Thursday, October 06, 2011

Professorial Writers

"A writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does," said Hemingway (Conversations, p. 46). His solution, as I noted in my last post, was to put some physical distance between himself and his potential visitors. The ultimate "threat" from which the writer needs to be "protected" is, of course, not friendship, but distraction. Hemingway welcomed distractions (and accordingly had to "enforce" his discipline) precisely because they came in the form of his friends. Academic writers, however, sometimes seem to welcome distractions for their own sake. That is, they gladly let their work be interrupted, or certainly allow it as a matter of course.

In a sense, professors need to protect their writing process from precisely the "office organization" that Hemingway said litarary writers don't have. Academics are not just professional writers, they are also professional researchers, teachers and administrators. Hemingway only had to live and write. Professors have to organize their work into smaller compartments and then also, of course, find time to live. And that life, in turn, is not what they write about. Here it is important to keep in mind that they do in fact have an office, and an organization around it.

First, there is the familiar concept of "office hours". Professors can limit their time with students to the classroom and a few hours a week, during which they are available to answer questions and offer advice. Similarly, the administrative work they do can be given a particular amount of time each week, usually centred around preparations for meetings with colleagues and university officials. Their research, too, whether it consists of reading books or conducting field work, can be confined to particular times of the day, though they may dominate the schedule more in some periods than others.

And then, like Hemingway, professors must find time to write. Here they can also use their office, or even their larger "office organization". Consider that people who wanted to talk to Hemingway sought him out in his home (where he also worked). But when people want to speak to a professor, they normally wait until she turns up in the office. And they do largely respect her closed door. The university institution really does offer "protection" from distractions.

Another difference between Hemingway's "professional writer" and this professorial counterpart has to do with the peer relationship. "Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful," said Hemingway. "Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public" (Conversations, p. 52). Well, professors do have such an obligation, precisely because they are not writing for public consumption but for their fellow scholars. A professional writer works for (i.e., writes for) a non-professional reader. A professorial writer is working with her readers to understand the subject. And this means that they often have to point out the errors that their peers have made while, of course, also acknowledging their contributions. The writing of scholar is instrinsically much more social than the writing of a novelist.

The work of our professors is constitutively tied to, not severed from, the "life" that the writing is about. It is the luxury of the professional (literary) writer to write, as Hemingway put it, "one true sentence that you know" after another, without worrying too much about what your friends or other writers are up to. But the professor must constantly write with peers and students in mind. There is no abstract "reading public" for whom to keep up "professional" appearances. The reader and the "critic" are one. This difference in the social organization of academic and literary life, which, I would argue, is much more complex in the case of the academic, is, perhaps, what accounts for the famous persona of "the distracted professor".

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