Tag Archives: Social media

Links: Distraction, Typographical Fixity, Tweeting Your Thesis

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.

The Faintest Ink

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.

Most of my links posts come from the range of links that I archive during my daily reading. But this one instead comes from something that came up in class and that was then reinforced by some comments in my Twitter feed. In my thesis writing course, we were recently talking about the perils of not writing ideas down when first they strike. In fact, I was stressing the importance of doing more than just jotting down an idea. In most cases, we need to elaborate on the idea so that it may be useful to us later; that is, we need to explain how that idea might play out or why it might ultimately matter or how it relates to our own work. It can be a pain to stop whatever else we are doing when inspiration strikes, but I have learned that finding an old idea without any elaboration is usually a baffling experience. It seems to be human nature to imagine that our future selves will have tremendous recall especially concerning matters that are clear to our current selves. Do you ever find these sort of cryptic notes in your files? ‘This connects to an earlier idea expressed by the second speaker in the fourth panel: it’s a dichotomy’. I made that up, obviously, but have a look at your own conference notes. Chances are, they are full of obscurity (this?), references requiring context (second speaker? fourth panel?) and words that fail to convey any enduring meaning (dichotomy?). It can be a painful experience to find one of these inexplicable notes. Imagine yourself triumphantly concluding ‘it’s a dichotomy!’ and obviously thinking that this was a valuable insight. And maybe it was, but now you’ll never know.

While I was reflecting on this issue, I saw a tweet from @RohanMaitzen that summed this phenomenon up nicely: “Now, if I could only remember why the word ‘superfluity’ seemed so important to my Eugenides review that I got out of bed to write it down.” She later tweeted that she had remembered the significance of superfluity, so her story has a happy ending. Shortly thereafter, I saw the following tweet from @thesiswhisperer: “I had 3 great ideas for my new workshop ‘If the CV is dead, what should I do?’ but was at gym and didn’t write it down. damn.” (I’m not sure how her story turned out, although I have every confidence that her CV workshop was great.) I even encountered a discussion of this phenomenon on Mad Men. In Season Three, there was an episode called ‘The Color Blue’ in which Paul woke up—hungover and still at the office—remembering that he had had a great idea for a campaign but with no memory of what it had been and, more significantly, with no written notes. Peggy encouraged him to tell Don the truth, and he reluctantly agreed, expecting a full measure of Draper scorn. But Don surprised him: he wasn’t scornful, he was sympathetic. The only explanation for this unexpected burst of human kindness is that even Don Draper understands that ideas get forgotten if they aren’t written down. The Chinese proverb that Paul quotes in despair is the perfect expression of this idea: ‘The faintest ink is better than the best memory.’

So, unless you have been granted a freakishly good memory, make it your basic assumption that you won’t remember later what seems obvious to you now. Write it all down with an eye to your future self: make sure that you note whatever you will need in order to work with this idea in a week or a month or however long it is likely to be before you’ll have a chance to return to this idea.

Finally, some related links. Here is a helpful blog post from The Thesis Whisperer with some guidance on how to use a notebook effectively during your graduate study. The ProfHacker blog recently addressed how to make notes on the go. If you are more likely to take notes on a computer or mobile device, here is an overview of Evernote, also from the ProfHacker blog. And if all else fails, maybe the post-it watch will help you when sudden inspiration strikes.

Links: Academic Blogging

First, before I forget: National Punctuation Day is coming up on Saturday. I confess, I was initially confused by this announcement because I was sure I had already mentioned this on the blog (and this blog didn’t exist last September). But I soon realized that I was confusing National Punctuation Day with National Grammar Day. Two totally different days. This blog probably isn’t the place to discuss how funny the ‘National [fill in the blank] Day’ phenomenon is, but I can’t resist. August 15th, for instance, is both National Relaxation Day and National Failure Day, a combination that sounds weird but actually makes sense in a mean, puritanical sort of way. It is also National Lemon Meringue Pie Day. Again, there is a certain logic: if you’ve ever made such a pie, you probably needed to relax afterwards and you may very well have failed. Here is a list of more of these special days (I was tired after reading just the month of January) and some discussion of the procedure for getting such a day recognized (just kidding, there is absolutely no procedure). But even though there are national days of many inconsequential things, this does not lessen the importance—the 365-days-a-year importance—of punctuation. I urge you to click here to learn more about its special day.

Now, on to today’s post. Since I have encountered a range of thought-provoking blogposts on academic blogging recently, I thought I would devote this post to that topic.

Here is a blogpost on the darker side of blogging by Jeffrey Cohen from the In the Middle blog. Cohen reflects on the challenges of maintaining an online presence; in particular, he does a good job articulating some of the hazards that arise when exposure exceeds accountability. Ultimately, he intends to continue to engage social media as part of his academic life, but he is clearly concerned that online negativity could eventually overwhelm the tremendous promise of online communities.

Here is a discussion in The Scholarly Kitchen on the state of blogging and how it is perceived. In this post, Kent Anderson discusses the lack of respect accorded to blogging. He provides a vigorous defense, concluding that the purported weaknesses of blogging may actually be strengths: “Like many disruptive technologies, a blog’s ‘weaknesses’—the quick-hit writing with links substituting for wordiness, the ability to generate content quickly, the ability to interact with an audience, the ability to write long or short, the embedded ability to link to and host multimedia, the participation of unexpected experts—are really its strengths.”

Finally, here is something on blogging from The Thesis Whisperer in which a guest author, Andy Coverdale, talks directly about the role of blogging in the life of a PhD student. In particular, Coverdale considers how blogging affects both his writing process and the potential professional reception of his work. This post is essential reading for any graduate students trying to evaluate the benefits and complications of adding blogging into their professional lives.

P.S. I just learned that today is National Pecan Cookie Day. Do with that information what you will—I know what I’m going to do!

Links: National Inquirer meets Scientific Research, Social Media and Academics, DIY Academic Sentence Generator

This article from Inside Higher Ed describes an attempt by the Association of American Universities (AAU) to defend scientific research from mockery and poorly informed funding cuts. Make sure you follow the link that the article provides to the Scientific Inquirer: it will take you to the inaugural issue of a faux tabloid that the AAU has created to show how easy it is to make valuable peer-reviewed research sound daft and wasteful.

Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on social media use among academics. The author summarizes a new report from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, a report which found that academics are using social media for “collaborative writing, conferencing, sharing images, and other research-related activities”. Interestingly, the researchers found that the biggest users of social media were scholars from the social sciences and humanities; they suggest that the appeal of social media for these scholars may be the increased speed of dissemination. The Scholarly Kitchen provides a nuanced and critical response to the study, focusing in particular on the fact that ‘social media’ has been defined so broadly in this study as to be potentially meaningless.

Finally, if you have some extra time on your hands this weekend, The University of Chicago Writing Program has a great game for you: Write Your Own Academic Sentence. Here is my first attempt: ‘The linguistic construction of the gaze invests itself in the historicization of agency.’ To get the full effect, you need to use the ‘Edit It’ option on your sentence. Once you are satisfied, you can even get a second opinion from a virtual critic: ‘Your desultory treatment of the linguistic construction of the gaze deserves the obscurity into which it has fallen.’ Hopefully, once you are done playing, you’ll be able to get back to writing sentences that don’t sound like this!

P.S. I mentioned the Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities project last week. If you are interested in seeing how this project is shaping up, you can follow blogs from all the participants here.

Links: English as a Lingua Franca, Commercial Manuscript Editing, Literature Reviews and Social Media

Here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the use of English as a lingua franca outside of English-speaking countries. It discusses many interesting issues–such as the cultural dimensions of communication–before concluding with a highly provocative point about the future of English. Although it is often assumed that being a lingua franca is a sign of linguistic vigour, some scholars suggest the opposite: that the English that is spoken as a global lingua franca may actually be a much reduced language and thus a vulnerable one.

This article from  Nature discusses the role of commercial manuscript editing. The author does an excellent job highlighting the various practical and ethical issues associated with commercial manuscript editing services. In doing so, she also tells us something about the priorities of scientific journal editors. These editors want manuscripts that they can send to reviewers without worrying that flaws in the writing will get in the way of assessment. But, interestingly, the flaws that worry them are not just grammatical; they are just as concerned about a poor mastery of the conventions of research articles. Novice academic writers need to understand what a manuscript must accomplish if it is to be considered for publication. The assessment ‘weak writing’ can be used to describe anything from punctuation difficulties to a poorly articulated methodology to improperly presented data; understanding the importance of all these elements will allow writers to see that the work of improving their writing will have to proceed on many fronts.  

Lastly, here is a blog post from The Thesis Whisperer about the similarity of literature reviews and social media. The specifics are Australian, but the general ideas about literature reviews are broadly applicable. And the social media analogy is clever. You really don’t have to be friends with everybody or every article!