universities and maybe another kind of cultural institution supporting you to help you become that.

You’re in charge of making the case for why your project matters. You already started to do that just by applying to the programme of study that you applied to, and as part of your research you’re in charge of making that case in a deeper and more detailed way.

You’re in charge of planning how this research is going to be done: seeing what methods other researchers have tried, which work, but also, what methods other people researching that topic haven’t tried yet, which might then tell us something new.

You’re in charge of making sense of the results you find out, and then putting those into context by reflecting back on what other people have written about that topic before.

And you’re in charge of delivering all this within the agreed parameters – the word limit – and on time – which you don’t need me reminding you about…

You know better than I do, as well, what you want to do with yourself after having gone through this process, or what you want this process to have done for you. Some of you – but I don’t want to assume that’s what everybody wants – will be seeing it as another step towards working in higher education, though I don’t want to assume that is what everybody wants. In the past, universities tended to assume that the only reason anyone does a PhD is to become an academic, but if you still encounter that attitude today, it’s out of date. Postgraduate research prepares you for a much wider set of careers than that.

But probably what all of you have got in some shape or form is the aspiration to do more with the topic of your research than you were able to do before you started researching it. To do more with the content of your research, or to do more with the skills you’ve used and learned while you’ve been researching.

One of the things you learn as you go through this process is about how we know what we know. In historiography, or in introductory training for teaching, you’ll probably encounter thoughts about this. How for instance do historians know that what they’ve found out in their research and what they write about has the status of ‘historical knowledge’? The answer to that may be: they’ve gone through all the sources that are still available, they have discovered the historical facts through the evidence available, and the weight of that evidence provides the most justified interpretation of that aspect of the past. A postmodern or deconstructionist historian might say that actually all of us are involved in ‘authoring’ the past just through the practice of producing a narrative about it, even when we frame the narrative as ‘the’ truth about our topic in the past.

Each of those positions leads to a very different opinion about what historians actually do when they study history, but both of them are positions about ‘how we know what we know’, and what counts as ‘knowledge’ for historians.

So it’s useful to be aware of what your assumptions are about how we know what we know. But something else is also very important for researchers, if not anyone – and that’s trying to have a sense of what you don’t know. Because that actually has a lot to do with how we learn and understand.

If we go back to those examples of learning how to teach, or learning how to put together progressively longer pieces of written work based on independent research.

These are gradual processes, and teaching and learning researchers like to say that they depend on ‘scaffolding’ – to be able to learn at the top of the scaffolding, you’ve first got to have grasped whatever was underneath it. But then in order to move up the scaffolding, towards more advanced knowledge and competence, you have to know that there are new things to find out that flow from whatever you’ve already learned.

In the framework of a university module or a programme of study this is easy, a lot of that pathway is already visible because it’s already been designed.

In independent research this is much more difficult. A PhD topic is something that no one has ever explored in the same way as you, and this is why it looks so daunting at the beginning: how are you going to map a pathway through making sense of these sources, towards the comprehensive understanding that you want to finish with? You want to know as much as possible.

But at the same time, as part of that process, you also need to be open to what you didn’t know was there. What you will find from the sources that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the topic, the categories you use to think about the topic with, or even the framework that you want to bring to the task of representing this topic as a whole, because suddenly the sources are challenging what you had expected it might be possible to say.

This is part of the research process for almost everyone. It should be part of the research process. Although the trouble is that when it happens, we usually experience it as a crisis. Something doesn’t work. And then it’s a stressful moment. But often it’s also one that turns out to be transformative – the eventual piece of writing that you end up with wouldn’t have looked the same way if not for that moment. Your initial framework changed, to accommodate that thing that originally you didn’t know. On a much larger scale it’s like that blank-piece-of-paper, what-am-I-going-to-put-into-these-lecture-notes moment. When you do encounter a research crisis like that, that may be what it’s trying to tell you, but your mind might process it first as confusion.

So if that’s an important stage in the research process, then another challenge comes from that: what can be done, methodologically, to create space for those ‘knowing what you don’t know’ moments to happen? Those moments where you become aware that how you’ve understood and experienced the material up until that point doesn’t actually give you a full account of what’s been going on?

Towards an ethics of listening

For me, this is one of the things that’s attracted me to oral history interviewing as a methodology. I used it when I was researching foreign languages and peacekeeping in Bosnia as part of the project I was involved in after my PhD. There simply weren’t enough documents about what we were interested in, so I was going to have to do something more active anyway in terms of finding out about the topic, but what also appealed to me about interviewing was that with interviewing you cannot get away from the fact that the researcher is implicated in producing knowledge and narrative, it’s more complex than accessing a repository of information that is already there. What you ask, who you and the interviewee are, who each of those people is in relation to the other, and even when you do the interview and what else might be going on at the time, all has an influence on what comes to you as ‘the’ source or ‘the’ narrative from that person. You have to come to terms with this in order to interview, you can’t hide from it.

Interviewing can be a powerful tool in opening up new topics that haven’t been researched before, because you select what to ask about. My colleague Simona Tobia, another researcher involved with the project, listened to interviews in the Imperial War Museum sound archive with British Army soldiers from the Second World War whose job had been to interrogate German prisoners, and then did new interviews with some of the same people, to ask them about languages and translation. And the original interviews hadn’t had much to say about languages at all, even though, English speaking army, German speaking prisoners, someone at some stage must have not been using their army’s first language. When Simona went back to these people and specifically asked about languages, they came out with whole new narratives. Because someone had asked.

But that isn’t even the most exciting thing about interviews as a source for those historians who are able to use them. As an interviewer, it wouldn’t be worth me doing it if I already knew exactly what I was going to hear. This means I need to find out, through that interview, that there was something I didn’t know, or perhaps couldn’t even have comprehended before, because I didn’t have the ‘scaffolding’ to appreciate it. I didn’t know that it was possible to perceive that topic or that experience in that particular way. What that means is that the most important thing I do in an interview isn’t how I choose the questions or ask the questions, it’s actually how I listen. And to be able to do that, I have to appreciate that there is a vast amount I don’t know, and vast dimensions I don’t know about.

This is an important thing to recognise not just in terms of research, but I think in every dimension of the lives we lead. The wisdom that it takes to recognise what you might be unaware of, and perhaps even to recognise that there are things you might never be able to be fully aware of. This is a more difficult one for researchers, because we want to find out everything there is to know. But in an interview, for instance, can I ever know the experience of the narrator as intimately as the narrator knows it? All the more, perhaps, if there are ways that I’m in a position of power compared to that other person which makes it more difficult for me to perceive the full weight of what they’re saying. (During a previous Q&A, referring to public engagement, a member of the audience had mentioned ‘the nature of how we intimidate in events like this’ and ‘moments that prevent the co-production of language’ when talking about problems in getting the public to come to events at universities.) Could I, as a white interviewer, ever understand what it means to experience racism, as intimately as the person of colour who was narrating it to me? I can’t. So, then, how best should I listen, and after listening, what is it my responsibility to do?

What this might lead us towards is something that society’s in need of, which is an ethics of listening, and in particular an ethics of listening across these axes of power relations and privilege that we are all in some way or another embedded in. The greater responsibility in this has to come from those who are higher up on any of those axes, when we are higher up on them, to accept that our own perceptions and experiences are not universal – there are things that we will miss.[2]

And if that’s the case then perhaps there’s also a responsibility for, not just speaking over someone or even representing them, but making space for them to be as much at the centre as you are, in the cases where you perceive yourself to be at the centre. Maybe these are some of the implications of an ethics of deep, active listening. And although whereas I’ve said earlier we can and need to know what we don’t know, this is more ‘sometimes we’re not able to learn everything we don’t know’. But the two things still have common roots in the problem of recognising what we don’t know yet.

And this brings us back to the idea of sharing authority that was mentioned in the previous session. This might be a frightening prospect. In order to share authority, does that mean letting go of some of yours? Is authority as zero-sum as that: you can’t have more of it unless I have less? Or is it more about creating extra authority by recognising someone else’s authority – the authority of an interviewee or a community member – where it wasn’t being recognised before? Though in that more optimistic model we still face the ethical problem of ways in which the researcher ultimately has more power than the participant. In the traditional model of historical research, you the researcher write the thesis or the article – a written textual document with a single author. What would need to change about our requirements for assessment and doctoral training in order for us to be able to share the authority of research as far as we possibly can?

[1] Obviously we should also be asking critical questions about how any kind of framework like this orders people’s knowledge about what being a competent researcher looks like – what’s being left out? what’s being covered up with euphemisms? what’s being made to look like just one person’s responsibility when actually it should be being supported in a much more structural way? Let’s not forget that competence is often collective, nor that the pressure to be ‘hard-working, self-motivating and enterprising subjects’ in the corporate university is, as Rosalind Gill puts it in her excellent essay on this topic, a huge part of the stress that contemporary academia makes researchers feel.

[2] I’ve written more about this in a blog post last year called ‘Starting to think about teaching about privilege‘, although it still needs a lot of firming up.