Research, Writing, and Work

Research, Writing, and Work September 25, 2019

Some years ago I participated in a Wabash Center workshop that required me, as I worked on a research project, to keep a journal. My attitude going in was that the process would likely resemble this Dilbert comic strip:

In fact, however, the experience was genuinely transformative. It made me appreciate that my workflow was not lengthy periods of frustrating procrastination followed by frantic work to meet a deadline or simply finish, as it sometimes seemed even to me (I can only imagine how it looked to others). Instead, I came to realize that I was diligently at work consistently throughout the period of time, but part of it I failed to fully acknowledge and appreciate even as someone who was doing it and readily understood its value. I’m talking about the reading and thinking that simply has to proceed any writing that one does.

Steve Wiggins wrote about this recently:

Although academia required far more than eight hour days, the time during those days wasn’t spent “on the clock.”  As one intellectual I admire once quipped, staring out the window is work.  Not as far as HR is concerned, however.  Productivity in an industry under stress is its own kind of mysterium tremendum, I guess.  It doesn’t really allow for unstructured hours to read, take notes, close your eyes, and read some more.  Work measures inspiration in terms of currency, which is one of the problems that stretches past beyond these last three years.  Struggling hard with an idea is like wrestling an angel until dawn.  You can’t win, and you can’t lose.  But when the sun clears the horizon it will be time to be at your desk and ideas will have to wait another day.

Vance Morgan wrote about the life of a college professor, tackling some stereotypes which relate to those largely unseen parts of the writing as well as class preparation process, ones that many refuse to think of as work or part of work: reading, thinking, pondering, reflection, and inner wrestling.

And on how to teach and learn writing, there was an interesting piece in the Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing…

[T]o improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut.

Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, research shows that providing students with grammar worksheets and skill-and-drill exercises and extensive line editing does not produce expert writers any more than memorizing rigid rules about biking produces Tour de France cyclists.

All of us learn to write well the same way we learn to do anything well: by doing it. Students need to write and revise in as many classes, internships, and extracurricular sites as possible, but they won’t produce expert or error-free writing overnight.

See also Bill Caraher’s mid-career reflections.


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  • John MacDonald

    It’s one of the most enviable existential situations you can find yourself in: enjoying your work. My father worked in a linkage and suspension factory for around 30 years, at which point he retired one year before he would have gotten full retirement pay because he couldn’t take it anymore. I never appreciated what he went through until I worked two summers as a student at the factory helping to put myself through University. Basically, the day was: pick up a part / put it in the machine / put the finished part in a crate / repeat (usually for a minimum of 12 hours). You put your earplugs in at the start of the shift and were alone with your thoughts, no music or conversation. I was so lucky when later I was a student worker at another factory and we were allowed to bring radios.

    One of the hallmarks of the modern age is that our inner restlessness has been markedly increased when separated from novelty, resulting in such things as hidden jitteriness, such as with a child’s jittery time out, or the agitation with cabin fever. I suffered my time in the factory!

    This was spoke of in ancient times too. Heidegger comments that:

    Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, relates at one place (Nicomachean Ethics, Z 7, 1141b
    77ff ) the basic conception determining the Greek view on the essence of the
    thinker: ‘It is said they (the thinkers) indeed know things that are excessive, and
    thus astounding, and thereby difficult, and hence in general ‘demonic (daimonia)’
    – but also useless, for they are not seeking what is, according to the
    straightforward popular opinion, good for man.’ … The Greeks, to whom we owe
    the essence and name of ‘philosophy’ and of the ‘philosopher,’ already knew
    quite well that thinkers are not ‘close to life.’ But only the Greeks concluded
    from this lack of closeness to life that the thinkers are then the most necessary –
    precisely in view of the essential misery of man (P, 100)

    For instance, in the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ “Antigone,” we read “Polla ta deina kouden anthropou deinoteron pelei…,” which I would translate (not-literally, but) interpretively as “Many are the uncanny, but nothing as uncanny/unhomely as man.” The Greeks contrasted “parestios,” the one in the sphere of the warmth of the hearth fire with deinon/apolis, “homeless,” as Sophocles called man.