Tacit Knowledge

Are you as disturbed as I am by what I realized at the end of my last post?  You should be, especially if you are one of my students.  Because if my (or anybody's) ability to write depends on being able to do something that, by definition, only the brilliant and/or hard-working can do, then what hope do you have that I am ever going to be able (not to mention, willing) to teach you how to do it yourself?  Answer: none.

Which is yet another of Prof. Boice's destabilizing insights (or, rather, carefully tested hypotheses†) about why academics don't write, having to do with their operating assumptions about what it means to be able to write.   In short: they have themselves never been taught how to write; they have only ever been rewarded for demonstrating their ability to do so.  In consequence, they consider writing not only as something unteachable as such, but also something that to teach would diminish their capacity to recognize brilliance in their own students.  After all, if we could teach our students how to write--all of them, not just the ones who already seem to demonstrate an aptitude--what would that mean about us as privileged bearers of intellect?*

Ah.  Because, as Prof. Boice points out, if not in quite these words, that would be cheating.  Giving our students the answers.  Not allowing them to demonstrate their ability to solve incompletely framed problems.  Plus, it would destroy our grading curves; we might even have to give them all As.  And then where would we be?  Our entire credentialing system would go down the drain.**  Oh, and right, we might actually have to learn how to teach as opposed to just standing in front of our classes sounding brilliant, and who has time for that?***

†Robert Boice, "Writing Blocks and Tacit Knowledge," The Journal of Higher Education 64.1 (Jan-Feb. 1993): 19-54.
*Other than that it would make us brilliant teachers and, potentially, actually recognizable for our skills.  But who wants that?
**Except, that is, insofar as it would expose those who were less good as teachers because their students wouldn't do as good work.  But then we--that is, our universities, colleges, and schools--might actually have to value our teachers for their teaching, not just their (potentially) marketable research.  Just saying.
***Have I mentioned how all of my students are brilliant?  I wonder why.  I'm just lucky, I guess.


  1. One of the things I most appreciated about being an undergrad at Chicago (and, to a lesser degree, a grad student too) was studying with people who were brilliant in their field, even if they didn't know how to teach very well. It's not for every student, but for me, coming from a good but not brilliant high school in southwestern Michigan, it was breathtaking to have courses with Robert Ferguson, Jamie Redfield, Bob Richards, Ruth Benca, Noel Swerdlow, and others at the top of their game. If they were good teachers, so much the better, but I learned much even from those who weren't--both about how not to teach, but also about the subject, because they were usually so passionate about it that I figured out on my own (or with my friends) what I needed to know.

    Of course, one of the hard lessons that I learned after getting my job at UMass Amherst is that most of my own students are not like I was in my undergrad years at Chicago, and that the styles that worked so well for me as a student did not translate very well to my new setting. I could write a long dissertation about why, but for now, I'll just say that my UMass students, unlike my Chicago compeers, did not presume that anything their teachers said, or assigned, was ipso facto important.

  2. I think you've rather made my point: the academy rewards those who already have the practical knowledge that we otherwise keep tacit.


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