Travis Kavulla has some "Thoughts on Michelle Obama's Thesis." As his title suggests, they are neither smart nor sound thoughts: they are merely thoughts. Kavulla is not a dumb man. He may even be a nice man. So I grant, for the moment, that his thoughts on Michelle's Obama's thesis represent neither his mind nor his character; because if they did, they would speak quite poorly of both.
First and foremost, the object of his critique is an undergraduate thesis. It is not written deliberately—with the care a graduate student would write a seminar paper or a law student compose a sample brief—but in bursts of research crammed in between unrelated coursework. (No scholar works on a paper while simultaneously trying to master studentized range distributions and Bowen's reaction series.*) So undergraduate theses tend to resemble fun-house reflections of their committee's interests.
For example, remember my undergraduate thesis? Were someone to dredge it up when my wife went up for tenure on the assumption it reflected my current beliefs and standards, I would dismiss them as frivolous. My senior thesis is the product of an immature mind warping John Protevi's passion for continental philosophy into an embarrassing melange of big words and bad ideas. Like any successful undergraduate, I could outline [.pdf] other people's thoughts but had problems generating any of my own. So I did what every undergraduate does:
I mimicked. I experimented. I minced the careful prose of my betters until it emitted a fragrance I thought odoriferous, everyone else odorous.
But I've changed. In the years since I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I've learned how to parrot the conventions of my betters more convincingly, and that research consists of more than finding a theory that conveniently accounts for what I've already determined to be very important facts. In short, I've honed the skills I once wielded with all the subtlety of toddler with a broadsword.
Now for the ironic part:
I'd still be an oversized infant struggling to hack with a sword twice as wide as he was tall were it not for one of Kavulla's co-bloggers. When I first arrived in Irvine, I talked BIG TALK. I impressed people with my manifest impressiveness. One day, after witnessing me conquer fellow graduate students in an after-seminar bull-session, a fellow by the name of Jim Zeigler pulled me aside and recommended I read Mark Bauerlein's Literary Criticism: An Autopsy.
I was humbled. Not that I agreed (or agree) with Bauerlein, but the idea that someone was challenging the theoretical orthodoxy I'd come to believe sacred was exactly the corrective I needed. I'd uncritically embraced post-modern/post-structuralist theory as an undergraduate and needed some distance. I needed to read something like this:
["Discourse"] has a loaded meaning, but a vague referent, and the vagueness is necessary to this mode of inquiry. In using it, critics can attenuate their descriptions, yet still sound authoritative. "Discourse" usage converts a methodological weakness into a theoretical exigency. "Discourse" is an essential constituent of inquiry, description, definition, and so an inquiry into any particular discourse must hold off from being too determinate, too positive. The ubiquitousness of discursive products (norms, values, distinctions, etc.) fosters a healthy skepticism toward the methods of empirical investigation (hypothesis testing, observation, fact-finding). Hence critics can make incidental citations of this and that discourse, the mention of them indicating a world of relevant sociopolitical processes, and rightly neglect to fill in the concrete sociopolitical ingredients of the discourses cited. The meaning of "discourse" and the methodological evanescence of it vindicate empirical thinness and oblique statement. (57)
Before you ask: I'm only quoting the conclusion; Bauerlein shows his work in the book. Reading that forced me to refine my vague Foucauldian notion of what constituted "discourse" into something methodologically respectful ... something I couldn't use to lord over my fellows in a cloud of abstraction. I became a respectable scholar in graduate school.
Would that Kavulla could give Michelle Obama the benefit of that same doubt.
*Lynn Fichter is right: Mineral pictures are hot.