I feel that I am often apologizing for making statements that are not new–many women feel this way, many scholars feel this way. If what you offer is not methodology-breaking or ideology-busting, why would you bother offering it up? I did this just this weekend, telling someone something I was learning about basketball through myself. “I know it’s not new,” I said, “but I’m beginning to understand the cultural divide between those who care about sports and those who don’t. Like I’ve always known it exists, I mean, everyone does, I know it’s not new, but I think I’m beginning to get why it exists.” I think back now, and wonder, why did I belie my own point?
This is the first year I’ve followed UNC basketball with any kind of adherence, and this has brought a change for me in the way I view UNC’s sporting culture. I have always rooted for UNC,–truly, always–but remember still with red cheeks the time I mixed up Harrison Barnes with Reggie Bullock in a conversation with a classmate. My inattention to basketball was, I admit, forced. It takes a special kind of fortitude to will yourself not to learn that Marcus Paige is the only player we have who can consistently shoot a solid three. Maybe a game would be on at a party I attended and maybe I would add to a collective group groan at a bad call from the ref, but this too, was forced. But suddenly,–and it feels very sudden, and I cannot pinpoint how it happened–this year, the games were on at our house, and though I was far from watching every game, the wins meant something new to me. I would see Roy Williams on television and feel a kind of reverence, in addition to my regular bout of suspicion. Losses began to sting, and I would make eye contact with a stranger on the bus the next morning and I would feel they too knew how I felt. If you are more Tar Heel born and bred than I, you will read and think: This is not new to me.
But it is new to me. It is important to me. I want to feel that my new knowledge is worth remarking on. And I want to hear from others when they too learn something, even if it is not new to me. Scholarship values the new, but not necessarily what is new to the individual. And in privileging that kind of new, but not the moment of individual discovery, the university, I think, twists and distorts its goal of the creation of new knowledge. In graduate school especially, it is easy to feel you are in arms race with your colleagues (who are also in training, I remind myself daily) as to who can name the most cultural theorists. In this race to gather and mass information, there is no opportunity for me to reflect that I’m learning, just on what I’ve learned. Is that idea new?, I wonder, even as I’m writing this.
And of course, there is the expectation that when I do put my new knowledge on display in my dissertation, I am going to carve out a niche for myself. But current scholarly practice often requires not only that you carve out your space, but that you stamp out those who came before you, elbowing them out of the way, until you arise with your shining beacon of new scholarship. “Inside the simulacrum,” Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz write in ‘American Studies as Accompaniment,’ “some seek attention by dismissing all previous scholarship as inadequate and outdated, while others assess research conducted by others as valid or invalid on the basis of the identities of its authors, their discipline, their age, their race, their gender, their sexuality, or their politics.”  I think everyone in academia has seen this kind of scholarship: Mine is right because they were wrong and I am new.
Two weeks ago, my older sister and I drove over to Duke to hear Leslie Jamison read from The Empathy Exams, which didn’t gut me like I wanted it to. But I heard a sincere resonance in a few essays, so I went and enjoyed myself. After the reading, Jamison was asked about how her experience as a graduate student writing a dissertation differs from writing non-fiction, a question so hilarious I almost laughed out loud. And her answer, honest and unaffected, also made me laugh. She said something akin to this: ‘What I miss and love about academic writing is paying homage to those who came before you. You acknowledge out front that what you are writing is not new, and then write what parts are new.’ And I laughed because I thought: “What discipline are you coming from?” (English.) My sister (Sciences) and I (American Studies) talked about it after. “Maybe not in American Studies,” she said, “but certainly in the sciences, biology and chemistry. You say what other researchers have done and then what you do differently.” “No meanness?,” I asked. “No.,” she replied.
I want us to acknowledge those moments of discovery and to pay homage without meanness to scholars whose work makes our own possible. And I want to stop apologizing for not speaking new words, articulating new thoughts. And to give deference to this point, I want to give this lengthy quote from Jamison, which did gut me. Sank into me, in fact, and flows around in my veins and runs hot like intravenous fluid when I say “I know it’s not new, but…”
“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman, is how de Beauvoir starts one of the most famous books on women ever written. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead wound. But I say: keep bleeding. Just write towards something beyond blood.
The wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliche and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
 Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz, “American Studies as Accompaniment,” America Quarterly 65:1 (2013), 1-30