Day 353: Maybe we’re doing it wrong

Today I had the opportunity to sit on a small panel to discuss interdisciplinary work with one of my colleague’s classes. I enjoy such opportunities, and I’m glad I was able to stop in. I walked out with a weird thought in mind that I’m glad I didn’t raise in front of his students– as it would have felt combative– but which I think I need to reflect on now.

There was a person from my old department on the panel. This person and I have a history of not seeing eye-to-eye vis-a-slamming doors to my classrooms and/or hissing at my students, but otherwise, I respect the person as a scholar. But something that scholar said, and something another scholar said, really got me thinking.

First, they both talked about how interdisciplinary work doesn’t help someone get tenure, and due to that, they viewed interdisciplinary work as something one does post-tenure. That struck me as incredibly accurate, but also incredibly wrong.

The second thing that happened was like a bad version of a James Gee presentation. One of these senior scholars was talking about a field specific term and how we need to be interdisciplinary to understand the jargon from other fields.

Here’s the problem with that.

This scholar was telling a story about not knowing a term and needing to go to get another expert in order to understand it.

As he started the story, I gently, still watching and listening, activated my phone and opened a browser. It took Google less than a second to find an explanation of the term, and while multi-tasking I was able to read it and understand quicker than this person could finish the story about going to find someone to explain the idea. I was able to be fully present in the moment of this anecdote but found the answer well before the story told me how to find the answer.

This, of course, is the all to build to this: the Ivory Towers need to fall down.

It’s part of my boss’s pitch for our program, and it’s part of my teaching philosophy. The day of creating one-note experts is over. The days of needing an expert to help understand jargon are over. If we want to know how the internet has really changed our world, it’s not as much with Instagram and all the pictures or our insane Tweeting President.

The internet isn’t the shocking pure democracy of information that people dreamed it might usher in, but it has made expertise a dicey concept. There’s a whole internet full of people who know things, and they’re often more than willing to share in their little corner of the world.

So if we’re still creating experts who want to sit in spaces and wait for people to come and ask them what a term means or about all the works written by a specific person, we’re losing the game in the fourth and need to force a turnover.

I also realize now– as I should have earlier in my career– that it is my thinking on this that separates me from some of the people who I’ve struggled to understand and/or communicate with. I have told the story before on this blog of the scholar who walked out of one of my job talks in disgust because when asked to enumerate the texts I would teach in a class that the person essentially made up for me, I said, “I’m not entirely sure. I’d want to go look at my books and think on that.”

That such a response insulted someone is telling of how academia works vs. how academia SHOULD work. First of all– full judgmental mode on my part here, but I think I’m speaking words-of-truth– if anyone tells you they can enumerate the readings for a new class on-the-spot that person is designing a class poorly. Even if there’s a sense in a person’s head of what would be the right choices, an intelligent person takes time to build a reading list for a course. It’s not like picking a fantasy starting five for an NBA team (aside: my all-time NBA team: Shaq at center, Tim Duncan and Larry Bird at forwards, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson at guard). If you know an academic but aren’t an academic, ask to see their bookshelf. I’d need time– as would any sane person– picking the right books for a perfect class. Now just so you know I wasn’t being a punk, I did go in-depth into the conceptual assignments I’d have had in this class, and I did do the proper sprinkling of “I know my stuff” name dropping in spite of not having a set of book titles and articles to spew forth.

And that’s me. It’s just who I am. I don’t waste my time memorizing my books, because I OWN THOSE BOOKS. And even if I didn’t, I have an internet. That’s not to say I don’t remember key concepts. I know, for example, that if I want a good description of strategies vs. tactics I need DeCerteau, and I know that if I’m talking about simulacra it’s time to pull Baudrillard off the shelf. I know that Jay David Bolter is a good place to start looking for remediation and that if I want to tear down the Bootstrap argument I want to pull out Villanueva. But I don’t know, right off the top of my head, what chapter from which book I’d assign to a class.

I’d go look at the book before being reckless and just picking something.

But I understand, now, having sat with some of my older colleagues, that the way *I* think isn’t the way they were taught. I also realize that it’s why so many of the people I learned with were either frustrated or fascinated by me. I am the impostor from the impostor syndrome, I guess. I don’t want to be a walking encyclopedia. What I want to be a mentally nimble, a critical thinker and a person who springs into action. I will think something into the ground. I’ll crush an idea.

But I don’t want to be “the race guy” in that people walk up to me and want me to quote a race scholar.

I didn’t want to be the game guy in an English department where I was expected to bring every single thing I discussed back to Ian Bogost. No disrespect to Bogost– he’s amazing– but he’s not a Swiss Army Knife. There are times for Bogost, but there are times when Bogost doesn’t fit. Just like there are times when my scholarship would  be helpful (not as often as Bogost) and times when I wouldn’t make any sense at all to a situation.

I am now an interesting case, though, as I am on the tenure track, and there’s no lack of understanding as to what I do or how I do it. So interdisciplinary work is going to have to apply to MY tenure case, because if it doesn’t, I have no work. I’m in a field that is by its very nature interdisciplinary.

It’s going to be fun navigating that tension, but I feel like I need to apologize to the old guard. I didn’t realize point-blank until today why they look at me the way they do. I’m not what they think a new professor should be.

But I think that’s why I’m what a new professor should be. And I think there will be more and more like me, not that I’m any sort of prototype. No, it’s not that they’ll be LIKE me. But I think there’s going to be a whole generation defined by being as quirky and not like the old guard as me. And we need that. That’s what the world is now.

We didn’t even elect an expert to run our country. Why would expect a sage to do anything anymore?


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