The Pallas Athena Complex

7 januari 2014 | In Uncategorized | Comments?

So you write something and maybe it’s a good thing. You’re new so what do you know? You’re still working things out, but you have been doing that for a while so you’ve got this idea that maybe you should have presented it, or something else, by now. And you want to make a good first impression. You would like it to be the case that the time, whatever the time, it has taken you to write this thing has all been worth it because it’s basically flawless. Like Pallas Athena, it should spring out of your head fully ready to do combat on it’s own. Maybe you fear criticism, so you want there to be very little space for it – the text should be laden with defenses for anything the reader could conjure up. So you work through it again and it’s impossible because the time it takes you to work through it, whatever the time, means the result must be even better than when you started working through it, and odds are you have reached the point where you’re not improving it, you’re making it worse. Time spent with a text can make you blind to how it reads for a new reader, you can’t help reading into it things that are not publicly available. It shouldn’t be this hard, or so you say (conveniently forgetting that Thomas Mann thing that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people).

What I’m describing to you is what I like to call the ”Pallas Athena Complex” and I believe it is responsible for academic failure to a far greater extent than lack of academic talent is. It means tons of promising work remains hidden in drawers and may never see the light of day. It’s a form of shyness, of course. The reluctance to appear vulnerable, or responsible for something flawed. But it’s also a byproduct of the cult of the solitary genius. Particularly susceptible to belief in this cult are those who approached their subject on their own, and where taught the history of their subject by description of the work of eminent singular persons. Particularly susceptible to the Pallas Athena Complex are those who, however confident, lack confidence in the readers ability to spot promise in a text.

If you’re a teacher or a supervisor, you should learn to spot the early signs of the Pallas Athena Complex. Broken deadlines, postponed seminars, general avoidance despite keen interests. If you’re a sufferer, go to seminars and conferences an take note that people are submitting stuff that are much worse than the stuff you’ve got hidden away. And start a blog, you don’t even have to provide footnotes in a blogpost.

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