In the discussion of my previous entry about Mark Edmundson’s essay, Alonzo raises a pretty fair challenge to the intensity of my reaction to that essay. I’ve been thinking about this issue a bit this morning.
This is a discussion that I’ve gotten into before at this blog, because I tend to have strong reactions to what strike me as unfair generalizations. The strength of my (over?)reaction produces two immediate problems.
First, I like to make generalizations myself. You can’t avoid doing so, and you shouldn’t want to avoid doing so. Generalizing well is a basic part of critical thought. I’m finding the truth of this proposition in yet another form this semester in doing some observational drawing. If you try to draw a room, a person, an object in every possible detail, you’re on a fool’s errand. It isn’t even how we actually physiologically see the world. There will always be another detail or nuance excluded at the end of your work.
I’m presently trying to finish the introduction to a manuscript I’ve been working on for an unseemly length of time, and in it, I’m aggressively generalizing about some of the atmospheric, pervasive claims I see as habitual features of scholarly writing within African studies in the Anglo-American academy. There’s a problem with that characterization, and I acknowledge it in the introduction: if you look for chapter and verse quotations to document the tendencies I’m describing, if you try to draw that feeling straight out of published work, it’s actually rather difficult. Either you have to magnify the importance of a relatively marginal work that is written in a more polemical or vivid style than ordinary professionalized scholarship in the field, or you have to really dig in hard on the exegesis of much more canonical works to show where the tendencies you’re describing can be found. What I’m trying to describe in the introduction is really the paratextual context that surrounds Africanist scholarship. Not what we say in our carefully groomed publications, but the conversations we have at meetings, the introductions we make to our papers on panels, the verbal characterizations we make of what is good and bad in our field, the mustering of institutional resources to endorse some research and condemn other research. I’m trying to capture gestures, winks, nods, scowls, all of which I think are more powerful in constructing the norms of practice in a disciplinary field than the formal publications that we put forward to be cited and dissected. I can’t help but describe those kinds of underlying forces in terms not far off from the way Edmundson builds his complaint. At some point, you’ll have to trust me.
Second, being overly fastidious about generalization is a quick road to shitty writing. Specifically the kind of shitty writing that academics frequently exhibit, writing full of qualifying statements, cover-your-ass mock concessions, muddled and passive-voice constructions that permit the author a measure of plausible deniability about an argument. This is one of the points that Alonzo quite rightly raises in his comment, that the end result of my complaint is the constriction of Edmundson’s (or any author’s) ability to write a short, descriptive, provocative essay.
To return to the analogy I’m getting from observational drawing, if I’m making a drawing, it is at least as much for others to view as it is for my own satisfaction. If I make a drawing that has so much detail in it that nothing draws the viewer’s eye or says anything about what I saw, what’s the point? All I’m really doing then is grabbing you, sitting you down in the same chair that I sat in and saying, “See?”
On the other hand, it’s all about the details you choose to put in that picture. Generalizations work best when they’re vivid in the few specifics they do offer, when the telling detail or sharply observed narrative draws you in. A good generalizer is willing to be surprised by the world around them, to see something they’ve never seen before, or sees a detail that feels drawn from life as we ourselves know it. A good generalizer is a good storyteller, often working from personal experience. Bad generalizers grab generic reports from the newspapers, snatch course titles out of online catalogues, retell thrice-told tales, tell you about something that happened to a friend of a friend who knows someone.
So what does rub me the wrong way sometimes about generalizations?
Part of my reaction is simple. I’m most annoyed when I feel included in a hostile generalization that I don’t find to be a truthful description of my practice or my life. When I read David Lodge, even when it makes me wince a bit at the resemblance to my own life, it feels more or less correct. Reading Edmundson’s essay, on the other hand, I don’t see what he sees in several respects, even given that I share some of his underlying dissatisfaction with the state of the academic humanities. I teach and read cultural studies, I teach and read about popular culture. That’s not all I do, but it’s some of it. I don’t use computers or gadgets in every or even most class sessions, but when it’s appropriate to do so, I do.
As a result, there really isn’t any room in Edmundson’s essay for me to be a good teacher, to care deeply about what I do, to believe I’m calling students to the “alternatives”. He hasn’t left any rhetorical escape hatches for me to crawl out of. I have colleagues here and elsewhere who I think are fantastic teachers and scholars of the kind that Edmundson claims to admire, and they too are left penned in by his characterization. So at that point, I really am left with only two possibilities: I’m wrong or he’s wrong. Option B, please.
Second, I react strongly because I have a countermanding generalization in mind. I’ve known scholars who imagine themselves as Edmundson seems to: lonely sentinels standing on the rampart of a neglected outpost as the barbarians crest over the hill. Sometimes, they’re completely entitled to that self-image. I’ve been taught by professors and worked with professors who absolutely strike me that way, who really do stand alone in some exemplary manner, and whose contrarianism is both prodigiously talented and fiercely charismatic. I love these folks, I admire them, I desperately want to be surrounded by them. I’d often like for them to succeed in transforming academic practice so that more of us teach or think as they do. Judging from what Alonzo says, that’s how Edmundson comes off to his students. I could certainly read him in that spirit, and maybe I should.
However, I’ve also been taught by professors and worked with professors for whom this kind of self-image is armor against the unfortunate fact that they stink as teachers or that their scholarly interests pace restlessly inside a teeny-tiny intellectual prison cell of their own making.
If I had to come up with a rule of thumb about how I sort the former from the latter on first acquaintance, it’s that the charismatic contrarians are more playful, more self-aware, more entertainingly performative and often surprisingly knowledgeable about the objects of their derision. You can drop them into almost any context and they’ll be able to play along, prod and poke, conceal the eventual ferocity of their critique until the emotional and intellectual moment is right. The people who are really just flattering themselves while developing a comprehensive alibi for their own professional weaknesses are humorless, repetitive, dully tendentious, unresponsive to context, one-trick ponies.
Third, I’m domesticated enough to the norms of professional life that I think that fellow professionals are owed a generic kind of courtesy simply by the fact that they are fellow professionals. I’m all for calling a demonstrated scoundrel out (Margaret Soltan is the supreme mistress of this art). But I intuitively recoil from characterizations which either make someone out to be a scoundrel from what strike me as minor foibles or mistakes, or which sweepingly indict vast acres of professional real estate as populated by worthless hacks.
One of the things I ended up deciding I didn’t like about graduate school some years after I’d finished graduate school was a culture of invidious (and self-complimentary) disdain for most other scholars and most other scholarly work. It took me a long time to cleanse that kind of sneering out of my system, and I sometimes lapse back. I didn’t like the meanness of this affect towards others, and I didn’t like the implied egocentrism of it either.
I think most of us publish too much stuff, and that scholarly work taken as a whole is weakly written, overly specialized, and pedantic. Paradoxically, though, my basic opinion of any given individual scholarly work is positive until I’m convinced otherwise by reading it and engaging it. Writing a whole monograph or even an article is hard work, and anyone who gets to the finish line deserves a slap on the back and a hug. Most of the time, even if I disagree with a specific work, I try to respect the work and craft that went into it.
I think a lot of what is taught in the scholarly humanities, especially at R1 universities and selective liberal arts colleges, isn’t really what most 18-22 year olds would most benefit from learning. But my default assumption about any individual course taught by any specific professor is a positive one until I have really specific reason to think otherwise.
That’s what I think I owe people as a fellow professional. It’s also how I want to live my life as a person: to work towards preemptive charity and mutual respect until I’m given a specific reason to feel otherwise. There are exceptions, sure. Sometimes big ones. It’s an ideal, that’s all.
My problem with some hostile characterizations of academia is consistently that they jump these two registers of judgment in appallingly casual and mean-spirited ways. Edmundson’s essay is nowhere near as bad as some of the stupid reports and mindless surveys I’ve criticized here in the past, but it has a similarly uncharitable sense about it.
There are problems with this kind of professionalism, I know. It’s why doctors are sometimes very slow to deal with a fellow doctor that they know is screwing up or incompetent, or why law firms sometimes stick a weak senior partner in an office, lock the door, and hope he’ll just stay out of the way. Seen cynically, this kind of professional courtesy is a reciprocal pact: I won’t attack you, and you won’t attack me.
But one of the oldest and noblest ideas about the scholarly enterprise is that it is about the progressive construction of knowledge, that we not only know differently in each succeeding generation but that we know better, know more, that we build upon previous insight and leave something new for the next generation. If you take that at all seriously, it requires a basic measure of intellectual and professional generosity. It means that you read what you don’t like, observe what you criticize, try what you’re disinclined to do. It means you impose a tough test if you want to argue that a particular argument, a particular kind of work, a particular way of teaching and studying, should be superceded or demolished.
You want to rebuild the canon? Tell me how and why, and don’t just wave off a generation of smart and less-smart attacks on the canon as universally worthless. You’re tired of postcolonial theory? Fine, I have a lot of problems with it too. But it is a body of knowledge made by fellow professionals largely in good faith. If you want to do something else, you have to build the next stage on top of what they did, as a succession.
You don’t like what other academics around you are doing? Try to at least ask, “Why are they doing it?” in a way that does not presume you already know the answer. This is when generalization is most likely to make me restless, and why I complain at what I perceive to be a lack of curiosity.