Sunday, January 29, 2012

"You don't understand my work!" On Being Misunderstood

Awhile back, I was reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that related to graduate students' reactions to feedback on their dissertations. The commenters discussed, among other things, the transition that needed to happen by the end of the dissertation where the ego was put on a back burner as the person learned to accept criticism. As is usually the case in internet-based discussions, there were valid points mixed with questionable ones, but it got me thinking about a general tendency among intellectuals of all disciplines and backgrounds, which is the tendency to fall back on the "You don't understand my work!" defense. The general implication behind such a claim is that if someone is not impressed or persuaded, it must be the fault of the person receiving the idea, not the fault of the idea's creator. Fleshed out a bit, you could call it "The Argument From Intellectual Superiority." It goes something like this:

1. I am extremely smart.
2.Only someone at least as smart as me can understand my work.
3. My work is so flawless, that if you understood my work you would necessarily agree with it.
4. You disagree with my work.
5.Since you disagree with my work, it must be the case that you do not understand my work.
You are not as smart as me.

Of course, as ego-gratifying as this may be, most of us can't really convince ourselves of this for very long. It's like a parent that tells her daughter that she's beautiful on the inside and some day the boys will see it. After a certain amount of Saturday nights at home alone, she's going to start to think that her mom is kind of full of crap. At the same time, the girl could probably benefit from examining legitimate, non-self esteem crushing reasons why she's alone on Saturday night (maybe the guys in her school really are kind of jerks, maybe she hasn't noticed the "good buddy" that's secretly in love with her, etc) as well as some fixable ways in which she might contribute to the problem (e.g. perhaps she comes across as aloof and disinterested). So, here goes:

1. Closed-Mindedness

I'm addressing this one first because it's probably a bit over-diagnosed but still can be a problem. Usually the litmus test for this is how much support you're getting for the actual idea. If your idea seems promising but then it isn't accepted, then it's possible that you failed to deliver. Maybe there are important objections to your analysis that you aren't addressing. Maybe there are some major misinterpretations. On the other hand, if most of the criticisms seem related to the over-arching theme, then it might give you pause. I've heard a lot of people complain, for example, that you can't write a horror piece in most Creative Writing MFA programs without getting eviscerated. It can be an excellent piece, but if it's an excellent piece about vampires, you're committing career suicide. Attempts to combine philosophy and pop culture sometimes get a bad rap for this as well. If, for example, many of the complaints center more around your choice to integrate a television show than about the arguments per se, you may have hit against some rigid definitions about what topics/styles truly are or are not adequately "intellectual."


Sometimes it's a failure to communicate adequately. This can often happen for reasons not related to one's knowledge base or clarity of thought. Being too anxious, for example, is a sure-fire way to produce crappy work. Trying to pull off too much in too little space is another. Another way is by either over-estimating or under-estimating others' knowledge of your subject matter. You run the risk of jumping over key points that seem obvious to you (while forgetting the process you went through to learn initially) or giving so much minutiae that others' lose interest. In everyday conversation, we have lots of little ways to communicate: asking someone what they meant, cutting them off if they go on too long, etcetera. You can't do this with some sort of artistic or intellectual endeavor. If you don't nail it in the potential journal article, the work of fiction or the independent film that you made in your basement--that's it, you're kind of screwed, at least for now. At that point, you have to bite the bullet, admit that you failed to express yourself effectively and either revise the work or save your energy for the next project.

3. Lack of Knowledge

Sometimes, it really is a lack of knowledge. Maybe you made some fatal mistake--like attributing to Aquinas someone else's position which he merely stated for the point of refuting it--that caused you to truly misunderstand what you were attempting to write about. Or perhaps you didn't adequately research your short story and so you don't know that archivists work in really clean environments, not some musty old basement. These things happen.

A truly original, creative mind ought not be overly attached to one's ideas. I struggle with this myself. Dogged determination has its virtues, to be sure, and I've often been a big advocate of it. At the same time, to really be innovative, you need to detach a bit from your own ideas. You have to know when to say, "They're wrong," when to say, "They're right and I can make it better" and when to say, "It's time to toss this idea into the fireplace and put my energy into something new."