Just before Easter, I talked to a group of master's students who are working on their theses. I realized too late that the routine I've developed for PhD students and faculty doesn't work too well at lower levels. Mainly, I am less justified in presuming that the writers know something—or, rather, that they feel like they know something. This means that my attempts to get them to think practically about the work of writing comes off a bit hollow, a bit cynical even.
Consider the epigraph for this blog, taken from Don DeLillo's Underworld. Here's a longer quote:
I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions. Did I do this myself? You maintain a shifting distance between yourself and your job. There's a self-conscious space, a sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic, and maybe you show it in a forced gesture or a ritual clearing of the throat. Something out of childhood whistles through this space, a sense of games and half-made selves, but it's not that you're pretending to be someone else. You're pretending to be exactly who you are. That's the curious thing. (103)
I told the students that academics are just like executives in this regard: they both are scholars and pretend to be scholars. They are pretending to be exactly what they are. Likewise, they really do know something and also pretend to know it. That pretense is simply part of the academic style. It's a kind of "conceit".
Well, master's students may be excused for finding it a bit strange to be told (by an instructor) that they are supposed to "pretend to know" something when they are writing. The same can be said of my invocation of Mallarmé: a text is not made of ideas but words. Don't think too much, I seem to be saying, don't worry too much about your ideas. Just write. When working with very ambitious, very knowledgeable PhD students, that sort of advice is intended as a corrective. Their awe of the forest blinds them to the trees, we might say. But students who are not yet sure that they know anything need to be given the opposite advice.
They must be told how to get their words to mean something, and that means that they must actually know something, not merely pretend to know it. PhD students, like I say, must be told not merely to know something, but also to pretend to know it. Like DeLillo's executives, in fact, they must learn to let their readers pretend as well. An academic reader, like an academic writer, is always a "half-made self" playing at knowing something.
Jonathan Mayhew put this point forcefully in the context of reading works of literature. "To really love literature is to love how it rewrites your subjectivity," he said, "how it kicks your ass with its transformative power." Really good academic writing can also, sometimes, knock you off your feet. But most often it rewrites your subjectivity in a much more subtle way by offering you a role in a "game" (one that is at the same time wholly "real"). As a reader, you pretend that the writer is an "author", i.e., an authority of the subject. And the writer, of course, obliges by appearing to be someone who "knows what she's talking about". Both are pretending to be exactly who they are, which is a curious thing.