Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Phases and Moments

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.


When thinking about a particular project, some scholars distinguish between a research phase and a writing phase. (See Matt and Profacero/Z in the comments to Monday's post, for example.) The least recommended version of this is to have a non-writing research phase followed by a period of intense writing that spans a number of weeks of whole-day slogs at the machine. But the idea of distinguishing phases in your research project can be problematic for other reasons: it delays the act of writing scholarly prose until you have reached some satisfactory insight. Over time, this may affect the hue of your resolve.

While there are times when reading dominates over writing, of course, I recommend you distinguish, more precisely, between the research "moment" and the writing "moment" and to have both kinds of moments on a regular basis throughout any project. You should always be writing scholarly prose about matters that interest you. Since, while you're engaged on a particular project, its matter interests you, you should be finding time to write about it. The important thing is to identify those aspects of the project that you knew in advance of doing the research, or which you came to know very early on. This knowledge has a certain durability that it is well worth articulating in prose (and for an imagined peer) while you're working on it. This is what I call the "writing" moment of the project, actually a series of 27-minute moments. At the same time, you can pursue any number of intellectual discoveries during the research moment. Every day alternates back and forth between these two moments, keeping things in perspective. The "phases" of a project are distinguished by the proportion of one kind of moment to the other.

In my interpretation of Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy I side with those who say he's distinguishing between "suffering in the mind" and "taking arms" (not whether its nobler in the mind to suffer slings and arrows or take arms against them.) Scholars who get bogged down in the "research phase" are, when they're not succumbing to "bestial oblivion", as Hamlet puts it at another point in the play, at least the victim of their "craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event". Remember that "a thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward." You have to isolate its wisdom by writing it down in prose. Make sure you maintain the pitch and moment of your enterprise. You don't want to lose the name of action.

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