Friday, September 26, 2008

PhD Reflections #1

I wondered how long it would be before the PhD reflections started coming to me. I’m now in my third week of coursework in my PhD program. I have two reflections.

First, yesterday I was talking with my mentor about the myth of comprehensivity. This is the sense that I have as a graduate student of needing to know and read everything. My mentor says that it is a myth. I can never know and read everything. The skill of graduate school is not mastery, not comprehensivity, but it is to have the skills and tools to evaluate and analyze. Certainly, there is an element of mastery of a particular area of knowledge and knowledge production, but mastery is different than comprehensive in my use of the terms. Mastery is awareness of and familiarity with an area of knowledge; comprehensive is knowing it all. Mastery is possible, but will require continued reading and attention throughout one’s lifetime; comprehensivity is a myth.

I’m still trying to absorb that concept, but I’m living with it and trying to understand it and more importantly life within it.

My second reflection is about ways to talk about scholarly work and involves a few points. First, I never want to hear anyone ever use the word derivative again. I don’t want my work to be called derivative and I can’t imagine that anyone else who has written a book wants her work called derivative. I’m sympathetic to this and grateful to one of my first teachers in graduate school for strongly and unequivocally drawing this line. It stung when she first said it to me, but now I pass it on. Don’t call other’s work derivative. I’ll extend it by saying, don’t call scholarly work overdetermined. Of course it is overdetermined! This is work someone has spent three, five, seven, ten, twelve years working on! You’ve read the book in three to five hours. It is way more determined than your thinking will ever be about it! Overdetermined just doesn’t reflect a thoughtful engagement with the work. How is the work put together? What information does this draw on? What information was available to the person that is not considered? (The available portion is really key in that question.) What is the work doing? How effectively is it doing that work? Those are the questions that critically engage a text. Derivative and overdetermined don’t. The second part of this is, embrace reductive. Most material I am encountering is new and my thinking about it is by definition reductive. I am trying to reduce it to something that I can understand so I can build to the complexity of other people’s thinking and writing. It’s going to take me a while.

So those are the first reflections on the PhD program. Overall, the reading is fabulous and the level of critical engagements with ideas is fantastic. I’m only overwhelmed by all of the work in front of me.

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