know your shit

know your shit, claire says, in her advice of how to be a good science communicator.

i thought i might expand on this.

1. know your shit – by structure.

know how your shit is structured. know how its components relate to each other, how things move, how things attach, how to look at your shit from different angles. know your shit inside and out, three dimensionally, not just two dimensionally. know whether your shit is little or big, know whether it happens fast or slow, whether it’s a system that’s more like a human being or more like a machine, whether it’s a mutualism or a parasitism, whether it changes over time, whether there are uncertainties, how big those uncertainties are. know where your shit ends and other people’s shit begins. know what the overlaps are. know where your shit extends beyond your understanding of it, and vice versa. know that you are still learning your shit, and thus know what it is about your shit that you don’t really know.

2. know your shit – by heart.

know your shit without looking it up. feel your shit. feel how it’s structured, how it moves. know your shit so that if someone asks you a new question you haven’t thought of, you understand deeply by heart enough of your shit’s structure and pieces that you can imagine how it might work, imagine what the answer probably is. these means you have to hold a representation of your shit in your heart, something you add to and subtract from, build on, query with new ideas.

so far you will be an expert in your shit. when you are an expert at plant identification, you have to know your shit by structure and by heart. you have to know which aspects of a plant are constant within a species, and which aspects vary with species. you have to see minute, crucial details and know them to be important. if you are an expert, you can likely do this without a reference guide, and if you are also a holistic sort of botanist, you might also know not just what the distinguishing traits are, but also what they do, why they are structured the way they are. you would likely know your shit by structure and by heart.

BUT until you know your shit by name, you cannot communicate it directly. this brings us to number 3:

3. know your shit – by name.

know how to represent your shit. know what people call your shit. know what words, images, gestures they understand. if they don’t have words or the words they use are wrong, teach them the right words or accommodate to their words. know how to use words to describe the processes your shit goes through. know how to construct analogies that properly represent the key structures of your shit. know what aspects of your shit cannot be captured by words, and how to communicate in other ways – images, direct demonstrations, videos. perhaps there is a particular je ne sais quoi to distinguishing two carex species that really can’t be described in words – show your audience 50 examples of one kind and 50 examples of the other. give them the wordless practice they need to feel your shit, to know it by heart themselves.

know that if you call something by a different name than the one people understand, they will not know what you are talking about. if i call someone bill and you call them pablo we will not immediately realize we are talking about the same person. know that if you use an analogy about something that people have not experienced, it won’t aid in understanding. if i talk about the frustration of opening vials with one latex-gloved hand and you have never worked in a lab, you may not get what i’m saying.

knowing your shit by name is, i would venture, the hardest part for academics, because it is where our training to be scientific experts falls short. it is one thing to know your shit by the names that many of the scientists in your direct academic community use. it is another thing to know your shit by the names that actually allow more distant audiences to understand you.

it is a part of knowing your shit as a science communicator to not only understand its structures by heart, but also to understand its representations by heart. to get weird – one must know which word-boats or image-boats will carry the key concepts intact across the memeless desert of physical reality and allow those concepts to dock, unload, and take hold in a new mind.

~ by academicadventurer on January 28, 2014.

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