Why I’m not ‘Driven to Discover’

After 30 years of teaching as a professor of English, I believe I have made no “discoveries” whatsoever.

I too would like to see my name trampled in tunnels and my face stapled on billboards. I would count it an honor to have students of diverse ethnicities turn to me with their “single greatest questions” for answers that I had spent my career researching. (“How many steps in a mile?” “Well, it all dependsÖ.”).

For if I could claim that I too am “driven to discover,” I would feel some solidarity with the University that has spent millions trying to identify itself with the D2D trademark. But instead of proudly aligning myself with the University’s great discoverers, I confess to feeling alienated by a marketing campaign that spotlights half of our intellectual universe at the expense of the other.

I have read widely and thought deeply; I have written and published. But so far from being “driven to discover,” after 30 years of teaching as a professor of English, after publishing 13 books and 50 articles, I believe I have made no “discoveries” whatsoever. Nor has anyone else in the humanities.

From the Driven to Discover viewpoint, humanists look like noble but pathetic Ponce de Leon’s who search earnestly for their fountains but tragically fail to discover any – or worse still, they are pretenders who never really search for them at all.

There’s some truth in that charge – that creators don’t really search for anything. Composers, sculptors and painters cannot be described as looking for some pre-existing fact or object which they succeed (or fail) in finding. Poets and novelists may be driven, of course, but not to discover, and people like me who write about them do not discover anything either.

Instead of discovering anything new, what humanists do is study and interpret what is already known. Someone may discover someday that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Bacon or whomever, but that event, however curious, would be relatively peripheral to Shakespeare scholarship. And if only “discoveries” of that kind had scholarly value, then Shakespeare scholarship would have ceased long ago.

But Shakespeare research proliferates with no end in sight – research in the old sense, that is, searching again what has already been searched: re-search. If you hear someone complain that there’s nothing new to be said about “Hamlet,” you can be sure they haven’t yet grasped what humanist re-search is actually like. It may be true that there’s nothing new to be discovered about “Hamlet” – no new words or lines or images that all previous readers have somehow overlooked. Interpretations, however, are less like discoveries than performances that bring home a play to a new audience. And as long as there are new audiences there will be occasion for new interpretations.

That’s what happens in the humanist classroom as well: Like scholarship, the humanist’s teaching means reinterpreting what is already known, performing it on a new stage. The interpreting we do in the process of writing and publishing is the same thing we do in teaching. There’s no essential distinction between teaching and research in the humanities, just different audiences.

It’s just the opposite in the science classroom: No discoveries were ever made there, and hence in the sciences a fundamental dichotomy exists between the ethos of discovery and that of teaching. Being “driven to discover” means being driven out of the classroom. Of course, conscientious researchers will bring what they have discovered in the lab back to the classroom, but then it’s teaching what is already known, like the humanists do, not making new discoveries.

I claim no expertise in marketing, and it may be that Driven to Discover will succeed magnificently as a marketing strategy, however that success is defined. There is an undeniable cache in being associated with great discoveries, and we ought to cash in on it. Yet I suggest that what would equally impress Minnesota’s students, parents, citizens and legislators – indeed, what they really want – is a university that is “driven to educate.”

Joel Weinsheimer is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University. Please send comments to [email protected]