I is for Ideas
My daughter, Sadie, turned two in September. We chose the name because it was a family name, but I was secretly pleased that it anagrammed to such a positive word as "ideas." She was a week old before I realized that our last-minute choice of Ruth as a middle name meant anagrammatically that "ideas hurt." (Sadie MacEachern anagrams to "here's an academic" but that is another, entirely inadvertent, story.)
Idea: Product placements in lectures. "And so Louis Riel was hung for treason in 1885, the same year that Coca-Cola was first sold."
As academics, so much of our daily work lives are filled with such crap - e-mails and administrative matters and letters of reference and another damn grad committee meeting and listening to ourselves deliver the same lecture in the same room at the same time as last year, the sea of faces actually bearing down on us like a wave, communicating to us the relentlessness of time through the paradoxical medium of young people with no comprehension of the relentlessness of time...
Anyway. Our work lives can be filled with such crap that we forget how very lucky we are that we have jobs in which we're encouraged to have ideas, and more than that to act on them. Sitting in my office, I occasionally think about the ideas being dreamed up and worked on at that very moment across campus. Some are likely incremental - reshaping a dentistry tool, testing methods to improve wheat production, rethinking the roots of American foreign policy - and some are revolutionary - mine - but that there exists such an environment for them to happen is pretty amazing. What's also amazing is how seldom we utilize this proximity to other idea-makers. Most days, I arrive and leave without ever talking to members of other departments; some days, without talking to members of my own.
Idea: To eliminate requests for extensions, insert in all courses a "built-in" one-week extension policy, so that all assignments can be submitted within a week of the due date, without penalty. Further extensions are granted only because of illness, and only - here's the key - if requested before the original due date.
At a conference banquet last year, I told a stressed-out PhD student - redundant? - not to worry too much about finding the next project, that academics need only one good idea every decade. A colleague was horrified, I think because he assumed I was counseling laziness. But I stand by it: we have a lot of ideas about research topics, directions, and methods, but the majority of them won't make it to completion, or show the results we foresaw, or make the splash we had hoped. But more to the point, there was no downside to telling the student this. Even if he has already had a good idea this decade, as long as he's the sort of student who has good ideas, he'll have more. He won't be able to help himself.
Idea: A book one-sentence long, with each of the words footnoted and the footnotes leading on for several hundred pages.
When people ask me about my column in University Affairs, they ask, "What column?" Or occasionally someone asks, "What are you going to do for X (or Q, or Z)?" Alarmingly, a PhD student at work on an 80,000-word dissertation asked of my 800-word columns, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answers to these last two questions are actually related. I have no idea what I'm going to do for X, Q, or Z - or J, for that matter - but I trust that I'll get ideas for the simple reason that I'll have to. That's the point, I think. We don't have ideas and then begin working. We force ourselves into situations where we have to work and have to have ideas.
Idea: A newspaper or magazine column written explicitly to people in the future: historians and other researchers who will read it on microfilm, online, or with a technology we haven't invented yet. "Psst, you, in 2040, here's what we were all thinking about, why we were so obsessed with Tom Cruise and mortgage rates." But maybe some people already write for the future. I imagine someone reading this very column. She's smiling, thinking that I'm very silly. Maybe I'm alive, maybe not; whatever. Hi, Sadie.