Is Academia Like Yoga? Or, Where is the Flexibility (of Thought)?

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Disclaimer: The following post is from personal observations and, I’m pretty sure, is not completely generalisable. However, it’s worthwhile getting out there as some interesting conversations have developed around this…

The world of linguistics is big. I mean, really, really big. Not only do you have a plethora of topics like sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics and a whole host of other areas, but you can research each of these in so much depth that you may never come out alive!

Couple that with all the other possible subjects studies in the known world and you end up with something so infinitely complex that it would essentially be impossible to have anyone person understand everything thoroughly and accurately. I’m sure we all have broad, individual knowledge bases that help us through the activities of daily life and the “General Knowledge” section of a pub quiz, but breadth and depth aren’t the same thing.

With vast amounts of knowledge comes great responsibility debate, particularly within a subject such as linguistics. I’m a firm believer that there isn’t one universal answer to all or any language-based questions. My previous post explaining the analogy of describing an elephant while being blindfolded – how different people approach a topic from different directions – sums this up pretty well. Even when it comes down to language in use, interpreters and translators can never truly convey the emotions, meanings and subtleties of entire texts from one language into another. This isn’t a failing of the interpreters or translators; it’s a reality: there are interlanguage constraints (see any post from my project365 to see this demonstrated numerous times), and personal choices have to be made. After all, one person’s “amazing” is another’s “fantastic,” but we still get the idea.

So where am I going with this? When I approach a topic, I try to do so with the flexibility of a yoga teacher. It’s not that I don’t want to have a firm viewpoint, it’s that I appreciate that multiple viewpoints exist and I want to understand each before making a judgement. Even when my judgement has been made, I still appreciate the standpoints of others. To be trapped in the mindset that one and only one view is correct is when the blinkers are placed firmly beside your eyes.

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In other words: try not to be this horse

This is a problem that I’m starting to come across within the academic community (as I stated in the disclaimer, this isn’t everyone, but it seems to be common). For some academics – sadly, some of whom I’ve regarded very highly until recently – the blinkers are not just on, they’re adhered with superglue. This is evident through their inflexibility to read, listen to, or even humour other perspectives, and when they are challenged, the claws come out…

In the past week, I have experienced either first hand or observed through some way the shortness with which criticism is dealt with, ranging from “no, YOU’RE wrong” to “this is totally invalid” to “what kind of excuse for a researcher are you?”

The reason for these outbursts? Because the academics in question were challenged or disagreed with a reasoned perspective that differed in some way to theirs. This isn’t healthy debate; these are adults who never quite grew up, throwing their toys out of the pram because they don’t wish to be questioned. They are academics to whom the superiority complex is no stranger.

Now, if you feel like you might fall into this category, let me just say: I get it. You spend your time relentlessly researching certain points under certain methodologies. After a number of years, it’s natural to become accustomed to ways of doing things; we are creatures of habit after all. But let me ask you this: in a world where so many millions upon millions of facets exist in this thing that we call “human knowledge,” what is it that causes you to become so concrete in your thinking and so inflexible in your approach? Why do you feel the need to belittle others for differing in their opinion on a matter, and (what really gets me) why do you do so without providing evidence and resorting to insults?

Come on now, certain-highly-strung academics. Put away your claws, engage in some sensible, grown-up debate, and let’s expand knowledge together. Take it from someone who’s just starting out and is frequently looking around at all the awe-inspiring ways of understanding the world: as much as you think that your point of view on whatever sub-topic of a sub-topic of a sub-topic of a topic is the be all and end all of that area, it’s not.

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