Angry Scholarship

Why would anybody ever become an academic? There are plenty of other, more useful, more lucrative, more enjoyable careers to pursue in this great big bourgeois capitalist nightmare we’ve created for ourselves. So why do that to yourself?

Hilariously, depressingly accurate.

I won’t say I get asked this question a lot–most people are still too tactful to come right out and say “Why the hell did you do that, dummy?”–but I can sense it lurking behind the general lack of comprehension when I tell people what I do. And I don’t blame them. It’s weird to want to stay in school for life.

Unfortunately I don’t know the answer. Or more accurately, there is no single answer. Like everything in life, it’s different for everybody. But for me, it’s because I like a very narrow range of stuff, and I also dislike a whoooole lot of stuff. If I want a job that lets me work with the stuff I like, and not the stuff I don’t (or at least, not all of it), my options are more limited still. When you’re into the supernatural, and, like, video games, well–suffice it to say that I was born wearing a tweed jacket. It won’t come off.

But what do academics do, exactly? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m at home, and my family, while wonderful, often has a hard time understanding the seemingly pointless stuff I’m always thinking and writing and teaching about. In fact, since I’m generally glued to my computer, there’s a perception that what I’m doing isn’t work at all.

What we do, first and foremost, is read. Every new work requires a synthesis of tons of existing information. If you’re going to write about a topic, the scholarly community expects you to know what work has already been done on that topic. I often get sidetracked, when working on a given project, by the paper trails of other scholars working in related areas–bibliographies present a rabbit hole of research that it can be difficult to climb out of. Eventually you have to cut yourself off, to say, “This is what I’m writing about, and no more.”

Then, of course, we write. Writing is also different for everyone, but for me (and, I’m willing to bet, for most), it’s a messy process. Yes, you can outline, you can organize your notes and create a semblance of order; but the solution to a puzzle doesn’t necessarily leap out at you just because you’ve got the pieces spread out on your card table. (This analogy doesn’t quite work, either; in scholarship there’s generally no one correct “solution.” But you get the picture.)

For the past few years I’ve used Evernote, a program that keeps your notes organized and backs them up to a remote server. (It’s free, with paid options offering increased storage space, so check it out if you write a lot.) I usually organize my sources by paper topic; there’s also the option to tag notes for quick searching, but I don’t use this that often. Evernote also has an extremely useful web clipping feature, which will save an entire HTML page directly to an Evernote notebook, complete with images, links, etc. The formatting sometimes gets messed up, but overall it’s a useful way to save internet ephemera.

When I read a new source, I take notes in such a way that they can be easily incorporated directly into a paper: quotes or paraphrases followed by my own commentary in bulleted lists. That way, when it’s time to actually write, much of the work is already done.

For citations I use Zotero extensively. Zotero is a free citation management program that automatically saves publication info from sources you access online (scholarly articles on databases like JSTOR; newspaper articles; even Amazon book listings). It can also automatically download the full text of articles and other online sources, and attach these to the citations in your library. Then it can automatically insert properly-formatted citations directly into Word documents, making it a huge time saver for academic writing.

Once you’ve collected the relevant sources and amassed a good pile of notes and come up with a basic research question and an outline for a paper, the writing itself begins. The task here is to condense the existing literature into something manageable and add something new to the discussion, a new argument or a new bit of primary data that hasn’t been considered yet. That’s the hard part. And it takes time. You write, you rewrite, you encounter new literature that changes your mind about something or opens up a new avenue of research; and all the while, odds are you’re attached to your computer. I can’t imagine what it must have been like doing research before computers existed. It’s terrifying.

Then there’s the uphill battle that is publishing. You farm your writing out to journals or academic presses, wait months and months for reviews to come back, make the necessary changes, wait some more. But publishing is critically important: without enough lines on your CV, you’ll never get a faculty position. (And job hunting is a whole separate rant–but fortunately somebody else has already ranted it for me.) So you read, and you write, and then you wait. And while you’re waiting, you read some more, and write some more.

Anyway, spending so many hours a day on a PC may not be the healthiest thing, but is it work? Is it worthwhile? The answers to these questions will vary widely, of course, depending on a range of factors, based on the discipline being interrogated, the personal values of the person asking, and all kinds of other factors. Is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake important? Is fostering cross-cultural understanding worthwhile? Are ghosts not the coolest freakin’ things ever? (Yes, obviously.)

I suppose it’s not the same as building a house or performing brain surgery or designing a robot to perform brain surgery and build houses. But I think it’s worthwhile in the long run, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

4 thoughts on “Angry Scholarship

  1. Love the Simpson’s social commentary!

    I’ve just started an Information law masters so I expect to have no life for the next few years. As an added (NON) bonus I have to keep working the day job as well (well -it’s only polite – because they are funding it after all); as an extra (NON) bonus there is absolutely nothing remotely supernatural about the course at all! (What was I thinking?!) :0(

      • Yes, your note links looked very useful – at the moment I am working on scribbling notes with one hand and a glass of vino in the other whilst my cats try and obscure my view of the computer!

        The course is primarily about the management and handling of information – records management/information disclosure/privacy etc. Nothing so interesting as intellectual property I’m afraid…

      • Hah! Wine and cats! We have so much in common. For reals.

        Actually I think what you’ve described is more interesting than intellectual property. I’m thinking in particular of real estate law and how information about stigmatized properties has to be disclosed (at least in the US). So if you’re a realtor and you want to sell the Amityville Horror house, you legally have to tell folks what went down there. Is that something you might deal with?

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