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Friday, December 15, 2017

Aspiring to mediocrity

What I mean by this is that we need to achieve competence. For example, I would like to play jazz piano that sounds like generic playing that anyone half-way good would do. The kind of player who would get a one-star review in Downbeat, but that you would recognize someone who knew how to play idiomatically, tastily, and fluently in a jazz style. But if you could really do that, and actually swing, then maybe you would be up to a 2-star player? If what you play is tasty, then maybe you're a 3-star player? At the next level you would need some originality, but I'm still working on sounding good within my very narrow limits. One thing I need to do is practice a little less, rather than obsessively spending hours at the keyboard. Doing more is fine too, but it all needs to be disciplined and patient.  

For my own poetry, though, I want to unlearn the idiomatic, fluent style of contemporary poets, because I think a poem should sound distinctive to its author rather than being written in a period style. I can achieve this in two ways: by parody, and by not giving a shit about those norms. One way is to be reading poetry of the past rather than soaking up the influences that are everyone's influences.  

Scholarly writing is more like mediocre jazz playing. You want to sound like a scholar, rather than deviating too much from the norm. People will assume that you don't know how to do it otherwise. And a basic competence will almost guarantee that you are in the top quarter of published scholars. I had a student quote from a bad study found on line that said "women are oppressed by feminism" when the author of the study meant to say the opposite, that feminism can show how women are oppressed by patriarchy.

I see graduate students struggling to get to that mediocre level, where the paper is well done in a conventional sense, and could be standard paper published in a second-line journal.  This doesn't mean the paper is perfect, but that it is perfectly mediocre, does what a paper ought to do and checks all the right boxes. After that, then we start talking about something more.

Once you achieve mediocrity, then you can work from there toward a more original perspective.  A lot of what I've done on Lorca is simply to assume that we should study him using our knowledge of how literary criticism should best be done, rather than working on him within the distorted baggage-laden framework of Lorca studies.    

1 comment:

Leslie B. said...

This is of course another of the dicta from academia that makes me lose interest: the idea that the most you could hope to attain is mediocrity, trying your very best, and that at the same time you must make sure not to achieve more, since that would put you above your station. It feels mildly anorexic, actually: that constant struggle to keep yourself at one size less than what you'd fit into if you didn't put the question of your size first on your agenda.

On the other hand, the ed biz should probably take this seriously. Right now in terms of programs it's either be an alleged center of excellence or be truly deficient. I would really like it if the standard there could be adequacy.