By Sam Grinsell |

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

T. H. White, The Once and Future King

It might seem an obvious thing to say, but there is no need to go to training courses if they don’t teach you something. PhD students generally have access to a range of courses designed to supplement the training received through doctoral study. These can be an excellent way to improve the range of skills you bring to future careers. And yet, without intending to, I recently found myself attending some that didn’t add a great deal to my knowledge. In this post, I want to consider how we can preserve a sense of our own ignorance, and seek out things that really move us outside our comfort zones. This is to make a broader point that a consciousness of one’s own ignorance can be a strength.

So, how did I come to be at training courses I didn’t need? Every now and then, the training institute from my university emails a list of upcoming courses. Although I do also look in advance to identify ones that might be of use, I also check this bulletin to see if there’s anything I might have missed. I’ve attended many courses, most recently a course on digital image editing and one on writing for the web. These are both things that interest me, but the events themselves were at too introductory a level to be of great use to me. This is not to say I didn’t find them interesting, but that I did not come out knowing much more than when I came in.

Why was this? What went wrong? Well, the trouble comes from my way of identifying courses: I looked to see if there was something that might interest me, but actually in many ways I’m beyond the introductory level in many of the things in which I am interested. In other words, while I may feel my own ignorance in these areas, I am not starting from the position of a novice in them anymore. I have outgrown these courses. What I ought to be doing is identifying areas in which I am truly ignorant.

A PhD is a journey towards becoming an expert on one specific topic


A PhD is a journey towards becoming an expert on one specific topic, and attaining a broad sense of a wider field in which our work sits. This can make us overly conscious of our lack of expertise in other areas with which we are somewhat familiar: I do know how to use photoshop, and I write regularly for the web (here I am doing it right now) but I know I am far from an expert in these things, so I am still attracted to learning more. What I ought to be doing is identifying areas in which I am truly ignorant and seeking out training there, or looking for more intermediate training in the areas that interest me.

So, I am now making an effort to be more conscious of my own levels of knowledge across a range of subjects. I am a historian, and have something of a grasp of the areas pertaining to my own research. In this field, I am approaching expert level knowledge. But I also know something of digital culture, guitars, retail, cycling, design, and a host of other unrelated things. I am no expert on these, but nor am I completely uninformed or unskilled. On the other hand, I am ignorant when it comes to languages, spreadsheets, engineering, fashion, and a long list of other things.

Of course, it is excusable to have areas of ignorance. No one can be informed on everything. However, it seems to me an awareness of our own blind spots can help us think more clearly about what we might need to improve. Beyond that, it is surely beneficial to return from time-to-time to the position of being a complete novice; to remind ourselves what it feels like to first be guided through a way of thinking with which we are unfamiliar; to place ourselves in the trust of another’s skill as an educator (be that through classes, online training, published writings, or any other method). As we move further away from being students, to become researchers and educators ourselves, having the humility to place ourselves in a position where our ignorance is exposed should be a healthy reminder that we are not all-knowing. Indeed, in many areas we remain practically as ignorant as our student selves. Becoming experts should not convince us of our own genius.

…in many areas we remain practically as ignorant as our student selves. Becoming experts should not convince us of our own genius.

To return to where we started, I have decided that part of my aim in choosing courses must now be to expose myself to things of which I am ignorant. I will still look out for training courses on topics that interest me, but only those targeted above beginner level. I’d encourage you to take a look at the state of your knowledge across a range of areas, and ask yourself what you could add too, and what areas of ignorance you might wish to further explore. You might find yourself learning some completely unexpected new sets of skills.

Sam Grinsell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, having previously earned a BA in Ancient History and History and an MA in Urban History, both at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in colonial cities and the built environment more broadly, and he also maintains a strong interest in digital pedagogy. His current research on British imperial architecture in the Nile valley is funded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.

Image 1 by Paul Thompson, National Geographic, Public Domain

Image 2 by Alan Cleaver, CC-BY