Don’t Expect the Writing to Be As Clean As the Written, Composing, 12/04/2018

In his book about Deleuze’s early development as a thinker, Michael Hardt discusses an insightful comment Gilles makes. It’s a notion that a lot of folks in academic university culture need to remember, especially in the humanities where rhetoric and argument is so much a part of our methods.

There's a distinction between inquiry and presentation. Inquiry is the process of conceiving, researching, and composing a project or some other piece of work. Presentation is the finished product.

Preparing a massive research and writing project is, oddly enough, a
difficult task that isn't perfectly conceived at the beginning. You'd
think that would make sense to people. Maybe it does, but they
don't actually care.
Presentation is a polished, detailed, clear expression of a complex research program and argument. The inferences have been ordered so that each step in the argument flows sensibly from what’s come previously. All the empirical studies supplement and ground the more conceptual parts in an elegant structure.

Inquiry is a great bloody chaotic mess. You redefine the scope, aims, and likely conclusions of the project several times over as you do research. Some angles and sources are thrown out entirely as irrelevant in the light of other discoveries. An argument that you think is going to flow in one direction ends up utterly rearranged. Inquiry is a state of flux.

It sounds so sensible. It sounds so obviously true. It makes perfect sense. So why do so many academics, in my experience and in the experience of many other people, ignore it?

I’m speaking to my experience mostly in philosophy circles, where a bit more emphasis is put on argument than in other disciplines. But I move in pretty interdisciplinary circles today, and what I’m about to describe is pretty common across the humanities and social sciences.

A younger student comes to a more experienced professor, or to a group of her peers, for advice about a project in progress. She lays out the skeleton of an argument, what some of her main sources are so far, what empirical content is coming into play. She asks for advice.

Throwing around thousands of ideas – about research, examples,
empirical evidence, inference, argument structure, order of
presentation, concepts themselves – is part of writing. So why don't
people criticize an ongoing project as if it were actually an ongoing
project? Why do people not see the mess?
But she gets hit with verbal axes. Her messy, still-uncertain project that still has plenty of loose ends get hit with ruthless criticism. None of it is helpful. It’s all phrased to make her project seem inadequate, like a waste of her time. Instead of helping her to understand a difficult landscape, her superiors and colleagues berate and belittle her for not understanding her project.

They’re treating an inquiry as if it was the presentation. A messy project in progress as if it was a polished final product. This even though she introduces her material with countless qualifiers – it’s a work in progress, she’s looking for advice, looking for any blind spots she may have, any research directions that may turn out to be blind alleys for her priorities.

Instead, her colleagues and superiors are more concerned with scoring points. Making themselves look good by making her look bad. Feeling better about themselves by cutting someone else down.

All too often, this is how academicians treat each other. I described it in self-consciously gendered terms because it does – on balance – happen to women much more often than to men. But it happens to men too. It happens to anyone who looks vulnerable in a research community where knowledge is seen as a battleground for prestige.

Do you do it for the letters after your name? For the professional designations to list after your email signature? We should be doing it for the progress of human knowledge. Typical humanity, we so often fall short of what we claim we’re doing because we aren’t really doing what we claim.

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