“To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Sarah Bond published a column on Forbes.com this morning on the importance of not for profit scholarly networks. I’m thrilled that she mentioned not only my blog post but also the work we’re doing at Humanities Commons. But if she hasn’t convinced you that it’s time to #DeleteAcademiaEdu yet, maybe this will: Friday, the network launched a new “prime” feature that allows members to pay to see the identities of users who are reading the work they share. That is to say: if you are reading things on Academia.edu, the network may sell your user info.
That they’re offering to sell this info to the author of the work involved does not make it okay. This is a frightening violation of the privacy standards that — a key point of comparison — libraries have long maintained with respect to reader activity. And selling your data to authors may only be the beginning.
I don’t want to read too much into the fact that they launched this “feature” on inauguration day. But the coincidence really begs scholars to become even more vigilant about where they’re sharing their work, and what networks they’re supporting as they access the work of others.
“You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.”
Kate Braestrup, in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
For the last week, I have been less than a page away from finishing a draft of the chapter on reading (see the overview for more on that), but found myself unable to press forward. The reasons are all too evident: it suddenly felt way too precious to be writing about the transformative potential of reading in helping build a more empathetic, engaged relationship between the academy and the public sphere in the face of what still feels to me like the most colossal breakdown in not just empathy but the most basic forms of mutual recognition and comprehension in my lifetime.
But this morning I forced myself through it. Those last two paragraphs will likely be subject to serious revision, of course, as will much of what precedes them, as I need to take a few giant steps back from the project as a whole and make sure that it’s working toward the right goals, for the right reasons. I am beginning that process by turning my attention to research toward the chapter on listening, in the hope that it might help me not only push this project forward but also start shaping for myself a way of being in the world that we seem to have made.
My intent is to share some of that research as I go, though I have a lot to process — we all have a lot to process — and doing so in public feels more than a little dangerous right now. But it’s important, and I’m not going to let myself back down from this. I hope that you’ll be willing to join me.
I am wanting desperately to find some still place to regroup, but I have to keep moving: I have to pack and get myself to the airport and go home, where I have to prepare for some beloved guests who will be arriving from the U.K. and all I can think of is the hundreds of ways I need to apologize to them, and to all of us. I am sick at heart, and sick to my stomach, contemplating where we find ourselves today.
In November 2004, I was teaching an Introduction to Media Studies class, and the morning after, my students and I talked about the degree to which the election results signaled a desperate need for media literacy. The outcome of that election, I told them, did not give me hope, but it did give me purpose.
I am trying to find myself in that sense of purpose again, but it’s going to take me a bit longer to process what last night suggests for my current project, about the possibilities for real communication across the borders of the academy, for generosity in the face of dismissal and divisiveness.
In 2004, I felt that I might have a lot that I could teach. Today, I cannot help but feel like I have much, much more to learn. And it’s not going to be easy, or pleasant. But — and this is as much an exhortation to myself as it is a declaration — I will not run away from this.
The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.
Responses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.
I have been working — painfully slowly, but nonetheless working — on a new project for something that is showing every sign of turning into a book. I’m still in the phase in which the thing is a bit hard to discuss, as I’m really figuring out what it’s all about on a day-to-day basis. But it finally occurred to me (another one of those “light dawns over Marblehead” moments that have characterized so much of my career thus far) that given the extent to which my last book argued for new scholarly practices including a willingness to show our process, blemishes and all, and given the extent to which the new project is all about the possibilities that might open up for scholars not just in doing more of their work in public but in doing more of that work in conversation with the public, well, I might take a bit of my own advice and open the thing up a bit.
Consider this the start of a conversation, a call in hope of response.
I’m beginning today with the project overview, below the fold. Later this week, I’ll post the first chunk of the project itself, derived from a talk I gave this spring at the University of Richmond. And I hope that more pieces will follow as I dig further into the guts of this thing. Those pieces are likely to be fragmentary, more question than answer — but then, that’s how some of the best conversations begin.
Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.
This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”
The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.
Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”
My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.
So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.
I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.
I have been working for the last year-ish on a new long-form writing project. The project is proceeding slowly, mostly because of time limitations.1 But it is proceeding, which is something I need to remind myself of right now.
I need the reminder because I am in the process of trying to produce a project overview, which is something I thought I’d already done. I kind of did; I started the project by producing what I thought of as a proto-prospectus, which I shared with a few friends for comment. I then wrote and delivered a talk that might serve as a first draft of an introduction to the project as a whole, and this summer I dove into work on one of the project’s central chapters. So I’ve managed to produce a fair bit of material, which is great.
But somehow the existence of that material is getting in the way of my ability to describe this project formally. My proto-prospectus feels far too informal and ill-formed; my draft introduction gets far too caught in the narrative weeds; the central chapter… well, it’s only about a third done, and in part because I felt like I’d lost the thread of the work the chapter was supposed to be doing. So if I’m going to produce the project overview I need, it’s going to require me to put everything I’ve already done aside and start fresh, in a blank document, telling the project’s story as best I can.
It occurred to me this morning that perhaps one of the reasons I feel such difficulty maintaining a grasp on this project and its through-line is that I haven’t been talking about it much — or here, frankly at all — and so haven’t worked out its points in dialogue with friends. I’ve avoided that in part because it just felt too early, and thus too risky, to go public with these ideas.
But I’m having to remind myself that Planned Obsolescence did not begin its life as a book project. Long before it began to take that shape, I did a lot of thinking-out-loud on this blog; it was only much later that the various pieces began to coalesce as something larger than what they’d been.
I’m not sure why I expected things to be different this time. Perhaps because I’m now advanced enough in my career that I figured I should know how to do this in a more systematic, more conventional, more independent way. Or perhaps there is something embedded in that seniority that has made me if not exactly risk-averse then perhaps nervous about showing uncertainty in public.
I should know better. A willingness to show that uncertainty is not only a key part of the scholarly process in which I want to engage, it’s a cornerstone of the argument I’m trying to make.
It’s not entirely a surprise that I’m having to learn this lesson again; this blog is filled with instances of me relearning and remembering and trying to remind myself of things I’d somehow managed to forget. But here I am, again, reminding myself, again, of the purposes that this space has served for me for the last fourteen years.
I’m starting again, again, both in this space and on this project. And I will hope for the opportunity to talk with you about the ideas I’m working on in the weeks ahead.
I’ve just finished a bit of tinkering around here. I’m hoping, of course, that the desire to tinker might signal an imminent desire to actually write new things that might warrant a refreshed platform. But that, as always, remains to be seen.