Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Thinking

Today, I read a book, and thought about it very hard. Is that good? Bad? Have I accomplished enough today? Should I be doing something more? It’s tough, because as academics, such a large part of our research involves thinking, which takes time and is hard to quantify. Us English scholars are the slow cookers of the academic world; speeding up the process would interfere with the melding of the flavors and slow simmering that makes what we do what we do. Thinking is very important, and yet it is internal, hidden somewhere inside like a secret. It’s productive (eventually) but not production. By this I mean that we can show the world — tenure committees, editors, funding awarders, fellow academics, dissertation committees — tangible productions like publications and written conference papers, or even a stack of books read, but we cannot really “show” thinking, or the quality of thinking. It comes out in productions eventually, of course, for publications and conference presentations and well-run classes all require thinking through, mulling over — there’s that cooking motif again — but there is always pressure to “produce something” rather than think. For if thinking can’t be directly seen or measured, it begins to look like wasting time to those who oversee us, like we are having one over on those who are supplying us with money or awards, squandering their resources on junk food and bad daytime tv. (Full disclosure: although I have no tv access at home, large quantities of pine nuts were eaten today.)

And so we can become busier and busier — filling our time with busywork and trivial tasks, afraid to stop and think because that would involve, well, stopping. And various gatekeepers, from tenure committees on down to grad advisors, delight on cutting off those who appear to be “dead weight” or “gaming the system.” Unfortunately, there’s no way to list on a CV, as one might on a nonacademic job review or resume, “2007 — continued to reflect upon and deepen my understanding of why I want to be a professor and why theories of the decentered subject are important to students,” but that was the order of the day. The book itself? — doesn’t matter; it was recommended for the article I need to revise and that information took but a short time to ingest. I was side tracked, however, into a beautiful, lucid explanation of subjectivity — one of those books from the 80s that, in the course of first “importing” theory to apply to a certain author, was impelled to explicitly ground and justify these theories about subjectivity and, in the process, provide me with a refresher that was in many ways more satisfying than rereading all the originals. (It was quicker, for one thing. For another, I was really excited, rather than having a headache.) I love when a scholar takes the time to explain a theorist’s argument seriously and clearly, and makes the effort to describe it in a new or amusing way as opposed to merely gesturing toward it. In the same way I appreciate someone who creates a wonderful sketch of the novel’s plot before jumping in and analyzing it — someone who can both contextualize the book for a newcomer as well as produce some new or interesting angle on it for long-established critics. Not that I needed to add anything to my own writing skills to-do list, but, well.

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