Generous Thinking

This weekend, I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Johns Hopkins 2019). The book calls for scholars to think more generously as individuals, as a community, with the public, and through our institutions. The first pages of the book spoke immediately to me (and some of my growing concerns about how I act as a scholar in the 21st century). Fitzpatrick describes a seminar where a group of graduate students were asked what they thought about a text. The class responded by a period of boisterous critique and criticism. Alarmed, perhaps, at the class’s eagerness to tear the text apart, she stopped the conversation by asking the students, instead, to articulate the author’s argument. There was silence.

Anyone who has taught graduate seminars (or, indeed, participated in them) recognizes these moments and this mildly Socratic process. The assumption that almost any article or book that we read in seminar is flawed, outdated, or problematic encourages a kind of hair trigger response to any perceived shortcoming in a publication. This behavior allows us to show off our critical chops and finding weakness in even the most carefully argued texts, indulges the modern love of irony (this article may see brilliant and perfect, but BEHOLD!), and conditions the kind of hyper-critical attitudes that have created such beloved characters as “Reviewer #2” and infused scholarly conversations with a kind of pugilistic (or perhaps more charitably “agonistic”) approach to knowledge making.

To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of this tendency. In fact, my graduate seminars often centered more around tearing each other’s work down to the foundational assumptions than offering constructive critique. I’m still working on finding a more constructive, collaborative, and collegial professional voice particularly as a peer reviewer

Part of the issue, as Fitzpatrick notes, is the idea that competition provides a key way in the establishing of professional truth and academic expertise. The connections between having the ability to discern or establish truth and professional status as an expert starts in graduate school, continues on the job market, is central to winning competitive grants, gaining advancement and attaining recognition. In other words, the academic world encourages a view of truth and status that is dependent — to a very real extent— on other people being wrong as much as someone being right. 

This way of thinking has often created barriers between our professional discourse and the general public. The technical character of academic language which so often appears as jargon to the uninitiated has served as a way to distinguish the precision and accuracy of truth claims, to limit our audience, and to fend off challenges from less proficient scholars. More than that, it has encouraged academics to see public outreach not as creative work, knowledge making, or truth building, but as a lesser form of intellectual labor. While I do feel that the burden of outreach falls unevenly on scholars in the humanities (and some of this is tied to a deep skepticism that the truths produced in the humanities establish real expertise), Fitzpatrick does demonstrate the clear link between how we work as scholars and our ability (and willingness and attitudes toward) engaging with a wider public.

I was particularly taken by Fitzpatrick’s careful consideration of the role of empathy and, more broadly, care, in our work as scholars, readers, and writers. Avoiding the seemingly ubiquitous calls for a kind of banal (and frankly unproductive, mostly condescending, and often colonialist) empathy, Fitzpatrick encouraged scholars to recognize that empathy is a process, a struggle, and always necessarily incomplete. The slow, painful, and always incomplete work of empathizing forms the basis for new forms of compassion and scholarly care. This undermines Ricoeur’s famous “hermeneutics of suspicion” both in how we read texts, but also in how we engage with our larger community. We suspend our overdeveloped sense of modern irony and attempt to understand others for who they are rather than to suss out what they’re hiding.    

As importantly, she demonstrates that this does not involve a kind of facile naïveté or the an overdetermined sense of the authenticity of “the other.” Nor does it require us to suspend our critical skills or rationalize injustice. It does, however, require us to listen rather than just to hear. By listening, we demonstrate that we care and instead of rushing to undermine or counter views that we assume to be different from our own, we create a space for genuine communication, reflection, and dialogue. This seems like good advice to me.

But this isn’t just a book telling us how to use our academic training to create dialogue, expand understanding, and make room for other voices. Fitzpatrick also urges us to turn this kind of collaborative, caring, and generous spirit on ourselves and academic institutions. The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “the university and the public good,” and she argues that by embracing more generous thinking as individuals we can push our institutions to return to their mission of providing the public good. If the historical practices of academic competition have merged with capitalist and market ideologies that see truth and knowledge making as a zero sum game with winners and loser both on the epistemological and professional level, a more generous and empathetic approach might shift the center of scholarly work from the individual to the collective and the community. As a result, attention to the health of the larger community both within and outside the academy, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of care creates new spaces for new and good.     

Applying these perspectives on the public good requires that we work to change our institutions as well as our disciplinary and individual practices. By recognizing the university and our scholarly work as part of a larger public and its myriad and variously define communities, we push back against the prevailing view of higher education as an individual good and begin to construct arguments and establish practices that demonstrate how higher education is public work that leads to public good. This is particularly important in an era where funding to higher education is increasingly articulated by unsympathetic legislatures as a luxury or as a subsidy directed to support the personal advancement of a small percentage of the population (i.e. faculty and students).

Fitzpatrick notes that it is difficult to map out in concrete terms the changes necessarily to transform institutions, particularly at the scale of higher education in the U.S. This doesn’t really detract from the impact of the book, however. It’s clear enough that change has to happen at the level of the individual who, if we buy Fitzpatrick’s argument, can make a difference by modeling generosity in their personal practices and encouraging others to think generously as well. 

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