Academic Mondays: Des Autodidactes

How often do autodidacts appear as literary characters? How are they portrayed? Why do they fascinate?

When are autodidacts liberated and liberating, and when are they impostors? How can you tell an impostor from a harbinger of new ideas?

How do I, not an autodidact, explain to an autodidact who could be a harbinger of new ideas that he has no need to mold himself into an impostor? How does one counter the defense that I say what I do because am Establishment?

What happens when the understanding of autodidaxy as liberation bleeds into the anti-intellectualism of the Right?

When graduate students say the exams are “only hazing” or “only a hoop to jump through,” do they mean they believe they have a right to degrees without learning or jobs without degrees?

Please feel free to discuss any aspect of any of these questions, or to add new ones.


24 thoughts on “Academic Mondays: Des Autodidactes

  1. An autodidact is someone who learns on their own, right? How can you not be an autodidact, writing this blog?

    >graduate students say the exams are “only hazing” or “only a hoop to jump through,”

    In what subject? In the math teacher blogs, lots of us are talking about testing doesn’t often get at what we really want students to learn. And math seems more amenable to testing than most subjects.

    >What happens when the understanding of autodidaxy as liberation bleeds into the anti-intellectualism of the Right?

    I’d love to know more about what you’re thinking here. Can you give us some examples?

    I’m putting a book together about playing with math, definitely with an ‘autodidact’ flavor. I’m fascinated by math education issues, and all the reading and thinking I’ve done might bring me close to a PhD in it. But I won’t pay for certification of my learning again, nor to have someone judge me and tell me what I must do.

  2. When graduate students say the exams are “only hazing” or “only a hoop to jump through,” do they mean they believe they have a right to degrees without learning or jobs without degrees?

    It might. But it could also mean a couple of other things.

    It could be that the requirements have been communicated to them in exactly this way, that it’s a hoop to jump through! I have had faculty tell me exactly this about our foreign language requirements. As a historian of the U.S. I am not currently engaged in any research that requires reading knowledge of a foreign language, but my program requires two. So I’ve been told to do the minimum I have to do to get a signature on a piece of paper that says I can read such-and-such language, so as not to waste time that I could be spending on other things.

    This annoyed me at first. I thought, if it’s not going to be a “real” requirement where I am expected to learn something, why have it? Then I realized this is almost certainly the product of a disagreement among faculty, some of whom think learning languages is good whether you “need” them for your research or not, and some who don’t. I think it was Historiann who published a really excellent post recently explaining why languages are a good idea regardless. Anyway, I was persuaded, and have been taking my French a lot more seriously.

    The other possibility is that the student simply doesn’t see how this particular bit of learning fits into their larger goals, and thus sees it as a waste of time and a hindrance to what they are trying to do. Some of my classmates responded this way last fall when asked to write a historiographical paper in a field completely outside their own. They saw it as getting in the way of the stuff they came to grade school to do. I saw it as a way of encouraging us to know about something besides our own field (and I had fun with mine, too). But I was in a minority in taking this view.

    I don’t think this is surprising though. We are expected to do so much, that it’s normal and natural that people prioritize the things they really want to do, and shove off the things they don’t want to do or the things they don’t see any purpose in.

    It’s the fact they don’t see the purpose that is the problem, but this is not the students’ fault; it’s the fault of a larger anti-intellectualism in our culture that affects even those of us who value learning, and makes it harder to see things like why it’s important and good to know languages and thus expand the realm of what you can read and know, even if you don’t “need” to.

    Finally, it’s possible the exams really are hazing. If I had to sit for old-school exams, where you get shut in a room for eight hours to write down everything you know about XYZ, I would consider that hazing, when I could just instead write a couple of historiographical papers that (1) still require the student to master the literature, and (2) result in a useful product the student can refer back to later, and (3) don’t rely on straight up memorization of stuff that isn’t important to have memorized. This is because I think evaluation of student work should closely follow the conditions in which they are going to have to use what they learn. (For undergraduates, I’d much rather see them required to write papers, with reference to the books they’ve been reading, rather than sit in a classroom with no notes and no books and crap out a midterm into blue books. Seriously, what does that tell us about their ability to acquire and use the knowledge important to our disciplines? NOTHING.)

    Ha… I should shut up before you tell me to get my own blog. 🙂

    1. On the exams — mine were old school and I liked them because of what they gave me an opportunity to study. A lot of the required courses *did* feel like marking time to me — too superficial or vague or out of field. Studying for the exams I got to focus on my actual interests and take them as far as I could. They were the best part of graduate school (also better than the dissertation). I also got really good questions on the exams.

      However, they were at the same time a big exhausting obstacle in their own way. Better courses, and exams of the type you describe, would have in fact worked better in the long run.
      I’ve seen exams be really useless when they have other formats than the type of old school exams I wrote (which were old school, but still smart and penetrating).

      On the foreign languages, I also agree — there’s no point unless you really learn them well enough to use them. At the same time I also think they’re useful, even if not directly. The value of being able to read something in the original (as in, what do the Germans say about my topic?) is very great even if one does not expect it to be. It’s sort of like gaining super literacy.

      1. On papers out of field: I do think they’re good. [One thing I also like to do for students in Spanish is not let them always present on authors from their own country (which many like to do). They can still study the period, genre, themes, ideas, etc. that are their main focus but in a different national or regional context.]

      2. There’ve been several occasions when I really wanted to know something I could only find out by reading stuff that was in French or Spanish.

        Not a lot of occasions. But some.

        So it’s good to learn, if I can.

        I kind of suck at it though. 😦

  3. My favorite academic exercise was actually the old school PhD exams. I liked studying for them because I designed the reading lists and studied without being in courses (except for those I audited). I could say more about why I think my experience has to be the minority one.

    Why I wrote the post: dealing with a local autodidact who has a lot of talent and information but needs just a little more context and framework to be effective; doesn’t see it. Maybe it isn’t autodidaxy I am frustrated with but amateurishness?

    This is all too brief to be understood but maybe not.

  4. Is that really amateurishness though? Isn’t it part of the human condition, that we don’t really understand why things we don’t know are important? It’s just this side of being a tautology: we don’t know them, so how can we understand their importance?

    We complain about this in our undergraduates all the time. But I see it in graduate students as well. I think faculty must be the same; the only difference is that they do not have anyone to tell them that they must learn certain things that it hasn’t occurred to them to learn.

    1. Yes, this is what I am trying to figure out. But in the concrete situation I have this: one autodidact trying to enlist my support for a project about which I know a lot more than he does. I am supportive of him personally and he can do/think whatever he wants, but (a) I don’t agree with the aspect of his project that overlaps my professional work, and also (b) I am not comfortable opining on another part of his project, upon which he wants me to opine, because I know enough about it to know that I don’t know enough to make a global pronouncement about it.

      At a personal level I don’t like it because it feels invasive and coercive. At the same time I want to support this person in whatever he wants to do — he doesn’t have to agree with me, I just don’t want to have to agree with him.

      At a professional level it feels like an attempt at violation because I do want to be faithful to my own standards for my own research.

      Finally, although I am happy to support this person as person and I wish him and his projects well, there are other people who feel intruded upon/invaded by his activities; I may not agree with their views, either, but I don’t want to support him hassling others.

      1. This sounds like more of an interpersonal problem with boundaries or something than an academic problem.

  5. For years I was an autodidact, with only two years of undergraduate higher education. I got little respect for my ideas from my PhD husband or my PhD-track daughter (especially the latter). They had a point, I have got to admit. My mind was untrained.
    Going back to school at age 45, I completed my eduacation through an M.A. in liberal studies. That was years and years of reading, writing, arguing, thinking. What I did not do was advance into the last area, the area of specialization, the Doctorate. But I got close enough to have some notions about what academic professionalism means, and to respect it.
    Challenges to high academic qualifications and accomplishments are rife, as are challenges to professionalism everywhere in the culture right now. Your “unfair advantage” is not just your institutional authority; it is also the mental discipline you learned that the autodidact does not possess.

    1. Mental discipline — there you hit the nail on the head. This comment is so applicable to so many things, I should print it and post it on my refrigerator!!!

  6. OK. What I don’t like about some autodidacts is the pick and choose version of history they present. Yes, everything has a perspective, but what I consider to be knowledge and research consciously tries not to replicate mythologies and/or simply substitute them for each other.

    1. And there is that thing called The Truth. Sometimes it is hidden or wrapped up in layers and layers of stuff, and unpacking The Truth is a big job of professional historians.

      1. I secretly believe that at some level but I am very much trained to believe there isn’t just one Truth. Thoughts?

      2. I feel like there are definitely Lies, but Truth is much harder to get ahold of. It’s because Truth is so, so, so complex and there’s so much of it.

        If Bob and Jane, a married couple, have a giant fight, one possible reason for this is that they see the world in fundamentally different ways. And if this is the case then to TruthFully tell their story, you really have to tell two completely different stories. A lot of things are like that.

        My current research project is like that. There are so many different sets of actors and each group has a completely different story. I don’t know if it’s even possible or desirable to somehow combine them all into a single, true story – I don’t think it can be done without erasing someone, and that I refuse to do.

        So my answer to this question is that it’s much easier to root out Lies (or to tell them, if that’s what you do) than it is to discover and tell the Truth, fully.

  7. Hattie — 3d Reich, well I guess so! Human — interpersonal, I guess you’re right.

    Sue — I still need to say more about the bleed through between autodidaxy and the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world. These people present a simulacrum of knowledge and information. Autodidaxy is great — anti-institutionalism is great — except when it means not being scientific, using only the information that supports a certain theory, forming ideas without mental discipline, etc.

    1. By the way, I did not mean my earlier comment to sound dismissive and I hope it didn’t come across that way, of course interpersonal problems are important, too! I just didn’t feel I had enough info about it to say more.

  8. Human — I think the earlier comment was good and on point — and the one about Lies, Truth, and history very much so, too!

  9. Haha, really? If it’s the person I am thinking of, somehow I am not surprised there may be boundary issues.

  10. Oh, that’s interesting! Tell me more! I knew you had gotten some sort of strange vibe but…

    That was before I actually saw said individual after his return from points north. Now I have and I think he is slightly dissociative. It is interesting to watch his metamorphoses.

    He was originally one of those star students one has a collegial relationship with … then he was one of those persons one knows and shares some interests with … he is a character in this blog as my youngest brother.

    I had him tracked, I realize, as someone on the way to becoming one of those friends one first met because they took one’s classes at some point.

    However, I think that in reality he is my godson and that I should get my role right as godparent (not parent) of an adult who is going through some changes and needs to figure them out himself.

  11. Honestly there isn’t much more to tell. Strange vibe is a good way to put it. Our conversation was very brief.

    You have friends you met because they took your classes? Dr. Crazy has been writing about her BES who has become a good friend she hangs out with, and I found that odd. Not like I thought it shouldn’t happen but was just surprised that it did. Mainly because she described it as being a relationship between equals. I have former professors I am still “friends” with. But we only ever talk about my life, not theirs. They might tell me a little news about their university or department but that’s it.

    Are your former-student-friends like Crazy’s BES or do you keep them at arm’s length like my former-prof-friends do with me?

  12. It depends. I started being a TA when I was 21. Some of the people I was the TA of were really only a couple of years behind me in school and ended up in graduate programs. Then there were the students who became professors and so on.

    But usually what happens is, time goes by and I re-meet a person I originally met because they were in my class. At that point we’re in a different venue (not school) and drop those roles.

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