The academy--that is, the totality of the practicing and aspirant scholars involved in formal schooling--has two primary purposes: the dissemination and development of knowledge. Both are necessary, as knowledge is of no value if it is not shared, but without the development of knowledge, there ceases to be something which can be shared. It is therefore the duty of all scholars to work towards both ends--even if it is all too often the case that one is neglected in favor of the other.
I strive to perform both of the scholar's duties, to teach and to uncover more to be taught. It is a commonplace that the latter informs the former, that by doing research in the literary humanities I increase my own base of knowledge, which I can then pass on to my students. The type of knowledge gleaned, however, is not always of the expected sort, as I was reminded this morning.
As part of my work to develop new knowledge, I write papers (much as I ask my students to do). As part of my work to disseminate that knowledge, I try to get those papers published. That means that I have to send the paper out so that other people can read it and evaluate it for its form, its content, and a few other factors that vary by the publisher (again, much the same thing that I ask of my students, if on a slightly different scale). A bit more than a year ago, I sent out a paper; today, I got an email saying that the paper had been rejected.
Not "Fix this up and we'll take it," but more like "No, it's not getting published."
I was not entirely pleased to find in the email what I found (again, as is often the case with my students when they receive my comments). I have never excelled at accepting criticism gracefully, and, like many others, I do not like being told that something into which I put some effort does not suffice. How unfortunate, then, that the world little concerns itself with my likes and dislikes.
After thinking on the email and the paper for a while, however, I was able to get far enough away from my initial emotional reaction to consider what the comments were actually saying. The first thing was that they were discussing the paper and not the writer; it was my work, not myself, that was being evaluated. Since it is the case that even the great ones err in the areas of their greatness, it is no shame to me that one individual effort was found lacking; it simply means that I must learn more and work harder. I can hope that my students can come to the same realization for their own efforts.
The second was a reminder of something that I tell my own students. For in the paper, I had performed a close reading of a particular poem. That is to say that I went through the poem, line by line, and laid out its features of rhythm, rhyme, and syntax. Doing so left me with several pages of details, which I gathered together in coherent prose, complete with appropriate citations, sound transitions, and all the adherence to the conventions of academic American English that could be asked. What I lacked was something to do with the detail. I got so caught up in picking out the small bits of information that I neglected to employ them for an end beyond themselves. Thus the paper was incomplete despite its merits and despite butting right up against the maximum acceptable word count, so that it deserved the evaluation it received.
My knowledge developed as a result of my writing and submitting the paper. I do have a much better understanding of the features of the poem about which I wrote, which is good. Better, though, is that I have something teachable (even while I am on leave): at times, a solid, well executed effort just is not enough to meet the requirements of a given task. That does not mean, however, that no good comes of the effort, and it does not mean that the person who makes the effort is of no value. It just means that the person has not succeeded...yet.