Knowing what I Don’t Know

One of the wonderful things about teaching survey courses is learning where your holes are. I’m not being sarcastic, either. I know there are geographic areas about which I know very little, and areas where I know a great deal, even if I don’t remember it all at once. Since I’m one of those people who likes to fill in holes, or at least lay a few planks over them so my ignorance is a bit less obvious to passers-by, teaching is one way of forcing myself to look at times and places I generally avoid. I’m comfortable with US and European history, and know the academic landscape pretty well. Parts of Asia and Latin America? Terra Incognita.

The first time I really collided with discovering how little I knew was while preparing for Comprehensive Exams, aka Comps, aka “If you have a life, you’re doing it wrong.” Although many colleges and universities are getting away from the idea of having a series of massive exams to make you prove that you have mastered your field prior to starting your dissertation research, some have kept them around. I think, for humanities and other fields where you have a lot of material that is generally applicable to your specialty, having Comps is not a bad thing. Anyway, my comps exams were over two weeks. The first week was general US history from the beginning of the colonial period through the 20th century, broken into three exams of four hours each. The second week (assuming you passed the first week’s tests) was for your field, subfield, and outside field. If you passed those, you had a three-hour oral exam. If you passed that you were AllButDissertation (ABD) and entitled to have several rounds bought for you by the other grad students at Ye Olde Watering Hole.

As I got started preparing for Comps (mine were in April. I started studying in January), I discovered everything that had not been covered in class. US diplomatic history? Nothing. US economic history? Hole. Cold War historiography? Smaller hole because of a US culture class that had wandered into some Cold War stuff. I spent a goodly amount of time in the library stacks and the electronic databases looking up review articles to find the major books and to find summaries of debates and discussions. It was a relief to get back onto kinda familiar ground, where I was just making certain that I kept the right book, author, and argument together. For some reason I keep confusing Bancroft and H. H. Bolton, for example. Not a smart thing to do on a major written essay exam.

When I finally finished everything, I was brain-dead. But I knew a lot more about US history and about major historical arguments about and in US history. And where I needed to do more reading (diplomatic history of the mid-19th century to WWI). Now I was ready do hyper-focus on my dissertation and forget everything I’d crammed. Kinda.

Fast forward a few years and I’m presented with a World History textbook, the crate of teachers’ materials for said book, pointed at a classroom, and told “Go forth and teach.” I knew I didn’t want to stay glued to the book, because reasons. I started out pretty confidently, because Renaissance Europe, pre-Colombian Americas and South Asia are all areas I’ve had a lot of class work in, or have studied on my own. 19th and 20th century Latin America? Splat. Southeast Asia? Splat. Africa? Um, well, I know the colonial history pretty well but not the 20th century, and trying to find sources that are not Subaltern Studies or “Europe-bad, Africa-good” can be a touch difficult without a great deal of digging and sorting and piecing together bits.

I also discovered over the course of the year that there are errors in the book (!!!), some because all textbooks are outdated as soon as they come off the printing press, and some because the writers had a habit of omitting certain facts and ideas (Apartheid did not go quietly; the death toll from the Great Leap Forward is 45,000,000 not 15,000,000). And this is in areas where I had a tiny bit of knowledge. I really need to fill in South America and post-Colonial Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and more on Imperial and interwar China. But by knowing what I don’t know, I’m one step toward filling in some of the gaps. And I try to be honest with the students “I don’t know that, but remind me and I’ll try to find some information and get back to you tomorrow.”

Looking back, I think it was Comps that made me willing to acknowledge my ignorance. If the choice is self-assurance or a passing grade, I’d rather pass, thanks.

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4 thoughts on “Knowing what I Don’t Know

  1. Regardless of how much we cram in our brains, there is STILL a ton of holes… And one still doesn’t have a life… 😦

    • I triple-dog-dare you to get within Peter Grant’s throwing range and make that suggestion.

      The problem in the book is not that the authors made Apartheid sound good, but they made it sound as if the Afrikaaners just looked around one day and said, ” Hey, you know, this is wrong and a bad thing to do. Let’s scrap it,” no muss, no fuss, no feathers, and everyone lived happily ever after. Erm, not exactly.

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