Tuesday, January 21, 2014


It should be no surprise that I read PHD Comics, given that I was a graduate student and I am still at work in the collegiate environment and the subject matter of the comic strip is at the confluence of those two things.  Since I do read the strip, it should also be unsurprising that I read this strip, in which the dreaded Professor Smith tells the unnamed main character of the strip (with whom readers are invited to identify because he is profoundly unmarked--a white or Asian man in a STEM field, so playing to stereotypes, and nameless, thereby serving as a blank placeholder into which readers can imagine themselves)* "In academia, you never really catch up.  There are always more things that need to be done.  It's a consequence of working in an open field.  We are at the edge of human knowledge!"  And while the strip, being comedic, follows up with a gag, the core sentiment is true; there is always more to do.

That truth is something I try to impress upon my students; in each of their writing assignments, for me and for other classes than mine, they ought to look not so much to "get done" as to develop new knowledge heretofore unknown.  Following the several textbooks I have used, I talk about writing as inquiry, and phrase my talk in those terms--each act of writing, when done with diligence and sincerity, represents an opportunity to develop new understanding that the writer is the first of all people to know and to send that understanding out into the world so that others may look upon it and be illumined, if only a small bit more.**  I say it to them as a means of indicating that the work I ask them to do is not merely a means to an end but an end in itself, a contribution to such glory as humanity commands, and thus far more valuable than simply getting an assignment done.

That truth is not always comfortable, however; truths seldom are.  It has prompted me to agonize over getting things done, to acknowledge that however much I write and in however many places, it is not enough.  Although I feel something of the Good Doctor's reason for writing, I feel sometimes as if that exhalation is labored, as though my bronchia are choked with phlegm and my trachea with mucus, and there is a pillow pressing down upon my face to silence me now and perhaps forever.  (My wife's pregnancy only adds to this; I have been told by many that being a parent is another exercise in always-more-to-do, and one of far worse consequences for failure than my not getting any given paper written.)  I know I am not alone in the discomfort; the comic strip is as widely read as it is because it does speak to an experience common among at least one group of people with whom I belong.  That we are all behind where we want to be does not mean the demanded pace should be slowed, certainly, but it does mean that there is some interesting company along the way, and that is good to know.

*I can hear it now, something like "Geez, can't you just enjoy the comic?"  I am a scholar of the humanities; from what do you think I derive enjoyment?

**I wonder if I ought to take it as some kind of sign that one of the cats shat noisily while I wrote this sentence.

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