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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