The Slow Writing Movement?

Jay has already tagged this item, and Gretchen is positioning it as a political movement in the making (“Slow writing will be like slow food! “) over at Facebook, so I thought it worth throwing this up here on the mainpage for discussion. Lindsay Waters has published an article at IHE advocating slowing our writing down. The article ranges over a number of issues of interest to us Minds (the politics of publishing being a big one), and returns to one major refrain: Zizek is a big fake, but one that typifies today’s celebrated (read: celebrity) scholar. Mostly, the piece seems to condemn the hyper-active, CPU/CGI-like aspect of academia today, where the ‘publish or perish’ refrain has been amped up to the nth degree. Academia seems more and more like Hollywood: too many channels, nothing on, the whole thing ruled by an inflationary ethos of fame. When young professors jones for Adderall just like their students, maybe it’s time for a chill pill. Part of me is agreeable to such a critique; the other part thinks it (like most resistance these days) is futile. The tidal wave of mediocrity that comprises so much scholarship, that fills library shelves (and online forums!) with a flood of words no one will care about in 15 minutes, much less 10 years, cannot be stopped. Waters advocates the humanistic essay as a reinvigorated genre for the future: full of lucid reflection and promise. Will the essay save us from ourselves?

{A confession: While reading the piece, I kept thinking of Tony Kushner’s stuttering angel and his/her refrain: ‘Stasis.’ This probably relates more to unconscious anxiety about market free-fall than to something as unimportant as needlessly accelerated academic publishing…}

The article is about the humanities. Anthropologists have special problems with time and with concision: a) our research methods are deliberately very very very slow (or used to be before the days of drive-through ethnography), b) one goal of our research is to record in great (often excruciating) detail whole sociocultural worlds. On the one hand, anthropologists have produced many really wonderful essays. I can think of examples from Douglas and Geertz. On the other, these essays seem always to be in a complementary relationship with much longer works (monographs). So, I think the argument about slowing down needs to be disarticulated from the argument about over-production of books.

Anyway, I am wondering what other folks think about this piece.

5 thoughts on “The Slow Writing Movement?

  1. The problem I had with this article is its provocation that everyone (i.e. in the humanities) should be writing essays (and good ones) not books. What difference would it make? Assuming everyone switched we’d have a lot of bad essays instead of a lot of bad books, and I don’t follow why that is better, except perhaps for the trees (and given how many bad essays I print out, I don’t buy that arg for a second).

    Assuming a miracle happened and all these essays were really good (by whatever weird criteria of good Waters is using), I still don’t see this as solving a problem. I would like to live in a world where all essays were good, but I’m not sure quite how to describe why we need that, rather than say, better teaching and more money.

    The problem I see is quite different: coordination of research fields. Water’s model is still a model of the individual scholar “owning” something, only instead of a book that claims to own or invent new ideas, it’s an essay. What we need are ways for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to discover ways to coordinate and share research work, to work collectively on issues and ideas, and to publish in targeted and meaningful ways that advance those goals, without sacrificing “creativity” and the competition that allows scholars to distinguish themselves. And most importantly, good criteria for evaluating the validity of an essay or book which are independently shared and available to argue about. I think, though, that I’m iin agreement that a Slow Scholarship movement is in order. George Marcus once wrote a nice piece on this “On the Unbearable Slowness of being an anthropologist”

    One of the comments on the piece points out that physicists regard only papers as evidence of work, and are routinely in the position of assessing a paper on which a scholar has been one of hundreds of authors… one can only boggle at the hermeneutic sophistication that must be necessary to do so in that case.

  2. I agree with Chris that the important issue isn’t one of genre/format (essay vs. book) but of how we measure productivity more broadly and of the institutional conditions which have to be changed if we want to curb the inflationary culture of overpublication (or whatever we want to call it). Also, the ethnographic monograph allows you to immerse readers in social worlds through an imaginative experience similar to the experience of a good novel…obviously, only when very well written.

    Having said that (and this has been discussed on this site, I believe), it would be great to see some real attempts to change the over-valuation of the monograph–and particularly the fact that a monograph (or two) is a de facto prerequisite for tenure in most departments. I often get the sense that if you mention that you’re not sure whether there’s a worthwhile book in your dissertation, fellow and others assume you’re not a serious scholar. “Yeah, uh, I’m working on my manuscript…”

    But a serious question for those of you with tenure-track jobs: would you support the tenure bid of a colleague who had no monograph, but had published a series of excellent and influential articles?

  3. For me, that would be a no-brainer. The hard case is when a scholar has 1 or 2 original articles in obscure places that no one has cited (probably because no one can find them because the journal is behind multiple pay walls and not very many libraries subscribe to it). The articles may be excellent, and they may represent 2 different and substantial research projects, but they aren’t making an impact. How does one measure the success of the projects then? I’m tempted to say its a failure of the department and the university to promote a young scholar’s work, not the failure of the scholar.

    By contrast, the other hard case is a scholar with 30-odd “essays” on every conceivable topic, some of which are widely read, but which represent only a kind of hyper-productive op-ed mentality… not serious research projects. What then? How does one argue against the hyper-productive scholar who is hyper-productive precisely for all the reasons Water’s mentions?

  4. I’ve written in the past about slow versus fast studying and the ways that scanning/browsing versus deep immersion in a text are complementary, not oppositional. I feel the same way about writing. There’s nothing wrong with writing numerous short pieces that describe the outcomes of your research the way that natural scientists do and some anthropologists used do — “An Unusual Prayerstick from Acoma Pueblo” or “The 2007 Elections in Tari: What Happened”. Equally longer, slower thinking results in longer slower works. Truth and Method is a sort of good example here — it took Gadamer 60 years to write the book, and boy was it worth it.

    The thing about Water’s argument that gives me pause — which is different from disagreement — is the sense that there is one natural, virtuous way to do scholarship, and we must make our genres fit that. I think the question is what sort of genre enables what sort of work, and how we want to incorporate each of them into our scholarly projects given the fact we are coming up with new and potentially useful genres all the time. I DO think, however, that forcing slow thought into fast genres is a mistake, so I think I agree with Waters on that score.

    As far as these dark details can be discerned, my department could tenure me if I do nothing about articles, since we are a four-field school and think books are for ‘humanists’. And I don’t look forward to writing a book since the last two I wrote just about killed me. But I want to write one because I have something booklength inside of me that is trying to come out.

  5. Different people, even in the same dicipline, work in different ways too. I happen to be a quick writer, I can only write in spurts of caffine-fueled all-nighters. Other people write a paragraph a day. I could never do that, it is totally incomprehensible to me. Neither is morally superior.

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