seven brief shining moments

“Sergeant, from now on, I don’t want anyone to come in and see me while I’m in my office. Is that clear?” — Maj. Major Major Major, Catch-22

Yesterday, for the first time in 15 months, I managed to completely clear my review queue.  For seven minutes, my reading choices needed to take no one but myself into account.  I considered picking up one of the new books in the teetering pile on my desk.  I pondered taking some of my more recent journals out of plastic.  Then I made the mistake of opening my e-mail to grab a forthcoming article I’d been meaning to look at. Rookie mistake.

Don’t get me wrong. I have moderately well-developed and  strict rules for saying “no” to review requests of various sorts, but it appears they need to be tightened. I’m considering adopting a modified Major Major (or perhaps Groucho Marx) rule, something like “I will only review for journals that don’t ask me to.”

I also had a longish talk with a talented undergraduate about the pros and cons of graduate school.  The two experiences got me thinking about occupations (like ours) that are about the development of expertise or (dare I say it) taste.  In academe skill and experience are inversely related to the average quality of the things one evaluates. 

Think about it. The first years of graduate school are typically an exercise in dismembering works that are hand selected to represent the best of the field.  After dispensing with the best work of the last few decades, people progress to dissertation research where they must ransack the literature on a topic. That task requires them to learn to draw quality distinctions among a wide range of pieces whose variance is nevertheless restricted by the simple fact that they are all published. 

With the first job, reviewing and reading of student work (e.g. draft dissertation chapters and master’s theses) increases. At some point in the career trajectory one begins to read more unpublished (and often unfinished) stuff than one does published, pre-screened stuff. That shift should be accompanied by a changed evaluative stance.

In the early years, critique is about identifying holes and mistakes that make ideas less plausible. In the later years, critique is about identifying the germs of ideas worth  development despite the current holes and mistakes.  The shift is subtle and took me a long time to identify. If I reviewed a piece of yours during my first couple of years as an assistant prof, my apologies.

This is what I was unable to get across to that talented undergraduate.  If you want to go to grad school because you just love tearing apart complicated ideas, then you may be setting yourself up for a fall. No good deed goes unpunished in academia. Demonstrating that you have the skills and taste to make and support quality distinctions among ideas simply guarantees that you will read more and more stuff that is less and less well-developed.

Written by jdos23

January 9, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Posted in academia

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Jason, somehow I missed this post (sandwiched between netflix and Kieran’s syllabus). I like the connection that you make between developing expertise in the field and “developing taste” because I think that the analogies between science and fields of cultural production are stronger than people think. In of Fabio’s early Grrrd Schlzzz Rlzzz posts, on diminishing returns to course taking, I brought up an issue related to that one that you talk about by analogizing to the (absent) role of (full time, paid) “critic” in science and how that can lead to perverse results. The reason for this is that it is easy for grad students to develop an expertise in the first sort of criticism “dismembering works that are hand selected to represent the best of the field,” but become so adept at it, that they become unable to produce anything on their own (because the critical voice inside their head rips apart everything they themselves write) or actually give useful feedback to other people. This would be OK, if we had full-time positions for unproductive critics, but alas, we don’t.

    I think that as you become a better producer of your own stuff you begin to treat the best stuff in your field (and you point out even stuff that it’s still unfinished) not as objects of purely negative criticism but also as object of a sort of constructive curiosity (how was this done and how can this be made better?). But my sense is that you develop the ability to see “the germs of ideas worth development despite the current holes and mistakes” only when you’ve already learned to give your own work that treatment (as most productive scholars ultimately do).



    January 17, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  2. Hey Omar. Interesting thought. I hadn’t imagined the problem of an over-developed internal critic. That’s mostly because I tend to believe that people give their own stuff a pass. I suspect that’s because it’s really hard to see when something that is clear in your head is unclear on the page.



    January 17, 2010 at 7:36 pm

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