Academic writing and originality

Let me take you on a philosophical journey. And before you nod off, let me emphasise that there is a point to all this. You see, there’s one thing about my academic studies that has always bothered me a lot. But before I actually tell you what it is, I’ll bore you off with some musings. I’m sitting here, watching my computer screen. I’m looking at the digital version of a blank canvas, which is slowly filling with words as I input them with my keyboard. They’re my words, my thoughts. I can pin them to myself with the same certainty that I can take credit for my jokes, my idiosyncracies and even the way I walk. But therein lies the problem that broods at the very heart of the philosophy that I’m about to reveal to you. Which, and I emphasise again, isn’t just a red herring but will connect to the main point in this text a bit later.

You see, these words aren’t mine! These thoughts, no matter how much I want believe in the individual mind and subjective principles, aren’t mine! In fact, nothing is mine. Nothing is yours either. Everything we call our own is just an abstraction, a delicate patchwork combined with colours and materials that we’ve adapted from outside influence. Every single word I’ve written here has been used before. Perhaps not in the combinations I’m using them in, but if we go beyond sentence semantics and word placement, we’ll find the syntactic structures that have most certainly used before. I could write gibberish in an unidentifiable syntax, using words that no one has ever used before, but that would be just to prove my point in a childish manner and would in the end only serve as a parody.

Go way back to childhood. Think about the joys and thrills of learning new stuff. Some of them might have been thanks to those fabled “Eureka!”-moments, but even then they were imitations of something you’d seen or something you’d think to be true, based on your perceptions and your fledgling ability to equate 1+1 and 2. Every single thing you’ve learned since your birth can be attributable to something else but yourself. Actually, anything else but yourself. The only thing you bring into the soup of your conscious is the way in which you organise and conceptualise the world around yourself.

Wow, I almost came to my final point there. I have to backtrack a little; I see that some of you are still awake.

Throughout the ages, philosophers have been trying to find out the source, meaning and composition of the true Originality. Plato divided the world into ideas (originality) and materials (manifestations). Saint Thomas Aquinas gave us God as the prime cause, and his ideas were furthered by the likes of Descartes and Leibniz. Spinoza took it a step further, and with his crazy, hermit-like determinism he claimed God was EVERYTHING. Well, I’m not going to give you my insight into theology or anything else, but I do have to sympathise with Plato’s idea, at least up to a point.

You see, even though these words that I’m typing aren’t mine, and possibly even my thoughts aren’t mine, the whole amalgam of ideas, thoughts, idiosyncracies and creative output becomes so huge and so infinitesimally inapproachable by anything but a very subjectivist mind that I can credit it to being mine. Yes, I used the word infinitesimal, which, albeit being very geeky, should prove my viewpoint on the fact that taking credit for the aforementioned amalgam is just a compromise. It’s still not mine, but close enough.

So let’s bring us back to the very first thing I was supposed to write about: my academic studies. I’ve been taught with a whipping fury that whenever writing an academic text, you can’t take credit for anything that can’t be backed by a frame of reference, most preferably a bibliographic entry. Using adjectives and subjective pronouns (such as ‘I’ and ‘You’) is frowned upon. You can’t just write “I thought ‘Walden’ was a bore” without giving a reason or at least pointing to some other person who’s said the same thing. Who cares about the reason? Everyone knows that ‘Walden’ was a bore; I’m just stating the obvious. And yes, you can quote me on that. Ok, well I understand the ban on adjectives, since they have no place in the rigid neo-Nazism that is the world of academic writing.

But my true concern is the fact that originality and the student’s own voice are drowned under gallons and gallons of referential piss. Lecturers applaud us when we come up with a topic and a thesis statement for our text, but even those can hardly ever be credited to us solely. Some of us read the “Further research”-sections from other publications, some of us just take a common subject and look for ways to expand it through other points of view. But they’ve been discovered before. Yes they have, and you know it.

I actually find it disconcerting that so much of courses’ efforts are focused on methodology and writing itself and so little is talked about the need to tap into that originality that everyone has on some level. Somehow, university studies resemble high school studies. We work, toil and bleed with only the matriculation exam in mind. The tidbits of information that we retain after the exam is over can hardly be attributed to anything else but each student’s genuine interest in some areas of study. Same thing is happening with theses at the university. We’re given the weapons and the ammunition, and throughout our studies we learn tactics and manoeuvres to find ways to kill that Big Thesis Bastard.

Academic writing, on the other hand, does teach us very valuable ways of combining information we find to create something wholly new (or so we think). I appreciate that, a lot. It’s in the vein of cross-disciplinary thought that I find fascinating. I do appreciate bibliographies and the efficient use of co- and contexts. But I’m just bloody well frustrated at the fact that there’s no Simo left in my texts. It’s just the intricate patchwork of quotations and bibliographic references that remains. I just wish that our studies would give us ways to tap into our creativity and emphasise the need to be original in addition to the contemporary way of suffering from penis envy when your hard-working friend found more sources than you did.

So, my point is... well, my train of thought is still at the previous station, so I’ll just throw in a couple of keywords that you can use to formulate your own idea of what my point is (and THAT my friends, is what I mean by originality): Walden, bore, subjectivist, Spinoza, herring, context, nude. [tags]academic, writing, originality, quotes, bibliography[/tags]

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