Saturday, November 10, 2007

where are you now, Bill Ringler?

In the The Chronicle of Higher Education for November 9, there's an article about young academics who feel like frauds. Here's the link to John Gravois's piece. When this phenomenon was seriously studied, it was found that about 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.

There's even a web site for the syndrome.

I really don't like being grumpy about human psychology, but it occurs to me first that some of these young academics are (merely) feeling panic about not having as much knowledge about their fields of expertise as they feel they need to have. In other words, they are imposters, in a sense. Or: they're in a profession where one doesn't really know enough until one has been thinking, teaching, writing and studying for a decade or more. Or: one will never know enough. (And yet they must publish, so almost by definition what they write will be based on significantly incomplete knowledge. It all makes sense. In fact, too much sense.)

Years ago I met Bill Ringler. William A. Ringler, Jr. I was a young scholar feeling rather imposterish, research modern poetry in the manuscript archive of the Huntington Library. I and about thirty other scholars did nothing each day but go to the oasis-like Huntington in San Marino, California, enter the quiet, air-conditioned archives room, read rare books and manuscripts. I was rushing to get out my "tenure book." The Huntington did then, and proabably still does, have a noontime ritual. The manuscripts room closes down entirely for an hour. Everyone has to leave. The idea was to encourage the scholars to walk together across the botanical gardens to a little cafe just past the Shakespeare garden. This is all before the public was permitted to enter the gardens at 1 PM, so we had the place utterly to ourselves. So we did this: we walked to the cafe, where I had lunch at tables with scholars of Renaissance literature, California railroad historians, people examining the 1,200 negatives made by the woman photographer Frances B. Johnston, etc.

Once I met Bill Ringler, then more than 80 years old, I always made a dash to Bill's table. Bill was the world's foremost bibliographer-scholar of 16th-century English lyrics. By the time I met him he knew most of them by heart. Really. He had not been a hugely productive scholar--in, I mean, terms of the number of books and articles he'd published. But everyone knew that he knew more about his subject than anyone else. People used to come to the Huntington to be near Bill--never mind the rare books. He was a rare book.

He had taught at the University of Chicago for decades, and now he "retired to the Huntington." Lived in Pasadena or somewhere and walked to the library every day and studied. Preparing himself to compile the once-in-a-generation tome.

I once asked him, in effect, why he had taken so long to put this book together. It seemed that he'd been the expert in 16th-century English lyric for at least several decades already. His answer was "I don't know enough about it yet, but I will soon." And then: "Some of these things take thirty or forty years to master. If you have that kind of time, then taking that long is appropriate to the task. The best scholars are sometimes people in their 80s."

I'm not of course recommending that any of these nervous young academics wait decades before feeling they know their subject matter well enough to feel they can write definitively about it. I'm just reacting to the sad but also obvious or truistic news of the imposter complex. Bill Ringler had one, big time, but it put him at peace, and made him want to get up in the morning at an age when many folks, having been driven by nervousness all their professional lives, now drool and putter around the roses.

Bill puttered around the roses, as did I in those blissful weeks in Research Heaven, but only for that one enforced hour each day. Then: back to the work.