Friday, December 03, 2004


What We Talk About... III

Having let this series rest for a day I'm not entirely sure how to pick up where I left off. I know that I wanted to talk about the relationship of talking about work to intimacy (or fear of intimacy) but I'm not sure how to get where I want to go with that. I guess, although it is kind of far afield, I'm going to start with the opposite of intimacy - teaching.

In the comment thread to Part II, a few of us talked about how we feel much more secure talking about teaching or that our teaching identities somehow justify the "frivolous" or less practical parts of our jobs as Great Thinkers. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I think that the reason why talking about my teaching is easier for me has to do with three primary things:

1. Everybody has some concept of what it is to be a teacher, if only because everybody has been a student and thus has interacted with teachers. This is not to say that people really understand the back-breaking work of teaching - how many of us have heard the whole, "being a professor is such a cushy job; you only have to teach like 12 hours a week" schtick? At the same time, though, people have a basic understanding of the fact that teachers lecture, grade, and lead discussions. They have had good teachers and bad, and they understand the very basic parts of what teachers do and so I don't feel like I'm speaking some sort of alien tongue if I talk about my teaching openly.

2. As a teacher, I think of myself as a performer - as performing a particular identity in order to achieve certain goals. Of course this performed teacher-Crazy-identity is related to my outside-the-classroom identity (or identities), but because I think of it as separate and distinct, I don't feel vulnerable when I talk about it. Talking about my teaching, or about myself as a teacher, is like talking about another person, and so it's much easier for me to do, much as it is easier for me to write letters of recommendation for students (which I should be doing right now instead of blogging) than it is to write personal-statement type stuff like job letters or the P&T personal statement.

3. I think of teaching as my job. I have grown to love it, but at the same time I think of it as work, and it is the work that I do that pays for the research part of the profession. Without teaching, I couldn't be a college professor, and since I'm not independently wealthy, I have to be a teacher in order to think about the things that I want to think about, which is where my passion really lies. And so, I feel fine talking about teaching - whether complaining about it or just talking about it generally - because it is my job, and all people talk about their jobs.

As you will notice from each of these reasons, all characterize the teaching part of my working life as something that is outside of the identity that I construct for myself. I work as a teacher, but it isn't who I am. And this makes it much easier for me to talk about the teaching part of my life because I can look at it objectively. And it's much easier for others to respond to what I say about that part of my life because what I say isn't bound to things that I care passionately about. (That's not to say that I don't care about my teaching, but teaching is neither my calling nor my passion. How ironic that I'm in a job where it's supposed to be.)

In contrast, my work as a researcher/critic does not feel like work nor do I think of it as work. Of course I procrastinate and whine and complain to myself about it, but when I am "working" on those things, I do not feel like I'm working. I lose myself in it and I don't have constantly in my head thoughts like "Oh, this would be good for the P&T book." I forget that the scholarship is connected to the job. That forgetting is essential to any sort of scholarly productivity that I have. And so in a very real way the scholarship is the thinking-me, recorded in what I write. When I go back to old things I've written, I can see who I was at that time - my processes, my insights, my blind spots. And if I can see those things, everybody else, if they knew where to look, could see them too. And so it's dangerous to talk about work in anything but the most superficial way because I don't want people to see me through my work. And thus, if I do talk in a non-superficial way about my work, the prerequisite for that conversation is intimacy, trust.

Now, as you all know, I've got some problems with the intimacy and the trust. Not horrible "I can't have any meaningful relationships" problems, but I'm not quick to let people in. Part of that is personality; part of it is history. But the general result of this is that it is rare for me to talk in a real way about the part of my work that means the most to me - the scholarship. And if I do talk about it in a real way with a person, that generally means that person has acquired some significance in my life. What's interesting to me, though, is that I don't need the person to be an academic or really to understand my research for me to talk about it in a real way with him or her. What is important to me, in this, is the act of talking, of telling that particular person, for whatever reason. It's like by talking about my work I'm letting the person see deeper into me, whether they know that or not. In other words, I think that the talking about my scholarship is a kind of opening up, and I have to be very, very comfortable with a person for me to engage in that kind of opening up.

Finally, I think that my sense that this is intimate - that it, in some ways, is the deepest kind of intimacy - comes out of the feeling itself that scholarship inspires in me. When I'm reading, I feel like I am on intimate terms with the voice in the text. I can see that voice as an identity that I'm coming to know through the text. And this voice is not embodied and it's not bound to tangible things - it is all thought. And when I talk about my scholarship, that's what I'm talking about - this sort of mystical thing that exceeds my everyday self but in a very real way is more important than my everyday self. The things that go on in my head are more precious to me (often) than anything that actually happens. And so if that is true, I've got to be careful about granting access to those things.

All of this said, maybe becoming more comfortable about opening up about these things would actually benefit the scholarship as well as my relationships. But these are the things that I'm thinking about - what we talk about when we talk about work - instead of actually doing the mountains of work on my desk.

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