why I’ll never be a seminal thinker

By | July 11, 2009

Two words you’ll never catch me using: “seminal” and “disseminate.”

Both words come from the latin root seminalis, or seed, from which we also get the word semen.

Now: seminal, disseminate, semen. All linked to the notion of the seed, the germination of all things that can grow: the sowing of ideas, of genes, of the next generation of people, texts, and theories. The terms, though we may not think of it in daily use, are innately masculine–innately male. A seminal idea is one that has taken root, has grown, has spread; it engenders offspring in which we can see (genetic) elements of the initial idea, text, or approach. There’s not even a feminine equivalent. What would we say? He’s an ovulant thinker in his field?

As a female scholar, I resent the notion that my ideas may, if I’m lucky, be likened to the very masculine process of impregnation. I resent the paradigm that leads us to consider seminal ideas that allow other thinkers to bear fruit.

It’s just such a lame limited (edited 10:17 p.m. EDT for ableism: yeesh how did I ever think it was okay to use this word?) way of thinking, especially for scholars who are ostensibly far beyond this masculine approach to scholarship. Besides, we have tons of other possible terms to choose from, as evinced by the brief thesaurus included below:

seminal: critical, crucial, fundamental, important, influential, original, primary, distinctive, distinguished, esteemed, extraordinary, famous, foremost, incomparable, leading, notable, noted, noteworthy, preeminent, prominent, formative, generative, ingenious, innovative, unprecedented, untried, unusual

disseminate: distribute, scatter, broadcast, circulate, diffuse,disperse, promulgate, propagate, publicize, publish, radiate, sow, spread, strew, radiate, bestow, deal out, deliver, devote, disburse, dish out, dispense, mete, communicate, declare, decree, make public, spread, proliferate

I have two close friends, both male, both academics, who use seminal and disseminate with reckless abandon. I don’t guess this post will stop them from using those terms in the future. But it will at least explain why I make a funny face every time they do.

5 thoughts on “why I’ll never be a seminal thinker

  1. arundelo

    > The terms, though we may not think of
    > it in daily use, are innately
    > masculine–innately male.

    How so? I don't see what's male about
    seeds, sowing, taking root, or
    engendering offspring, other than the
    metaphor of semen = seeds.

    Also: blow, blow, Seminole wind.

  2. Jenna McWilliams

    For my money, it's not that seeding etc are inherently masculine notions but that the notions have been taken up for masculine purposes by a patriarchal society and has become deeply entrenched in our collective psyches as such. Seeds do what they do; and we try to make sense of it by applying it to humans doing what humans do; and so the sowing (spilling) of one's seed is a metaphor that for this country anyway goes back to the Bible. So when we talk about disseminating ideas or seminal thinkers, we're nodding back to that masculine appropriation of plant biology for human socio/biological/anatomical purposes.

  3. Daniel Hickey

    Hmm. Being one of your two friends who uses those word, I seek input on alternatives. I used the term “seminal” to refer to the ideas of Allan Collins. Among all of the ideas I encountered as a graduate student in the early 90’s, his ideas have stuck with me longer than those of other scholars, and continue to influence my work most deeply. I don’t have any particular allegiance to that word. I think “generative” works fine.
    As for “disseminate” we used that term pejoratively to describe the false hopes of “disseminated instructional routines” at http://newmedialiteracies.org/blog/2009/03/if-it-doesnt-spread-its-curren-1.php . If we use it we get to extend (or perhaps mix it) the metaphor by pointing out that the problem is that classrooms and schools are not fertile grounds for those routines and this is why they never take root. However, raising the whole issue of the gendered and sexualized nature of the terms then raises the issue of how we are using the term “spread” and that seems like it could get us into a whole heap of trouble.

  4. Jenna McWilliams

    @danielhickey: I refer you to the list of synonyms I identify above. Instead of 'seminal,' I favor "influential" or "foundational." Instead of 'disseminate,' I prefer "circulate" or "spread." Think spread as in peanut butter, not as in DNA.

  5. Pingback: Jenna McWilliams: still not a seminal thinker | making edible playdough is hegemonic.

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