Commenting on Craft: Part Five

There are many parts to this series. Basically, I’m compiling quotes on how to do better research and scholarly writing.

Don’t try to find every last jot of data relevant to your questions; that’s impossible. But you do need data that are sufficient and representative.

I’m so, so guilty of this. In fact, I found myself doing this last night while combing over some secondary resources, though I feel to do something similar but slight different: I will take a tiny, relevant piece of a large article and use it for my purposes, even if the article itself has little to do with my subject. I’m not sure if that’s bad or not, but it seems a shame to read something and not be able to use it at all.

You’ll believe in your claim so strongly that you will see all your evidence in its favor.

Oops. This is true and speaks to what I described above. Perhaps I should have read this before doing my secondary research notes… though I think it’s important to use sources in a way that support–not contradict–your thesis. So this is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. I’ve not yet found a source that directly argues against my thesis, but I’m going to look for one, just to make sure I’m not blinded by my own confirmation bias.

“If you come across secondhand data (data that your source reports from another source), do everything you can to locate the original source. Not only can you then be sure your report is accurate (you may be surprised to see how often secondhand sources are not), but you may find other data equally useful.”
I found myself wanting to do this when I was compiling sources. I made notes to myself to locate the original sources rather than to take them at face value when a writer is quoting them. The writer is citing these works with their own agenda in mind and therefore can be skewed a certain way. Locating the original source is more likely to give you a genuine idea of what the quote means in context. And context is everything.

Humanities in the Digital Age

This post is a short response to two different essays that address the humanities in an increasingly digital context: the first is “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions” by Cathy Davidson, and the second is “Reading (And Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

On the whole, these two articles converge in the central idea that the humanities need to participate an the interactive space that is online sharing. Both authors urge humanists to publish their ideas online as a way to garner a new type of peer review–one that both would agree is useful in shaping new ways of thinking and paving the way for collaborations otherwise not possible in another venue. Both authors are excited about this possibility for open communication and see it as the next destination for the discipline.

However, while the focus of Davidson’s essay is on a still-cloistered view of the discipline as scholars, Fitzpatrick encourages scholars and students alike to participate in platforms not typically associated with scholarly work, like Twitter and blogging sites. (And, really, that’s what I’m doing here, which is cool.) I think Fitzpatrick better realizes the social context of a digital humanities whereas Davidson, while still very adamant about collaboration and exchange, does not fully explain the social aspect of this new mode. For example, Fitzpatrick talks about a certain vernacular that can be applied online in order to gain new readers–in order to increase reach beyond the humanities–which I think Davidson would not necessarily agree with.

I found myself more invested in Fitzpatrick’s writing because it seemed more immediate to me; instead of only pertaining to a discipline, it moved beyond those borders and included grounding in an increasingly social society. (Well, increasingly social online, anyway.)

A Response to a Response

This is an inception post because I’m commenting on a commentary. I feel like I’m lost in a series of Russian nesting dolls, but I’ll do my best. The article to which I’m responding is a review/commentary on a book called Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Michael S. Roth). The piece itself, written by Christopher B. Nelson, can be found here.

It’s difficult to respond to this article because of the degree of removal that exists; I’ve never read the book about which Nelson is writing, so I’m at a disadvantage here. The one thing I was able to get out of it was the idea that each liberal arts school has its own blend of liberal arts education, based on two “threads” of education: the skeptical and the reverential. The skeptical, in its purest form, “free[s] the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual.” In contrast, the reverential puts emphasis on “learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old.”

Nelson (and I’m assuming Roth as well) believes that each liberal arts school around the country employs its own unique mix of these two trains of thought as well as a third tenet, which concerns itself with economic viability of the information taught. I believe that both threads are important to today’s world; while it’s great to overtly teach students about the society in which they live, individual-based instruction is just as viable because, as we sometimes forget, society is a collection of individuals, each with their own views and opinions. If we can open up the mind on an individual level, then we can more easily become a more tolerant, more inquiring society.

Commenting on Craft: Part Four

To get an idea of what this series is about, start here. (And you can check out parts two and three, too, if you’d like.)

This section of The Craft of Research deals with the drafting process, which to me is so intimidating that I sometimes forgo it altogether. (I know! So terrible.) With an undertaking this large, though, I understand the necessity of clearing the pipes, so to speak, before anything useful comes through.

That being said, let’s see what Booth and his friends think about drafting. (Although, looking at the quotes I selected now, I’m realizing that this is more about properly citing sources, which isn’t something I have to do for this draft. Shh, just go with it.)

But evidence never speaks for itself, especially not long quotations or complex sets of numbers. You must speak for such evidence by introducing it with a sentence stating what you want your readers to get out of it.

First of all, let me say how relieved I am that I don’t have to introduce “complex sets of numbers,” because that would be terrible. That being said, this is something to important to keep in mind when using any type of source or data. I mean, the idea behind using others’ work is that you want it to be meaningful in the frame of your argument, so if you’re quoting something important and your reader says, “So what?”, that’s a huge problem. The book uses a great example on page 191 (I won’t reproduce it here because it’s rather long), showing exactly how vague introductions to quotes leave the argument unproven and frustrating to the reader.

If the person you borrowed from read your report, would she recognize your words or ideas as her own, including paraphrases, summaries, or even general ideas or methods? If so, you must cite that source and enclose any of her exact words in quotation marks or set them off in a block quotation. No exceptions, no excuses.

Plagiarism is scary stuff, and it’s something about which I’m extremely paranoid. For me, the idea of imagining your sources reading your work really resonates with me, and that makes it easier to identify what needs citing. Honestly, I tend to over-cite–maybe I get exCITEd when I’m doing research (in the distance, an angry mob of pun-haters gathers), but imagining an author of a source reading my draft gives me a strong sense of what needs to be cited and what is more common knowledge in the field.

Now the only thing left to do is start the first draft of my primary analysis… and to outrun all these people with pitchforks trying to break down my door.

The Art of Compassion: How to Care for Someone With Depression

I’m going to take a break from the school assignments and the documentation of the publishing process in order to write something that will be infinitely more important than either of those.

I’m going to talk about depression.

If you had a knee-jerk reaction of feeling uncomfortable, good–you probably should. Depression isn’t supposed to be a feel good topic. I want you to hold onto that discomfort. Sit with it. Let it fill you up. As a human being, depression is something you’ll encounter in your life, either in yourself or in someone you care about. Yes, it’s unsettling, but by holding that nervous energy now, maybe you can learn how better to make it more comfortable.

I’ve struggled with depression ever since middle school. It’s something that lives inside of me, and to a great extent, it will never truly leave me. I have bad days. Sometimes I have bad days that bleed into dark weeks and endlessly frustrating months. For those who know me, this can undoubtedly be uncomfortable. No one is taught how to deal with depression just as no one is taught how to deal with someone who is depressed. I’m hoping to offer insight into what’s helpful–and hurtful–when caring for someone with depression.

Being depressed is not a matter of perception or a state of mind. I want that to be completely clear. It’s very frustrating for a depressed person to hear the advice “just cheer up” or “stay positive.” If it were that easy, depression wouldn’t exist–no one would choose to be depressed. Throwing optimism at someone who is depressed is like asking a colorblind person to appreciate a double rainbow–it just ends up being more painful than positive. It comes from a place of well-meaning, but in the end, it just makes the depressed person hate themselves for not being able to do what you’re asking them to do.

Don’t ask a depressed person to smile. It’s exhausting. Today, after a particularly difficult day, I passed someone I knew in the hall after class. She said, “Are you smiling?”

I very clearly wasn’t, but I still answered with a “no.”

“Well then pretend.”

No. No, no, no. Please, do not ever tell a depressed person to “pretend.” People who struggle with depression spend a great deal of their lives pretending, sometimes hoping that pretending can end up tricking their minds into behaving. It doesn’t work. They feel as though the whole world is in on some great joke that they’re not a part of, so they force a laugh in order to feel included. So when someone around you is actually showing that they’re not okay, the worst thing you can do is dismiss that or ask them to cover it up.

Don’t assume that a depressed person needs space. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they feel so horribly lonely and abandoned on their little island of depression that they need human interaction. If you’re in doubt, ask. All a depressed person wants is to know that someone cares about what they’re going through. They don’t need advice; they know there’s no advice you can give them that they haven’t already tried themselves. They need compassion–someone to care enough to not only acknowledge their feelings but to offer to help them carry those feelings in some small way. This is hard for someone on the outside, I know, especially since we want to help those who are suffering but feel helpless in knowing how to do so. Ask. Offer to be a presence. Often, that’s all a depressed person needs.

Don’t say you were worried about them after the fact. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I was really worried about you last week.” This always comes after I’ve come out of a depression spell and therefore is no longer helpful. I always want to ask, “Where was this concern when I was struggling–when I felt like I was all alone?” If you’re worried about someone, tell them. Worrying is a sign that you care, and that care can save a life.

Don’t ask why they’re upset. The worst part about depression is that it often doesn’t have any rhyme or reason; one day, you feel like you’re on top of the world, and the next, you feel like you’re buried under it. This is difficult for a depressed person to reconcile–the idea that there’s no external reason–so it’s taxing for them to try to explain something they themselves don’t fully understand. Instead of asking why they’re feeling, ask them what they’re feeling and how you can help.

Let people cry. I’m the worst at this because crying is such an intense display of emotion and can so easily make one uncomfortable. Yeah, it’s really awkward to be around someone who’s crying, but imagine how they feel. It’s not easy to cry in front of another person, so if someone goes to pieces around you, chances are they need some TLC. Don’t say something like, “Don’t cry. It’ll be okay.” Telling them not to cry is almost like telling them not to feel what they’re feeling, which is impossible. Let them be. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Wait for them to take the lead. If you’re close to them, hug them or put a hand on their shoulder–anything to show that you’re still there and that you accept them even at their worst.

Remind them of their good qualities. Depression has a way of making you feel like a total piece of shit. You feel broken, rejected, and defected. It goes a long way when someone reminds you of your worth. Depression makes a lot of things seem meaningless, so when someone goes out of their way to remind a depressed person that they have had a positive influence on someone else, it puts things in a different, better perspective. Remind them that they have a place in your life. Tell them about a time you were really glad to know them. The cloud of depression may have obscured these memories, and being reminded often helps to clear the haze.

Some of these things seem so small, yet they have a huge impact. You will never be able to cure someone’s depression, but you absolutely have the power to make things easier on those who are prone to these lows. It may never feel like you’re doing enough, but I promise you, if you make the effort to care, you’ll be doing more than you can imagine.

If you suspect that someone you know is considering suicide, please call 911 or consult the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Commenting on Craft: Part Three

Parts one and two can be found here and here, respectively.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty, the stuff that actually terrifies the writers of research projects. Usually I can come up with ideas pretty easily, but when faced with even the prospect of outlining or planning, I panic. That being said, the section was really helpful for me in terms of being able to wrap my mind around the onerous task of planning.

If, for example, you were asked to ‘compare and contrast Freud and Jung on the imagination and unconsciousness,’ you do not have to organize your report into two parts, the first on Freud, the second on Jung, a kind of organization that too often results in a pair of unrelated summaries. Try breaking the topics into their conceptual parts, such as elements of the unconscious and the imagination, their definitions, and so on; then order those parts in a way useful to your readers.

This was especially helpful for me because I too often use this flawed method of organization. As a matter of fact, until reading this quote, I was going to organize my paper into the two texts I’m analyzing rather than breaking the analyses down into their more meaningful elements. The fact that the authors use a specific topic also helps conceptualize how this method of organization can be employed effectively.

Now, just as you picked out key terms to run through your whole report, circle the ones that uniquely distinguish this section from all the others; they should be in the sentence that states the point of that section.

I’m notoriously bad at topic sentences. I’ve gotten better at writing theses found in an introductory paragraph, but the idea of other topic sentences still thoroughly terrifies me. This idea helps immensely, because if there are no terms that are unique to a specific section, it’ll be easy to tell what’s essential to the main argument and what’s only serving as fluff.

Readers may have to understand the outlines of your overall position before they can follow how you apply it to specific texts, events, situations, and so on.

This quote comes from the section of the reading dedicated to finding a suitable order for the information you’re trying to relay. For me, the “general analysis followed by specific applications” will work the most because of what the above passage states. I’m doing a genre study, and unless I define the genre first, no one is going to be able to follow my argument. I think it’s important, too, to give the reader a big picture as a guide so they can better understand how smaller pieces contribute to that big picture. I know that strategy helps me as a reader, at least, and because it’s important to think of your writing from a reader’s perspective, I think this will be all the more helpful when I sit down to write a first draft.

Halberstam vs. Davidson & Goldberg: How to Re-Shape the Humanities

First of all, the two articles to which I’m referring are “Unlearning” (Halberstam) and “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” (Davidson & Goldberg). Both articles propose ways in which we, as members of the discipline of the humanities, can contribute to its lasting relevance in society. However, I believe that Davidson and Goldberg, although published earlier than Halberstam, get the gist of it.

I’ll admit to getting lost in the middle of Halberstam’s musings, finding 50% of his essay to be off the mark. He goes through this whole argument about how Steve Jobs funded Pixar as a pseudo anti-capitalist plot and builds an argument for how A Bug’s Life is a chronicle made to teach the youth of America how to band together against the 1%. (Now, of course, it’s extremely important to consider the context in which Halberstam’s paper comes to us: 2012, in the height of the Occupy movements.) He believes that Pixar and its films lead to the development a generation of young Americans who can see beyond themselves and can frame their worldview in the collective. I’m not sure that I can get on board with his logic here. While I can see the merit in thinking beyond oneself and being willing to work with and for others, and I can certainly see the application of that sort of thinking in redesigning the humanities, I just don’t like the frame of his argument. It seems too sensational and political for the sake of being sensational and political.

However, Davidson & Goldberg argue the same thing in a less politically charged way, and for me, that makes more sense. I understand that it’s impossible to separate politics and the discussion of the cultural relevance (and importance) of the humanities, but when the information and the tenets of the argument are presented altogether more objectively, I find myself nodding along more. I like that Davidson & Goldberg outline the applications of the humanities so clearly that anyone, regardless of any political leaning, would have a hard time finding fault with them. These authors, too, call for a more collaborative discipline, but they do so in a way that makes sense for the humanities and doesn’t just skip to the more broad sense of the sociological implications. Their thinking is more focused and therefore more useful going forward. There’s groundwork–there’s a foundation.

Both essays, though, underscore the need for something to happen; stasis isn’t an option. The times are already changing, so we can either change with them and adapt our discipline for new cultural needs, or we can continue down the path to decreasing relevance. For the sake of me and my fellow almost-grads, I’m hoping the humanities opts for the former.