[The following is an excerpt from my keynote speech to the Alpha Epsilon Lamda Graduate Honor Society on April 4th, 2014]
…What does it mean to be a critical knowledge worker in the 21st century?
I want to invite you to try a visualization practice that I sometimes do with my students. Close your eyes for a second and see what image comes to mind when I say the word “knowledge.”
Do you have an image of something inside a brain or filling someone’s head? Or maybe books and computers, all with information on them? Some people might be thinking of teachers or friends that have taught them new information or ways of thinking.
Some people may not even think of individuals, but rather the networks or contexts in which we learn and create.
Each of these visions holds a very different conceptualization about knowledge. I want to invite you to consider that knowledge is not merely about facts and information inside our heads, but mainly about our social networks – and by social networks, I don’t just mean online networks, I mean, the relationships we build – face-to-face or online– with others in our world.
There are four ideas you need to understand in order to see this perspective.
The first idea is that we filter knowledge. Every bit of information that comes our way is filtered through our own personal lenses of understanding. Where do these lenses come from? They come from the ways in which we’ve been raised, the experiences we’ve had in the past, and the relationships we’ve built: our culture. Essentially, we filter knowledge based upon the cultural worlds in which we inhabit.
Let’s try something else. I’m going to read a short poem by William Carlos Williams, and as I read, take note of what stands out to you – what’s important, and what do the images remind you of?
The Red Wheelbarrow
So much depends
A red wheel
Glazed with water
Beside the white
So, what did this poem make you think about? If you were raised on a chicken farm surrounded by people obsessed with chickens, you may have focused on the white chickens. If you are an artist, you might have focused on the color red, or the imagery of the poem. We filter ideas and information based on what we know already – and what we know comes from the people that have surrounded us in our lives.
The second idea is that we rank knowledge. Currently in our society, knowledge of SAT words is ranked highly in comparison to knowledge of Harry Potter magic spells. You’re more likely to have access to resources and opportunities with SAT word knowledge than by showing off your Alohomora spell. Of course, it all matters where you are, right? If you were at a Harry Potter convention those spells are going to buy you some serious cred, but the SAT lingo may make you seem pretty nerdy (which would be pretty extreme if you are already at a Harry Potter convention). So, we rank knowledge based on the people and social contexts that surround us.
And this leads to my third and fourth points: Third- that knowledge is constantly changing- between social contexts and within social contexts, and fourth that hackers have power. Before get to the point about hackers, let me talk about knowledge and change. As my earlier Harry Potter example showed, when you move into different social contexts, the value and meaning of knowledge can shift. Yet, this is also true within social contexts.
Recently, a headline appeared in the New York Times: “A New SAT to Realign with Schoolwork” The article described a number of changes to the test, but key among them was a change to the testing of vocabulary words – to be more “common” and less “rarefied.” David Coleman – The President of the College Board, which makes the exam – said that the reason for this change, as well as other changes as was because the SAT had “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.” In essence, the value that we had given as a society to these words had changed – the public has deemed them less relevant, and thus, so did a gatekeeping mechanism to power. What’s important to understand here is that people have the ability to change power structures by re-naming, re-making, or, as I like to call it – hacking – ideas and information.
Which brings me to my last point – that hackers have power. For most of you, when that when you hear the word “hacker” you think of some guy named Anonymous in his parents’ basement trying to fool with the electrical grid. That’s not what I mean. My definition of a hacker is a person that
takes ideas, things, and practices and re-makes them or re-names them in order to produce something new or different. People who hack are the people who can re-shape oppressive structures in our society.
I’ll give you some examples of this idea in action. Lisa Patel, a professor at Boston College developed a program to re-engage marginalized youth in the workforce called “Critical Transitions.” On the front page of their website, you’ll see their “manifesto”:
- No-one achieves by themselves, it is always a group or a family.
- We represent each other in the world; respect.
- We all carry knowledge.
- Who is considered smart is always a reflection of power.
- You have to name it to claim it.
The fifth point in her manifesto here is key to my point– you have power over the things you define. The students in her program work to understand what knowledge they bring from their experiences and name it –this is re-making knowledge/power structures in society; this is empowerment.
Another example of empowerment-through-hacking is in the LGBT community’s co-optation of the word “Queer.” “Queer” used to be a derogatory word. Then the LBGT community purposely took ownership over this word – they began to use it in a way that could empower the community rather than make it derogatory. Now, you’ll see the word everywhere – Queer studies at Colleges and Universities, the concept of “queering” an idea – and now it’s not derogatory, it’s a meaningful word to the community – it’s empowering.
OK, so we have these four ideas: We filter knowledge, we rank knowledge, knowledge is constantly changing, and hackers have power.
When you understand this, than you can more clearly see my argument – that knowledge exists in networks, in the ties we build and in the social contexts in which we participate.
So, what are the implications of this for you? If knowledge exits in networks, how can you be a knowledge worker – or, one who makes and hacks knowledge – in the 21st century?
I would suggest that it means you need to become a strategic and critical networker. You need to learn how to cultivate information that you find through networks, and curate networks that foster powerful learning experiences.
The successful 21st Century knowledge worker understands that knowledge production is a function of power and that networks are the contexts in which you can re-make the world to be a better place.
So, as you move forward, I encourage you – be a critical knowledge worker. Don’t just make something – make something and share it with your community. Don’t just read posts by friends – connect friends that can build something together. Don’t just repeat ideas and live by the status-quo, mix ideas – hack ideas to challenge injustices. You have something unique to share – share it and grow it and connect it. Re-make knowledge through networks to re-make the world.