Tuesday, March 19, 2013


It's very difficult to decide what counts as a reasonable amount of effort in scholarship. Physically, it's hard to take the effort of reading and writing seriously. And you can even find some scholars that think the idea of "intellectual" effort is a bit quaint. But academic life, like life in general, is actually quite difficult existentially. You are always managing a system of social relations, you are working to secure your place in a social network. Making a knowledge claim is always also a presentation of self: you are identifying yourself as someone who believes something in particular. Those who share your belief and those who oppose it will take notice.

That can be hard. But how hard should it be? How much work should it demand? I constantly struggle to convince the authors I work with that they should try not to think of this effort subjectively. They should not feel like they are working very hard. They should not work as "much as possible" on a paper up to the date it is due unless they have a very realistic sense of "the possible". As much as possible, we might say, while having a life.

They should do a limited, planned amount of work every day, somewhere between one half and three hours. They should decide in advance what work they are going to do, and then do it in a calm and collected way. The existential consequences (the alliances and conflicts that your knowledge claims imply) are deferred until your paper meets its readers. Think of the boxer. Training for a fight is "hard work", but not, importantly, in a way that wears the fighter out. It must build the boxer up.

The same is true if you're writing a conference paper or a journal article. Don't think of the writing as a performance but as training for a particular "confrontation" with your peers. You want to be strong when that confrontation happens. The conference paper is training for your conference presentation. The journal article is training for the revisions that your reviewers demand.

That last notion is important. Think of writing a journal article as a way of preparing your mind to receive criticism from other knowledgeable peers. Then, when the reviews come back, deal with them matter-of-factly and practically. Think of your daily writing mainly as a way of keeping yourself in shape to produce the selection of paragraphs that you will actually publish.

In the moments when you are struggling to understand and respond to a peer's questions and suggestions, you might sometimes, and rightly, feel that scholarly work is hard. But wearing yourself down, from day to day, week to week, on the actual writing will only make it harder. It's like a boxer who runs a marathon twice a week for six months before a fight. That's not a good strategy.

No comments: