Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writing, Just not Here

It has been well over two weeks since I last posted here, after expressing a hope that I would be able to write more frequently after my last post. Ah well, I recall hearing something about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

Most of the radio silence was caused by the fact that I was busting my behind to finish my second prelim—essentially our version of a master's thesis, I suppose. Anyway, it is a journal-length article that I am hoping to send out this month, meaning I'm not sure how much I will be able to commit to the blog in the near term. I did finish and defended last week, which was a huge relief. Although my committee gave me several great, albeit time-consuming, suggestions to make before I send the paper out for review, I am feeling really good about it. Now I hope that I can figure out how to incorporate all of the suggestions.

Passing this prelim made me step back and evaluate grad school. In part because I am looking to finish in the relatively near term, in part because this was the last bureaucratic hurdle (as in paper to get signed) to jump before moving onto my dissertation, and in part because it did feel like an accomplishment. Although completing my second prelim was considerably later in the timeline than it should have been, this was largely due to the fact that I have had several other opportunities along the way that have delayed this particular event but, I hope, have helped my career progress.

Thinking about this also made me realize that there is great advice out there about getting through grad school and different parts of the grad school experience. I realized one particularly salient suggestion from lmw's class on "Launching your Academic Career" which suggested: "Think about each step along the way and what issues you faced, how you handled them, and what you learned." Although I didn't write one out step-by-step, I was thinking that it might not be a bad idea to write it up now so that I can remember the pitfalls and get through the next several papers much more quickly.

It also made me realize how little instruction I have received on the "brass tacks" of writing. This is probably somewhat due to the fact that we all have our own styles of working and, to each of us, they all seem a little dysfunctional (see Impostor Syndrome). Part of it, I'm sure, is that there are, from what I can tell, deep divisions between the kind of writing for qualitative projects and quantitative projects[1]. I am lucky to have had the good fortune and opportunity to collaborate on projects with two different professors, so that I could see how it's done. This is obviously the best, but there are some basic things that seem to be fairly consistent and it just seems weird to me that this part of academia is kind of left hanging. For instance, we don't really have an academic writing course or a proposal writing course as part of the curriculum. Although lots of professors will incorporate this into their classes, there isn't anything going over the basics of how that is done in a systematic way.

Part of me also wonders if it is because writing has become so basic to many professors (and, even, advanced grad students) that it is easy to forget what it was like to learn to do these things. Like riding a bike - I can remember learning, but I'm not sure that I could teach someone now how to do it... Or learning to drive, things that are so basic I do them mindlessly now took a great deal of effort to learn (which, caused endless consternation for both of my parents as they were teaching, not SLAMMING on the breaks when I tried to stop). That's part of what I love about having both a grad student and larger community in the blogosphere—we get great advice on both levels. Now, I just need to be sure to do my part to contribute my fair share...

[1] In fact, one of the interesting criticisms given to me in my defense was that I was trying to combine a sociology focused on cultural analysis and one based on quantitative writings and my writing ended up falling, unsuccessfully, somewhere in between those two.


dr said...

I don't think I agree with your diagnosis of cause for the lack of writing instruction at advanced level. In fact, I think rather the opposite is true. It used to be that just about everyone who went to grad school had extensive training in writing, and this had partly to do with the fact that prospective academics used to be drawn from a much narrower class than they are today. In particular, the professorate was dominated by those children of the upper classes who preferred books to business.

(which is not to say that class is now irrelevant -- clearly it's still a very large factor. All and still the markings of class difference have changed, and the professorate is more open than it once was)

Anyway, it seems to me that with this history in mind it's easy to understand why training in writing wasn't bulit into the curriculum. In a word, it used to be reasonable to assume that any advanced student would already have had extensive training in composition and rhetoric. Nowadays, of course, we're at least a generation past the time when prospective professors could have been expected to have an education in letters. Which means that it isn't only the students who don't know how to write -- the instructors don't know much either.

Mike3550 said...

dr - That makes a lot of sense, and wasn't something that I had thought about when I was writing this. I don't want to sound like a necon radical, but I think that not teaching things like grammar, rhetoric and learning to do math by hand has, in many ways, hurt learning how things are done and the logic behind language, math and argumentation that facilitates learning other systems. On the other hand, learning rote grammar for years on end (which, I believe was the case in the generation you are discussing) is not any more helpful. Simply applying a rule is not the same as learning the structure of the rule or how to apply that logic and structure elsewhere.

But, I also think that, even without a grounded knowledge in composition and rhetoric, there are things that professors do almost as a second nature. While the quality of writing and composition might be lacking, professors do know--at least to some degree--how to turn ideas into publishable papers. Rather than having to think through every step of the process of what it takes to turn an idea into a paper or a book, they are able to grasp it as one whole. I guess this is what I meant with my analogy about learning to drive. When was first learning and wanted to change lanes, I had to go through a process of steps in my head: decide I need to change lanes, turn on my turn signal, look in my side view mirror, look over my shoulder, turn the steering wheel (but not too sharply), accelerate into the lane. Now, what used to take me a good several seconds of conscious thought I can do in half a second of unconscious thought if, for instance, someone slams on their brakes in front of me. If I were teaching someone to drive, it would be difficult for me to go back and retrace and tell them how to get through each of those steps.

All that aside, I agree with your larger point. I just think that there is a certain lack of pragmatism on the practical ends of getting research done that is missing in our training.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to hear more about the differences between quantitative and qualitative writing, if you have time. I'm early in a soc grad program, drawn to both, and don't really know what the differences in writing style are yet.

Mike3550 said...

Anon- Thanks for reading. Let me mull over it a little bit, because I think that it is something that shouldn't receive short-shrift and I'm not sure that I can do it justice without thinking about it more.

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