This post is intended to help contextualize (mostly for friends and family) who I am, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and where I’m at in life right now. I can’t provide a definitive profile, but I can try to give people some information since I’m usually in the remote isolation of Houghton, and don’t always get to chat.
Within the last few weeks, I’ve been described multiple times by several friends and others as an “elite academic,” an “elitist,” “smarty pants,” and somehow outside the realm of “normal” people. I’m ok with being “abnormal,” but the last thing I want to be is an elitist, especially when my first reaction is “What? I’m not one of those people. I hate elitists too!”
Curious as to what might be giving people this impression, I asked a couple individuals who made such statements (as well as some who hadn’t) what it was that made me seem like an “elite academic.” I was surprised by the responses I received, to say the least.
I ask that while reading the rest of this post, you please keep in mind the following question: do you consider me an elitist, or am I becoming a specialist?
I’m Busy, But I’m Happy to Talk
The first thing I’d like to clear up is that I’m not purposely ignoring anyone (boldness for scanability, not intensity :) ). I like few things more than having conversations with people. Despite my historically quiet nature, after “breaking out of my shell” more, I actually enjoy meeting new people and talking to friends, family, etc. The problem is, I usually don’t have as much time as I would like to, and so I can’t talk to everyone all the time. Much of this is because Michigan Tech is a rigorous school, so average students spend a lot of time doing schoolwork. In a sense, blogging is a conversation of its own too. That said, I do everything I can to respond to people, so please, ask questions or say “Hi!”
“Hey, but you just started Keweenaw Beer Rhetorics, what do you mean you don’t have time to talk?”
Yes, I did. And Keweenaw Beer Rhetorics will return this fall. But, it’s a once-a-week thing, and I usually scramble to catch up on homework as it is. It’s one of the few times I’m “not busy.” In past semesters, I usually stopped showing up to Camera Club meetings by week 7 because I got too busy. It’s a lot of work being a student here.
Additionally, most students here don’t just drive home on weekends because of the location, so we tend to get involved with other projects, clubs, trips, work, etc. in our little spare time. People up here usually work smart and hard, and play in the same way, so it’s not always easy to tell what’s “work” and what’s “play.” As a result, what some might consider work (e.g. reading philosophy, going to conferences, or doing research and blogging) I consider to be work and play at the same time. While the origin of the quote below is debated, it summarizes my feelings on the issue:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both. Enough for him that he does it well.
Paul Graham’s essay How to do What You Love helps explain how one might embody that quote.
Yes, I’m Happy to Talk With You
I started this blog (almost a year ago) as a way to spark conversations, but from some of the comments I’ve received lately, it has actually made some people feel excluded. I’m not purposely trying to exclude anyone :) I write about things I find interesting, although I understand that my interests are becoming more specialized in some ways, and becoming harder to separate from my “normal” life. This is partially because in my view, rhetoric, philosophy, communication, etc. all apply to “normal” life as much as “academic” life. To me, it’s just life, so I apologize if I seem like I’m doing it on purpose.
At some level, I can’t always write to as wide an audience as I would like. I suppose this is somewhat like teaching an intro course where some people have very little or no experience or background in the subject, while others might know quite a bit.
It’s a challenge to write about topics in a specialized or technical manner and make it accessible to a broader audience. As a technical communicator, I’m being trained to communicate technical or specialized information in a way that a non-specialized audience can use and vice versa. In this case, I’m communicating with a specialized and non-specialized audience at the same time.
Sometimes it’s a matter of mistakenly assuming people know what I’m talking about, or that those who don’t will be able to learn on their own. However, that’s a recipe for poor communication, so I try to include summaries or links to relevant resources when I can to help people understand, as I don’t always have space or time to explain every concept. For example, I was going to use Burke’s Parlor Metaphor in this section, but then recognized that probably half or more of the people reading this have never heard of it.
A Conversation About Burke’s Parlor
Considering I was going to use Burke’s parlor metaphor in an even more abstract sense, and didn’t find any concrete explanations online of how Burke’s metaphor is often used within the context of what I study, I decided to leave out the part about blogging, conferences, research, etc. being a conversation. I could write a separate post on that alone, and my interpretation would be much different from others’, so it would likely be different from your own. In other words, sometimes you have to make the meaning through learning from the original source; I can’t always give an “answer.” What I can do is help you ask questions or determine what specifically doesn’t make sense. But that means you have to ask :)
That’s probably why I didn’t find any explanations of the Burkean Parlor, and it’s why I like discussion based classes. Hopefully, the paragraphs below will help explain why I can’t always just put things in “normal people terms” either.
At dinner tonight, I overheard an inspirational conversation at another table that made me think about what I had just written. Some of the young kids who are up for the MTU Summer Youth Programs were asking an RA about his girlfriend. One of them asked, “Is she [the girlfriend] pretty?”
I thought, “That’s not going to tell you much, kid. Every good boyfriend knows the only response to that question is ‘Yes, she’s the sexiest woman around.’”
Relationship preserving response aside, what he had really asked the RA was, “Do you think she is pretty?” because there is no definitive or objective answer to “Is she pretty?” (an objective question); at least not without criteria for distinguishing between “pretty” and “non-pretty.” The kid ultimately has to judge for himself based on his own observations and his definition of “pretty” in this case. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” right?
Suppose for a moment that I had been taking part in this conversation. Let’s also assume that I disagree with the RA’s response and say, “Your girlfriend is pretty, but [insert my future girlfriend’s name here] is definitely the sexiest woman around.” At this point, the conversation would clearly end, because my girlfriend would indisputably be the sexiest woman around. Ok, so the RA probably wouldn’t just accept my truthful claim…
However, in asking “Do you think she’s pretty?” there is also the question of “What do you think pretty is/is pretty/defines pretty?” Trying to answer this question via conversation might allow the RA and I to come to some type of agreement on whose girlfriend was actually prettier, assuming we could agree on a more objective rubric, prototype, or definition of what constitutes “prettiness” (apply this conversation/argument at a societal level and you get a socially constructed reality and postmodernism).
For example, hair color, eye color, height, weight, etc. might factor into our “prettiness” model (think research or scientific model, not super). We could then compare the two girlfriends using such a model and determine which was prettier, although doing so would probably mean neither of us would have a girlfriend anymore. Ideally, using such a model, we could also ask for others’ opinions and come to some “objective” social consensus on who was actually the sexiest woman around. The argument (or experiment/test) would also be repeatable with other women. Sound familiar?
This same problem occurs when trying to explain Burke’s parlor and some other concepts, except the scientific method doesn’t really work. Asking, “What is the Burkean Parlor Metaphor/What does the metaphor mean?” is equivalent, in this case, to asking, “What do you think the Burkean Parlor Metaphor is/What do you think is the meaning of the metaphor?” because there simply is no objective answer.
I can give you a link to Burke’s description, but ultimately any other answer or link would boil down to “I think the metaphor is/means X.” Much like saying “I think Y is the sexiest woman around,” my view is still my view, not a definitive or “objective” answer. Thus, trying to explain the metaphor without having a discussion is just me saying what I think it means. It’s my interpretation. I assume this is why professors usually assign readings from multiple authors on the same topic when possible.
People have conversations about what they think the metaphor means, and may possibly come to a generally accepted meaning, but the meaning or definition will likely never be static (much like with religious texts/metaphors, law, etc.). This is why dictionaries don’t all have the same definitions ;) It’s also why theories are called theories, because no matter how objective scientists try to be, there’s always subjectivity. Ironically, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, I’m also often promoting “definitive” or “objective” definitions by linking to other articles as well. My best advice is to try to find your own meaning, listen to what others are saying, figure out where your meaning might fit, and then “put in your oar” ;)
Back to elitism though. As you can see, I can’t just turn off my “academic” brain, even at dinner or with the simplest of questions. I thought about postmodernism and all those ideas while eating a sandwich when a kid asked about somebody’s girlfriend. “Normal” or not, that’s part of who I am.
What I’m Doing
I’m going to conferences, reading, doing research, blogging, and taking classes most of the time. This is because doing these things is all part of what people in academia do, and I’d like to be in academia. Currently, I think I want to be a professor. That may change over time, but it’s where I’m aiming.
That mean’s I’ll be attending graduate school for at least the next 6-7 years. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about what that involves once I get there, but I’m already doing some of the things grad students do. Consequently, that’s making it difficult for me to define who I am.
I often feel like people think I’m no longer “just an undergrad” and that friends and other undergrads are thinking, “He’s not one of us” even though I still have a year left. At the same time, grad students do usually think that, “I’m one of them” until they discover I’m actually not, yet. I encounter that a lot at conferences, so it would be awesome to see a friend there.
The “problem” is that conferences are mostly attended by professors and a few grad students. Neither of those two groups can really be “friends” yet, even though I “know” them. I’m still a student, so professors can only be so friendly, and I’m not a grad student yet, so grad students and I only share certain interests/experiences at this point, within the context of conferences. We usually have interesting conversations about games though.
It’s not like high school where the same few people took AP classes together and all knew each other (for the most part, the people who were in those classes still know each other, and a handful go to MTU). We could look around and say, “Ok, he’s doing X, she’s doing Y, I think I know where I stand in comparison, we’re doing similar things…and look at these shiny medals we just got.” Now it’s “He’s doing X, but I don’t really want to do X. She’s doing Y, and that’s sort of like what I’m doing, but not exactly. I kind of know what I’m doing based on how people are reacting and the advice I’ve heard, and I kind of know where I want to be, but I’m pretty much by myself…so… where and who the heck am I?”
At the end of the day though, just because my life is intertwined with academia doesn’t mean I’m not “normal” anymore. I might use big words sometimes. Not to sound superior or intelligent, but for the same reason we use “apple” instead of “the usually round, red or yellow, edible fruit of a small tree, Malus sylvestris, of the rose family.” It’s abstraction to save space/time when describing something complex.
So, am I an Elitist, or am I a Specialist?
I might do things other people never do. In a similar sense, a turkey farmer does things other people might never do. What I’m doing is a “specialty.” Though it might appear as if I’m doing it just to be part of an “elite” group within society or because higher education can bring nice benefits, I’m not doing it for the benefits. I’m not doing it because I think what I’m doing is prestigious, or that I’m somehow better than anyone else because of it. I’m doing this because I enjoy doing it at multiple levels and I believe I have something meaningful to contribute to my field(s) of interest. Doing this also takes up a lot of my “leisure” time (remember the disputed quote?), so I don't always seem like I'm doing "normal" things.
Regardless of my specialties, I still like going fishing, and camping, and talking, and boating, and listening to music, and eating/cooking, and playing games, and all kinds of other things. If we don’t like the same food, or music, or games, that’s part of life. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you or that my tastes are “better.” Some of my “work” might sneak into those activities too. It’s part of who I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely different from you or think I’m “better” than anyone either. Perhaps instead of writing so much, I should be talking to people a little more as well.
Wait...crap, based on some of my answers to this quiz, I am an elitist.
Wait...crap, based on some of my answers to this quiz, I am an elitist.