That point when sub-points become new projects, and you (I) have made a mistake

I am not sure I’m really ready to write about this just yet, but maybe I’ll never be ready, so I am going to plunge ahead.  I was trying to explain it to a PhD student  the other day during a committee meeting, and I didn’t say things right (I usually don’t) and I was overy emphatic, and it caused another professor, a very writer, to jump in to say “no, that’s not right, I think you need to explore” and I didn’t mean we can’t explore.  I get why she jumped in, as I wasn’t doing a good job, but I still want to talk about this problem with problem and writing definition that I suffer from. 

Maybe I alone suffer from it, but I bet not.  I realized later the reason I was being emphatic: I was projecting.

Research, especially if you are doing something really quite new and different from prior studies, gives you lots of things you can explore. Some of those new directions are sub-problems or sub-points. These are issues or questions you have to sort through in order for your argument, model, or narrative to work.   Some of those new directions are, however, entirely new research projects that you have to wait on.  The first are hard enough; the second can eat up a lot of your time and get you diddly squat except a head start on a new project that may or may not do someday.

Neither of these are prima facie bad, except when dissertation and tenure clocks are ticking.  I was trying to emphasize that while research needs to be a time of exploration, it is also a virtue to be able to evaluate a given exploration early-ish so that you can avoid spending a month working diligently on something that you can’t use in your project of immediate concern. 

To wit: one of the problems with the book I started working on is that I realized that I had actually started two more in the middle of working on the one.  I had to break what had been 250 pages I had deluded myself into thinking was “near done” into 3 deformed, nowhere-near-done things, and it, frankly, broke my heart–so much so that I haven’t finished any of them, and there’s no other reason besides the fact that I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m not working on them, and they are all cold as hell.   For all practical purposes, I’ve walked away from three damn good partial books because I’m so crushed.  Maybe I am just doing a Britney/Britt’any thing a la Season 2 of Glee, so don’t feel too bad for me yet. I’m doing plenty of that myself.  

This problem shouldn’t have surprised me. Lack of focus is a chronic issue for me, and it’s always been an issue when responding to reviewers.  Reviewers who take on snotty tones get on my nerves, but i take critiques very seriously if I agree with them, and more than once I have found myself, in responding to a simple question from a reviewer, writing an entirely new paper in the middle of a paper that needs to be put to rest. 

These false starts and lacunae do not feel good to me. And that’s what I am trying to keep my student from doing. Maybe there is no way to avoid them. Maybe that’s just research, and you just deal with it, but I’d sure like to come up with a more trustworthy way of stopping myself before I find myself in the Thermopylae of writing problems. 

New accountability/Fun feature

Words written: None. Shut up.
Book I’m Reading: NW by Zadie Smith (reread)
Listening to: The Wild, The Innocent, the E-Street Shuffle
Beverage: Cocoa with rainbow sprinkles

Alison Trope (@aptrop)’s: USC as if women mattered

Alison Trope is a professor over at USC Annenberg, and I think she, more than anybody else, captures how I feel personally as a woman working at USC. Maybe all universities are like this, but in the now 12 years I’ve worked at USC, I’ve never felt–not once–that I mattered to the higher ups. Marlon Boarnet and David Sloane, my two department/program chairs, have been wonderful. And it’s not me wanting external validation. It’s different. It’s like…this place has always been so hardened against recognizing and making women visible. Certain, select women, fine, as long as they don’t object or make waves.

That’s why Professor Trope’s Over It project makes my heart sing.

She has map of campus entitled “USC Reimagined.” Go look at it!! When I look at it, I feel like I’m here, with all these women, making all this difference, instead of being an outsider, tolerated rather than included.

*Seeing* all the things, reading (some) of the things, in 15th grade/grad school

There was a BIPOC grad student thread a bit ago about how all the reading in PhD classes just feels like another form of hazing, and a bunch of professors jumped in to say that they don’t assign much reading anymore. I kept out of it because I didn’t want to derail the thread, nor did I want to be a bad guy, but I think there is an art to dealing with reading and references in grad school that needs discussing.

First of all, just assigning long reading lists IS kinda hazing, but not really hazing: it’s part of the privileged world of the academy where students with educated parents have a HUGE advantage over students like me, with parents who couldn’t help because they weren’t privileged enough to go. Nobody believes that you can read 800 pages a week closely. Nobody. If you can, congratulations, you’re better than me. But most people can’t.

So what’s the point of putting all that reading down? Well, as scholars, there is a lot of work you should be AWARE of even if you have not read. It’s enough for me to know, tangentially, that one of Hobbes’ important points in the Leviathan has to do with the sources of political authority because I am somebody who is tangentially interested in political authority. I don’t write about it, but I am interested, and maybe someday I will write about it. Or not. It’s just nice to know that I am watching/reading convos about it that when somebody drops Hobbes, I know his *general* line. If a dispute arises over exactly what Hobbes meant when discussing slavery and human rights, then I am out of my league generally since I have read bits and pieces of his material on human rights (remarkably contemporary in my read) but not all of it. But since I’m not a Hobbes scholar, this is ok.

My life would be less good, and I wouldn’t be as good a scholar as I am (to the degree that I am a *good* scholar, let alone a scholar anymore but let’s leave that debate to another day) without Hobbes in my peripheral vision.

But do I know Rawls? Oh yeah. I’ve read all of Rawls, so thoroughly and repeatedly in fact, that I have strong opinions on what the rest of you can skip in Rawls. (Ignore the minimax chapters) unless you are really, really interested in the debate with John Harsanyi. Then read that chapter for sure.) I have read a bunch of writers on Rawls. A bunch of critiques. All of them? Not sure, but I have a Google alert that tells me whenever a new thing is published on Rawls, some of which I need and some of which I don’t, and I’ll pick and choose what I need. But I will see it all, and probably log them all, in my citation manager because maybe I will take my research in a direction where I will need to engage with that material.

If professors don’t point you to all the readings, then how are you supposed to know the possibilities and directions thought has gone and can go? Answer: You sample, you don’t read everything like your life depends on it. 1) because it doesn’t, and 2) because you can’t. But how do you find the research area you want to work in if you don’t sample widely? How do you bring new ideas into otherwise stale research debates?

Plenty of young scholars think being a scholar is about expressing their opinions. This is a major problem for young scholars: when I was starting out, the internet was younger, and uniformed opinion wasn’t Every.Bloody.Where the way it is now.

To wit: your value as a scholar comes from your informed ideas. Anybody pushing a lot of reading at you may be hazing you depending on how they act about it, but they are also giving you a gift. What students tend to forget is that even though they are students and don’t have a ton of power, they still control how they organize the material for themselves and what they want to go deeply into and what they don’t.

If you refuse to read the things to show your big bad oppressor professors what’s what, you WILL very likely have reviewers hand you your ass for not citing and discussing the important literature in your manuscript, and since everybody has a different idea of what matters in any given field, having a big reading list to go back to when this comes up is handy as all hell.

Tomorrow’s installment will share some very cool things that our brilliant PhD student, Ben Tomey, put together to help students out with All The Reading.