possibility · slow academy

Addicted to thinking

If you’re an academic, how often do you reminisce about what brought you to grad school? My story starts with a longing for the kind of deep, analytical thinking I was lucky to experience in some university seminars, which entailed sitting down for a few hours to discuss great literature–in English and in German–and the ideas around it. You know, things like what’s in there, but also where it was coming from historically, ideologically, and how it led to other places, other people, other times. Things like how Goethe’s Romantic young hero Werther initiated a string of copy-cats, in fashion and in action, in spite of his ghastly outfit and drastic denouement. I came back to school for more of that kind of thinking, which, in spite of having had sworn off school forever after undergrad, proved too enticing to renounce.

It’s kind of the same if you’ve ever had to be a caregiver for an infant. Even if you haven’t, you know adults in that situation crave less baby-talk and more adult conversation. To my mind, it comes back to the same issue: a desire to think more deeply about meaningful ideas, and thus surround yourself with a life of the mind that can enrich the repetitiveness of an infant’s routine. Not to mention drown out inevitable screaming matches, and possibly enliven the dull fuzziness of sleep deprivation.

As Aimée pointed out yesterday, carving out time for thinking can be a challenge in spite of the best planning and organization you can devise. However, a drearier situation takes shape when that plan is out of the scope of your activities altogether. So, here it is: I miss my research. I miss planning and making sure I carve out time for deep thinking about one focused issue. I miss looking for connections, sleuth-like, and I miss the thrill of identifying them. As much as I congratulated myself on being able to say no to going to a conference last week, I experienced the pain of withdrawal, of the inability of taking a couple of days to think through other people’s arguments, contentions, and discoveries. What a luxury!

Well, kick in the behind, meet the step forward! As my students have embarked on the path of their own research projects, which I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in a few weeks, I have come to face my old yearning again, and to understand that I need this type of labour as I need air to breathe (not to be dramatic or anything); that it’s not about love, but more about need. Just like with many other longings, we can debate whether it’s inborn or whether it has been drilled into me by my background–what else does grad school, or post-secondary education more generally, do than teach you how to think, in a way that is irreversible? Irrespective of its origins, this need for thinking is intrinsic, and its lack manifests with all the power of withdrawal. Conversely, it signals its presence with the same tingling sensation of the first sip of wine seemingly coursing through every single artery down to the farthest capillary.

At the end of the breather that has been Reading Week, this is my resolve: to make time and find space for thinking consciously and systematically. And here’s the clincher: unlike grad school days, when the aim was the writing, the dissertation, the end of the program, I have no other goal than allowing my mind to wander, and my thoughts to run wherever they would. I do not aim to be productive. I want to heed my visceral need for thinking without having to show anyone else the result. Hell, there might not be any. And that’s it: time and space for my mind to wander. Oops, did some of young Werther’s sorrows rub onto me, too?