Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Chua + Academic Life  §

Two vaguely (I don’t know how) related things tonight at 11:50 in the evening after feeding my baby, who doesn’t sleep well.

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My wife and I have become enthusiasts of the Amy Chua book that’s drawn criticism from so many quarters and been the inspiration for so many facile, sensationalistic articles. Granted, we’re only through about three quarters of it, but thus far it seems clear to me that once again what we’re seeing is the worst behavior on the parts of journalists and publics.

The former misreport on it in the way best able to generate public outrage (and thus issue sales and/or page views), while the public happily complies by dutifully becoming righteously outraged in so many colors and flavors about a book they’ve never read.

They’re sure that Amy Chua is a horrible, automaton-generating Chinese collectivist determined to beat her daughters into submission and that the book proudly relates tales of an iron fist and cold command applied injudiciously to a pair of long-suffering and naive daughters. Nothing could be further from the truth. The shocking thing in all of this coverage is that nobody has bothered to mention that the book is a veritable tribute to her daughters, dripping with love and respect and pride, and that any child would feel lucky to have a mother who wrote a glowing book about them and their strong personalities, sensitive and empathetic natures, and remarkable achievements—much less managed to get it published and turn it into a national sensation.

The notion that this book is the work of a narcissist or some sort of jingoist, Chinese nationalist, or anti-American/anti-caucasian bigot can be dismissed in the same way: the book is entirely about her daughters, her husband, and family life, and it paints them in the best possible light. If the family really did look and function as the book suggests it did on a daily basis then most American children should be so lucky as to have parents as caring, patient, determined, and tempered by good humor as Amy and her husband Jed.

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In the same breath—or at least, post—I also have to bemoan a particular problem that has vexed me now for the better part of a decade, one that many Americans struggle with but that Amy Chua somehow does not. That problem is the problem of writing.

I used to write often and much. I enjoyed blogging long before most anyone blogged. I found it to be therapeutic, fun, inspiring, and generative. I haven’t really blogged that way in a very long time. Before I explain why, let mention, too, a central project in my life right now.

Task one at the moment is to figure out how to be academically productive. If I’m to be a successful academic, I actually have to produce…scholarship. This, of course, is a euphemism for text. I must produce text, not the least of which must be my dissertation and related materials—but of course it doesn’t stop there.

Problem is, academic writing has always been a struggle for me. I’m one of those people that “can’t write until I’m under deadline pressure,” only for me deadline pressure has never meant “the night before the paper was due,” but rather “4:00 AM the morning the paper is due at 8:00.” Obviously, while this may work at the undergraduate level and even help one to survive, in concert with much stress-induced coffeeboozing at the masters level, it cannot possibly be made workable at the Ph.D. level.

And yet somehow I made it work all the way through my Ph.D. coursework, scoring a 4.0 average to boot. But a dissertation is not a paper. It simply can’t be done on the intellectual or temporal cheap; it requires steady investment.

So I’ve begun to read everything that I can get my hands on about academic writing and how to get oneself to do it and to do it productively and at a high level of quality. Of course the advice in every quarter is precisely the same: “Write regularly and often. Every day, if possible. Make sure that what you’re writing about interests you, and share it as often as possible.” (Yes, believe it or not, this long and complex notion and related qualifiers are actually more or less the same across a number of books I’ve recently read.)

Of course I used to do this—back when I maintained the aforementioned blog. And I enjoyed it very much. And I know that it made me a much better writer. And it was nicely habitual, a component of my routine essential to my daily practice and mental health. Why did I stop? Because of the question of professionalism. I worried that it might not be a good thing to write in such a personal way for a public audience on a regular basis if I wanted to be an academic or indeed a professional of any kind. And of course I was right.

I’m fairly sure, in fact, that if I were to start blogging in the way that I used to right now, colleagues or at the very least students (many of whom regularly track me down via Google and point myself out to me on their laptops at the beginnings or endings of classes) would quickly discover the writing, and disastrous career moments would ensue.

The suggested option is of course simply to replace the personal writing with professional writing, but otherwise to continue to do it regularly and publicly. Indeed, I know any number of faculty members that do this, and am more and more closely working with one on his own blog now.

The problem is that I find academic writing tremendously boring. I really wonder sometimes whether I want to do it at all. I’ve recently begun to voraciously consume everything I could find about the death, decline, or sorry state of the western university system and sphere of academia and academics in general, and I agree with nearly every critique.

Academics are slow, plodding, trapped in an endless web of meaningless minutiae, and careful to support assertions after making them and to assemble the materials necessary to do this through hard research before making them. As a general rule, they make about one major assertion per decade, or a good three to four over the course of a productive academic life.

It may sound as if I am writing tongue-in-cheek here to anyone not inside the academic world, but let me assure you that I most certainly am not.

It is thus difficult for me to stay motivated to write academically. I’m simply not like that. I’ve always been full of assertions, preferring to fly by the seat of my pants intellectually in rapid-fire fashion, not dawdle and wade through reams of bland studies of dubious design assembling lists of citations and so on. I prefer to assert quickly, be attacked quickly if I’m wrong, issue a correction and/or retraction quickly, and move on having learned, as a result, equally quickly.

But of course if I am to write an academic blog, this must absolutely not be the case. Posts must be well-thought-out rather than rash, all assertions qualified and made moderate, a judicious kind of judgment applied to all decisions about what can appear and what shouldn’t, what I can talk about and what “I’d better not” talk about. Of course, I have absolutely no interest in regularly writing this way. I’d sooner quit altogether.

At the same time, however, though I still often have writing impulses and thoughts and insights that I’m dying to put to paper, I can’t apply or post any of these because they run afoul of prevailing academic sensibilities and rules of decorum (which state that you must be intimidating, flashy, gregarious, yet also inaccessible and holier-than-all if you want to be seriously considered for or a part of a faculty). The result is that I don’t post anything at all, and I don’t to it anywhere.

I envy Amy Chua’s position—that of a tenured faculty member that has nevertheless managed to admit to having a human nature and a “regular self” and that has also managed to admit to holding her own unique set of opinions, all without getting fired or putting a serious end to her career for the lack of professionalism that she’s left laying around conceptual space.

I had more to say, but it’s now an hour since I started this post and sleep is overtaking me. Suffice it to say that I am at a moment of tension between the desire to write and have a career in which I write and the desire to be a professor that must never say very much, and that must always wait ten years (five to find and/or develop supporting research longitudinally and another five simply for the effect of seriousness, heft, and authority) after thinking a thought before saying it out loud.