Sunday, November 30, 2008

A final growl


This will be the last portion of our epistolary exchange at PTN, so I'll try to make it count, although even with the holiday it won't top your post for length. In keeping with our prior inspiration from Rhubarb Pie, though, I'll take the Megan role and throw some oil on the fire. We can continue to warm our hands in the blaze from our burning bridges and incinerated straw men over at Law & Letters or just let it die out (boo).

First, education and "intellectuals": Would it be nice if no professors were nasty and mean? Would it be nice if curious but underprivileged students didn't have to learn bourgie shibboleths and system-gaming to gain access to knowledge? Oh, to live in such a world! Like you, I engaged in a certain amount of conscious self-improvement in past years, going so far as to drop my accent and cram my head full of legal philosophy that I was much too young to understand. But I don't resent the society that pushed me to that or find it somehow oppressive that people make assumptions about my level of knowledge of obscure academic specialties based on whatever outward cues I still give off. Chances are that they are right: I probably don't know the fine details. And if they respond accordingly, I don't tend to classify them as a cool popularizer if I like them and a condescending jerk if I don't. Talking down to uninformed people is a burden, especially for introverts who find personal contact itself a dull, wearing source of stress. Is such a failure to share one's knowledge necessarily a personal failure? If there's a barrier of ignorance, is it incumbent on the more knowledgeable person to build you a ladder? There's a reason they generally have to pay people to teach.

Pursuing a specialized type of knowledge is a really challenging endeavor, as you know well. It tends to take up most of your mental energy, like any time-consuming brain-based job, and leaves little room for outside interests. Hell, I work at a law firm, which is mostly sitting and thinking (albeit about more prosaic topics) and people are surprised to hear that I manage to cook, knit, blog, and have friends. I hope none of them are silently judging me for being insufficiently curious and failing to have some secondary intellectual hobby, like freelance philosophy or lepidoptery. If professors are too immersed in the life of a particular part of the mind to have time to charmingly explain their research to the ignorant, or to keep up some outside interests for the sake of maintaining their renaissance-man cred, bully for them. They're earning their salaries, in my book. Professors who try to be open and approachable all too often get it in the teeth, so I'm okay with a certain amount of distance for other reasons. (Although that Concurring Opinions post is a great example of either the sort of lazy analysis and false dichtomies with which legal teaching is rife, or of the parallel tendency of lawyers and law professors to leave out crucial factual details because, as Sarah has noted many times in the comments here, lawyers lack sufficient substantive knowledge to be aware of whether something is important.)

Whew! Perhaps this reaction, like Sherry's, is a product of personal experiences (although even congenitally grouchy me hasn't managed to write off the entire profession of career planners or whatever, based on dislike of her post and some lame encounters in school). I had the privilege of attending a college that puts a strong emphasis on teaching, and my expectations for the law faculty were . . . met. The former wasn't populated by the sorts of jerks that Sherry's calling "intellectuals" and the latter's issues were more an indictment of the law as a discipline and Harvard as a university than any indication of the merits of the professoriat generally. (You might as well take Phoebe's experience at an NYC restaurant as justification for Francophobia.)

I'm sure you'll be a great professor, though, and put lie to any contrary generalization about the occupation. How goes your research? My few attempts at any article writing have been universal failures, and it's worth acknowledging now that I'm not cut out for the life of the mind. I did, however, make two pillow covers for my new couch, reupholster the stool for my sewing machine, and start on a nice pair of convertible mittens. (Don't worry, B & G: your knitted stuff is still coming!) This is what you get when you give a six-year-old the Little House books: a lifetime obsession with making household items and salt pork. I'm finally set for a housewarming party: maybe in two weeks? Wish you could come.
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