Related Pages »

Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers October 2006

vol. 2, no. 10

I was thinking yesterday about how important it is to stop writing on the computer sometimes. Although computers facilitate the drafting and editing process, they frustrate the structuring process. Something about a computer screen helps us to see problems with individual words and sentences, but prevents us from seeing solutions to structural problems. Fortunately, the solution is easy. Print the article out!

I often find that, when I start feeling overwhelmed by a piece of writing, printing the article out and reading it with a pen in hand makes the way through clear. I can much more easily see what paragraph needs to move where, what paragraph needs to go next, what paragraph needs to be deleted, and what paragraph needs to be restuctured around the argument. I don’t know why a print out helps to make such problems visible, but it does. So, if you find yourself spinning your wheels at the computer, try going analog!

On Neuroses and Hang Ups

Flourish reader Angela Jamison kindly forwarded the following classic article, written in 1966, which starts as follows:

“All of us involved in graduate education have watched the agony of many students choosing a dissertation topic, getting ‘hung up’ in the middle of the project, stopping work in black despair. And we have watched either ourselves or our colleagues refusing to send a paper to a journal editor in order to ‘perfect’ it—and then sitting for days in front of the paper doing no perfecting, in an impotent anxiety stupor.

"Most of us also have had bright daydreams of universal acclaim, of the non-existent book review that starts: ‘this is a great book,which will revolutionize the discipline …’ And we have had the conviction, in dark moments, that all our efforts are play-acting for the petty rewards that universities dispose. We have known people, or are people, who are excellent scholars who never manage to finish anything. We have seen brilliant cocktail-party sociologists or biologists be let go for ‘not producing.’

"In short, we have seen every conceivable neurotic symptom interfere with our own and others’ research. In hardly any other profession do neurotic problems incapacitate so many people such a large part of the time. I would guess that such mental health problems add an average of a year to the Ph.D. program, mostly in the dissertation ‘hang up.’ Even among those who get a research degree and are recommended for scholarly promise to leading univerities, a very large percentage of assitant professors fail to do enough to justify keeping them on. Those who have already done research quite often cannot do it again.

"What is it that a person has to do to produce new knowledge? The crucial peculiarity of research is that one has to choose an objective for onself, and motivate onself by that objective alone. Only rarely does someone else choose the objective, and even more rarely is there a series of definite obligations to deliver results by specified dates. Creative scholarship would not give the desired results if arranged as a job with specified obligations. But this means that only a person’ own conviction that the result will be worthwhile is available as a motivation. [This] … is a weak reed to sustain a year or two of drudgery. There is … little short-term reward …. to sustain the effort.”

Arthur L. Stinchcombe, “On Getting ‘Hung Up’ and Other Assorted Illnesses: A Discourse Concerning Researchers, Wherein the Nature of Their Mental Health Problems Is Discussed and Illustrated,” Stratification and Organization: Selected Papers, ed. by A. L. Stinchcombe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 271-281.

Resources

Good books about the process of academic writing and being a professor are available through a number of presses. Check out some of my favorite series:

Sage Publications

University of Chicago Press

News from the Editor

I am back from Norway after three weeks of facilitating writing workshops with faculty at the University of Bergen in social anthropology, comparative politics, and geography. We had a wonderful time together, learning a lot from each other. Among a myriad of topics, we talked about whether one had to have an argument to get published in social anthropology, about the importance of publishing political science textbooks through African presses even though such publications “count” for so little in academia, and about how long a geography article and title could be. I spent most of the time in beautiful downtown Bergen, enjoying the cobblestone streets, sparkling fjords, and clear light into the evening, but one of the geographers graciously gave me a tour of ancient farmhouses and modern metal manufacturers, a splendid overview of Norwegian production over the last several centuries.