Curiosity

Had a good day in the senior seminar today. The class is the capstone for the major, and its major aspiration is for the students to produce a significant work of scholarship, reflecting all they’ve learned about doing the history thing. So thinking backward from that outcome, I suggested to the students that they take a project they’d already worked on and use the class to move it to the next level. We’ve then been workshopping that process in various ways, by finding and examining primary sources, talking about research strategies, brainstorming interpretive approaches, and so on.

I’d become a little concerned about a couple of guys in the class, however. Each time it was their turn to talk about what they were looking at and thinking about, they were producing the same wifty boilerplate accounts that reflected no significant effort to engage with their topics and deepen their knowledge. These things can go in rhythms, but I wanted to see if I could get them more invested in the process.

So today, I asked the group to reflect on what made a work of scholarship good. They’d read a lot of them at this point – what were the characteristics of the ones they liked? Not surprisingly, the engine coughed a bit and we did some sputtering around on movies they had watched, which was where one of them defaulted when it couldn’t connect to the question any other way. So I asked about what was different about a really good movie about history and a really good scholarly study. And they came up with entertainment, and the need to involve the audience emotionally. I added a personal memoir to the mix, and we talked about passion and detachment.

Then somehow one of the worrisome guys brought up a peeve from a previous class. As an African, it had been upset by a source that had lumped together all of Africa under the rubrics of dictatorship and disease. They didn’t even think we had any mathematicians, it said. I pointed out that it seemed to be taking this very personally; that the ignorance of this account felt like an attack. Yes, for sure. So how about if we think about doing history that way, I said – as if we had to face the people we were writing about later and look them in the eye; as if their sense of integrity was at stake in our work? (As if lazy wifty handwaving was a personal insult to an actual person, I didn’t say.)

I mentioned I’d just been having a conversation online with a former student, a Tibetan, about the arrest of Uighur economist and activist Ilham Tohti. My friend remarked that the Chinese really don’t understand the Uighurs or the Tibetans, and in fact have no interest in understanding them. I observed that this is how repression works. People with power don’t need to be curious – they can just plow through and make their world in the image of their prejudices. No one in class wanted to be that guy.

So does that mean we have to commit to omniscience, the view from all perspectives at once? Everyone got how the God’s eye view is not a reasonable standard. But we do have to stay curious, and we do have to be constantly mindful that there’s more to the story than the part we’re able to handle in realtime. At this point one of the students who’s had me before started musing about mobiles, my working pedagogical metaphor for complex systems. So we went out to the lobby and looked at the big mobile I put there. And its lessons about parts and wholes, structures and dynamics clicked instantly for the students who’d never noticed it before.

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9 Comments

  1. The last four chapters of Stengers’ COSMOPOLITICS could be a help with this, and fairly easily translatable into your students’ competency range. In particular, she distinguishes research into two role modes: expertise and diplomacy. Your student is looking for diplomacy, and Stengers thinks that’s just exactly what he should be looking for. Note: diplomacy don’t just mean being diplomatic; it means leaving aside the obligations of expertise in favor of the obligations of the diplomat.

  2. Great story. I’m wondering if one of the spurs to the deeper thinking you describe is the fact that you asked them to reflect a bit on the evaluation of scholarship, and how that might relate to what they became emotionally invested in, or what made them curious. That somehow led them to think about “curiosity,” and the irritating feeling that can occur when the person you’re interacting with betrays no interest or curiosity in you. Suddenly it wasn’t just about their boredom or detachment, but uncomfortably imagining someone else’s lack of curiosity about them.

    To borrow Stengers and Dyke the Elder’s language, it seems that the “diplomat” is using scholarship not merely to gather and organize knowledge, but to interact. For a variety of reasons, undergrads have a lot of trouble imagining scholarly inquiry as a mode of interaction, with its own communal rules of decorum and debate.

  3. Yes. You know it’s a funny thing – I find this discussion coming together in my mind with my rereading of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms for another class, and strangely, the book party on Gikandi we did at your place last summer, Dave. Ginzburg shows that the inquisitors were disciplined and thorough, but they were not at all curious about Menocchio or his culture. They were cataloguing errors, not engaging with another lifeworld. In retrospect I think that sums up my objection to Gikandi. The creak of the rack is all over that book. In my view it’s erudite without being at all scholarly. And so I’ve found that there’s a version of our own discourse where the point is tortuous and problemmatic, too.

  4. The term I’d use to describe a book that is “erudite without being scholarly” is “professional,” or perhaps, “procedural” and therefore “unreflective.” This is clearly a danger for anyone venturing into a field without a whole history of prior work in that era. (I always feel this as a risk) If someone has been doing scholarly work for long enough, it’s quite possible to produce a quite polished book that reflects almost no original thought or insight at all. That’s where I’d locate Gikandi, because, yes, he seemed to bring nothing to his slavery and enlightenment book that wasn’t more competently assayed by specialists or found better done elsewhere.

    I think “curiosity” is signaled by one’s willingness to read around in a new field, learn its terms and secret handshakes, and signal willingness to adapt one’s language to a new context. Maybe this is another version of scholarly decorum or diplomacy?

    There is a tricky element to this, because there are moments when a good, observant novice seems to be more capable of generating insights than “torturous and problematic” expert. But I’d still argue that these kinds of insights are as likely to come from insiders as outsiders.

  5. Yes again. You get a little trading post down by the tide line and blow away the natives with stuff they’d never have seen in a million years. But nowadays, you also get a web presence, although that makes the market even weirder.

    Dave, I’m fine with your definitions. And if we’re talking about trading and translation, Gikandi doesn’t have to have said anything new; if cultural studies won’t go to, say, Robin Blackburn, it’s a service to bring him and the other outlanders in-country.

    But even that project takes imagination, whereas what Gikandi’s got is a ponderous a-priori theoretical machinery in a kind of Cartesian juxtaposition with the data set. So he fails to be curious about both the scholarship of the fields he intersects, and the people he’s studying. The game is Foucauldian will to knowledge all the way down. Which is what I think of a lot of cultural studies, I’m afraid.

  6. For me, of course the difference between the classroom and the “publishing” world is enormous. The dynamics of the latter are intractably expertise, which is why you have to be shipped to the South Pacific. Dave doesn’t know about this, but, Carl, that’s one of the reasons that I’ve dragooned Yrjo into the Hesiod project: an attempt to move the classroom out of the classroom. I’ve got another one I’ll send (maybe Dave would be interested in them. If so, feel free to pass them on), and Yrjo has another coming.
    But where’s the leverage and the traction? In NATURE this week one of the reviewers made the distinction between the world of experts, the world of the casual amateur having fun with the science, and the world of those who run the world. How do we get to the last? I blanch at the thought of articulating the dynamics of that one; and, in fact, it probably doesn’t have anything at all to do with the elegantly written word, however diplomatic.
    The best the 20th Century could do was “think tanks”, all with their political valencies, of course. For the 21st Centuries, it’s blogs, but that means you have to hope to be heard above the cacophony in the tower of Babel; and the system of legitimations that (often arbitrarily) enable a certain distinction between signal and noise in the publishing game doesn’t exist in the blog world.
    So whatever we do, we have to defend the classroom at all costs at the same time we try to open its doors. Not easy these days.

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