Thursday, December 20, 2018

Shake, shake, shake

I've been thinking a lot about the topics broached in the last post, and how we learn the darnedest things without realizing it. Get into the habit, as it were. The darnedest of these habits is the one where you are expected to give a too full account of yourself - covering every aspect that may or may not be relevant to what's going on.

Academia in particular fosters this kind of habit, in a very explicit fashion. When writing anything larger than a paper, you have to describe your methodology down to the nuts and bolts, and then evaluate the merits of the chosen brands of bolts against other brands. It is all very down to the wire and very literal - no obfuscation or ambiguity is allowed. Everything has to be explained, and it has to be explained well.

Part of this comes down to the scientific method, and the importance placed on being able to replicate results of previous efforts. Like recipes, they becomes easier to follow when the steps are clearly laid out in a straightforward manner. But another, I suspect more important, part of it is that it's become a habit which is (pun very much intended) habitually applied even when scientific exactitude is not on the line. It keeps going even outside the specific domains wherein it is a virtue.

Thus, we often see young academics spring into action writing in public about past thinkers with alacrity. Five posts into the new blog, they are grappling with the significance of semicolons in Derrida or the travails of making sense of the few remaining pre-Socratic fragments in context. Which is all very interesting, to be sure, but it is also way too specific, too explicit - too much in the vein of giving an account of oneself and justifying one's claim to be an academic. As if failing to live up to the implicit academic ideal would disqualify one's efforts and forever cement a reputation of being a fraud, a know-nothing, an amateur. It's all or nothing, and "all" includes lengthy and explicit accounts of whatever one happens to be doing at the moment.

If this sounds very much like impostor syndrome, it's because that's what it is.

That academics in particular fall into this habit more often than others is no accident. It goes with the territory: introductory courses demand that you show you've read the literature, with intermediary courses demanding more of it, and theses being a culmination of expository discourse. At every step of the way, you have to prove yourself, justifying each and every sentence. Down to the semicolon.

It is a very difficult habit to shake indeed.