Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

There's snow on the ground (and on the rooftops and in the trees and on the cars) in Copenhagen this morning. What a great way to bring the academic year to a close! The blog will be taking a break until early next year. It will then pick up slowly and get back to the usual grind in February.

This morning I offer a brief reminder about how best to take a break from your work, especially your writing. Decide what your last task on your last day of work is. (Decide also when your last writing session will happen and what it will involve.) And then decide when you will pick up again (when your first day begins and what your first task will be; here, again, you should also decide when your first writing session will happen and what it will be about.) Having decided these things, your break happens naturally in between your last day of work and your first day back.

This method keeps you from thinking too much about the things you are supposed to be taking a break from. You have closed your projects down temporarily. And you know how you will open them up again.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Style and Knowledge

"The love of ambiguity of in the early Establishment, the endless theses so intricately structured in the syntax of their own jargon that parodies of the old Partisan Review style used to deliver insights, willy-nilly, as good as the original..." (Norman Mailer)

Grammarians, editors, and curmudgeons of various kinds sometimes complain about the obscurity of academic writing. In fact, it is sometimes argued that much scholarly writing is simply empty, a mere pretense of knowing, or even a kind of "put on" (most effectively by Norman Mailer in his characterization of the New York intelligentsia of the 1950s.) The complaint is worth taking seriously, I think, if only because the consequences seem quite serious.

After all, if writing is used, as Kierkegaard quipped, not to hide thought, but to hide the fact that we don't think, or, what may amount to the same thing, if it is used to hide the fact that we don't know, then the system of human knowledge is in a bad way. The editors of X, a literary magazine, lamented the fact that an "abominable, degraded jargon [had become] the common currency of American academic criticism" in 1960. "A great deal of harm has come out of the necessity for academics to publish as a means to promotion and to compete with their fellows in the domain of the physical sciences. Driven on by the same categorical imperative, 'Publish or Perish', they invent this drivel by the yard." (X: A Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 2., March 1960, p.159.) It is the possibility that pretentious "drivel" is doing harm that I want to emphasize.

What harm could it do? Well, if scholars do not express what they think clearly, then other scholars may misunderstand them, or not understand them at all. Worse, if they are mistaken about something, their peers will be less likely to correct them. Clear writing is a way of opening your thinking and your knowledge to critique, and it is through the criticism of others, as much as our own observations and reflections, that we build our understanding of any subject. The quality of our writing has epistemic consequences. Style is a proper concern of epistemologists.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Free Time, Blank Pages, and other Catastrophes

The completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you.

"Call Jonah the model of the poet who fails of strength, and who wishes to return to the Waters of Night, the Swamp of Tears, where he began, before the catastrophe of vocation." (Harold Bloom)

To write, said Virginia Woolf, a woman needs money and a room of her own. Needless to say (I hope), that’s not just true for women. All writers need to secure both a space and a time for their writing (a room is a space, and time, of course, is money). Here is a way to think about this problem in relation to longish writing projects like a PhD dissertation.

First, don’t write onto a blank page or out of inspiration. Write to a thesis in an outline. Before you go to bed at night, you should know what you are going to write about (if not exactly what you are going to say) in the morning. If you are struck by inspiration, jot the idea down in a notebook (always carry a notebook) and take it up in your next available writing session.

Second, don’t write on a “free day” or in a “spare moment”. Write at a specific time in a specific place that has been determined at least 12 hours in advance (with an intervening period of sleep). More ideally: plan when you will write over a period of months, and plan to write every day—but take weekends off. Write for at least 30 minutes and no more than 4 hours. (Feel free to push that envelope at either end, but just demonstrate to yourself that you can keep it up over the long term.) Looking back to the first point, as much as possible, let your writing schedule include particular tasks and topics.

Third, don’t write without an audience in mind. An “academic” audience is defined by what they know and by the fact that they share much of that knowledge with you. An academic writer writes for a reader that knows a great deal about the subject but needs to be informed about particular details or corrected on particular issues. You should know the names of at least a dozen of your potential readers, not including those you know personally. You should also be familiar with what they have written about your subject.

Obviously this mostly applies to the “writing phase” of your research project, i.e., after you have made the decision to “get the thing written”. At that time, following these three simple rules will keep your writing process orderly. It will constrain your project in time and space and keep your work from being too much of an “open site” onto which anyone might walk and disturb your thoughts.

Your room and your calendar are the means by which you protect your writing process from the rest of your life and, not incidentally, the rest of your life from your writing process. Book your writing self into your life; show up on time to write and leave on time to do other things. Don’t let your writing self get irritated by his or her surroundings, and don’t let him or her become a bore to your non-writing self, your friends, family and colleagues.

Your outline and a good schedule of dissertation-related tasks are the means by which your writing process effectively leverages your intellectual energy. When planning, work backwards from the universal, predictable chores you will have to do at the end (checking references, proofreading, fixing the layout). Just before you reach that stage you will have to have a last look at the introduction and conclusion. Before that, you will have to make sure there is consistency between theory, method, and results. And so on. Your outline will help you to think of things that will need to get done, but it should also be sensitive to your research results. As your outline changes, make sure the related tasks are modified accordingly.

Your room and your outline define the spatial dimension of your writing process. They ensure that your dissertation does not intermittently look like a blank white page in a wide open space. You always know where you will be sitting (in your room, behind a closed door) and where the words will end up (in a part of the dissertation, specified by the outline).

Your calendar and schedule of tasks can help you control the temporal dimension. At some point you will have to write a first draft of the introduction and at another point you will have to proofread the final manuscript. These tasks, and all the other tasks, can be predicted and assigned a finite amount hours between now and the deadline. How many hours you have all together can be seen by looking at your calendar. Sometimes you will be working with rough estimates, but there is no point in agonizing over the first draft of introduction beyond the, say, three hours you’ve given yourself to write it. Spend those three hours trying, and then move on to the next task. Move on when you calendar tells you to do so. Book time to return to difficult passages.

Unfortunately, the completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you. See the completion of your thesis as a work process like any other. I promise you, not only will you be happier for it, you will have learned more along the way. The image of the isolated, struggling scholar with nothing on her mind but the dissertation is a myth. These writers just need a bit of money, and a room of their own.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Writing and Knowing

The essence of academic writing is the communication of the results of inquiry to people who know something about the subject. Writing ceases to be "academic" according to how little the reader is presumed to know. A text book, for example, is not, properly speaking, a piece of academic writing. Nor, of course, is a popular book.

"The popular scientific books by our scientists," wrote Wittgenstein, "aren't the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels" (CV, p. 42). And they earn those laurels, i.e., their credentials, by the hard work they present in journal articles. It is hard work to explain something new to someone who knows a great deal about it in advance.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Editor's Block?

If ever someone needed some stupid motivational tricks, I do now. Jonathan's new blog on the subject is a welcome development. Over the past few weeks I haven't been functioning properly, and it has affected even my work as an editor. I generally agree with Paul Silvia, however: academic writers don't get writer's block. When they do, they have misunderstood the nature of their task. They are, in a sense, being "unprofessional" about their work. That probably describes my current situation. I am being too much the struggling artist about something that is, in fact, an ordinary, workaday craft. I'm like the often-parodied actor asking "What's my motivation?"

(Mordecai Richler's comments about his work are very relevant here. You can find them under "Living in London" at the CBC's archives.)

I will not get the problem to go away simply by chiding myself for being unprofessional, however. Though part of getting through this will, of course, just be getting down to work, over the longer term I need to rediscover the boundaries that once kept the various parts of my job from interfering with each other and made each task enjoyable in its own limited way. Fortunately, we're heading towards a natural break in the routine. This semester's 16-week program ends in a couple of weeks time, and then I will regroup, think things over, and get back at it in the new year.