brilliant honesty

One of the positive comments I often get on my work is that my writing style is remarkably candid and direct. Such comments go back to graduate school when peers would read my work and has followed me through my years as a professor. This consistency often bothers me because I want to be commended for being “smart,” dare I hope “brilliant,” sometimes I’d even take “interesting” over “honest.” I know theoretically that this desire has more to do with the self-doubt that academia is structured to instill in scholars than with my own desires, but that doesn’t stop my cringing.

buddha keyboard

What often happens when I get such comments is that I immediately want to take everything back. I want a do-over because I feel over-exposed and under-assimilated into the profession that I’ve chosen to pursue. One of the things that daily mediation has helped me to do is to notice my behavior patterns. And I recently had cause to notice and reflect on this particular pattern when I received an email about work I had shared with a group and the following sentence triggered my insecurities:

Thank you for bravely sharing your thoughts on your pedagogical experiment, for modeling a kind of honest wrestling with difficult questions that is rare in the all-too-often performative realm of the academy.

I had the initial knee-jerk reaction: “Crap, there it is again. So much for the ground-breaking I was shooting for. I need to work harder to make it innovative. I should…I’m not…Why can’t I? etc. etc. etc.” All the monkey-mind negative thoughts that have made their home in my head. (Whenever I really pay attention to such thoughts I think of the sitcom, Herman’s Head, where parts of the title character’s psyche were personified and viewers became privy to how his thoughts and actions were connected).

But the whole email was so beautifully written that I had to reread it. And the rereading gave me enough space to pause and notice the path I was travelling mentally. I realized that my work was being described as valuable. Indeed, uniquely so. Brilliance is so firmly established as the ideal for academic work that we see anything less as, well, less. Is there something to be said for other types of contributions? Like honesty? And candor?

Of course, the negative thoughts haven’t packed up and left. But they have been relegated to a corner for a bit while I play with this notion of other virtues of academic writing. And with the budding realization that this is my academic style. Readers aren’t randomly choosing similar words to describe my work. Actually, I’ve gotten some similar comments from friends about my Calm Strength posts as well, so it seems that I am the one privileging this approach in my writing. (Although it took lots of attempts and deletions to almost state that brilliance may not be the end-all/be-all/everything of academic writing.)

All this to say, I am noticing three patterns here: my writing approach, the responses to my writing, and my response to those responses. Thanks to my work with daily meditation, rather than constantly coming down on myself for not changing my writing style, I am learning to insert a little space between the second and third of these patterns.

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