Generous Thinking

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 9 What is it I mean when I talk about generosity in this context? I’ll dig much further into this in the next chapter, but for the moment: I don’t mean the term to refer to “giving” in any material sense, or even in any simple metaphorical sense. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all be doing more volunteer work, or that we need to be more willing to overlook the flaws in reasoning of those with whom we disagree. Instead, what I’m hoping to develop, in myself most of all, is a generosity of mind, by which I mean to indicate an openness to possibility. That openness begins for me by trying to develop a listening presence in the world, which is to say a conversational disposition that is not merely waiting for my next opportunity to speak but instead genuinely focusing on what is being said to me, beginning from the assumption that in any given exchange I likely have less to teach than I have to learn. Generous thinking also means working to think with rather than against, whether the objects of those prepositions are texts or people. It means, as Lisa Rhody explores in a brilliant blog post on the applicability of improvisational comedy’s “rule of agreement” to academic life, adopting a mode of exchange that begins with yes rather than no: as she describes it, among colleagues, the rule of agreement functions as “a momentary staving off of the impulse to assume that someone else’s scholarship is fashioned out of ignorance or apathy or even ill will or that the conversation was initiated in bad faith. Agreement doesn’t have to be about value: it’s not even about accuracy or support. The Rule of Agreement is a social contract to respect the intellectual work of your peers.” That yes creates the possibility for genuine dialogue, not only among academic colleagues but with our objects of study, our predecessors, and the many potential publics that surround us. Yes requires us to step away from competition, from the race for professional distinction; when we allow ourselves to linger in yes before jumping to but, we create the possibility of working together to build something entirely new.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 8 This mode of generous thinking is already instantiated in many projects that focus on fostering public engagement in and through the work done within the university, including—as just one example—that of groups like Imagining America, which serves to connect academics, artists, and community organizations in ways that can surface and support their mutual goals for change. Public projects like these are well-established on many campuses around the country and in many fields across the curriculum. But one key aspect of understanding generosity as the ground from which the work of the university can and should grow is the requirement that all of us take such public projects just as seriously as the more traditional forms of scholarly work that circulate amongst ourselves. Scholars working in public history, just as one example, have some important stories to tell about the difficulties they have faced in getting work in that field appropriately evaluated and credited as scholarship. And a few years ago, after a talk in which a well-respected scholar discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers outside the classroom, including in the public humanities, I overheard a senior academic say with some bemusement, “I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a ‘public history.’ But can you imagine a ‘public literary criticism’?” His interlocutor chortled bemusedly: the very idea. But why not public literary criticism? What of the many public reading projects and literary publications that reach out to non-specialist audiences and draw them into the kinds of interpretation and analysis that we profess? How might an increased focus on engaging a range of broader publics in and through the literary enrich not just their cultural lives but our academic fields?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 Scholars’ and administrators’ resistance to taking such public projects as seriously as we do the work we do for one another—according them the same kinds of credit and prestige as traditional scholarly publications—speaks to one of two things: first, our anxieties (and they are very real anxieties) about deprofessionalization, about association with the amateur, to which I’ll return in a bit; and second, to our continued (and I would argue profoundly misguided) division and ordering of the various categories to which academic labor is committed, with a completely distinct category called “service” almost inevitably coming in a distant third behind research and teaching. Grounding our work in a spirit of generosity might lead us to erase some of the boundaries between the work that faculty do to support the engagements of readers and instructors both inside and outside the academy, and the work that we consider to be genuinely “scholarly,” to consider ways that all of our work might have a spirit of service as its foundation. A proper valuation of public engagement in scholarly life, however, will require a systemic rethinking of the role that prestige plays in the academic reward system—and this, as I’ll discuss in a later chapter, is no small task. It is, however, crucial to a renewed understanding of the relationship between the university and the public good.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 Similarly, grounding our work in generous thinking might not only encourage us to adopt a position of greater openness to dialogue with our communities, and might not only foster projects that are more publicly engaged, but it might also lead us to place a greater emphasis on—and to attribute a greater value to—collaboration in academic life, without the often accompanying tangles over credit. It might encourage us to support and value various means of working in the open, of sharing our writing at more and earlier stages in the process of its development, and of making the results of our research more readily accessible to and usable by more readers. Critical thinking often presupposes a deep knowledge of a subject, not just on the part of the speaker but of the listener as well, and at its most competitive, critical thinking can forbid engagement by all but a select few. Generous, generative modes of critical thinking invite non-experts into the discussion, bringing them along in the process of discovery.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 But I want to acknowledge that adopting a mode of generous thinking is a task that is simultaneously extremely difficult and easily dismissible. We are accustomed to finding “smart” ways of thinking that rebut, that question, that complicate. The kinds of listening and openness for which I am here advocating may well be taken as acceding to a form of cultural naïveté at best, or worse, a politically regressive knuckling-under to the pressures of contemporary ideologies and institutions. This is the sense in which Felski suggests that scholars have internalized “the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical” (9). Felski posits that the critical is not a project but instead a mood, a mode of self-performance, an affect—and one to which we have limited ourselves at great cost. I would reorient this argument to focus not on the critical as the dominant mood of our work but instead the competitive, the costs of which are astronomical, not only to each individual scholar in setting a course toward stress-related burnout, but to scholars collectively in undermining our ability to understand ourselves as a community. What might become possible for each of us, for all of us, if we were to retain the social commitment that motivates our critical work while stepping off the field of competition, opening ourselves and our work to its many potential connections and conversations?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Such an opening would require us to place ourselves in a new relationship to our objects of study and their many audiences; we would need to be prepared to listen to what they have to tell us, to ask questions that are designed to elicit more about their interests than about ours. That is to say, we would need to open ourselves to the possibility that our ideas might turn out to be wrong. This, it may not surprise you to hear, is an alarming possibility not just for most scholars but for most human beings in general to countenance, as Kathryn Schulz has explored, and it’s a possibility that we will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid facing. But given the ways in which arguments in our fields proceed, and given what Schulz has called the “Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything,” it is all but certain that at some future moment our own blind spots, biases, and points of general ignorance will have been uncovered. Refusing to countenance the possibility of this wrongness makes it all the more inevitable, but perhaps keeping it in view might open us to some new opportunities. If everything we write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong-headed, there opens up the chance to explore a new path, one along which we develop not just a form of critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 4 Critical humility is one key to generous thinking. In the early days of working on this project, I gave an invited talk in which I tested out some of its core ideas. In the question-and-answer period that followed, one commenter pointed out what he saw as a canny move on my part in talking about generosity: no one wanted to be seen as an ungenerous jerk in disagreeing with me. It was a funny moment, but it gave me real pause; I did not at all intend to use generosity as a shield with which to fend off the possibility of critique. Generosity, in fact, requires remaining open to criticism. This tension was powerfully illustrated for me in a series of tweets from April Hathcock, a scholarly communications librarian and lawyer who was recently engaged in establishing a new working group in her field. As the members of that working group laid out their expectations and norms for one another, one member offered “assume positive intent”: be generous, in other words, in interpreting the behavior and words of others. Hathcock insisted that this expectation be accompanied by another: “own negative effects.” That is to say, we must not only refrain from assuming that everyone else is in the wrong, but we also must remain open to the very real possibility that we might be. “Assume positive intent; own negative effects”; this is generosity accompanied by critical humility, a mode that creates space for genuinely listening to the ideas and experiences of others, even when they contradict or critique our own.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 It is probably unnecessary to point out that critical humility is neither selected for nor encouraged in the academy, and it is certainly not cultivated in graduate school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of the seminar room makes flirting with being wrong unthinkable. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness seems to be to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives. This is the method in which my grad students were trained, a mode of reading that encourages a leap from encountering an idea to countering it, without taking the time in between to really explore it. It’s that exploration that a real critical humility—stepping outside competition and into generosity—can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 7 The possibility of being wrong is not the only area of discomfort that foregrounding generosity in our thinking might expose us to, however. Felski argues that moving beyond the limits of critique might allow literary studies to be open to the affective, to the embodied experience of the emotions. There is something to be gleaned here for many academic fields, as this aspect of relating to our work as scholars is underexplored. We value objectivity and critical distance, even as we acknowledge these positions to be largely fictional. It’s possible that the more we are able to free ourselves to experience and express all of the moods that underwrite our work—including curiosity, appreciation, and perhaps even difficult moments of empathy and love—the richer the work will become. But what I am hoping for in asking us to step away not from critique but instead from competition is that we might look for new ways of relating not just to ourselves and our work but to one another, and to the range of publics that we want to cultivate for the university. In turning away from the competitive, we can begin to embrace the full potential of the collaborative; in rejecting the cultivation of prestige we can instead adopt a more inviting, open posture. We might be able to fully shed the adopted position of the neutral, impartial, critical observer and instead become a participant in the work around us. This might mean being able to more readily and wholeheartedly profess the love we feel for our subject matter without fear of sounding naïve or hokey, but it might also mean opening ourselves to more communal experiences of other emotions as well, some of them our emotions, and some of them directed at us: anxiety, fear, anger. Genuine generosity, as I’ll explore, is not a feel-good emotion, but an often painful, failure-filled process of what Dominick LaCapra has referred to as “empathic unsettlement,” in which we are continually called not just to feel for others but to simultaneously acknowledge their irreconcilable otherness. Empathic unsettlement asks us to open ourselves to difference as fully as possible without trying to tamp it down into bland “understanding.” This kind of ethical engagement with one another, with our fields, and most importantly with the publics around us, can be a hallmark of the university, if we open ourselves and our institutions to the opportunities that genuinely being in community might create.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 It’s important, however, to note our own anxieties about such a shift, not least our concerns about losing whatever tenuous hold on expertise that contemporary American culture still allows. Scholars work, from graduate school forward, to develop a professional identity based around the cultivation and creation of expert knowledge; we gather recognition for that expertise by performing it for one another, and that recognition allows us to collect the resources we need in order to do the research that shapes our careers and our fields. What risks might we encounter if we open our work to the scrutiny, or even the participation, of non-experts? We have good cause to fear the decline of esteem for expert knowledge: as Tom Nichols argues in The Death of Expertise, early twenty-first century American culture does not have “a healthy skepticism about experts; instead, we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts” (xiii). The effects of such active resentment within the current higher education climate include a rapid trend toward deprofessionalization of scholars and their fields, and here again, the humanities provide an ominous bellwether. In early 2016, as just one example, the governor of Kentucky rolled out a state budget that included significant cuts for higher education in the state, but announced that those cuts would be differentially distributed. According to the governor, “there will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors…. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer” (Beam). If you love French literature that much, in other words, you’re welcome to spend your life studying it, but your failure to contribute to economic growth renders you unworthy of support. Deidre Lynch has explored a variant of this danger at the heart of literary studies; understanding literature as a subject that one is compelled to study out of love—and for which one must express love—risks turning the scholar into an amateur in the literal sense of the word: a person so devoted to a practice that they ought to be willing to do it for free. This is the danger of the vocation: feeling called to a way of life, and particularly to a way of life in service to the public good, one had best be self-supporting. (Ask public school teachers.)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 10 But what if—and the flurry that follows should be taken as a series of genuinely open rather than rhetorical questions—what if our institutional values and commitments made it possible for those of us who work within the university to develop a new understanding of how expertise is structured and how it functions, an understanding focused just a bit less on individual achievement, on invidious distinction? What if the expertise that the university cultivated were at its root connected to building community? How might that expertise work to break down the us-and-them divide between campus and public, instead creating a richer, more complex sense of the connections among all of us? If we were free to focus on intellectual leadership not as an exercise in forwarding our own individual ideas but rather as a mode of supporting the development of others, could we create a richer sense of the future for our fields, and for our institutions? What kinds of public support for our institutions might we be able to generate if we were to argue that community-oriented projects that promote the love of reading, or the love of art, or the love of history, or the love of science, exist in consonance with the work that we do in the classroom, or in the writing we do for one another, and that our institutions must therefore value participation in such projects appropriately? Can we argue persuasively on behalf of using our work to cultivate community, of understanding ourselves in service to that community, while refusing to allow our administrations, our institutions, and our governments to lose sight of the fact that such service is a form of labor that is crucial to the future that we all share? What new purposes for the university might we imagine if we understand our role in it to be not inculcating state citizens, nor training corporate citizens, but instead facilitating the development of a diverse, open, community—both on our campuses and across their borders—encouraged to think together, to be involved in the ongoing project of how we understand and shape our world?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 All of these possibilities that we open up—engaging perspectives other than our own, valuing the productions and manifestations of our multiplicitous culture, encountering the other in all its irreducible otherness—are the best of what scholars and teachers can offer to the university, and the university to the world. And all of these possibilities begin with cultivating the ability to think generously, to listen—to our subject matter, to our communities, to ourselves. I have much more to say, obviously—there are chapters of it ahead—but this listening presence, in which I am willing to countenance without judgment or shame the possibility that I just might be wrong, is where I will hope to leave myself in the end, ready to listen to you.

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