Purging What Seemed Essential

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My wife and I are both kind of weary of the things we’ve accumulated over the decades, mostly independently before we were married. We may be the only couple you know with two overstuffed bookcases and six file cabinets in the garage.

Anyway, she started a couple of days ago going through things like old tax documents, 25-year-old syllabi… And her labors inspired me today to take one of the four drawers of preciously-collected research articles I carefully accumulated during and after grad school, and to go through them for keepers. A full-depth file drawer, authors carefully alphabetized A through E, probably more or less 300 photocopied articles.

I kept seven.

How much of our scholarship is like that, carefully copied and dutifully entered into the citational system, only to wind up compressed into a fireplace log or a weekly-shopper newspaper thirty or forty years down the line? It didn’t hurt me at all to discard all those ideas, I didn’t cringe for even a second when I got rid of the collected works of Denis Cosgrove and Mike Brill, smart people and all but still…

We have this idea that our jobs matter. But I think they don’t, not all that much. They give us food and rent. What matters is the ways we treat people. If we can use our jobs to treat people well, that’s great. If our jobs are indifferent to the ways we treat people, then we can be indifferent to our jobs. if our jobs require us to mistreat people, I think that requires us to consider changing jobs.

We spend so much energy on our disciplines. The definition of a PhD is someone who’s contributed original scholarship to her or his discipline. And, you know, it’s going into the recycling in the end, however original. What will last are the lives of the people we touch, and the ways in which we helped them be one or two percent happier and more fulfilled. I don’t need a discipline to do that.