Monday, July 9, 2012

The Paper Trail

After moving back from Göttingen to Amsterdam, dealing with the unavoidable homecoming chores, then a board meeting and a workshop (both very successful, and a welcome occasion to see friends and colleagues from all over Europe), finally I'm getting some opportunies for reading again. But not yet for reading exactly what I want: rather, my desk is now full of papers and thesis chapters (with deadlines attached to them, of course). Outsiders tend to underestimate how much time academics are spending on such tasks, and how different reading student work is from reading published books or articles for one's own research: one cannot just concentrate on the contents, but part of one's mind must be constantly alert to such critical matters as sentence structure, use of footnotes and references, logic and coherence of the overall argument, and, subliminally at least, what grade it deserves (I tend so see a mental pointer before my mind's eye, moving up and down the scale while I get through the text: the all-important question being where it is by the time I've reached the end). Not that I mean to complain - I mean, how would I dare? I just read an interview with Martha Nussbaum in the Amsterdam University paper Folia, and in spite of her well-deserved celebrity status (40 honorary doctorates, if I remember correctly), she says that right after this interview she, too, will go home to meet the humble task of grading written exams, reading and commenting upon term papers, and emailing with students (Bachelor and Master) about their plans and ideas.
A shining example for all of us. Most university staff tend to complain about having to waste so much of their precious time on reading student papers, and I admit that I've had my moments of despair too. But if Nussbaum can do it, then so can we. And so we should, for if it has taken us years to master the essential skills of scholarly writing and argumentation - and one hopes we have! - then it's not just our responsibility but our privilege to pass that knowledge and experience on to the next generation.
Fortunately I'm blessed with my readings this evening. Admittedly I first had to get through a written product of appalling quality, on which I will be silent, but then came the good stuff. Of course I'll preserve anonymity here, but let me say that I've been enjoying a truly exemplary report of anthropological fieldwork on the Dutch Santo Daime church (known for it's use of a mind-altering tea, ayahuasca or daime, as their central sacrament), written with all the sophistication, perceptiveness, and attention to detail that such a delicate topic deserves. What followed was a highly informative paper on the myth of the "Mother Wheel" in the Nation of Islam, from which I learned a lot. And tomorrow I'll continue with an MA thesis on William Blake and a PhD chapter on contemporary kabbalah. I ventured a sneak preview and they, too, look very promising. Today my students make me proud.

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