This great article by John Plotz in the New York Times discusses the history of distraction. What I liked about the historical perspective—i.e., the evidence that people in monasteries and convents also suffered from acute distraction!—is that it emphasizes the need to accept and work through distraction. Our various devices obviously make procrastination easier, but they aren’t its sole cause. Solitary labours are difficult for most of us. When we go to Facebook (or wherever we go when the need for distraction hits) instead of working, we are often simply acting on a deep impulse for interaction and stimulation. I think if we treat distraction as inevitable rather than as failure, we are more likely to find ways to achieve a satisfying balance between contemplation and engagement.
Here is a discussion of the implications of the ebook format from Nicholas Carr writing in the Wall Street Journal. Carr’s interest is the potential for a lack of ‘typographical fixity’ (a phrase he borrows from Elizabeth Eisenstein) when a book is always up for revision. What are the proper boundaries of a book—what John Updike has called its ‘edges’—if there are no barriers to changing the text? In Carr’s words, we have shifted from ‘moveable type’ to ‘moveable text’. This shift may prompt us to ask ourselves a key question: if a book changes after you read it, have you still read it? For some readers, this question is bound to be perplexing and worthwhile; for others, it will sound like unnecessary hand wringing. Kent Anderson, writing in The Scholarly Kitchen blog, offers a critique of the hyperbole running through Carr’s piece. But I am still interested in what this ongoing malleability of text might mean for the psychological state of a writer. Carr’s article is called ‘Books That Are Never Done Being Written’. On the face of it, that’s not what most of us are looking for: an open-ended writing process in which revision never is, and can never be, complete!
As some of you will have seen, last week brought a flurry of activity under the #tweetyourthesis hashtag. I saw many beautiful but brief statements of research designed to be shared as widely as possible. I think brevity is a great thing in a context where length is the ultimate currency. (In the past, I have praised the Dissertation Haiku blog; its most recent entry is poignant as well as poetic.) Here is a discussion of how #tweetyourthesis came to be, and here is a somewhat critical response. Whenever someone says that good research cannot be summarized briefly, my heart always sinks a bit. Of course, good research cannot be completed without depth (and I would certainly concede that some scientific terminology may be truly incompatible with a limit of 140 characters ), but it seems terrible to say that you don’t have a good question if you can state it briefly.
Finally, Improbable Research identifies the best abstract ever. Go ahead and click the link—I guarantee you’ve got time to read it.
Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.