Saturday, January 13, 2007

Professionalism, Disclosure, and Academic Personae

I choose butterfly, dreaming she is a professor. Seriously, the recent debate on whether one is an academic who blogs, or an academic blogger -- sparked off by Acephalous at http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/ -- is only relevant to me in the scheme of a larger question I've been worrying for a while. As scholars, it is our job to instruct students. But, for those of us who believe that teaching students to think critically is as crucial as teaching them facts to ponder, doesn't this suggest that we have to let go of at least some aspects of our glossy academic personae?

Think back to your undergrad days. I, for one, had some professors who barely registered on my radar, others who filled my days with misery, and a glorious few who made me want to be them. Here I am. But not one of those professors, not the stellar or the abysmal or any in between, gave the slightest clue as to the workings of academia. They might as well have been alchemists. The production and dissemination of knowledge was opaque. The texts reported "studies have shown," and other "knowledge," without laying bare the production of same. Even in methods courses, it seemed that the professors all had some research allele that I was missing. Their writing seemed like holy dictation taken down from the Gods of Ethnography. My own work limped and belched and I despaired. And all I got was pallid announcements that I should "keep at it," that I would "get it." Worse than useless, insulting when paired with the cookbook-style texts that outline how to do research. Effectively: some day you will not be atrocious, we hope.

Here's some heresy to pepper the academic pot: how about we all, in our own little ways, drop some of the all-knowing and ultra-competent veneer that our students see? Before anyone tries to backengineer who I am and report me to my department chair, I should state for the record that I am not advocating incompetence. But are our students really well served by our pretending that we know everything, that this sort of work is a natural inclination? Many of us front as though academic skill were the mental equivalent of a good singing voice. Sure you need training, but if you aren't born with that ineffable something well, kid, it ain't going to happen for you.

I say we get nekkid a little. I make it a practice in even the most basic undergraduate survey courses to point out where scholars disagree in findings, where the operationalization of variables skews findings, how research design determines the 'knowledge' that one can find. De-reification, to use an admittedly icky word. I also have a policy to always admit when I do not know something. This is not 'common sense.' I have seen many, many academics do the "shuffle and scramble" when trying to dodge questions from students or colleagues. Probably not surprising when there is an unspoken expectation that we know 'everything' within our fields. If we each did nothing but read journals all day, and then listen to podcasts of others reading yet more journals while we slept, we still likely couldn't keep up with absolutely everything going on in our fields. We need to stop pretending this makes us -- or others -- incompetent. It is like scorning someone because she cannot fly under her own power.

Writing is another sticky wicket. Maybe a year ago I came across a poetry journal titled "Lungfull," which I immediately adored for its practice of publishing the first draft and then the final version of a given poem. Fully half the time, the two versions seemed like different poems because there were so many dissimilarities. We as scholars might consider something similar. I know, I know, it is a horrifying thought. I have to do Lamaze breathing myself before I am even ready to share a draft with department colleagues, the step before sending out to blind peer review. But because of our reticence, students often don't understand that we scholars learn in part through writing. Writing is not the reporting of completed and digested discovery, but can in its own right be part of the discovery process. I advocate that we lay bare some of this process, perhaps through allowing students to see our own work in various stages. Scary, but effective. I have, in various semesters, kept an online research journal with reaction notes (a blog of sorts, where I speak of my research activities and emotional/mental reactions related to the process), posted coded transcripts in various stages of categorization, and posted subsequent drafts of a paper in progress. Students tell me it makes them feel much better, encourages them to write earlier (and to write several drafts rather than try to produce a finished one out of the gate), and helps minimize perfectionism and procrastination.

I am also public about many of my insecurities as a scholar. Does this make me incompetent? Does this mean that my students stop trusting me, or my chairs regret having hired me? Not a chance. My student evaluations are astonishingly strong most semesters, because my students know I am not subjecting them to anxieties that I do not experience myself. My students learn the meat of sociology and the practice of social research. But, they also learn a bit of what it means to be a scholar, how complex and at times discordant the process can be. My chairs have no problem with this process either. I don't grouse about the workings of the department or university directly, I don't betray confidences, and I don't use my insecurities as an excuse to avoid doing my best work.

There is nothing inherently wrong with telling the truth about academic practice. I applaud academics who blog, or blogging academics, for "whining". What is not spoken does not publicly exist -- it cannot be effectively addressed, changed, or understood. If there are commonly experienced problems in the practice of academic life, speaking them aloud should spread confidence in the academic community ("you mean my professor doesn't know everything? maybe I could become a professor, or an expert in this area too..." "Pee-yew! Amazing Dr. XYZ writes shitty first drafts!? Maybe I can produce something amazing too if I work at it...", "the eminent Scholar PDQ threw up for two weeks before her own tenure review? Then I'm not the biggest loser in all of [insert field of study]"). Let's be a bit more generous with our own stories and experiences, self-censorship be damned. Let's not hide under our academic covers with flashlights and then mock the brave soul who admits she wishes she had a nightlight.

10 comments:

Flavia said...

This is such a great post (and I'm delighted to have discovered your blog!). At my first academic conference, as a fairly advanced graduate student, I mentioned to a scholar--whom I admired but had already discovered was very very kind--how nervous I was about giving my paper.

She told me not only that she still felt sick to her stomach before delivering a paper--and that for years she wouldn't allow herself to drink at any receptions until after her paper was delivered--but that my own, very famous, and famously competent, no-nonsense advisor had once confided to HER that SHE (my advisor) still got nervous before every paper.

What a revelation that was to me! And why did I never hear such things from my own advisors and overseers?

Truth in advertising, folks!

Dr. O. said...

Thanks for the support! Even putting up this post, I found that my shoulders were tense, I was prepping to be soundly rousted.... this is a relief!

Scott Eric Kaufman said...

I'll see Flavia's delight and raise her a hearty cheer on the content of this particular post. Demystify academic life, yes, but not too much. We can't let the public know how little work we really do.

Dr. O. said...

SEK: I have to admit, I always stressed how "hard" and "intense" it was presenting at conferences, but what I didn't admit to my family was how much like a vacation it was to have my own hotel room and be able to wander a nifty new city and sit in a cafe after my paper was done. So there is that...

Sean Duffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Duffy said...

I agree with you - I think it would be useful to publish various stages of a research paper for a sort of intellectual archaeology, to see how what you at first thought you were going to say ends up being very different from what you end up actually saying. I remember clear that this was the case with one of my projects – in the beginning it was about friendship, and ended up being about the self. All from the same set of data.

Dr. O. said...

SD: I love you your project morphed from friendship to identity. That sounds fascinating! I'm going to have to chase it down, is it out yet?

Experimentaholic said...

This is Sean Duffy. No it is not out yet, as Japanese data is right now being collected for a third experiment. Trying to get it in a better journal. I can send you a copy of the ms as is if you like (if you have an anonymous email address that won't give up your anonymous identity!)

Dr. O. said...

Hey Sean/experimentaholic...

I just now saw your reply, been running around trying to secure child care (unsuccessfully) for the dept retreat tomorrow which, now, I won't have to go to. Eh. I tried. But anyway, I would love to see the piece, email it to me at chasingtenure (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'll email you back with my secret bat identity. :)

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