Friday, March 26, 2010

Doing what you like

Allegedly, there are scholars out there who work on material (authors, texts, movements) that they don't like--and in some cases, actively dislike. I'm pretty sure I'm not one of them.

This isn't to say that the texts I work on are universally or even widely enjoyed, but I love them. (Not uncritically, of course, and for the most part I have no desire to travel back in time and have dinner with the writers I work on--I seem to be drawn to grandstanding, extreme, and sometimes assholish personalities). And this also isn't to say that I don't have to wade through some fairly boring or downright inept works in the course of my research; most early modern polemicists aren't John Milton.

But I don't work on texts or authors that I dislike, or that don't in some way strike a chord with me; had my first college literature class(es) focused on the Romantic poets, I might never have majored in English.

So when I hear people talking about writing on "terrible" texts, or hating the guts of the author they're writing a chapter on, I always wonder how that works. Sure, sometimes the texts are terrible, but the ideas are interesting (or at least help to make a larger point that the scholar finds compelling), and sometimes a given work or author just can't be left out of a study, if it's to be taken seriously. But I've known a few people who seem to seek out material that pisses them off, or regard it as a special intellectual challenge to work up a project on something they dislike. I knew a guy like this in grad school, whose approach I always thought of as the "debate team" method: he didn't seem to care what or who he worked on, or even what argument he made; as long as his case was defensible, he'd go balls-out.

Of course, there are all kinds of different ways of liking the things we work on, and our tastes and ideas change over time. But I'm wondering: do any of you dislike what you work on (or have you in the past)? And if so, how do you keep working on it?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I love what I work on. But sometimes I think that if I met the people who wrote it/read it in the first place, I probably wouldn't like them.

Psycgirl said...

I think you raise a point here that is relevant to all sorts of academics, not just those who work with texts as their form of study. I know graduate students and faculty members who don't really like what they study and I just do not get it.

Isn't part of the fun of being an academic that you get to study what interests you? I would never be productive if I despised what I worked on. (And I'm frankly too lazy to take on something I dislike for the challenge of it ;)

heu mihi said...

I find a lot of what I work on to be boring as hell, but I think that part of what I enjoy is the challenge of finding something interesting in the boring-ness (because, of course, its being boring is not something essential to it, but rather located in me--at least in most cases. The Anticlaudianus cannot be redeemed. But then, I don't work on it).

So it's not that I dislike the texts I work on; I'm just not initially attracted to many of them. But I love the making-interesting of them, and then I start to love them, too.

(On another note altogether, my word verification is "pookeh," which is just goofily cute, I think.)

Dr. Virago said...

I often advise students to work on something that intrigues them rather than something they respond to with love or admiration, because they have a hard time being analytical or critical if they love something too much. (These are students who tend to write papers the intention of which is to "teach" people why Chaucer is so great. Uh, not really necessary. Especially since I'm the audience. And no, these aren't pedagogical papers.)

Anyway, the texts of my current project are aesthetically terrible by our standards (and I'm pretty sure people like Chaucer would agree that they're terrible, too). I often refer to it as "my bad poetry project." But I'm only tangentially interested in its form. What I'm most interested in is the creation, circulation, and consumption of this poetry. And since in its content, it mostly advocates some kind of ethical response, I'm interested in the poetry's social function. All of that is absolutely *fascinating* to me. But would I want to sit down by a fire and simply read this poetry? Uh, no.

Flavia said...

Heu Mihi & Dr. V:

Yes--I realize that part of it is in the definition of "like" (and I may of course be misunderstanding what other people mean, when they talk about the boringness/badness of the texts they work on); goodness knows, what I like about what I work on is highly idiosyncratic and non-obvious to others.

And Psychgirl: thanks for weighing in--it's definitely a phenomenon that applies to all kinds of areas of study.

Susan said...

As a historian, I wouldn't say I "hate" my subjects, which are not at all biographical. But I've studied behaviors and phenomena -- slavery, domestic violence -- that I find reprehensible. But studying them historically gives me tools to think about them, because they are things I don't "get".

Flavia said...

Just noted that my friend LP has a recent post on a similar subject: what makes a work "bad."

Janice said...

My doctoral dissertation revolved around the early sixteenth century equivalent of pundits and lobbyists, most of whom put forward ideas that drew me in rather as a nasty car wreck inspires passers-by to slow down and gawk.

So I have to say that I don't really like many of the subjects of my study but I'm fascinated by them, nonetheless.

Sisyphus said...

Some of what I write on I love, and some I am fascinated by, which is quite a different reaction. And don't forget the "love to hate" option ---- especially when it involves slagging on bad writing! (or reprehensible slaveowners, to follow Susan's point).

Now, there is always a place where I am trying to become unstuck on my argument and I hate whatever I am writing on --- but that is a very different thing. More of a flight response than a real reaction.

Anonymous said...

In my field, there is a particular "school" that, while I was doing my doctorate, I thought needed to be "answered." I toyed around with going after them in my dissertation, and my faculty (praise be) talked me out of it.

Their main point was that, as a junior scholar, I'd be making lifelong enemies. But also persuasive was my gradual realization that I hated reading that school. I didn't just disagree with them, I disliked them. So I left them alone.

It's just not my style to try to get my blood boiling. I like to look forward to working, if I can.

Azulao said...

Huh. It took me 8 years to figure out that I hated bench research (lab work) with all my heart and soul and I should do something different. Sometimes I still feel like I sold out by changing to something more amenable. The academy trains you to put up with a lot of heartache because "If it was easy, anyone could do it. You're special because you can put up with horrible work."