Intellectual Curiosity: True Confessions Edition

wordpressEven as I wrote my previous post about how disengagement from online discussions strikes me as evidence of a lack of intellectual curiosity, I was nervously aware that in my own ways I too am disengaged and incurious. For example, I almost never attend my department’s weekly colloquium. I used to go faithfully every Friday. My initial falling off coincided more or less with the arrival of my children and the attendant complications of having to get to the daycare before it closed — that, and not liking the poor kids to have longer days than I did, since of course you have to drop them off before work as well as pick them up after. And for a tired working parent, 3:45-5:00 Friday afternoons is a particularly difficult time to do one more work-related thing that’s not strictly required. It was still possible to go, of course, and sometimes I did, while other times my husband went to the corresponding event in the philosophy department.

But the truth is, I didn’t really miss it, and I have not gone back to anything like regular attendance. I don’t doubt — and don’t mean to impute anything about — the quality of presentations. Every talk I’ve been to (and, I’m sure, every one I’ve skipped) has been erudite, polished, and professionally delivered. Nonetheless, the experience of attending such academic talks is one I don’t usually enjoy very much or feel I benefit very much from, and so when I miss them, I don’t usually feel I’m missing out,  any more than I feel I’m missing out when I play hooky for a while from a conference I’m attending to go to a museum. The honest if shameful truth (and I really am kind of ashamed of it) is that I have real trouble staying interested at a lot of academic talks, just as I have trouble getting or staying interested in a lot of academic criticism. I used to feel a lot more angst about this than I now do: I was sure (especially when the first symptoms of this disengagement came over me in graduate school) that the problems all lay with me. It didn’t help that some of my peers in graduate school, and at least one of my professors, pretty clearly thought so too (it takes a while, I can tell you, to recover your confidence after a professor has declared you “intellectually calcified”). I struggled very hard to care about critical debates that seemed so urgent to others  (if, to me, so obscure and often incomprehensible); now I believe that, though I was and am, no doubt, dull in some ways, I might have been sharper if I’d been working on different material.

Anyway, theoretical obstructions have been one cause of (or excuse for) my disengagement. Now that I don’t have to worry about certain kinds of academic discourse, I don’t even try. I even gave away my volumes of Foucault and Derrida, my Judith Butler and my New Historicism reader. They may be interesting to other people, but to me they were neither interesting nor, as far as I could ever tell, useful for the kind of critic I have turned out to be.

It’s not just abstraction (or abstruseness) that is an impediment for me, though (and I don’t think actually that most of the talks I don’t attend are particularly theory-headed). I think it’s the combination of their specialization (really, hyper- or micro-specialization) and their format that turns me off. The pressure to specialize leads, among other things, to quite a lot of what I think of as “pickle” criticism (see the long footnote to this post; see also this thought-provoking post from D. G. Myers about “an end to readings”). It also reduces the portability of the ideas in most papers: rarely does such a narrowly focused reading give me something I can take away and use. I might still find it intrinsically interesting, informative, or just entertaining, but the odds of that are reduced by the standard presentation style, which is to read a very carefully constructed paper full of rhetorically deft bits all intricately related to each other. I’ve seen reasonable arguments made for this format, particularly for literary interpretations (which do, indeed, turn on precise turns of phrase both in the original text and in the analysis). I’ve seen it used very well, and that’s exactly the kind of paper I’ve typically given myself (though I do try to write it for speaking, as a lecture, rather than a document). It can be a very alienating experience, though, at least for me, to hear someone read a very dense text aloud on a very narrow topic. Though I am committed in principle to the value of open-ended inquiry, and I would never want my own interests to determine what projects are or aren’t pursued, that doesn’t mean I always want to sit for 90 minutes and listen to all the gory details. My notes and doodles often begin hopefully and responsibly enough, but too often they deteriorate. Recently I flipped through the little notebook I bring along to talks and saw, in big block letters across the page, “WHY???” I don’t know what exactly prompted that particular silent outburst, but clearly, at some point, I had let go of the rope.


So why should my colleagues spend their time in the blogosphere if I can’t show up regularly for our colloquium or manage an entire conference day without some time out? What right do I have to chastise other academics for their lack of intellectual curiosity, given how far I now indulge my own failure to find things interesting? I think that’s a fair question because it reminds me that in both cases we are making cost-benefit analyses: we’re asking what we will get out of a given activity. Many of my colleagues (though certainly not all!) do go every Friday, and they seem able to engage with almost any paper they hear. I admire them — and I’m entirely sincere in saying so. I also envy them. My own career path would have been much more straightforward, and my general level of anxiety lower,  if I felt the same.  But I don’t!  Maybe I should, or should keep trying (trying harder). But why? I have been in this profession for 23 years — longer, if you count my undergraduate years. Though I can’t predict what any specific paper will be like, I have a good general idea of how this whole process works. I make informed guesses, not about which papers will be good ones of their kind, but about which ones I want to attend as well as which ones (for one reason or another) I ought to attend. I don’t scorn people for continuing to present formal papers; I don’t shrug off the value conferences have for other people despite my own indifferent experiences of them; I don’t call for an end to our colloquium because on the whole I don’t find it professionally valuable, however much I might enjoy individual papers. I guess all I’d like is for people not to take for granted that this way of doing things is the only (or even the best) way to share our work with each other.

I feel as if I should say, for the record (though the presenters themselves are not blog readers, as far as I know) that the last two colloquium papers I heard were super — engaging, original, and thought-provoking! One was my fellow-Victorianist Marjorie Stone on “Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ on YouTube:  Contemporary Popular Culture, Erotomania, and Psychology in the Dramatic Monologue”; the other was the brilliant and funny Len Diepeveen on “Smudges and Shiny Things.” (Speaking of Len’s paper, if any of you know of any paintings of shiny things with smudges on them, he’d like to hear from you.) There’s another talk coming up quite soon that I really wish I could go to but can’t because of a scheduling conflict. My not showing up is not a judgment of anyone in particular! Sometimes I’d rather hear from you about your work in some other way, though. In fact, I bet I’d rather read about it on your blog, if you had one.

7 thoughts on “Intellectual Curiosity: True Confessions Edition

  1. Mark Murphy February 27, 2013 / 5:11 pm

    Thanks a lot for your post, much of which reflects my experience of attending social science seminars (sooo many). I’m sure people have been bored at mine, but maybe that’s just payback time 🙂 however I find that (cliche alert) the attitude I bring to the seminar affects my level of appreciation – I.e., what I get out of them depends on what I put in. If I don’t put serious face on, it’s more than likely I end up playing hooky (but maybe not in museums). As a new blogger though, I’m looking forward more to future seminars and conferences as I can use the blog to discuss the ideas presented. It really has had an impact on my understanding of what a seminar is for, but we will wait and see. Maybe you have used your blog in this way in the past? Anyway, thanks again!


    • Rohan February 28, 2013 / 11:52 am

      Mark, in theory I agree with you about bringing the right attitude. Over the years, though, I have found that isn’t always enough — hence the deterioration in my notes! Your idea to have a project, such as writing up ideas from the seminar on your blog, is smart. No, I haven’t done exactly that myself. I have heard occasional anecdotes about presenters being disturbed to find their work discussed publicly this way — so just a caution that you might want to let speakers know!


  2. Jo VanEvery February 27, 2013 / 5:32 pm

    Very well expressed. I particularly like this, “I guess all I’d like is for people not to take for granted that this way of doing things is the only (or even the best) way to share our work with each other.”

    And my only judgement is for whatever professor felt that it was acceptable to tell a doctoral candidate or young scholar that they were “intellectually calcified”. Like your doodle WHY!!! on your seminar notes, he can think what he likes but should not say every thought aloud.


    • Rohan February 28, 2013 / 11:54 am

      Thanks, Jo. Yes, I think that was a particularly bad moment, professionally and pedagogically, especially because I think I had made it clear that I was struggling hard with the material but just not finding it intelligible or useful. I learned nothing — nearly the only thing I now remember about that seminar is that comment, which obviously still rankles! In my more charitable moments, I remind myself that being an untenured assistant professor at Cornell in the early 90s was probably pretty stressful.


  3. litlove February 27, 2013 / 7:11 pm

    We used to have SO many research seminars, one for every century of literature taught, and they offered a mix of talks from graduate students and visiting speakers and… well, I wish I’d had the energy to attend but after a long day’s teaching, with my own research to attend to, a child to collect, dinner to cook, I had absolutely no mental or physical energy left. I think that listening to, reading, and thinking about academic subjects requires a great deal of mental processing. This is all effort and energy. We’re not sitting there listening to some delightful talk about watching the first skylarks appear or something – you have to concentrate hard. To my mind it was more insulting to the speaker to turn up and not listen (or worse, doze off!) than not to be there at all. And I always felt that I wanted my intellectual life to be focused and that I would put quality attention into what I did, even if the consequence was that I did less.

    Mind you, the number of papers I have attended at conferences when the speaker goes over the time limit by a considerable margin! I used to think that it was the only thing we absolutely had to do in our profession – talk to time – and wonder how on earth such vast miscalculations could be made. I also tried to make sure that every time I gave a paper, it had at least one significant point of general interest, something about literature or reading that everyone could take home. After all those over-specialised papers, it seemed to me a basic requirement.

    I am also horrified by the professor who called you ‘intellectually calcified’. That’s plain mean and should never come from the mouth of a professional educator. Having done the study support job, however, the things I learned about the other lecturers beggared belief. One supervisor simply wrote ‘Dreadful’ at the bottom of an essay, nothing else. Needless to say the recipient was soon in my room suffering from shattered confidence. What are these people THINKING? It has to be a submission/domination thing arising from petty tyranny and insecure egos. Not pretty, though.


    • Rohan February 28, 2013 / 11:59 am

      It is hard work really attending, I agree. I’ve mentioned more than once that late Friday is not a great time for this (and not a very family-friendly time) but it’s a tradition, and after all, when is a better time, when people are teaching on varying schedules and so forth?

      Going over time is a sin: I couldn’t agree more. I like your idea about including one portable idea in every paper. I wonder if that’s always possible.

      I’ve heard a story about a philosopher who wrote on somebody’s paper “You must stop doing philosophy right away.” I kind of love this, because it is just the sort of thing we’ve probably all been tempted to say after working through a particularly vexing paper — but imagine being at the receiving end of that comment!


  4. Alex February 28, 2013 / 6:07 am

    I echo Litlove’s horror at the professor who called you ‘intellectually calcified’ and wince at her example of the supervisor who write ‘Dreadful’ at the bottom of a student’s essay – the more so because I can think of someone not that far away who does exactly the same thing regardless of the number of times he’s been pulled up about it.

    Where research seminars are concerned, it is part of my honorary role to attend them and for the most part I find them fascinating, but the one thing that is sure to make me turn off completely is when someone arrives (and ours are mostly made up of speakers from other universities both in the UK and from abroad) with what is obviously the next chapter of their very specialised book and sets out to read it to us. These scripts were meant to be read, not spoken and with one notable exception such a presentation only serves to send the entire audience into a doodling frenzy for the next hour. The exception is the gentleman mentioned above, who to be fair to him writes and speaks like an angel but that doesn’t excuse the way he comments on students work.

    I do wonder, though, to what extent this problem varies from subject area to subject area. Although I’m a linguist because my area of interest is narrative organisation I end up in both Language and Literature seminars and I have to say the reading of the chapter is much more likely to occur in the Literature seminars than in the Language ones. In the latter I may occasionally be boggled by figures, but it much more likely that the speaker will be engaging in a discussion of an ‘experiment’ of some sort that is lead by notes rather than monologuing from a prepared script. These are also the sessions where conversation and requests for explication are more easily accommodated during the presentation.


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