Thursday, May 14, 2009

My Pursuit of Intellectual Liquidity

Last week after a particularly miserable oral exam for a seminar in Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin---a "conversation," as the professor called it, about the texts that turned into more of a grilling about his particular theories of genre and the postmodern (none of the books we'd read included, really)---the professor asked me if I had adjusted to being on campus again. Because I'd forgotten that I'd mentioned my master's degree experience to him earlier in the semester, it took me a minute to compute that he was wondering about the transition from a fully online program to a fully campus-based program. I said I was adjusting well enough, that I was enjoying my experience so far (though I didn't mention how jaded I've been about the program and the crappiness of my spring classes), that I realized the benefit of learning in the face-to-face classroom.

And while all of these things are true, I didn't mention that I'd rather be doing the rest of my graduate work online, that I prefer the intensive format National University has established for its programs over the drawn out process of 4 1/2 month long seminars that often seem like a waste of time. Perhaps I've placed too much faith in the Internet. Perhaps I've become disembodied and disconnected from reality by my connection to the digital world, as David A. Bednar suggests can happen to individuals when they lose touch with "things as they really are" in flesh and blood reality. Perhaps I've duped myself into thinking that I'm motivated and passionate enough and connected enough to processes and communities of knowledge that I can self-teach using the resources that are readily available to much of the world online.

Maybe all of the above.

Whatever the case, I've really begun to question traditional models of higher education, to wonder why academia insists on slowing things down, on impeding the flow and exchange of knowledge. Tenured professors are often so intent on and honed into their own work that they essentially force their interpretive paradigms and practices on students, sometimes dismissing alternate views because, well, that's just not the way "we" think about these texts. As Gideon Burton observes on this process and the factors motivating it:

It appears that one of the primary roles of academic institutions [and by extension the parties deeply invested in them, e.g. tenured professors, departments, etc.] is to prevent people from exchanging knowledge quickly and publicly. Overwhelmed by the exacting nature of a school schedule, degree requirements, or tenure review, students and scholars are made to feel that they have neither the time nor the right to explore or share outside of the approved genres and locations of intellectual communication that academia has approved. (italics added)


I felt this pinch in at least two ways this semester: first, by thinking that I shouldn't pursue my own research interests in Mormon letters because how will that get me anywhere (i.e. how will that get me a job in the real world)? And second, by being shoehorned into a professor's way of reading texts, which is essentially what happened in both of my literature seminars this semester. "No, no," my professors seemed to be saying when we had differing interpretations of the texts, even though they encouraged us to pursue our own interests. "That's not the right way of reading this. Let me teach you how to read it the right way." (Sounds an awful lot like Polonius' response when Ophelia asked for his advice: "Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby...")

And so I'm faced with the task of negotiating my way through academia while trying to enhance my own intellectual liquidity---to increase the flow of my intellectual exchange with the world, which includes my colleagues and my students. My blogging efforts are part of that pursuit---sharing my knowledge- and writing-in-process with the public---as is my commitment to see my students not as vessels to be filled from the pitcher of my excellence (because, let's face it, I am a picture of excellence) but as peers I should remain open to learning from and communing with around the altars of humanity.

Because education, as I see it, is largely a reciprocal process of constructing knowledge through interactions with the world and of connecting with others and organizations in networks of understanding, such intellectual liquidity is one way I know of to exponentially increase my reach as a poet, teacher, and scholar, especially as the processes of globalization make global spaces increasingly local---that is, as specific sites of knowledge become ever more accessible to communities beyond the site of origin.