Sunday, November 14, 2010

Starting to Reflect on Intellectual Work Outside the Academy

When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I am a writer. This is an accurate answer. It is also a hard-won answer -- for all that creativity guru Julia Cameron insists that a writer is nothing more or less than someone who writes, my journey between becoming someone who writes and being able to identify as such without cringing, blushing, or offering disclaimers took years. And if, in some moments, in some contexts, I augment "writer" with "researcher and media producer" to capture some of the places writing has taken me in ways that others will recognize, it's still all the same thing to me.

Yet "writer" is not the only label that would work, and "writing" is not the only way to describe what I do. I have come increasingly to see that much -- perhaps all, though I'm not sure -- of the writing-related work that I have done over the last dozen years can be understood as being within the larger category of "intellectual work." Now, by that phrase I mean something narrower than the way it might be used to capture all kinds of non-physical labour, but also something considerably broader than dominant assumptions about what "work done by intellectuals" might look like. I'm going to leave defining exactly what I mean by it for a later post -- for now I'm going to ask you to bear with me.

This shift in frame from "writing" to "intellectual work" is not intrinsically important, beyond the fact that the broadening that it involves allows me to use my own experiences as a basis for some broader and somewhat differently focused reflections than if "writing" were my starting point. Both ways of talking about what I do are accurate and valuable, and most of the time I will continue to identify as a writer, as the most accurate and legible way of describing what I do with a significant chunk of my time. However, the shift to being able to think about my activities in the broader frame of "intellectual work" has correlated for me with (though is not necessarily causally related to) other shifts in how I think about what I do.

In our journey through life in early 21st century North America, we are presented with a particular dominant cluster of ideas about what intellectual work is, who can do it, and where it can happen. It is mostly understood as happening at universities or perhaps in other rarified institutional environments. It is mostly understood as being done by people with many fancy letters after their names. It is occasionally understood as being done by peculiar people who have withdrawn from 'normal' society in other, more individualistic ways. It is mostly understood as being about content that is of little relevance to the lives of most ordinary people. It is mostly understood to result in texts with particular forms -- people who have been kept distant from this kind of work might hold that understanding in as general a ways as thinking that the products of intellectual work have to be obscure and difficult, while those more familiar with the process might identify particular kinds of texts (the monograph, the journal article) and particular disciplinary and institutional norms for how the knowledge they contain is put together. We can find exceptions to each of these that would be broadly recognized as intellectual work, but these points sketch out both the norm to which such work is compared and the pinnacle to which such work is expected to aspire. This, I think, is not a good way of understanding intellectual work, as I'll explain in future posts, but it is where we start from. (These characteristics also, it should be added, describe aspects of a culture in which intellectual work functions as a marker and organizer of both intellectual elitism and of virulent anti-intellectualism, both of which obscure and support oppressive and exploitative social relations.)

One of the shifts in me that has made this shift in frame possible is that in the last decade or so this cluster of misconceptions has loosened its grip on me considerably. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think perhaps it is partly due to becoming much more familiar with the spaces where much of such work supposedly happens and the people who inhabit those spaces -- that is, academia and academics -- so the reality of them has become more clear to me. It may also be that I've had more years of taking in work that just doesn't fit those misconceptions, and more years to appreciate and understand various sorts of criticisms of them, as articulated by various clever feminist and anti-racist and other critical writers. This loosening has allowed me more space to see "intellectual work" as a category that might apply to various things that I have done in a way I couldn't before.

Another shift, however, has been that more of the work that I do has actually come to look more like dominant ideas of what "intellectual work" should be. Not that much or any has appeared in the venues or forms that are considered legitimate, and not that it is at all guided by disciplinary norms of any kind. But more of what I write has something of an academic flavour than it did ten years ago, with both the useful and less-than-useful implications that come along with that, and I also more often read work produced in academic spaces. Note that I'm not saying this is either a good thing or a bad thing, or that what I do now is more legitimately intellectual work than what I did back then, just that the greater similarity with dominant misconceptions has made it easier to see what I do as fitting in that category.

The final shift, and perhaps the most interesting, is that I have gradually come to appreciate in a more grounded way the social character of what I'm doing. That is, I am more able to see my work not just as an individual activity -- as primarily about the relationship between me and the page -- but as a social one -- one that is embedded in all sorts of other relationships. By developing a better understanding of my place in these relationships, I have been able to develop a more grounded understanding of intellectual work in general, and also a more grounded understanding of what I do and of how to usefully think about making decisions about what I do.

It is in that spirit that I decided to write -- well, initially it was going to be one post on this topic, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are at least four posts beyond this introductory one that I could write, perhaps more.

Here are some of the key questions about intellectual work done outside the academy that I'm going to work through in several posts over the next little while:

  • What is intellectual work?
  • What does it mean to think about the social character of intellectual work?
  • Why might someone want to do intellectual work outside of the academy?
  • What are the challenges of finding space in life to do intellectual work outside of the academy?
  • What are the challenges in terms of figuring out what work to do and how to do it?

How I break it all up may or may not correspond directly to those questions, and more may occur to me as I write, but that's where I'm starting from.


A said...

excellent post. look forward to the rest.

Scott said...

Thanks, A!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic!
As a grad student with a passion for intellectual work but no particular interest in an academic career, I've been struggling with the question of how to employ/deploy my work in non-academic settings. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts! -Matt

Scott said...

Thanks, Matt! I definitely feel I have more questions than answers, so I'm be keen to hear what other people have to say too...

David said...

I'll be interested to read your further thoughts. The social conditions of intellectual work inside and outside the academy and how they shape such work are well worth analyzing.