I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend who, to make a very long and complex story short, switched from French Literature to Statistics, and doesn’t trust herself to study the humanities right now because they’re too much about emotions, human problems, and the works stay with you and get into you.
I remember starting to feel that way about halfway through my sophomore year, when I was taking quantum mechanics and topology alongside 3 English classes and having a lot of anxiety about my future as a writer xor (I thought it was xor then) scientist. Many of my friends were going through major league mental health struggles, and I just wanted an escape. Science was my escape then, because it wasn’t about “petty” human problems; it’d be there no matter what. It was impersonal, yet had personal value for me–the best solution in that situation. At the same time, I started to view writing as an illness. My American Drama class focused on the lives of the playwrights, and I began to wonder (though I’d never do so now) if all artists weren’t plagued with self-destructive habits and impulses towards insanity. I had enough drama in my life, and I didn’t trust the writer’s truths. Moreover, I thought that being a humanities scholar meant that you had to be good at life–you had to be a wise and generous-spirited human being, and I didn’t trust myself to ever be that.
Remembering that, trying to answer my friend, I have to wonder what changed. I wrote earlier that I’m driven more towards humanities as a profession now because I want to teach about human solutions to the problem of life and being human. I want to clarify that I don’t see science as impersonal, and that’s why I’m not driven away from it: I just want to claim science for my personal life, and I don’t see a tremendous amount of room to do that in the formal discourse of the profession, so I feel no great need to enter into that discourse.
The thing that’s changed, and that really in the past year I think, is my attitude towards my writing work. I can still be ravished by a poem; some of them still sit with me for months, and that’s as I want it to be. But in studying this literature, I find that I move from personal response to analytical response in the course of my writing, and I derive great value from that movement. My papers are begun in a moment of personal discovery or revelation, and I get a lot of comments on them to the effect of “it’s interesting to see an active intelligence working its way through the piece”–I don’t try to hide the process of discovery of an interpretation and repackage the interpretation as an explication. Literary study still has that childlike impulse to wonder for me, and the calmer joy of figuring out how something works from the inside. It’s often a process of taking an undifferentiated intense reaction and making it intelligible to myself, which in some ways makes it manageable. Making the reaction manageable allows me to incorporate it into my everyday life without being overwhelmed by its powerful, visceral effect on me. Criticism, as I want to practice it, is about, as Forster put it in Howard’s End, “building rainbow bridges between prose and passion”–taking the insight of a late night, the murky feelings of the soul, the things we don’t speak of, and gesturing towards them out in the open. Or as Roseanne Cash told it in a stunning Kirkland Conversation lecture I was at, it’s about being an artist and going to an emotionally utterly vulnerable place, and being able to come back from it every day to pick up your kid from kindergarten–but not lose the basic insights from that lonelier, scarier, less prosaic place.
The other thing that’s changed is my understanding of myself as a writer–not just someone who writes, but someone who is interested in the writing profession. When I had that rough sophomore fall, I wasn’t seriously considering what it’d be like to be a paid writer–I was wondering if I had it in my soul to be a writer, if I felt deeply enough, if I trusted myself and had the potential for emotional virtuosity that I thought the great literary writers had. (I was also bent on a ridiculous standard of comparison.) Now I’ve had several paid writing and editing gigs, and I see my writing as something I approach as a professional oftentimes. The writing process is one of deep thought, fiddling and rewriting, organizing and arranging and making countless decisions about word choice and structure. It’s about being a technician with words–and even when the topic is deeply personal or emotional, the writing process itself gives me space and distance to process those feelings without being overwhelmed. The conversations I have with others trying to be writers are about craft, where to submit to, good topics to pick up, blogs to follow–making writing an everyday part of life, managing its emotional side. As I’ve grown into myself as a writer, and started identifying as a writer and not “an aspiring writer” or somesuch, I’ve absolved myself from the requirement that writers be wise or struggling or specially tuned to humanity. In an important sense, writing is just another thing I do–and with that perspective has come a returned sense of play, of the kind of wonder and discovery I’m accustomed to from science. And so much less angst!
Alongside that–I work with artists at my job now. It’s easy to see that a lot of young artists just don’t take themselves seriously as artists and professionals: they won’t show up, or they won’t be professional in their communication or how they manage things. But I’m also close with a lot of artists who are consummate professionals now, and I’ve heard how the “what you been up to?” conversation goes–the most common answer? “You know, just working.” Most of us who want to be artists (including writers) are doing just that–working a lot, producing a lot, trying to find ways to make it work. No great wisdom about anything. Just muddling through.
Speaking of getting involved in writing communities, I’m going to start putting up more related blog links and things I’m reading–I do see this blog shifting more towards a discussion of the ground between arts/writing and sciences, and I’m happy with that shift, so I’m going to run with it.
Here’s a fascinating blog I’ve spent the morning reading the backlog from: http://celebrating-science.blogspot.com/. It’s from a writer with a residency at Durham among scientists. Lots interesting there about how writing and science are both driven by the process of asking questions, for a future discussion.
This has nothing to do with scholarship, but I’m learning that it can be a prerequisite for me–so this time, some more personal musings.
I’m settling into a pattern (not a routine!) that I think will do me a lot of good over these next few months before (I hope) I go back to school. My job isn’t too far away and it leaves me time to write in the mornings and time to rehearse and read in the evenings. (Still working on that “social life” thing.) This morning I got up not-too-early and still had time to read some, “check the incoming” without being overwhelmed, do laundry, bake cookies, and start to write this at the sun-drenched kitchen table in a home that breathes the fresh air with me in the mornings. I have time to myself, gloriously alone in the mornings–time that I’m slowly, but surely, learning to manage and not fritter away with the temptations of the Internet. And I have time with my family and to catch up with friends in long phone conversations at night. This is a good thing I have going.
Amidst all that, of course, there’s the constant struggle between mind and brain–that’s how my doctor has started framing it, and it’s a distinction I find useful. This week, as I changed my medication regime, I started feeling like I could track hourly the dosage of the stuff that was in my system by a physical sensation of my brain being “pumped up” or drained. This was a rough week in the mind-over-brain struggle. But I also got through a depressive episode by realizing that it was the medication change that was bringing these depressed thoughts I haven’t seriously dwelt on in months, that I could continue to feel secure in the progress I’ve made recently despite the apparent relapse, because it was my brain’s altered chemistry asserting itself. For a while finding that there was something going on in my brain that was out of my control–something that is a sort of baseline that can’t just be fixed by will or character or moral fortitude–was a deep blow to my sense of self. Here I was thinking that I’d figured out a lot about myself these past few years, and I was convinced I saw it all come tumbling down into a muck of chemical vicissitudes and moods that seemed to intrude themselves from outside me. Self-insight is really important to my self-concept and sense of control, and I thought I must’ve been deluding myself to miss something so basic to my psyche.
More recently, I’ve made a lot of peace with my brain. She and I are learning to work together, and she lets me subdue her least welcome side with pills most of the time. I still look at my little white pills and have a moment of bizarreness sometimes, wondering how the hell these things can do so much to me–but I’m not resistant, and so far it’s always a passing thought that goes with a shrug. And I’ve gotten back a certain trust in myself: trust that I know what’s going on in my inner life, or that I can look inward and discover some things at work when I don’t understand. I’m getting more practice with that under my new framework for understanding my inner life and how my brain mediates it, and I can look back at past events with a sense of understanding again.
I even found a dosage that makes me feel calm and centered even as it increases focus! Thank goodness–not sure I could’ve handled the highs and crashes new meds had me going through for any length of time.
“You can’t ‘preserve’ a species.” – Grant and Grant
Passing through an experimental evolution lab this summer, I got used to the idea that we can experimentally test evolutionary theory and the operation of selection (only?) in small, simple systems, like the yeast the lab used, bacteria, or viruses. “Experimental evolution” to me meant evolution studied at the level of genes and especially single mutations, fitness determined by who remains standing in the petri dish. So the single most striking experiment described in Jonathan Weiner’s Beak of the Finch was the observed drastic decrease in elephant tusk length among populations subject to poachers looking for ivory. I don’t know how elephant tusks work–if growth is based on Bmp4 expression, it’s not too surprising to me that a “macro” trait like tusk length could quickly evolve in response to selection pressure at the genetic level–but with all the debate and discussion about the unit of selection and macroevolution, the tusk example was enlightening.
This book is the story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s 20-year vigil on the Galapagos Islands, particularly Daphne Major. For being that, it’s amazing how much the book focuses on the research: there is a human drama that unfolds in these pages, but it’s almost entirely told through the long progression of experiments and scientific life in the field, with some recourse to Darwin’s history. I want to learn that narrative trick!
The acceptance of quantification as rigorization makes me a little uncomfortable in all these “experimental evolution” and especially ecological studies. Mostly I think it’s good–taking detailed measurements has surely led to striking demonstrations of the power and quick-acting scale of natural selection, and how big a difference a tiny variation in beak trait matters. That’s an important lesson for all of us who would constantly wonder how selection on variation, which many think of as a piecemeal, slow process of accumulating very slight benefits, could result in qualitative differences in who survives, the generation of a major phenotypical innovation, or the origin of species. And I can see how this minute empirical measurement is partly an antidote to Darwin’s florid Victorian prose and the geometric landscape theories of the great mathematical population geneticists of the early century. But it also seems that desire for illuminating numbers can blind researchers studying evolution like this to the need for sophisticated interpretation and to hold down the fort against the allure of trumpeting a murkily visible trend. For example, there’s a recurring theme of one researcher declaring that there’s been no natural selection in Darwin’s finches, and the Grants coming back with minute year-by-year measurements and saying that, while there’s little net change in characteristics, there’s actually strong selection oscillating rapidly. Certainly, that’s a vital distinction, especially as a corrective to the idea that nobody could ever observe natural selection in action in the timespan of a human lifetime. But I think there’s a danger of swinging too far in this shiny new direction: the fact that there’s little net variation is also very important.
Some highlights of the drama of observing Daphne: The description of the difficulty of landing on Daphne, everyone’s least favorite part of the trip–there’s only really one ledge to land on, and that after repeated partial offloadings as the swells move the boat above and below the ledge. The story-cum-legend about the scientist who was walking clad only in shoes on the island and got attacked by a barnacle that clamped onto his balls. The description of the Grants back in Princeton analyzing the data with such detailed, knowing affection, as they swap labelled stories: “‘He’s been a good producer of fledglings, 2666,’ Peter says, this time without even looking at the screen.” (118) The sense of a wunderkammer somewhere in two Princeton offices, full of vegetation and food and families and songs, all in tables of data. The times when the data really does seem to make a clear point: for example, how Darwin’s finches really are much more variable than most, a natural laboratory for natural selection–sparrows, closely related to finches, rarely deviate in beak length more than 10% from the mean on the remote island of Mandarte, B.C. (ostensibly similarly isolated conditions for accelerated evolution to take place), whereas in the Galapagos 4% of the cactus finches differ from the average beak by more than 10%. (p. 47) The sheer carefulness of the data collection and care taken in what to measure is stunning: there’s an index for difficulty-of-eating among the seeds (and every seed on the island is accounted for), and the Grants know just how much force it takes to crack the toughest seeds. The careful correlation of measurements and behavior: telling what kind of finch discovered the mericarp by whether the cover is peeled back or bitten through, and how many seeds are left. Careful experimental design: Peter Boag tested for heritability of beak dimensions, ruling out that big-beaked parents get more food for their babies (not with Darwin’s finches, but on Mandarte–the egg-swapping would be quite catastrophic in such a small, fragile ecosystem!)
I got to revisiting some of my half-remembered thoughts about the difficulties in Darwin’s theory while reading this book. Prime among them–and I look forward to going back to this when I read Grant & Grant’s book about their research, How and Why Species Multiply–is observing “the ever-turning sword,” the actual origin of new species. It was never quite observed on Daphne–but there were big steps. The image of the evolutionary tree as having loose, tangled webs, and not clean breaks, at the branching points, is a powerful one–and this summer, I learned how important the visualizations we rely on are in evolutionary thinking (witness the insidious, helpful idea of a fitness landscape). Dolph, one of the researchers, even made an actual empirical fitness landscape out of all the measurements for Darwin’s finches!!!!
Two particular points of interest: the light shed on Darwin’s gradations between kind, variety and species, and how they’re borne out on Daphne–many of these finches “are so intermediate in appearance that they cannot safely be identified…In no other birds are the differences between species so ill-defined.” There’s a saying at the Charles Darwin Research Station: “Only God and Peter Grant can recognize Darwin’s finches.” One of the impetuses of Grants’ research was a monograph published by David Lack, Darwin’s Finches, which put to rest the idea that prevailed for a while that they aren’t new species at all, but “a hybrid swarm” of varieties on the Galapagos, “offering no scope for natural selection.” Lack saw that the birds weren’t breeding together, but the ground finches were eating the same seeds–he saw that in a wet season, when seeds are plentiful. Then looking over the data at home, he saw that the closest together species in their beaks never live together on one island, and inferred competition. The Grants were the first to really see competition and the principle of divergence in play on the island, and not just infer it happened in the past.
On the problem of adaptation, a neat experiment with crossbills showed proof-of-concept that little fitness advantages can accumulate to make big adaptations: the beaks of the crossbills were filed down, and each generation grew a little more of a crossbill back; each generation was more fit than the last in terms of its ability to crack the pinecones it’s adapted to. The other one, more shocking, is the key role for hybrids that the Grants posit as a result of their observations: they found, contrary to all received wisdom, that sometimes the hybrids were successful far beyond what any of the “pure-breds” could do, and it wasn’t uncommon for two different species to attempt mating. Number 006, the tiniest fulginosa on the island, always pairs with a fortis, and is the most successful of her species on the island breeding-wise. (123) The numbers for bird hybridization are striking: there are 10,000 bird species known, and 1,000 are known to have mated with other species. In some cases the rates are even higher: 67 of 161 species of ducks and geese have interbred that we know–and probably more, given the patchy state of our knowledge (we didn’t even notice that the best-studied birds ever, on the Galapagos, were interbreeding until after a 20 year vigil). This extends the role of hybridization and its power, known to produce ne wplant species “literally overnight,” to the animal kingdom. At least half of the world’s flowering plant species came from interbreeding. Does a number on the biological species concept! Hybridization is also common among Bufo toads, many insects, and many fish. Evidence also points to the role of human motions and ecology in increasing the rate of hybridization: we disturb habitats and introduce invasive species that mix with the local gene pool, and hybrids can back-cross (“introgressive hypbridization,” Edgar Anderson called it) to mix the gene pool even more. Hybrids can fill special niches their parents can’t, and humans are creating such mixed up niches all over the planet: we see this in wildflowers in the Delta, where different species inhabit different fields, which the farmers have treated with different chemicals. Anderson also argues that “ecologically dominant” species, like humans currently are, could have driven the evolution of new niches in the past too: e.g. at the colonization of new islands or continents, the first land vertebrates invading terrestrial vegetation, the first large herbivorous reptiles or the first large land animals. (Stebbins and Anderson, “Hybridization as an Evolutionary Stimulus”)
On the modern speed of evolution, Weiner goes beyond the pat “we have lots of drug-resistant strains” line. He writes of two people who took antibiotics for a few days, and then sampled the bacteria in their body: almost all were drug resistant. As they note, it’s different seeing fast evolution in a lab and in our own bodies. There are examples of all the different ways a pest can avoid the effects of a pesticide: dodging it, not letting it get inside, developing an antidote, or inactivating it once it’s inside.
And there are interesting stories to liven things up (it’s really a page turner!) Not of Darwin’s personal life or the Grants’ per se, but personal anecdotes in the course of doing research. Darwin could’ve seen natural selection in action if he’d been of a mind to, as he kicked stones in his garden to count laps and noticed the death of 4/5ths of the bird species on his grounds one winter, something like the effect of an El Nino or a drought on the Galapagos. Darwin discovered 537 species of plant in 3 tablespoons of mud in his tabletop experiment. Two engineers created “two new letters to the alphabet of life,” adding synthetic X and K to A, C, T, and G. The book doesn’t get personal, but there’s a great sense of personal investment and the importance of these scientific stories in it. I’ll be trying to get my hands on Weiner’s other books.
“Direct Demonstrations of Natural Selection” in Natural Selection in the Wild, for more examples of experimental evolution studies
*Grant and Grant, How Species Multiply
It was an extremely liberating point in my life when it really sunk in that there is a difference between intellectuals and academics. I began to see true intellectuals in my friends and in many people, from many walks of life, who I have known and talked books with over the years. They have many sorts of jobs–the lucky ones as professional teachers and writers, the majority as tradesmen and other people who read and think when they go home and on lunch hours.
There were many things driving this realization, but I think, two primary ones. One was my introduction, through conversations and an REU and the math blogosphere, to the professional world of academic and even industry mathematics. At first, it was expanding because I met NOAA scientists with GR books on their shelves that they discussed with officemates, and I knew there was science outside the academy. Now, it’s even more expanding, because I recognize the trappings of a full-blown profession in the culture and training of scientists, and I can see how distinct that is from a love of science. I’ve been to conferences (loved JMM!) and seen how most math academics live in a scholarly world of at most five to ten people who understand what they do; how there are sub-sub-sub-divisions within the major professional societies of science and they often don’t go across the hall to another faction’s conference room. I don’t mean this negatively, or as a judgment: my introduction to the professional practice of mathematics was thrilling, as I saw the teaching debates strewn in the notices and columns of certain journals and felt myself with a big stake in them, or as I saw real problems applied mathematicians are working on. The point in my career when I joined SIAM and organized reading groups and seminars and mentored other students and scanned conference aspects and moderated a math question forum showed me how varied the world of mathematics is, and removed some of the blinders that any single institution’s flavor of scholarship puts on a student. It showed me that I love mentoring and teaching math, and even that I can be decent at it with a lot of work, and those were amazing discoveries with ramifications far beyond my professional life.
On the flip side, it also taught me to approach my love of mathematics with caution and really consider if I wanted a professional career in mathematics. As I began to understand that graduate school means having a particular problem you’re very interested in and apprenticing yourself to someone whose interests overlap, I dropped the childish idea that “grad school is something you do if you like the subject enough and are good enough in it and want to teach.” I understood that it’s not the training of scholars (except in the narrow sense), but the training of researchers in particular fields by what is functionally a guild system. I stopped asking myself if I was “good enough” or “dedicated enough” to do mathematics, stopped just taking the hardest classes I could find and comparing myself by hardcore-ness, and started the long process of figuring out whether there is an area or a problem I want to devote many years of my life to, years in which my teaching will be less and I won’t have the time for expanding my broad knowledge base and mentoring others as much as I do now. I haven’t found that particular problem yet; the jury’s still out on if I will. But it’s been so good for me to understand that graduate school is a professional choice and not a reflection of character, and to treat it as something you can only do properly with a solid research plan.
The second major turning point was more gradual, the steady accumulation of anecdotes, observations and advice over many deep conversations, as I discovered how people I admire for their science and their teaching came to do what they do. I learned how one mentor of mine turned to a focus on teaching because he was tired of being the world’s expert on one section of one Drosophila chromosome, because he went into evolutionary biology for a broad enthusiasm for evolution in all its variety. That’s not to say that he taught me I shouldn’t specialize–he taught me that it’s possible to be a scientist whose first love is teaching, and to write for the public and not shove aside the contact points between science and society. (The conversation started with a piece I was writing on the evolutionary theories behind homosexuality, and involved a discussion of how many science students are socialized not to think so much about questions of sexuality.)
Jury’s still out on if I’ll find that problem I’m glued to–though my preliminary thesis work on machine learning with a digital humanities spin is occupying a lot of time these days, and feels like it could go either way into math or English. But whatever’s next, I’m really glad I rescued myself from a lot of the emotional angst that comes with judging my scholarly ambitions with too narrow a framework. I’m confident that scholarship will be a crazy-making, tantalizing, frustrating, ultimately rewarding part of whatever life I build for myself: that confidence was a long time coming, and it still waxes and wanes. But that’s okay.
Before I write the following, I have to acknowledge my debt to the writings of Emily Rutherford, who’s prompted me to reflect in writing on my scholarship and why it matters to me–and later, in forthcoming essays, on how scholarship has changed my thinking on love.
I’ve discovered remarkable things about myself in my time off. A prime force in these discoveries is the freedom to read what I want to read, and think about what I want to think about. I mean that last in two ways: that I can think about whatever I want, and that I can decide carefully what it is I really want. This time has also been the first in a long while when I don’t feel too much pressure to produce–papers, solutions, screeds for a publication–and especially, to be engaged in new mathematical research. With the mountains of free time that release has opened up, despite working full-time and rehearsing often, I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking and loving, and not so much research.
In learning how to learn in an unstructured, entirely self-motivated environment, I’ve rediscovered the basic truth that one needs a driving question to learn naturally. I struggled for a while with a list of subjects I wanted to learn–some neurobiology here, some theory of computation there–but I didn’t get very far when the subject was on my to-do list as a word in itself, exhorting myself to open up a textbook and just read. I got a lot farther on my “side” projects that were driven by wanting a good answer to a question–what’s a gene? How is the concept of information related to thermodynamic entropy? How has the concept of a “species” changed through history? And so I rediscovered more forcefully what I should have known, that all information is useless except in a context, except as grist for interpretation. And also that there are more natural ways to learn than in a lecture hall or from a seminar reading list. Of necessity, I’ve learned to structure my own reading lists, and that doing so is an empowering act.
I’ve still been reflecting a lot about my desired professional path and my relationship to my studies. With distance and time, the patterns of my interest are easier to discern. I haven’t abandoned studying math and science–not by a long shot. But I’ve found what I’ve known for a while in my heart, that math and physics and biology are studies that add color to the world and feed my spirit and help me get up in the morning–but I don’t need to be doing research to get that boost from them, and in fact it’s better (for the moment?) if I’m not. It used to stress me out that I couldn’t imagine writing a monograph on symplectic integrators even though I find the subject fascinating, or that I had the disturbing thought I don’t care about advancing the state of knowledge. That thought seemed almost heretical for someone who is deeply invested in learning and even scholarship in a narrow sense; it made me feel like a pretender where genuine pursuit of knowledge is concerned.
Now I am gaining a better understanding of the multifarious ways in which smart, genuinely interested people make scientific study a part of their lives without being professional scientists. More importantly, I know my own heart better, and I trust and like myself better–and I know enough to say now that I (1) have an abiding love of science, and (2) don’t see it as a potential profession right now. I’ve read about the professionalization of science in the 19th century, and the deep ambivalence towards it amongst a group of committed natural philosophers and intellectuals. I’ve seen myself take joy in being able to explain a part of the world to myself–or to friends or children–using science, and take all that joy from the love of understanding people and the world involved, rather than the possession of knowledge. And I know that science has its greatest power for me as a humanizing force that connects me to long arcs of history, to a pursuit greater than myself or anyone but tied up with all of us. Whether or not it becomes a profession, I recognize its primary importance for me–which is for me as a human being, as one who seeks meaning and beauty and connection; not necessarily as a seeker of scientific truth.
Something else has been going on in my thinking on scholarship: my growing interest in doing all I can to make humanities scholarship my profession. I’ve been deeply drawn to it and deeply troubled by it for a long time, and my basic anxiety was that I’d love to put a sign that says “Theory-Free Safe Zone!” on my office door if I become a humanities scholar. Literary theory mostly sounds alarums of “bullshit!” or “why does this matter?” in my mind. Poststructuralism, feminism, Marxism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, ecocriticism, disability studies–anytime I come across an article that sets forth a “reading” of a text from a particular theoretical lens (especially 20th century theory, especially French), I usually feel either alarmed, wronged, or bored. I am deeply invested in the study of literature as a part of cultural history and for its internal logic: studies that affirm how literature matters and how it works from a writer’s-eye view. If I have any discernible theoretical orientation thus far, it is more in my allegiances to modes of historical practice than literary as such. This is so even though I’ve no idea how to do cultural history yet, I have deep anxieties about it as someone who focuses on the primary role of productive base over ideological superstructure, and in many ways I use literature to get away from study of society.
But at the same time, the study of literature means so much more to me than being able to spend my time with books I like. I had a graduate seminar last spring term where the eminent professor would end by asking if we liked the reading, asserting that we all come to the study of literature at the start out of a basic love of books. Well sure, I have that. But part of my anxiety about literature has been that I seem to want to use it to talk about everything but the books: I need my studies of literature to speak to something greater, and certainly not to a simple matter of personal gut reaction. I’m not so worried about that now that I understand myself as a humanities scholar better.
That same impulse that connects me to the study of science is what drives me to study literature and history: to feel connected to humanity throughout the ages, to be a part of something greater, to find my humanity and my better, better-loving self in wisdom in all the ways it has been recorded and communicated. I wish to understand how certain texts work as a technician, to study literary history partially as a history of technical and stylistic innovation, as one could comfortably do in the visual arts or music. That’s how I can do literary and cultural history (someday, when I have more tools to do it rigorously)–not by making larger claims about the actual, direct agency of art or culture as a productive or transformative force in society, which I will always be deeply uncomfortable with–but by understanding in its fullness our human, personal and collective reactions to art and its effects, why it is so glaringly inadequate to boil the study of art down to a question of liking.
The fundamental questions on which my studies turn are about how and why a work of art matters, or has mattered and been valued for various people or groups in other times, and how I as a scholar and teacher can cultivate that sense of mattering, wonder and love in others. I don’t wish to claim that it should matter to all people, or to enter the canon wars or the Culture Wars: I know that what I study, the reading of literate people with leisure time, has very little connection with how the mass of people spend their time. But I’ve also seen art transform people’s lives, whether in the prison writing workshops I’ve been a part of or the queer open mics or slam poetry. And I also know art matters deeply to me, it has been my education as a human, it has brought me out of innumerable darknesses: and I need to understand what allows these works of art and gems of science to do that, so that I may better pay forward the love I have learned and constantly renew my commitment to living well as these texts have taught me to do. That’s the difference that tips me towards the humanities: I wish to reap and sow the wisdom that we have to new ends in new people, and it matters less to me that I find a novel solution to a problem than that I engage with the complex, beautiful problem of life that we are each trying to solve, together and alone, and curate, preserve and teach some of the things that have helped some of us do that.
Okay, so reading half of The Shape of Space to prepare was overkill, but it did get me to actually read the book I’ve been recommending to smart high-schoolers for years. Yes, years–even when I was in high school.
I didn’t learn much math, but I did learn a lot that I can’t yet put in words about how to give a good lecture. Here’s one thing: how much the people, who ranged from the public to mathematicians, enjoyed being given a 15 minute break to play torus and Klein-bottle tic-tac-toe, how much they enjoyed being taken through the landscape slowly, slowly, slowly. And the thing is–I didn’t find myself clamoring for a faster treatment or more depth, either. Sure, I didn’t learn much math, but I stopped and thought about some things I did know–the Schwartzschild metric, old arguments for the infinitude of the universe, the CMBR density map from the WMAP satellite–and I had several “aha!” moments, related to things I’d seen in a math lecture before or wondered while reading the Big Orange Astrophysics Book, but wandering from the lecture topic.
The pace of the lecture gave me mental space to revisit some old things I thought I understood and ask myself dumb questions about them, and I learned a lot from that. Meanwhile, he had the kids–literally, kids–in the audience chomping at the bit to play more games and learn more about space. They asked damned good questions–and to a person, the volunteers for Weeks were kid (“I looked! I didn’t see any adults with hands up!” he protested.)
There’s a hell of a lot for me to learn from a lecture that accomplished all that.