Meaning is a seven-letter word

In the Groundhog days of the privileged version of quarantine I am experiencing, I have been asking myself about what matters. I have been asking myself, what is the point of some of the writing I am doing? I have been pretty vocally critical for a long time of aspects of academia that feel self-indulgently unconcerned with the possible use for our outputs (not that I think a lot of other sectors do much better). I take pride in the discourse on transdisciplinarity that has emerged in my field, rightly tempered by a concern about historical power dynamics and how things have often gone deeply wrong with extra-local actors messing about. But still, it’s not like the next PDF that I crank out is going to make a massive difference to the communities I know about that could use some help.

This is a space that I see lots of students get stuck in: with so much going wrong in the world, how do we justify doing the things that we normally do, knowing that we are not actively contributing to changing the problems that we see around us? I say “stuck” here because I think a dimension of this is a feeling of hopelessness in the face of ferocious public goods problems and our collective inability to address them adequately (see face masks, or-how-about-climate-change).

The question at this stuck point is, where to go from there? To me it’s always been the most important question: you are somewhere, not somewhere else. So work with where you are. And an important part of the answer for me has been, find you some meaning. We have to find meaning in the work that we are doing, in order to keep us all going, individually and collectively. So that we can keep ourselves going so that we can keep others keeping going. I am writing this now because I don’t think the answer is to stop all writing. In the words of a favorite self-helpish author of mine (Mark Manson), inspiration follows action more than the other way around. Do the work to make you want to do the work. Doesn’t apply everywhere, but applies somewhere.

Writers (of any kind maybe) sometimes seem to have a strange, forced relationship to their craft. Writers block is understood, at least conceptually, by anyone reading this post. I wonder, do artists get “artist block”? Probably. But why is writing supposed to be this adversary, that we have to conquer to get words onto a page? Why can’t it be something that keeps us going, by giving us what every person wants, a medium for self-expression and public (of some kind) acknowledgement? In academia this has become a bit twisted by the productivist model that we’ve railed against before here. More papers all the time. In one of my favorite environmental histories, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, he criticizes the Army Corps of Engineers: “the Corps of Engineers’ motto, “Building Tomorrow Today,” really ought to be “Keep Busy.” Academics don’t build dams, but we do make papers. In the times of COVID, this seems to have been our primary response, with historical inequalities (see: child care obligations) showing up in article submission rates for different folks. So I don’t think that all writing is maybe created equal. Maybe we need to get back to some kind of “artisanal” writing.

I don’t think trying to find meaning has to be some selfish prospect. Arguably the main way that many people find meaning is by helping someone else. One of the main things I realize I have missed in the last several months is the ability to engage with students and feel like I am helping them. I have realized that this was what sustained me through lots of normal ups and downs for years. And this relates to a final point: it’s the process that produces the meaning as much as the end result. I want to write because it turns out I like writing. I want to engage with students because it turns out I like engaging with students, at least when we aren’t talking about grades (an 89.3 is a B+ because I said so). But we can forget what we like. I’ve tried to keep that in mind while writing this post, to end with a little “meta” tidbit here.

But of course outputs also matter in the end, so here you go.