Scholarly writing and how to get it done. / And a workshop for my own ideas, scholarly and poetic
I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet. The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Is teaching "cost efficient"?
The kind of *transactional* learning that occurs in a class discussion, or when a professor gives personal comments to a student she knows in the flesh, is not very cost effective, after all. Perhaps even less so than research. We know the academic institution values teaching less, because when they hire someone to teach with no expectation of research, the salary is much lower on a per course basis.
What I am talking about is something that is already occurring. Once you take research out of the picture, you no longer have the mechanism for training college professors who adhere to the older values of humanism. As the intellectual standards slip, the more education will become more remedial rote work that can be quantified and parceled out into low-paying jobs.
This is a downward cycle, because the stupider people get, the less need they will see for higher intellectual pursuits. The more education will be oriented toward the bare minimum, which will make people stupider, which will make them even more disdainful of intellectual pursuits.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Sometimes I jump ahead of myself and develop my ideas intuitively, before I do my research, so my research is often playing catch-up to my writing. I still am not accurate at estimating how long things will take to do, despite my pretentions as a time-management guru. I am both too rigid with time and not rigid enough. In other words, I will sometimes impose rigid but useless scheduling rules for myself, but at the same time fail to follow more basic principles.
I am somewhat egotistical and conceited in some ways, but yet I find it difficult to do the necessary self-promotion. I can be peevish and ill-tempered. I am prone to sloth, envy, greed, pride, gluttony, lust, ire, and pride, not necessarily in that order.
Some of my research pursues issues of interest to almost nobody except myself. I don't know if that's a weakness or not. Self-absorption? I am a master at that.
That's only a partial list. The purpose of it is not to tear myself down, but to arrive at a realistic sense of weaknesses I can easily remedy and which are more intractable. Which of them are harmless foibles and which are keeping me back in more significant ways. There should be a third category too, of things that are neither strengths nor weaknesses, things that I can do just good enough, but that I don't really need to improve.
The Automatic University
I'm probably just oldfashioned but this vision of the university horrifies me. I was struck in particular by the collage of half-baked ideas gleaned (too quickly, I think) from studies of academic life. Citing that study by Mark Bauerlein about the alleged overproduction of uncited writing, which we've discussed already, Schumpeter argues that
The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching. In “Academically Adrift” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that over a third of America’s students show no improvement in critical thinking or analytical reasoning after four years in college.
But Arum and Roksa showed precisely that only those students who are enrolled in more or less traditional liberal arts programs, where writing is required, showed such improvement. Students who don't write, and teachers who don't demand it, presumably believe that the time wasted writing school assignments cannot be spent "studying"! Better to watch a lot of online lectures and then take a multiple choice exam that a machine can grade.
The automated university-as-a-business that Schumpeter desires fails to valorize the qualities of mind that follow from regular writing practices. A good writer of prose is also a good teacher, and can easily detect good ideas in well-written prose. The regular writer, then, does not need to spend as much time "teaching". The student and the teacher are prepared by their respective efforts to prose the material. A quick bit of interaction. Some simple comments. Even something as a simple as a grade. That's all it takes to move the student in the right direction.
I'm truly afraid of the conception of a university as a machine and of education as something this machine does to the minds of students. Of course, no one is really that evil. Rather, most people see the university as a machine that does something to the resumé of the students. It transforms credentials, not competences. What Schumpeter might mean then is: since students don't learn anything at school anyway, we may as well make it cheaper.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Inventory of Strengths
First, modesty. (That is a joke.)
More seriously, I see nothing immodest about taking inventory of strengths as well as weaknesses. One strength I have is the ability for honest and realistic self-assessment. That is a very significant talent to have. It is easy to puff oneself up or to tear oneself down in a sort of useless way. Real self-assessment is a little more difficult.
I think I am a good writer of prose. I am fairly erudite in my own field, with a very solid scholarly base, and adept at finding questions of significance to tackle. I am intellectually curious and have developed several areas of research that interlock with one another in interesting ways. I am also very independent of trends. I am more likely to influence the debate than to let myself be influenced by others. My perspectives, as a consequence, are independent. I have some ability to think critically and some theoretical "chops."
I am adept at time management and seeing research projects through to their completion, as well as generating new ideas. I can work with speed and efficiency, with no sacrifice of quality. I have no problem concentrating for a few hours and getting something significant done. I am tenacious and not easily discouraged.
Aside from Spanish, I can read a novel in just about any other Romance language (except Romanian). I have a decent knowledge of literature in the English language.
In my teaching I am good at coming up with new ideas for courses and at presenting very complex ideas. I am good at helping students develop their own research ideas. I am a compelling and engaging public speaker. I wouldn't think of using powerpoint in a public lecture.
I have a particular area of strength in mentoring and evaluation. I am good at helping others improve their writing and fulfill their professional ambitions. Some have said that I am "generous" in this area. I enjoy intellectual dialogue, and am a good listener.
I can write a poem better than some so-called professional poets. I am not a bad translator either.
I know how to combine these strengths to produce scholarly work that is compelling, intellectually demanding, thought-provoking, and imaginative. My time is up for this post, and I may have left something out, but it is a good start.
Just as Jonathan once had a low opinion of business-inspired approaches to the writing process, ten years ago I would have balked at the idea of modeling the writing process on an exercise regimen. In fact, I think I even used to explicitly balk at the idea of mens sana in corpore sanum.
But I do also remember, in those same days, beginning to worry about the collective and individual conditions that would be required to makes sense of a book like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Joyce's Ulysses. When I thought about my own work habits and those of my peers (even those of my mentors), and the sorts of poses, affectations, and contortions this produced in seminars and in writing, I came to suspect that it was pretty much impossible to have the conversation that would be necessary to decide what these sorts of books mean. If knowledge of the transcendental conditions of our experience of objects was to be possible at all, it would require minds that were a good deal more disciplined, I had to admit, than mine. By a similar token, I had to grant that a Joycean epiphany might be entirely out of my reach.
It wasn't until I started working seriously with other people's writing, people whose ideas I knew (or at least thought) to be have some rigour, but whose writing was always, it seemed to me, struggling at the edge of their abilities, that I realized that I had to get these authors to practice. I had to get them to see that they had to gain the necessary strength and grace to express the ideas that we had (I thought) been talking about all these years. And having noticed the mote in my brother's eye, I had to recognize the beam in my own.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Now I think that the source of an idea doesn't matter so much. I have my own "business" to take care of. They might need to be adopted to academic realities, but a good principle of work is a good principle, period.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Timeboxing is the technique of allotting tasks to very well-defined and usually short periods of time, or boxes. You might also call it microcheduling. During the winter break I am going to be doing some of that as I work to get a lot done before classes start on January 17. If I can fit in three or four 25-minute sessions almost every day between now and January 17, I could get an amazing amount written.
As the image of Sugar Ray Robinson suggests, I like the pun of "timeboxing." Putting on the gloves and sparring with time itself. A boxing match consists of three minute rounds with one minute breaks.
Jonathan's experiments highlight the importance of what we can accomplish in a very finite amount of time. Recently I've been trying to make a list of things I can do or would like to be able to do with some facility (i.e., ease) in 30 minutes. Things like:
- Run five kilometers,
- Swim one kilometer (I'm now almost able to do this),
- Write a prose paragraph for academic purposes,
- Copy-edit five paragraphs of someone else's academic writing.
The good thing about setting your pomodoro timer and going at some task for 30 minutes* is that gives you a stretch of time during which to focus your efforts. One thing you learn by this means is, precisely, to focus. You also learn how to do whatever it is you're focusing on better. If you go out for a run and always run out of breath after 10 minutes, start going for a 30 minute walk instead.
Many so-called cases of "writer's block" can be cured simply by actually writing for 30 minutes. So you have to have the ability to do that, at will. As I said in my eulogy of Christopher Hitchens's prose, the ability to do something at will implies an underlying strength. And you build up that strength in the same way that you demonstrate it—thirty minutes at a time.
*I'm not using this in the formal way Francesco Cirillo originally proposed but just riffing off Jonathan's use of the computer application. My "30 minutes" does not include the five-minute break, but it certainly could include such breaks when longer sequences (like writing four paragraphs in two hours) are considered.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Results of the 2nd Experiment
Experiment (Part II) How much can I write in 25 minutes
Another title for the book might be "The uses of Lorca." I might use that title if I were to write the book in English. I want to argue in favor of certain uses and against others, but most of all to point out that these uses have both causes and consequences. I believe that the monograph will make a serious contribution to Lorca studies, building on the increased emphasis on Lorca's "afterlife," of which my own book Apocryphal Lorca is a prominent example. Nevertheless, I want to balance the interest in the uses others have made of Lorca to something that I want to call "Lorca himself." Now the idea of constructing Lorca (or Lorcas), obviously is incompatible with the notion of a true Lorca (against which falsifications can be measured). That will be a theoretical problem for me to resolve in the book. What I mean by "Lorca himself" is not Lorca as he really was, but Lorca as I want him to be. A modernist poet comparable to others in Europe, a poet of radical modernist subjectivity, a poetic thinker, etc...
So this book will be about my Lorca. A third title I would use is Mayhew's Lorca. That phrasing puts me, as author of the book, front and center. A fourth title I have used in speaking to myself about the project is even more facetious: Another Damned Lorca Book. This title has two implications: do we "need" another book about Lorca? And do I need to be the one to write it. It turns out that I think the answer to both questions is "yes." My book won't duplicate any other, and nobody (or almost nobody) else could write this book, or one similar to it.
I have great respect for Lorca criticism, especially the work of Luis Fernández Cifuentes, Cristopher Maurer, Andrew Anderson, and Roberta Quance. My feeling, though, is that I also have to "have my say" in a few more books. Part of this is the idea of "dancing with the one that brang you." I owe a lot to Lorca: writing about him was the best thing that happened to my career, and I feel that the good effects will continue for a few more years.
I am interested in the way that hypercanonicity works. Other writers could not be approached as I approach Lorca because their work does not give rise to as many "uses." The order of magnitude of difference is enormous. A hypercanonical writer is subject to constant rewritings, translations, homages, parodies, song settings, political disputes. There is controversy over digging up his bones. The rules change completely: the hypercanonical writer has a biography in the way that most writers do not.
What is distinctive about my approach is that I don't really like the fact that Lorca is so canonical. I don't care for a lot of those disputes, or misuses, even though I find them interesting. I think that if I were more enthusiastic about uses of Lorca I would be less adept at making distinctions between them.
What I have found extraordinary in working on this project is how fast I have been able to develop ideas. I can turn on the computer or the pomodoro timer and the ideas just flow out of me about as fast as I can type the words. I guess all the hard work of being a scholar and professor has given me more ideas than I even knew I had. This is also a sign that the project is going to go someplace and make an impact on the field. I will be blogging about it on both blogs so that you will be able to track my progress as I work. This is a book I wouldn't be able to write if I were not a blogger with great readers.
Results of the experiment
The Twenty-Five Minute Challenge
One of my other ideas here is to refute the idea of a "shitty first draft." I believe that any writer should learn to be able to write serviceable prose on the first try. (Thus I won't be going back to revise sentences, though I will work on improving one before going on to the next.) You might argue that my writing here is "contentless," similar to what I might produce while playing "the complete sentence game." I won't disagree with you, but I don't think that is a serious objection. If I were writing about my own project, I could write nearly as quickly as I am doing here. In fact, I often write two or three hundred words in 25 minutes while using the timer. (Six minutes have elapsed now.)
Another analogy might be jazz improvisation. Of course, you might take several "takes" to record an improvisation that elates you, but suppose that you could only put one of these takes on your record? Then at least one of those takes would have to be something superior to a "shitty first take." I like the idea of rewriting from scratch more than the traditional notion of producing a "rough draft" and then making it better through soul-killing revision. I rarely revise my own poetry, preferring to throw out a poem that doesn't work.
Many academics are not that articulate in spoken language, because of an overemphasis on writing. I think that speech should also be fluent and comprehensible. If you can't produce such speech, then you might not be a good writer either, because you won't produce a steady stream of comprehensible language.
Another issue is speed. Obviously, you can think fairly fast, faster than you could speak, write, or type. My fingers are barely keeping up with my thoughts. More accurately, they are not keeping up at all. I think a sentence in my brain, then type it, and this process slows me down immensely. So, if you know what you are going to say, you should be able to write as fast as you can type.
Now the problem is that, quite often, you don't know what you are going to say. Writing is the process of finding out what you really want to say. I have avoided this problem here because I am simply writing down thoughts that occur to me rather than attempting to produce a piece of publishable scholarly prose. I would insist, though, that the same process is at work either way. If you have thought a lot about your subject matter, at some point you should be able to write about it fluently, as a student is asked to do while taking an exam. Think of it as "taking an examination on your project." The essay question is to explain your project, and you have x amount of time to do it. What would you write? Here you don't have the option of writing a shitty first draft, because the examining committee is going to grade you on it. Your prose will not be deathless (who's is?) but it has to say what you have in mind and do so in comprehensible form.
At this point, I have seven minutes left. I often say that I can work for very small amounts of time on my project and still get something done. I have almost no minimum time that I think is "too short" for me to produce some prose. So this last paragraph or two will be a test of this principle, even though I find that I have very little left to say. Think of routine types of writing like email messages. Mine are carefully worded when they have to be, but I write them quickly because I don't feel they require more time, as long as they are careful enough and express what I want to say. I'm sure everyone does this kind of writing without stressing out too much over it. Blogging is another example, since I often write a blog post about as fast as I can type. I believe that blogging has given me greater facility in writing.
I think the idea of "facility" is greatly underrated. If you can write fast without glibness or facility in the negative sense (of being glib and facile), isn't that preferable to writing with great pain and suffering. People who write without facility often produce a good, but "cramped" style, in contrast to the fluency and grace of better writers.
As the last minute and a half shows up on my timer I wonder what, if anything, this experiment can tell me. I will have a "baseline," in terms of the number of words I can fluently produce in twenty five minutes. In the first comment I will tell you how many words I have written. I might do a follow up to reflect on my experiment, but my time is up right now with six seconds left.
Explaining Your Work
Hitch's 20-minute Prose Form
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Other facets (and a rant)
What I need to do, though, is to have some kind of literary agent who would do the work of getting me permissions (for translations) and publishers, who would send my poems out to magazines to be published, who will politic on my behalf and get me job offers, etc... My research program is just too demanding at the moment for me to do all these other things. Of course, it is demanding because I want it to be. I've reduced some clutter by declaring a moratorium on articles and reviews for the next calendar year.
Once I do get an outside offer to leave my current job, I will take it. You can't insult me by paying me 30K less than the other full professors in my department and then expect me to remain happy with a counter-offer. This is not a question of if but of when, because with my standing in the field there is no way I am not getting another job in the next few years. If I leave and one of my other colleagues, a very good full professor, retires, the department is going to take a serious hit in prestige. It won't be a crappy place, but it won't be a storied Spanish department as it's been in the past, or anywhere close to it.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I am fairly certain I won't get it if I don't put my name in for it. My department chair has agreed, so I have to line up a few more people to sign the letter.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Now think of the the same actor doing it, but with power point slides projected on a screen. Would the words on the screen add or detract from the actor's performance? If the actor were any good at all, the mere words projected there would certainly detract rather than adding anything. The speech is all about how the audience has to supply the scenery with their imagination, how language works to create mental images: "Into a thousand parts divide one man / And make imaginary puissance." "Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them, imprinting their proud hoofs in the receiving earth." The prologue asks for the indulgence of the audience, because the means by which the spectacle is to be performed are very poor. The stage is a "cock pit" with "narrow walls," while the objects to be depicted are larger-than-life. What the speech implies but doesn't say is that this poverty of means masks the great power of language and voice alone to transfix the public.
Think about this the next time you want to give a power point presentation. Even without being a Shakespearian actor, you could accomplish a lot with the means at your disposal. I do a rousing version of Henry V myself.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Not Doing Research Makes Me Dumber
For me, just reading or "keeping up" doesn't do it. I can't keep up my scholarly base just by mostly passive consumption of primary texts, or the scholarly work of others. I need to be engaged actively and urgently in the production of thought. Of course, the passive consumption still occurs, but for me it is not enough.
I realize that everyone is not like me in this regard. Other people might not need to be on the "edge" all the time, or they may not fear losing it. Some don't have the psychological need to feel smart, or to stretch their brains constantly.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
One More Follower
More on Citation Measurement
If I want to produce new knowledge, I would be better off writing about Gamoneda. But, since nobody else in the US except for me works on this poet, my citations will be very low. Who needs yet another article on Lorca? Well, we could call for a moratorium, but an article I write on Lorca is likely to pick up far more citations. My book on Rodríguez, a major, major figure, has only a few citations, for example.
So the idea that there is too much scholarship, but at the same time much of it gets uncited, is a curious one. An article on more popular topic gets more citations, but contributes less to the field.
I also reject the idea that we should simply stop writing about canonical figures, because they are exhausted. If you look at some of most-cited articles from ALEC, they are very good ones, ones which do contribute new knowledge. In my own work I have shown that Lorca is not exhausted, that everything possible has not been said about his work, ni mucho menos.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I have 50 followers for Bemsha Swing and 49 for SMT. This means that SMT will soon overtake BS as my more popular blog, since a while back I had many more followers there than here.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
My most influential article, one that I know for a fact has defined a debate in my field, has only 13 citations on google scholar. Because of this article, I was well-known in Spain even before Apocryphal Lorca. Many people disagree with this article, but that's ok with me, because you can't be deliberately controversial and then expect agreement.
Some of these citations are me, citing my own article. Others don't seem to be citing me at all, or cite me only tangentially. Apocryphal Lorca has two citations, one from another article by me and one from the introduction to the special issue on Lorca in which my article appears. I guess the impact of this book is also non-existent, even though numerous people have written to me about it, how they have used in their courses, etc...
Monday, December 5, 2011
A New Trend in Hiring
Never mind that you spent time and effort to craft a very careful letter of recommendation that includes all the information, but conveyed with more nuance and art. I noticed this last year or the year before. It never happened to me before.
The Ideal Job
I experience high levels of autonomy in my job. Nobody tells me what I have to write about, and I can design courses of my own that reflect my own interests. Aside from class time, office hours, and a few meetings, I can organize my time however I want. I am trying to think of a job with as much autonomy as mine and I cannot think of one.
Autonomy also brings competence, in the sense that I can be responsible for my own areas of competence, developing them with no interference from anyone else.
Relatedness, in contrast, is a sore point. I have a hard time "relating" to students sometimes (to use a favorite word of theirs). I don't collaborate on research with anyone. I like my colleagues very much but I don't spend a lot of time with them every day. Autonomy and relatedness are inversely correlated much of the time. I value autonomy very highly, but I am suffering a bit from the isolation of academic life, especially since my personal life is rather miserable too.
Why This Is Wrong
I know it takes a long time to get a PhD. But let's think for a moment about what level of erudition it takes to be a "doctor," or learned one, in literature. There are few prodigies in scholarship, because it takes time to absorb knowledge and develop originality. An originality based not on disconnection from the field, but from deep absorption.
Berman also proposes a kind of fixed, lockstep curriculum, streamlined to allow for quick progress. So students would not be exposed to the research of their faculty members (courses based on the interests of the faculty) but a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that would make graduate teaching deadly for all concerned. This streamlined approach would not have allowed Jill and I to do our "poetry and performance" seminar, for example.
In place of a dissertation, Berman proposes three articles. In practice, this would amount to three seminar papers. The so-called PhD would not really be an expert in anything in particular, having written 75 pages rather than 250. He or she would never have been exposed to the original research of the faculty, and so wouldn't have a clue to what research really is.
Why do we elect literature haters to the presidency of the MLA? People who have contempt for the life of the mind? First it as MLP, then Gerald Graff, and now Berman.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
(I found this through Tanya's facebook feed.) I am quoting these habits and then interpreting them for my own purposes.
"Consuming more than you create"
Obviously, as scholars we have to do more reading than writing, in number of pages for example. But an example of consuming more than you create might be spending most of your research time reading and procrastinating rather than beginning to write. The minute I have an idea for an article, I begin to write it. I then read in order to find the answers that I need to include in the article I am already writing.
"Watching your own vanity metrics"
This one stopped me in my tracks. I spend a lot of time tracking blog stats, and looking myself up in google scholar. I am going to stop that right away. No more tracking my downloads on KUScholar!
"Starting the day responding to others"
I do check my email first thing in the morning. It's not a problem, because usually there is not much there. A solution might be to turn email off completely while working on specific tasks, especially writing. I tend to keep the email on all day and respond and/or delete as they come in.
"Prioritizing the wrong activities"
I think I have my priorities straight (though see post below this one). Giving my students my best self and being a productive scholar are my two main priorities.
"Relying on multi-tasking to 'save time'"
I am against multi-tasking on principle. Aside from the email problem, I don't tend to do it. I could solve the email conundrum easily by turning it off and checking it once an hour. I wish I could filter out all the crap the university sends me. KU today, KU this week, message from the provost about this, message from the chancellor about that... The only email I want to get is directed to me personally and relevant to my work or life.
Now make a list of your own ineffective habits that don't appear on this list. I've been able to save a lot of time for the next few months just by doing away with the email vigilance and with the vanity metrics from today on.
How Self-Confident Should You Be?
Curiously, the renewed self-confidence resulted simply from returning to work, after a few months in which I wasn't producing a lot or even trying that hard. My self-confidence seemed to slip during those months. No mystery there. Cut off from the source of my strengths, I began to doubt myself. Sure, I had been able to produce before, but would I ever do so again? Even though the break was a deliberate one, in some sense, and I knew intellectually that I would be able to resume when I wanted, the effect was predictable.
Of course, if you're anything like me, you will be doubting yourself with some frequency. Isn't the book I'm writing just a repetition of what I've done before? Aren't people going to reject this, or be uninterested in it, because most people want to follow the dominant paradigm of Jo Labanyi Spanish cultural studies in which poetry itself is insignificant? Writing another book or two won't get me a better job / salary / a distinguished professorship here at KU, etc... Maybe I don't write well enough in Spanish to write my book about Lorca in that language?
Doubt is useful, I guess, but I would advise that you address doubts as pragmatic problems to be resolved rather than as existential ones. In other words, if you have a nagging doubt, bring it out into the open and see what's going on. A generalized doubt like "I'm not good enough" is largely useless, because it has no practical solution.
Self-confidence is not arrogance, but the necessary fiction needed to get the work done at all.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Preparing in Real Time
This excludes the extra time it takes me to read a lengthy novel, for example. If we are reading 60 pages for a particular day, then I would need an hour to read those pages, and maybe another half an hour to 45 minutes to prepare the actual class.
Sometimes, preparation is quicker because I have materials from previous semesters that I can use. Sometimes, it is much slower because the material is all new. Prep can be broken down into two aspects: knowing the material and planning the actual class.
I can grade x number of papers in an hour. Maybe 1 graduate paper, 2-3 undergraduate papers, 4-6 short compositions, etc...
So finitude ought to be possible with teaching as well as with research. If I teach five hours a week, I can spend five hours preparing and an average of two hours grading. That is twelve hours. Add meetings with students and other extras, like answering emails from them, that is about 15, if I don't have to read novels.
If I were better organized I am sure I could spend less time and be a better teacher than I am now. For example, I often just reprepare a class instead of using perfectly fine material I once prepared, simply because I cannot find it.
I am writing about this because I think that teaching is the missing link in the management of scholarly writing. I hear people say they cannot get other things done because they are teaching, or because the semester is too busy... Even I fall into this trap sometimes. If you treat teaching as a finite activity, requiring a certain number of hours, and you schedule those hours, then you will be able to see what time you might have for research. For example, if you are teaching 3 rather than 2 courses, then my twenty hours might be 30.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Writing in your head
I only point out something so self evident because I think the writing down is an obstacle for some. the student who can talk but not write, for example. I think that I could write just as well by dictating my words as by typing them or composing with pen,
When I write a poem, I think it up in my head and write it down later.
So perhaps the issue is one of memory. A working memory so weak that it can contain only a few words at a time?
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Getting Better At It
I say this because there is a common view that writing never gets easier, that true improvement is not possible, or that the first draft will always be crappy even for a good writer. This has not been my experience. I find that my first drafts are better than they used to be, and that my finished writing is more eloquent than it used to be. I still rewrite, but now I am going from good to better rather than from shitty to mediocre.
If the conventional view were correct, then writing would be unlike any other human activity, in which deliberate and intelligent practice leads gradually to improvement.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I am smarter than you
Friday, November 11, 2011
Outline for Writing Workshop
Writing workshop for 11/11/11
I. Time management, writing every day, etc... (JM)
II. Strategies for managing a larger project, working with advisor. (Jorge)
III. The structure of the dissertation chapter and article. Avoiding the data dump (JM)
IV. Model articles. JM and Jorge.
V. Getting publications out of the dissertation. How to publish articles (JM & Jorge).
VI. Some academic writing blogs: Get a Life PhD, Writing as a Second Language, Constructing the Academy, Stupid Motivational Tricks (JM).
Thursday, November 10, 2011
What are your default settings? These might be largely unconscious, so you might not even be aware of what they are. It might be the use of the passive voice: "In this essay it will be shown that..." It might be certain authorial stance, a certain length of paragraph or sentence. One colleague I had once ended every paper with a section titled "conclusion." One grad student in his dissertation introduced the name of every proper name with a qualifier: "Cultural critic Edward Said..." "Literary theorist Jacques Derrida." That was damned irritating.
I distinguish two kinds of default, functional and dysfunctional. A functional one works well for you, like palatino for me. It is a comfortable habit that does no harm and reduces the number of irrelevant choices. I know approximately how long a paragraph I like to write, typically, and I am comfortable staying with that in most cases.
Dsyfunctional defaults are those that get in the way. They are bad habits that the writer is not even aware of. In some cases, like ending every article with a section title "conclusion," there was no real harm done. In other cases, though a default can show a certain unmindfulness. Introducing every single proper name with a description of who they are is irritating, because the writer has not chosen to do so when appropriate. Maybe she was reading too much Dan Brown.*
*The first sentence of a bestselling novel by this author is "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery."
Do You Know Who I Am?
My reaction, always, is to delete the message. Why? I have enough peer-reviewing to do already. I can publish, myself, in better journals. Being a member of an editorial board or being asked to referee a certain article in my speciality is fine, but I don't need to send you my cv to referee for you! I am an established, senior scholar in my field at an R1 institution and if you are contacting me at all to do peer reviews you should know who I am.*
The journal in question who most recently contacted me requires that their referees simply have a PhD and be college faculty. (Any idiot can get a PhD.) There is no effort to get the most qualified referees, merely a mass email sent, I presume, to many, many people. This particular journal did not seem to be scam or one that required a submission fee. That is all the more unfortunate. If someone is starting a legit journal, they should contact distinguished scholars for the editorial board, not a random group of no-name referees.
*"Do you know who I am?" is always an assholic thing to say. I apologize for sounding like an asshole in this post. Even if you feel the urge to say that, don't say it. Ever, Even if the person who's irritated you deserves this response, you will still be more of an asshole than that person, who is simply dumb, rude, or ignorant, but is not the arrogant jerk that you are.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
The instructor in this method either does not know the answers to the questions or pretends not to know, or knows but isn't saying yet. The Socratic method for a discussion often becomes a guessing game or fishing expedition rather than a true discussion. Socrates himself badgered his interlocutors until they came up with his own conclusions. The Socratic method is ineffective if the results are those reducible to matters of fact. It only works when the true aim is to teach the students to think better than they do, and where the students could conceivably come up with answers surprising to everyone in the room.
Students sometimes don't have enough to say. They need the questions in advance. Even graduate students, who you would expect to be able to discuss a text just by virtue of having read it, need a lot of initial prodding or advanced preparation.
The gap between the professor and the students can be too great. There has to be way of finding a middle ground, taking the students beyond the kind of answers they would typically give by prodding them a bit.
Finally, the language issue. Students don't feel that they can express their ideas in Spanish. What they say is often unclear, simplified, or otherwise modified by a process of interior translation.
Using a timer to incorporate research into the work day
I am unusual, perhaps, in doing research and writing at my desk in my office at school during normal business hours. A lot of people I know think that you have to work only at home so you won't be bothered, or only in the evening. I've started using a pomodoro timer, which has several advantages. You can focus intensely for 25 minutes at a time on a specific task, and you can also keep track of how much time you spend on something. Yesterday, for example, I spent 1 session of 25 minutes on class preparation, 1 on my book Lorca: modelo para armar, and 5 on a panel reviewing grant applications. I also read a paper for an independent studies course, met with the student in question, taught my class, and a few more things. The point is, I worked in 1 session on the book (as I've already done today). On a day I didn't teach (Monday, I devoted 3 sessions of 25 minutes to that same book, accomplishing quite a bit and coming up with some ideas I hadn't thought of before. You might say 25 minutes is barely enough for a day, and I would agree with that. It is infinitely superior, though, to zero minutes. If I can manage to do double or triple or quadruple that, on a few days a week, then I will make substantial progress.
The pomodoro timer comes with breaks between the sessions. I set mine for 7 minutes rather than 5, because I have enough time. The energy is more lacking in my case, especially since I've been sick and also have undergoing a major personal crisis. I'll be on campus 11 hours today, so I should be able to squeeze in a few more sessions of pomodoro devoted to class preparation and other tasks I am behind on.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
To the foregoing roster of the transformative implications ...
... I now want to add, and devote the rest of this essay to unpacking, one last matter, the question of ...
What follows wishes to bear out the claim that ...
And thus from here—counter-intuitively enough, from the ...
I wish this kind of writing were absent from academic prose, but it is very common. The problem is that people who begin sentences with "what follows wishes to bear out the claim" are those charged with teaching others how to write and think clearly. I advise against including strings of words that don't say anything. Signposting is one thing, but doing it with so little grace is inexcusable.
Monday, November 7, 2011
You might think of the dissertation chapter, which is 40 pages not 20, as the double of the 6-7 thousand word article. Since they are longer, they tend to be less readable, harder to get through. What makes them longer, typically, is the kind of work that shows the committee that the dissertator knows what she's talking about. Longer literature surveys, more background material on socio-political context, plot summaries...
The basic structure, however, can be the same. The tasks for the introduction are identical. The chapter will require 3-4 sections in the body of the text, only these sections will now be longer. The challenge is one of elegance: it is much harder to move gracefully in a longer piece with more assigned tasks.
Nuts & Bolts (ii)
Now I imagine that you probably also want to learn how to write papers that do not follow a structure like that. For example, I would be very bored writing poetry analysis poems in which I always analyzed four poems. My recent paper "What Lorca Knew" does not follow a conventional structure. What I see more often, though, is someone struggling with basic mastery of the forms themselves. Their papers are not unconventional because they are innovative or creative people, but because they simply don't know what they are doing yet. The don't even realize that there is a form already developed by other people, that would be highly appropriate for what they are trying to do.
Friday, November 4, 2011
Nuts & Bolts
The writing philosophy below dates from 2002, and I still agree with most of it. All of it really, but today I would add other things and de-emphasize some points.
I also have a document on "Nuts & Bolts of Analytical Papers." It is oriented toward the mechanics of writing about poetry, how to organize a paper on this subject, but it also has lessons for other types of papers. I am too lazy right now to type it all out for you, but maybe I will later.
How would you write a paper / article on a novel, for example?
The introduction would have to include the following: a contextual framing of the novel. Who wrote it, when and where, why it is significant. What the novel is about. Where it takes place, who narrates it, what the central conflict is.
What the critical problems are that need to be resolved. What some other critics have done with the novel and how relevant that is to the approach being taken here.
A thesis statement, defining the approach taken here. If you have an excellent thesis, chances are you have an excellent paper.
Body of the paper.
Don't summarize the plot. Every high-school student knows this, but not every dissertation writer does. But... you can use the plot as an organizing principle for the body of the paper. In other words, you can talk about events in the novel in chronological order, and organize your substantive points like beads on thread. By the end of the paper, the reader will know what happens in the novel, even though you have never done a deadly "plot summary."
You will also typically be using quotes from the novel in a similar way. In my document about analyzing poetry, I point out that you should never have a long quotation from a literary work without commenting on it. There should be a certain proportionality between the quotes and the amount of analysis. If you have nothing to say about a quote, why are you quoting it?
Quotes from other critics follow a similar logic. If most of your paper is a response to other critics, your own perspective will be lost. You won't have a "critical voice." You can't let the other critics do your work for you. On the other hand, you have to maintain a dialogue with what these critics have said. That means comparing your ideas to theirs.
Typically, you will want to make three or four main points about the novel. The body of the paper will be about sixteen pages, so you can think o the paper as 3-4 pages of intro, 3-4 pages for each main section of analysis, and 1-2 pages of conclusion.
The conclusion is typically shorter than the introduction, because the tasks it requires are fewer. You don't have to explain what the novel is about, who wrote it. It should not repeat verbatim the contents of the introduction, but rephrase the thesis in relation to the evidence presented in the 3-4 / 3-4 page sections. Don't summarize, but rather explain, extend. The classical conclusion also suggests something already not in the thesis. It reveals the significant implications of what has been accomplished. Something like: if this is true about Galdos's Desheredada, then we will also have to re-evaluate our entire understanding of....
Thursday, November 3, 2011
How can we define acceptable writing in an academic environment? There are certain basic norms or conventions to be learned, but merely following basic guidelines is not sufficient. You also need to develop your own sense of style or "writing philosophy." I have articulated my own below, but this is only an example. Other faculty members will have other approaches.
Good writing, for me, packs a rhetorical punch. It has to have a rhythm in the unfolding of sentences and the development of ideas, carrying the reader forward toward an inexorable conclusion. I want what I write to be concise and rich in information. I value clarity, but not at the expense of complexity. My prose should correlate strongly with my stance as a literary critic: dull, lifeless writing can actually undermine my arguments.
I strive for "vertical integration," that is to say, the well-articulated connection between a conceptual scheme, or theoretical framework, and specific details or examples. Some people are more comfortable with concrete details; others are more abstract thinkers. The integration of these two styles is extremely difficult: few people are equally at home with abstract and concrete thinking, and fewer still have learned to integrate these styles.
Whenever possible, I avoid empty words like theme, important, diverse, and interesting, or critical clichés like "this book makes a significant contribution to the field." (You might want to make your own list of words to be banished from your writing.). I dislike trite puns and the typographical clutter caused by parentheses within words: "the ca(n)on of (con)temporary literature." I make a distinction between technical terms and "jargon." Call a metonymy a metonymy, if that's what it is, but don't use jargon in order to strike a posture or to call attention to your own cleverness.
That being said, there is no single standard for good writing: develop you own preferences by reflecting on the qualities you most admire or dislike in the writing of others. You should have a few favorite writer-scholars. Listen carefully to what others say about how you write in order to ascertain whether you are meeting your own goals.
My course is advanced composition and grammar. The students are getting to be good writers, but they still make far too many grammatical mistakes. Once again, I am motivated to teach grammar because I am interested in language and linguistics. My students are interested in grammar in the sense that they want to eliminate mistakes from their Spanish, but they are not interested in grammar itself. I usually devote Tuesday to grammar and Thursday to composition, and the Th class tends to be more fun and interesting. When I correct compositions I tend to want to get the grammar out of the way, cleaned up, so that I can concentrate on issues of composition.
This exercise teaches me to see the students themselves as writers (at various stages of development). I've trying to get them to define realistic goals for themselves as Spanish majors. They won't have perfect Spanish, but they should be able to write clearly, coherently, with varied vocabulary, just as they should be able to speak the language with a decent, but not perfect accent. In other words, they should be pronouncing the language correctly more or less, even if you wouldn't mistake them for native speakers. In their writing, they should be able to express their ideas, even if they continue to make some mistakes in grammar.
In class, I'm going to have them make only positive remarks about one another's sentences. Negative critique is much easier, and the composition teacher himself (me in this case) can fall into the habit of mostly pointing out things that are wrong. Praise can sound very empty when it is not specific, so I will force the students to come up with very detailed explanations of why the sentences are praiseworthy.
Models for your own writing should be realistic ones. You can learn from reading García Márquez or Borges, but you aren't going to write like them as a Spanish major. The textbook I am using has some examples written by real students, but they are mostly very bad. I am proud that my students write better than that.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Other components of my identity include a certain relationship with poetry. I need to feel that I can write a poem when I want to, even though I don't teach "creative writing." And even write a poem in Spanish.
It is also important for me to own fountain pens.
I discover, then, that I need to cling to certain features of my identity as a writer that might seem inessential. I write my scholarship on the computer, mostly in English, and entirely in prose. Yet my image of myself as a writer is one involving Spanish, poetry, and fountain pens. Hmmm... I'm not sure how to explain this. Perhaps there are certain markers of identity with a symbolic importance.
Emulating Bad Models
If you write a kind of generic acadamese, you will still be able to get published, You will fit in, more or less. But you will never take that next step. You won't receive compliments on your elegant writing. Nobody else will take your writing as a model for their own.
What is generic academese? Lots of passive voice and long words. Inelegant signposting. Vagueness. A "written" quality far from any language used in real speech. A lack of personality or of a distinctive "voice." Numerous quotes from other scholars who also write indifferently.
The Image of Yourself As Writer
Following up a theme I've developed here recently, I'd like you to visualize your image of yourself as a writer.
Roland Barthes talks about André Gide and the image of the writer, a kind of conventionalized topos that, according to Barthes, was a little old-fashioned: he couldn't imagine a young kid wanting to grow up and emulate Gide. If you look at Woody Allen's recent picture "Midnight in Paris," you see a kind of image-repertoire of the writer in cartoonish form.
The point here is that you might carry in your mind a stereotype that doesn't correspond to your own identity. You might not have a tweed jacket with elbow patches, or be able to picture yourself in one. I certainly couldn't. You have to imagine yourself as a writer, and that might entail a revision of your image of what a writer looks like.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
(And perhaps 1990 and 1994, when my two other books came out. In 1990 I also published in MLN.)
Even two articles a year is considered very good in my particular field. We don't tend to collaborate with dozens of other scholars at once or spin off endless short papers from the same experiment, so we don't produce paper after paper. If a tenure candidate had 12 articles in 6 years (plus an accepted book ms.), that would constitute a very strong case. Or if someone retired after a forty year career with 80 articles, that would be a pretty distinguished scholar. Two monographs (+ 8-12 articles posttenure) is the standard for promotion to full professor at a research university.
As I've argued before, it is actually harder to do a little bit of scholarship than to do a lot. If your aim is to produce and publish one article (on average a year), then it might be very difficult. The article might stall in the writing phase, or be rejected. It isn't likely to be as good, because it does not flow out of a more developed research program or a well-maintained scholarly base. Someone who doesn't have time for research during the academic year has difficulty switching gears in the summer and getting his fountain pens cleaned or removing the rust from her prose.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Becoming a Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Are My Standards Too High?
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Being a professor does not require extraordinary intelligence. You have to be on the studious side, of course, but once you reach a certain threshold you are fine. The rest is up to you. Your work ethic, your determination. Chances are, if you are professor you will notice that there are people dumber and smarter than you in your same profession. There will be range of people from "dumb as on ox, why is this person doing this in the first place," to absolutely brilliant. The dumb as on ox types are probably not even dumb in the literal sense, just ill-prepared or intellectually lazy.
The other way of thinking, however, is that it is very difficult to do what I've done. Although any idiot can get a PhD, many idiots fail to do so. I might look like the average more studious than average guy, but I am more intense and ambitious than most people even in the academic world. My father was an academic, so I absorbed those values at an early age. I had an 8 to 9 year advantage over people who became academically serious in the later years of college, for example.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Finding a Realistic Model
Realistic models are those in the same language and genre in which you are working. I can learn about writing from reading Proust, but I am not writing in French. They should be relatively modern, from the early 20th-century on, say. Your prose is not going to sound like an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson or like a sermon by John Donne. You also want a style that is not too oratorical, but that is not dead on the page either.
They should be models that solve the particular problems that you face. How to talk eloquently while analyzing poetry, without getting bogged down in literary criticism-ese. How to summarize the secondary literature without doing a "data dump." How to place voices in dialogue with one another without confusion.
A realistic model should give you hope. The academic writer whose work you are emulating is not a great genius of prose style, but someone who has self-consciously worked to achieve a level of elegance and clarity that is well within your reach too. Chances are the writer you are emulating learned from other models.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Seeing Yourself as a Writer
Tanya made an interesting observation in a comment to a recent post: many academics don't see themselves as writers. I see myself as a professor (teacher), an academic expert and researcher, but I also see myself as a writer. The genre in which I write are poetry, translation, and academic non-fiction prose, but I am a writer above all else. You can tell, many times, when an academic is writing out of that mind-set, as opposed to thinking of him or herself as "only" a psychologist, or a historian, or a geographer.
One way you know you are a writer is if you are reading other writers for the pure pleasure of style, if you take lessons from the great novelists and essayists of the language in which you are writing. I don't make a firm distinction between genres, although some models are "closer at hand."
Novelists are better models than poets, because they have to sit down for hours a day very regularly in order to produce their work. Poetry is also essential, though, because it is the genre with the least degree toleration for bad writing. You can't get away with anything in a poem.
Of course, some people can read poetry, and even learn to perceive its language accurately, and still write badly. There is, perhaps, a natural talent in figuring out how to acquire a learned talent. Prose, however, is very rarely a natural gift. It is just too artificial a thing.
Here is a possible outline:
The basics are fundamental. What people do wrong in the dissertation is in making mistakes they should have learned to avoid in High School or the early part of college.
Management of time:
You will get it done if you have regular time to write. Your "prime time" (Tanya).
Management of space: Combine time with space for the double whammy. As Thomas writes:
I tell researchers to master the time and space of their writing. I tell them to think of the text they are writing as an object with 40 parts distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections. This is the space in which they work, and it is, importantly, an orderly space in which 40 discrete claims can be supported.
Management of tasks: break down a larger task into smaller components.
Model article / dissertation chapter. Find compelling models and follow them.
Avoid the "data dump." You are communicating a message, not proving that you know something.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
I Take That Back
I'm happy to publish in Romance Quarterly.. It is a venerable journal in my field and I like having published in as many good journals as possible. It's kind of a game I play with myself.
I did notice some metadiscursive makers that were not signposting per se, but served that function. In other words, I didn't use markers like "In the next section I will consider...." but I did use phrases like "in other words." I could have gone a little further even here, but I am still pleased with my progress. When you read it I would like you to tell me whether you would miss the signposting, or whether I could take the next step and eliminate even more meta-discourse.
There was also one very hideous-sounding sentence with two syntactically ambiguous adverbs sticking out like bony elbows. It's fine if there is only one, though of course other readers might find more they don't like.
What I really want to see is the editor's introduction to this issue of HIOL and the afterword, to see how other people construe my argument. That will be a more significant test.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I guess this complaint will provoke envy rather than sympathy from scholars who are still having a hard time getting accepted at all. Not only do I get accepted and published, but some of my work is published exactly as I submit it, with only a few copy-editing changes, and by invitation at that, so I don't even have to decide where to send it in the first place. You don't need to feel sorry for me, but I would still like a little more comments on what I write.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
"I Don't Like Literary Criticism"
I'm not suggesting that we should be doing something other the literary criticism, but that we shouldn't hold on to patterns that just don't serve our needs any more.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Deceptively Easy or Deceptively Difficult?
Pomodoro also keeps track of your work sessions. You can create different labels for tasks and chart your work like that. If you don't need productivity tools like that, by all means don't bother. I could do without it, but I find it fun to try. Any change can be motivating, so I can imagine that NOT using it after a while might be a good change as well.
Taking Scholarship Seriously
The problem is that when I am the reader for work like that, I get seriously pissed off. Two world views collide.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Pullum on the Passive (Again)
It is fine to use the passive voice. That being said, a book manuscript I am reviewing right now contains far too much passive voice. The dumb prejudice against the passive will persist because some bad writers love using the passive voice as much as they can.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
I sometimes feel like that, lacking any disance from my proprietary interest in the objects of my research. It's good to feel ownership in some sense, but not to feel one has a monopoly interest.
Writing as Solace
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Other People's Writing...
Meantime imperial Neptune heard the sound
Of raging billows breaking on the ground.
Displeas'd, and fearing for his wat'ry reign,
He rear'd his awful head above the main,
Serene in majesty; then roll'd his eyes
Around the space of earth, and seas, and skies.
He saw the Trojan fleet dispers'd, distress'd,
By stormy winds and wintry heav'n oppress'd.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Other People's Writing Is Hell
It Doesn't Rain But It Pours
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
More Critical Thinking
What does this have to with with Scholarly Writing? Nothing much, except that being very, very smart does not allow you to bypass cognitive biases. You have to figure out each new intellectual problem from scratch, figuring out what to believe and what not to believe. The kind of articles that seem to be pure confirmation bias do not seem quite as revelatory.
A Critical Thinking Exercise
(1) When you feel you have to take an enormous dump, step first on the bathroom scale. Then weigh yourself right afterwards on the same scale. How much weight did you lose? Probably less than a half a pound. I have a scale that measures in 0.2 lb increments and sometimes the scale gives me the same measurement before and after a substantial bowel movement. So the claim is that you have between 10 and 74 times more crap left inside you even after ridding yourself of some serious turds.
(2) Now go to the gym and pick up a 25 lb. weight? How heavy does it feel to you. Now pick up a 5, 10, 15, and 20 pound piece of iron. A pound of metal weighs the same as a pound of shit, so you need to get a feel for how much weight this really is. Imagine that you are carrying around the fifteen-pound dumbbell within your gut all the time. Does this seem plausible? Of you have a toddler handy you can lift him or her into the air. How heavy does the kid feel?
(3) Look at a pregnant woman. Suppose she is carrying an 8 lb. baby and the placenta Or look at a person who's 40 lbs oveweigth and carrying about 25 of it in a beer belly. Do you think your colon is carrying something of equivalent mass? Wouldn't it be as big as the uterus of a pregnant person? If so, how does the stool even pass through there? Wouldn't you die of a blockage before you got to 15 or 20 pounds? If the argument is that the matter is so compacted that it has a high density, remember again how much your elimination weighed after you did your business, remember again the relative density of metal and flesh.
(4) Now look at the advertisements again. What are they selling? How much would it cost to get your insides cleaned out? Now compare this to the price of the laxatives they tell you to use before a colonoscopy. Before you get one of these, you have to clean out your entire system, and the result is that there is nothing there. I guarantee you won't lose 20 lbs.
(5) Now think of what other mental experiments you might perform to evaluate a claim of this type. You need to balance what your own experience tells you, unbiased information, and the opinions of experts. Suppose the claim was one like "we only use one tenth of our brains." How would you evaluate a cliché meme like this? Maybe it might be more difficult with some more elusive ones.
Monday, September 19, 2011
When Stuck, Switch
Saturday, September 17, 2011
We might call these my brown M&Ms. Van Halen stipulated in their riders to tour contracts a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones. This has often been taken to be typical rock-band high-maintenance narcissistic self-regard and self-indulgence, but this clause actually served a deeper purpose, serving as a marker of attention to detail:
If brown M&M's were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance--lighting, staging, security, ticketing--may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.
If students use the word "importante," if they haven't put a title on their paper, if they use the "time immemorial" beginning, then I know they haven't been paying attention to my very explicit oral and written instructions. Sure, an otherwise good paper might use the word importante in every other sentence, but usually this means that the student will also not apply recently reviewed grammar points in revising their writing. They will probably use the passive voice in a paper a week after I told them simply not to use the passive voice at all in Spanish.
Of course, the consequence of messing up a Van Halen concert might be very serious: death, if a stage collapses because a promoter has not paid attention to how much weight it has to support. The consequence of brown M&Ms is less severe. In writing, the consequence of messing up the small things is that the reader will lose faith that the writer is to be trusted in the communication of scholarly knowledge.