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