Saturday, February 06, 2010

Thinking like an Academic (and not)

So far, I've been enjoying my trial period at League of Ordinary Gentlemen. And I think it's been going okay. It's hard to tell: they might be getting dozens of "cancel my subscription!" emails that I don't know about. I do have to say that I am enjoying blogging about "academic" topics without having to think like an academic. It's a bit like making a jailbreak from my day job.

Now, when I say "thinking like an academic", I don't mean a matter of being more intelligent than the average bear. In fact, I have not found that academics I know are significantly more intelligent than civilians. In some areas, of course, they're actually a bit less savvy. But, there is a sort of professionalization of thought that goes on when you're in academia. You learn to get your footnotes in order, so to speak. I don't know that your actual cognition improves; but you develop a certain amount of expertise on a particular subject and know when you are sufficiently informed to speak on that topic in a scholarly way, and when you should keep quiet.

Therefore, in "real life", there are really only about four or five topics that I would feel comfortable speaking about in a lecture hall or at a conference. When my area of research pulls me into a new direction (always happening!), I have to head to the library and nail down the 'textbook answer' about that new topic. If I had to, say, discuss Madame Bovary in an academic context, I'd really feel like I was obliged to first hit the stacks and learn about Flaubert, French literature, and what has been said and thought about the novel, before I wrote or spoke about it. I would probably feel guilty if I just read the novel and held forth on it based on my own responses. And I think that guilty conscience is what I mean when I talk about "professionalization". Academics tend to keep their intellect zipped up, if you know what I mean!

What's good about blogging on the Iliad or Plato is that I am a complete and utter novice; a pisher! A poseur! A beginner. I have to think about these books in a non-academic way, just in order to get anything done! My life would be a shambles if I was trying to learn ancient Greek right now, and I think I might be looking at the books in a different way. For me, reading the "great books" is like learning about a foreign culture through immersion. It's like being plunked down in the middle of a Moscow supermarket and having to get something done. The fun of it is taking stabs in the dark and getting to hear what other people have to say. On occasion, I've heard from actual scholars, although not as much as I'd like.

It's problematic, this academic habit of making people study everything for years before they can write on it, while teaching undergrads a little bit of everything. On one hand, this system has produced some of the best scholars in the world. But, there's a tendency for academic writing to be so narrow and specialized that you have to go through six years of grad school to read it! This causes there to be a gap between "popular" books and "academic" books, and it's hard to tell if that gap isn't really a matter of snobbery and university press protectionism. The end result, however, is that less and less civilians want to commit themselves to the humanities, which are really accessible to all people, but which we like to pretend require some specialized "higher" knowledge. The humanities seem arcane and obscure to people, when they actually take human beings as their subject matter.

I don't mean to bash academics once again- what I'm trying to suggest is that it's not a matter of snobbery or protecting a monopoly, as much as a matter of ingrained, professionalized insecurity. None of us wants to be called out for being ill-informed on a topic. But this makes it hard to achieve the sort of interdisciplinarity that everyone in the humanities talks about wanting; and it also makes it hard to relate to young people who often want to talk about academic subjects without first getting their papers in order!

If we're going to think freely, I think we need to spend more time thinking without first getting the proper scholarly clearance. The Internet seems as good a place to start as any.

(Note: Reworked notes on The Iliad here. Notes on Bach's cantata 82 coming soon, in spite of music being one of those areas in which I am a complete pisher.)


Freddie said...

We do it, ultimately, for the hive mind.

I think a lot of people are still stuck in the vision of intellectual achievement represented by the generalist scientist we all imagined (and saw in movies and TV shows) who did some biology, some astronomy, some physics.... If that ever existed, it has not for a long, long time. And for good reason: such a person might admirably benefit him or herself, but he or she would not benefit the cause of the intellect of mankind. There is no utility in generalists for the hive mind, for the collection of human knowledge. We produce scholars whose focus is as specific as, say, allelic variation as evidence of sexual reproduction in the opportunistic human parasite “Candida Albicans” because when a future researcher wants to learn about that subject, the work will have come before him and he can better contribute to his own work. There is no such advantage if that prior researcher had instead become a very well-informed, well-rounded generalist.

That's evidence, again, of the many category errors those from outside the academy who critique it make when they seek to dissect what we do. And it is again, ultimately irrelevant-- not because the public perception of the academy doesn't matter, but because it matters if such perception is wedded to a consistent and truly interested vision of positive change. That simply isn't the case with the vast majority of critiques of the modern university; usually, they are drive-by commentary by people who, 99 days out of a 100, couldn't care less about the academy or how it works. It's no surprise then that the people involved in the university don't pay such things much heed. No one wants their life's work to be reduced to just another stone on which an ax is ground.

I keep meaning to write about this, I think you've inspired me to finally do so.

Rufus said...

Hey Freddie, thanks for stopping by!

I do think it's pretty hard to be an intellectual jack of all trades if you're not independently wealthy. I like studying all sorts of areas, but 9-5 (or later), I have to be working on my area of specialization. Like you say, the critiques tend to be pretty unknowing- I've heard complaints that there aren't more academics who can talk about a wide variety of issues, and conversely that academics shouldn't talk about topics they aren't trained in!

Anonymous said...

I like the comment about academics tending to keep their intellects “zipped up” on topics that have not been trained to address. Freddie is right about the value of highly specialized, original work. But that work is improved if the researcher also has a feel for reality in general. And it’s a trap to conclude that nothing outside your discipline deserves your attention, or even your respect.

One reason academics hold our tongues unless we’re sure we can speak with authority is fear of exposure to collegial scorn. In the worst cases, we hedge ourselves further with pre-emptive scorn against those who don’t measure up in our own field. The most cowardly academics bait traps for their undergraduate students, then ridicule them for their lack of sophistication. (If it were up to me, a pattern of such behavior would be grounds for denying or revoking tenure. It's an ethics violation at least.)

Collegiality and collaboration are among the top attractions, for me, of academic work. But when it breaks down, it can be extra ugly. I’m glad to have learned this mainly through other people’s experience, not my own.

Rufus said...

That's an interesting point about undergrads. I've run into a few (thankfully few) academics who channeled their insecurity into a snide attitude towards undergrads, grad students, and the occasional colleague. It led to some ugly academic dick swinging contests, but was more often just expressed through knowing eye rolls to other colleagues in conferences and similar cattiness. I think it's more common in junior faculty. But I definitely catch the same vibe from the occasional academic blog post about the horrors of teaching undergrads who aren't Jurgen Habermas at age 19, or whatever.

I have definitely been lucky in that the junior faculty in my department are very congenial and the more insecure ones don't seem to stay long.