February 14, 2011

Don't Mess with the Bard

Let us take a moment to talk about arguing.

Premise one: there can be no evolution of academic inquiry without argument.

This premise is entirely what the academy is based upon.  We scholars can hole ourselves up in our towers and libraries, but on our own and with no one to talk to this is where our work ends.  Even by reading a text we are entering into dialogue with whomever wrote it.  Our ideas and evolutions of the text are contentions that must have a basis in previous intellectual thought.  Ideas don’t come from nowhere, and without people to read them or tell them to they become nothing.

Friction and stress created by two minds duking it out is the mother of the evolution of thought.  Even if I have a brilliant idea, by defending it to my peers I can deepen and lengthen it.  It will not change merely by my thinking upon it, but rather by the pressure exerted upon it by others.  In this instance, two minds are definitely better than one.  And an institution full of minds is better than anything.

Premise two: every academic has an area of expertise.  This area, however, is merely representative of the majority of the individual’s reading and writing experience and thus said expertise’s value appreciates with time.

I’m an Early Modernist (and, to be very technical, a Shakespearean with an eye towards performativity and theatricality).  All this means is that I am very well read in this area and have spent a great deal more time thinking about them than about other areas of scholarship.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t read other things, it doesn’t mean that I don’t write about other things.  It doesn’t mean that I know everything about this and nothing about anything else.

It says something about how I think and what I think about.  The specialty is a way to summarize a scholar’s values in short-hand to come to some greater understanding about what a scholar does and what courses she teaches.  It is not a way to encapsulate everything said individual knows.

Premise three: the value of an idea does not depreciate when critiqued by an individual whose area of expertise is unrelated to the idea itself.

And here, good reader, is the core of this entry.  Though I may have an idea about Shakespeare, simply because I had that idea and Shakespeare is my specialty does not mean that my idea should be bullet-proof.  It does not mean that I am the Unconquerable Knower of All Bardy Delights.  It just means that I had an idea. 

Those premises in mind, let me tell you a little story.

I’m taking a class which is very Shakespeare-centric.  I am back on cloud nine, let me tell you.  However there is one problem with this.

This is a problem that has occurred in other classes, but hasn’t been as pressing since those other classes centered around other literature.  My department is small.  People with big mouths get noticed.  Smart people also get noticed.  As a smart person who talks a lot, I find myself hard-pressed not to meet someone in this department who does not know me.  You know at the beginning of the semester when everyone goes around and introduces themselves?  You have to give a little bit of your background and what your interest is in the class, etc?  English majors, being bookish nerdy types, tend to do this haltingly with half an eye on their notes the whole time.  I, on the other hand, will stare down the class, introduce myself, and say that I’m a Shakespearean before filling them in on whatever it is I happen to be working on at the time.

I am also an academic pit-bull.  I will take an argument and shake it until it’s dead.  In class, this means a great deal of talking, taking hits, adjusting my shield, striking again, and rolling with whatever it is the class has to say about my argument.  I have been known to take on a whole teeming roomful of pugnacious bookish types when I get some idea rattling around in my head. 

However.  I have a secret weapon (although I guess when I tell it to you, it won’t be very secret anymore, will it?).

To many people, invoking Shakespeare is like invoking God.  It’s why he’s referenced so frequently in political speeches; he has been made into the ultimate authority on just about everything.  As I have found, this also works in the classroom.  If I’m really in a corner, all I have to do is call down the heavenly light of My Man Will and suddenly everyone backs off and shuts up.

Seriously.  It works like a charm.  No one argues with the Bard.  And apparently no one argues with a Pitbull Bard Scholar either.

Which, don’t get me wrong, is great in a pinch.  But it’s not great in this class.  Since almost all we talk about is Shakespeare, and since nobody will argue with me about it, it means that I tend to dominate class discussion and get nowhere with my thoughts.  So I talk, but it’s more me lecturing than me getting a resounding response. 

Resound.  Re-sound.  To say something and have it come back to you slightly altered.  Resonance is so important to the development of thought.  I am so excited to be in a Shakespeare class, but without the resonance that I so value in my other classes, I’m finding it difficult to engage.  I really wish I could just shake some of my classmates and remind them that, despite the fact that I speak loudly and with definite purpose, I do not (in fact) know everything.  Their input into my thoughts is valuable to me, and without it, I may as well be stuck in my tower reading my books and talking to myself.

…not that that doesn’t have a time and place, mind you, but that time and place certainly isn’t during class.

Maybe if I come to class looking disheveled and hung over I’ll be less credible… but then I’d have to figure out how to look disheveled and hung over.  So not worth it.

No comments: