Recently I’ve heard academics say the kind of thing I once heard only from wildly amateurish writers: “I don’t want to reveal too much about my work, because I’m worried about people taking the premise/title/idea/template for themselves.” I’m worried that scholars are being encouraged to be hoarders of ideas.
The academic version of Hoarding: Buried Alive goes something like this: You had a terrific, groundbreaking idea for a conference paper in 1997. Let’s call it the “Vortex Theory of Sexual Innuendo,” or V.S.I. for short.
That’s how you imagined others would refer to it in their dissertations and footnotes once the theory manifested the intellectually scorching, cross-discipline “wildfire” effect you knew it possessed. The V.S.I. was destined to establish you as one of the leading scholars of your generation.
You still remember the heat with which you wrote the three-page proposal, which was returned by the conference organizers because it had arrived after the deadline. (“So sorry we couldn’t consider your interesting perspective on this important if unusual topic!”) The idea had come to you as you were leaving the library one snowy November morning, after having seen a beautiful undergraduate with almost lashless eyes raise a young face to the dreary sky.
You kept the idea—and the actual pages—in a file crammed into an office cabinet. You also scanned a copy into your computer.
Every couple of months you remember the premise and think, “I should really do something with that.” Then you forget about it until: (1) You read a recently published article or book review touching on a concept with any kind of remote similarity, no matter how broad (for example, the book being reviewed refers to “sex”); or (2) Somebody asks you whatever happened to that theory you had about vacuums and gender, which causes you to launch into a 40-minute explanation of how you arrived at your rationale.
But you’re not going to do anything with it, are you? You’re just dragging it around with you, wiping it off every once in a while but not enjoying it or making actual use of it. It’s not helping you or enriching anyone else’s experience of life. If anything, you feel guilty; it torments you, like the chains Jacob Marley forged in life.
Like the thousand china unicorns the poor souls on Hoarding keep in shoeboxes and the 906 Dunkin’ Donuts travel mugs in the bathtub, inert ideas can clutter the minds of academics until there isn’t room for anything new. That’s when we start tripping over ourselves and falling down on the job.
I believe we need to clear out our ideas on a frequent basis. Anything about which you’ve told yourself more than five times, “I’ll get to that one day, when I have more time” is something to question and, more than likely, relinquish.
Some of those ideas are stale. Many are past their expiration date. You can tell yourself that what now seems out of fashion will one day become stylish, but that happens rarely, and only when what is being rediscovered was fabulous in the first place.
“Classic,” like “vintage,” is not a term used lightly by those in the know. Schiaparelli from 1937 is vintage; Dooney & Bourke from 1990 has just been kicking around for a while.
Certain kinds of cherished but unfinished intellectual projects are much like a 40-pound ball of rubber bands or a box of VHS tapes from 1985. Maybe at some point they had a purpose.
But there comes a time when we should use them, donate them, share them, or toss them. We should stop treating the products of our research, observation, and contemplation as if they were precious objects.
Let them go: Give them to your students, your colleagues, your friends, or anybody who might be able to make something from them.
Imagine what you’ll be able to do when freed from the guilt, the burden, the crowding, the clutter of your old stuff. What might the clarity offer? Say goodbye to your version of V.S.I., and you’ll be thankful you did.
Gina Barreca is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.