coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching

Tacit knowledge and graduate education

I suspect one of the reasons I became an English major is that I’m so terrible at reading social cues.

Oh, the gaffes I have gaffed in my life! I was a very awkward child, considered weird by others, and I never managed to fit it. I was pedantic when lightness was required. I mistook flirtations for competition and fought too hard. I approached interactions from my own raw needs rather than consideration for others or the social contract. I lurched from one failed interaction to another, from misread cue to inappropriate behaviour to puzzled ostracism, for years and years.

Books helped me figure out the tacit rules of social life. Books showed me patterns. Books offered models of behavior. Now, a lot of this was implied or inferred, but at least a reader was not directly acting within those social worlds, but could observe and assess. Determine patterns. Slow down the scene. Reread. Figure it out. Literature was the textbook through which I was taught all those social cues and processes I had no natural knack for.

Eventually, I learned how to act like a high-functioning social being (even if I sometimes have to ask myself directly, in the middle of some interaction or another, “What would a human do at this point?”) and I’ve learned a couple of other things as well.

First. How things happen is sometimes more important than what happens. Many social situations are governed not explicitly by the content addressed, but by tone and turn-taking, and carefully deployed deference, or smiles. In Canada we spend a lot of time talking to friends and family and strangers and acquaintances about the weather, and it’s not reallllllly about the weather, is it? It’s more a ritual of attention, or a sort of “I see you,” or “I would like to say something pleasant to engage you while we stand in this hallway waiting for the maintenance worker to find the extra key for the door.

Second. Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I spent many years in pretty grim social isolation, never sure when I would alienate my one remaining friend, and feeling lonely and nervous pretty much all the time. I wanted to fit in more than anything, but I just couldn’t. It was pretty awful, the mismatch between effort and outcome, but working harder when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong is never going to yield different results.

Now, this is an academic blog, not therapy, and I’m going somewhere. Where I’m going is this: graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying: can I just email a professor about being my supervisor? If this work is about my solitary writing labour, why do I have to go to all these department events? Am I supposed to be a good teacher, or is that a bad thing? Am I allowed to talk to my professors if I see them at the grocery store? Isn’t it a better idea to ditch that first year teaching gig for a better class at the local college?

This stuff can tank people. The hidden curriculum–networking, professional communication, how to spend each day, which tasks and relationships to prioritize, and how–supports the overt one. Tacit knowledge greases the wheels, and in its absence, the wheels grind and spark and fail. Good intentions aren’t the problem.

I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring–in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don’t value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally “better” teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.

For me, this is an equity seeking gesture. Those of us not to the library born are at a significant disadvantage, navigating new social worlds and trying to figure them out at the same time as the explicit curriculum bears down so hard on us.

I think I’m breaking some rules by being so forthright about some of these things. Maybe I haven’t totally outgrown my awkwardness and maybe I still don’t fit all the way in. But it is very rewarding to see a lightbulb go off for a student when I can reveal the inner workings of some mysterious process so that he understand it.

And now I ask you: can you share a piece of tacit knowledge, hard won, so someone else can win it a little more easily? Please leave a comment, or share on Twitter with the hashtag #tacitPhD

24 thoughts on “Tacit knowledge and graduate education

  1. Often PhD programs (or any grad program really) have regular seminars that faculty and students attend, or at least mine did when I was a student. It turns out there was a tacit seating hierarchy that I violated. There was a central table in the room with chairs at it, and then chairs around the periphery of the room. I got there early and sat at the table. Everyone kept giving me looks as they walked in, but no one said anything obvious, until a senior faculty came in, and it was clear I was in 'his' seat. He was quite nice and sat somewhere else but after that I learned my lesson- don't show up to new functions on your own if you can help it; hang back and see what's happening before you commit to an action . Another nugget- I had some great grad student colleagues and one did a flow chart of power for me once, mapping out who in the department got along with whom, who should NEVER be on a committee together, and so on. It was awesome.


  2. Thank you for this, Aimée. As another first generation university student, I had zero outside guidance on how to navigate my undergrad, never mind the far more complex systems and expectations of grad school. I'm so pleased that you're levelling the playing field for your students–it's a shame that people who have professor parents have such a significant advantage. I've got SO MANY things to add to your list, but just a few below:

    Tacit knowledge: your professors are going to encourage you to do a bunch of publishing and conferencing to help your chances on the job market, and then they're going to get mad at you when you cross the invisible line, that they don't tell you exists, into “too much.” No one can agree on where that line is–and it shifts all the time–but you need to explicitly ask your supervisor where s/he thinks it is.

    Tacit knowledge: the dissertation proposal is not particularly important, but gets freighted with all kinds of import and anxiety. Your supervisor wants you to write something a) quickly, and b) that resembles your actual dissertation just enough to be defensible and thus get you to the actual writing stage. Do that.

    Tacit knowledge: No one will teach you how to write a dissertation. Buy a few good books on dissertation writing, and on just writing (especially Bird by Bird), and teach yourself.

    Tacit knowledge: university regulations say that you can't work outside of your TA/RA (and if they don't, your committee will likely encourage you not to, because they want you to focus). Everyone is poor, everyone has at least one other job, and everyone generally looks the other way.

    Tacit knowledge: You won't know what the two-body problem is until after you're already in a committed relationship with another PhD student.

    Tacit knowledge: Only 18.6% of PhDs end up in full-time teaching positions, but most of the university functions as though you're supposed to be (and will be) part of that percentage.


  3. My advice is from later in my career, but I think it's worth knowing earlier on. When I was applying for a promotion I was told that the committee would look for a “trajectory” in my research/publications. Well if I'd known that earlier …

    Here's the thing. Your dissertation is ONE OUTPUT from a longer term research program (that you may or may not get to undertake for various reasons). You don't have to answer all the big questions in that one document. You need to have a coherent argument with enough depth to justify that length. You need to demonstrate that you are a good enough researcher to be admitted into the ranks of professional researchers.

    Research generates more questions than it answers. Put these in a file of things you will write later (that was a piece of knowledge made explicit for me by the late Prof Leonore Davidoff).


  4. This is pretty much the whole agenda of The Professor Is In, but for the job market transition, down to what to talk about over dinner… Why do people think this stuff doesn't need to be taught?


  5. Oh Karen! This is why you will sell a million books and why my office hours as grad chair are ALWAYS FULL TO OVERFLOWING. People are desperate for knowledge, which is better than before, when they were not aware that there was important stuff they were not aware of. It is heartbreaking to watch people fail the hidden curriculum, and thus the degree.


  6. You know the grad student who has been in the program forever and is willing to share the lowdown on how things *really* work? As yourself why s/he's taking so long to finish as you decide how many grains of salt to add. I've seen many rookie grad students taking bad advice from people with an unearned air of confidence, and fell into that trap myself way, way back in my own grad student days.


  7. I'm sure this is trollish behavior from a first time visitor (got here via twitter) but I'm sorry this is a problem: “I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring–in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don't value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally “better” teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.”
    Tacit knowledge apparently means it's all your fault not those more powerful folks who utilize tacit knowledge to protect their own positions. Given that a tenured prof who is asked a question they deem a waste of their ever so valuable time is IN FACT already being much more highly valued than the grad student perhaps the TT prof should think, “well, actually, I'm pretty well compensated, relatively, to answer this oh so simple question and maybe I should resent it a little less.” On a similar note, the diss supervisor needs the grad student just as much or more because without her/him the prof is literally NOT a diss supervisor meaning they are either the black sheep lacking advisees or at a less prestigious U without PhD programs, on top of losing out on both the prestige and financial incentives often attached to “mentoring;” all this, not to mention the fact that grad and adjunct labor make possible the, again relative, privileges of the tenure class. How about this for tacit knowledge: Grad students stop confronting me with the fact that I benefit from an exploitative system and get in line, be that “good” grad student and maybe, just maybe, you'll win the lottery like me (but if you don't always remember, tacitly or explicitly, it was YOUR fault!).


  8. In terms of pursuing an academic career, I was shocked to realize how little most professors know about academic debt, labor, professionalization, etc. Two years ago I devised a plan to survey the humanities faculty for career advise. Not having much experience with surveys, I asked two people for input at the start, the director of our humanities center and the director of career services for humanities majors. They responded that the project would be a waste of time because, as one of them observed, “the faculty members don't know crap about these issues.” And for the ones who do know something about this stuff, there's a strange reluctance to share much information with students.

    Another anecdote: I recently read several books by a major academic who definitely understands the crises of scholarly work. Since I was passing through his town, I emailed asking if I could drop by during office hours or if he'd be available for me to take him out to lunch. I wanted to thank him for the high-quality books I had enjoyed and ask him, a seasoned scholar, for advice about building an academic career (I just started a PhD in medieval studies). Being out of town, he wasn't available to meet but thought he'd still offer some advice:

    “You might consider joining the MLA at the student rate. It's a way to keep up with the profession.

    Medieval and Early Modern: work on your Latin.

    Also work on making a short list over time of your favorite scholarly journals and book publishers.”

    The usefulness of this advice is basically zero. Now, I go to resources like TPII. Loved your book, Karen!


  9. I wrote my below comment before reading yours, but I think there's something to the idea that knowledge remains tacit because students often don't know what questions to ask, and if they do ask the right ones, many instructors don't want to spend time answering them. But that's a hard one, and fundamental to the difficulties of teaching (solving students' problems vs forcing them to solve their own). As irritating as the situation is, there are good reasons a professor wouldn't want to take the time to offer better advice (see my second anecdote). I don't fault the academic in my story for giving such useless advice because I wasn't expecting him to spend an hour writing a lengthy email. I fault him because a student asked for help, but he couldn't help, and instead of leaving it at that he tried to compensate by offering worthless help.


  10. Hm. I have a follow up post planned on how when we drag the tacit knowledge out into the open, a lot of it seems to be about respecting hierarchy and maintaining certain privileges that should be called out. But a lot of it isn't: a lot of what I'm teaching students is how the workplace currently operates, because they have expressed a desire to succeed in it. Like Karen Kelsky at the The Professor is In, I would also like the academy to be different than it is, and I work towards that goal. But right now I see the least privileged among our grad students really suffering in their programs because they don't know the secret rules. Even if they're shitty rules, you can't win the game without knowing them, and some sutdents labour under significant disadvantage relative to others in this regard.


  11. Aimee, this is so important. My head is exploding with all kinds of thoughts about this as someone who also feels like she is still figuring out all the unspoken rules and codes and who goofs up constantly. But it tells you that they really are tacit because I can't think of a single one right now. I do know that one thing I regret, looking back, is not being more generous whenever I had the opportunity to do so, even as a grad student. In fact, there are many things that I think back on from my grad school years where I cringe at my lack of generosity. It is so easy, when you feel small and scared, to forget to give folks the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and to be as generous as possible. I think I often felt defensive when I did not need to be. It's hard to do.


  12. Lily! The story I tell all the time about you is how if it wasn't for you loaning me a book (The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, by Sandy Stone) I would be an 18th century scholar. It was incredibly generous of you. It was in our first week at UofA, and you asked me about my interests, and I told you, and you loaned me this book, and it CHANGED MY LIFE. I'm sure there's lots about your own experience that you remember differently, but I want you to know that that is a kindness that remains top of mind for me, on the regular. I loan that book out to my students now.


  13. Although I've made plenty of mistakes (few of which are useful, all of which were costly), some guesses I made in graduate school turned out to be good ones:

    – Although the initial years in a graduate program seemed designed to make you feel like a fish out of water, as you get deeper into a specialty and a dissertation project, you will, sooner or later, find a “home” and stop feeling guilty that you don't know everything in every part of your field. Look forward to that.

    – Yes, a dissertation proposal could be made difficult. Don't let it. I've seen people agonize over it as long as others spent writing their full dissertation.

    – I agree with the above comment about the dissertation: think of it as a useful step, and pile all of your hopes and dreams and revision ideas into a file labeled “For the Book.” When you get to the book stage and are confronting that impossible mass, pick out the most useful things and then dump everything else into “For future projects.” Knowing that that “future” pile is there will be helpful for allaying your concern, when it hits you, that you only have one good idea in you. Even if most of the things that end up in that file are useless and they yield little for what comes next, the exercise gets you in the habit of looking out for ideas and investing in research beyond what you can see today.

    – On a related line, don't go AWOL. Check in with your committee during your dissertating phase regularly, offering updates on your work, timelines, and regular chapters. Don't wait until it's all done and “ready to be seen,” since you'll just be building up a general sense that you're unreliable in the meantime.

    Erin Penner


  14. Also, I'm managing a grad program of 140 students, and I'm doing things like trying to secure short term disability insurance for them, restructure the area exams to be more fair and uniform and useful, create workshops geared to writing skills and publishign skills and professionalization and pedagody, and more. Honestly, if all 140 student emailed me questions like “what is the first day of finals?” I would do nothing but answer them. I *do* get those questions and it takes only 10 seconds on google for students to answer them by themselves, and they should, because it's simple respect. I am very well paid, and I don't think acting as a human google machine for simple questions of fact very easily discoverable in very obvious places is a good deployment of that salaried time. It is the same in any workplace.


  15. I get that but, based on a very informal review of the various think pieces out there about grads and the dismal, exploitative system of PhD education and academic labor, most of what is said in public by tenure track and tenured faculty is limpid advice on how to best navigate this cesspool (of which the Prof is In is perhaps one of the larger examples, especially given the dubious “consulting” business that accompanies it, to be honest). A smattering of them actually address the ways the academic hierarchy, whether in tacit, implicit, or explicit form, relies on and propagates this system. Indeed it makes one wonder if, not so secretly, the tenured class isn't so interested in doing anything about the exploitation of their nominal colleagues–we only seem to be peers when it comes to asking for more cheap labor and never when it means making decisions or actually going out on the line to advance the claims of contingent and “student” labor. My tone here is militant because it has come to this point; tenure is now as much a hindrance to confronting the restructuring of universities and their reliance on the precariate as it is a bulwark against administrative meddling. Finally, a.) this isn't a game one can “win,” and b.) since these “rules” are social, not explicitly administrative, it should be on those applying the “rules” to stop doing so (rather than on the “players”–cause it's super fun–to conform to those “rules” in the hopes they will get patted on the head (or receive that super valuable “tough love”) from those in power). Obviously we would all like things to be better but there are actually things that can be done to make it better, like organizing across faculty divisions and actually acting to counter the exploitation if students and adjuncts, rather than more “professionalization” that acts as if you just behave the right way you can “win.”


  16. Just saw your other post and want to acknowledge the real difficulties and challenges facing directors of grad studies, etc., in the face of what's happening in higher ed. I'm just dubious that those efforts will pay off in the face of the structural adjustments happening in our labor market. The more we invest in “professionalization,” elevating the reified path to “success” or offering up more advice on alt-ac careers, the more we look away from concrete organizing to address the exploitation that is now the norm in university labor.


  17. You know the people in your graduate program who seem better than you, more successful, better at sucking up, the entitled ones who do more professional stuff than you…you know those people? They may not turn out to be people who do what they want to do with their lives. Don't pay too much attention to them–you do not know how things are going to turn out, and neither do they.


  18. I remember that moment too! I remember you talking about your stuff and thinking, she will totally love that chapter about all the cool women in the Atari lab. Thanks for reminding me of that exchange.


  19. More so than in many domains, I think the propaganda your parents fed you when you were young is true in academia—it pays to be kind. It's often not obvious, but showing yourself to be reliable, efficient, and (crucially) willing to do something for some reason besides immediate personal gain is something that people notice. It can lead to people thinking “you know, maybe x would be someone we could approach about (something fun or interesting or rewarding).” Being trusted is a real asset. So, don't be kind and generous because of its pragmatic value, but don't think that by being kind and generous you'll be falling behind in the academic rat race, either. Long and medium term, I'm betting kindness pays better than crime.


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