Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Then the eyes of both were opened...

.... and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

I figured, after twelve years of university, that I knew what it meant to be "a scholar."

I had no idea. Not the slightest clue. Hell, I was so blind, I didn't even realize that there were people out there who could see.

Well, that's not entirely true. There were little clues. The frustration of banging my head against a brick wall in my term papers. The sense that I was just repackaging others' ideas into nifty little categories with witty little catchphrases. The dim knowledge that there was some ineffable difference between the papers I was presenting at conferences, and the papers presented by other academics. But I didn't know what all those little clues meant.

Last year, I taught a few courses in the English Lit department at my alma mater. The faculty invited me to sit in on a meeting to discuss the direction of one of the intro courses. And at one point, one of the senior faculty members looked at me and said that she thought that courses like the Theories and Methods course could easily be taught by someone like me. I got all bug-eyed and incredulous. Why, no! I wasn't prepared to teach a course like that! "I haven't been tested and accepted into the academy yet." Such a cop out. I must have known that something was missing, that there was some key bit that I hadn't quite figured out yet. But I didn't know what it was.

Well, I do now.

All the academic work I've done to date has been little more than a series of literature reviews. All of it. Even my Masters thesis. My favourite modus operandi has been to take two or three scholars or schools of thought, and pit them against each other in a show of strength. A Punch and Judy puppet show, really. I've also been really big on categorization, and have become quite adept at putting theories and methods into neat little boxes. A heuristic device, I call it. "Oh, this? It's just a heuristic device. My own little thing." I even renamed the ecofeminist critique of the eroticized environmentalist. I called it "Erin Brockovich Syndrome." Catchy, no?

I might also throw in some creative examples to illustrate my points, and call that "scholarship." Those little illustrations? Those were my "original contributions" to the discipline. I'd long since given up the dream of being a ground-breaking scholar, so these miniatures drawn on my little bit of ivory were satisfying enough.

All that criticism of others' work, all that time I spent dissecting the minutiae of this theory vs that theory, this method vs that method, taking it apart and putting it back together in different ways - I did all of this without ever really having put any of those theories or methods into practice myself. Don't get me wrong - I think that all this grappling in the mud has been necessary. It's what has prepared me to do the work I intend to do from now on. Learning is a process, and this has been part of that process. But somehow, I thought that what I was already doing was The Thing Itself. Instead, I've been like a sports commentator or a fashion magazine editor, criticizing from the sidelines. Sure, maybe I'd played extramural softball in junior high school, or put together a smashing outfit from bits I'd picked up at the mall. But these are a far cry from actually doing the thing itself.

It's a whole other world to be creating something. This must be why so many artists disdain critics.

As it turns out, writing a dissertation isn't so much a test as a process. I'm reinventing myself, quite literally. Moving from student to scholar. I had absolutely no idea.

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