The Cure for Thinking is Work

Men at Work SignIf you’re a scholar or student in the humanities and you’re having trouble making progress on that latest article or essay you’re supposed to write, chances are that you’re thinking too hard.

What? Thinking too hard?

Yes, thinking too hard. Thinking is the bane of our existence in the humanities, rooted in Romantic visions of the lone and misunderstood genius, conjuring thoughts of philosophical profundity out of nothingness. If that’s how scholarly discourse truly proceeded, we’d have thousands of awe-inspiring, world-rocking treatises at the end of every finals week or whenever a scholar was faced with a looming deadline.

We don’t, of course. We get bullshit. And I mean that in the most analytically rigorous Frankfurtian kind of way. But it’s bullshit nonetheless.

And the reason is that we and our students think too much and don’t work enough.

Now, I’m using a very particular notion of thinking and working here, inspired by a short 2007 essay in the PMLA by Peter Stallybrass, provocatively titled “Against Thinking.”*

Stallybrass argues that thinking is the hobgoblin of big minds. Thinking, according to Stallybrass, is:

Hard,  painful
Boring, repetitious
Indolent (1583)

On the other hand, working is:

Exciting, a process of discovery
Challenging (1583)

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, for example, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the English Short Title Catalog. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all scholars—need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584). This is a key insight that students and scholars alike need to be reminded of: tortured and laborious thinking does not automatically translate into anything of importance.

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the physical forms of books, digging into etymologies, paleography, and so on. Work is engagement with materials and objects. It is not staring off into space with a blank screen in front of you.

If Stallybrass is correct that we need to think less and work more, what does work look like in your field? When you teach students, how do you encourage work instead of bullshit? Share your ideas and assignments in the comments for all to hear!

* Disclosure: I was a graduate student of Stallybrass’s in the late nineties. I first encountered his distinction between thinking and working then, in a memo that Peter had written up in for the provost, which he shared with our class. I prize that document; it’s one of the most valuable pieces of paper from all of graduate school, and I’m grateful that Peter eventually made a version of it public in the PMLA. The full citation is Stallybrass, Peter. “Against Thinking.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1580-1587.

Men at Work photograph courtesy of Flickr user Simon Pearson / Creative Commons Licensed

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