Knowingness vs. Knowing: 7 pointers on surviving academe if you're not an academic

This week there’s an article about inarticulate writers in the New York Times. I was pleased to see it, having struggled consistently to voice my opinions in groups, and because it reveals a very marked difference in how we assess intelligence today. Once it was fine to make a few, if not a lot of conversational fumbles. If you could write clearly and beautifully, all the better. Now, what is considered to be intelligent conversation is a blanc mange of overly mannered, dispassionate, and often chilly “discourse” that likes to claim moral high ground by disclaiming itself into a corner.

This situation is exacerbated by the university setting, a place where people are introduced at even social gatherings with their fields attached to them like gravy bibs — comp-lit, urban planning, art history. What you say or do later will most likely make no difference, you’re ranked before you say hello. It reminds me of Harold Brodkey’s New York where it’s agreed that a few clues, regarded with sophistication render “everything about one another’s lives knowable.”

When we first came here, I had a hard time with this. I deliberately avoided social functions. I was used to the instant and intense connections I’d had abroad, my strong friendships with people who were opposites, and who are still close. Here being open is a liability, and everyone assumes a cold veneer of abstraction that takes precedence over any enthusiasm they might harbor for their subject area. This situation is captured perfectly in the opening scene in Merrie Haskell’s Almanac for Alien Invaders, wherein a group of drunken academics, discussing a world crisis about which they too know nothing, slam a faculty spouse for daring to add to the conversation. Chalk one up for genre, again.

At any rate, here are a few things I took away from my experience here

1.If it’s something important, don’t dilute your meaning with awful grad school euphemisms such as problematic. Call a spade a spade. This tendency to speak in watered down, abstracted terms is partially at fault for neutering social progress in this country. No one, no matter how many degrees he or she has, has the right to cut you out of the conversation for not playing to an ultimately class-based and isolated conceit.

2.Don’t ever let what others think, particularly those terrified of what others think of them – and there is nowhere that this is more rampant than academe – keep you from speaking your mind.

3. There’s no need to disclaim every thought, sometimes you need to make a point. If you want you can go back and reevaluate, but it’s your character that is at stake here. This doesn’t mean don’t question yourself, but let your thoughts follow to their logical conclusions before stepping back. Some people have defined intelligence as halting mid-thought before coming to any meaningful end. This is not thought: it is a nimble form of gibberish.

4. When forced to attend one of these stilted gatherings, just remember that no matter how awkward you may seem, it is your conversation partner who should be pitied for not being able to handle a conversation with someone outside of his or her narrow field of study. Besides, they could probably use a little of your humanity.

5. Theory isn’t a bad thing, but nor is it a moral or intellectual high ground taking priority over literature and art. Paul de Man was a Nazi, and the great Derrida equivocated on his behalf until he was blue in the face. Furthermore, a professor here who often uses feminist and queer theory in his work, just laughed about the murder of a woman on campus, claiming that California custody laws drove her ex-husband to kill her. Theory did not make this misogynist a progressive or even a decent human being.

6. A lot of that studied nonchalance comes from money. Be happy that you’ll never take your books or travels for granted.

7. And if you hear anyone referring to those outside of graduate school as “common readers,” go ahead and toss a drink in that person’s face. Just make sure it isn’t a good one.

One Response to “Knowingness vs. Knowing: 7 pointers on surviving academe if you're not an academic”

  1. I think I just fell in love with you.

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