Thursday, January 7, 2010

Knowing you know nothing.

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."
- Socrates

My colleagues and dear friends at Trent University and I used to joke that our slogan, our motto for our time there as M.A. students was "in vino veritas" or "in wine (there is) the truth". We drank an awful lot of wine during our discussions of all things archaeology which always continued late into the wee hours of the morning. It was a silly slogan but it represents how important it became for us to spend time together, over a glass of wine or not, to hash out our thoughts and feelings during our shared journey.

Now, as I struggle to finish my research and my PhD, I am finding myself reflecting on how little I actually know. When a student sets out to do their PhD, indeed to even get into any graduate programme, they must write a clear, coherent, and hopefully thoughtful 500 word statement entitled something along the lines of "programme of study". It begins with brief introduction which must contain a single sentence thesis statement. It then goes on to briefly provide some background information as to why the questions this statement presents are important and how one is going to attempt to examine/answer/resolve them. As one progresses through their programme, this statement is constantly revised and revisited - especially in archaeology where often the answers one can answer depend on the artifacts available for study (including but not limited to what is recovered during fieldwork). What I set out to do hasn't changed very much (i.e. lithic raw material analysis) but the questions I am going to be able to discuss definitely have. In part this is because of what I've already stated above - we found two sites with stone tool assemblages containing a lot of lithic raw material variability but we failed to find any potential raw material sources to compare them to.

But really it doesn't matter that the questions have changed. What does matter, and what is something that lately dominates my thoughts, is how ill prepared I feel I am in answering these questions.

To clarify: my M.A. research focused on determining the sources of chert raw materials found in an assemblage from southern Ontario. It was a nice neat little M.A. Chert sources in this region have been extensively studied so there are good descriptions of the materials and clear, established methodologies for describing and differentiating them. Despite having very little background in Ontario cherts and Ontario archaeology for that matter, I was able to complete what I feel was a decent M.A. thesis. It does have some problems, especially concerning my analyses of the microfossils, but nothing too horrible. When I first constructed my PhD research programme I figured I'd just apply the same methods and techniques that I used for my M.A. to chert from our Tanzanian assemblages - and hell I'd even expand it to include other non-chert lithic types if we had them because I'd taken a couple of mineralogy courses and had a fairly good grasp (or so I thought) on petrography. Now that I'm up to my eye-balls in thin sections and have tried to apply my preexisting knowledge base and skills to analyzing them, I find myself woefully unprepared. The macroscopic analysis went pretty good. I struggled a little with distinguishing between the various igneous rocks but most archaeologists do thus throw them all in the general raw material category of "volcanics". Part of why I wanted to look at the "volcanics" and try to separate them was because I wasn't a fan of this too general catch-all category.

So I was fairly confident going into the microscopic analysis. I thought I'd start with the cherts seeing as that is what I "know best". I was sorely mistaken. The cherts from our assemblages are nothing like the well known and well described Ontario cherts. Indeed most might not be cherts at all but cherty varieties of other carbonate (sedimentary) rocks. My fall back is always literature review - if I don't know it, I can read about it and learn it. So that's what I'm doing now: learning all about petrography, not just of sedimentary but also igneous and metamorphic rocks. Luckily the literature on these topics is abundant and I'm slowly refining my knowledge which is allowing me to refine and solidify my methodology. Unfortunately it means I'm having to reexamine repeatedly my slides to check and double check what I think, and how I'm interpreting what, I am seeing is correct. I've already realised that once I'm done my analyses I'll need to meet with a thin section petrographer and confirm my results.

But even as I make progress, even as I start to learn and grasp this new information, all I can think about is how I should already know this stuff. I can't help but think that I shouldn't even be doing this seeing how little I really know. My only consolation is in believing that I can't be the only one who has gone through this. Indeed I have a friend who has had similar trials and tribulations with her PhD research. Being able to talk with her has helped keep me going. That's why I write this post today, so that some day another struggling PhD candidate might read this and know they aren't alone.

Hopefully the unspoken sentiment of Socrates' quote is correct: that by recognizing the limitations of our knowledge we find humility. This humility creates a resolve to constantly learn new things, to expand what we know, and in that process continue to fuel the thirst for new knowledge that got us interested our work in the first place.

It takes a lot of arrogance/confidence (even hubris) to get yourself into a PhD programme and through candidacy examinations. I am beginning to think that maybe it takes humility to not just finish but to deserve your PhD.