One Subject, Many Subjects? (Gorging on Not School)

Just wanted to kick out a question to you folks: do you most enjoy academic research when you're focusing on just one thing, or pursuing multiple lines

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at once? I at some points in grad school thought that I would much more enjoy it if I only had to take one class at a time. I like immersing myself in a subject, and that's one thing I've really liked about the podcast: reading not only the work we're assigned, but trying to get a grasp (sometimes) on that author's other writings, what others have said about him, what others have written about the same topic. I would get into such a mode with a grad school class, but then some other course would demand my equal attention, and it was hard to constantly shift focus, and too easy in the end to not get sucked up into any of my courses.

Once I was thrown to purely working on my dissertation, the dynamic changed for me: if you HAVE to do just this one thing, even a thing you've picked, for multiple semesters, and be disciplined enough to not just read a lot of stuff about it, but do disciplined academic work, it gets more imposing. My biggest obstacle in this respect was that (back in '98 or so) the Internet was not nearly so useful, and I certainly didn't have a laptop computer, so the work involved hanging around at the library for long periods taking notes on paper, which was counter to my nature at the time (which is I guess was more to sit in a tree eating berries or sit at my desk playing Starcraft... one of those).

So now we've got this Not School resource, which I've gotten myself well sunken into, not only to show my presence and so make listeners more likely to want to join some of the groups, but because there's a lot of stuff I want to read that we've not yet gotten to on the podcast, and much that is just not on our radar to cover. Despite the fact that I probably have a near-majority influence in determining what we read, my key philosophical interests--philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and (though I don't know that I was so aware that this was a key interest) aesthetics--are barely getting served in our trek across the history of ideas here. So immediately, for late October and November, I joined too many groups, but managed to mostly keep up with the reading in them: Deleuze, Chalmers on Mind, Paul Auster, some philosophy movies, some additional discussion on the Federalist Papers and Quine... it was a big deal for me to actually abstain from joining a group, because it all looks so damned good to me.

For December, I pledged to be more restrained, but many of my November groups continued, and I had to join a couple more, so consequently I've had to generally lax in my participation in most of them, though I have been reading Derrida, Logicomix, Frankfurt's "On Bullshit," some of Calvino's Cosmicomics, and a bit more Deleuze. Oh, and there's the actual podcasts to prepare for, immersing myself in Carnap, and Chalmers, and most recently Plato's "Gorgias." And as new proposals come up (e.g. someone just put one out there to read Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception in its entirety, which I've been thirsting to do), they too clamor for my personal involvement. So, I've had to remind myself, "having too much support and inducement to read is much better than being in a vacuum with no motivation to read and no one to talk about it with" and "this tool is here to serve the participants, not for its participants to serve it" and "all these groups have several involved people in them and aren't counting on me personally to make them work." The mix of having structure and social pressure to read on the one hand not actually having someone grading me and other real-world consequences if I don't is a good one, I think.

Oh, and hey, we've now entered the official proposal period for January reading groups, so get on it, folks!

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Profile photo of NeilE says

    Just wanted to kick out a question to you folks: do you most enjoy academic research when you’re focusing on just one thing, or pursuing multiple lines at once?

    I’m getting more from focusing on one book at a time, and all the ‘more’ is coming from the discussion groups. They give me multiple perspectives on the text, forcing me to think outside my own preconceptions and substantially deepening my understanding of its contents.

  2. Profile photo of Mark Bloom says

    Just focusing on the idea of “one subject at a time”; If we assume that our ideas are based on experience, then creativity comes from the combination of ideas we already have in a new way. When I study more than one thing at a time, is there higher probability of being creative in my thinking? Perhaps a part of this gets to how our minds store and recall learned information.

  3. Profile photo of Tammy says

    You have asked the million-dollar question when it comes to specialization or a broader approach. It is a question, I think, that is being battled out between the hard and soft sciences, ‘this tool is here to serve the participants, not for its participants to serve it’: thinking about technology, quantitative analysis, and economics as a soft or hard science. Whichever one wins there will be a paradigm shift according to Thomas Kuhn [sorry ‘bout the name drop]. I think I’m leaning toward focusing on one subject. Then again, when I attempt this…

  4. Aaron Lietz says

    I’m torn! Actually, I’m feeling quite guilty too b/c 1) I’m new here, 2) I’m only signed up for one group and keep running into “holiday hurdles” (stopping me from finishing the reading and posting) and 3) because I love this stuff and don’t want to let anyone down! Well, to answer the topic I do think focusing on one topic (or just a few) at a time is wise. In my case, it could be that (in selecting Derrida as my first pick ever here) I bit off a little much. But I do certainly share the sentiment that (at least for me) not picking everything is hard! We feel like we are missing something (or things) if we aren’t a part of all the groups. I’m in hopes that all past groups/discussions/documents will be saved for later (just in case some of us would like to revisit them, or visit them for the first time, later).


  5. Laura says

    This is an unanswerable question because each mind is different, the capacity for each mind’s pursuits is different (which is why Chalmers’ efforts concern me–there are too many variables)…but personally I find I do better with focusing on one subject at a time–I achieve more, have a greater experience and because life always gets in the way–always–I have a better chance using my time more effectively.

    That said, can someone please do a group on Neitsche? Please?

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