Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships 8: Aspergian Scholarship

For my write-up today on The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron, I will use as my starting-point something that Temple says on page 98:

"...children and adults with ASD can often be very good in academic subjects where the relationship between facts is logical and direct, and do poorly in areas that require extrapolation, interpretation or integration. The brain pathways that facilitate the crossover of category to category, or that illuminate the possible connection of one area to another are undeveloped or under-developed in the autistic mind."

I do not think that this is an absolute, for there are Aspies who are in the humanities, an area that requires extrapolation, interpretation, and integration. And they do quite well in that area. I will not comment on whether or how their autism plays a role in their scholarship. I will, however, talk about where I feel that my Asperger's impacts my own attempts to be a scholar in religious studies.

I talked yesterday about how I tend to focus on one thing at a time as opposed to looking at the big picture. This is not absolutely true, for there are times when I can step back and take a look at the big picture. I think that many people have a "big picture" because they (and I) cannot remember every single detail, and so it's easier to look at a "forest" that supposedly takes into account all of the individual trees (and I emphasize the word "supposedly"). But there are times when I focus on one thing at a time.

I think that where this comes in handy for me is that I can try to understand the argument of the person I am reading. And, when one scholar says that another scholar argues something or does not take something into account, I can take a look at that other scholar's work to see if that is the case. Often, I find that the scholar is not being entirely fair to that other scholar, and I can do well to point that out in my paper. Another asset is that, when reviewing a book or an article, I can identify where that piece makes factual errors, or evaluate its consistency.

Where I struggle is that I feel most comfortable looking at a few items at a time----such as comparing one author with another author. But, in scholarship, you have to know the general arguments of a vast number of works. When I look at footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography, I think, "Wow! Did this guy read all of these books?" Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. At some point, though, he had to step back and see a forest, and that involved making generalizations and observing (or projecting) trends.

Another area in which I struggle is that I have a hard time arriving at firm beliefs. Let's take Andrew Das' book on Paul and the Jews, which I read some time ago. Das writes, in certain respects, as I write: he looks at scholars and meticulously summarizes and evaluates them, one at a time. (And I'm not saying that Das has Asperger's, for I don't know him. I'm just making a point about scholarly writing.) But Das is going somewhere in doing so: he is supporting a thesis. I, however, believe that scholars have good arguments and bad arguments, often for or against the same position. And so I have a hard time arbitrating between different positions, for I cannot say that one position is absolutely strong and right, whereas another position is wrong and weak. Both positions have their strengths and weaknesses. As a result, how could I arrive at a thesis?

Where Asperger's can serve me, however, is that scholarship emphasizes narrowing things down: find a thesis topic that is narrow and work from there. So, in the end, I will be focusing on one thing at a time, in a sense.

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