Friday, December 3, 2010

Publication Diaries: The Problem with Subtlties

So I just sent in the publishing contract for my second essay to come out in the International Journal of the Book, “The Danger of Institutional Conservatism in the Humanities.” It will be available in the 2011 edition of the journal, and I’m quite proud of it. I’m not sure if I’d say it’s the best work I’ve done so far, but it’s definitely my most experimental so far that’s being published in an academic journal.

As I learn more about the peer review process, especially its problems and difficulties (for details, see my article in the Book Journal last year), I think interdisciplinary journals are best suited for a lot of my work writing philosophy articles. I’ve come to this conclusion for reasons that will sound very self-serving, if you want to interpret me maliciously. But I think my reasons are actually very insightful, if you interpret me charitably. I personally think it’s a very self-serving insight, but quite insightful nonetheless. I've noticed in academic culture, that the more specialized one’s knowledge is, the more zealously one tends to guard one’s perspectives from critique. In learning more and more about an increasingly specific subject matter, one tends to acknowledge one’s own expertise: At a particular point, different for everyone, one tends to presume that one’s own perspective on the subject matter is the right perspective. “I am the expert,” says the expert, “so my own knowledge is the standard of my field. If it wasn’t the standard, then I wouldn’t be an expert.” These people are very often submission reviewers for the academic journals in their specialty.

This attitude creates a potentially terrible problem for creative thinkers, especially people who are younger and/or less experienced, still trying to establish themselves in their field. Such a young person, a new entrant, may have ideas that differ from the established experts. Being newer to the field, they don’t yet have the experience or prestige that a long career in a specialized field offers. But they may also have innovative new ideas and approaches to their field, which may not be compatible with the approaches of the experts. And if the established expert has come to identify their own way of thinking as the only way of thinking, then that new writer will be rejected. The expert will hold them to be wrong, when the new writer may just be in disagreement or holding a different approach than the expert. The expert will reject their work, preventing an innovative approach from being disseminated.

At this point, I think it should be clear that the person I’ve been calling a specialized expert is better titled an academic curmudgeon.

I think this attitude becomes more prevalent, or at least more likely to encounter, in highly specialized academic environments. This, right now, is just a matter of anecdotal evidence, but the anecdotal evidence is beginning to stack up. What this has to do with my mutually beneficial relationship with interdisciplinary journals is that one is less likely to encounter this attitude in a less specialized academic environment. So my own strange ideas and approaches are more likely to be given a chance than they would be in a highly specialized journal with a greater probability of curmudgeonliness.

My forthcoming essay is a more experimental in form than any essay I’ve attempted to put in the public view. Read by one of my former professors, he described it as uncategorizable into any typical genre or division of philosophy. I took this to be a compliment. He also called it cranky decades beyond my years, which I considered a backhanded compliment. When I presented it at the Book Conference in Switzerland last month, it was received with gaping mouths, and it took a while for the ideas to sink in to the audience. It’s a very dense essay for 4,000 words, and has some subtlties in its tone and language that may not be noticed.

The essay is a continuation of my critique of how academic knowledge is generated, and contains potential solutions to the ways in which a field of knowledge can become moribund, uncreative, and boring. Key to the solution, which I note – there and here – is much easier to talk about than actually to achieve, is an attitude of humility. One of my reviewers had no critiques of the content of my essay, but often told me to remove what s/he called ‘self-referencing,’ sentences starting with ‘I.’ I will admit that I didn’t follow this direction in every case, because I didn’t want to give the essay a tone of pure objectivity and distance that is one of the signs of the arrogance of the expert. When I describe the attitude of humility, the reviewer annotated that I should re-write my introductory sentences to display more of this attitude. It was cheeky, and I laughed, but s/he also didn’t understand the subtle point I was trying to make with my cranky tone.

The most difficult part about inculcating an attitude of humility into academic professionals is that our personalities, and academic society generally, are shaped to make it immensely difficult to have actual humble attitudes. We’re rewarded for being distinctively smarter than our colleagues, and especially the general public. There’s a casual disdain for undergraduates and ordinary students in academic culture that I never really noticed in universities until I was no longer one of those ordinary students. And I’m still uncomfortable with bragging in a non-professional context. It’s difficult for me to accept compliments about my work in philosophy and literature, because of the conflicts it gives me: I want to be a humble, easily-relatable person, but I also want to produce remarkable, superior, inspiring writing.

I tell my friends in the philosophy department how many different and intriguing ideas I have in the course of a week, and I feel awkward when they tell me they don’t have nearly so active a brain. If there’s one thing I don’t want to become, it’s an insufferable genius, even though I can see myself eventually heading for near complete Rain Man territory as I get older. Academics are not humble people, and our increasingly exclusive social circles of other graduate students and eventually other academics and highly educated professionals only encourage that attitude of superiority to everyday people.

So I wrote my essay about encouraging humility in a very superior, bordering on arrogant, tone. It’s an illustration in the tone of the writing itself of how genuinely difficult the task of humility is. It’s written by an arrogant man who knows, despite his own instincts, that his goal of encouraging innovation and works of brilliance (of which he considers much of his own work), will only be achieved by inculcating widespread attitudes of humility. The paradox unfolds along many different levels of articulation.

Brilliant, isn’t it?
In other news, the new Kanye album is absolutely fantastic, and I don’t use the word absolute in a positive sense very often. It’s a very appropriate clip to end a post that talks about the importance of humility.

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