Reading, Writing, And The Reason I Do That

So the reason there was no column last week was because the semester started. Thirty-one years old and I'm still on an academic schedule. What's more, I probably will be for the rest of my life, provided I'm lucky enough to get an academic job. But twice a year, when the hectic life of the semester starts up again, I wonder to myself, Why the heck am I doing this?

Every semester, at the beginning of the semester, all of a sudden, I have more things to do than I have time to do them. (The rest of the semester tends to be similar, actually, but by then I've at least gotten used to it again.)

I'm a grad student, and that puts me in a strange place between being an instructor and being a student. I teach classes, and I take them; in addition, I'm also supposed to be doing my own work and eventually writing a dissertation.

I have a course to prepare for, and the past several years, I've taught a brand-new course every year. This semester, it's Introduction to Native American Literature and Film. That's great - I'm very excited to teach a course that's in my specialty and that I've designed from scratch. But it's a lot of work. Teaching means that you have to create assignments, lead class discussions, introduce and explain your topics, and do at least as much of the reading as your students are doing, usually much more. Not only do I have to read everything carefully, but I also have to figure out how to start discussions about it. There's nothing worse than bad discussion questions, which end up in silence and a roomful of people staring at you and listening to the eternal hum of the fluorescent lights.

So that takes a lot of prep time. But then there are the classes I'm taking. They tend to be heavy on the theory end of things - yes, I do literature, but somehow I rarely end up reading novels. Instead, I read what other people have written about literature. And that's all well and good, except that, well, what I read tends to contain sentences like this:

This irreducible work of the trace not only produces an unrestricted economy of same and other, rather than a relatively restricted dialectic of negation and sublation, in all philosophical oppositions. It also places our selfhood (ipseity) in a relationship of différance with what can only be "named" radical alterity (and thus necessarily effaced). (Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 424)

Yeah, that's English, but only in a really loose sense of the term. Many disciplines have a language particular to them; have you ever tried reading an advanced engineering textbook, an article in a mathematics journal, or a medical research report? (Or, for that matter, even exactly what it says on that prescription sheet your doctor fills out for the pharmacy?) They're garbledygook to those of us who don't know the language, and literary studies - at least that part of it that's close to philosophy - is just the same.

Now, I do know the language, so I'm a step ahead. Still, though, it's slow going, a lot slower than reading a novel, because in essence I'm reading what's not my native language, and I have to sit there with a lexicon. Not only that, but these books are often part of a long conversation - Spivak is referring back to Derrida's critique of Heidegger, who stands in a particular relationship to Kant, and in order to understand what she's saying it doesn't hurt to have a good idea about what Derrida says about Lacan, and what Lacan says about Freud, and the relationship between psychoanalysis and Marxism. Yeah, right. Whatever. Even if I haven't read half of what's involved in this conversation, I still have to take part in it and look like I know what's going on, so often, reading any one book also involves playing catch-up to the conversation by reading parts of other books. Compared to that, any class where we read mostly novels - even if we're reading 15 novels in a semester - seems like a walk in the park.

And then, of course, I'm also supposed to be doing my own work, outside of the classroom. Because if you don't have your own work, you'll never even get your Ph.D., let alone a job. At the moment, that means writing my dissertation prospectus. A prospectus is in essence a research proposal, and the dissertation is the book-length academic paper you have to write in order to get your Ph.D. So the prospectus is pretty important, and it's usually pretty long, too - in my department, they tend to be around 30 pages. And believe me, it's not the easiest thing in the world, coming up with a topic I could write 300 pages about and then planning how I'm going to go about writing those 300 pages…

So every semester, especially at the beginning, there are the days when I really should be doing nothing but work from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed. Even on days when that's not the case, I'm always aware of the fact that there's more work that I could and should do. It's not a job I can leave at the office. And so every semester, right around this time, I wish I had a job I could leave at the office. I wish I had time to myself, time that I didn't feel I owed to anything else, time to just relax without a tiny voice in the back of my mind nagging me for not doing my prospectus or preparing even more for class.

But the fact is that I love what I do. I love teaching. I love doing research. I even love reading theory, trying to puzzle out exactly what it is that's being said, because when I do figure it out, it often blows my mind and expands my view of the universe - kinda like LSD, but more work (and fewer visuals). It's a rush, just like it's a rush to be in the classroom with my students and have them get it, take a discussion and run with it and go places I hadn't even thought of. And ultimately, I am excited about my dissertation. Apprehensive, nervous, and at times resentful - sure, that too. But I have a topic I care about and am fascinated by, something I can spend 300 pages or a lifetime on.

So for all the work I do, and for all that I bitch about how much work my job involves, it boils down to the fact that I'm here because I love what I do. That doesn't mean I don't get frustrated with it, or wish that sometimes, I had a little less to do (or, better yet, earned a lot more). But I love what I do - and that, honestly, is the only way you can get through grad school.

September 4, 2002

 

Monty Python as Study Aid

(Hey, give me a break - it's the beginning of the semester and writing a column takes long enough without having to come up with my own sidebar!)

INTERNATIONAL PHILOSOPHY
A Monty Python skit.

Football commentator: Good afternoon, and welcome to a packed Olympic stadium, München for the second leg of this exciting final [football game between Greek and German philosophers.] [...]

Well, there may be no score, but there's certainly no lack of excitement here, as you can see, Nietzsche has just been booked for arguing with the referee. He accused Confucius of having no free will, and Confucius he say 'name go in book', and this is Nietzsche's third booking in four games. [...]

Announcer: [...]It is in! Socrates has scored, the Greeks are going mad! [...] The Germans are disputing it! Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination and Marx is claiming it was off-side! But Confucius blows the final whistle...it's all over! Germany, having trounced England's famous midfield trio Vincent, Locke and Hobbes in the semifinal, have been beaten by the odd goal! And that's it! [...]

And on the even lighter side,
Bruces' Philosopher's Song

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya
'Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates himself was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away--
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'

Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he's pissed.

 

 

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last updated 4. September 2002

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