2. On Generosity

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 “They are trying to tell us. And we need to listen.” —Hillary Clinton

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The last course I took in graduate school was a dissertation seminar designed to help us transition from the sometimes collective and often receptive ways we’d done our work as students—taking classes, listening to discussions, absorbing ideas, and reconfiguring it all into seminar papers designed for an audience of one—to the more independent and more active ways in which we were intended to go forward into the dissertation project, with its presumably larger intended readership. Throughout the semester, each of us brought our draft proposals to the table, to be read and discussed by the group, and we were also visited by a series of slightly more advanced graduate students, each of whom gave us a chapter in progress which we discussed with them. One of those visitors was a young woman whose dissertation topic I do not remember today at all, though I remember one moment of our interaction at that seminar table with painful clarity. The chapter she’d given us made extensive use of the concept of the sublime, and something about it hadn’t quite settled for me, so I asked her how she was defining the sublime in her project. She rolled her eyes—literally—and said “For God’s sake: awe and terror. It’s Sublime 101, Kathleen.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 I tell you this story not because its all too blatant Mean Girls Go to Grad School quality makes a particularly good case for the need for greater generosity in academic life (though that too). Rather, the instigating moment—in which I asked for clarification of a term whose usage I did not find obvious at all, thank you very much—is at the heart of intellectual work, and at the heart of our work ahead. The kind of inquiry that scholars and other writers undertake relies on the possibility of a shared vocabulary, which creates the conditions under which we might conduct a conversation about complex and often contentious ideas, in the hope that we might come to some kind of mutual understanding. But note that I’ve described the status of this shared vocabulary as a possibility rather than as something that actually exists; building that vocabulary is a project in and of itself, one that requires continual attention and negotiation. It’s one of the places where scholars, and particularly scholars in my corner of the humanities, push back against one another. Some of that pushback is competitive posturing, of the sort that I think that graduate student thought I was engaging in: if I can demonstrate that you’re misunderstanding or misusing a term I find crucial I can go on to show why my own work in the area is so much better. But some of that pushback is important, and in fact well-intended: I want to have this conversation with you, but I want to ensure that we’re speaking the same language.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 For this reason, many scholarly projects begin with the ritual of defining one’s terms. I’m about to engage in that ritual, because I want to be certain that we’re all beginning this project of exploring generous thinking from, if not the same place, then at least places that are reasonably in sight of one another. But I’m also doing so because I am increasingly convinced that the very act of building a shared vocabulary that can allow us to engage in real conversations both across our campuses and with the world is itself a requirement for generous thinking. Even more: it is an act of generosity in and of itself.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 That’s the key term that this chapter is going to try to define, of course: generosity. Generosity is admittedly a slippery concept, and particularly in the sense I intend. Is generosity best embodied in acts that we undertake, or values that we uphold? Is generosity something we feel, or something we do? In order to get at what I mean, I’m going to work my way through a series of ideas that bear something in common with the generosity I’m trying to describe but that aren’t quite the same. In the process we’ll begin to sketch the outlines of what I believe that the notion of generosity might do for the university today and how those of us who work in academic environments might put it into practice as a key component of our interactions not just with one another but with the publics we hope to serve.

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