The Triad

Yung-Hsing Wu and I have an ongoing dialogue about the nature of academic work. I guess *academic* is as good an adjective for it as any, and has a bit more fit here for reasons discussed below, but all *academic* does is to locate work which might just as well be described as *scholarly* work, *scientific* work, or *intellectual* work.

*Academic* works well here because our conversations are so often in relation to our students, both undergraduate and graduate. Say what you will about apprentices, but as someone who has been to gym meets for girls early in their training, I can assure you that nothing reveals the long road to mastery than someone who is just setting out. The fact of the matter is that thinking well and communicating your thoughts effectively are hard and they take time just to claim competence, let alone mastery. (That is, I ain’t making any claims for myself beyond baseline competence. Nah ah. Not me.)

We regularly re-discover just how hard some little bit of analysis or communication is when we find a student or group of students or a class of students, just misses the grab for the next ring and lands with the full force of a metaphorical flop on the gym mat of this conceit.

One thing we have noticed is that this business of thinking has several levels, and so lessons hard won at one level — about organization of materials in both research and communication — are not necessarily applied at the next level. That is, we are often surprised to see advanced students make the same kinds of mistakes as beginning less advanced writers as the scope of a task increases.

This probably comes as no surprise to faculty who regularly advise students on dissertations. Perhaps the disjuncture between the dissertation and previous projects is more obvious than we realize. The freshman essay has something of an obvious path to the term paper, and the term paper would seem to prepare many graduate students for the seminar paper, but this path somehow doubles back on itself when it comes time to the master’s thesis or the dissertation. (Making the move from seminar paper to research article is for another time, and something Yung-Hsing has thought about more than I.)

And so writers you know are also scolding their freshman in the morning about the lack of organization, about the lack of a clearcut argument, about the paucity of evidence in their 2000 or 3000-word essays are later in the afternoon committing the same errors in their 50,000 or 75-000 word manuscripts. It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe.

But we have, over the course of our conversations also noticed something else that we find curious and worth thinking a bit more about, and that is that there are probably three modes, or three distinct kinds of action, in which thinkers regularly engage and being able to do all three of them is really the key to success: research, analyze, communicate.



There is a couple of reasons we find this model, or description, of academic work compelling — and we are going to stick with *academic* for the time being because that is where we are located and it is also the location to which are graduate students aspire.

First, we think it successfully captures a division of labor which most academics would recognize. Most of us recognize that there is a distinction in our time between gathering data and/or information and then thinking about what you have gathered. Sometimes, especially when you are a literary scholar working closely with a small number of texts, the dynamic can be so tightly coupled that we might be hard pressed to distinguish the two activities, but the difference between reading a passage and then trying to break that passage up into something else beside what it is is present in the work itself.

We also think, and this is where the most recent conversation really began, that the division captures the strengths and weaknesses of many scholars, or certain of their texts, that we already know. Both of us have had students, known colleagues, or read the work of others that seemed to us to reveal that a particular individual had an aptitude or affinity for one activity over the others. There is the student who is an incredibly good researcher but is unwilling, or unable, to see the larger patterns that all the data she has gathered might actually possess — just the other day, in fact, a colleague and I were discussing the work of a well-regarded scholar in our field, whom we both admire, who is an encyclopedist by nature: his work offers only the barest of syntheses and the prose in which he conveys his elaborate, and awe-inspiring, organization of a difficult and diffuse topic, is labored at best.

There is, too, the scholar who is a brilliant analyst, but the data upon which he or she draws is incredibly thin. And, perhaps it goes without saying, the brilliant analyst whose strength does not lie in research is also an effective communicator.

*Communication* is, we think, one place where we are struck by the number of avenues, or fora, available to researchers and analysts. This fact is perhaps made more concrete for us by dint of our being located at a public university which weights, at least ostensibly, teaching and publishing equally. What this means in practice is that each faculty member has some freedom to pursue the fora in which they are most comfortable to communicate. For some, their best work lies in their teaching. They publish a few things, and that is good enough. For some, their best work lies in their writing, and they muddle through teaching as best they can. The teachers among us do their best thinking outloud, in the presence of others, and communicate best orally where sometimes you can allow multiple ideas to hang in their simultaneously before drawing a conclusion. The writers among us do their best thinking withdrawn from the world or in the company of a select few.

The writers who struggle least with writing think in words, but there are other kinds of thinkers — those who think in diagrams, those who think in three-dimensional spaces, those who think in terms of parallel patterns and resonances, like musical chords. Sometimes those thinkers end up in professions where they can apply those ideas in a very practicable way, but there are other thinkers who end up a bit out of place: they are spatial thinkers who are so in love with words that they pursue advanced research in literature or linguistics despite the number of warnings, both internal and external, that the path will not be an easy one.

The fact is we want all those thinkers among us, but finding an institutional home is harder than it looks, if only because we are still encased within bureaucratic schema from a previous era that felt things worked best when labor was divided and not pooled. How such a pool might work out for the academy is not something we have seen discussed anywhere, and we are curious to know if anyone has encountered either the idea or the practice in a way that they found compelling.

Learning to Write/Build/Program

Almost three weeks ago I posted on Facebook — I know, I know, I constantly swear off “the facebook” but a rich blog infrastructure has not arisen among my friends and colleagues — the following observation:

> Yesterday I found myself in a metal shop, cutting and piecing together aluminum for a project underway. The work was satisfying, a sign of my having been considered competent enough to perform a certain level of work. While not asked to weld, my task did require a certain amount of precision, since my cuts would determine the quality of the overall assembly.
> As I stood there measuring and cutting, I wondered about my own qualified competence in the world of the metal shop and how it compared to what some of my students feel in the world of the university classroom. What do builders feel like among words?
> There’s obviously a lot more that can be said here, but where I found my focus was on the question of how best to reach those builders, to make it possible for them to work with words with as much competence as they bend and weld metal into machines, piece together lumber into houses, or connect electrical lines into a lighting system. After all, a sentence is one word added to another added to another added to another. String sentences together to make paragraph. Stack paragraphs to make a story or an essay.

While my initial concluding question was “Is this possibly the beginning of a textbook?” — because everything in the academy is measured by publication — I think I’d like to take the aspirations for this down a notch and think about this in terms of a class. (More on this in a moment.) At my university, we offer a course in technical writing, but so far as I know, much of it is dedicated to teaching business and engineering majors a set number of writing genres, e.g. the business letter or the process document.

What if we could demonstrate for engineers that writing could be another form of thinking for them, a place where they could think outside the realm of the materials before them in order to get a fresh perspective on the work itself? I discussed this possibility over a number of years with architecture faculty, after having sat on a number of theses and finding myself regularly distracted by the quality of writing in the documents attached to a project. The faculty have always been very welcoming and appreciative of my efforts and interests: they understand that writing can not only make for better communications with clients but also for different kinds of thinking.

Today I discovered that someone else is thinking about this [from the other, or another, direction](

The Elusive Big Idea

Neal Gabler’s essay on “The Elusive Big Ideas” ([Link to NYT][1]) has been sitting on my desk for a while now, and I think I am going to link to it in my folklore theory seminar. I’m not sure I buy all his arguments: that we are a society that prefers knowing to thinking, but there is enough provocation in it, I think, to get a discussion started:

> It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. But post-Enlightenment and post-idea, while related, are not exactly the same.

> Post-Enlightenment refers to a style of thinking that no longer deploys the techniques of rational thought. Post-idea refers to thinking that is no longer done, regardless of the style.

> The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.