in pursuit of critical and compassionate living and thought. in surrender to courage & delight of Christ.

The Life Behind “The Literature.” Or, How Sophisticated Sounding Things Are Actually Made

Anyone who has entered higher education has had the spiritual encounter with the god of academia, “The Literature.”

The Literature is to be feared and befriended. When you oppose it, you increase your grandeur and might, having stood up to the Goliath god. When you wrap your own words in it, its the Big Friendly Giant, and you can protect yourself in the embrace of a vague collection of credentials. At any point, you can even get away with blaming this god for whatever theoretical mess you make (“The Literature made me do it!”). Of course, the ultimate academic goal is to become One with it. To become part of The Literature is to be forever guaranteed salvation in sophistication.

Okay, so maybe this is an over-exaggeration. But really, that’s kind of my point. The prestige of higher education’s output with all its big words and esoteric titles is actually kind of hilarious, and maybe sad…and concerning.

For all the debates around the value of higher education, once you’re in it, you quickly meet  (and start getting worried by) the monsters inside that make being published feel personal, being unrelateable a vague mark of distant superiority, BS-ing “a necessary evil”, and working anything less than 48 hours a day a sign of dwindling seriousness and intellectual “passion”. Now, this isn’t to say great, world-changing stuff doesn’t get done through all this research and writing. It does. Its important stuff. But it is to say that there’s a whole lotta inflation going on around the influence of every publication, how closely they are tied to your personal or professional identity as a scholar, and certainly, the untouchable expertise and productivity of The Literature and those who make it.

Truth be told, expertise comes in jeans eating pizza, sitting on pillows on the floor with ungodly amounts of coffee, cramming half-baked thoughts into methodological frameworks like a kid who puts too much playdough in the Play-Doh Press machine. Voila! Another paper is borne.

The life of a scholar is anything but sophisticated.

The Life That Makes The Literature looks unshowered and over-caffeinated. It looks like a lot of days blaming Eve on your Sleep Depravity and your poor judgement with all-nighters. It looks like Googling everything you learned through elementary and undergrad because all these new big words have replaced everything that’s actually essential to know. Like how to make anything but boiled eggs and plain pasta. It looks like having more fun than they tell you is possible and still gettin’er done. Its about constant re-learning in order to write anything decent. And constant editing when you learn that according to some-other-foreign-theory you’re still wrong. And avoiding walking past your supervisor’s door too close to a deadline. Its about learning the power of the word “problematic” (especially in cases where you’re not actually sure what exactly is the problem). Its about feeling like a fraud, but also knowing that life is pretty-dang-Boss that you get to be doing what you’re doing. Its about learning to pat yourself on the back for paragraphs. Its about knowing how many theses will end up just water-cooler talk and half-fearfully, half-(still-)optimistically ignoring your advisers’ cautions that changing the world in one thesis isn’t possible. Its about learning to not be afraid of what other people think of what you say or write because you learned the week before that “theory-building” in The Literature Club often basically comes down to arbitrarily picking a side in the debate. It looks like blank faces and bleary eyes all around you in room full of “experts” talking about anything outside their niche. Its about knowing your stuff but still keeping a Thesaurus App on stand-by in case it doesn’t actually make sense to others. And about the value of working your butt off even when people can’t tell what you actually do. Its about the day you learn your Professors are even worse procrastinators than you. Its about coming out feeling like you earned two degrees – the one in your subject that you paid for, and the one that you made for yourself (for free!) out of the assortment of topics you found in rabbit trails and YouTube-binges over those years (Do you know the average age of an astronaut?!). Its about learning that The Literature is a big, bumbling beast that makes you think hard but that you can basically feed cookies to and somehow come out smarter, bolder, and more gracious. Ain’t that what matters?

So this is a note to my friends in, or considering higher education.
Don’t let this false pretense and reward of “prestige” get to you. Just do good work, and be real. Keep your pride and internal pressure at bay when you should be scrapping big words for simple ones, when you get “constructive” feedback, don’t get accepted to that conference, and have those days when you just-can’t-write-a-damn-word. Definitely don’t compare and compete with your colleagues about who gets higher marks, better reviews, has a longer Bibliography, or drank how-many?! cups of coffee. Celebrate your messy journey through the Ivory Tower and enjoy it. And remember, big words always rhyme with Pizza.


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This entry was posted on September 21, 2016 by in meaningful work, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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