Saturday, September 28, 2013

On (Not) Knowing, and Kale Sweet Potato Soup

I don't like not knowing the answers.

I'm sure it comes with the territory of a relatively easy school career, of becoming accustomed to praise for getting it right.  Not knowing feels like dangerous ground.  In a strange way, it's probably one of the motivations that drove me back to graduate school, not once, but twice: this insatiable need to know, and to be right.

Except that sometimes, not-knowing is actually useful.

A few weeks ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Leah Hager Cohen, whose recently-published book I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't) is not just an encouragement to confess ignorance, but to embrace uncertainty and honor doubt as a way to increase the possibilities for true communication.  In other words, not-knowing helps us to know in a more authentic way.

I was a little blown away.

I shouldn't have been, of course; I devoted seven years of my career before my current job to creating collaborative research placements for undergraduates, because I was so convinced of the value of not-knowing.  It wasn't just that I wanted to show them that knowledge comes from somewhere, and to show them that the process of arriving at knowledge was just as--if not more than--the knowledge itself, but to help them realize that there were instances in which even the people whom they most feared and respected, their professors, didn't know, either; it's a concept that dates back in writing at least to Socrates.  I wanted to destabilize the traditional balance of power in the classroom, in the typical Freirean way making authentic learning possible by helping students to feel like co-creators.  I used to talk with groups of academically at-risk students about imagining faculty members as learners, too, and feeling comfortable approaching them as fellow learners, as people who regularly screwed up, made mistakes, and were just plain clueless.  That usually elicited guffaws from the audience, but I know for a fact that it made a difference, because many of them started going to office hours. 

Cohen pointed out that this year's graduating high school class has, essentially, grown up under the No Child Left Behind Act; we are looking at an entire generation of students for whom there is a very real premium on knowing the right answer.  Not knowing has always had real consequences, not just for them, but for teachers, for school budgets, and therefore, for all of their peers.  The stakes around knowing are pretty high, and not knowing is ... well ... practically a crime.

I think about this where I work, which is a place full of students who have known things all of their lives.  They are excellent at knowing.  One of my responsibilities involves helping students to figure out if they need a tutor, and then finding one.  I haven't had a tutor myself, but I do know how hard it is to come from a place of power, in which you know everything, and suddenly, the street signs are written in Thai.  (True story, by the way.  One of the most humbling learning experiences I've ever had was in Thailand, where I realized what it must be like to be illiterate, and have to rely on people around you--many of whom you were told were  untrustworthy at best--to help you do the most basic things.)

Of course, the attitude is pervasive far beyond school.  People reassure us that there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I bet you've asked one yourself, haven't you?  You know what this is like: the sinking feeling that everyone knows the answer but you, and when you finally do muster up the courage to ask, you can see the muffled snickers and wide eyes that reveal the way people really feel about your question.  They will talk about you when you leave the room.  This "missed" communication happens even in polite conversation, when people talk about other people we really ought to know, or make cultural references that fly right over our heads.  We know how immersion--being placed into an environment where it's nearly impossible to ask ALL of the questions you might need answered--is a powerful learning tool.  So when is it appropriate to confess to ignorance?

I started a new job for the second time in two months, and while I feel confident that I have transferable skills, there's a lot I'm learning all over again.  I am doggedly self-sufficient, but the learning curve is steep, and institutional knowledge runs deep.  I want to look smart.  Don't we all?  But I will make mistakes (in fact, I already did make a mistake), when I think I know something, and it turns out I don't know after all.  I will have to ask questions.  If I'm lucky, some of the questions will surprise everyone, and will shake their assumptions, or identify gaps in knowledge.   Maybe they won't know, either.  And in the end, maybe we can try to re-value inquiry, not just as a theoretical academic value (because YES of COURSE we value inquiry!) but as a way of being in the world.

Sweet Potato Soup with Kale and Freekeh
Adapted from here.

If we never confessed to not-knowing, we'd also probably be a lot less likely to try new things.  Like freekeh, for example.  Which goes surprisingly well with red curry.  (Sing along with me: "super freak, super freak, it's super freekeh ...")

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 t. minced garlic
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 T. red Thai curry paste
3/4 c. uncooked freekeh
7 1/2 c. vegetable broth
1 15 oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 c. kale, finely chopped
fresh ground pepper

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and potato, and saute, stirring occasionally until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute another minute or two until that starts to soften, too.

Add the curry paste and mix to coat, stirring continuously until the curry is fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the freekeh and broth, and bring the soup to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat, and cook 20 minutes.

Add the chickpeas and kale; cover again and cook until the kale is just wilted, between 5-10 minutes, depending on how small you've made chopped the kale.

Serve in a beautiful bowl, knowing that everyone at your table will devour it.
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  1. Love this post.

    I'm in an interesting place because I'm trying to learn something new (computer programming) and I've had to leave behind books written for adults in favour of books written for kids. Because they're speaking to my level of base knowledge. It's humbling to be holding books with cartoons in them. :-) But I am ultimately learning it that way.

  2. I read this yesterday and have been dying to come back to comment. I just read a book by Baron Baptiste where there is an entire chapter on not knowing and how that opens us up to so many more possibilities than if we take the stance that we know all that we need to know. I love this idea of not knowing and want to become better at it. I also want to know about the job stuff my friend. A new job again? Hopefully good stuff? Email me! xo

  3. I'm having a REALLY hard time right now with not knowing. Not knowing if my son will arrive safely. Not knowing when he will arrive. Not knowing what he'll be like when he gets here. Not knowing what the transition will be like for my partner, my daughter or I. All I know right now is that I don't know a damn thing and it's driving me CRAZY. I'm really have a break down about it.

    But the thing is, I can't know. There is NOTHING I can do to know, so I have to find acceptance. It's hard. I'm failing miserably. But there is nothing really I can do so I guess I'll just keep failing miserably at it all until something happens. I guess that is just what life feels like sometimes.

  4. i just read this and couldn't agree more. as a music educator (and more specifically when teaching jazz) one of my biggest jobs is reprogramming that tendency. so many students arrive feeling a compulsion to find the correct answer . . . or, more accurately, to avoid anything that might reveal ignorance or less-than-complete mastery, especially when attaining that mastery is completely unreasonable in the time allotted. i have to explain that i want to see them digging into the process and will appreciate that much more than a not-wrong response (e.g. faking one's way through a song) and it generally takes a while for that shift to occur.

    the soup looks good too :)


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