I can now count the fact that I spent a few minutes randomly surfing the web rather than writing as productivity. Why? Because one of the things I came upon says so. Boo-yah.
When my friend Mike was a graduate student in physics, desperately trying to finish his dissertation, I would check up on him and ask what he had accomplished. Many times he would say that he had spent the day writing code so that he could start to analyze his data. Or that he had spent 15 hours trying to find a mistake in the code he had written. Often, at the end of the day, he had no writing, no analysis, and, to me, no visible work to show for those many hours.
Jeff the economist spends a lot of time manipulating data, telling his computer to look at certain variables, and then at others. You can go down a lot of false trails that way, he says. You can spend all day in front of a screen (or two) and have nothing to say about what you’ve seen. You’re just inching closer, trying to get an idea to take root, trying to find the pearl in an ocean full of clams.
I’ve spent many a blissful day sitting in an archive sifting through boxes of letters written 100 years ago. I’ve looked at ragged, yellowed newspaper clippings about the weather and scanned advertisements placed by the railroads in the era when certain Indian reservations were opened to settlement.
I’ve pawed (carefully, I promise) over thank-you notes and invitations and birth announcements, studied report cards and diaries, and perused scads of photos. For every 20 hours in the archives, I’ve been able to write, maybe, a couple of paragraphs. I’ve traveled miles to see what a place I was writing about looks like now, nearly a century after the time period about which I was writing.
It’s work, but I suspect that someone watching me would think I was just snooping, or messing around. The fact is, much of the time when academics are working, it can, from the outside, seem more like we are slacking off. Not many of us pose like Rodin’s sculpture when we’re thinking.
What does it look like to do intellectual work? What does it look like to have an insight? To formulate a theory? To solve a philosophical problem? What does it take to get to the point at which you’re ready to sit down and write something, ready to present something to the world?
Experience tells me that sometimes it looks like playing Spider Solitaire. Or twirling one’s hair, talking to oneself, or sitting stock still and staring into space.
Damn. I’m a machine.
(But I may have at least come up with a title for the thing that will be albatrossing it up around my neck for the next couple of years yet. Incidentally, how bad would it be to, hypothetically, give a dissertation a title that’s a parody of a mad hippie drug culture parody of an Ayn Rand book title? Suppose, hypothetically, that said title actually has some connection to the substance? Of the diss, that is, not any controlled substance.)