Independent-Thinking Scholar

At conferences, I would sometimes see the title, “Independent Scholar” and, in my snobby way, I would think, “Well, that person can’t find a real job.” Of course, maybe they chose that route.

The title of this blog post suggest a scholar who thinks independently of what he or she has been taught. In my recent Podcast episodes (#51 and #52) I talked about becoming an independent-thinking scholar. And I can remember the exact moment that I reached this step in my career.

If you’ve heard these podcast episodes you’ve heard me mention a faculty member I called DO. He presided over—I hesitate to say taught—the Greek and Roman seminar. Since he was Old School, he spent a lot of time explaining the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and detailing what the common academic thinking held about them. Much of what he had to say may have been his own ideas or perhaps it was received knowledge from other sources; I can’t really say.

But one of the ideas he presented later came back to me when I was studying for my comprehensive exams. While re-reading all of the Greek tragedies (and I have often told my Intro to Theatre students that, as an academic, I felt regret that so many Greek tragedies had been lost, but as a grad student felt relieved there were so few extant), I remembered what he said about Ajax by Sophocles. He claimed that it was unlike all of the other extant Greek tragedies because it had a diptych structure. In the beginning we see Odysseus and Athena talking about how Ajax, in his god-given madness, has killed livestock, thinking they were Greek soldiers. When he becomes aware of what he has done, Ajax leaves the stage. When he returns, he falls on his sword, committing suicide. The Greek generals argue as to whether he should be buried or not, but Odysseus suggests he should be given a proper Greek burial.

DO felt that Ajax leaving and then returning to the stage split the play into two parts. And you could make that argument. But, for me, it is more important if we look at the whole play, and see a similarity between beginning and ending of the play. In my opinion (a shout-out to Wanda Westerstahl, who I mention in Episode #51), the play should really be entitled Odysseus. We see him in the beginning fearful of Ajax and at the end defending him, and it is this change of heart that redeems Ajax and makes the play a tragedy.

When I realized I had come up with this thought, in opposition to DO, I really felt like I had come into my own as a scholar. And I brought this forward in my teaching; when students expressed ideas that they could defend in the text, I let them explore them. That’s how we learn, not by simply repeating and regurgitating ideas from the past because we have it on the authority of an historical figure. Don’t forget, people thought there were four humors or liquids (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) circulating through the body for centuries because Aristotle had said so (and in Galileo, Brecht has someone say, in various ways, “We have it on the authority of Aristotle…”).

Above, I mentioned Wanda Westerstahl, and I think I should send shout-outs to the other professors I had at Berkeley who made positive contibutions to my academic training:

Steven Goldsmith
Winfried Kudzus
Julian Lopez-Morillas
William Oliver
Warren Travis
Margaret Wilkerson
David Zinder

Published by stephenschrum

Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; interested in virtual worlds, playwrighting, and filmmaking. Now creating a podcast called "Audio Chimera."

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