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Intellectual Curiosity: True Confessions Edition

By (February 27, 2013) No Comment

wordpressEven as I wrote my previous post about how disengagement from online discussions strikes me as evidence of a lack of intellectual curiosity, I was nervously aware that in my own ways I too am disengaged and incurious. For example, I almost never attend my department’s weekly colloquium. I used to go faithfully every Friday. My initial falling off coincided more or less with the arrival of my children and the attendant complications of having to get to the daycare before it closed — that, and not liking the poor kids to have longer days than I did, since of course you have to drop them off before work as well as pick them up after. And for a tired working parent, 3:45-5:00 Friday afternoons is a particularly difficult time to do one more work-related thing that’s not strictly required. It was still possible to go, of course, and sometimes I did, while other times my husband went to the corresponding event in the philosophy department.

But the truth is, I didn’t really miss it, and I have not gone back to anything like regular attendance. I don’t doubt — and don’t mean to impute anything about — the quality of presentations. Every talk I’ve been to (and, I’m sure, every one I’ve skipped) has been erudite, polished, and professionally delivered. Nonetheless, the experience of attending such academic talks is one I don’t usually enjoy very much or feel I benefit very much from, and so when I miss them, I don’t usually feel I’m missing out,  any more than I feel I’m missing out when I play hooky for a while from a conference I’m attending to go to a museum. The honest if shameful truth (and I really am kind of ashamed of it) is that I have real trouble staying interested at a lot of academic talks, just as I have trouble getting or staying interested in a lot of academic criticism. I used to feel a lot more angst about this than I now do: I was sure (especially when the first symptoms of this disengagement came over me in graduate school) that the problems all lay with me. It didn’t help that some of my peers in graduate school, and at least one of my professors, pretty clearly thought so too (it takes a while, I can tell you, to recover your confidence after a professor has declared you “intellectually calcified”). I struggled very hard to care about critical debates that seemed so urgent to others  (if, to me, so obscure and often incomprehensible); now I believe that, though I was and am, no doubt, dull in some ways, I might have been sharper if I’d been working on different material.

Anyway, theoretical obstructions have been one cause of (or excuse for) my disengagement. Now that I don’t have to worry about certain kinds of academic discourse, I don’t even try. I even gave away my volumes of Foucault and Derrida, my Judith Butler and my New Historicism reader. They may be interesting to other people, but to me they were neither interesting nor, as far as I could ever tell, useful for the kind of critic I have turned out to be.

It’s not just abstraction (or abstruseness) that is an impediment for me, though (and I don’t think actually that most of the talks I don’t attend are particularly theory-headed). I think it’s the combination of their specialization (really, hyper- or micro-specialization) and their format that turns me off. The pressure to specialize leads, among other things, to quite a lot of what I think of as “pickle” criticism (see the long footnote to this post; see also this thought-provoking post from D. G. Myers about “an end to readings”). It also reduces the portability of the ideas in most papers: rarely does such a narrowly focused reading give me something I can take away and use. I might still find it intrinsically interesting, informative, or just entertaining, but the odds of that are reduced by the standard presentation style, which is to read a very carefully constructed paper full of rhetorically deft bits all intricately related to each other. I’ve seen reasonable arguments made for this format, particularly for literary interpretations (which do, indeed, turn on precise turns of phrase both in the original text and in the analysis). I’ve seen it used very well, and that’s exactly the kind of paper I’ve typically given myself (though I do try to write it for speaking, as a lecture, rather than a document). It can be a very alienating experience, though, at least for me, to hear someone read a very dense text aloud on a very narrow topic. Though I am committed in principle to the value of open-ended inquiry, and I would never want my own interests to determine what projects are or aren’t pursued, that doesn’t mean I always want to sit for 90 minutes and listen to all the gory details. My notes and doodles often begin hopefully and responsibly enough, but too often they deteriorate. Recently I flipped through the little notebook I bring along to talks and saw, in big block letters across the page, “WHY???” I don’t know what exactly prompted that particular silent outburst, but clearly, at some point, I had let go of the rope.

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So why should my colleagues spend their time in the blogosphere if I can’t show up regularly for our colloquium or manage an entire conference day without some time out? What right do I have to chastise other academics for their lack of intellectual curiosity, given how far I now indulge my own failure to find things interesting? I think that’s a fair question because it reminds me that in both cases we are making cost-benefit analyses: we’re asking what we will get out of a given activity. Many of my colleagues (though certainly not all!) do go every Friday, and they seem able to engage with almost any paper they hear. I admire them — and I’m entirely sincere in saying so. I also envy them. My own career path would have been much more straightforward, and my general level of anxiety lower,  if I felt the same.  But I don’t!  Maybe I should, or should keep trying (trying harder). But why? I have been in this profession for 23 years — longer, if you count my undergraduate years. Though I can’t predict what any specific paper will be like, I have a good general idea of how this whole process works. I make informed guesses, not about which papers will be good ones of their kind, but about which ones I want to attend as well as which ones (for one reason or another) I ought to attend. I don’t scorn people for continuing to present formal papers; I don’t shrug off the value conferences have for other people despite my own indifferent experiences of them; I don’t call for an end to our colloquium because on the whole I don’t find it professionally valuable, however much I might enjoy individual papers. I guess all I’d like is for people not to take for granted that this way of doing things is the only (or even the best) way to share our work with each other.

I feel as if I should say, for the record (though the presenters themselves are not blog readers, as far as I know) that the last two colloquium papers I heard were super — engaging, original, and thought-provoking! One was my fellow-Victorianist Marjorie Stone on “Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ on YouTube:  Contemporary Popular Culture, Erotomania, and Psychology in the Dramatic Monologue”; the other was the brilliant and funny Len Diepeveen on “Smudges and Shiny Things.” (Speaking of Len’s paper, if any of you know of any paintings of shiny things with smudges on them, he’d like to hear from you.) There’s another talk coming up quite soon that I really wish I could go to but can’t because of a scheduling conflict. My not showing up is not a judgment of anyone in particular! Sometimes I’d rather hear from you about your work in some other way, though. In fact, I bet I’d rather read about it on your blog, if you had one.