Sunday, March 3, 2013

We Are Not Robots: The Importance of Emotion in Academia

I have, for another class this semester, been studying a headache-inducing amount of Plato and Aristotle.  Plato, emotionless logician that he is, argues that art is dangerous and destructive, as it causes humans to feel emotions that distract them from their property duties or "techne."  Aristotle responds in multiple fronts:  first, that artists have their own techne, which he analyzes and critiques; second, that emotions, and more specifically the cathartic release brought on by excellent artistic creations, are a healthy part of human life.

Aristotle, in my opinion, had a much clearer concept of true human nature.

The reason I bring this up is that academia has eschewed passion and emotion in favor of reason.  They do not wish to be moved; they wish to be convinced.

While I believe logic certainly has its place in academic writing, I also believe that choking it of ethos is slowly and inexorably killing it.  Just as Plato would have poets exiled from society, academics seem to want to drive passion from their writing.  This has two negative effects:  first, the author is less interested in his or her writing (When was the last time you, as a student, were excited to write a paper for a class?); second, the audience is bored.

Humans are highly emotional creatures.  Everything we do is driven by emotion first, although we often come up with logical reasons for our actions afterward.  I married my wife because I love her.  The fact that we have similar life goals and complement each other exceptionally well gives logic to our decision, but the reasoning was not the cause.

In like manner, I selected an English major because I am passionate about stories and storytelling.  Yet the longer I remain in academia, the more I want to run screaming from it!  The professors actively try to quash my enthusiasm in an effort to enhance my arguments.  Writing has become a chore, and my reading can rarely be described as pleasurable.

This constant, soul-draining exercise is unsustainable.  College tuition is rocketing upward, while student interest is in rapid decline.   One of two things need to happen for academia to save itself from self-destruction:  either college expenses must dramatically decrease (unlikely, as professors expect nice paychecks and textbook publishers have shown little interest in making their publications available inexpensively), or professors must embrace new methods of teaching that engage and impassion students.

One of the reasons that I find this class intriguing is that Professor Burton has not only allowed, but encouraged our enthusiasm of certain subjects.  This is refreshing and shows an incredible understanding of how students process information.  While electronic media is not something that particularly interests me, I do think that relating Renaissance literature to modern literary movements--blogging, ebooks, and so forth--is a fascinating way to make the past more immediate to us students.  We have been allowed to explore topics of interest to us, we have been encouraged to write from the gut, and we have been forced out of our comfort zone--our of our academic rut--to engage with and learn from one another.

Thank God.


  1. Right with you, Nate. I'm finally to the point, I think, where I feel re-interested in my papers and topics in classes. There have been a few classes and a few teachers that managed to get me interested in something I didn't care about before, but I finally feel now (in my senior year!) that I can connect ideas in each of my classes with the things I already really want to study and pursue. It's making a huge difference--making me look on my own for conferences or journals, other people who want to join in the same conversation.

  2. I like the punch in your prose, Nate. And you are not alone in critiquing the inadequacies of traditional academic writing (with its depersonalized logic). If we embrace the personal and passionate possibilities of online writing, what would that look like? How would it feel? What do you propose should be the approach to reclaim ethos, stoke interest, and transcend the shortcomings of academic writing at its worst -- while not ignoring academic writing at its best?

    What about making the identity and personality of the eBook contributors more visible and prominent? How would that work?

  3. I think it will be important, as you mention Professor, to allow the Author back into the Text. Most academic writing insists on a strict separation of the two entities, which is what severs the passionate connection one can and should have with one's writing. Personalization, whether through anecdotes, interests, style, and so forth, can revitalize academic writing while allowing plenty of room for logically consistent arguments and references to authoritative texts.