Wisdom and Research, or, Why I Think I’m a Scholar but not a Scientist
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.