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I was talking with one of my many dissertators the other day. She was worried because she had read a couple of texts, one article and one book, that purported to do what she herself planned for her dissertation. However, she discovered upon reading them that, in fact, they weren't doing anything like what she wanted to do. I think that she was concerned that she was going to have to conform to their particular approach and that subsequently she'd be doing something that she didn't like.

I relate this little story not to get people guessing about the person in question, although some of you might know who it is, but rather to relay some of the best advice that I received/absorbed whilst in graduate school myself. Namely,

The best thing you can find is someone or something to work against.

I mean "against" here in two different ways, both of which are captured by the supercheesy pick-up line "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" I wish I had a better example, but there you go.

One of the things that I've really been emphasizing over the past few years as a graduate instructor is the importance of visualizing (and spatializing) research networks. We speak of the importance of situating one's work, but I've really pushed at that to make it more concrete. In fact, it's been a few years now since I assigned straight-up seminar papers in my graduate courses. Instead I've tried to design courses and assignments that focus on certain elements of the scholarship process. Concept maps are probably my fave, as long-time readers will notice...

Anyhow, against is a word that suggests both opposition/distinction to and contact with someone or something, and for the texts that matter most to the work I do, I work against them in both senses. Most books start out weighted in one direction or the other, and the ones that I value most tend to balance out, as I see the weaknesses of the ones I like and the virtues of the ones I don't.

So yeah, find the stuff that you can work against. If I had rules, that'd be one of em.

That's all.


I would add as a slightly different but related truism: there are a lot of different ways to skin the same cat. I think that everyone working on a diss or a book or major project lives in terror of coming across a title that appears to be about the same topic. But there are a lot of ways to take different angles on something. We did a job search this year, and it was interesting to see how many of our top candidates were doing essentially the same thing but doing them just differently enough to be unique.

Every project is a snowflake, I suppose.

Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror wrote similarly not long ago.

(I may have been one of those snowflakes, speaking of spatializing research networks: Obviously I'm not quite finished yet).

It makes sense that researchers would be working on the same issues. That sort of congruence would seem to be the cornerstone of a disciplinary conversation. We in the humanities seem to labor a bit under the Romantic notion that we must generate wholly original work (whatever that means), but one of the things that is attractive about complexity theory is the way it views intellectual currents as systemic; concepts emerge through us as much as we generate them. (Gladwell has been discussing this of late.) Curiously, myself and some of the other people on the market this past cycle seemed to be addressing this subject in various ways—i.e., how coherent threads of discourse emerge from the discipline in a distributed fashion. And some of us were using related visual methodologies to do it.

(Incidentally, the piece of graduate student advice that most stuck with me is "I won't give you a dime for effort," the hard-edged cousin of Steve Jobs's "real artists ship.")

That is a very helpful way to put it. In fact, it reminds me of the Thesis Machine I learned from a comp prof several years back:
"A good many people/folks/scholars/pundits say ______________, but that overlooks/underestimates/disregards _______________, which is why I argue _________________."

Hi all. Fessing up to be the dissertator above, I love the link Jeff Atwood provided, and as a visual thinker, I am trying to create an image of my "arch-enemy" for my dissertation. If I had to name this arch-enemy at the moment, it would be called the "interpreter."

Here is what neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says about the hyper-rationalizing and power of the mind he dubs the "interpreter":

The same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the human left hemisphere has the interpreter. The left brain interpreter’s job is to interpret our behavior and responses, whether cognitive or emotional, to environmental challenges. The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. It is the glue that keeps our story unified and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. It brings to our bag of individual instincts the illusion that we are something other than what we are. It builds our theories about our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior seep into our awareness. [From a lecture by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Consciousness and the Brain.]

I am not sure what the interpreter would look like....Perhaps Edward Scissorhands, only instead of having scissors for hands, the interpreter would have pens or some other instrument for his incessant and destructive need to constantly speak for others, including images--the ultimate "subatlern" in our field (See WJT Mitchell).

Thanks for all the good advice...

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on March 27, 2009 8:35 PM.

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