Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Thinking Aloud: Process, Product, and Becoming an Academic

by Mary Kate Hurley

Having spent a restful holiday in New York after the excitement of earthquakes and hurricanes last week, I'm pleased to share the draft of my contribution to our group reflection for Literature Compass. I'm very eager for comments -- it's a bit ramble-y at present.


In her essay “Responding to Student Writing,” Nancy Sommers lays out a useful paradigm for thinking about the reasons we teach students to write in the humanities (particularly in English literature courses), and moreover, how we should effect such goals in our comments on student writing: “We need to show our students how to seek, in the possibility of revision, the dissonances of discovery—to show them through our comments why new choices would positively change their texts, and thus to show them the potential for development implicit in their own writing.” (1) Her argument proceeds from a somewhat basic mistake most teachers of composition make in their commenting: by not creating a hierarchy of concerns (ranking concepts and ideas first, stylistic and mechanical execution second), teachers mistake product for process.

This basic confusion—between product and process—is the topic I want to take up, however briefly, in this essay. In many ways, I think this is the very tension that blogs can productively foreground. By highlighting the process of thinking, rather than the product of having had thought, a blog might be able to foster truly dynamic academic conversations while also helping to shape the kinds of academic minds most capable of taking part in them.

As Karl points out in his piece, blogging is one way to conduct—in his case, for good rather than ill—your education in public. This education is largely similar to—but far more public than—the classroom experience in graduate school. The best seminars I have participated in have been equally influenced by the students and the professors in the room. Such seminars have indelibly changed my approach to research, writing, and teaching. Whether it was Prof. Cliff Siskin’s injunction to “zoom out” rather than in on literary studies in my masters seminar of Fall 2004 or the spirited discussions of temporality and Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern under the guidance of Prof. Carolyn Dinshaw in a Fall 2007 seminar on Time, these moments of exploration continue to shape my career and echo in my solitary writing ventures. Just as life-changing (a melodramatic description, but apt), however, is the memory of my fellow students in these classes -- of the presentations given and questions posed by the students in Dinshaw’s class, of the work of a colleague who continues in her studies to “zoom out,”and from that view see more possibility than I ever dreamed existed. A professor once told a group of us in a session on professionalization that as much as we want to meet the famous profs who attend conferences, the real relationships that matter are the ones we form horizontally, with the graduate students and early professors who will be our colleagues for the next forty years.

But once my classroom time ended, these conversations and productive leaps of critical imagination also fell away. That isn’t to say they didn’t exist anymore—my interactions with colleagues were just as generative as they had ever been. But with coursework over, thinking became a profoundly solitary activity. Books are pleasant enough interlocutors, but their ability to talk back is often curtailed by time or circumstance. It is hardly surprising that this is the very moment I chose to begin blogging. I began because I knew how hard studying for exams would be without public accountability at the intermediary stages of reading. I stayed because (despite my own growing anxiety over what is and is not “blog material”) I believe that such conversations are the best reason to be an academic and the most forceful argument as to why academics can make a difference in the world as a whole.

The distinction I found in my ABD life that had not seemed so clear cut as an MA or MPhil was the distinction between thinking and having had thought – or, to borrow Summers’ terms, between process and product. There is, in my experience, an overwhelming emphasis within graduate school on not being caught thinking. Conference papers seem to be the exception, in part because in so many venues they are so fleeting. However, when it comes to virtually every other task of graduate school, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on presenting oneself as “having had thought.” Articles must be meticulously researched, polished, and perfected before attempting to place them. Dissertations are the long, slow work of years. Only when finished (or substantially finished) should a dissertation be aired publicly.

I should be clear: I do not necessarily disagree with either of these principles. Scholarly works should be polished: articles and books are the currency of the academic endeavor. They determine job placement and tenure results. They ought to be “done” before they are submitted, even if they are rarely so finished once readers’ reports come back. Even as I type these words, however, I also recognize that I am focusing overwhelming on the product: despite the clarity with which I know that both dissertations and articles come from somewhere, I focus solely on results. I simultaneously obscure the process by which such products came into being. In the mystic ether that constitutes academic creation, the space in which we reflect on our writing as a practice is severely limited. We all know we have to write dissertations to get a Ph.D. We all know we have to write articles to get (and keep) a job. The question that needs to be asked, however, is how we learn to produce such things.

Dissertation seminars, the venerable Medieval Guild, and more recently an article workshop have created a “safe” space for that kind of work in my time as a graduate student at Columbia. However, seeing multiple drafts of a document—the movement from unstructured reflection to drafty attempt at argument to polished chapter, article, or even book—is something that we can only rarely encounter. The feature I find most important about blogs is not necessarily their potential as collaborative or utopian spaces, although these are certainly important. Rather, I think blogs can offer a space where scholars can come together to share the central work of the academic endeavor: the lively, productive, and messy process of thinking, rather than the often (but not always) finished relics of having had thought.

And so I return to Sommers’ explicit interest in the process/product dichotomy. Although I have not always had the internal courage to share my own process of thinking, a key component of my graduate education has been the flexibility and liveliness with which my co-bloggers approach their scholarly work. Watching their process unfold—on the blog, at conferences, in articles, and in books—has helped me to learn about the process by which scholarly artifacts are created. Taking what I’ve always thought of as our blog “motto” to heart—to see things in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left (2)—I find it pushes me to take more academic risks than are always prudent for a potential job candidate. I didn’t and don’t always take those risks as a graduate student—anxiety about what my advisors would think, whether my ideas would be “safe” (I’ll admit that I don’t quite know what that term means), or whether I would regret blogging my thoughts about conferences or books often curtailed my ability and willingness to share.

But I’m reminded of what my undergraduate thesis advisor once told me: “be generous.” I’m grateful that Jeffrey, Eileen, and Karl are all willing to be so generous with their own time, thoughts, and writing. Because demystifying the academic endeavor—whether with a blog or the careful guidance of advisors—is vital to the process of becoming that every graduate student undertakes as he or she moves from student to colleague.


(1): Nancy Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing” in Teaching Composition: Background Readings ed. T.R. Johnson (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005) 391-2.

(2): Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. I’ll admit I haven’t tracked down the reference here – because for me, it’s just in the upper right hand corner of the screen.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

"By highlighting the process of thinking, rather than the product of having had thought, a blog might be able to foster truly dynamic academic conversations while also helping to shape the kinds of academic minds most capable of taking part in them."

So utopian, and I love it!

Karl Steel said...

BRAVO, MKH. Great piece. I'm really impressed at how well our contributions are hanging together.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I should also say: thanks for posting this. Something about dissertation writing seems inimical to public sharing and community: why is that? Is there any way around it? Would Karl's idea of department sponsored blogs really work, or seem like a compulsion to vulnerability that arrives at just the wrong time? I ask these questions because I suspect that ITM is a non-representative space, and that most graduate advisors would NOT recomemend blogging to their advisees because ... well, scholars tend to advocate retentiveness as a charm against premature and over-sharing.

Karl Steel said...

JJC, I'm guessing this space *is* atypical, but I wish it weren't. I know I basically wrote the last fifth or quarter of my diss. here and through Kalamazoo [which stuff ended up here anyhow]. I would've written more here if I'd started any earlier than Fall 2006. I KNOW my diss. wouldn't have ended in a such a positive and exciting place had it not been for ITM.

Anonymous said...

To me it sounds very good - even useful (necessary, why not) - to find the better way to share the process of creation of contents as part of contents themselves. To students in ase of academic lessons, to readers in case of books (in this second case Blog could be a sympthetic way to trespass the very limit of the book and sharing the hidden part of the job).
P.S. is there any voluntary reason behind the fact that my comments never appear? Well, I must confess that I would like to be admitted in the club

Alex said...

I think the case you all are collectively making for blogging is a good one. As a graduate student embarking on a dissertation, I've been thinking through the vulnerability of blogging in that particular context. The benefits of a multi-author blog are not only that it attracts more readers (there are so many blogs that the likelihood anyone would consistently visit or comment on a blog focused on a single obscure dissertation topic is pretty low), but it can also attract a broader variety of readers, and perhaps most importantly it has a built-in audience in the other authors of the blog so you know you're not just posting into the abyss.

Rather than the department as the structuring unit, which is essentially arbitrary, however, an inter-departmental or even multi-institutional group of graduate students working on chronologically, geographically, or thematically related material could be more productive. Not everyone in a department will share the same enthusiasm for blogging, which is challenging enough when it's something you are excited about. But finding other people who do share your excitement about its possibilities can reinforce your own commitment to a blog when it might otherwise wane.

I would like to hear more from you all on the incentives you've found to keep blogging. It's easy to lose motivation, especially when people aren't commenting. Do you make it a priority to comment on your co-bloggers' posts? What are your strategies for combating blog ennui?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Finally getting back here as the work-week wanes --

It's funny. I don't know that there's something intrinsic about the dissertation that makes it hard to share it publicly -- although many of my friends have said "oh I could never blog my work, it would take too much time!" Asked why, the answer is always that things would have to be polished too much before sharing. And in part, that's precisely the problem I wanted to raise. Why should all speaking voices go silent when the writing begins?

I do think you hit closer to the mark with the possibility that advisers would suggest NOT blogging. In my time I've received mixed reactions from a number of my professors, ranging from "you might get scooped" to "it's wonderful, it's part of the work of being a public intellectual! We have a tradition of that here!" (Luckily, that last one was my job market seminar adviser). I think in all cases, my best interests were truly at heart -- so regardless of the reaction, I think I was lucky there.

I wonder, too, if age has something to do with it. I like to think that because I'm relatively geong on geardum, so to speak, I've had to struggle more with my own self-consciousness and fear of failure. But then I remember that most academics are cut from a similar, and somewhat perfectionist mold, so that doesn't quite ring true either.

But Karl, you seem to have managed to break out of that trend effectively in a way I never quite have (although as I continue to be an academic I hope I do -- blogging as a practice seems to take more practice for me!). Do you have a sense of why ITM could be such a generative space for you?

Paolo> I love your idea that a blog could be away to trespass the very limit of the book and sharing the hidden part of the job. I feel like in some part, that's a lot of what Eileen and Karl and Jeffrey do so successfully -- they break down the forced finished-ness that a book seems to suggest simply by its being a book. (as to not getting your comments posted -- maybe our filters are being set off -- but keep posting! I've not seen any of your posts before, so maybe they're just slipping through a filter somewhere).

Alex> I quite like your idea as well -- the subject/time/interest oriented blog that isn't structured by department. As to ways of keeping blogging, I'm curious to see how my blogging goes this semester in part because I'm teaching so much (three courses plus a writing center gig). I found it easier to blog when I was talking to real live humans on a regular basis in the classroom -- something that being holed up in the library carrel/cubicle never seemed to do for me. As for blog ennui -- I tend to just let the silences linger as they will. I'm lucky because my co-bloggers are generally awesome about that. I like to comment on my co-bloggers' posts, but I don't always -- and in the past I've had a lot of trouble keeping up with conversations as they spin out over days and even (sometimes weeks).

Anonymous said...

I don't know that there's something intrinsic about the dissertation that makes it hard to share it publicly

I think there is, in fact, though this may be the UK perspective showing (in which case it would be useful to be called on it). The dissertation is supposed to be one's special project, making a contribution to research; this means, really, that it ought to be something no-one else has done or at least, not with these results. It's not that sharing such thinking would prevent that—but at such an early stage of the process, I think one fears finding that what one thought was work that did meet those criteria actually isn't in the views of its readers. It's a hardy dissertator who can take a public critique at such an early stage. But it's not just that, I think, but that the work is so inextricably tied up with one's academic identity at that stage, and indeed comprises almost all of it. Brashness is required to get that out in public and assert its importance I think, and that has to be learned for many of us.