Friday, September 7, 2012

Intellectual Infancy and a Dead Metaphor

The phrase that puts things "in their infancy" is just about a dead metaphor, but I think I can revive it, at least partially. Not only am I an early-career academic, I also happened to be hired very early on in my graduate school career. It's okay because I was both coming out of and into departments that aren't the sorts that expect you to learn everything before allowing you to leave, but are rather departments that recognize that this — learning, that is — is a lifelong project and that the PhD is simply a license to practice. I have excellent training and background, but I also haven't read nearly as much as someone who is a year into the tenure track but who spent seven or eight years in grad school; and so in a lot of ways, I feel like I'm still seeking out depth in certain areas of my intellectual portfolio. So in that very conventional respect, I am in my intellectual infancy.

But I had a realization the other day, and this is where the revival of the dead metaphor comes in. When I say I am in my intellectual infancy it's not just that I have a lot yet to learn or that my work can stand to and will mature. While it's a boring metaphor in the above paragraph, it's such an apt metaphorical turn of phrase because of the rate at which that learning and change is happening. My work and thinking are very different already than they were a year ago when I wrote the project proposal for what I'm doing this year, and I'm struggling to write a conference abstract for the end of next August because I know that my work will be that much different again. And I don't mean that in a flakey way. In the same way that you turn around and suddenly an infant can hold up its head, eat solid food, talk, run, etc., my approach to the same problem has become quickly and infinitely more refined and all the silly avenues I might have pursued that are like naive childhood hopes are pieces that I've jettisoned in the interest of producing a coherent and mature work.

Part of the challenge, of course, as in growing up, is not losing oneself to the pace and managing to retain some of  that wonder and finding ways to work with those naive, wild-eyed initial ideas that are mad and quixotic and, in some fundamental way that can only be seen by very fresh eyes, absolutely right, but do it in a responsible way that is recognizable in the academy.

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