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  1. What are the critical genealogies of the term "skill" and how do they affect its use today?
  2. Are there ways of thinking that are occluded and obstructed by the use of the term?
  3. What keywords constellate around it?
  4. What kinds of critical projects does your keyword enable?


Skill as Practiced Knowledge

The OED defines "skill" as the "capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty," the "ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice;" hence, "practical knowledge;" or "expertness." As a noun, skill is a precipitate of past actions in training or in practice that further indicate the ability or capacity to put knowledge into practice, to performatively and effectively implement a form of knowledge, to operationalize it within particular contexts. It is “savoir-faire,” the French compound verb that means “to know [how] to do.”

“Skill” relates to “knowledge” then through this emphasis on practice: it is a form of applied or applicable knowledge. In distinction from the use of the word “knowledge,” used frequently in the humanities to connote more absract or theoretical knowledge, the word “skill” tends to highlight use value. In some formations, this emphasis in "skill" on use value is positively valued. Some examples include professional schools like business and public affairs, also the fine and performing arts, and to some extent, the social sciences, where “skills and methods” hold a more central part of professional training and identity than within the dominant academic formations of the humanities and cultural studies. In these last formations, “skill” receives little treatment at advanced (graduate) training levels. Discussions of skill are instead relegated to "functional" service domains like language learning and composition. In critical discussion they are frequently and perjoratively associated with an instrumentalization of knowledge.

From the critical angle of Cultural Studies, then, skill often connotes technologies and cultures of management, as well as an (anti-critical) educational culture that reproduces its workers. To wit, two twentieth century usage examples from the OED Online: [1938] "It is the function of the educator…to enable the pupils to appropriate and use all that preceding generations have learnt, the useful skills, the practical knowledge, the social organizations, the moral principles;" and [1967] COULTHARD & SMITH in Wills & Yearsley Handbook Management Technology: "Techniques of management by objectives, performance planning, and skills analysis are being more widely applied as they become increasingly effective in contributing to success."

Skill as Differential Value

An earlier, now obsolete meaning for “skill” given in the OED is "An art or science. Obs." In his keyword entry on "Art" in "Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, " Raymond Williams begins to suggest a genealogy that can account for the evolution between the contemporary and obsolete meanings of the word “skill” and for the different contemporary valuations of the term itself. The earlier meaning of skill as an art or science references a historical moment in which art and science are not functionally disarticulated as forms of knowledge, but were in fact interchangeable references. The contemporary associations, usages, and meanings of skills emerge beginning in mC17 with the practical division of labor and of knowledge in modernity.

With the differentiation of labor and specialization of knowledge, art comes to name a realm separate from science. "Science" takes on its modern meaning through its experimental and reproducible methods and is elevated in the hierarchy of discourses by the rationality and objectivity of its knowledge. "Art" increasingly names a separate realm of endeavor with its own internal hierarchies. Indeed, both art and science acquire their own differentiations—distinctions among liberal, fine, and useful or mechanical arts, and the natural, social, and human sciences. These distinctions inform the emergence of the modern disciplines and the structure of the modern university. These distinctions within the university are tied to changing knowledge needs outside it, as well as the class structures that the division of labor produces and requires: certain kinds of knowledge become valued for their ties to or their distance from direct economic interests or applicability.

Within these practical divisions of labor, “skill” becomes part of the way that labor and knowledge are differentiated and abstracted. The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor is the first of these. Skill becomes associated with specialized training in the process. Historians of labor look at how industrial technologies actively worked to de-skill human labor by mechanizing the operations of production (both human and machine), removing decision-making from low-level workers and centralizing it within management. New skill and knowledge needs arose within that sector, for how to manage the differentiated process of production for maximum efficiency. Increasingly, skill acquisition--or at least, the credentializing associated with it--relies upon formal education, which becomes the necessary condition of professional mobility and the professional-managerial classes.

Within this modern educational system, however, humanistic knowledge gets institutionalized as disinterested and universalist forms of knowledge, a form of cultural capital encoded in direct opposition to technological, instrumental, and applied knowledges. (See Christopher Newman’s Ivy and Industry, however, on the intimate connections between humanistic education and the development of a skilled professional managerial class.)

The present day distance of the academic humanities from the practical questions, discussions, and investments shaping policy questions and new technologies, even in light of the politicization of all knowledge production, presents challenges and questions for those scholars aspiring to socially and politically-influential intellectual cultural work. The emergence of such formations as “the public humanities” and “the digital humanities” represent attempts to bridge and engage in new knowledge practices that address these gaps. One question is what the discourse of “skills” might offer those new knowledge practices.

If Cultural Studies has engaged "skill" obliquely only, many of the keywords that constellate around it--“labor,” “work,” “profession,” "management," "industry," and "technology"--are the subject of CS scholarly inquiry. So are "experience," "expertise," and "practice." As a term, skill is joined to the transformation of labor under the rise of industrial and organizational managerial culture and the educational inculturation for it; hence to a changing knowledge economy. Skill here engages the rubrics of cultural work and professional development. "Skill" holds a particular value in and for the formation of professional middle classes and the education that enables its (re)production. Economic shifts and transformations very much affect the kinds of "skills" that are in demand and valued, and produce demands for different kinds of (re)education. In this regard, see Randy Martin on post-professional education and retooling under current economic system; see also discussions of David Pink's "A Whole New Mind" on the global redistributions of skilled labor and the so-called creative economy, proposing that "The new MBA is an MFA.")

Critiques of "Skills" as an Educational Emphasis

The geneaology traced here points to a correlation between abstractions of value, the differentiation and deployment of labor and management, and the discourses and meanings of skill. The abstraction of “skills” from context also operates in the human resources/professional development discourse of “transferable skills.” Within education, a critique of “skills” arises in a mass education context and in a testing culture, where the “basic skills” taught and tested are abstracted in ways that reveal more about the world and assumptions of the testmakers than any other context of application. From this point of view, testing reveals little more than how easily or well students can apprehend and assimilate the logic of the dominant schooling culture, and little of what applicable knowledge they have gained through their education.

The critique of skills, particularly as it emerges from cultural studies and the humanities, needs to know what social difference and change it is critiquing towards, however. Insofar as formal education promises a return on an increasingly expensive investment via transit into the professional class, and insofar as the flexible yield is understood (by students, employers, private and public funders) as “skilled knowledge” for workforce and economic development, educators and educational institutions will be asked to demonstrate the efficacy of what they teach in these terms. The increasing flow of students away from the liberal arts and towards vocational majors signals a need to adapt the discourses of the liberal arts disciplines to engage with the skills as well as the knowledge they teach. And insofar as the disciplines are professions, they traffic in skills as well as knowledge. There may be a great deal more to unpack--and add to--in the skills categories that academic humanities vitae do name by "research" and "teaching." The reproduction of these professions and knowledges via graduate and undergraduate students will likely depend on how they can (re)conceive their forms of knowledge and practice in ways that can chart pathways through the university and into professional spaces outside it as well as within and across it. To do so conscientiously and critically will require attention to contexts outside the disciplines themselves.

Transferable Skills, and the Crisis of Humanities Graduate Programs

(Miriam): My own interest in the keyword "skills" derives from two linked contexts. First, I work in a professional staff position that supports faculty and graduate student professional development for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship and engagement. My unit is articulated as a "research" unit in a Research I University, and it is situated in the humanities division, where professional identities are most often conceived and performed through subject/content knowledge rather than performative skill knowledge. Hence the well-known complaint about humanities graduate education: that students receive no formal training in the two things their programs actually expect them to do upon graduation: teaching and writing. I’m also coming at this as a doctorate who “transferred” out of the "future faculty" track assumed by most doctoral programs in the humanities.

In making that professional shift, I became interested in the conceptual utility and also limits of the notion of "transferable skills." The discourse and logic of transferable skills highlights the transits that skills might provide among professional sectors (based on the assumption of their abstract-ability). The discourse of "transferable skills" also responds to the so-called "job crisis" of humanities graduate programs, which almost exclusively train Ph.D. students for tenure-track positions that are available to a shrinking percentage of their graduates.

At very least, the "transferable skills" discourse plays up skills as a form of capital, educated investment, while simultaneously downplaying another key aspect of job acquisition: the social networks professional training programs are also designed to provide. These networks are also a key part of providing transits into other forms of professional employment. This recognition places a different kind of pressure on graduate programs to reassess the kinds of preparation and development support they provide.

Ultimately, I'm interested in whether or how "skills" might open a rethinking of the professional capacities and functional roles humanities graduate programs are training their students for. Insofar as skills do provide professional transits, they chart pathways out of the professional/graduate humanities programs. However, this may not simply be because skills are easily transferred from context to context, but because they can be multiplied across work and educational contexts. National initiatives like the Woodrow Wilson Practicuum Grants, which underwrote graduate student humanities internships in diverse institutional contexts, sought to foreground as much. In other words, what humanities graduate programs may need to offer in addition to substantive skill and knowledge development is more formal and informal relations with diverse professional mentorship networks and opportunities.

New Directions in Education and Practice

So what critical—and creative—projects can this keyword open up, and how? The need for pathways across professional sectors is evident on an individual economic basis (where it motivates an endless investment in re-skilling oneself), but also on a social basis, for the sake of knowledge sharing and cross-education as well as collaborative problem-solving. Two questions that have been raised in the course of the CSPC’s faculty/staff development activities, many of which have been geared towards gaining facility—skill—in various arts-based collaboration practice, then, as follows.

First, how can we shift our assessment of skills from the individual frame that so often characterizes professional development discourses, to a collaborative, institutional, and intersectoral perspective? To this end, some of us have worked variously with a “skills” document coming out of Imagining America: Arts and Scholars in Public Life, Specifying the Scholarship of Engagement. A copy of that document, open to extension, revision, and discussion appears as second page in this Keyword Collaboratory. For some initial reflections on its use, see the article by Bartha and Burgett on page 10-11 of the Imagining America Newsletter Spring 2007.

Next, if we can begin to take these inter- and cross-sectoral collaborative frames seriously, what changes in the conceptualization of skills? Is it that skills are transferable, or are certain skills, facilities, capacities, or knowledges needed in order to shift across contexts? Do we need to think of certain skills outside of certain professional specializations and knowledge sectors? Or do certain kinds of knowledge and skill create the transits, pathways, shifters within collaborations and across sectors? In part, practices associated with community-based art (as opposed to professional art practice) have been central to the CSPC’s explorations because it has allowed skills and strengths to emerge within the group independent of professional identities. More than that, work in collaborative arts practice has held certain professional identities and investments in expertise in suspension, opening a space for co-learning and co-reliance. These experiments have, of course, frequently been facilitated by someone professionally skilled, practiced, in these forms. The educational difference lies in a community-based framework intent on surfacing and developing skills and capacities within the group rather than reinforcing the expertise of the professional who leads or consults.

In our reflections on using the IA collaboration skills document, Bruce Burgett and I formulated some preliminary observations of how the word “skill” circulates (or not) within academic formations. In the transdisciplinary contexts of faculty, staff, graduate student development where we've used this document, its emphasis on skills has been received diversely. For reasons that might now be more transparent, the discourse of skills was familiar to many participants in the professional schools, social sciences, and arts, foreign to most humanists, and suspect to nearly all progressive educators. The latter group suggested substituting the language of “practices” or “capacities” for that of “skills,” though they also recognized the pedagogical value of the latter term in some situations. Across these responses, we propose the value of recognizing shifts in language, concepts, and consciousness across the various institutional domains indexed by the document. Those recognitions are critical to forms of intellectual and professional development that seek to foster competencies—practical skills and contextualized knowledges—for culture work that bridges academic and non-academic, university and community sectors.

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