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Thursday, November 29, 2012

"A Scholar assumes that others might also be scholars"

I was exploring some material on one of my favorite academic blogs today. In an older post, Z / Profacero / Z writes:
This was a scholarly interaction, and it took place at a large state institution. Say anything you want about how this was a fifty year old man, flattered that a seventeen year old blonde who wasn’t even in his class, came to ask about his book. It was still a scholarly interaction on all sides. From it, I learned that a scholar will answer your questions seriously, no matter who you are. To put it a little differently, a scholar assumes that others might also be scholars.
I'm giving a little bit of context for this aphorism, because I wanted to show the experience out of which it arose, a visit by the blogger as college student to a professor's office. The entire series of posts is worth reading, since the theme is "what is a scholar?"

I make this assumption myself: others may also be scholars. They aren't necessarily so, but they may be. Any serious, sincerely asked question deserves a serious scholarly answer, whether the questioner is 17 or 85, an academic or a civilian. I answer questions by random strangers who email me all the time.

Teaching, I assume my students are scholars, or could be. By this I mean that they deserve the benefit of having a scholar as their teacher, someone, himself, involved in learning. At least for those four (or five or six) years of undergraduate education, the student is a researcher, a scholar.

The assumption can backfire when students, or even colleagues, do not see themselves this way. So the question, which I have been grappling with while reading and commenting on this other blog, is, what gets in the way of our being scholars? What blocks that energy, that identity?

A lot of what I blog about here is academia 101. In other words, things you should know by around the end of Freshman year in college, if not before. How to formulate a thesis / a critical problem. How to write a good term paper / article. The question that I need to consider, however, is why college professors become alienated from their scholarly identity?


profacero said...

"... why college professors become alienated from their scholarly identity?"

I am not sure in general. In my case it seems to have to do with having frozen it to keep it safe and intact while I go through academia. In many situations I have had it was not desirable that I should have a scholarly identity, it seemed. It was a liability in the immediate environment and so had to be frozen, so it could be preserved.

profacero said...

"...students, or even colleagues, do not see themselves this way."

Most immediate colleagues I have had see themselves as teachers, not as researchers, even if they are also researchers. It is a whole different mindset, another orientation to the material.

profacero said...

More on how people become alienated: recommendations on how to have a safe career as opposed to let the material lead. Having the authorities not trust one to know what one is doing. Being told enough times one doesn't have the right, etc.

A dream I have involves freezing my ideas for later, putting them on cassettes and pouring my brain into juice boxes, stacking all of this in the freezer; I have always thought this dream was about what I said in comment 1 but it could just as well be about putting own research priorities on hold so as to try to fulfill a formula.

Jonathan said...

It could be a dream about self-censorship. You have felt the need to preserve your true scholarly self during times when it could not safely emerge. freezing saves the material, the identity, for later, without destroying it, but also makes it unusable in the present. So when can it safely emerge again? I suppose it's better than a dream in which the ideas are thrown into a trash can.

profacero said...

In the rest of the dream, after putting everything in the freezer, I go to the department to help with the disaster, mop up blood and tend the wounded. There is water everywhere because pipes have broken, and a cadaver hanging in the shower (there is a shower). I and a colleague I bet you know and dislike want to move the cadaver so the wounded can bathe but it is so heavy and torpe that even with two of us we cannot lift it. I keep trying to make coffee so the wounded can drink but the coffee maker sprays water everywhere except in the pot.

In another, related dream I have gone to meet and have it out with this author I am working on, who is dead but in the dream should be alive because it is a dream, and I find he is really dead and simply will not wake up no matter how much I shake him. The cadaver in the shower is unidentified but I think it is the same one. Needs to be moved out and is dead but just will neither wake up nor go away.

A duppy, as the Jamaicans would say and I think this author really is like that, I should write on him now in this sense (and actually, I think Stephen Hart sort of has done that now).

profacero said...

... I think the answer is still, being told you are not supposed to have it. Not having authority: authors have it, you know, authority is just being the author.

Virtually every message I have gotten in a work environment -- not in professional environments beyond my institutions, but in everyday life -- has been along the lines of, you should not know what you know, have the skills you have, etc., or else, it doesn't matter if you do because either (a) we will ignore that or (b) we do not need that.

I had a startlingly different conversation Fri. with dept. chair saying: Listen, we need more total articles among us if we are to compete with other departments and you know how to create these quite fast even if you haven't been lately -- can you just finish some so we have more, please? Try to place 'em high, willya? It would really help us out, and I'd appreciate it!

One can of course cite this as an example of perfectly alienated labor, we need some products here, etc., but note the difference between willya please and the variations of "you shouldn't really."

Jonathan said...

Insomnia? No, I see from your blog you were up grading all night.

profacero said...

Yes, I left office at dawn and slept all day and am about to go back although I am not staying all night this time.

The no-time of night seems to be a good place to make up for lost time.

profacero said...

I am still working on the Question, at the end of the post.

Why do they become alienated. I am still working on this.

Because of not having power / authority to be who they are, and because of the shock of this, as it is not expected.

Because of this adjustment. Because often the actual expectations for faculty, who and how they are to be and what they are to do, are not what one had been told.

Most of the ones I know who became alienated had some Achilles heel as I did, something to make them feel tenuous. In these cases you are supposed to hold on until tenure and once you have it, explore. But to hold on, you have to have a good situation.