I’m dealing with paradoxes a lot lately. First, in my work: I am studying place-character, which I think is itself paradoxical in two ways. On the one hand, it is a concept that claims place as a primary means of understanding literary works. On the other hand, it reinforces the character-over-setting hierarchy dominating aesthetic theories of fiction since antiquity (Plato, Aristotle…). Similarly, it is non-mimetic, meaning it doesn’t mimic a phenomenon (places as people??) from real life. But the settings themselves tend to be very representational of the world we live in.

In my life, the paradox is all mine. The thing I am best at scholastically and often relationally is seeing the key ideas. I can condense an argument down to its major parts. I can solve the case of the mysteriously-dead basement electrical circuit without putting holes in the walls. I’m a problem solves and a synthesizer. Perhaps this is what keeps my stress level down.

The paradox is this: I think that this is what makes people see me as smart. But this is also, oddly, what often makes me feel inadequate. I often feel like people around me are better able to understand nuance, to probe small details, to elaborate rather than condense, to respond rather than reproduce.

When I first started teaching, I used to talk with my students (this makes more sense in freshman composition than in introductory literature courses, which is why I have stopped using it) about how “smart” is largely a strategy. It’s the effect of a certain way of presenting existing information, of accommodating new information, and of imagining yet-unrealized meaning. I honestly believe this. Of course there are people who are more disposed to coming across as “smart” and even people for whom “smart” requires little effort. But there are also people who learn to be “smart,” and people who learn to be “dumb.”

Is paying attention (or even seeing) nuance something I can learn, or is it something I needed to be blessed with? I like to think it’s the former.


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