There are a few things I think about once a week or so, in no particular order, apropos of nothing in particular. It’s often something said to me, maybe even off-handedly, that has been turning over and over in my head for years until it’s polished smooth. One of these comes from my undergraduate thesis adviser, who told me that her only reservation in recommending me for graduate school was that “to succeed in academia you have to play the game, and I’m not sure you’re willing to play the game.” Lately it’s been a quote from a podcast conversation between Christian writer Jen Hatmaker and sociologist-turned-self-help-guru Brené Brown, that in the conservative religious community where Jen grew up, her “idea of ambition was to be the best good girl there was, like, I would follow all the rules the best.”
And this one; this one I turn over constantly.
It’s October or maybe November, 2012, and John is wearing a stained blue puffy jacket stretched tight over his belly. He stands in front of the built-in shelves, gestures at a chalkboard off to the side. “This—” he proclaims, drawing a large, lopsided circle, “is all the knowledge in the world.” He pauses. “And this—” another circle, much smaller, inside the first—“this is what you know.”
He turns to us. Grins. Adjusts the battered fedora sitting atop his wild white hair. His setter, Cosette, thumps her tail against the lectern companionably.
“Every time you learn something, your circle gets bigger,” he says, erasing part of the smaller circle and expanding it. “And every time it gets bigger, you get more points of contact with stuff you don’t know.” He marks the circle in small intervals, for emphasis. “The more you know, the more you find yourself up against the unknown. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
I wore my red Patagonia fleece just about every day that semester, so I can only assume I tugged the collar around my neck at this moment as I filed this idea away in my memory. His words felt both matter-of-fact and mind-bending. It made sense, suddenly, that my avid knowledge-gathering never seemed to bring me closer to certainty, that as I learned more and more the world kept spinning agonizingly out of my reach.
I think about this whenever I give workshops for University of Michigan students preparing for community engagement; we talk about cultural humility, rather than cultural competency, and how important it is to avoid assumptions when you’re encountering new communities and situations. I think about it whenever I sit glassy-eyed in front of the paper I’m writing this summer to prepare for my dissertation; I’m supposed to build a narrative about what I’m interested in researching and what scholarly conversation I’m joining, but the more I read the more I feel like I know absolutely nothing about writing or teaching or language or what it means to study them. I think about this whenever I’m on Twitter, which is too often, and especially when it feels as though we have forsaken all our curiosity about one another, leaving only cynicism and anger and the kind of pettiness that emerges from unexamined pain. I think about it when I read article after podcast after article about the deep hold QAnon conspiracy theories have taken in Christian circles—how desperate people are for certainty, (mis)information we can use as a weapon or a shield, an explanation for the chaos around us, villains and victims that make sense, someone who will tell us what to be angry about.
On good days, I think about John and that chalkboard and the dog under the lectern and I remember the joy of learning new things and the inexhaustible opportunities the world presents for just that. And, of course, the deeply necessary humility that learning requires of us—learning about ourselves, about others, about our histories and the world around us and all the ways we have made and remade it. On bad days I am afraid because I can see all around and within me the manic pursuit of certainty constricting that first chalk-smudged circle.
There are pilgrims and hobbits in this life, as a friend says: people who seek out as-yet-unknown stories, and people who dislike the interruption. I know which one I am. And I also know I’m tired.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.