Saturday, September 03, 2011


In the comments to my last post, Jonathan raised a reasonable concern about my plan for this book, Research as a Second Language. Is it really one book, or two or three shorter, or even (gasp!) incomplete, books? My answer is that I hope there is some method in the apparent madness, and that when I do finally get the three parts to fit together, this fit will be what makes the book distinctive. Roughly speaking, each of the three parts will develop historical, practical, and existential images of academic writing respectively. It's going to be the "thinking person's guide to academic writing", or "stupid motivational tricks," if you will, "for smart people."

Outlines change as you work on them, and while developing my image of the other two parts I decided to rename Part III, which will now be called "Existential Errands", as a reference to Norman Mailer, who called one of his own collections of odds and ends that, and who will be quoted in the epigraph to each essay. (It was previously the working title of the first essay.) This section will engage in a kind of "motivational speaking" or "existential psychology" for academic writers—perhaps more precisely, "assertiveness training". It will try to help scholars compose themselves in the ongoing "crisis of representation", which will be the subject of the first essay.

7. The Crisis of Representation
"I want to know how power works," said Mailer to James Baldwin, "how it really works, in detail." This will be the epigraph for the first essay, which will gather together my thoughts on the so-called "postmodern condition", seen from the point of view of the developing scholar (the PhD student and the early-career researcher). I want to use the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the insecurities, both ontological and ethnological, that one faces as one's understanding of the world, and the world of scholarship, becomes increasingly sophisticated. "Who am I to speak?" we ask ourselves. As I never tire of pointing out, however, we must distinguish the problem of scientific representation from the problem of political representation. In both cases, the question is how we may "speak for" or "on behalf of", but the difference lies in whether we speak for things or speak for people. The first takes knowledge (what scholars have); the second takes power (what leaders have). Of course, you may want both. But I'm coming to realize that my real interest lies in knowledge. I want to know how knowledge works, I guess. I mean, how it really works. In detail.

8. Getting Your Facts Straight
This was the title of one the first posts I wrote here at RSL, and I stand by it to this day, more or less. No matter how "postmodern" or "poststructuralist" you think you are, you are going to have assert a great many things in your writing. You are going to have to claim that something is true, and that something else is false. And you are going to have to support those claims with your prose. So in this essay I'm going to bring together all my strongest arguments for a kind of methodological realism about facts, a presumption that some things are, however problematically, "the case", even if each of them is, each in its own way, "constructed". I will present my tripartite division of facts into "accomplished" ones, "contested" ones, and "irenic" ones, i.e., facts that are yours to assert, facts that constitute an important dispute, and facts you assume are true but which, "pace" the critics, you aren't going to get into. My reflections here are intended to build the reader's ontological confidence—to show them that there really are things worth knowing and that it is not absurd to imagine that, after years of studying them, you are among those who know enough to speak of such things.

9. Getting Your Act Together
Scholarship is ultimately a process of self-formation and requires a great deal of what is sometimes called "identity work". This essay surveys some of the most common issues. These include the tension between research and teaching and the tension between theory and practice. All of the issues have a fundamentally social constitution, i.e., they arise from the fact that scholarship is a collective endeavor. Since this book is about writing, I will continually bring the discussion around to Foucault's famous question, "What is an author?" In our own small ways, each of us is trying to become an author, i.e., a more or less stable point of subjectivity within a larger discourse, or set of discourses. We want a bit of "name recognition" out there, but we also want our work to be recognizable to ourselves. This is very much the fundamental "existential" question: Who am I? "It took eighteen centuries of Christendom," said Mailer, "before Kierkegaard could come back alive with the knowledge that ... the characteristic way modern man found knowledge of his soul [was] ... by the act of perceiving that he was most certainly losing it." We must get it together, people!

On that note, we come to the end of this overview of the three parts of my hopefully soon-to-be-written book, based on this blog. I'll write one more post about the introduction and conclusion, which will also deal more directly with Jonathan's question. In that post I'll update the table of contents, and provide links to these summaries. I'll also provide links with these summaries to places in the archives that unpack some of the ideas in early, rudimentary ways.

[Back to Table of Contents]

1 comment:

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

sounds great! I look forward to reading your book!