[Paleopsych] On Academic Boredom by Amir Baghdadchia

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On Academic Boredom by Amir Baghdadchi
Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 4(3)
University of Cambridge, UK

[This is a lovely article! I'd like to know more about the emergence of 
boredom in the 18th century. I do not deny that people were bored in a broad 
sense of the term, or that other animals can be bored. But, in a sense so 
specific that a word had to be coined for it, boredom goes only back so far. 
(Words are not coined at random.) It is a "socially constructed" emotion, a 
specific narrowing down of (or mixture of) basic emotions.]

First, the summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the 
daily bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.29

    A glance at the current issue of Arts and Humanities in Higher
    Education: Academic bore

    Confronting boredom in higher education can help academics to
    eradicate a system that survives by being dull, writes Amir
    Baghdadchi, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge who is
    studying argument and literary form in 18th-century literature.

    Such boredom is "corrosive," writes Mr. Baghdadchi. He says that it
    occurs when academics are unable to make use of another person's
    findings, and that "the boring work is one which provides us with
    nothing to make use of."

    While boredom is normally considered the result of a situation gone
    bad, Mr. Baghdadchi writes that, in academe, it is actually the
    product of things gone right. He says that uninteresting work creates
    a "defensive moat around a paper" because people are rarely apt to
    scrutinize a boring topic. Because it is free from any inquiry,
    lackluster work can survive criticism.

    "Sometimes it even seems as if we have a Mutually Assured Boredom
    pact," he writes. "I get up and bore you, you get up and bore me, and
    at the end of the day we are all left standing."

    He writes that while the system has worked well so far, changes are
    worth considering. Researchers should not be wholly concerned with
    simply avoiding "academic battles," he says, but rather with solving
    society's problems. After all, he asks, "do we want a system that
    promotes not the graduate students who are the most vivaciously
    interested, but the ones who are the most contentedly bored?"

    The article, "On Academic Boredom," is available for a limited time at

    --Jason M. Breslow


The kind of boredom experienced in academia is unique. Neither a purely 
subjective nor objective phenomenon, it is the product of the way research 
is organized into papers, seminars, and conferences, as well as of a deep 
implicit metaphor that academic argument is a form of warfare. In this 
respect, the concepts of boredom and rigour are closely linked, since there 
is a kind of rigour in the Humanities that stresses the war metaphor, and 
structures scholarship defensively. This is opposed to a different kind of 
rigour that eschews the war metaphor altogether, and considers rigorousness 
in the light of a work’s usefulness to its audience.


While few would deny that some kind of boredom is part of the culture of 
research and teaching in the Humanities, there are, however, two reasons why 
it is worth considering academic boredom as a species of boredom in its own 
right. First, it is not at all clear that the word 'boredom' refers to a 
coherent topic with an essential character. Since the word first gained 
currency in the 18th century, 'boredom’ has come to be used to describe 
circumstances as various as the restlessness of a child on a car trip, the 
sense of monotony in assembly-line work, a crippling sense that the universe 
has no purpose, and there being nothing worth watching on television. These 
may not all be the same. Whereas, the kind of boredom experienced in 
university departments is of a very particular kind. It is most easily 
identified in terms of affect: the sense that the seminar is never going to 
end, that the speaker will never get to the point, that the articles one is 
reading are proceeding at a glacial pace, that one simply cannot get into a 
discussion, that one dreads getting into it in the first place. The talk, 
the seminar, the conference; these are all contexts particular to us, with 
their own rules, etiquettes, and expectations. They are a set of practices. 
To treat the topic of our boredom without reference to these is not only to 
miss the peculiar shape of academic boredom, but to ignore the shape of 
ourselves inside it.

The second reason is practical. If we think that boredom is a problem that 
we ought to do something about, then it makes sense to consider how it 
relates to our practices and the structure of our discourse. We have no 
power over abstractions; but we can alter practices. That some may not see 
academic boredom as a real problem at all, I will readily admit. To those, I 
can only offer my observations from some five years as a graduate student in 
the United States and the United Kingdom, in a variety of institutions. In 
my experience, boredom is corrosive. I have seen my classmates begin their 
graduate work with great vivacity and curiosity, and I have seen them slowly 
ground down into duller, quieter, less omnivorously interested people. I 
have seen it in myself. I have observed this change over years and even in 
microcosm over the course of a single seminar. I know that graduate students 
are extremely reluctant to discuss it out loud, since that would be akin to 
admitting weakness. But it is the case nevertheless. If anyone believes 
there is a counterexample, then one may attempt the following thought 
experiment:try and imagine someone who, after several years of graduate 
work, became, at the end of it, more vivacious.

Rather than trying to pin down what academic boredom is in the abstract, a 
better way will be to treat the words 'boredom', 'boring' and so on as 
available descriptions. Thus, some of the questions we might instead ask 
are: in what kinds of academic contexts and circumstances do we describe 
ourselves as 'bored'? What other kinds of perceptions accompany, or precede, 
our judgment that we are bored? What kinds of things can be called 'boring'? 
Our commonsense answers are very illuminating here. One popular answer to 
the first question (at least among graduate students) is that one's sense of 
boredom in, for example, a seminar, is derived from personal inadequacy. One 
finds oneself unable to concentrate on an argument, and concludes that this 
is because one does not know enough, has not studied enough, is not up to 
this level of discourse. There are in fact two different propositions here. 
First, that boredom is a subjective state, and second, that it is one's own 
fault or responsibility. The first is uncontroversial enough; and indeed, 
most writers on any kind of boredom assume that it is some kind of mental 
state. The second proposition is not so obvious.The dictum 'boredom is your 
own fault', like its cousin, 'only boring people are ever bored', seems 
closer to the kind of rule one tells children to make them behave. That this 
belief should be so prevalent, at least in an implied form, in graduate 
studies, is not surprising if we take one of the aims of graduate work to be 
the moulding of the student into a docile, well-behaved, academic subject. 
However, as a representation of what actually happens when we are bored, it 
is not very informative. To say that one's experience of boredom is the 
product of internal causes is very much like saying that the pain one feels 
from a splinter is caused by one's nervous system. That is surely correct. 
But it ignores the splinter.

So we move from internal to external causes.And,sure enough,just as often as 
we blame ourselves, we blame the speaker or the topic for being boring.And 
we even say of certain topics, or speakers, that they are just inherently 
boring. But consider an extreme case, the case of the switched papers. 
Imagine that at the last English conference, there was a paper on Wycherley 
that engaged its audience fully, while, at the last meeting of the European 
Society of Industrial Chemical Producers, there was a chemical engineering 
paper that similarly was a great success. Let us suppose that no one in the 
respective audiences thought the papers in the least bit boring. But then 
let us suppose that through some accident, the next time the speakers give 
their papers, they switch audiences.And we could easily imagine that the 
audience of engineers would not be so enraptured with an analysis of The 
Country Wife, and that the English students, however skilled at reading any 
text in the most interesting way possible, would become very fidgety very 

Hence, it seems that, if we are careful, we cannot say that 'boringness' is 
a quality that is indisputably attached to a topic or a speaker. Moreover, 
it seems that neither the internal account of boredom--which says it is 
purely a state of mind--nor the external one--which says it is purely 
someone's fault--can stand on its own. But consider this: If we think of 
what happens when we are bored as an event--as an occasion when we are 
supposed to do something --then the two accounts can be complementary. Thus, 
our complaint, 'I'm just not getting this. I can't follow it', can be 
rephrased as saying, 'there is nothing I can do with this material. I can't 
make use of it.' Likewise, when the English student is boring the chemical 
engineers, we may say that the English student has given the engineers 
nothing that they can make use of. The English paper is so designed as to 
give them nothing to do. And, if we are willing to take that on board, we 
can consolidate our observations thus: Boredom occurs when we are unable to 
make use of a work, and the boring work is one which provides us with 
nothing to make use of. Thus far, the assumption has been that boredom is 
wholly bad. This might seem uncontroversial, but it is worth asking whether 
boredom is not some malfunction, what happens when things go wrong, but is 
perhaps something adaptive, which happens in order to succeed in some 
situation. There is a strong reason to think so. Consider that when one is 
bored by a paper, one does not ask questions. Boredom--whether caused by 
massive amounts of unfamiliar data, or impenetrable syntax--creates a 
defensive moat around a paper. It protects it. It guarantees that, even if 
it does not win everyone over, it survives the war, and that is good enough. 
The underlying metaphor here is that an argument is war. This idea is very 
brilliantly discussed by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) in 
their book Metaphors We Live By. They point out that the metaphor 'argument 
is war' not only describes what we do when we argue, but structures it: that 
is to say, when we argue, we behave as if we were at war: we fortify our 
positions, we attack weak points, there is a winner and loser, and so on. 
And because we actually do behave as if we were at war, the metaphor seems 
perfectly apt. However, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, the metaphor 
conceals as much as it explains, for, the person with whom we are arguing is 
actually giving their time, which is hardly a characteristic of warfare, and 
often when we disagree we are collaborating on the same problem. 
Collaboration, dialogue, the sense of a common discipline--these are 
elements of academic discourse left out by the war metaphor. Now if we set 
that beside the description of boredom we arrived at earlier, it appears 
that we have two models of academic discourse that sit very ill together. 
One can either say that argument is war, and therefore must be waged 
offensively and defensively, or one can see scholarship as producing objects 
intended for manipulation. These positions are contrary; or, at least, one 
cannot maximize the one without minimizing the other. Of the two models, 
boredom feeds on the metaphor 'argument is war'. One can succeed in the war 
by virtue of boredom because it is a defensive tactic. Sometimes it even 
seems as if we have a Mutually Assured Boredom pact. I get up and bore you, 
you get up and bore me, and, at the end of the day, we are all left 
standing. It would not be hard to find graduate students whose measure of a 
successful conference paper lies entirely in whether they were 'shot down' 
or not. In this situation, being boring is a very good policy indeed.

At the outset I stated a concern with boredom as something detrimental to 
academic discourse. But it is not necessary to think in these terms at all. 
Indeed, I believe one of the reasons that academic boredom has not been an 
important topic is because of a very robust and practical objection that 
could be made. It is an extremely persuasive objection, and I would like to 
deal with it now. It argues that while it is all well and good to decry 
things that are boring and to think about what counts as interesting, the 
real business of academic work has nothing to do with 'being interesting' at 
all: rather, it has to do with the construction of rigorous arguments that 
can withstand attack. Whether or not the audience is interested is a 
consideration always second to the strength of the research. If an audience 
finds a rigorously argued piece of scholarship boring, that is their 
problem, since they cannot expect that it was written for their enjoyment.

As I say, a very robust and, perhaps, very familiar objection. It is built 
around an opposition of 'rigorous' vs. 'interesting'. However, I do not 
think this has to be the case. I think we can see this by interrogating the 
concept of 'rigorousness'. It will be helpful to take an uncontroversial 
example of something that must be done rigorously. Let us suppose, purely 
hypothetically, that a graduate student, owing to an inability of the 
department to offer any funding whatsoever, finds a job working in a fish 
restaurant, in which he has the task of cleaning out the industrial walk-in 
refrigerator. As I say, the example is purely hypothetical. But if I had to 
guess, I would think that he would have to see to it that this was done with 
extreme rigour: the temperatures would have to be precisely maintained, the 
fish would have to be separated and rotated for freshness, the floors and 
walls and shelves would have to be scrubbed meticulously to avoid any kind 
of health risk. Here then is a paradigm of rigour, since: (a) it must be 
done to an external standard; (b) the work is meant to be examined and 
approved by an inspector; and (c) everything must be such that it can be 
easily used and manipulated by others.

Now contrast this kind of rigour--which resembles a scientific experiment in 
that it wants others to see what happened, wants others to follow the 
reasoning, and wants the scrutiny--with the rigour that is purely defensive: 
the rigour of endless authorities trotted in, of obscure language, of 
massive amounts of information deployed to scare off inquiry. The very fact 
that we are often willing to declare a work to be rigorous without claiming 
actually to understand it points to these two types of rigour being 
different, if not contrary. Perhaps because both kinds of rigour are 
commonly signified by the same word, they are not usually distinguished. But 
if we were to make the distinction, it seems to be fortuitous that we do 
have a ready-made phrase for this latter kind of bellicose, deadly rigour: 
we may call it rigor mortis, literally the 'rigor, the stiffness of death'. 
Rigor mortis shuts us up, it closes off inquiry, it digs the moat, it wants 
to bore us to death. Again, we might call the other kind of rigour-- for 
lack of a better term--a 'living rigour'. Living rigour, if we wish to carry 
on with the martial metaphor, takes risks, seeks risks, is designed to be 
vulnerable. But it is better to do without the martial metaphor, as that 
will tempt us into thinking of argument still as confrontation, and think of 
living rigour as a kind of rigour that constructs things to be used, 
inspected, evaluated.

However, there is a consequence of thinking this way, which, depending on 
one's predisposition, either threatens the very possibility of ever being 
rigorous, or provides the only way in which rigour might be a meaningful 
concept. Consider that we now have an idea of rigour in terms of usefulness 
in a broad sense. But, because how useful a work is depends both on the 
shape of the discourse and on what the audience knows or wants to do, we 
cannot therefore determine how rigorous a work is, once and for all, just by 
looking at its shape or content. Rather, we are called on to think of the 
word 'rigorous' as operating in a way similar to the word 'shocking'. You 
might think you have written the most shocking piece of literary criticism 
ever, yet, if no one in your audience of veterinary surgeons is actually 
shocked, you cannot really maintain that it was shocking, absolutely. 
Likewise, rigour: if rigour demands that your audience can manipulate your 
idea, and no one cares to manipulate it, then you lose the right to boast 
that you have been perfectly, objectively, and in the mind of God rigorous.

To refer to the 'mind of God' may seem like a rhetorical gesture, but it is 
in fact what one has to do by the logic of the objection. If the 
rigorousness of a scholarly work can exist without reference to any 
imaginable mortal audience (and anyone who thinks being interesting is a 
separate matter from being rigorous is implying this), then to whom else is 
the work addressed, if not to some all-hearing deity who understands every 
point and can never be bored? On the other hand, if one prefers the idea of 
a living rigour, this is not without dangers, since, along with removing the 
certainty of being rigorous in every situation, it removes the authority we 
arrogate to ourselves based on a reputation for rigorous work. (To make an 
observation from the point of view of a graduate student: rigour is the most 
frequent stick with which we are beaten. In researching a topic about which 
you necessarily become more informed than your supervisor, what other kind 
of authority can a supervisor wield?) Indeed, living rigour compels us to 
think of our work as not complete once the paper is polished, but only 
occurring the moment the paper is being received.

By this account, then, a concern with being rigorous in the best way 
possible indeed justifies, rather than detracts from, a concern with 
academic boredom. Academic boredom, which occurs when one is unable to make 
use of a work and cannot find anything in it with which to engage, is the 
consequence of rigor mortis, the kind of rigour deployed for winning 
academic battles rather than solving problems. Boredom, because it feels 
like a lack of something, may seem trivial and unimportant. It is not a 
thing to be reckoned with because no thing appears to be there. But as I 
have tried to show, this is not the case. Boredom is a sign that our system 
is not functioning the way we think it is, that we are not always being 
rigorous when we think we are. Of course, there is no need to change a 
system that has served us very well so far. But it is worth considering 
whether we want a system that promotes not the graduate students who are the 
most vivaciously interested, but the ones who are the most contentedly 


Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: 
University of Chicago Press.

biographical note

amir baghdadchi is currently a PhD student in the Faculty of English at 
Cambridge University. He is working on the idea of argument and literary 
form in 18th-century literature. [Email: ab490 at cam.ac.uk]

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