View Full Version : 'Dancing and Wrestling with Scholarship: Things to do and things to avoid in a PhD

John Lindsey
23rd May 2003, 21:20

Interesting article. Here is a sample:

I want to begin by reading you this passage from John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

What separates us from the characters about whom we write is not knowledge, either objective or subjective, but their experience of time in the story we are telling. This separation allows us, the storytellers, the power of knowing the whole. Yet, equally, this separation renders us powerless: we cannot control our characters, after the narration has begun. We are obliged to follow them, and this following is through and across the time, which they are living and which we oversee. The time, and therefore the story, belongs to them. Yet the meaning of the story, what makes it worthy of being told, is what we can see and what inspires us because we are beyond its time. Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death's Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses (Berger 1984: 30- 31)

Don't become addicted to The Library

Some pieces of theoretical or archival work can be entirely library based. More often than not, your PhD will involve the generation of new primary research material. While I want to recommend you read widely, be suspicious of the false comforts of The Library. I want to called this the perils of bibliophilia. There is a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges called 'The Library of Babel' in which he tells of a hellish search to find the one book that will unlock the secrets of an immense library. The curse in the story is that the search is eternal and doomed. The lesson is that - like Borges' fable - you won't find a book that will solve the problem that your thesis is concerned with because such a book remains to be written... by you.

Bibliophilia also carries the danger of being dazzled by aura of the latest explosively brilliant text you've read, this can sometimes result in inertia. "I can never write anything as good as that, so I won't bother writing anything at all." As much as I love the library and books, I have to tell you that you won't find the answers to the questions you want pose there. What you will find on those musty shelves, and on pages that are yellowed by time, are other people's answers. This is an important distinction to make.

Often a social science thesis involves some level of empirical research in the form of interviewing people, surveys or participant observation. I often find myself saying to students at the end of their research: "You won't find your thesis in the next book you just read, you'll find it in your interview transcripts and your fieldnote books

Jason Couch
24th May 2003, 23:56
I liked 3.19 and 3.20 also. I go back every couple years and re-read Orwell, looks like I'll have to dig up Adorno now.

The two figures that loom in my mind around this issue are Theodor W. Adorno and George Orwell. In Minima Moralia, my favourite book by Adorno, he makes a strong case for the necessity of difficult abstract language. "The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech [...] Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate" (Adorno 1978: 101). The insistence on communicability results in the betrayal of critical thinking.

Then there is George Orwell's extraordinary essay 'Politics and the English Language' (Orwell 1968). I try and read it at least once a year. Orwell takes to pieces the language of totalitarian propagandists alongside a critical assessment of the writing of academics of his day like Professor Harold Laski who worked at the London School of Economics. "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know better" wrote Orwell in 1947. My feeling is that we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write. Complex writing is necessary but so to is clarity and the virtues contained in each can be debased. Pristine clarity or abstract complexity is no protection from writing truly awful things.

A. M. Jauregui
2nd July 2003, 09:33
When your PhD is going well it is a good dancing partner. When its going badly it feels like you are being thrown around in some terrible intellectual equivalent of a wrestling match. You can't see your opponent but you feel the force of their presence. The thing is, you can never quite know when you are going to be dancing, or when your are going to be wrestling with your work. So, I think, its best to be prepared for both, all the time.