A few years ago, one of my smart students, who interpreted literature effortlessly, encountered an essay by Judith Butler. “Why,” she asked, “does she have to write like she’s so smart?” The question has stayed with me. Was she asking, “why does reading this essay make me feel less smart?” Or, was it gendered, “why does this woman not write as women should write?” Was it about effort? “I’m encountering something that I cannot manage effortlessly and this creates a crisis in self-definition.”
What happens when the good student encounters difficulty?
I suspect that this question traffics differently in the sciences than in the humanities, to the extent that the sciences are supposed to be difficult. When I was in the sciences, we struggled through difficulty. I have no sense of how the very good, but not brilliant, engaged with difficulty. Did they experience rage or shame? How does shame function during learning, when one discovers the limits of talent? How can we discuss such moments in class, make them part of our pedagogy?
Over the past few years, I have had several smart, very good students, who are often confronted with the limits of intuition. Answers that elicit nods of approval and praise from my colleagues receive little of that from me. I am not overly given to praise. I have a very good nose for the rote, the practiced, the lazy. Those who receive effortless As from other instructors receive Bs and Cs and, occasionally, Ds. Not that evaluation is the last word—with Taban lo Liyong, I believe there’s always another last word. Rather, I am impatient with lazy thinking—and I can tell when it’s lazy.
At a certain point, as an undergrad, I had read enough beyond my classmates that whatever I said in class was “smart.” I was saved from my “smartness” by mentors who gently and consistently raised the bar, who fostered the intellectual promiscuity I now practice and try to teach.
Learning Goal: Students will learn how to be intellectually promiscuous.
I repeatedly encountered the limits of my talent as I read philosophy that I could not understand and, worse, poetry that I could not map. The poetry was especially wounding. I understood my destiny as an English major in a poetry class when I realized that I “got it.” I didn’t have to struggle with poetry. It was “easy.” Intuitive. I threw myself into it—read tons of William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara, all the Harlem Renaissance poets I could manage, and more. And then I encountered Susan Howe. And while I had my bag of tricks—undecidability, free-play, historical contingency, textual improvisation, and the big one, bricolage—none of these seemed adequate. I loved her work but I had no way of thinking about it. From Susan Howe to Edmond Jabès, who I adore. But I have no way of thinking about him, nothing to say beyond declaring my love for his work.
Learning the limits of my talents led to multiple other directions. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to abandon mastery as a goal, to inhabit the particularity of a text, an archive, a movement; to embrace the partiality of a claim, its historical occasion, its situated intervention—thinkers prior to my time were not less intelligent. Rather, to invoke Fanon, their historical mission was different. I did not have to run around cutting off my father’s penis. I learned to work alongside difficulty—to step back, to step aside, to work around, to work through and with fragments, to find points of engagement, and also to admit when work is difficult. I read a lot of work that I don’t understand—I still spend hours glaring at writers and asking, like my student, why they have to “sound so smart,” even as, learning from Peter Barry, I have learned not to be “endlessly patient” with difficulty. But this, I must admit, is because I don’t have to be.
One can perform genius, as I recently told my students. But I am much more interested in engaging in a series of conversations with interested and interesting people. That means something else—being readable, engaging, even entertaining. I write this even as I confess that it’s seductive to “perform genius.” Perhaps especially so in English, where there are so many of us. I’m Kenyan enough and, regrettably, gendered enough, to crave approval for “genius,” even as I critique the desire for it. Thankfully, I’m not religious enough to experience absolute shame over my desire—not yet anyway.
Learning still hurts.
I continue to struggle with a range of knowledges and practices. Friends who understand economics and finance pity me because I honestly have no clue what they mean. I am grateful for their patience as they try to teach me, and I continue to hope they will continue to extend it. I understand science when it’s popularized by the NYT; otherwise, I could not explain the difference between a drake and its brother. My Medievalist friends snicker because, unlike them, I do not know six different languages. Friends who specialize in British literature wonder whether I really am “postcolonial,” as I know nothing about contemporary British writing. Yet, as I re-read this, I want to note the term that matters: “friends.” I could extend it to peers and colleagues, those from whom I learn and with whom I think.
Learning still hurts.
Each new article or book I encounter teaches me something I could not have envisioned. And sometime, many times, I struggle with what it is teaching. I don’t understand, have to take a break, still don’t understand, want to dismiss it as “needlessly” difficult or “uneven” or useless. Sometimes these evaluations are appropriate. At other times, they register my frustration when I have to slow down, re-learn how to read again, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and when even these strategies fail. When I reach the limits of my abilities and talents and training. When I learn that despite what the TV says, I cannot do anything I want.
Such moments are useful. And necessary. But still painful and shame inducing. When I present at conferences these days, I am far more likely to say, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about that,” in response to questions. Or I try to grapple with difficulty and enact that grappling, as unsatisfying as it might be to a questioner. I don’t always do this. I am seduced by the idea of “performing genius,” but I try to remember the limits of that model.