I just finished a half-term teaching fellowship in the Department of Philosophy. It was my first time instructing a course and I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity. I expected that it would be an intense learning curve – and I’ve been fortunate enough to be learning with the guidance of the long-time faculty member who customarily teaches the course – but I didn’t anticipate how much it would clarify my thinking about my own research.
In giving students advice about how to approach the way they write essays engaging with scholars’ arguments – advice about how they frame their thoughts – I’ve found ways to interpret what we read not as a matter of finding “the answer,” or even as being primarily about telling us what we “should” do. Shifting my frame of mind about the “what for?” of humanities scholarship is liberating.
Being a resource for my students has required me to clearly articulate a question for myself: what is it that we’re doing when we do theory? I’ve come to see that it’s about finding ways of understanding how the moments in our personal histories are not just unique to us, but are part of shared experiences. It’s about finding ways of discussing emergent phenomena. Of modelling macro-level patterns.
In past efforts intended to serve activist goals, I felt susceptible to burnout. Often I fell prey to looking past the descriptive in search of the prescriptive; I didn’t truly appreciate the value of work that offers us clearer ways to think about, for instance, whether and how and when to name ourselves, to group and organize ourselves, to see how power plays out among us, and so on. Only in trying to be helpful with writing conundrums at a distance from my own research have I come now to see how scholarship about politicized issues can be less a matter of adjudicating individual choices and more a matter of figuring out how to articulate how the conditions of possibility of those choices came to be. Now I understand – which is a different kettle of fish than knowing intellectually – that the value of asking questions about which ideas seem “normal” and which ideas seem counterintuitive is that their answers will tell us a lot about the specificity of the discourses, ideologies, and systems in which we’re steeped and in which our subjectivity has been formed.
What my students have given me is a new opportunity to become far more receptive to trusting in the (perhaps unpredictable) value of deepened understanding rather than stockpiling a bank of “answers.”