I've been back at the family homestead since Monday, doing nothing but grading and raiding the magical Pantry of Plenty [note to self: why can't my larder restock itself like that? and food appear on the table while I'm off correcting comma-splice errors? must investigate further], until all in a rush today I computed and submitted final grades, threw my essays and exams in a box to be mailed back east. . . and then turned around, grabbed another sheaf of papers, and sat back down at the kitchen table to review an already overdue article manuscript.
But still: what pleasure to be reading something other than student writing! And to learn new things about a very familiar work!
Except that, after reading the thing twice, I'm still not sure what I think of it. It seems publishable, were it not for the fact that I'm unable to articulate exactly what its overarching argument is, or whether it's interesting.
Now it's true that I'm only slightly familiar with the critical literature that the essay is locating itself within, but I don't think that's the problem: the author quotes from that literature liberally, writes very clearly, and his local points are both understandable and modestly engaging. The essay is well organized, with ample signposting and clear transitions. . . and yet somehow the larger argument remains, winkingly, just over the horizon.
At times like this, I really think I'm stupid.
I'd like to have faith that if I don't understand something it's because there's a genuine problem, but I'm never entirely sure that's the case; I've long suspected that my brain just works more slowly than those of most people in this profession: it's difficult for me to keep multiple ideas in my head at the same time, and I've never been someone who can synthesize and assimilate information on the spot or revise a theory on the fly--I need to go off and think about it for a while.
This isn't entirely a liability, of course; one of the reasons that my scholarly writing is so good (and as writing I do think it's good, although in saying so I imply nothing about the quality of the ideas therein expressed) is precisely because, in order to understand anything myself, I have to work through it so slowly and lay its parts out with such care.
But I hate feeling dumb. I wish I could explain to the author exactly why the parts of his essay don't cohere--that is, I wish I were quick enough to grasp their probable or possible relationship (or to state emphatically that they're not related), and make suggestions for revision. As it is, I'm left with the nagging feeling that I'm missing something.
And that, in turn, makes me feel like a spectacular intellectual fraud.