Those of my readers who are in English or the other modern languages can’t help but know that this is The Week. Whether or not you’re on the job market, the buzz has started and we know that on Thursday, September 16, 2010 this years MLA Job Information List comes out. Not its final form, of course, it will be updated until the season is over. But we can feel it in the air, in the wind, in the precise amount of antacid we require, the job list is coming. And so it seems appropriate to wind up my three part series on the profession–my own sorting out of why I want to do this work and what I think this work is.
A moment on grad school
Someone said in my graduate school orientation that we should be certain to think of graduate school as professional school: that we were in training to be scholars no less than our peers in medical school were in training to be doctors. Call me young, call me naive, but that got to me. I liked it. I wonder now, though, how realistic that is. Can a person really be trained to be a scholar? At one level, this is a silly question–as silly as the errant first-year here and there over the years who has brazenly come up to me after the first class to announce that they “don’t really need” this writing class because, after all, writing “can’t be taught.” But at another level, I think that it’s a question we ought to take seriously.
What can be taught?
There are skills of research, and writing, and critical thought that can be taught. There are content areas of the history of our fields and our professions that can be taught. We go to graduate school under wonderful professors because there are many things that can be taught.
What can be directed?
What I mean by “directed” is that there are a lot of ways of scholarship that good mentors can point us at, but we have to go. @veek tweeted today: “It occurs to me that nobody ever taught me, in grad school or else-formal-where, that the academy is a participatory culture.” The participatory nature of academia cannot be taught, per se, but mentors can talk about how to participate in the communities of academia, and direct students or junior colleagues towards resources or forums (or fora!) for participating in academia. But the precise nature of that participation cannot be taught directly.
Ultimately, though, I think that scholarship is something one has to make a commitment to, and one has to renew that commitment often. Good mentorship helps this immensely, but the choice to do it is individual.
Wait, are you making a religious argument?
No. I don’t think scholarship is like faith–and I’m not here to debate the nature of faith. But I do think it’s a choice. Because the stuff of scholarship is too complex for anyone to offer a student a formula for success–and, I suspect, the avenues to success are to varied and individual to have any one avenue provide a guarantee. Additionally, no one student can do everything. Perhaps I’m about to inscribe a blasphemy, but I don’t think you can read every journal, cover to cover, even in your subfield, while also familiarizing yourself with archival material, while also learning new scholarly technologies and keeping up with the old ones (microfiche? still? yes.). Of course this list goes on. Trying to learn all this, to become a professional, while also in coursework, or reading for exams… the sumtotal is impossible. So one of the techniques we learn is how to chart the course through the sumtotal of work we could do, to find the amount that works best for us to do. No one can teach us exactly what that is–whether skimming this article is sufficient or whether you should read it and take notes, even if you don’t precisely know how it’s applicable to something you’re working on yet. Whether you should attend this lecture or that one, whether you would do better to skip this conference and attend that one, or, while attending this conference, go to this concurrent panel or that one. Any panel you skip at any conference could be the one where you ask the question that gets the attention of the person with whom you network and it leads to a publication. But before you go, so could that other panel. There’s a degree of guesswork, of instinct, and of luck…and maybe just a little faith after all.
Scholarship: more than just a fancy hat
It is more than a hat, and yet, those who know me know I love the hat. And a particularly antediluvian part of me regrets that we no longer wear them around campus to demonstrate by our attire that we do this thing. This professory thing. This scholarship thing. Perhaps it’s just the voice of my kindergarten teachers still exhorting me to put my thinking cap on, but somehow the hat, more than the piece of paper that has the words of my degree on it, and some how more than the sturdy, material presence of my bound dissertation symbolizes that my job has a place in the world. We neither enter graduate school, nor do we exit it with an unerring ability to produce the perfect article, design the perfect project, think and express the thought that changes everything all at once. But what I wish for each of us that make it through to the hat stage, is that we get the chance to do this work of scholarship, this designing of projects, this writing of pieces, this thinking, this analysis, this continual process of learning. I believe that only when we get this chance to steep ourselves in that which we have come to love, yes, even sometimes when we hate it too, are we able to bring and share that love with our students and spark something of the scholar in each of them.