Scott Jaschik asked me some great questions about Generous Thinking, and I was happy to answer.
(Crossposted from the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.)
Generous Thinking began for me with the nagging sense that something is off-kilter in much of scholarly life. It’s having profound effects not just on the ways that we as individual scholars are able to live out the values that we bring to our work but also on the ways that we work together, in groups, as departments, as institutions. And perhaps most importantly, it is affecting the ways that we connect and communicate with — or fail to connect and communicate with — the world off-campus. A talk I heard by David Scobey some years ago gave me the title for this book; Scobey argued that critical thinking in the humanities was completely out of balance with generous thinking, which oriented toward a form of public engagement designed to reconnect the university with the world. I was thrilled to hear someone name the thing that I’d been circling around, and yet I had two points of concern: first, was critical thinking necessarily on the opposite end of the intellectual see-saw from generous thinking? And second, if we are to engage generously with the world, do we need to begin closer to home?
The kind of generosity that I found myself hoping to foster has as its goal reconnecting the university to the communities that the institution is intended to serve. But this generosity is grounded in practices of connection that might strengthen the university itself as a community. The most fundamental of these practices is listening.
But — listening? How could something so basic be the ground for solving such a complex set of problems?
The first thing to note is that listening is indeed a most basic form of human engagement, but one that nearly all of us are pretty bad at. We may let one another speak; we may even hear one another when we do; but much of that time is spent waiting for our next turn to talk, preparing our own thoughts and ideas. Genuinely listening to what someone else has to say requires letting go, at least for a moment, of our own assumptions and perspectives. Listening requires attuning ourselves to what is being said to us, opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the engagement — that our own assumptions and perspectives might be wrong.
It’s not a coincidence that the ability to listen varies inversely with privilege: people who are marginalized are not just commanded to listen, but often must use listening as a tool of survival. The need to learn to listen, to displace the self in order to understand the perspectives of others, is for that reason most pressing for those of us who are most privileged. Listening is the first step in the creation of solidarity, of recognizing that our collective interests must take precedence over our individual interests.
Listening isn’t a panacea. It can’t solve the problems that the university faces today, not unless it’s accompanied by real transformative action. But listening is more than just personal, or interpersonal. It’s the ground for a critical practice that begins by thinking with rather than against our colleagues. It’s the ground for our ability to draw students and other potentially interested members of the public into the work that we do, rather than closing them out. It’s the ground for creating institutions that genuinely live out the values they claim to espouse. Listening is a basis for generous thinking, and as such is the first step toward real transformative change.
The conclusion to the print edition of Generous Thinking directs readers to the manuscript’s open review site to share thoughts and ideas growing out of the book, in the hope that we can find ways collectively to develop opportunities for rebuilding the relationships between institutions of higher education and the publics that they serve. So, in conjunction with the book’s release this week, I’ve reopened comments throughout the draft manuscript. I’ll look forward to discussing the possibilities there.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to think out loud a bit — and particularly just as Generous Thinking drops — about the ways the various pieces of my work work together.
Seriously, nine years. At the end of the Spring 2010 semester, I went on sabbatical, and then I joined the staff of the MLA. And while I did teach here at MSU last spring, it was a very different experience; I co-organized a proseminar that brought in a lot of colleagues from around campus to help guide a group of graduate students in thinking about the potential role of digital technologies in their research.
This semester, it’s just me and my students, with my syllabus — the first new syllabus I’ve put together in almost nine years! — to guide us.
I’m pleased with the syllabus, and excited by the students, and looking forward to seeing where it all leads us. But it’s funny to arrive at this point in my career feeling like a novice again.
Not least in thinking about how to structure our in-class engagements. We meet once a week for three hours — a format I never felt terribly good at, even when I was teaching consistently. It’s an enormous stretch of time, one that has to be broken up into smaller chunks in order to keep us present and invested and on-task. But at the same time, with the book-a-week structure of the semester, it’s important to ensure that we give each text the full range of attention it requires.
If you have strategies for ways to structure sessions of three-hour seminars, I’d be most grateful to hear them. In the meantime, I’m pondering ways of maintaining the excitement of the semester-long narrative within the close-up work of each week’s conversation…
Or perhaps it’s more fair to say that I haven’t been doing much in the way of writing of the new-project kind of late, because I have in fact been writing non-stop: grant proposals, letters of recommendation, and email email email. None of that ever actually feels as though it counts, though, and I feel not-so-vaguely guilty whenever I check off the daily writing item in my to-do app and the writing has been of a predominantly administrative nature.
But what I have been working on is the wrap-up of my last project, which never feels quite like it ought to count, either, and yet requires revisiting the manuscript with just as much intensity as the actual writing of it demanded. I spent a week with the copy edits, wrestling through what I’d actually meant to say and how it got read (very generously, I’m happy to say) and making sure that I was happy with where things wound up.
The next stage of my involvement with the project will be the final proofread, and then… the anxious awaiting of this gorgeous thing, whose 2-dimensional version landed in my inbox just as I was pondering what to write about.
I’m beyond happy about this, and hope you will be too. Coming to a bookstore near you in 2019.
The academic star system of the 1980s and 1990s in the humanities created a group of people who believed they were better than everyone else and a group of people who were invested in believing the stars were better than everyone else.1/
— Timothy Burke (@swarthmoreburke) August 19, 2018
And second, the thread from low end theory beginning here:
so much abt academic casualization is in the background of the ronell case & needs to be addressed directly. this situation wld be much less possible were a large share of 2 generations trained in deconstruction not structurally barred from creating competing knowledge/practices.
— low end theory (@touchfaith) August 18, 2018
Putting these things together: The academic star system into which my corner of the humanities fell at some point a few decades back has not only done inordinate institutional damage through the kinds of privilege it has created and upheld, and thus the kinds of labor that it has allowed to roll off of some shoulders and to land on others. It has not only done grievous political damage both within our institutions and to the relationship between the university and the public by undermining the solidarity that we should have been working toward and replacing it with a destructive form of competition. It has done both of these things, and it has done substantial intellectual damage to our fields, concentrating resources on established and rising stars and so preventing others — and most especially, those who as a result of that concentration of resources could not find secure work within our institutions and thus were squeezed off of the platforms that might have given them voice — from producing the work that might have led all of us in new directions.
The particular situation that prompts these thoughts, whatever it may in actuality be (and I do not at all think I have a picture that is either complete or accurate), is symptomatic of something fundamentally broken at the heart of our institutional structures. Changing that is going to require entirely new ways of understanding who and why we are together, and what it is our institutions of higher education are for.
Right now, they are in very large part for the creation and maintenance of stars. And that orientation, if we do not change it, could well be the end of us.
But there are a few spots where I’m not, entirely, and I’m not sure whether it’s a different perspective or a different set of experiences, or perhaps the latter having led to the former. For instance, Alan notes:
If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now…
By contrast, I know without any doubt whatsoever that if I had never blogged at all I would not only not have the same job I have now, I would not have gotten my previous job, and might very likely not have gotten promoted at the one before that. The blog was not just the venue in which I started putting together the ideas that became my second book, the one that made promotion and various subsequent jobs possible, but it was also the way that I was able to demonstrate that there might be a readership for that second book, without which it’s much less likely that a press would have been interested. And then, of course, there’s that blog-based open review project, which was crucial to the book turning out to be the book that it was.
In fact, all along the path, such as my career thus far has taken, the blog has been necessary if not sufficient. My first formal citations in the scholarly literature, for instance, pointed to blog posts rather than to more regularly published work. So Alan’s not at all incorrect assertion —
Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
— triggers in me an unfortunate case of #NotAllScholars!, which while perhaps literally true is just as unhelpful and privileged and key-issue-avoiding as all other versions of #NotAllX are. In fact blog posts are not the kind of thing one can detail on one’s annual review form, and even a blog in the aggregate doesn’t have a place in which it’s easy to be claimed as a site of ongoing scholarly productivity.
Alan, in any case, is working his way around to what the blog might actually do, regardless of what our shared profession thinks it might or might not do. And in a somewhat different way, I am as well. As I noted in an aside, I’ve never started a book project — and I mean that all the way back to my dissertation — in the way that I have always thought I was supposed to: (a) Having an Idea; (b) Researching that Idea; (c) Outlining the Book exploring that Idea; (d) Writing the Book detailing that Idea.
Mine have gone more like (1) having some vague annoying idea with a small i; (b) writing multiple blog posts thinking about things related to that idea; (iii) giving a talk somewhere fulminating about some other thing entirely; (4) wondering if maybe there are connections among those things; (e) holy carp, if I lay the things I’ve been noodling about over the last year and a half out in this fashion, it could be argued that I am in the middle of writing a book!
This is in my experience less a matter of, as Alan describes it, an idea pulling up in your driveway and sitting out there honking its horn, than it is me waking up in the driver’s seat on the freeway and thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to put my hands on the wheel after all.
All of which is to say: it hit me this afternoon that there’s an idea — small i; vague; annoying — that I’ve been writing and talking about in a weird range of forms lately (talks, blog posts, grant proposals). And today I’m wondering whether that might be the next car I wake up in, and whether there’s a way for me to prepare to take the wheel.
Perhaps that preparation might happen here. Perhaps what happens here might demonstrate that there’s no capital-I Idea after all. In any case, hi, thanks for reading, this space will not go wasted.1
Yesterday, I wrapped up the revisions on Generous Thinking, and I’m finding myself of very mixed minds about where I am today. On the one hand, I am super excited about getting the manuscript into the press’s hands, getting it moving through the process toward the next stage of its public life. The events of the last few weeks — at both the national and the institutional level — have me convinced that this project needs to be out there now.
On the other hand, I have the not-so-vague feeling that I have been running as hard as I can toward the edge of a cliff, and that one morning soon, having sent off the manuscript, I’ll look down and discover there’s nothing beneath my feet. So I’m finding myself drawn to doing bit of preemptive thinking about what’s next, hoping that the gap between the ground I’m currently running on and the next bit of ground ahead might be less wide and less deep, leading to a less painful crash.
Don’t get me wrong, I know a fair bit of what’s ahead: reviewing copyedits, indexing, and all the other many things that still have to be done on my side of the process of transforming that manuscript into a finished book. But I have never completed a major project knowing what my next project was going to be. Or — maybe this is closer to the truth — I have concluded major projects thinking I knew what the next project was going to be, but I have always, always been wrong. And it’s taken longer than I expected, every time, to find my way into another project.
So on the one hand, I know that I’m in for a bit of flailing. On the other, I’m trying to give myself as much of a path forward as I can, so that maybe I can avoid the worst of it. This time out, that path consists of a lot of reading, piles of books that I’ve stacked up over the last few months, that I’ve been looking forward to getting into. I think the key challenge is going to be letting myself explore, letting myself not-know exactly what it is I’m reading for. And probably letting myself do a bit more thinking-out-loud here.
In any case: manuscript out. And more, of some as-yet undetermined sort, to come.
First, I did finally get ahold of a copy of a version of the actual source. The quote comes from a 1942 letter from Weil to poet Joë Bousquet, which from what I can tell was first published in a 1950 issue of Cahiers du Sud, and then subsequently in a volume of Weil and Bousquet’s correspondence. My library has neither of these, but thanks to the extraordinary institutional generosity of Interlibrary Loan, a scan of the Cahiers du Sud version landed in my inbox last night. (Seriously, can we all take a moment to be grateful for ILL?)
And second, the context of the quotation is even more important to my own context than I’d guessed it could be. Bousquet was in the hospital, suffering from a grievous war injury, when he and Weil corresponded. She’d apparently given him a piece of writing, on which he’d given her some kind of comment. And thus:
J’ai été très touchée de constater que vous aviez fait véritablement attention aux quelques pages que je vous ai montrées. Je n’en conclus pas qu’elles méritent de l’attention. Je regarde cette attention comme un don gratuit et généreux de votre part. L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.
I was touched to see that you had truly paid attention to some pages that I showed you. I did not take from that that they deserved attention. I regard that attention as a gift freely and generously given on your part. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Being closely read, and receiving careful feedback, may in turn be the rarest and purest form of attention. I owe the readers of Generous Thinking more than I can say.