Coughing Break

I was very sorry this weekend to miss the AHA panel on history blogging, and all the more so because to my considerable surprise my own blog was singled out for some recognition. I’m really touched and all the more embarassed that I couldn’t muster the energy to stay past a lovely breakfast and meet many of the authors whose words I’ve so enjoyed reading. It turns out that I’ve got a nasty case of bronchitis, which makes this the second winter in a row that an ordinary cold has deepened into something much worse. Doesn’t make me feel real positive about my likely fate if an avian flu pandemic really does spread: it’s clear that my aging body is developing a genuine vulnerability.

The award was a pick-me up for which I’m grateful. Last week, I started composing an entry for this blog about what I’ve learned (abstractly, shorn of specific local details) about academic planning this semester, only to find when I was finished that I’d more or less repeated an older entry. So perhaps I haven’t learned anything, just confirmed pre-existing principles (or biases). There are quite a few days as a blogger and an academic where I feel that way recently: that I, and perhaps more than myself, are trapped in recurrent, irresolvable debates and conflicts, that the academy is at the edge of its limitations, at a moment of arteriosclerosis, but also that its critics are swinging familiar, well-honed, and largely instrumental and political axes at the university as an institution.

I’ve been reading a bit again in the intellectual history of Romanticism and the Enlightenment in preparation for my History of the Future class, and sometimes those discussions feel not past but prologue. Not even that, but eternal, damnable return, our collective sentence to playing out the same tableaux again and again.

I sometimes wonder what’s left for me to say, especially to long-suffering readers who’ve heard it all before from me. I don’t want to jump on every new story about academic life. I don’t want to be the hot-button commentator who is there with a ready smirk or an easily formed polemic. But I also don’t want to be the nag and scold who tells everyone how to behave correctly, and I know that’s the real danger for me, the bad habit that descends from my legitimate concerns.

I still think that there’s a productive balance that scholars can strike in the public sphere in which we undertake the work of de-familiarization and exploration, trying to get people off of fixed principles, of prior assumptions, of easy generalizations. For that to work, we have to be wary of our own idee fixes, our lazy assumptions, our own unexamined axioms. We have to be curious, mobile, persuadable, crossing not just the boundaries we self-congratulatorily mark out as transgressive achievements, but the unfamiliar disciplinary and discursive boundaries that we would never think otherwise to cross. Our ethnographies and histories and textual criticisms have to be directed at unfamiliar and unaccustomed subjects with the same presumptive humility and interest that we showily perform when we go to the usual suspects. Academics are both too hard and not nearly hard enough on themselves: demanding where they should be generous, forgiving where we should always try harder. We worry too much about the obscure and not enough about the general, about our responsibilities to our disciplines but not to our institutions or our possible (and often unfound) publics.

I think I’m just tired and sick and have a case of the winter blahs because this all seems at times to be harder than it should be. I’ve been trying to reason out why I’ve been such a passive-aggressive asshole in helping out a friend and associate of mine with a project outside of Swarthmore that he and I conceived of together (if he reads this, he’ll know which project I’m talking about). Originally I was missing his emails because of a spam filter, now I’m reading them and just delaying getting my ass in gear to help out. Part of it is that the project is a bit snake-bit in terms of bad luck with the schedule, but much of it is also that it’s been difficult to make headway on the issues which most interest me. My friend gets where I’m coming from, but most of the other people in the history of the project’s development don’t. It’s not (I think) that they oppose what I’m arguing for, it’s more that it’s irrelevant and orthagonal to the way they see some of the same issues. Sorry for the abstractions here, but one of the paradoxes of blogging under one’s own name is that one sometimes has to responsibly pseudonymize and abstract some real-world situations, particularly because I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the folks who have a different sensibility to mine. Their interests are valid, intelligent, skilled, and often challenging: I wouldn’t want to be seen to be rubbishing anyone by voicing frustration.

Blogging helps a bit with this problem, because I feel that most of the people reading this blog do understand most of the way I’m approaching long-standing problems and challenges within academic life. It is much easier in many ways to deal with open opposition than it is to feel as if one is a Martian. I’m still glad for this blog and for the people who read it and appreciate it: one Martian to many, perhaps.

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6 Responses to Coughing Break

  1. back40 says:

    In addition to your scholarly contributions you make simple human contributions that I find equally valuable. The posts you made about your father and how you miss him were instructive in a way that your scholarship doesn’t touch. The value comes not only from your common humanity, but also from the fact that you are a scholar and see the world through that polished lens.

    There are things you toss off and never develop that I would value should you find the energy in your aged body and mind to work on them. One recent one was a remark about books that you had to force yourself to finish reading. You mentioned The Confusion, even though you were immensely sympathetic with what the book was trying to do. What does that mean? What was it trying to do? Why are you sympathetic? I suspect that there’s a big chunk of something underneath that remark if you can find the energy to cough it up.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim may be “coughing up” too much already!

    I have complained in the past — probably on this site but certainly on others — about the way that the software architecture of blogs over-privileges novelty and currency, and I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with the exhaustion that the best and most creative bloggers (like Tim) often feel. As far as I am concerned, Tim, you have given us many posts over the past few years that could have generated a lot more discussion than they did, but slid down to the bottom of the page, or off the page and into the archives, before the conversation had fulfilled itself. I think it would be wonderful if, from time to time, you recycled old posts that in your view deserve more debate. In some cases it would be especially interesting to see if anything has changed or developed in the intervening period to make us give a post, or its comments, some second thoughts. It could be valuable for poster and commenter alike to say, “subsequent events have helped to substantiate the point I made then,” or “subsequent events have revealed that I was full of shit,” or even “I can’t believe that I wrote that — what was I smoking?”

    The place of second thoughts and reconsiderations in intellectual life is greatly neglected, always and everywhere, but especially in the blogosphere, where there’s no excuse for it. The New Yorker can’t re-run old stories and articles, but bloggers can — and sometimes should. That this might also relieve Tim from any felt pressure to come up with new posts is just an added bonus.

  3. Bradley Reuhs says:

    I read all your posts and, as a Martian in my department, appreciate the diversion from the mundane politics of academia and applied science. I agree with Alan that a new look at some of your past posts would be interesting. Some from your previous website are ripe for discussion.

    Sorry to comment off topic (and you probably already know this), but the latest edition of Granta is entitled “The view from Africa.” Short pieces from/about Africa. I haven’t dived in yet but it looks good.


  4. Ralph says:

    Tim, Our conversations do tend to repeat themselves, as you say. I do want to re-iterate a point that I think I’ve made at Crooked Timber, Cliopatria, and probably elsewhere: I think that your archives are deep and mature enough that you’ve probably got a book of historiographical essays here already. I think the key to getting them into print lies in not calling them that.

  5. hestal says:

    Herr Burke:

    Any awards you receive for this blog are well deserved. And don’t sell yourself short: “But I also don’t want to be the nag and scold who tells everyone how to behave correctly, and I know that’s the real danger for me, the bad habit that descends from my legitimate concerns.”

    You have much to say with respect to telling others how to behave. Teach me the lessons of history. I want very much to hear what you have to say.

  6. Bill McNeill says:

    I’ll chime in with a buck-up-Tim message too.

    I’ve been a faithful reader of this blog for a few months now because you write about issues that I only have a passing familiarity with. I’m probably never going to have the time to study African history, and I’m never going to make the time to brainstorm about the direction in which university-level humanities education should go. Still, I have enough of an interest in these areas to want to read the occasional five-paragraph essay from someone with an informed point of view. You may feel like you’re rehashing ancient debates, and maybe to some extent you are. But that’s fine, because not everybody’s heard the same ancient debates. Blogging at its best enables the democratization of expertise, and you have some expertise to democratize. So get some rest and drink some orange juice and then keep doing what you’re doing. It helps.

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