Tuesday, January 1, 2008

"Intense but delightful" (on the conversational modes of academics and philosophies for the new year)

The phrase in my post title describes my experience of 2007, which seems to have gone by in a bigger blur of business than most years. I'm hoping 2008 will be a little less intense and a little more delightful.

But the phrase was also used to describe *me*, by the Pastry Pirate's friend Shorewoodian, who, like me, attended the Pirate's graduation from Cookin' School and was pretty much forced to spend about 36 hours in my company. Ever since the Pirate told me this is how Shorewoodian described me I've been mulling over the "intense" part. Was it good or bad? Was it a euphemism for "thinks too much?" (something a stupid boyfriend once said about me)? Was it because I pretty much came to the land of Robber Baron mansions directly from grading graduate student critical histories of canonical works of literature, and so had the weight of so many misunderstood literary scholars on my shoulders and felt the need to make our kind understood at all costs? Or was it simply because I was still in a "teacherly" mode and hadn't had the time and space to decompress before being social?

So I asked Bullock what he thought it meant since he thought it was a pretty good description of me, though he insists I'm more parts "delightful" than "intense." But to explain his explanation, I have to give you a back story first.

Background: I have a little-known and yet-to-be-diagnosed problem that Bullock and I have dubbed "Trivia Tourette's." (I think Bullock coined the phrase, but I can't remember now.) Bullock has recognized this problem before, but I only became self-aware after a conference a few months ago at Neighboring Flagship U. There, in the midst of scholars of medieval literature whose work I respect and whom I desperately wanted to impress, I kept randomly spouting bizarre and thoroughly uninteresting trivia at intervals throughout the day. Someone said, "You can't drink too much water," and I felt a compulsion to reply, "Actually you can, at least if you're also sweating profusely. It's called hyponatremia and it's more life-threatening than dehydration!" Later, someone remarked to me that they didn't realize Rust Belt was so close to Flagship Town, and I burst out with, "In fact, it was originally part of Neighboring State, and Flagship U was even slated to be in our downtown, but there was a war -- a skirmish really -- and Neighboring State lost its claim to Rust Belt's part of our state." Why, oh why, do I do this? Given that every time it happens there's a voice in the back of my head saying, "Oh god, please stop!" I can only chalk it up to unconscious compulsion.

So, back to "intense but delightful." Bullock said that when I exhibit "Trivia Tourette's" around academics, the tidbits I burst out with do seem trivial, or at least something akin to footnotes, the function of which academics understand. And so it goes little noticed, easily incorporated into academic ways of thinking and organizing information, including conversations. For academics, it's small talk, trivial.

But, according to Bullock, when I do it with non-academics, as I did at the Cookin' School graduation -- spouting off, among other things, about strong and weak verbs, semantic splitting, and why there's a "hung" and "hanged" but "hanged" is generally only used for people who have been hanged on the gallows (there was a context that inspired this outburst) -- it doesn't seem trivial or footnote-y. Instead it seems professorial, the kind of stuff "regular" people don't think about. Indeed, "regular" people don't think in footnotes at all! To them it's not small talk -- it's deep or serious or "intense." It's classroom talk. (Actually, the Pastry Pirate encouraged me in these moments -- egged me on even -- so obviously, there's a non-academic audience for the footnotes of academe. But that doesn't discount Bullock's analysis of its different perception by non-academics.) And so, as classroom talk, it's perceived as belonging to a different order of conversation and thought. It's not ordinary. It's "intense."

I think the distinction of "classroom talk" is important here. When other professionals do the kind of talking and thinking the kind of thinking that's specific to their profession -- say, for example, when the Cookin' School graduates and their foodie family members rattled off the temperatures at which sugar becomes "soft ball" or "hard crack," etc., or debated how much added value a particular sushi chef brings to a piece of sashimi -- it's considered shop talk. And it can be inviting or off-putting to the extent that it includes or excludes others at the table or the party or whatever. Too specialized and it leaves others out, but it can involve the non-specialists to the extent they have experience with the profession. It can be fascinating and illuminating to hear what goes on in the kitchen of fine restaurants, or to hear how doctors think when they're diagnosing, or to understand what a lawyer considers a good or bad witness and why. Indeed, there's a reason why we have TV shows -- sometimes many of them -- about these professions, among others. There's also probably a reason -- for good or for ill -- why we don't have TV shows about professors, and why popular culture often gets our profession so wrong. (There have been many more TV shows about high schools, including ones with a focus on the classroom, so this isn't just about the classroom in general.) And I think one of the reasons -- perhaps among many -- is related to the perception of professorial talk as "intense." Our talk isn't perceived as mere shop talk -- although we may perceive it as such -- but as something other, something extraordinary, for better or worse.

I'm of two minds about what this all means. On the one hand, I would like to go forth in 2008 and work harder to encourage my students to continue the way I teach them to think and to write not only in other classes, but outside of the classroom as well. I'd like to convince them that to think about language, literature, and culture "intensely" can also be "delightful" and can be a habit carried through the rest of their lives, one that transforms the way they see the world. In other words, I'd like to break through that mindset that sees classroom talk as fit only for the classroom and as (too) intense for other situations. I'd like to break down the boundary between the classroom and the rest of their lives, and to help students see what's studied in the classroom, and the way it's studied -- even if it's literature of the very distant past read through the lens of specialized languages of literary interpretation and theory -- does not necessarily have to be limited to the classroom. My own college education did that for me -- I was "intense" and professorial before I was an academic -- but I'm not sure my own students realize that their educations can and should do the same for them.

On the other hand, I think the reason why people such as my own university's president can be so dismissive of the humanities and the people who work in it, is precisely because we've done a good job, at least among certain populations, of making people realize you can continue to read and think about humanities subjects and with humanities methods beyond the college classroom walls. And thus we give the illusion that anyone can do what we do once they've learned to do it in college. And that's problematic for the respect that the humanities and humanists get not only in the general population, but in our own institutions.

I think for my own solution to this either/or conundrum, I'm going to work harder to make my classroom, my subject, and myself -- and a professor and a person -- not "intense but delightful," but instead, "intense and delightful." After all, intensity is all about deeper pleasures, fuller flavors, more saturated colors, more memorable moments, and more thrilling experiences. And intensity of thought and study should therefore bring greater intellectual pleasure, in the classroom and beyond.


Flavia said...

Oh, I think that I have Trivia Tourette's, too! (Although at least half of my non-academic friends have this disease, too, and sometimes in greater measures, which is probably why we're friends.)

And I think your diagnosis of the ways this is perceived by non-academics, and why, is spot-on. It reminds me of a very smart critique I read a year or two ago (on a blog? I don't remember) about the annual let's-make-fun-of-MLA articles in national newspapers: the general public would never think of making fun of the obscure topics being dealt with at the panels of the annual anesthesiologists' convention (or whatever), because the public understands those to be highly specialized topics fully understandable only by professionals. But the general public does have an expectation, especially if they're generally literate and like books, that what WE do should be immediately relevant and understandable to them.

The general public I think sees and respects us as professionals insofar as it understands us to have read a lot of books and know a lot about a particular time period--more than they have. But the general public does not always (usually?) understand that our being professionals also involves specific practices, theories, and habits of thought that they haven't been trained in (and that aren't always immediately apparent to them as such).

(Oh, and so good to see you at MLA! Happy 2008 to you and Bullock.)

Dr. Virago said...

I think you're absolutely right, Flavia. I think too many people -- students and former students -- don't see a distinction between "reading" literature and "studying" literature. They think the latter should be as transparent as the former (even though the former isn't as transparent as they think). God, even my graduate students use the phrase "reading too much into it" as a general critique of literary scholarship, which drives me absolutely batty! It makes me want to ask them why they're in graduate school in literature, as opposed to doing something else and continuing to read on their own -- with or without an "intense" level of analysis.

Likewise, many people who may see a place for "intense" thinking nevertheless think we should "turn off" our professorial way of seeing and thinking when we're out and about in the world. We shouldn't "analyze too much" but instead should learn just to have fun. Or something.

What I'd like to help my students (if not the whole world!) to understand is that to "analyze too much" *is* fun. Intensity *is* delightful! And that what we do in literary studies is only one particular form of intensity, one that gets more intense the further you pursue it.

Anonymous said...

food for thought---thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hey, you triggered me to draft my post about professors on TV--which reminded me that there is a PhD-holding character, Dr. Reid on Criminal Minds, who absolutely has Trivia Tourette's. His better-socialized co-workers often shush him.

Also, my "analyzing too much" runs over into commercials and pop songs. Fun.

The Pastry Pirate said...

Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus... she meant it in a positive way. Just look at the length of your paragraphs and the, er, intensity with which you examined being described as "intense." I don't think it was in reference to being an academic. Most people are content to make banal comments in inane conversations about the weather. You are, and have always been, a person with endless curiosity and a need to delve deep, whether it's discussing the humor of "30 Rock" or hanged v. hung. "Delightful" is often an adjective that, when used alone to describe someone, conjures the image of a social butterfly flitting lightly from person to person. That's why "intense but delightful" is a very nice thing to say about someone... you delve deep, but in a way that doesn't alienate people. Now go paint your nails or something and stop being so.... intense. With love, PP (btw, love the site redesign, which I just saw today...)

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus...

Hee hee. Yes, I'm entirely aware of the intense ironies of this post1 (Some were even intentional.) And I know it was meant positively. But it just got me t' thinkin'...cuz that's what I do. :)