Thursday, February 17, 2011

Skepticism and the Literary Scholar

Skepticism has been at the heart of my movement in and out and then back into the academy.  When my father left the family (I don’t think it’s too harsh to say deserted since he never offered any kind of financial support once he packed his bags – he had removed any emotional support years earlier), I became skeptical of tradition-based family roles.  I was given a new and clear set of responsibilities; however, while the shift in my family changed the players within our home, it never changed the need to work hard or the need to deal with the most mundane of demands.  It was important to keep a sense of purpose even while working my way down a list of after-school chores.  A sense of purpose was just as important later as I worked my way through reading lists and assignment sheets whose suggested readings were landmarks along a path toward independence.  My skepticism was refocused as I moved farther from the usual boundaries of home.  One result was that I became more interested in new ideas:  reading was not only a way to escape into story but also a way to find my way out of the daily struggle of home life.  Very simply, like Benjamin Franklin, I used books and words as the capital to buy my way out of the house and into a new profession.

At this point, however, my skepticism ran head on into the lessons I had learned about respect and authority.  In fact, I set aside a measure of skepticism when I willingly accepted the pronouncements of my professors.  I took their lessons of critical analysis and skepticism to heart as they tore apart individual works and looked for literary meaning.  I restrained my questioning when they told me what to read and showed me how to read it.  They were in front of the class.  They were teachers.  And I had been taught to respect their position and their learning.  I was struck by their agility as thinkers, and I wanted very much to have every bit of power they were willing to share.  I held my skepticism in check because I wanted so much to become part of their exclusive club.  I never did question why that club was reserved for men, why most of the revered texts of that men's club were written by men, why women were given only supporting roles both within reading lists and within classrooms.  I did not ask these questions even though everything I had learned at home and in my neighborhood had taught me how wrong and one-sided and unreal that separation was.  I became an apprentice and learned the secrets and was -- up to a point -- allowed into academic society.  But I remained ambivalent toward the possibility of joining the fraternity.  So, I turned from the academy and went to work.

My ambivalence toward the academy simplified the transition to the traditional work world; however, all that began to change when I sensed that I was not going to be satisfied writing letters and going to lunch and going home and wishing I could write more and better and read more and be able to talk about the ideas I found.  My notions of responsibility alone could not convince me that it was more important to be paid than to be pleased with the results of your time and energy.  I was drawn to a life touched by language.  I was still excited by the prospect of reading and writing.  I could still hear my mother -- "You'll never make a living as a writer" -- but the attraction of working with words, and books, and writing was powerful.

I suspect that what came next parallels the experience of a host of my colleagues who found their way drifting back into the academy.  I moved from a 7-hour day (which realistically included between 4 and 5 hours of strict attention to tasks) to a fifteen or sixteen hour work day (crammed with preparation, teaching, reading, and class discussion).  That earlier scent of play and vacation became more and more powerful as I reveled in the verbal jousts and the careful attention to detail and argument.  I was able to move beyond the idea of education as play, as leisure because I had the good fortune to have several professors who taught me that writing -- good writing -- could come only out of an energetic process of thinking and a sense of purpose and that words and sentences were raw materials that needed to be planed and shaped, stretched and stitched.  That apprenticeship introduced me to the work, the honorable work of the academy -- combining the theory of literature with the practice of writing and the discipline of teaching.  Reading and writing and teaching reading and writing became my trade, and I began to see this trade as one more along the continuum of work that united the generations of my family.  My apprenticeship was spent learning how to build with words:  my grandfather wove carpets from bolts of cloth and strands of fiber; my father welded conduits and frames with metal and solder; my mother filled ledgers with columns of numbers and streams of adding machine tape; I read and wrote and tied words together (mine and others') to shape thinking (mine and others').  My instructors, advisors, and mentors showed me where to find the raw materials -- the books and ideas and language -- that I used in my weaving.  What I brought to this trade was a sense of the power of language and the appreciation of the discipline needed to work the long hours to add shape and texture to the few words I was able to tame.

Yet, even that last statement tells me that I have not yet conquered my ambivalence toward membership in the academy.  And I can find other examples:  I have published books (an edition of Mark Twain’s autobiography and a collection of essays that I co-edited), and I have edited journals.  That work may be related to the notion that an editor's work is often looked upon an journeyman work is attractive because it connects to my family's trades.  I have given many papers at professional conferences, but when I talk about presenting, I often focus more on the element of performance than on the scholarship so necessary to preparation.  I can discuss literary theory, but I often (and purposely) lapse into ungrammatical constructions seasoned with mild or hot curses.  I tell myself that I like and prefer the clear and unambiguous language of the barroom to the floral, polished expression of the lecture hall.  I prefer jeans to tweed, own only six ties, read and write about Mark Twain (a writer who suffered his own torn conscience when faced with entering the sophisticated drawing rooms and author parties of the east).  I suffer pretension badly, and I gladly proclaim that unrestricted conversation is an academic disease.  I am rarely comfortable with any public notice of academic success -- I enjoy thinking that others find my work worthwhile or helpful, but I am quickly embarrassed if they draw attention to it when I am party to that endorsement.  I am simply having too good a time.
As I write this, however, the ambivalence seems too intentional, another pose that I have adopted to help bridge past and present.  But slipping in and out of a persona, identifying that most useful rhetorical stance to take toward your audience and within your situation, reflecting upon the choices you have made as you present your self to the world, and editing your self are basic strategies for setting boundaries within our lives.  They also give us the distance and insight so necessary to our work to compose new knowledge.  That ambivalence is one way that I am able to maintain my connection to conversations with my mother, and as I resurrect those talks and those silences from the past, I see how they have affected my approach to work.  I begin to understand how the extended silences in many of our lives had a profound affect on how we have worked to change the profession as a whole.

The silences we have faced affect the philosophical positions we adopt and give direction to our arguments for the need to open the academy to new ways of thinking and to revised definitions of diversity and culture.  Those of us who have been seduced by the prospect of creating (or at least identifying) knowledge have become more active as we recall the lessons we have learned and channel our skepticism and ambivalence toward academic pronouncements into clear and honest action to open up the academy and make it more vibrant, more interested in new relationships sparked by new voices (both primary and scholarly).  Skepticism has provided the energy to enliven intellectual debate on the definition and construction of culture and has formed the basis for our questioning of the stolid tradition of the literary and cultural canon.  Put simply, that canon has rarely presented familiar voices, voices that were part of our childhood, voices that echoed through our multi-ethnic/multi-racial working class neighborhoods and schools, voices of our friends, our families, our fathers, our mothers.  Our agitation for change is rooted in our home lives, lives shaped by ideals of discipline and work and an eye to the truth manifest in relationships among the people and groups that surround us, in the communities in which we live.  It is rooted in neighborhoods.  It is rooted in a healthy skepticism that is at the very heart of a profession that trains its apprentices to read between the lines to determine meaning and connection.

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