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After Conceit, Conversation

In which I find a less combative approach to scholarship.

Jason S. Canon
Jason S. Canon
3 min read
After Conceit, Conversation
Photo by Kevin Curtis / Unsplash
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. — Kenneth Burke

This week I learned that my first publication — of anything, ever — should be out later this year in the Review of Politics. “Three General Wills in Rousseau” now has life.

My first notes for the essay are dated precisely 5 years ago to the day (Tuesday), and they began where I thought all academic work started: proving that someone was wrong.

Now this hubris did give me pause, since when a body of experts agrees on something, and you’re an unemployed, unaffiliated nobody, coming to the subject for the first time… well, it’s probably not the experts who are wrong.

But not too much pause. I am a White American Male with Opinions, after all.

I soldiered on.

The earliest drafts were written by a man with evident need for proof — proof of textual correctness, and proof of becoming more than a failed grad student.

And then a curious thing happened.

Well, two curious things.

The first was that my interlocutor, David Lay Williams, not only agreed to read the paper, but provided comments with not a hint of the combativeness contained in the draft he read. He disagreed, of course, but in the kindest ways. He invited me to lunch at MPSA. He continued the conversation in the months that followed. He responded to my critique with an openness that's rare among even the warmest academics. I was now in his debt, and the journey from disputant to debtor does not leave one unchanged.

And then secondly, last year, I was thrust into a glacially paced total-system breakdown. On the other side of 2021 I'm learning what it feels like to enjoy writing. But then you already know about this.

I’m only able to write because I've abandoning my old conception of research as the ever-expanding exploitation of “gaps” for gain and glory, all the while cultivating, quite carefully, one’s academic brand. I thought that this simply was scholarship in the modern age. Now I know better.

I asked myself this week: what other motivations could sustain research? I still enjoy political theory, still have things to say. But I want also to say them for the right reasons. The older, self-aggrandizing model wouldn’t do.

I came up with a shortlist:

  1. Helping others
  2. Contributing to a body of knowledge
  3. Simply enjoying the process of writing and researching

These motives come naturally enough to us all, and have enough combined force to get me seated with a good book and pen and notebook. But they probably won’t sustain a prolific publishing career, and certainly don't offer the fortitude needed for Editorial Manager.

What I settled on was another option: joining the conversations through which our disciplines advance.

The “scholarly conversation” framing is nothing new. It may even sound obvious to the less egocentric among you. But it’s one thing to conceive of academe in this way, and another to find within it a personal motivation. And still yet another for me to arrive at a place where I can do so.

And yet “conversation” captures everything I enjoy most about the life of the mind. Conversations are holistic in ways that pure inquiry is not. They have jokes, conjectures, advances and retreats. A premium gets placed on charity and wit, and boors are met with ostracism. In conversation I feel less need to be the smartest, or be right. It is enough to pitch in occasionally and enjoy.

Few things are more invigorating than a good conversation. I see no reason why this must be lost upon prosification.

I sat with this new approach for a few days, and it brought one final surprise.

Today (now Saturday) I started another essay on Rousseau. I thought I was done with him — hoped I was done with him — but I may still have a thing or two for us to discuss.

When the draft is ready, I’ll share it here.

And then? Let's talk.