One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.
The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.
The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day. Continue reading →
Eleven editors and more than two dozen anonymous reviewers rejected my scholarly article. It documented the scandal I had uncovered that David Robinson, famed excavator of the Greek site of Olynthos, had plagiarized the work of his forgotten graduate student, Mary Ellingson. My article clearly made a number of people uncomfortable as there is an unspoken rule among American archaeologists working in Greece that it is bad form to criticize our intellectual ancestors in print. In the end I did get the story published as a book but that was only because I found an editor at Rowman and Littlefield who was a former student of mine and who was determined to help. This would seem to be a case study in the problems with the peer review system but that would be the wrong conclusion; this blog post seeks to prove that peer review works despite the flaws in the system.
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Annie Claus as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Annie is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. specializing in the social ecology of marine and coastal environments and diverse environmentalisms. She has published work on the impacts of environmental policies on coastal communities, the political ecology of disasters, and conservation social science. Her most recent work analyzes the relationship of Okinawa to Japan through the lens of coral reef conservation.]
I weaseled my way into a writing class as I was finishing my dissertation. Others had advised against taking the course (“just finish your dissertation and worry about its readability later”). But I had been convinced that clear writing reflects clear thinking. If clear thinking emerges through writing with clarity, shouldn’t we all be required to take at least one class about the craft of writing before we inflict our thinking on others?
The professor had taught writing for years and was on the editorial board of The New York Times—a real professional! His (The Pro’s) over-enrolled class was pitched to future journalists but that seemed insignificant to me. I pleaded with The Pro for a spot:
“Anthropologists are also writers, without training or hope. Isn’t it important to make academia a better, more accessible place?”
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Chelsi West part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Chelsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a BA from Millsaps College and an MA from UT. Her research in Albania was funded by J. William Fulbright program, the National Science Foundation, and the International Research and Exchanges Board. She is currently writing her dissertation, tentatively entitled, “Racial Entanglements: Charting Emerging and Shifting Categories of Identity and Belonging in Albania.”]
February is the worst month of the year. I keep repeating these lines in my head as I stare at the blank screen. I struggle to think of anything else to say. The beginning of this month is now becoming some sort of a routine.
My Dad taught me to write in the early morning hours. “When I was your age,” he used tell me, “I went to bed early so that I could wake up around 4 a.m. and do my homework when the house was quiet.” Around age 11 or 12 I began to emulate this practice, though I never quite got a handle on the waking up early part so instead, I just developed late-night writing habits. To this day I usually produce some of my best work between midnight and 5 a.m. When I think about it, my Dad helped me to craft much of my approach to writing. Continue reading →
Years ago, when I started returning to Havana, the city where I was born, I had the good fortune to be welcomed into the home of Cuban poet, Dulce María Loynaz. By then she was in her nineties, frail as a sparrow, nearly blind, and at death’s doorstep, but enormously lucid.
Inspired by her meditative Poemas sin nombre (Poems With No Name), I had written a few poems of my own, and Dulce María had the largeness of heart to ask me to read them aloud to her in the grand salon of her dilapidated mansion. She nodded kindly after each poem and when I finished I thought to ask her, “What advice would you give a writer?” Continue reading →
This is my last post as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. I have enjoyed this experience of connecting with so many anthropologists. I want to thank the Savage Minds team for giving me this opportunity to discuss ethnographic writing, and to everyone who offered their thoughts and comments on my posts. Since this is my final contribution, I thought I would end on a personal note and share a short homage to typewriters.
As you may have noticed, many images of old typewriters accompanied my posts on writing this month. These photos are not culled from the Internet, but are pictures of my own growing collection of European manual typewriters, which I now use to write my fieldnotes and my first drafts. I am not a luddite, nor am I paranoid about the NSA reading my fieldnotes. And although I am old enough to have written many early college papers on a typewriter, my trusty Smith Corona was an electric model. I switched to a basic word processor, and eventually to a personal computer as soon as I could afford one. Writing on a manual typewriter is a newly acquired preference.
Over twenty years after I retired my electric Smith Corona, my partner surprised me with a vintage Skywriter as a birthday present. The Skywriter hails from the 1950s and was Smith Corona’s attempt at a portable machine that itinerant writers could use on airplanes. Last spring, I began writing research notes, letters, and first drafts of my work on that typewriter, mostly because I loved the clack of the keys, and the fact that email, social media, and the lures of the World Wide Web couldn’t distract me while I worked.
What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?
One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading →
Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.
In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.
Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.
Most students and scholars learn the disciplinary conventions regarding citation and never think about them again. But citation practices vary widely both between and within disciplines, and once you’re past the dissertation, you have far more flexibility in choosing your own citation style than you think. To be sure, academic journals have their own house styles for articles. The 2009 style guide for all journals of the American Anthropological Association states: “All references must be cited in author-date form; all author-date citations must be referenced,” and the guide provides detailed instructions for how to use the author-date format for e-mails, websites, brochures, and other eclectic materials.
But where did these conventions originate and how did they come to anthropology? The standard of in-text author-date citation derives from something called the “Harvard style,” which originated in the field of zoology. In 1881, the zoologist Edward Laurens Mark published an important paper on the garden slug wherein he included the first parenthetical author-date citation. This system spread out from zoology to other natural sciences where the author’s name and the date of the publication are the two most important pieces of information. Prior to Mark’s invention of the author-date referencing system, footnotes were sprinkled randomly throughout the text and signaled by asterisks and other printer’s marks. The author-date system streamlined citations and favored brevity and clarity.
So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:
I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!
Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.
Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.
The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:
What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.
Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.
First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.
Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.
Academics are collectively responsible for the production of some of the most obtuse and impenetrable prose in the English language. Rhetorical fashions come and go, but the penchant for opacity has become a defining feature of contemporary scholarship.
We were sitting over the remains of dinner in a Village restaurant when the conversation turned to gender and women’s studies.
“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”
I gave her a knowing look.
“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.
“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”
She sighed and shrugged.
Academese is the secret code that some scholars use to signal that they are members of the club. It ensures that no one can really tell whether their ideas are brilliant, bad, or merely mediocre. This is especially useful when submitting an application to a multidisciplinary search or review committee. Since academics are so narrowly specialized these days, there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can judge whether a project is truly groundbreaking.
Learning to write like an academic is difficult. If you don’t want to rely solely on the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, you too can learn the subtle art of writing impenetrable prose. It takes time and practice, and not an insubstantial amount of creativity, to produce appropriately complex neologisms for otherwise basic concepts.
I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.
I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.
University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Kevin Carricoas part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Kevin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues, having completed his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Cornell University in 2013. His research focuses upon the implications of Han nationalism for ethnic relations in China. He is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s special issue on Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet, and his translation of Tsering Woeser’s Self-immolation in Tibet is forthcoming from Verso Press in 2015.)
I recently finished translating a book, Tsering Woeser’s Self-Immolation in Tibet(Immolation au Tibet, la honte du monde), in a project that combines the two main components of my career path thus far: translation and anthropology. Prior to my graduate work, I was a translator of Chinese and French documents in Shanghai. And now as an anthropologist, I still engage in the occasional translation of texts that I consider uniquely insightful. This brief essay is an attempt to think through the relationship between these two activities via my recent work on self-immolation in Tibet. Continue reading →