>The phrase in my post title describes my experience of 2007, which seems to have gone by in a bigger blur of business than most years. I’m hoping 2008 will be a little less intense and a little more delightful.
But the phrase was also used to describe *me*, by the Pastry Pirate’s friend Shorewoodian, who, like me, attended the Pirate’s graduation from Cookin’ School and was pretty much forced to spend about 36 hours in my company. Ever since the Pirate told me this is how Shorewoodian described me I’ve been mulling over the “intense” part. Was it good or bad? Was it a euphemism for “thinks too much?” (something a stupid boyfriend once said about me)? Was it because I pretty much came to the land of Robber Baron mansions directly from grading graduate student critical histories of canonical works of literature, and so had the weight of so many misunderstood literary scholars on my shoulders and felt the need to make our kind understood at all costs? Or was it simply because I was still in a “teacherly” mode and hadn’t had the time and space to decompress before being social?
So I asked Bullock what he thought it meant since he thought it was a pretty good description of me, though he insists I’m more parts “delightful” than “intense.” But to explain his explanation, I have to give you a back story first.
Background: I have a little-known and yet-to-be-diagnosed problem that Bullock and I have dubbed “Trivia Tourette’s.” (I think Bullock coined the phrase, but I can’t remember now.) Bullock has recognized this problem before, but I only became self-aware after a conference a few months ago at Neighboring Flagship U. There, in the midst of scholars of medieval literature whose work I respect and whom I desperately wanted to impress, I kept randomly spouting bizarre and thoroughly uninteresting trivia at intervals throughout the day. Someone said, “You can’t drink too much water,” and I felt a compulsion to reply, “Actually you can, at least if you’re also sweating profusely. It’s called hyponatremia and it’s more life-threatening than dehydration!” Later, someone remarked to me that they didn’t realize Rust Belt was so close to Flagship Town, and I burst out with, “In fact, it was originally part of Neighboring State, and Flagship U was even slated to be in our downtown, but there was a war — a skirmish really — and Neighboring State lost its claim to Rust Belt’s part of our state.” Why, oh why, do I do this? Given that every time it happens there’s a voice in the back of my head saying, “Oh god, please stop!” I can only chalk it up to unconscious compulsion.
So, back to “intense but delightful.” Bullock said that when I exhibit “Trivia Tourette’s” around academics, the tidbits I burst out with do seem trivial, or at least something akin to footnotes, the function of which academics understand. And so it goes little noticed, easily incorporated into academic ways of thinking and organizing information, including conversations. For academics, it’s small talk, trivial.
But, according to Bullock, when I do it with non-academics, as I did at the Cookin’ School graduation — spouting off, among other things, about strong and weak verbs, semantic splitting, and why there’s a “hung” and “hanged” but “hanged” is generally only used for people who have been hanged on the gallows (there was a context that inspired this outburst) — it doesn’t seem trivial or footnote-y. Instead it seems professorial, the kind of stuff “regular” people don’t think about. Indeed, “regular” people don’t think in footnotes at all! To them it’s not small talk — it’s deep or serious or “intense.” It’s classroom talk. (Actually, the Pastry Pirate encouraged me in these moments — egged me on even — so obviously, there’s a non-academic audience for the footnotes of academe. But that doesn’t discount Bullock’s analysis of its different perception by non-academics.) And so, as classroom talk, it’s perceived as belonging to a different order of conversation and thought. It’s not ordinary. It’s “intense.”
I think the distinction of “classroom talk” is important here. When other professionals do the kind of talking and thinking the kind of thinking that’s specific to their profession — say, for example, when the Cookin’ School graduates and their foodie family members rattled off the temperatures at which sugar becomes “soft ball” or “hard crack,” etc., or debated how much added value a particular sushi chef brings to a piece of sashimi — it’s considered shop talk. And it can be inviting or off-putting to the extent that it includes or excludes others at the table or the party or whatever. Too specialized and it leaves others out, but it can involve the non-specialists to the extent they have experience with the profession. It can be fascinating and illuminating to hear what goes on in the kitchen of fine restaurants, or to hear how doctors think when they’re diagnosing, or to understand what a lawyer considers a good or bad witness and why. Indeed, there’s a reason why we have TV shows — sometimes many of them — about these professions, among others. There’s also probably a reason — for good or for ill — why we don’t have TV shows about professors, and why popular culture often gets our profession so wrong. (There have been many more TV shows about high schools, including ones with a focus on the classroom, so this isn’t just about the classroom in general.) And I think one of the reasons — perhaps among many — is related to the perception of professorial talk as “intense.” Our talk isn’t perceived as mere shop talk — although we may perceive it as such — but as something other, something extraordinary, for better or worse.
I’m of two minds about what this all means. On the one hand, I would like to go forth in 2008 and work harder to encourage my students to continue the way I teach them to think and to write not only in other classes, but outside of the classroom as well. I’d like to convince them that to think about language, literature, and culture “intensely” can also be “delightful” and can be a habit carried through the rest of their lives, one that transforms the way they see the world. In other words, I’d like to break through that mindset that sees classroom talk as fit only for the classroom and as (too) intense for other situations. I’d like to break down the boundary between the classroom and the rest of their lives, and to help students see what’s studied in the classroom, and the way it’s studied — even if it’s literature of the very distant past read through the lens of specialized languages of literary interpretation and theory — does not necessarily have to be limited to the classroom. My own college education did that for me — I was “intense” and professorial before I was an academic — but I’m not sure my own students realize that their educations can and should do the same for them.
On the other hand, I think the reason why people such as my own university’s president can be so dismissive of the humanities and the people who work in it, is precisely because we’ve done a good job, at least among certain populations, of making people realize you can continue to read and think about humanities subjects and with humanities methods beyond the college classroom walls. And thus we give the illusion that anyone can do what we do once they’ve learned to do it in college. And that’s problematic for the respect that the humanities and humanists get not only in the general population, but in our own institutions.
I think for my own solution to this either/or conundrum, I’m going to work harder to make my classroom, my subject, and myself — and a professor and a person — not “intense but delightful,” but instead, “intense and delightful.” After all, intensity is all about deeper pleasures, fuller flavors, more saturated colors, more memorable moments, and more thrilling experiences. And intensity of thought and study should therefore bring greater intellectual pleasure, in the classroom and beyond.