Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Discipline and Image

Thinking about the imagination has given me a way of emphasizing something important about the work I do. I sometimes worry that I am simply part of the increasing pressure on academics to become more "productive". There is some truth in the charge because I do believe that scholars generally don't use their time and energy well enough, and I am certain that this means they are producing less than they could, and at greater effort than they should. It's not wrong to say I'm a "motivational speaker" for scholars and a "management consultant" for university administrators.

But I don't like this view of my work (nor really the underlying assumptions about the state of scholarly work) because it focuses on what is really a non-intellectual output, namely, what is sometimes (or was once) called "text production". I prefer to see the writing we do, not as an "output" of scholarly work, but as part of a larger process. First of all, of course, we write in order to be read, and both the reading and writing are ongoing processes. What then is the output of this larger endeavor?

Borges talked about the "dialogue [a book] establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." The real purpose of the writing we do is to enter into such a dialogue, to help shape the voice and memory of the reader. We write, not to impress our employers, but to "impose" ourselves on the minds of our peers. So "productivity" here cannot really be measured in terms of how many articles we publish.

Still, the authors I work with all have a sense that they are underperforming in some sense. Otherwise they wouldn't seek me out, after all. And I also immediately try get them to think in terms of quantity rather than quality. This is one of the things I get from Jonathan Mayhew: "quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality."

Someone who spends, say, 60 hours, every eight weeks, composing 120 paragraphs (about three articles worth of prose), 27-minutes at a time, will have subjected their "voice and memory" to a discipline that someone who does not do this has not. And what they are ultimately doing is, not just "writing for publication", but developing their ability to imagine facts. They will need imagination to pass from the facts they know to the prose they are writing, and from the prose they are reading to the facts they might learn there. A healthy imagination is better for the whole scholarly community.

So when writers think of themselves as in need of improvement, I'm now realizing, I need to address myself, not to their ability to "produce", but to their ability to imagine. Imagination provides an appropriate focus for the discipline I try to teach. But it also sets a limit. We must be disciplined, but not at the cost of our ability to form images of the facts.

I'll develop this idea a little further on Thursday.

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