Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Shaking the habit

As I am ever faster approaching the end of my time as a master student, I naturally become more reflective of times past. Not only because these times are soon to be irrevocably over for my part, but also because others are bound to begin the same journey soon enough. It's an integral aspect of institutionalized education - there have been others before you, and there will be others after you. The show doth go on.

Part of this process is seeing young ones (they do get younger every year) enter into university life and encountering everything for the first time. And second time. And a lot of times until they, probably, hopefully, possibly get it. Or get a degree, whichever comes first. Their path is as personal as it is predictable - first comes the obstacle of getting into reading, then the obstacle of getting into writing, and somewhere along the way it all translates into getting into thinking. One step at a time, until either understanding or degree undergoes the formality of actually occurring.

I don't say this to imply that bachelors leave with a partial understanding of whatever field they've studied. Everyone has a partial understanding of everything - the world is to big for it to be otherwise. Rather, what I mean to imply is that there are habits that one gets into that one does not necessarily get out of. The most prominent of these habits is to write in the way that is demanded by the university system - particularly, in a way that shows you have actually read the literature on the syllabus. It is an easy habit to get into, seeing as it keeps graders off your back. However, it takes work to get out of this habit once the need for it has passed.

Like, say, after graduation.

The reasons for teaching such a style of writing are many, but most of them relate to a vaguely protestant notion of having Performed the Work. Thus, it is routinely demanded that students include page numbers whenever they refer to an author, rather than just make the reference in general. The only way to actually have a page number on hand, it is assumed, is if you have the opened and read book right there in front of you. This goes for every reference at all times, meaning that writing becomes an bibliographically exhausting (not to be confused with exhaustive) effort - every time an author is mentioned, there has to be a page number to go along with it. To show that you indeed read the book.

If you at this point are having flashbacks to your university days, I apologize.

Thing is. Unless you are doing heavy duty exegesis where every word has to be read and understood in context, there is no reason to write like this outside of the educational setting. It is sufficient to give an account of what the author wrote, get the year of publication right, and move along with whatever argument you are trying to make. Especially if you are trying to tie several authors' lines of thought together - the overall thrust of your discursive momentum is sufficient to give context to your writing, and the addition (or, as the case might be, subtraction) of page numbers will not substantially contribute anything.

The same tendency can be seen, albeit writ large, in comprehensive introductions which mention every author in the field before getting to the topic at hand. This is an excellent writing strategy if you need to convey that you have read about a number of theories and can place them in a proper context. It is a less than excellent strategy if you want to write a compelling introduction which gets right to the heart of things.

There are a number of these habits that gets drilled into you during your university years. Most of them are there to make you easier to evaluate (and subsequently grade), others are accidental. Some are even useful. The key to moving forward is to take a look at oneself and assess which habits still serve a purpose, which have to be unlearned, and which have to be kept in a state of being just remembered enough so that you can give useful advice to new students upon encountering them. The goal, of course, being to nudge these young fellows toward the habit of thinking, rather than settling for a habit of performing.

The show doth go on.