Who Says I’m Qualified to Contribute to Academic Conversation?

So I am in middle of writing a twenty-page paper about Woodstock, which means my writing muscle is pretty occupied right now. (Though seriously, the organizational disaster that was Woodstock is an incredibly interesting topic, and it’s worth reading and laughing about sometime. 400,000 hippies hanging out in the mud, with almost no food and only 600 bathrooms for them all – sounds like a great time!) Fortunately, I previously did a post on the hair-pulling anxiety that is writing a paper, which seems appropriate to re-post today. After all, it is exactly the same hair-pulling anxiety that is seizing up my brain at this very moment. So I present you…

Why It’s Harder to Write a Term Paper Than a Blog

Some people might think blogging is pretty scary – putting up stuff for all the world to criticize, and maybe to use to your disadvantage when you run for President someday. However, I realized these past two weeks that writing academic papers scares me more. Then I started wondering why, and ended up writing:

 The Utter Bloody Fear of Handing in a Paper

OR: Who Says I’m Qualified to Contribute to Academic Conversation?

 Whenever I write a paper for university, I have a period of at least day of paralysing fear, where I’m certain I’m about to fail this paper and never pass another course again. I don’t get this with exams. Exams you can just write the thing and walk away, and if you forget an important thing it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, you were probably just stressed out.

But when writing a paper, you’re expected to poke holes in ideas of people a hundred times smarter than you, and hand it in to someone a hundred times smarter than you. Well – when I’m rational I try to convince myself the prof probably isn’t that much smarter than me, just disciplined enough to finish a doctorate in the subject. But that don’t negate the fact I’m walking into THEIR territory with this paper, and they know this stuff and I’ve just taken a two month course on it.

I mean, honestly, you want me to criticize Karl Marx? Or Foucault, or Hayden White, or whoever the theorist of the course happens to be? I might disagree with them, but I can hardly engage them on their own terms. In fact, I’m usually having trouble grasping exactly what they’re talking about. And since I hate misrepresenting people’s ideas (even on this blog, I’m always afraid to misquote someone), I feel pretty unqualified to comment on someone’s theory when I’ve only read a half-page excerpt of what the guy actually said.

So, thinking about this, I realized I have this trouble in real life conversations too. They always describe academic publishing as like a conversation, and this may explain why I feel so uncomfortable jumping blindly into the conversation. I don’t like entering a conversation unless I actually have something interesting to contribute. So sometimes when people think I’m quiet, I’m actually trying to avoid repeating bland ideas that have already been said a hundred times before. As well, if the topic of conversation is video games, hip-hop, movies I haven’t seen, or any other topic I don’t know enough about, I really don’t feel expert enough to interrupt the flow and jump in with something, just to remind everyone that hey, I’m standing in the group too. However, in academia, it is essential to remind everyone you’re still standing there – it’s ‘publish or perish,’ after all. But still, I hate pretending I know enough to actually write on this stuff.

All the same, writing papers is probably a good thing. It teaches you to take a position, and back your opinions up. Sometimes taking a position in these debates is the only way to feel your way around, and find out what the debate really all involves (and sometimes you find out your initial position is wrong, too, of course). You might be surprised, say, by what Karl Marx actually said, even if you still think he’s wrong.

Still, it is strange writing papers scares me more than blogging. Even if I get two hits a day, that’s still several more people reading my stuff here than the one prof and maybe a TA who read my academic papers.

Well, wish me well as I go to slay the anxiety dragon!

The above post was originally posted here. I did modify it a little in the re-post.

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