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On Kabbalistic Scanning and Psyching Out the Dog

As I mentioned in my last post, when I first started grad school, I felt like I was being hazed. The teaching load was a big part of that, but nevermind that for now.

My department puts a “suggested cap” on reading loads in graduate courses, of 100 pages per class per week. That means about 350 pages a week, and sometimes more, when you consider that the cap is merely a (perfectly un-enforceable) “suggestion”. That, on top of reading for lit reviews for three seminar papers, reading the stuff you have to teach, reading all the pointless emails people fling around academic departments, and last but not least, reading all the complaints your students strafe you with every morning at 2 am—it’s not possible.

“Oh, but it is!” my DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) insisted. “You have to learn to scan!” As if that were some kind of revelation that was supposed to solve all my problems. Scan? WTF? That’s what the Kabbalah Center told my monolingual mother to do with Hebrew texts so she could still “absorb their energy”. By not understanding them.

That was precisely my objection. If I scan, I won’t understand. You don’t absorb crap from scanning. I’m supposed to learn something in these classes, right? If you want me to learn something, I have to read!

I took the issue to Dr. T, my trusty fall-back faculty member in times of need, anger, and sheer hysteria, and aired all of my concerns to him. “Oh, that’s just what we do,” he said. “In fact, one of my colleagues I edit a journal with mentioned to me recently that she’s become a master of ‘not-reading’. You have to learn how to filter things out, to quickly distinguish what’s important and relevant to you from what’s not.”

If the whole point of a Master’s seminar is to “acquire a broad foundation in the field”, as my department insists that it is, then everything in the seminar is relevant to me, is it not? In which case, scanning 350 pages of seminar readings makes about as much sense as… well, Kabbalah.

But in the context of my thesis, it has finally become clear to me what the hell these PhDs are talking about.

Last week, Dr. H suggested I read Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion. Cuz I do rhetoric, you know, and nuns have something to do with religion, so it must be relevant, right?

Wrong. Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion has absolutely nothing to do with the specific question I am exploring. But I didn’t know that until I made a special trip to the library just to hunt it down in the stacks, brought it home, laid it atop my ever-growing hoard of other books suggested by well-meaning PhDs, and forgot about it until I reached its place in the pile. At which point I picked it up, opened it, looked at the table of contents, skipped to a few chapters that looked like they might have something to do with my question, saw that they were absurdly off-topic, got frustrated, wondered for an hour or so what in the world made Dr. H think that this would be helpful, looked at the table of contents again, flipped through some more chapters, and finally decided that Dr. H has, himself, probably never read Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion, or, equally possibly, that he actually has no idea what I’m researching.

At which point I realized that I had effectively scanned Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion—and promptly filtered it out.

Holy crap, I thought. I learned something!

I learned that the PhDs were not entirely wrong. Scanning is useful, but only when you are looking for something in particular. Like when you’re writing a thesis, with a narrow question and a very limited range of ways in which to answer it. And especially when you are writing a thesis amidst a host of good-intentioned PhDs who are constantly referring you to this, that, and the other scholar in an attempt to “help you out”. In my experience, about half of their recommendations lead to genuine geek-gems. But the other half seems like a game of “psyche out the dog”—you know, when you swing your arm as if you threw the ball, and the dog goes running, until he figures out there’s no ball out there and comes back pathetically confused to the master he can’t believe would ever deceive him, only to find the master is so über-powerful that he somehow managed to retrieve the ball all by himself, without even moving. And in perfect love and trust, he begs with his whole body: Ooh! Ooh! Throw it again!

Only you’re the dog.

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