Chris Uggen's Blog: somewhere between jedi and jackhole

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

somewhere between jedi and jackhole

People have varying reactions to my research presentations, only some of which involve projectiles hurtling toward the lectern. The most memorable positive response came more than a decade ago. As soon as I finished speaking, a woman stepped quickly to the podium and looked me right in the eye, saying, “You’re like a Jedi!” Now, maybe her reaction had something to do with my tunic and belt pouch (I kid, I kid…), but it just so happens that I was feeling clear and good and true about the work I was presenting. If only for this one presentation of a single research study, I felt like I was firing on all cylinders as a social scientist, taking apart a problem and putting it back together in a smart and useful way.

No one has called me a Jedi since (or, if you prefer, “called me a Jedi since, no one has, hmm?”). Though I did not realize it at the time, that sort of clarity and focus does not come along every day – at least not in my career. As we start a brand new year and a fresh semester down at the brain mill, I’d like to challenge myself to do more of this kind of teaching and research and less of the other kind of teaching and research. The trick is that good and true science (and art) simultaneously demands both the self-confidence to think differently and the selflessness to set aside one’s personal interests and prejudices, however temporarily, in pursuit of some higher ideal. I say “temporarily” because eventually the world outside our labs, offices, or studios always creeps back in -- and with it, our vanity and insecurity.


Undue praise, for example, seems to upend the delicate balance of confidence and selflessness, such that being called a Jedi is likely to turn one into a complete Jackhole instead – arrogant, self-serving, and unmoored from all manner of higher ideals. I witnessed a few Jackholes while hanging backstage as a music writer and, truth be told, hanging at professional meetings as an academic. Left unchecked, or perhaps stoked by undue criticism, the Jackhole can quickly degenerate into the more destructive narcissism of the Common Bully, whose envy or resentment is manifest in cruelty. A fourth possibility is the absence of both confidence and selfishness, which I’d characterize (and recognize) as the sad state of Weeniedom. The weenie is neither beating up on anybody nor making any of the sorts of waves one must make to do good work. 

I know that the world is much more complicated than a two-by-two table would suggest, much less a graphic that is loaded with such loaded terms. But sometimes such images can be helpful in personal mojo reclamation projects and some of us have indeed visited all four of its quadrants. Just as Jamey Johnson wants to be filed somewhere between Jennings and Jones, I'd happily reside somewhere between Jedi and Jackhole.

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