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Ways of Knowing

The Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) brings together faculty, postdocs, and graduate students across the University of Minnesota committed to social justice oriented research in the Global South. First year students in the graduate minor in Development Studies and Social Change in ICGC take a seminar called Ways of Knowing. Although I don’t think of myself as doing research—and my previous experience in the Global South had been one week at a conference in Havana—I am a card-carrying epistemologist and was known to many of the ICGC faculty as someone who is thoughtful about the sorts of issues that arise in the research they do. Central to what they knew about me was my having taken the university itself as a site for philosophical fieldwork, both theoretically, as I argued for putting trustworthiness in broad, morally and politically inflected terms at the heart of all research endeavors, and practically, as I worked on initiatives such as GRASS Routes and responsible conduct of research programming. Consequently, I was asked to teach the Ways of Knowing seminar, which I did twice; I also spent two months at the Center for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape as part of an ongoing set of faculty and graduate student exchanges between the two centers.

There were approximately 15 students in the seminar. They were enrolled in graduate programs across the University and had different relationships to their intended sites of research: for some it was their home; others had previously spent little time there. I invited colleagues to meet with us for most class periods, sharing some of their own work and addressing the core themes of the seminar from their own experience. I explained the aims and orientation of the seminar as follows.

Research ought to be trustworthy. This is a truism, whatever the subject matter, discipline, or site of the research, and whatever the identities and social locations of the researchers and of their research concerns. But, depending on these and other factors, just what it means for research—and researchers—to be trustworthy is both variable and complex; and even for any particular researcher, being trustworthy in one context and in relation to one audience may well be at odds with being trustworthy in others. This seminar will explore these complexities both theoretically and as they arise in particular research projects. We will focus especially on two sorts of tensions around trustworthiness. First, disciplinary and interdisciplinary: How do particular disciplinary methods serve to ground the trustworthiness of research in those disciplines, and how do methodological and other differences lead to—problematic or generative—tensions in interdisciplinary communication or collaboration? Second, institutional and locational: What are the specific challenges for the trustworthiness of research based in universities such as the University of Minnesota on issues of concern to the Global South, and what sorts of practices either undermine or help to support individual and institutional trustworthiness? How do researchers’ own— often multiple and complex—social locations help or hinder their trustworthiness in relation to the diverse others with whom they engage in the course of their work?

My hope for the seminar was to weave critical attention to these tensions into students’ experiences of being socialized into a discipline (or a specifically delineated interdiscipline)—not with the aim of resolving them, but rather of articulating and better understanding them and learning habits of responsibly attending to them and to the diverse, often conflictual relationships that structure them. The second time I taught the seminar the students’ final assignment was to write a letter to themselves ten years in the future. I asked them to remind their future selves of what they had been thinking about during the seminar in light of how they thought about the changes and challenges they were expecting to encounter in the intervening years. And I asked them to pass on their hopes for how they would be thinking about the tensions around trust and trustworthiness in the work they hoped to be doing.

As with my work with GRASS Routes and RCR, I saw my role as a philosopher as helping to articulate and cultivate an institutional culture of attentiveness to the full range of relationships—of dependencies and vulnerabilities—that shape and are shaped by academic practices, especially as how we live those relationships has implications for the trustworthiness of what we do.6 That culture is at the heart of ICGC’s identity, but given the wide (disciplinary'' and geographic) range of work that researchers do, the ethos tends to be more implicit than interrogated and explicitly argued for. My aims for the seminar were not to communicate a body of knowledge but rather to stage a practical intervention into the socialization of a generation of researchers that drew on and was fully in accord with the ethos of ICGC but challenged and posed (hopefully generative) tensions with students’ home departments and disciplinary norms. The task of revealing and critically examining implicit assumptions and norms is quintessentially philosophical, but not well pursued from the armchair, and it was both challenging and deeply rewarding to take on this task in sustained engagement with students and colleagues in ICGC.

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