When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

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Clearing the decks

Yesterday I finished a draft of a chapter for an edited volume. I have asked a friend to look it over and will likely submit it in the next few days. Next week I will give a keynote address at a conference. And with that, I will have cleared my entire academic to-do list, at least in terms of fresh work. There will be various requests for revisions, copy-editing queries, etc., but the part that requires the most energy is done.

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The bugbear of consistency

This morning I wrote a review of Carlo Salzani’s excellent new book Agamben and the Animal, which is a kind of critical rewriting of The Open, more explicitly grounding it in Agamben’s previous work and more directly engaging with animal studies scholarship, in order to find the Entwicklungsfähigkeit of his admittedly limited and anthropocentric approach to non-human animal life. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of the topics addressed.

One issue that Carlo’s book brings up is the question of consistency and continuity in Agamben’s work. Most Agamben scholars maintain, almost axiomatically, that Agamben’s work is remarkably consistent and continuous. Quarrelsome person that I am, I went so far as to write an entire book arguing that his project evolves and changes over time. Ultimately it may not be very important for interpreting or applying his ideas — certainly I’m not arguing there’s some kind of radical break where he explicitly renounces earlier work. And admittedly, one point the continuists have in their favor is the fact that it’s clearly very important to Agamben himself to see his own work as consistent and continuous. After completing the Homo Sacer project, for instance, he very explicitly returned to earlier themes and even dug up some unpublished (or, in the case of Taste, underpublicized) writings from very early in his career. When I interviewed him in preparation for my book, he gave me a great line that I have quoted at every opportunity: when he reads his older work, he notices that his more recent concepts were somehow already present there, but “I didn’t know it at the time.”

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The last stage of writing is decathecting.

Going over my Agamben manuscript yesterday, I found myself unaccountably depressed. More than most of my other books, this was purely a labor of love. I don’t think I need to establish my expertise in Agamben at this point, nor do I especially urgently need to add another item to my CV. I wrote it because I had done the chronological read-through project, because I had the opportunity to meet him, because it just felt like time. And as I was going through the text, there were so many layers of good memories — of the first time I read the texts, the reading groups I had done, the chronological read-through itself, the events in Toronto and Prague where I tested my ideas, my conversation with Agamben, the vacation to Venice it made possible, and the writing process itself. The latter was sometimes a struggle, as I was pushing myself to complete the manuscript over the course of an abbreviated summer vacation, but it was also a joy, as I continued to find new creative connections.

All those good memories and associations, though, only served to highlight how much of a slog the editing process was and how little connection I felt to the intellectual energy and excitement that had gone into it. And it strikes me that something similar happens every time I put a book out — getting it out the door means losing that connection to it as a living process. An intellectual adventure runs aground in trying to make sense of formatting requirements and filling out forms. The production process only redoubles the alienation, as copy-editing, proof-correction, and (above all) indexing reduce the manuscript to gibberish in our own minds, a pile of potential errors and clarifications and oh my God why did I use this stupid concept so often.

In the cold light of day, I recognize that this process of decathecting is necessary — even a mercy. It helps us to let go of the project and hand it over to the reading public, who will make of it what they may. And it gives us permission to be done, at long last, as we realize that, even if this book could in principle be improved, we are not in any condition to make those improvements. We only really know we’re finished when we can no longer bear to look at the thing.

Academic writing tips

Approach the page with trepidation. Writing is a miracle of creation ex nihilo; to begin to write is to take a step off a precipice. There may be nothing there to stop your fall.

Procrastinate until you are too tired not to write, until it is easier to write than to defer writing.

Wait until the last minute; let panic be your engine.

Edit as little as possible. What is written is written, fallen from the womb ready to breathe and scream and fend for itself; tinker too much and you will deal only death.

Move to a new place regularly; after a day or two of increased productivity this place too will be steeped in struggle, despair, and suffering. Writing will hang heavy in the air whenever you return. It will weigh you down.

The page is a wall; throw yourself against it until you are bruised and defeated.

Do not give up on your desire.

How I do reading notes

A Facebook friend asked how I go about taking reading notes, and I thought it might be worth a blog post. At a certain point in my academic career, I noticed that I was wasting a lot of time flipping futilely through books looking for the quote I just knew was on the left-hand page, etc. When it came time to write the Zizek book, I realized that my previous “method” of “just remembering” was not going to work. So I went through all the Zizek books I planned to use and transcribed quotes, with some notes about why I thought something was significant, how I might use it, how it connected to other points, or whatever. The result was a searchable text that I could largely use to write without referring back to the physical books — and even better, the result was that I had thoroughly digested the arguments in each book in a way that I never could have otherwise.

My goal in taking reading notes is to generate a similar document on whatever I’m reading. I do not do them for everything I read, but only for things I plan to draw heavily on or anticipate making repeated use of. One of my most systematic projects was generating reading notes over the classics of “political theology,” for instance, and I have used them many, many times. I literally have not cracked open The Kingdom and the Glory to look for a quote in three years, thanks to those notes. I don’t transcribe literally everything I underline, and in many books I wind up just describing what they talk about on given pages or ranges if it’s not something I anticipate making fine-grained use of. If I turn out to be wrong, I at least have a guide to where to look in the text.

My original Zizek notes were divided into four Word documents, corresponding to the main chapters in which I planned to address each book. Now I use Scrivener, and in fact it’s the only thing I use Scrivener for. The text editor in the PC version is clunky and not very full-featured, and the footnote functionality is simply unacceptable to me, so I don’t find it helpful for actual composition. What it brings to the table is the ability to group together an arbitrary number of texts (as long as they’re part of the same “project” — I just put everything into one big “project”) and search them all at once. So let’s say I remember Schmitt said something but don’t know what book. I can just group together my pages for each of Schmitt’s books and search them in one go. I guess I could solve this by putting all of the Schmitt stuff in one file, but then I lose the ability to easily search each text in isolation. I don’t know of any way to duplicate this functionality in any other program.

Depending on how much detail I want to go into, I can usually get through 50-100 pages of the original book in an hour. It’s tedious and in many ways mechanical, and for me that makes it the perfect research activity for the school year. It doesn’t take the energy and creativity of original writing, but it allows me to systematically prepare for writing, for both the short and long term. I don’t do it for every text I plan to use — especially for pre-modern primary texts, I tend to prefer to have the book out in front of me, though I’m not sure why that difference exists — but I always find it a helpful exercise whenever I wind up doing it.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have a note-taking system?

Since I gave up hope, I feel a lot better

A major writing project is a strange emotional journey. When you’re writing a paper or a blog post, you can often let your excitement about the idea carry you. I try to convince my students not to wait around for inspiration, but within limits, it can work for short projects. Such a strategy is not possible for a longer piece of writing, however. Even if you are unusually prone to “inspiration,” you are mostly deprived of the excitement of newness.

Routinization is the only way to make progress, and that leads to a growing disconnect between your writing process and your emotional state. You can no longer trust your own judgment about the project on a day-to-day basis — you have to trust your original concept and the plan you’ve devised to execute it. You have to be able to meet your wordcount even on those days when you are fully convinced that your project is utter nonsense that no one will read and everyone will mock and revile. Only then have you really become a writer.

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How do you write?

In the last few days, I’ve talked with a couple colleagues who have very different approaches to writing, from me and from each other. One always seems to have reams of material on hand, which he shapes into books and articles. Another seems unable to produce much other than in marathon sessions where he winds up generating a super-abundance of material that then needs to be vastly cut down to fit within the bounds of the project he’s working on.

My technique is much more systematic and goal-oriented than either. I rarely produce academic writing purely “on spec,” without knowing what project it’s contributing toward. Even with the devil book, which is strangely the first book I’ve written without having a contract in hand (or the need to produce a dissertation), I’ve had a specific publisher in mind the whole time and have been in dialogue with the editor. I’m also much more regimented in my approach — I typically have an overall outline in mind and try to write one section of a chapter each day while I’m writing, in such a way as to set up the next section. This usually results in me writing just the right amount, with very little unused material left over.

I developed my approach under the emergency conditions of trying to write Zizek and Theology between my coursework and qualifying exams. I spent a couple days “writing all day” — i.e., dicking around most of the time and feeling guilty I wasn’t writing — and realized that was not going to work. I stumbled onto the approach of more focused sessions of two or three hours, devoted to one specific step in my argument. I also found that to make the process sustainable day-to-day, I sometimes had to force myself to wait until the next day to write the next section, because when I did too much one day, I normally paid for it with a totally lost day soon after.

I’ve been operating under those emergency measures ever since, and it’s worked pretty well. My method has proven adaptable to talks and articles, and it got me through a dissertation, a trilogy of shorter books, and it’s now serving me well for the devil book so far.

I have nagging doubts, though. I wonder if my thinking is becoming too regimented along with my writing technique. I wonder if I would benefit from a more open-ended approach, or even from the occasional marathon session — arguably the best chapter of Politics of Redemption, the Anselm chapter, came out of an uncharacteristic marathon session. My approach has allowed me to do a lot, but are there things it’s keeping me from doing? Maybe once I finish up the devil I can let myself explore a little more.

But what about you, readers? How do you structure your writing time? How did you arrive at your chosen method? Have you experimented with various approaches?

Writing to order

Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).

I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.

This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.

One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?

We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.

Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.