Becoming the Other: Mind and Speech Training in Academia

So here’s the fundamental problem, I’m loving my graduate studies, I think they are enriching me intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. I’m becoming a more critical thinker, a better writer, a kinder citizen of the world–ok, none of these are the problem–BUT (heavy and bookish but) I feel like I’m definitely getting reprogrammed, and I’m being shown the Matrix, our societal matrix of power and power reproduction, and I’m being immersed in left wing critical theory and two years from now, I’m afraid no one will be able to speak to me, because I’ll have that wide-eyed look, and I’ll run around going “don’t you see?!”

What’s nice about my intellectual training is that it answers deep questions that have bothered me for a long time. It’s the academic equivalent of my experience of reading Guns, Germs and Steel in the 1990s. I knew there had to be deeper underlying structural reasons for the political shape of the world, and that book provided me with answers that made sense to me and took me away from racist notions of cultural hierarchies. Tonight I’m reading two chapters of Bourgois’ thrilling Righteous Dopefiend and it’s combining theory and reality in a really evocative potent mix. This is good theory. I was trying to slog through more pure theoretical texts that were doing nothing for me, and now I’m reading thoughtful applied photo-journalistic ethnographic work and yes, I’m back on home ground. A place of thoughtful reflection on the meaning of the current social order. A sensitive portrayal of life among homeless heroin addicts in San Francisco. This kind of stuff takes me down the academic rabbit hole of critical re-examination of taken-for-granted knowledge

So as I’m enjoying my reading, “at last!”, I’m also slightly dreading the emerging new me. I’m worried I’ll totally lose the ability to talk to people who haven’t drunk this type of Kool-Aid. Back in Matrix metaphor mode, I’m taking the red pill. I’m taking the red pill and I don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes. I guess the good news (and the bad news) is that the rabbit hole is me. It only goes as deep as I’m willing to go. Meanwhile my new vocabulary includes exciting new words and concepts with a very small audience. I’ll draw comfort from the fact that I know plenty of PhDs and they can still have normal conversations with me.

We must put a safety protocol in place. A safe phrase so to speak. If you ever hear me spouting multi syllable nonsense in a way that is totally un-relatable, just take my hand and say, “Take a hold of yourself red pill swallower.”

2 thoughts on “Becoming the Other: Mind and Speech Training in Academia

  1. You and I live in the same dorm hallway in college, both spend time in Philadelphia, and now both come into contact with intoxicating jargon. It’s like fate is binding us together.

    The bit about the red pill piqued my interest because similar things have been on my mind lately. My own take is decidedly anti-red-pill, but the thing you say about knowing enough PhDs to have conversations with gets at something significant: namely, that meaning is a numbers game. The metric that tracks the continuum between everyday language (courtesy rituals, street directions, kinship terms) and whatever recondite discourse you feel drawn to is literally the average number of people in the room who can reasonably be expected to know what the hell you’re talking about.

    When I’m in a public place I play a game. I pick out someone and imagine being forced to explain to them what I’m reading is all about. Last week is was guys at the other table at the bar around the corner and Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity”. The imaginary conversation began with, “What would I gain by reading that?” to which I hypothetically responded, “Well, nothing of course” and went on from there. It’s a writing exercise.

  2. My feeling is that the key to not becoming jargony is to not fall in love with the jargon. I believe that although one does need words to talk about concepts, multi-syllable, greek-descended words are mostly created to blur knowledge to the unknowing, rather than to clarify it. I think good ideas can always be expressed simply, but it does take effort (mostly on the self?).

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