On Being an Academic: Playing with Ideas, Playing with Words

My high school English teacher Mary Kay was very influential on myself and many of my classmates. She was a fiery teacher with strong opinions on topics both practical and arcane. In a class on poetry, she once advised, “Don’t become a poet because you want to express your feelings. Everyone has feelings. Become a poet because you want to play with words.”* Her point was simple: great poets aren’t great because they somehow have deeper emotions than the rest of us, they’re great because they are better at stringing words together in novel ways to express those emotions.

I was thinking about her advice this morning and I came up with a few similarly phrased thoughts on academia and blogging.

First, don’t become an academic if you want to solve problems. Everyone has problems they want to solve. Became an academic because you want to play with ideas. The principle is similar to the above for poetry: great academics aren’t great because they somehow are more concerned with important problems than other people. They are great because they invent new ideas or combine old ones in novel ways. More practically, the work of academia and the reward structures focus heavily on cleverness: idea-play rather than word-play (though there is some connection, see below). If you want to solve problems in the world but don’t want to spend all day playing with ideas, there’s almost always a better, faster, more practical way. Note that in some fields, you still might want or need to get a PhD (perhaps engineering or economics) even if you don’t want to become an academic (although sometimes you have to pretend for a bit to get through comps and keep your faculty interested, which is a separate problem). That’s great, and hopefully a PhD will be helpful for doing so. But wanting to be an academic goes best with an eagerness to play with ideas, not just a drive to solve problems.

Second, say you become an academic (hopefully because you want to play with ideas). Make sure to spend some time playing with words. As academics, we spend an awful lot of time writing and speaking. In principle, we care more about the ideas underlying our work than the manner of presentation, but everyone know that these two are connected. A great idea can get lost in a pound of jargon, and our own bad ideas are easier to spot and improve when expressed clearly. There are a lot of easy ways to play with words as an academic. You can edit your friends’ work with a focus on improving their writing (to help reflect on your own). You can read good writing, most of which is not produced by academics. I realized that my writing got better when I spent more time reading well-written novels and less time reading journal articles. You can write a blog, which has the dual-role of giving you a great place to play with little ideas not ready for primetime, but also to experiment with language and get immediate feedback as to whether or not your words are compelling or clear.

So, to summarize my totally impressionistic and data-free advice: Become an academic if you want to play with ideas. Once you do, devote some time to playing with words.

*Quote approximate, it was more than a few years ago and I didn’t take good field notes in 11th grade.

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