Monday, December 5, 2011

Craft and the Academic

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the challenges of supervising PhD students. The upshot of our discussion was my remark that people didn't have to do PhDs: writing a thesis is a lifestyle, not simply an assignment. (Incidentally, I think those are the best words of wisdom I can give anyone considering the PhD route.)

My friend agreed and pointed out a C. Wright Mills piece, "On Intellectual Craftsmanship," which can be found in the appendix of The Sociological Imagination (1959). Mills tells us: "It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. [...] Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman" (195).

This is what I've been trying to get it in my own erratic way. Being an academic is not simply about sitting at a computer for a designated number of hours writing an article or spending an afternoon reading until the book in question is covered in post-it notes or marking a 10 foot high stack of undergraduate essays. To really succeed academically, it has to be about the craft. The academic wants to create, to learn, to improve and innovate.

This is something I want to bring more and more into the classroom. To make undergraduate life at university less about assignments, grades and playing the system and more about a lifestyle. I'm always frustrated that so much of our teaching and student-contact has to be geared towards final grades and major and minor structures. I once overheard two students on the bus complaining because they'd had a couple of lectures on a topic that wasn't covered in the exam. "What was the point of that?" asked one. I barely resisted turning around to say, "Learning."

I also have a soft spot for Mills since he called himself a Wobbly. Yes, a Wobbly. "'I am a Wobbly.' I mean this spiritually and politically [...] I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat" (Letters and Autobiographical Writings, 2000: 252).

I aspire to be a Wobbly.

Incidentally, in terms of craft, I've been reading Jane Austen Knits. While there is little evidence of Jane's own knitting, her mother could be easily absorbed in the knitting of gloves and socks, which makes me like her all the more. I like the combination of literature, history and knitting that has gone into each of the patterns included in the magazine. For a little taste, here's a link to a blog post by the designer, Sharon Fuller, of 'Picturesque Cape.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think you know youre a scholar when you're on holidays and cant stop thinking about what youre going to do with that crazy theory when you get back to work! it really is a way of life, and i dont think i would want it to be any other way.