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