Good scholarly habits

My dear friend Tierney Wisniewski, this website’s cofounder and coeditor, has started up a new blog devoted to her scholarly work and how she gets it done. I love her inaugural piece, “Good Scholarly Habits.” Tierney writes with great clarity and openness. It is a wonderful gift to have in her field (and in any field). Tierney describes a back-and-forth she had with scholar Raul Pacheco-Vega regarding … time, basically, how much time is spent on reading, how much on writing, how much on thinking.

I had always struggled with getting myself to do things, and even to know what it was that I wanted to do. What I learned from my theoretical framework (self-determination theory) was that you can’t make yourself do anything. Oh sure, you can for a short while, but it always falls apart. You’ll find a way to cheat the system, as I did when I hid a book inside my textbooks to drag out my homework. You’ll skip the parts of the process that are crucial but that no one will reward you for. And you will never be happily productive.

That’s why reading productivity books never made me more productive; I was targeting the wrong part of the process. I first had to find a meaningful-to-me reason to be productive, and then I would willingly experiment and adopt whatever habits and methods seemed right for me. And I had to continually reinforce my own reasons over the “pressure trap,” which is (I realize now) why GTD [Getting Things Done] incorporates a frequent review of visions and goals.

Why are we really doing this? Surely it isn’t to get straight A’s, get into a grad program, or get tenure. Surely it’s because, deep down, we love this work and we want to keep doing it. We should start by making sure we keep the work lovable.

One thing that seems to help is the idea of prep work as streamlining, and this is what Raul was getting at with his admonition to read lots and write only as much as you have to.

Don’t think with your fingers

Biographer Robert Caro’s books are marathon-long, though very much worth the time it takes to read them. His laceration of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” is almost 1300 pages. In a wonderful interview published in The New York Review of Books, Caro notes:

The finished version I gave to my editor […] was about 1,050,000 words. That was a polished finished version, not a draft. The book you read is roughly 700,000 words […] the maximum that [my publisher] Knopf’s production people felt they could get into a trade book.

At the time, I asked, “Can’t we do it in two volumes?” Bob Gottlieb [my editor] answered, “I might get people interested in Robert Moses once. I could never get them interested in him twice.”

The amount of research – reporting, reading, interviewing, digging, and corroborating – that goes into Caro’s books is gargantuan. I literally cannot imagine how a person can get such work all done with such intelligence. Surely, then, he must *write* with unbelievable speed. No.

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down.

I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Prime Yourself

There needs to be two of you: you and “you prime.” The latter is an heuristic entity brought into being by you for the purpose of protecting and orienting you.TigersAtBronxZoo

Your “you prime” makes the hard decisions – saying no to friends, curtailing vampiric commitments, enforcing skeptical habits of mind, and keeping you safe – when you are, for any reason, disinclined to do so.

This little bit of as-if – this guardian phantasm – is a nifty trick, I have found, and good mental hygiene.

Practice

As a teacher and as an editor, my counsel to students and writers often seems too obvious even to say. For instance: “You can’t complete a large project in a short time. Proceed bit by bit” (or “bird by bird“).

I have found, though, that repeating such counsel, many times, loudly and then quietly, and in different contexts, can reduce its obviousness to reveal its plain urgency.

What is more obvious than “practice something to get better at it”? Here is my friend Jonathan Mayhew in a post called “Jazz Piano” from his superb blog “Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get It Done“:

Every thing begins with an idea. I have always wanted to play jazz piano, and now I am doing it, albeit at a lowish level. I see no possibility of getting worse with practice. There will be a plateau or two, with steady progress between the plateaux, and then a point at which I won’t get better.

It strikes me that the key with these kinds of things is neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the difficulty of it. If you think it is going to be easy, then it is easy to get frustrated. If you think of it is impossible, then you won’t even imagine doing it. My approach is just to get lost in it when I am doing it. I could spend 15 minutes trying out variations of a few chords. The other day I closed my eyes and I could still play some of my songs fine.

Most things, you can probably do. Ride a bike, make ceramics, or grow plants. If you are interested enough in it, that is. I am quite sure that I could be a crossword puzzle constructor. Some day I’ll want to do this, though not now.

Mayhew’s blog slices into the topic of practice again and again – lucid, brilliant, entertaining, and always very useful variations upon a theme. It is profound stuff. What one says about getting better at playing piano, writing books, constructing crossword puzzles – one is saying about living life.

“I see no possibility of getting worse with practice.”

Smart/Dumb

In my profession some colleagues believe that marking hard – giving more D’s than B’s, for instance – correlates with a high level of “rigour” in teaching. To my mind, though, there is often no connection between grade distribution and rigour. If you are handing out a dozen D’s, you need to look at both the quality of instruction and the level of preparation students have received prior to taking that course; something is wrong.

The most “rigourous” – that is, demanding and detailed – professor I ever had was Lionel Abel. He gave everybody A’s, yet almost nobody took a class from him more than once. He was too tough. He would read student essays aloud in front of the class and make brilliant if sometimes lacerating comments. One time he stopped after reading just the first paragraph and gazed, smiling, at the lady who wrote it, asking, “Did you take Freshman English?” She nodded yes, turning red. “Did you pass?” I had to look away. Abel finished his analysis of her work by writing a big A on the student’s front page.

I didn’t receive similar treatment until my second class with Abel. “Mr. Basil, do you mind if I read your T. S. Eliot essay in front of the class?” I said I would be pleased. Then the professor added: “May I be frank?” What could I say but yes? The professor showed the first page of the essay to the class, with several words circled. “I believe that you don’t know what these words mean,” he said, then went through them, one by one. It was very embarrassing. After class Professor Abel told me that I was trying to sound smarter and more educated than I was: a foolish endeavour, which made me sound dumb. “Don’t approach great poetry with big statements; come to it with questions. You’re never dumb when you ask questions.”

From that moment I resolved never to be embarrassed to be the “smart dumb person” in the room, asking questions when no one else raises their hand. At the very worst, this is entertainment for my colleagues. To my mind, it is also essential mental hygiene.

A lovely Lionel Able quote: “We realize we have made a friend when in a relationship we are able to suppress that special disappointment which follows getting to know him, her, anyone – even oneself – well.”

It is sweet to remember those first resigned sighs, from my loyal friends. The essence of friendship is neither correction nor therapy.

The New York Times titled its obituary of Lionel Abel “The Last Bohemian.”

reposted from basil.CA

Mental Hygiene

In a post called “Cognitive” my good friend Jonathan Mayhew explores one of NoContest’s recurrent themes:

There is the idea that you can prevent decay in cognitive function by doing inane, mindless games on the computer, such as those peddled by lumosity.

I do the NY Times Crossword most days, and usually try to use five minutes per degree of difficulty (Monday 5, Tuesday 10, Wed. 15, etc…). I do a puzzle called kenken as well. Then I compose music or work on previous compositions. I try to work on my research every day, not breaking the Seinfeld chain. I have to figure out how to teach what I know to groups of students…

I have another goal of being able to read novels in all the romance languages. That’s another cognitive stretch. If someone can find me a novel in Rumanian or Provenzal I would appreciate it.

Really, though, my whole life is devoted to the cultivation of intelligence. That’s all I’m about. There are two or three ways of doing this. Learning to do novel tasks stretches the mind in different ways. So I have tried to teach myself to draw, to compose music, to read Italian. Delving deeply into a subject matter that is not novel, that you know very, very well, is also good. So writing a third book on Lorca… A third way is to solve puzzles or memorize poetry.

I hate that this sounds arrogant, but if I am intelligent it is because I do these things, not the other way around. If I am stupid about other things, it is because I haven’t cultivated thoses sorts of intelligences. Put me in a home depot, and I am a blithering idiot.

Jonathan’s blog is one of the best places in cyberspace. You need to put it in your feed.

The Muse

Cover of "Treat It Gentle," Sidney Bechet's beautifully written autobiography

Cover of “Treat It Gentle,” Sidney Bechet’s beautifully written autobiography

I’m not a great creative individual by any stretch, but I do respect my muse and do *not* screw with it.

My friend kat passed along this letter by musician Nick Cave, which he wrote to MTV in 1996, in which he explained that his muse was “not a horse.”

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

Clarinetist Sidney Bechet called his marvelous memoir “Treat It Gentle.” The “it” wasn’t his instrument, or his or another person’s heart (oh, he was rough with those!); it was his muse, the mysterious source of his musical invention. That book scared the shit out of me. I know exactly what Cave means, above.

repost from basil.ca