On Writing about Questions

This semester I am once again immersed in Emerson. My students are reading and thinking about his language in my introduction to the major course, English 200. Too, Emerson’s thinking, and his use of language, offered a space to think about being named the 2009 Distinguished Scholar at Keene State College and the keynote address I would be giving to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference.

While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence–as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be–I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event:  to give undergraduate te students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350  students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering. As I was trying to figure out what to say to such a diverse audience, and how I might approach the occasion, I found in Emerson’s essay “The Poet” a formulation that proved to be useful in organizing the second part of what turned out to be a three-part essay. Emerson says, “We know that the secret of the world is profound, but who or what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble, a new style of face, a new person, may put the key into our hands.” It was the mountain ramble part that helped.

And so I was thinking: where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new. My talk began by asserting that whatever the academic field, most research and scholarship can be traced back to a question. However my interest was really how intellectual work is motivated by questions that transcend academic fields, professional identities, the very idea of academic excellence. As a humanist, I explained to my audience, I am preoccupied with these deeper questions. But, as I went on to say, any certainty that I might have had about where questions come from had been unraveling since late February when I was skiing across a frozen lake with my five-year-old friend Ben and he asked, “What is more importanter, living or being loved?”

Another significant moment in mywriting process was discovering something unexpected in a familiar poem by Mary Oliver.  Her poem offered a beautiful way of describing the scholarly process. It also helped me find my way to the three parts to the essay I was trying to write. The gist of it all, she says, is that we keep looking, one question leads to another question, we think again. (That “we,” it turned out, also resonated with me.) If you are interested, here is what I ended up saying to the hundreds of people gathered for lunch in a talk I titled “The Trouble with Scholarship.

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