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.


  1. .

    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....

    Well that's a nice thought.

    Really though, I agree with you fully. And the issues describe are what keep me from rethinking things and heading back for a phud myself. In theory, I'm all for it. The actual process of doing it, though? Not so sure.

  2. One thing that keeps me going in this vocational pursuit---though I very nearly gave up on my phud this semester---is my sense that technology is changing the face of higher education and scholarship, even if it's happening very slowly, or at least knowing that the Internet, etc., has the potential to change their shape. That's one thing Gideon addresses on Academic Evolution and I've found some degree of solace and direction in the advice and information he offers there.

    Another thing that keeps me going is this quote, which I found in a writer's published notebook (if only I could remember who it was): "The true test of vocation is love of the drudgery it involves." Though I don't necessarily love how prudish academia is, I've committed myself to "doing it," as you say, to helping students find their own intellectual liquidity and to doing whatever I can (however small my circle of influence presently is) to ease the flow and exchange of information with the world. Hence (for a beginning) Reading Until Dawn, which, I think, is the result of me trying to bridge the gap between scholarship and popular commentary on Meyer, of my desire to give open access to ideas that might otherwise be lost behind what Gideon calls "the curtain of restricted access" or, alternately, that aren't given serious thought by "real" scholars (kind of like Michael Collings has done with his interest in King, Card, etc.).

    And while I don't know how successful RUD will be, it's whetted my appetite for open access. And that, I believe, is a good place to start my scholarly career.

  3. .

    I think so to. And I'm trying to prepare my kids for that brand of academia.

  4. And that's part of why I'm dropping out of my PhD program. And because I hate teaching and suck at it. Plus I have a spouse who can work and support me :)

    Actually, I've really enjoyed my program here a lot and haven't felt too often the shoehorning effect by my professors. But I do feel quite disillusioned by the insularity of academia in general and feel that I would only become more jaded in the years to come if I were continue. I am thinking of getting a degree in library science; there are several schools that do them completely online :)

    Disclaimer--my husband is a librarian and so I do my best to entice everyone to that field. But if you think academia is 'prudish' (and I think that's also because you are in Idaho), public libraries are even worse.

  5. I honestly considered dropping out a number of times last semester. I was so close to leaving the program to pursue an MFA online from National University. But I'm sticking it out, mostly because I love teaching and, despite how jaded I am about academia's insularity, think I have something to offer students and the institution of higher education. I know I'm likely to get pissed off about how things run in the future, but I've committed myself to dealing with it and facilitating some kind of change as a teacher and a public scholar.

    Needless to say, I'm glad to hear another voice of affirmation for my anxieties and to know that not all of my struggles come because of the program I'm in (darn prudish Idahoan schools!).