Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our Bailiwick

At work I have an idea, pull off a post-it, and scrawl it down: "To write: Bloom confirms my suspicions of Miltonic Bardliness among the Romantics and Moderns." Another fragment of a thought: "Angle-lond in the Springtime, the Pastoral, and Oxford lament." I look at these things on the post-it, briefly, then go back to my descriptions of sunglasses, snow goggles, and biker t-shirts. As I write about fielding road debris and shredding the gnar, I imagine someone finding my post-it note and reading it. It wouldn't make any sense. It would appear to be the ravings of a weirdo, or something with so little context for the reader they would wonder at its origins. But maybe most people aren't that curious. Or observant. Nor do they read things they find lying around.

So instead I imagine finding the post-it note myself, at someone else's desk. (I am curious, and I do read things I find lying around.) I almost get that tingly feeling in my head. It would be really, really strange to find a post-it note like that.

So I tried to imagine a situation where a post-it note, like mine, would be normal. At the university library? Still seems weird. Dropped on the floor in the English building? Maybe. The only place my post-it seems at home is on the book-piled desk of a student of English. And maybe only a graduate student of English.

I suppose this is what happens to anyone as they specialize in their field of study or their line of work. Thoughts are given over to more and more specific topics, ergo notes they may write end up more and more out of context with anyone else's reality. Technical specifications on a plastic extruding machine, a dated list of names of some erstwhile Earl's ten children, even a scrawled staff with speculative musical notes adorning its wayward lines… these are all things we might find at someone's desk.

But the word speculative catches my eye. There is something so speculative about "Englishing," and not only speculative but inward looking, reflective, and considerate of its subject and its object (assign those bugbears whichever roles you choose). If we showed our notes to anyone, even our fellow graduate students, it might be embarrassing. Embarrassing how unsure the notes are, embarrassing how much they reveal about their author's internal life… Yes, sharing research in English has the potential to be very embarrassing.

This is our bailiwick, our chosen path (or for some, like Milton, a calling). Even when we make connections along the way, or have a traveling companion for a time (be it a mentor, a research partner, or an adviser), the road is lonely. I don't think all graduate students experience it that way, even if they are very independent. They may bolster themselves with a front of professionalism, which is attractive and effective in some, and frightening and pernicious in others. One student in my program interacts with others in an extremely professional manner, even on discussion boards that are meant for "Considerations." (Other than her thesis style considerations and careful diction, she is friendly and open, not competitive or anything. I see other first-year students emulating her posts.) But I just pour stuff out on the message boards, and stay conversational as always. (As if I'm capable of any other kind of voice!) Perhaps the fastest travelers keep steady to the road because they are surrounded by a company of their own fractured personalities. That sounds mean, but I don't intend it that way. Some of us only work one way, and it makes the road a little more winding, and it makes the passers-by and pilgrimage companions a little fewer and farther between.

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