Thinking Outside the Box

I want to find whoever it was who came up with this phrase--and strangle him (probably a him, maybe it was a her). Okay, so that's a bit strong. He was probably an advertiser (how is it that we have ceded so much of our cultural conversation to the ad men?), and all he probably meant was that his copywriters and designers should try to think about, oh, I don't know, what happened to their product once someone took it out of its packaging. Or maybe not. Maybe he was a scientist and wanted his labworkers to stop thinking in terms of the protocols they were used to following and try to come up with some other means of testing material reality. Or maybe he was an editor and wanted his authors to stop thinking in terms of genres and, quote unquote, just write. Whoever he was, he has a lot to answer for.

Because, you see, we need boxes, frames, protocols, genres. We can't think without them. Boxes give us context and purpose. No box, no point. Sure you may want to think outside the box, but you need the box. Boxless, and there really isn't much point to anything anymore.

Okay, now I'm curious, I'm going to go look a bit and see if anyone 'fesses up.... Aha, so I was sort of right. Management gurus of the 1970s and 1980s seem to have been the principal ones to start touting this "outside of the box" thinking, but it actually seems to refer to the so-called nine-dot problem: given a three-by-three of array of nine dots, connect the dots by drawing four straight lines but without lifting the pencil from the paper. The trick is to draw three of the lines going "outside of the box" rather than staying within the square defined by the dots themselves. According to most of the articles that show up on the first page of a Google search (none of which except the Wikipedia entry seems to give references), the puzzle was promoted by one Mike Vance of Walt Disney as a way of challenging its designers to, ahem, think more creatively. So isn't it a little bit curious that no one seems capable of thinking outside the box of thinking outside the box?

I really don't know quite where I'm going with this post. See? Here I am, thinking outside of the box of what a blog post is supposed to be like, and all I am getting is gibberish. Mind you, I'm not really thinking outside of the box: I have a title ("Thinking Outside of the Box") and a frame ("Fencing Bear at Prayer: Musings on the Arts of Fencing and Prayer with Occasional Forays into Writing, Academia and the History of Christianity"), which together make a set of sort of nested boxes, into which I can put my ideas. Without them, I'm just wandering around, musing about this and that, watching my thoughts jump from one idea to another, with no particular investment in developing one or another of them any more than the others and, even more to the point, no incentive to do so either. It's the same reason that I hate that corollary Disney phrase--"Use your imagination"--so much, too. Use your imagination--to do what? Apparently, anything--and nothing. Because, of course, there is no frame.

I really, really, really need a box right now. Meanwhile, I had a lovely walk this morning with one of my neighbors from church who happened to be out walking her dog at the same time I was out with mine. She suggested going to the "prairie" that has been planted on the edge of our neighborhood, thus, by the by, giving us what every walk needs: a goal. Along the way, we talked about this and that, but once we got to the "prairie," it seemed appropriate to have a more focused conversation, so I asked her about her teaching this quarter. This led us into questions about literature and nature and worship and the place of tradition in our culture, again, by the by, helping me to some answers about some of the things that have been worrying me most of late, particularly about what is usually described as the "relevance" of studying the humanities or history. Once we left the "prairie," we started talking about other things again, ending as we reached the point where we would both turn to go home with thoughts about what getting tenure means for our work and how paradoxical it is that getting tenure often leads not to renewed energy for one's research, but depression. Because, you see, you lose your box ("what I need to do to get tenure"); or, perhaps more accurately, feel it expand to include, well, anything you want it to.

Great. So I got tenure some eight years ago. What do I do now? Okay, okay, so there are the dozen or so articles I've written in that time, not all of which have seen the light of print as of yet, some of them still being caught in the publishing limbo known as "forthcoming," plus the book I co-edited, plus the startings of my next book. It isn't as if I haven't been working all of that time. But other than pushing on until death, publishing as much as I possibly can "in the field," I'm not entirely clear what the point of it all is anymore, other than promotion to full professor, which now seems a rather pale reward for all the work that I do. (Plus, of course, I'm pissed off that others manage the leap without having to jump through the same hoops, but let's not go there just now.) How do I think outside of the box on this?

Well, of course, academics are never supposed to be doing the kind of work that I do simply in order to "get ahead." We do it for the love of our subjects, never mind the external social or material rewards. But--and here is the real kicker--what if the love of our subjects takes us to places that according to the academic criteria by which we judge ourselves don't really count? Or what if, heaven forbid, we really do start thinking outside of the box about the kind of work that we want to do and our colleagues no longer know how to evaluate it? Just to take the most obvious example that you know I am thinking about: does my blog count? Or is it just a flurry, a nonsense, a distraction from the "real" work I should be doing? But how do I define my "real" work? Maybe my blog is what I am "supposed" to be doing, pushing forward the boundaries of publishing, participating in this new cultural form.

I do worry that blog posts by custom (and reading practice) tend to be a little short, not really the best context for developing more complicated ideas. But isn't there an interesting intertexuality going on here among all of the posts that I have written over the past nearly two years? Look, look! I've done essays on God and faith and fencing and remodeling and dogs and writer's block and dieting and spiritual despair, not to mention comics and poems. Maybe no one post is worth terribly much as a reflection on reality, our struggles in the modern world, what it means to be human and alive, but surely as an aggregate, they add up to something, greater than the sum of their parts.

And, okay, so my voice in these posts tends to be a bit jokey, more immediate than the voice I allow myself (or my colleagues allow me to use) in my scholarship. But (no false modesty here, I'm on the edge of hope and despair) every so often I think back on one or another of my posts and think, "Wow! There was something really edgy and subtle going on there, if you think about the way in which what I was saying literally points to this or that outside of itself." It all depends on what we really mean by "thinking outside of the box." I do it all the time: if, that is, we think of "the box" as what is said on the literal level and "outside" as its spiritual truth. So, for example, you could take this post as simply a rant about a nagging cultural trope that seems to me not to take account of the way in which our imaginations actually work. Or you could read it as an argument for what it would mean to try to live by that trope, using the metaphor of the walk in the garden as a frame.

And yet, it still doesn't seem quite real, not as real as the things that I do that fit in the box. I need to box up my thinking on devotion to the Virgin Mary and make it into a book. I need to box up my thinking on the purpose of studying history and thus serve my profession as I should. I need the box of believing in my so-called career path. Instead, I'm wandering about here in blogland, oh so far from the beaten path of academia, enjoying the flowers and listening to the birds sing and watching my puppy's butt.


  1. I know this is selfish, but I'm always relieved, reading your posts, to know:
    1) that someone I greatly admire understands and shares many of the anxieties and concerns I have.

    2) that it wouldn't be the end of the world if, in the end, I decided on a different career path. (Which is not to say that you make it seem like an awful career path, just that I wouldn't be disowned as an acquaintance if I did, and some people might even understand.)


  2. A.H.

    I'm not entirely sure why choosing another career path is taken to be such a bad thing. Maybe because we in academia have usually been the ones who were "good in school" and it is hard for us to step out of that roll. In any case, whatever you decide, I would understand!



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