Monday, June 7, 2010

A student once asked me ...

"Why do I need to read Roland Barthes? Who is Roland Barthes anyway? I can come up with as good ideas as him. I don't need to read what other people have thought. I'm a one off."

This was a result of me suggesting that it might be beneficial for him to read some key Cultural Studies theorists, such as Barthes and Baudrillard, to assist him in writing his essay on the 'meaning' of the lego brand (his choice, not mine.)

It was a difficult question to answer. Partly because it's one I have frequently asked myself throughout academic life and not just because the whole citation and referencing thing can get a bit tedious or because no one really understands Heidegger or Deleuze anyway. It was a question I remember us discussing as undergraduates; what if we could come up with the theory of Plato's forms without having read Plato, or Marx's theory of capitalism without having read Marx or any (other) Marxists? Surely our theories would be as valid as theirs because we would have come up with them ourselves, regardless of whether someone else said them first? We would be just as original as thinkers? And what if we can come up with wholly new ideas with which to begin? (slim chance) Well, yes, we would certainly be good at thinking up ideas, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we are good thinkers. Moreover, it doesn't make us good academics. Socrates, Darwin and Levi Strauss were original thinkers but they were also good scholars and the two tend to compliment each other. They didn't just sit around consuming beer (and whatever else) with their mates, revelling in the wonders of their own wackiness - although they probably did that too. They read, researched, collated, dissected, contested, experimented, compared, contrasted, synthesised and discussed a broad range of literature which was made available to them at that time (and there is more available to us which could make it harder or easier depending), before then coming up with their own theories. They no doubt had the same sensation of gestalt but it was a more informed gestalt. They were more likely, than my student, to be aware of their scholastic scope but also of their limitations. I tried to get this point across to the student, or something like it but I wasn't entirely cogent nor convinced myself. It seemed to shut him up though. And he was a very, shall we say, talkative one.

But he was actually a very innovative thinker and surely creativity is an important part of academic learning? Or is it? How could I have answered this student's question without putting a dampner on his creative thought? Perhaps, too much academia is wasted on recycling, I mean citing, previous scholars' work? Well, I guess it's a balancing act and part of getting the correct balance is being able to judge the quantity, quality and relevance of literature from the academic canon in terms of its relationship to the quantities, qualities and germinality of your own thoughts. It is also important and expected to contest and critique others' theories; only with more nuanced intentions than my student had. There is never really an excuse for indolence in academia. But, arguably, it's always worth an endeavour.

If I'm a student, my subject is R.E.

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