(I realized, upon rereading and reflection, that this is a companion post to an earlier entry, “In Which I Don’t Understand What I’m Reading, At All, And the Footnote Is Useless.” This was certainly planned and has nothing at all to do with my terrible memory and tendency to repeat stories like some cliché cartoon character at a bar. “Have I told you about the time!”)
I am confused much of the time, and I have perfected my state of confusion since childhood. When but a wee kindergartner, I was baffled when it came to tying my shoes, and I watched with increasing feelings of self-doubt as my classmates graduated from velcro to loop-swoop-and-through. In middle school math classrooms, I was completely at sea, frantically erasing my incorrect answers as the alphabet — the freaking ALPHABET — intruded upon a system that had, in the past, been entirely numerical. And as I have previously documented (story repeater!), in graduate school I wondered hopelessly who this Ben-Yah-Mean person was, because I had prepared to discuss Benjamin. My latest befuddlement surrounds how, precisely, my retirement plan works. As a survivor of nearly forty years of huh-what?, I have had a lot of time to reflect on different varieties of confusion.
But this is a blog about galumphing through academia, and not fumbling through the entirety of one’s life, so I thought I would return (shamefacedly after many months away) with a sort of taxonomy in which I consider in turn three species of confusion. Because I am here to say that while being confused in academia can feel emotionally risky — can make you nauseatingly aware of your vulnerable underbelly, milky-white and sensitive after too much time in front of a computer screen — that confusion often is not only an inevitability but a good. In fact, I hope to remain confused for some time, living in a certain of chaotic huh? that periodically deposits me, like the awkward flightless bird I am, in a useful and smart place.
So in short: if confusion creates chaos, I will create categories of chaos.
VARIETY #1: Double Dare Confusion, or, Confusion as an Obstacle You Must Negotiate
This confusion occurs when you truly do not understand something, and you feel as if you lack the tools to reach understanding. It’s a type of confusion without footholds or exit doors. You are not squinting your eyes and looking skyward, sure that the answer is right on the edge of your consciousness. Instead, you are staring Derrida directly in his smug face, and he is revealing nothing.
UGH. Stick it, Jacques. (He will not.)
It is, of course, perfectly normal to be faced with material that you cannot immediately grasp, and much of the writing we work with, both the texts we read and those we try to produce, is dense and complicated. Sometimes difficulty is appropriate. So this type of confusion isn’t bad, even though it can feel that way, especially when you’re sitting in a seminar room, standing in an itchy new suit at a conference podium, awkwardly trying to exit a conversation with your advisor, or eating an entire bag of Doritos on your couch at 3 am, wondering if they made a clerical error when they admitted you to this program or hired you for this job.
At such times it is useful to remember, despite the buzzing in your brain and the Dorito dust on your fingers, that this is part of the process and, in the words of a many a reassuring sex ed book, perfectly normal.
There isn’t too much point in lingering in the bad feelings of Double Dare Confusion. That self-hatred won’t bring you new ideas. Instead, you need to develop strategies to get through it as expediently as possible. Imagine that you are a contestant on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, and you are facing an obstacle. You need to fill the beaker on top of your hard hat not with ooze or fake snot or whatever they used on the show but instead with sweet, sweet understanding. Certainly this reference is dated and the metaphor is straining, but I use it because it (a) is ridiculous enough, perhaps, to take some of the sting out of your potential embarrassment, (b) makes clear that, in the grand scheme of things, this confusion has the consequence of a late 1980s children’s game show and will not drastically alter the course of your life, and (c) is best approached with teamwork.
Who should be your Double Dare teammates in this endeavor? There is always that person who gets it, and that person might be another student in the seminar, a trusted mentor, a scholar you have never met but who has written about this confusing thing in a clear and simple way, or your partner, who patiently listens to you — golf bag over shoulder, keys in hand — as you talk through your confusion, ostensibly to them but really to yourself.
You can also just accept that it’s okay not to get it, and trust your brain that it will catch up at some point.
VARIETY #2: Wizard of Oz Confusion, or, Confusion that Hopes You Don’t Look Behind the Curtain — For Now
This particular variety of confusion materializes at unwelcome or inconvenient times, such as at 10:30 pm on the night a conference abstract is due or in the final hours before you’re meant to submit a chapter draft or during your dissertation defense. While the degree of desperation may vary by professional context, you find yourself in a situation in which, despite your confusion, you must say something.
What can be maddening about Oz Confusion is that it could, in fact, be Hermit Crab Confusion (see below), just under duress, and given more time or a calmer mental state you could likely organize the bees in your brain and say or write something dazzling. But no time for that. You need to construct an illusion of understanding, a sturdy velvet curtain of (perhaps completely unmerited) confidence, and hide behind it, like the frail man you are. Write something that seems likely. Say something you’re uncertain about. Submit the work.
Now some would say this is bad advice, and I certainly have found myself in two or three sticky situations in which Dorothy gave my illusion the side-eye and ripped away my disguise. I was crouched behind that lush drapery of lies, deliriously flipping through my dogeared copy of Derrida. (I don’t know why I keep returning to Jacques. I never use Derrida.) BUT. I will say two things in my defense:
(1) There is value in confidently trying out an idea to see where it takes you, even if you still feel like that meme of Winona Ryder looking spacey and high. If you suspect that you are one of those scholars who tends to be timid and assumes you are still confused when you might in fact get it — and there are enough of us to organize our own, likely terrible, amateur softball league — then your first step out of confusion will be extraordinarily uncomfortable, and it will feel very premature. So just do it.
(2) There are ways to construct the illusion of confidence and understanding without being brash and irresponsible. My favorite trick, appropriate for conference abstracts in particular (but not so much for a dissertation defense), is to pose a series of questions rather than providing any answers. What is confusion, anyway? What varieties does it take? What does confusion have to do with vintage Nickelodeon game shows? You likely know enough to know what you want to know.
VARIETY #3: Hermit Crab Confusion, or Good Ideas in the Wrong Shell
This is the sweet spot, but it will absolutely feel like hot garbage.
This confusion occurs when you realize that your conception of an idea, or your argument, or a reading of a text doesn’t really work for you anymore. You’re like a hermit crab, and your argument is a shell that is too small. Or maybe it just no longer reflects your always-changing hermit crabby character. After all, you are now a crab that knows more about Derrida.
The problem is that you are usually not very self-aware about your relationship with your shell. You are attached to its particular grooves and whorls, and you spent quite some time picking it out in the first place. You are a little unwilling to leave it behind, to begin the difficult work of finding an entirely new shell that will require some adjustment and adaptation.
This metaphor is, itself, something I have outgrown. Crabs aside, this confusion emerges when you need to move forward to something else, something new, something that reflects subtle or even radical changes in your thinking, but there will be a moment — and it might last a few minutes or a few months or god help us a few years, which is my current situation — when you won’t know what, precisely, you need to move on to. Maybe there aren’t any new shells around. Maybe you are overwhelmed by shells. Maybe you just can’t let go of a metaphor, even when it’s good for you.
It is not easy for me to sit in confusion, to wallow in disorder. Anyone who has seen my closet, my office bookshelves, or my handwriting knows that I take great joy and satisfaction in the linear, the color-coded, and the pleasingly categorized. Even just handling the catalogue for The Container Store can give me a contact high. Wrestling with an essay that refuses to fit into a series of orderly boxes is not only mentally exhausting but also, somehow, physically distressing, making my shoulders creep up toward my ears and my breath head for the shallow end.
And I have the privilege of confusion, too. The dissertation is done and defended. The book is revised and published. The tenure file is in and approved. I have a little more luxury when it comes to shell selection.
But if at all possible, I recommend staying confused for awhile. Or at least become attuned to what your different types of confusion feel like in your brain, in your body, and on the page.