Welcome to Scribd. Sign in or start your free trial to enjoy unlimited e-books, audiobooks & documents.Find out more
Standard view
Full view
of .
Look up keyword
Like this
0 of .
Results for:
No results containing your search query
P. 1
George Cotkin California Polytechnic

George Cotkin California Polytechnic

Ratings: (0)|Views: 85|Likes:
Published by The New Inquiry

More info:

Published by: The New Inquiry on Nov 06, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less





Copyright George Cotkin 1
“Intellectual History for What?”U.S. Intellectual History Conference 2010George CotkinCalifornia Polytechnic About ten years ago at the OAH, a fellow member of the tribe of intellectual historianskindly praised my books and then inquired: “What the hell, with your publishing record,are you doing at a school like Cal Poly?” I asked him what he meant, and he said: “youshould be at a prestigious research institution.” Well, I stuttered, after many applications to such universities over the years, none had ever expressed any desire forme, not even to the point of an on campus interview. As was my wont in those days, Iretreated from the conversation into depression.But I come here today not to wallow but to suggest that being at a second or third tieruniversity may not be akin to occupying one of Dante’s circles. To retain somecredibility, I know that I need to preface my remarks with acknowledgment that Cal Poly has superior students (on a par with Stanford and UCLA) and that it is located inparadise. Indeed, a just-published book considers San Luis Obispo the happiest place inthe United States!I will not be a Pollyanna, however. Those of us teaching at non-research institutionslabor under real restraints - heavy teaching loads (for close to ten years I taught 3-4sections each ten-week quarter of the history survey, with at least 50 students in eachclass), paucity of internal research support, lack of a prestigious venue that would helpto generate external support, and the oddity of pursuing liberal arts research at aPolytechnic university.But, there has also a freedom to go places that might (and here I generalize, of course) be off limits to scholars at major research institutions who are not only under heavy pressure to produce, but to publish books that others in similar circumstances will find“path breaking.” The dissertation must be turned into a book manuscript, and quickly;the next project cannot falter or be altered midstream, or else the boat of tenure willsurely sink. At Cal Poly, and schools like it, the imperative on the professional front was nicely vague-simply be active. In actuality, this meant that if you were a strong teacher, you need notpublish. In any case, tenure could be achieved with a couple of articles, preferably inrefereed journals. This reality allowed me to abandon my dissertation on “Working-Class Intellectuals and Evolutionary Thought” to a deserved dustpile and go elsewhere.In my first, temporary job, as a lecturer at Ohio State, I had lucked out into attending anNEH/ASA sponsored, six week summer seminar at Haverford College, on “TheNewtonian and Darwinian Revolutions in American Thought.” I thrilled to theintellectual fireworks generated by Bruce Kuklick, Murray Murphey, David Hollinger,Jim Hoopes, Sacvan Bercovitch and others. I determined, at that moment, to begin working on a new project, a book about William James. It took me a decade to bring that
Copyright George Cotkin 2
project to its published life, but I never regretted the shift and, I now realize, I probably  would not have been able to follow this path had I been at a research-orientedinstitution. Towards the end of the project, I was in Berkeley, lunching with Henry May,a distinguished historian. He asked me at one point, “What are you working on.” Hisresponse to my James project was, “How lucky you are to be able to spend time withsuch a marvelous person.” He was right.Later books followed a similar stop and start pattern. I initiated the logical project, a book on Public Philosophy in the United States, and I had written 300 pages of it when Irealized that it did not speak to me. At some point, my wife and I decided to have an“Eat Pasta and Burn” Party. We supplied pasta, along with a fire. Folks were requestedto consign to flames something that they wished to exorcize from their lives. A friend, inthe process of divorce, burned her marriage license. I threw the manuscript on publicphilosophy into the fire, a decision I never regretted. I embraced my freedom anddecided to write a book about a topic that riveted my attention and my soul - aboutexistentialism in America. Again, it took close to a decade to complete, but it was thecorrect decision, one made easier by being at Cal Poly.One more story in this vein, although I fear you may think that I am a flighty sort of fellow. About six years ago, after viewing the film Hotel Rwanda, I exited the theaterconvinced that I had to abandon the 150 pages that I had produced for a book undercontract to Columbia on Cultural Criticism in Postwar America. Again, there wasnothing wrong with the topic, as such. It simply had failed - as Emerson would have it –to cleave a friendly axe into my brain. I returned my advance and jump into Morality’sMuddy Waters, which came out last spring.The same freedom to pursue new topics at a place like Cal Poly extends, I believe, to lessconventional projects. Morality’s Muddy Waters, for instance, has historical moments but it is mainly intended as a response to current moral problems, to ways of thinkingabout moral issues. I have just finished a new book about Moby-Dick. I originally conceived of it as a sort of reception history, written in normal academic fashion. But, asone editor pointed out to me, it lacked fire. He was right. So I transformed the projectinto a work of 138 short chapters, each responding in some way to the chapters in Moby-Dick; a different sort of voyage, but a most satisfying one.Let me conclude by – perhaps at last - addressing the title of our session today,Intellectual History, For What? At least, the For What part.Some of you may be familiar with Paul Elie’s marvelous book, with a title taken from aFlannery O’Connor short story The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Well, The Book  You Write May Save Your Life. By being able to pursue books that are concerned withthis issue - after all, what my books on William James, Existential America, Morality’sMuddy Waters, and the forthcoming one on Moby Dick, share is a concern with whatmakes a life worth living? How can we carry on in a world seemingly bereft of anchors, when the only waters upon which we sail are churlish and tragic. Pursuing these topicshas been tonic for me. I will not lie and say that they have driven my personal demons
Copyright George Cotkin 3
away - that would be too naïve, too much to ask. But they have, by allowing me to staremore deeply into the abyss, in the company of intellectuals that I respect and learn from,allowed me to bear the burden a bit more easily and resolutely.Perhaps such concerns have diminished my professional resume and kept me tetheredto Cal Poly. But the very term Vita, refers to life, and being able to pursue, howeveridiosyncratically as I have those concerns has made me richer.

You're Reading a Free Preview

/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->