Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Perseverance and Writing Regularly, Part 2 of 2: Reading

I've gotten a fair amount of positive feedback on my previous post. And it seems that the blog post I was working on regarding connection, interface, and control has morphed into a much larger project: at least another article, but more likely, the start of an outline for my second book. It became clear pretty quickly that a blog wasn't going to be a workable platform for the material; it's deep, and needs footnotes and long arcs of theoretical unpacking. With that said, however, Posthuman Being will be a perfect space for me to explore singular aspects of what I'll be covering.  Anyway, in the process of doing some very preliminary research and preparation for the project, I started thinking about an aspect of the writing process that is all-too-often glossed over: reading.

I started thinking about a concept that had come up a few times in my research, but always as a tangent or "scenic route" in my line of argument. I had visited it a few times in grad school, but had more pressing matters at hand. And in my later projects, other deadlines always loomed which precluded anything but the straightest line through my points. I remembered a book that I had "read" in grad school by one of our faculty. And then, in that procrastinatory way, I did some googling to find out where the author was now teaching. This particular academic was a bit of an interdisciplinary chameleon: taking the shape of whatever department/institution in which he was housed. As far as I knew, he wasn't in my field, so to speak ... at least, the last time I had checked he wasn't. Until I found his faculty page.

And there it was: a description of his current work. And in a scant few sentences was the very preliminary and tentative thesis I had come up with as I was outlining my latest project. I had almost forgotten that terrible punch-in-the-gut feeling of seeing what you thought was an original idea already solidly articulated in someone else's words. With a grimace, I actually said, out loud, "FUCK! I've been SCOOPED!"

For those not familiar with academia, or just getting started as grad students, getting scooped is what happens when that "original" idea you thought you had -- generally the one on which you had psychologically banked all of your aspirations AND had, for a brief moment, made you feel like you weren't a total failure -- has been put forward by someone else. The first time it happens, it's just a terrible feeling. But you learn pretty quickly that getting scooped is actually a very good and necessary stage in research. It's a necessary lesson in humility, but, on the flip side, can also be a quite affirming thing. It means that the idea you've come up with not only had legs at some point, but that other people have already researched it, and thus have a treasure trove of new sources nicely listed for you in the bibliographies and works cited pages of their books and articles. I like to think of those bibliographies as maps. Others, as archeological layers that require excavation. Regardless, the only path through them is to read them.

When I returned to this particular scholar's book, I apparently had found some of it useful in grad school, since I recognized my own lightly-penciled notes in the margins. The reading process in grad school was always such a rushed affair. While I can't speak for all of my classmates at the time, I'm pretty sure most of us awkwardly and greedily blew through the majority of the books we read, trying to figure out where we would situate ourselves in our specific discursive landscapes. Other times, we scavenged, looking for the one or two quotes that said what we needed them to say to make us look not-so-dumb.

As Ph.D. students, we were required to have three reading lists, each consisting of 50-75 sources each. One list covered the theoretical/philosophical foundations of each grad student's field of inquiry; the second, the primary sources that demonstrated the particular movement, trend, or cultural phenomena the student was explaining; and the third, a more far reaching collection that points toward the potential future of the field. Theoretically, we were expected to have carefully read every one of those 150-225 sources. And comprehensive exams -- which had both written and oral components and was a process that covered about 3-4 weeks -- were questions based on those sources. In my program, once we finished the comprehensives, we were then "ABDs" and had license to start our dissertations, which, in most cases, were born of the written exams. "Reading for exams" was sometimes tedious and it was very difficult, for me at least, to remain balanced between taking detours based on other sources found in my main sources, and staying focused on my supposed research field. It was like the Scylla and Charybdis: On one side, you could be sucked down into the abyss of tangential reads, but on the other you could become too focused on a narrow question and have gaping holes in your research.

I remember little from those days, other than alternating bouts of deep anger and abject despair. When I leafed through the books I was reading at the time, I found all of my very heavy penciled underling  -- scratched into the pages with marginal notes consisting of "NO!" and "DEAR GOD!" and "WRONG" But then, in other books, the notes were far less angry. The lines, far less dark. The only place where there was any kind of emphasis was in the asterisks I put in the margin to designate that section as very important, or the repeatedly circled page number that indicated THIS was a place to concentrate. This was a part to transcribe word for word, longhand, onto an index card or sheets of note paper (I preferred the latter, since I liked to annotate my notes and then annotate my annotations). Those books rose to the surface. I found myself referring back to them more often. They became a center. The other, lesser books, orbited around them. Some of those books had other books orbiting around them like moons. It becomes a solar system of thought. And I began to see concentric patterns through various ideas. Some of them intersected predictably, as dictated by the sources themselves. But others, no. I saw intersections that others didn't.

The notes from those books became more involved and complicated. I started cross-referencing more and more. And I realized, fleetingly at first, that there was something that, maybe, possibly ... perhaps ... that these authors and legendary experts, might have, if I wasn't mistaken ... overlooked? Something as simple as a "slippage" of a term. Why did they use this word THIS way in this part of the paragraph but use it differently later? And why does the other author seem to be avoiding this "complicated" issue? And why has that author deferred analysis of an idea for "later research"?

And in my head (and on paper ... lots of paper), I started to sketch out, figuratively and literally, a network of connections among all of the most pertinent texts I'd read and the "gaps" and "slippages" therein. There were maybe a dozen or so books, articles, and chapters that were tightly woven together in the center of that much larger network. They were conversing with each other in ways that -- apparently -- only I could see. And I had to explain how they did, exhaustively, writing for hours spanning dozens of pages that would only be jettisoned later. But it didn't matter, because I had worked out the relationships among them. I explained how they were connected. And then I turned to the why ... taking on the role of meta-critic and fleshing out the academic and cultural reasons why those particular texts should be put in conversation with each other.

And then a member of  my dissertation committee asked, pointedly, "so what?"

Okay, allow me the indulgence of using a stream of consciousness here to represent a longer -- gut wrenching process -- with certain particulars purposely left out to better illustrate the flow:

BECAUSE IT'S AWESOME, that's why!  How cool is it that these texts intersect in these ways?! I mean, can't you see how awesomely cool this is?!  How all of this work has shown that all of these things are connected and that one can keep connecting the connections to see how they're all connected?!  I mean, really, I've been working so hard on this to uncover these there can't possibly be a reason why I'd spend all of this time and nearly push myself to the edge of death just to show you connections that don't matter ... at all ... to anyone ... but me. Kill me. I suck. You kind of suck, too. Because you let me go on and on doing all of this work as I found connections to connections and created all of this discourse just to be shown that it doesn't matter at all. Why did you let me keep going? As if YOU know anything about this anyway. What was the last text by A you ever read? And, by the way, your reading of B and C is completely off because you didn't notice that each is defining their terms slightly differently which shows a cultural predilection toward X cultural belief which is an unexplored area of Y that could explain why Z important intellectual/cultural/academic crisis is making people scratch their heads]. Oh, wait. That. There is that. Huh. That is kind of awesome, actually.

Again, the above intellectual, emotional, and psychological process spanned days -- if not weeks -- of consideration. But at the end of it and with another committee member's incredible advice, there it was: a research question; a working thesis. Ideally, it should have formed during my classwork. But sometimes -- especially for me -- it didn't work out that way. But my classes had given me a very solid theoretical foundation which helped me read more soundly, and with a better sense of where the text at hand belonged within the broader discourse. To some extent, however, from that point forward, everything that I read was a means to an end: always within the shadow of the research question/thesis I had posed -- All toward helping me answer the withering "so what" question.

Psychologically, there also comes a point when I had to take a stand and stop reading. This is a kind of compounded temptation, because: 1) I had become so used to analyzing text through my thesis that anything and everything could be connected to it, which, narcissistically, made me want to read more -- because it was just my own ideas being reflected back to me;  2) If I kept reading, I didn't have write. And writing is hard. Having the willpower to say "no" and stop ordering more books was one of the most difficult things to do. Especially since, once in a while, it was necessary to pick something else up -- especially if it was one that was named prominently by other authors in the network of texts I had. In my case, writing about technology made it extremely difficult to stop reading, because every year there were new innovations, and since posthumanism was an emerging field, there was always a new journal article or book on the horizon. Stopping to write was like pulling off the highway and watching everyone else pass me by. That's where all that perseverance comes in.

I recently met with a student getting her entrance essay ready for grad school. She was struggling with something related to getting scooped: feeling like everything had already been said, and that there was nothing new to say. I told her that I like to think about academic discourse in cartographical terms: each field is a larger territory on a map. There are a network of highways through them. When you first start out, it's like getting onto a gigantic eight-lane highway: a mass of people are all moving well-travelled roads in the same direction. But as you travel farther, you turn off the main highway onto smaller ones, with less traffic. Eight lanes become four; four lanes become two. The further you go, the less traveled the road, until the pavement ends and you're on a dirt road. Even further, you end up on foot and on a trail. Some even go off-trail and explore. There will almost always be a few others around, but really, you can't get to your master's thesis or your doctoral dissertation without having to travel some well-worn roads to get to your little clearing within a larger territory. For me, I didn't just teleport to posthumanism (neither did any of the others in my field). It started with the superhighway of English, then into the still-giant highway of literary theory, then forked into philosophy, then into existentialism, which sent me on a very scenic path through the philosophy of technology, and then there I was, along with just a few other souls, who got to posthumanism through very different routes, but all of those routes were marked by the roads becoming smaller and less-travelled.  And as for the occasional moments of getting lost, backtracking, and jumping back on major roads, well, that's part of it, too.

This November will mark nine years since I finished my Ph.D. The work didn't stop when I was done. I honed my dissertation down into something much better. I once again had to answer the "so what" question to my editor. I was also in the unique position of writing on something with which the editorial board was unfamiliar. I got an email that basically said, we're on the fence. Can you convince us why we should publish it? I crafted an email in one sitting that was my strongest writing ever. It was clear, focused, and disciplined. And it, with the exception of fixing a few typos, became verbatim the preface of my book. And it was, essentially, the answer to "so what?"

Now that it's clear that I'm starting to write another book. But within the process of writing is reading. The process is different his time, in that I already know the answer to the gut-wrenching "so what?" question. And, man, it's awesome. But I also know that I have to read so much more. I can only cover the same ground for so long, and the evolution of my ideas needs mass quantities of discourse to feed it. The great part is that now, I don't have to read under grad school or probationary faculty pressures. This journey is definitely my own.

Sometimes I think that people outside of academia think that academics produce thought -- out of nothing. That we just walk around, see something interesting, and say, "hey, I'm gonna write all about this," and just sit down and start writing another book or article. But, to produce, one also must consume. And, for an academic, we must consume much more in proportion than what we produce. Just pick up any academic book and look at the bibliography. Yes, all of that is what that particular author had to read in order to give you the one book you're holding in your hand. All of those texts were points on a map.