OT: On academics and their “obsessive” concerns and niggling disagreements

I’m just putting this down because it seems like a sort of precondition for a lot of what I am doing on the blog, and it’s something that’s often misunderstood. I wanted to have this here so I could link to it occasionally when I want to remind readers of it.

I. Obsessive consideration of trivial themes

I write about some things because they have an intense emotional meaning to me. I write about some things because they have broader conceptual or analytical significance.

But many times I write only because I am curious or fascinated, without the meaning of what I have to say being anything broader than that. I tend to be interested in issues or things because they are complex. The more complicated, the better, in the mind of Servetus. But there doesn’t have to be any other reason beyond the fact that something interests me. In my mind, that’s sufficient, no matter the topic. In short, I don’t think academics are necessarily smarter than other people (though some academics are indeed very smart, as are some non-academics); rather, they’ve been taught to think, or enjoy thinking, in particular ways that differentiate them from most others.

It’s absolutely not exclusive to academics, but academics seem to be more likely than members of the general population to have a personality feature that causes them to be (relatively abnormally) curious about the detail level of anything. Richard Armitage is a detailed actor and that falls on my synapses like dopamine — I love detail. I’m open to uptaking every detail he’s going to offer, every signal he’s going to send. This attention level may seem strange if you’re not used to it, because it doesn’t correspond neatly with the social categories of polite society. We may seem incredibly occupied with one thing that seems irrelevant to you and totally oblivious to others. It’s hard for me to come up with a good example of this that doesn’t stereotype academics, but I know that people outside the university often find speaking with me fatiguing because of this trait. I always want more detail. I’ve always got another question to ask. And if possible, I want to discuss how it might relate to larger conceptual questions. I can be incredibly practical — this is the sort of intelligence that my mother worked hard to develop in me — but given my druthers, I wouldn’t be.

So the care with which I examine or think about some issues may seem extreme from the non-academic perspective. But it’s more or less par for the course for professors, since this is what we get paid for — to do incredibly detailed research, often simply out of curiosity. Some of the things we research have applications (“applied research”), some of them do not (“pure research”), but both are legitimate — one of the assumptions of the university being that very few questions are so small that they merit no examination. Now, before you conclude that the conduct of pure research means that professors waste their time on answering trivial questions no one’s interested in, please keep in mind that all of our research has to demonstrate significance, or it would never be funded. That is, even scholars conducting pure research need to show why their questions are important — it’s just that potential practical or money-making applications are only one sense in which some questions are considered to be important to study. I’ve spent most of my life on two decades of history. My own field would probably seem remote in its applications to most readers here — even if you might be interested in it for personal reasons, or you might “just like history.” Nonetheless, my research has consistently been funded by major agencies in both Germany and the United States because of its significance to three major questions: the nature of the development of the Protestant worldview that has influenced so much of life and society in the West; the influence of the general understanding of certain events on subsequent developments in German history; and the matter of the mechanisms by which the creation and cultivation of historical memory affects contemporaries and later generations.

Does understanding in itself have an application? I don’t know. But I always go on the assumption that understanding anything is better than not understanding it. I may not necessarily learn more about something by thinking about it in ever more complex categories, but I certainly won’t learn more about it by not doing so. Hence the “obsessive” attention here to things that many people think don’t need explanation — or don’t think are worth “worrying about.” It is fine to tell me that I should just be happy about Armitagemania, but “just accept it” is a suggestion that don’t square with the way that I see the world; acceptance doesn’t usually make me happy — whereas the effort to ask why, to know, to understand sometimes does. And the fact that I write about something in incredible detail doesn’t necessarily indicate worry about it — only preoccupation with it. Usually if I’m worried or unhappy about something, I’ll say so explicitly — but that’s not necessarily consonant with fascination / preoccupation with it.

II. On disagreements, minor and major:

Academics are also professional disagree-ers. We learn from a pup to make precise our own positions as a way of differentiating them from those of others. We do this because we believe that the more precisely we say something, the more likely it is to be accurate or useful. Words and labels matter to us because we believe they shape how we see the world. We thus believe in our hearts and souls that discussing things, even things we’ve discussed before without a final consensus or result, will help us learn, and the process of disagreement is an inevitable and even desirable part of discussions. Discussions may be repetitive as some questions may deserve an intense and detailed treatment (see above). Many of the topics I assign my students to write about involve questions that have been asked for centuries without resolution — but I do this precisely because I believe that the exercise of discussion and learning to disagree constructively and usefully that comes out of this process is essential to developing a critical mind. We don’t expect scientists to do independent research without ever having learned to do algebra and calculus before starting the higher mathematics they need to answer their questions, so I’m always confused when people tell me that we shouldn’t ask students who want to develop high level critical skills to practice them by learning how to analyze — a necessary component of which is always disagreement.

Sometimes we hear the phrase “it’s all academic” about a disagreement, as a means of implying that the disagreement doesn’t matter, or it’s just disagreement for the sake of discussion or mental exercise. I couldn’t disagree more. Academic disagreements are vital because they help us understand the world more exactly. And we spend a lot of time learning how to disagree. But what academic disagreements are not supposed to be is vicious. (Academics unfortunately don’t always live up to this ideal.) The more we disagree and practice disagreeing, the better we become at disagreeing with an idea or a position as opposed to disagreeing with a person. My non-agreement with something someone else says is not an indication that I dislike the person. It’s an indication that I disagree with something he or she is saying. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to tell the difference.

I’ve learned in life that people who do not disagree for a living don’t usually get this, so I don’t always air all of the energy of my disagreements with other people. And this blog is emphatically not a university classroom. But it is my space. So, if I do take the time to disagree with you and write about it, it’s not a sign of disdain or condescension or dislike for you, it’s a sign that I respect what you have to say enough that I think the disagreement will teach us both something, and also, and this is just as important — it’s a sign that I think you can take it, that you understand the difference between my disagreement with your argument and a negative reaction directed at you personally. What I hope this willingness to disagree means is that when I say something is smart or insightful, it correspondingly really means something, because I don’t just agree with everyone.

OK, end of explanation. I hope this helps people understand a bit what’s been going on with my posts on objectification and maybe some other stuff that will come up in future.

~ by Servetus on October 15, 2011.

15 Responses to “OT: On academics and their “obsessive” concerns and niggling disagreements”

  1. Servetus, great post. I have been working my way through your older ones, but with this I have now come to a better understanding of your blog and why you write it. I tend to be of the KISS (keep it simple stupid) variety of brain, but I love that you give me so much to think about with your attention to detail and willingness to explore beyond the obvious. So even though I have accepted my Armitagemania and no longer question why (Richard himself is the WHY 🙂 ), I appreciate and thank you for the greater insight and knowledge that your writing has given me.

    BTW, just found the Cats rehearsal video on Frenz’s blog. I forgot to breathe when I caught my first sight of Richard dancing. I’ve since spent an hour or more just watching and rewatching the tape, totally entranced.


    • See, you would watch it for hours, entranced. I would watch it for hours, entranced, and then think about it for hours, entranced, and then write about it for hours, entranced 🙂


      • Even if I wanted to write about it after watching and thinking for hours, I still wouldn’t be able to find the words. Watching Richard is the easy part. You and other girls here are much more eloquent than I’ll ever be! 🙂


  2. I’ve been worried about this divide as this larger conversation has unfolded. Did you see that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida had pronounced that anthropology was no longer a necessary field of study — resulting in this prezi presentation by a frustrated anthropologist at the University of South Florida: http://prezi.com/vmvomt3sj3fd/this-is-anthropology/ which emphasizes all the useful applications for anthropologists.

    The presentation’s lovely and very persuasive, but what about the anthropologists who don’t have friendly, public-outreach kinds of research? And beyond that, what about the literature scholar who studies an obscure phenomenon of 17th-c literature? or the classics scholar who examines writings on stone?

    At the same time, I’d like to point out that many, many scientific fields have theoretical aspects that are so detailed and arcane that only a few people in the world will read their papers. It’s not just the humanists. But this raises questions: how will scholars like us respond when we’re challenged by legislators who hold the purse strings? How can we defend our research and writing? I worry about this a great deal.


    • So true about needing to convey what scientists do to a lay audience, Didion.

      For my doctoral studies dissertation focus on mentoring professional development in future scientists–specifically underrepresented groups (women and minorities)–I’ve conducted several pilot studies with science mentors and then pilot studies with science mentees (undergraduate science majors). One of the key points science mentors stressed was the importance of being able to communicate what they do and why it’s important to non scientists–who might vote for their funding, etc, as you suggest. I find it ironic to note, that not all of the science mentors were able to clearly convey this professional development “learning outcome” to their mentees. Ha!

      And not everyone can communicate science to laypersons in an interesting a fun manner. But, in our case, we have several faculty who take their “science magic show” on the road to schools and community groups in the hope of sparking interest in a young person to become a scientist.

      Cheers! Grati ;->

      P.S. As always Serv, another thought provoking post. Thanks!


    • Yes, I’m familiar with the situation of which you speak 🙂

      I think of my grad school boyfriend who picked his dissertation topic specifically because it had no military applications. Then he found he couldn’t get funding afterwards.

      I’m concerned about the tone of argumentation in the political sphere as well. It seems like making argument as virulent and emotional as possible is a way to essentially defang people who might have moderate political opinions but absolutely do not want to become the object of the ire of a dittohead. If the people out there who are willing to jump on every issue with violent speech shut up the “silent majority,” where will we be? We have to learn how to disagree respectfully so we can learn how to cooperate.


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