February 7, 2008

· orgtheory · Sociology

At Scatterplot, Shamus remarks in passing that some people have told him that blogging while untenured is a bad idea. In the comments, olderwoman says:

The problem with blogging for untenured people is not what you say (unless it is so egregious it makes national news or something) but that it is a recreational activity. There are a fair number of academics — in my experience, mostly but not only men — who believe that single-minded devotion to career is everything when you are young.

You have time to blog? I work so hard I couldn’t possibly fit that sort of frivolous nonsense into my day. You have time to watch television? I don’t even own a TV. (I am happy to see this one is now very nearly a cliché.) You go jogging in the morning? How do you find the time? You have time to shower afterward? Personal grooming distracts from the research effort. You walk to the other end of the building to use the bathroom? I specifically requested that my office have the toilet seat model of the Aeron chair installed. A real time saver, that one. You have small children? Actually, why am I even wasting my time talking to you right now? Goodbye.

It seems to me that very nearly all of this sort of guff is pure posturing, net of a very small kernel of obvious truth about not whiling away the weeks playing gin rummy or watching movies to the exclusion of all else. It’s a distinctively American sort of posturing, too—you can probably trace it back to Ben Franklin or someone. My early academic habitus was formed in Ireland, where the preferred posture (following the English model) is the perfect opposite: effortless brilliance is the order of the day. In that setting, it was important to cultivate a reputation for never doing any work at all, and yet still be getting First Class Honours in your exams and, later, dashing off brilliant essays almost by accident, making devastating remarks in an offhand way, etc. Slavish hard work and steady effort is all very well if you want to be an office clerk, or perhaps a postman.

Adjustment to the culture of American graduate school was therefore somewhat difficult for me, but on the other hand I did it just in time to avoid the natural tendency of the earlier model, which is a drinking problem and a tragic early death. I still remember my second semester of grad school where we took Contemporary Theory from a distinguished visitor who had taught in England for most of his career. The look on his face of pure shock, followed by one of quiet joy, when he realized that we had in fact done all of the required reading—and so he could dispense with his traditional prepared 40 minute lecture to bring the students up to speed—was really quite something. He explained to us that this sort of thing was unheard of in his experience.

Of course you can waste your time blogging. And you can do stupid stuff like badmouth your colleagues or peers. On the other hand, you can waste your time in the privacy of your own home, too. As a thing for academics to do, writing a blog can be an endless black hole of self-absorbed wittering—or, it can cultivate a capacity to stay interested in things and to write about them fluently in the course of everyday life. One model can be found at the back of The Sociological Imagination, where Mills has an essay called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship. With apologies for the manly language, here’s an excerpt, slightly updated in one small respect.

It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. …

What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can “have experience,” means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist’s way of saying: – keep a blog. Many creative writers keep blogs; the sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it. In such a blog as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this blog, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your blog also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture “fringe thoughts”: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience. …

By keeping an adequate blog and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your blogs and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot “keep your hand in” if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the blog, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a blog is to engage in the controlled experience. …

But how is this blog – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of “literary” journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a blog is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. … I do not know the full social conditions of the best intellectual workmanship, but certainly surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk – and at times they have to be imaginary characters – is one of them. At any rate I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment – social and intellectual – that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above about the fusion of personal and intellectual life. …

But, you may ask, how do ideas come? How is the imagination spurred to put all the images and facts together, to make images relevant and lend meaning to facts? I do not think I can really answer that; all I can do is talk about the general conditions and a few simple techniques which have seemed to increase my chances to come out with something.

The sociological imagination, I remind you, in considerable part consists of the capacity to shift from one perspective to another, and in the process to build up an adequate view of a total society and of its components. It is this imagination, of course, that sets off the social scientist from the mere technician. Adequate technicians can be trained in a few years. The sociological imagination can also be cultivated; certainly it seldom occurs without a great deal of often routine work. Yet there is an unexpected quality about it, perhaps because its essence is the combination of ideas that no one expected were combinable say, a mess of ideas from German philosophy and British economics. There is a playfulness of mind back of such combining as well as a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks. Perhaps he is too well trained, too precisely trained. Since one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you must cling to such vague images and notions, if they are yours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear.

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