Monday, September 20, 2010

Intellectual Injuries

As I wrote over at SMT yesterday, I had a disturbing thought at my son's hockey practice yesterday. I bruised my rib a week ago when I fell onto my stick at the first practice of the newly-formed parents' team, and yesterday I was sitting on the bench feeling somewhat sorry for myself. Then it struck me.

Hockey coaches understand that the sport is built around a number of inherent dangers—sharp blades; hard, fast pucks; sudden falls to the ice. Training is therefore built around principles that minimize injury—the right equipment, suitable exercises (including practicing the art of falling), and a certain etiquette—while ensuring development. Are we as good at respecting the inherent mental dangers of scholarship? Do we even recognize the possibility of getting "injured" while engaged in our "knowledge work"? Can we get hurt during the two or three hours we sit in front of the computer writing our papers, practicing our thinking? Can we "break" something? Or is scholarship a completely harmless activity?

What would a mental or intellectual injury look like? First of all, it would prevent us from thinking clearly, or at least make it more difficult to do so. Breaking a leg makes it impossible to walk without crutches. My bruised rib makes everything a little painful. Here's a thought: can carelessness in writing damage your style of expression, both "on and off the ice"? That is, if you don't concentrate during your writing sessions and write sloppy sentences, will your intellectual posture suffer in general? Will your language skills as such suffer? Take it a step further: Since clear writing depends on clear thinking, can writing carelessly have consequences for your concepts?

Suppose you spend a writing session trying to subsume a particular set of phenomena under a theoretical concept. It's not that the phenomena don't "fit"; it's just that the operation is very difficult (the concept is very advanced; the phenomena are very subtle). You work too hard at it and you slip. You fall. Now what? You twist your concept? You break it?

Maybe. Maybe that actually happens. But we rarely (if ever) conceive of writing and thinking in these terms. If my constant attempts to present the development of writing skills by analogy to physical training are right, however, then perhaps we do well to think also in terms of possible injuries like this. Perhaps some of the difficulties we commonly face in our writing stem from our inability to recognize that we are, in fact, "hurt", and we need to take a break and let the concept we strained yesterday recover.

Ultimately, of course, we need to think in terms of preventing injury. Working steadily is important, and doing so in regular sessions of reasonable length, under orderly conditions, without interruptions, in good light, able to concentrate on the tasks we have set ourselves. But we must also always work within the limits of our stage of development. There are certain "moves" that we are not able to make in prose today, but that we will be able to make if we work at them with the awareness that we will fail, i.e., fall, and will have pick ourselves up do it again and again before we master it.

It may hurt, but if we're prepared for it, we will not actually get hurt (i.e., injured). It also hurts sometimes when you are first learning how to ride a bike. But because you (and your dad) were prepared for it, the injuries amounted to a few scrapes and scratches. Tomorrow was another day.


Jonathan said...

This is a rich topic...

The greater risk is in repetitive motion. Carpal tunnel syndrome from typing; professional "deformation" caused by using the brain in one way too much over the course of many years. Athletes' bodies break down because of repetitive use, the pounding on the knees of runner or b-ball player, bursitis for a tennis player. I think that might be the better analogy than the one time injury, however painful. I hope your rib heals fast.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, scholarly writing can break your heart. Careless reviewing, overly conservative gatekeeping, and plain lack of imagination on the part of others can wound a scholar. And, being unable to articulate -- sometimes even to grasp -- a concept or connection that you know 'exista' but which remains to you ineffable, however temporarily, can also be heartbreaking.

Thomas said...

Yes, heartbreak was the subject of my next post. I agree that one of the sources of "hurt" in academia is the carelessness of others. In sports, you need a certain amount of toughness (thick skin) as a basis, but you may be subjected to some meanness anyway, and that will in fact hurt, even injure.

That's what etiquette is all about. But keep that toughness in mind: sometimes a fair check breaks your shoulder because of your inattention, not your opponent's. (A fair criticism, absorbed badly, may put you out of the game for awhile.)

Straining to speak the ineffable is a very possible source intellectual injury. Try to articulate it a little bit every day; work on it for an hour or so, then move on, then go back to it the next day. That's my advice. Don't let ideas break your heart. That's not what they're for. Sticks and stones, etc.