Curiosity, Being Yourself and Being Bad at Things

Recently my friend Nathan sent out a letter, asking a bunch of different people how they stay curious amidst the swarm of obligations and distractions that are life in general (and graduate school in particular).  This question stuck with me, as it’s something I’ve been struggling with since moving from Cambridge to Montreal, and from my masters program at MIT to my doctoral program at McGill.

For me, the question of curiosity comes down to: how do you reject the temptation to just do the thing you’re good at all the time, because you’re good at it and (theoretically) because you like it? I’ve stumbled into a specialty (that I love!) fairly early in the typical grad-career timeline, and I’m pretty good at it. I know I can talk/write intelligently about online activism for hours, and because I’m a smart kid who’s always been a smart kid, I want to spend time doing the thing that I’m good at. But, and here’s the problematic part, I picked my doctoral program in part because it has strengths in areas I’m bad or underprepared in, like theory and things that aren’t the internet.  In fact, the majority of my classes this term were super theory-heavy.

And oh boy, was I bad at them in the beginning. Bad and not happy about it.

Rather than engage directly with the material in front of me, I instead played a game of All Paths Lead to the Internet, using each text as a jumping off point to ramble on about digital culture and social movements and not, you know, Derrida.  Because Derrida was hard, and not only was Derrida hard, but moving to another country had left me tired and homesick most of the time, and all I really wanted to do was retreat into comfortable things, be that writing about the internet or knitting and watching Adventure Time under a pile of blankets.  Halfway through the semester I had some talks with my professors where they called me out on doing this very thing.  One told me I needed to spend more time “thinking about thinking” in graduate school while I had the chance.  Another encouraged me to “dwell in the intellectually uncomfortable places” instead of shying away from them.

So I started consciously trying to access that intellectual space where answers and utility aren’t necessarily important, where being public with your work isn’t the obvious next step. This is different than the intellectual environment of my masters program (which I loved), which emphasized working-in-public and real-world-impact for student projects.  But here, I had to turn off (or at least turn down) that working-in-public drive and allow myself to intellectually nest for a while.

I think a lot of my skill of curiosity, or giving myself permission to be curious, is about turning off the drive to be public or polished. I espouse the “It’s ok to make mistakes!” philosophy of working-in-public, but I also, perhaps paradoxically, never let anything out of my hands unless I’ve worked damn hard at it and it reflects what I want it to reflect about myself.  Curiosity, at least as I’ve been exploring it, is often about pushing into things that aren’t ourselves, or don’t reflect those bits of ourselves that we like best.  I’m working on a paper right now that is a very uncomfortable paper to write, trying to flesh out my concept of “civic fiction” by working through an extremely problematic case study. I doubt I’ll ever publish it. But I do want to eventually publish on “civic fiction,” and I need to do this uncomfortable work first before I can do that public-facing work. If I were still at an institution that placed a high value on working-in-public, I don’t think I could do this uncomfortable work.

This type of intellectual curiosity involves giving yourself permission to not be yourself, and that requires privacy and nesting and closing the door for a little while. This can be in conflict with the type of personal academic branding I and a lot of my peers are involved with.  But to my best work, and to maintain the kind of intellectual curiosity that brought me to academia in the first place, it’s also necessary.