meta: September 2005 Archives

The wheels they keep on turnin

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Coupla days ago, GZombie included me in a synthesis post collecting up some of us who have been talking about writing lately, and I've been meaning, since then, to take a crack at the questions with which he closes that post. To wit,

There are a few gaps between academic blogging and academic publishing, though:
  1. The length of your average blog entry is much, much shorter than an article or a book chapter. So how does one translate blogging the research into writing an article or chapter?
  2. Second, the pace of feedback in academic publishing is practically glacial. So how do you ignore the addictive qualities of instant feedback for the delayed gratification of print publication?
  3. Third, blogging does not involve much, if any, revision. Most of my non-blog writing lately is revision and expansion of things I've already written (though much of that expansion is brand! new! stuff!). So how do you simultaneously embrace the discipline of daily writing and the necessity of constant editing and revision?
Dear reader, I welcome--nay, I long for--your thoughts on these questions.

From the Department of Unintended Irony comes the excuse that part of why it's taken me a couple of days to respond is that I've been, yes, working on some writing that will make its way to a journal or book near you. And I suppose that this fact suggests the very gap that George is talking about. Nevertheless...

1. One of my answers to the first question is that I've never been very good at the straight article or chapter. I don't want to exoticize the writing that I do, because I manage just fine at generating the 20-25 page doohickey. But as an example, I'm just about at the point of sending an essay out for review. I've posted a draft of that essay here before, but I've also blogged a number of its constituents--the essay makes use of two different conference presentations, a couple of extended blog entries, and elaborates on some of the themes that I've blogged here and in my graduate course last spring.

A little more background on this: more than three years ago, I gave a conference paper at CCCC that argued that there was a tendency in our field to use that conference's program as a map of the discipline, and I was interested in articulating that argument (and ultimately refuting it). I was operating more on hunch than anything else, though, and in some ways that paper was looking for a theory that I didn't really find until I started reading network studies work almost two years later. Had I been blogging at the time (I didn't start until about 6 months later), I almost certainly would have been posting about the paper (as I did with my CCCC presentation this past year).

So maybe my answer is that the blog is a place where I can loosely join the small pieces, and the articles and chapters that I write are where they get joined more tightly and seamlessly. That's how it feels to me, certainly, with the essay I'm working on at the moment. Without the blog, though, I'd be a lot less conscious of that essay's genesis and the way that I've put together various smaller texts to arrive where I am right now. And in turn, I'd feel a lot less secure in advising the graduate students in my program about how to work.

2. Re feedback cycles, this is an easy one. Other than acceptance letters (which are almost always accompanied by revision suggestions), I don't expect feedback on the things I publish. That doesn't sound quite right--what I mean to say is that the publication process is not where I expect feedback to come from. The feedback I do get is from my friends who are commenting and suggesting (and sometimes praising) during the process, and so in that sense, it's a lot like blogging anyway.

If anything, blogging has made me more comfortable with putting draft materials out there to my network. The feedback that I get on this site is addicting in some ways, and so when I'm doing more "academic" work, I'm more likely to solicit response in-process as a way of simulating that bloggish feedback. Once upon a time, I wouldn't let people see my writing until I believed that it was "finished," an attitude that blogging has by-and-large cured me of. As a result, I get a lot more help while I'm writing (instead of after I've written) and the end-products are stronger, I think.

3. The third question is a little more difficult for me, because writing and revision are so thoroughly intertwined for me. Let me put it this way: when I came across Kathleen's entry last week, it resonated with my own experience, particularly the way that writing on a daily basis makes it easier for me to find things to write about. Not that I won't do it, but I don't like just doing "ditto" posts--usually my take is subtly different, or I've got something to add. And so in some ways, I revised her entry into something that I would say.

Not that her entry needed revision. But revision isn't just the correction of error or lack--sometimes it's just the ability to imagine saying something differently, testing the alternatives, whatever. And so, I find that a fair amount of the blogging that I do is indeed revision. What I am doing here but revising George's questions in a way that matches them up either to my own experiences or hopes?

This feels like a little bit of a stretch to me, but I'm going to stand by it, I think. Often enough, I open up my browser not with the idea of having something original to say, but with the intention of hitting Bloglines and posting about something that catches my eye there. My scholarly process is not all that different in some ways. I've never been good at being exhaustive in my coverage, or working really hard to be right. Often, I just try and work out the implications of a position, sometimes my own, sometimes someone else's. Sort of a "rather be interesting than right" thing. Although right doesn't hurt usually...

It occurs to me that I'm willfully misreading "revision" here, and perhaps that's so. Perhaps someone might look at my writing pre- and post- and say that I appear to be more satisfied with early draft work than I was before I blogged regularly. And perhaps that's true--I don't really know. Perhaps I'm more satisfied with my own voice as a result of blogging or less willing to engage in the kinds of painstaking revision necessary to remove that voice from the essays I send out. And if that's the case, then I don't have as much of an answer for question 3, I suppose.

There's certainly more to say, but that's all I've got for today...

Poetics of the Everyday

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Next time someone asks me why I blog or how in the world I have time to post regularly given all of the other things hanging over my head, this is the link I'll give them (to Kathleen):

No one attempting to be a pianist, whether professionally or for personal enjoyment, would assume that practicing once a month, fourteen hours a day, for three days in a row, would be better than practicing an hour a day, every day, rain or shine. Why is it that so many of us think of writing that way, as something that must be put off until there are huge blocks of time available?

The answer is a simple one. Pianists don't spend 3-4 months listening to performances by other pianists, only to find themselves booked for their own performance a week or so later. At least I hope they don't.

One of the things that continues to appeal to me about blogspace is exactly what Kathleen observes:

When I discipline myself to post something every day, or as close to it as I can, I find myself watching the world around me slightly differently, and treating my thoughts slightly differently, as though any occurrence or any idea might be capable of blossoming and bearing fruit. When I’m not posting, nothing seems worth writing about, just a bunch of dried-up seeds that’ll eventually blow away or be eaten by the birds.

And "discipline" is exactly the write rite right word here. The truth of the matter is that we are disciplined to do exactly the wrong thing when it comes to our own writing, and more often than not, I suspect that we replicate it. It's a particularly acute failure for those of us who study writing, because our disciplinary history typically casts as villain the "current-traditional" assumption that one learns to write by reading those who have written. And yet, how much better are we at teaching graduate students to do the kinds of writing they'll need when they leave our programs?

Not much. I've taken to giving an essay to my students, Paul Matsuda's "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student," from Casanave and Vandrick's Writing for Scholarly Publication (Amazon). What's important about the essay is that it narrates a process that's not about acquiring disciplinary content so much as it is learning about the conversations, about seeing publication as an ongoing process:

My goal was no longer just to publish but to respond to the conflicts, gaps, and discrepancies I perceived in the professional literature by contributing my perspective, which is informed by my inquiry--be it philosophical, historical, or empirical. I was no longer simply trying to express my ideas or to present the data I had collected by trying to engage in conversations with people in the field through my writing (49).

Remove the references to the specific disciplinary context, and what you're left with is a pretty sound description of the way that lots of people approach keeping a weblog. We also respond to the insights and wisdom we perceive--the one thing I'd change about that passage is the notion that writing only serves to address a deficiency, but then again, that's another of the ways that academia disciplines us to think about writing.

Maybe one of the things that disturbed me the most about the Tribble flap was that there was no room in his "analysis" for an awareness of the contribution that blogs might make to a person's development as a writer. For all of our consciousness about blogs, both in and out of academia, that's something that still goes largely unremarked. It shouldn't take us until well into our careers as writers to unlearn the implicit assumptions that we take with us from graduate school, and if weblogs can help in that process, more power to 'em.

That is far more than I'd originally intended, and thus, is all.



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