Saturday, September 16, 2006

When I was an undergrad, I did a stint as a teacher and residence advisor at a summer boarding school. This school had a niche preparing international students to enter American schools, so we always had a strong contingent of internationals, particularly from Thailand.

I helped teach writing (with another, more experienced ESL teacher) to these kids, and I quickly learned about the differences between American and non-American education. Essay-writing in the U. S. is a strange business. Children who have no exposure to any sort of scholarly research on a novel are expected to craft arguments about that novel, after a single read-through and with nothing but their opinions to guide them.

My Thai students frequently commented, when learning of their assignments, "But I don't know anything! How can I write this kind of essay? I'm not old enough to give my opinion!"

I have recently found myself feeling just like those students. The transition from "writing papers for a class, which no one but the professor will see, which will receive grades and then be thrown into the fire to be burned" to "writing articles, which will be published for all the world to see, and will constitute a permanent record, allowing things that I wrote ten or twenty years ago to come back to haunt me" has not been an easy one. I find myself thinking, "But I don't know anything! How can I make constructive proposals?!" Where I used to write with ease and fluency, I now write only with great and painful effort.

From time to time, I evaluate my knowledge base a little more realistically. I actually do know a few things, and I might have something remotely interesting to contribute to The Conversation. But most of the time, I am keenly aware of my knowledge deficits.

How about you? Has grad school sharpened your sense of your own inadequacies, or do you claim mastery in your discipline? Or can you remember a time when you started to feel more competent as a scholar than you felt, say, during your third year of doctoral work?


JoVE said...

The most powerful thing I read on this subject when I was a doctoral student was in Dorothy Smith's "The Everyday World as Problematic". That book won't be that relevant to what you do but there is a section in which she talks about having given a paper at a conference and then receiving letters with comments from women all over. Women she had never met. She worked out that some of the people who heard her paper (and took a copy) had passed on a copy to their friends and so on. She said it made her realize that what she wrote didn't need to be a final finished version but was a work in progress. A way of having conversations about these ideas with other women.

I now tell this to graduate students (I used to have some of my own but I still meet them) and even to academics (I am now self-employed doing coaching with academics mainly about research granting). Don't think you have to 'know everything' or that the article is your final word. It is a contribution to a discussion or debate. It has to meet a pretty rigorous minimum standard for entry into the discussion but it is a contribution. And because it is part of a discussion your position might change as others respond to your contribution or make their own contributions.

Thinking about it this way does several things. First, it frees you to let stuff go and get it out there. Second it helps you see that all that stuff about 'impact' is important to you in ways that aren't just about getting jobs or getting tenure or whatever. You want to publish in places where the discussion you want to contribute to are happening and get the most people possible listening to your contribution and responding to it.

And you are not alone in having these thoughts. Everyone has them. You'll know when you are getting close to finishing because you will think the whole project is banal and pointless and everyone knows all this stuff anyway. It isn't. Everyone thinks that right before they are done.

CyberianTygre said...

By Jove, I think she's got it!

Okay, really corny. But I completely agree. So there's no real reason for me to write anything else. But I will anyway.

Yes, I have published next to nothing, and yes, I still intensely feel the pressure to say something profound before submitting a conference paper proposal, let alone something for publication, but I have been to enough symposia, conferences, workshops to know that 99.999% of academics are not profound. We're just having a constructive conversation amongst folks who are knowledgeable enough to have something helpful to say.

I've also been around you and Wallace long enough to know you both have something helpful to say - at least as helpful as the junior faculty I know. (But not Herr Doktorvater...he's in the 0.001%)

revabi said...

And I agree. Its like sending the Preacher right out of Seminary to a church by themselves, and expecting them to be profound. No wonder they shake in their boots all week long.

And I think that is why, when the media brings up a paper written by someone during grad school to parade as this person's ultimate beliefs while running for office,it doesn't fit.(I know a long run in sentance)you just can't judge what I wrote 20 or 30 years ago as where I am today. I look at that stuff, and think; "who was that person, and why did they write this stuff". I then remember I was going to a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after going to a public institution.