One of my favorite metaphors for humanistic inquiry is “unpacking.” Sometimes it feels like an over-full suite case springing open, scattering previously unseen clothing and toiletries all over the place and revealing that present that grandma brought for you nestled there in the center. Sometimes it feels like carefully and laboriously picking the infinitely delicate locks on a briefcase, not knowing if what you’ll find inside will be precious or just some long-forgotten trash.
Unpacking means finding and reveling in richness and awe-inspring reality. Facility with unpacking is a tantalizing scholarly goal.
Little wonder, then, that my students balk a bit when I force them away from that goal. During one session where the professor and I were trying to get students to plot the interrelationships of some articles by finding their commonalities (either topic or approach or theoretical underpinnings), one student complained that “it seems like we’re reducing these articles down to their least interesting, most simplistic components.”
And we were, in a way. We were doing the opposite of unpacking. We were packing them carefully into suitcases, shirts on one side and pants on another, with no thought to the color, weave, or provenance of the individual pieces.
It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment how important focal flexibility is — the ability to see a given work in all its richness and unpackable complexity, and also see it as one of a constellation of other works — to be able to plot it dispassionately amongst its peers, and also gaze at its internal universes.