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.
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.
Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do. And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.
A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and, by extension, to anthropology. Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book. Its a `How Not To’ book. But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.
Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields, within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TEDsummarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .
Sure, it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember. And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of intellectual posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.
Big expensive conferences cost too much and offer too little return. Fine, I’ll give it to you. Conferences are acceptable for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference systems remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.
Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences: Continue reading →
I just wanted to give three cheers for culanth.org, the website of Cultural Anthropology. It is simply one of the nicest websites I’ve seen for an anthropology journal/AAA section. There is much to admire, but first and foremost is the beautiful clean and minimalist design of their homepage. Having overseen the redesign of the SLA website (which has since gone through additional changes) I can say from experience that this is no easy task. Other things to admire on the site include:
True Open Access: These aren’t simply ads for the journal, but links to articles which authors have placed in institutional repositories.
The third in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012. The first two posts are here and here.
There are opportunities in the apocalypse. The end of the world has been commodified. A few are seriously investing in bunkers, boats, and survival supplies. Tourism is up, not only to Mayan archaeological sites, but also to places like Bugarach, France and Mt. Rtanj, Serbia. But even those of us on a budget can afford at least a book, a T-shirt or a handbag.
There are opportunities here for academics, too. Many scholars have been quoted in the press lately saying that nothing will happen on Dec 21 , in addition to those who have written comprehensive books and articles discrediting the impending doom. Obviously publishing helps individual careers, and that does not detract from our collective responsibility to debunk ideas that might lead people to physical or financial harm. But neither can we divorce our work from its larger social implications. Continue reading →
Today I learned the term “desk reject.” I’ve never worked as an editor for an academic journal. It seems like a thankless job, and I have nothing but admiration for those who find the time and energy to do it well. But I have gotten to a stage in my career where I am frequently called upon to do anonymous peer review articles and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of journal editors are shirking their responsibilities by sending papers out for peer review that should never have gotten that far.
Rejecting a paper before peer review is called a “desk reject” and different journals differ in their policies. Some journals reject most papers before they get to peer review, while others send out almost everything. In some cases, it seems, this might be a ploy to boost rejection numbers so as to improve a journals’ ranking, although it isn’t clear that it actually makes a difference (for ranking) how you reject a paper.
From chatting with journal editors on Facebook it seems the most frequent cause for a desk rejection is that an article is obviously inappropriate for that journal. Editors told me of articles sent in the wrong language, or even the wrong academic discipline. Articles that are particularly poorly written might also be subject to a desk rejection.
The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) is a great source for open access content, especially through its publishing arm, the OAC Press. To me, this is one of the most promising efforts in Open Access anthropology out there–and I think more people need to take note of what’s going on over there. There is tremendous potential with what they are doing in terms of publishing, disseminating, sharing, and communicating anthropology to wider audiences. Check out the Interventions Series, Book Reviews, and finally the Working Papers Series.
One of the best parts to me is the online seminar. Here’s how it all works: basically, when papers are first posted, there is a period of a couple of weeks in which readers are invited to post their thought and comments, and engage in an extended conversation not only with the author of the paper, but also other members of the OAC community and readership. For me, this is a really valuable way to approach publication and dissemination–readers can post comments and responses directly, and instantly. I think it makes for a pretty fascinating dynamic, one that is quite different from what we get from traditional print journals.
The latest in the Working Papers Series is Edward F. Fischer’s “The Good Life: Values, Markets, and Wellbeing.” The online seminar started a couple of days ago, and will run for a couple of weeks. During this time readers are invited to download Fischer’s paper, give it a read, and then join in the seminar by posting their thoughts and comments. Here’s a snippet from Huon Wardle’s introduction to the seminar:
Ted Fischer’s paper takes us directly into a topic of increasing importance in development studies and which should be important to anthropologists too. It seems hard to doubt that in every human community there circulate ideas and images of what a good life means. Notions of the good life clearly vary from society to society, from individual to individual and even from moment to moment. Whatever the good life may consist in situationally we can hardly doubt that it is and has always been an object of sustained human thought and aspiration and that what people imagine about it will affect how they act in the world…
The link to the seminar is here. Fischer’s paper can be downloaded here. Check it out, take part, comment, chime in with your 2 cents–it’s worth it. And don’t worry, joining the OAC is free.
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Laura Miller.]
Anthropologists are routinely exhorted to make our work accessible to non-academics, to do strident outreach, to engage with the public, and to otherwise not hole up in our academic enclaves. Part of our effort involves fielding inquiries from journalists. We should be happy that writers are interested in talking to us and wish to include our opinions, right? Over the years, journalists have frequently left me telephone messages or sent email along these lines:
I’m a writer for Massive News, and I’m currently doing a story on Something Interesting. As you are an expert on Something Interesting, I would greatly appreciate a comment from you. My number is xxx. Since I am on a tight deadline, however, please call me within two hours.
I have found that often these journalists simply want to seed their articles with a few canned comments that will endorse their spin, and that they don’t actually care about my ideas. If you work in an academic environment in which you must constantly prove the relevance and worthiness of anthropology, as the majority of academic anthropologists at non-elite schools do, you might give in and provide what you hope will be an innocuous blurb. Continue reading →
I had the chance to conduct an email-based interview with Tom Boellstorff during this past month to explore some of his views about Open Access (hereafter OA) publishing in anthropology. Update: You can download a PDF of this interview here.
Ryan Anderson: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Tom. Here at Savage Minds we write about Open Access (OA) a lot, and many of our contributors seem to be in agreement about the need to look into alternative publishing options. But not everyone knows about OA or is in agreement with the push to head in that direction, and this includes many people who are well established in anthropology. So, what’s your opinion about OA? Is this an issue that should matter for anthropologists who are already successful within the current publishing regime, for example?
Tom Boellstorff: I think there’s an urgent need to build on the advocacy work a number of people have been doing within and outside the AAA to reach the goal of “gold” OA (meaning that articles are freely available to download online). In my September 2012 “From the Editor” piece in American Anthropologist I try to set out my current thinking in regard to this issue. If I can quote from that piece:
There are three primary reasons why this transition to gold open access is imperative, reasons that are simultaneously ethical, political, and intellectual. First, there is a fundamental contradiction between the often-repeated goal of making anthropology more public and relevant on the one hand, and the lack of open access on the other hand. Second, there is an incompatibility between the broad interest in transnationalizing anthropology and the lack of open access. Third, it is wrong for any academic journal to be based on a model where the unremunerated labor of scholars supports corporate profits. I see no way that the current subscription-based model can be modified so as to adequately address these concerns.
In terms of people not being in agreement to head in that direction, which as you say “includes many people who are well established in anthropology,” I think we need to reach out and work with those folks. The reality is that running a journal well takes money, particularly a larger journal, and I don’t think we want a future where publishing relies on unpaid graduate student labor, farmed-out copy editing, and so on. For me, the issue is that (1) regardless, we need to find a way toward gold OA, and (2) I just refuse to believe that so many smart people can’t find a way to do it. Continue reading →
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Deepa’s previous posts: post 1 — post 2 — post3]
Note: updated on 7/26/2012 for clarity.
For this final post in our series, I find myself returning to Carole McGranahan’s post from some weeks ago, going through her very useful 9-point schema to describe what makes things ethnographic these days—realizing that whatever the circumstances of ethnographic production, whatever our definitions of ethnography might be, they always presume the centrality of writing. And that is writing in a particular mould, one that satisfies most, if not all, of the criteria enumerated in McGranahan’s post. Specialized, often lengthy, mono-graphs or variants thereof.
Recipe for Pakistani-style Political Potatoes
[Click on the image for a more readable higher-res version]
Part of me wants to say: But of course, how could it be otherwise? The other part, perhaps handicapped by my present need to cobble together a professional identity while remaking myself in an almost completely new cultural landscape—and finding precious little time to devote to writing, is wondering about ethnographic end-products, and the centrality of conventional writing to the ethnographic enterprise. In this post, therefore, I’d like to think through the prospect of decentering writing [fully aware that writing can’t ever be entirely displaced; that there is an awkwardness to the idea, reflected in this post’s two-ing title]. Continue reading →
While some individual TED talks are interesting and even useful in the classroom (I especially love that many are subtitled in numerous languages), there I totally understand what Nathan Jurgenson is talking about when he says that “TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity” in a way which “necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas.” But where Jurgenson merely points out the problem, I thought Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker piece on the TED conference did a great job of getting at the nub of the problem in a way which highlights some of the underlying issues involved in popularizing academic ideas. Unfortunately the piece is currently hidden behind a paywall, so I’ve taken the liberty of quoting the relevant passages at length: Continue reading →
One of my colleagues from the U of Kentucky just posted a request on our grad student listserv asking for advice about which texts people are using for intro courses. I replied with the book that I used during the two intro to anthropology classes I taught while at UK, but then added that the book was lamentably expensive at around 100 bucks. And that got me thinking.
I wonder if at some point there will be such a thing as an open access intro to anthropology course, where all of the texts and articles are not only current, but readily available. Just an idea. The cost of textbooks was one of the big frustrations for me when I was teaching–but I went along with things anyway because there were few alternatives. And then there was the issue with articles: some are a lot easier to find and access than others. Some articles are just plain not available. Not to mention the fact that there are all sorts of restrictions about how articles can and cannot be shared with students.
I know that textbook publishers aren’t exactly going to be thrilled with this conversation, but what would an open access course look like? I know that these kinds of things don’t happen for free, of course, so I am wondering how such a thing could be created, funded, and implemented. Has anyone else out there been looking something along these lines? I’d love to hear about it. Or, if you think this is an insane idea that would never work in the real world, I’d like to hear what you think just as much. Right now I am imagining a larger project along the lines of Wikipedia where different scholars write and publish open access articles specifically for introductory courses. That of course could be combined with material that’s already open (like articles from AA that are more than 35 years old). Hmmm. Thoughts?
PS: Ya, when I start thinking about OA I get on a roll. What can I say? I have my streaks.
Ever since it opened in 2006, I’ve wanted to visit the Musée du quai Branly (MQB) in Paris, which “contains the collections of the now-closed Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l’Homme.” With a permanent collection of over 267,000 objects and nearly 3,500 of those on display at any given time, it is one of the most important anthropology museums in the world. The building itself is also an impressive piece of architecture by Jean Nouvel—nicely setting off the collection. So I was happy to be able to finally visit the MQB this past Thursday. It was an awe-inspiring experience and I’m just sorry I didn’t have a week to spend at the museum, since it is truly too much to absorb in a single day. The permanent collection is divided up in to Asia, Oceania, Africa and The Americas. My recommendation would be to only try to visit one section per visit (and Oceania is so huge that it could easily accommodate two visits if you listen to the excellent audio tour).
I want to focus on one of their current special exhibitions: Les Maîtres du Désordre which was the highlight of our visit. Les Maîtres du Désordre reminds me of an MOMA exhibit I visited as a teenager: Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. That exhibit looked at the impact of the very African and Pacific works now housed in the MQB upon the development of modern art. Both are large, ambitious exhibits which seek to draw comparisons across numerous cultures. Both also seek to find affinities between modern art and “primitive” art. So it is worth looking at what James Clifford wrote about the MOMA exhibit before looking at the one at the MQB.
In his essay “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern” Clifford criticized the MOMA show on several grounds: the comparative method used is flawed (they could just as easily have found “primitive” art works which did not resemble Picasso paintings as ones which did), the works they chose are decontextualized and removed from their cultural and historical context, they chose works which are unproblematically “pure” in that they are free of European or other obviously modern influences, and the African and Pacific works are seen primarily in terms of their importance for “our” cultural development from which “they” are excluded. (On the problematic aesthetization of traditional “art” also see Wyatt MacGaffey’s essay “‘Magic, or as we usually say ‘Art’.”)
To what extent is Les Maîtres du Désordre guilty of the same sins as the Primitivism exhibit at MOMA?