Friday, December 21, 2007

Sometimes I think I'm stupid

I've been back at the family homestead since Monday, doing nothing but grading and raiding the magical Pantry of Plenty [note to self: why can't my larder restock itself like that? and food appear on the table while I'm off correcting comma-splice errors? must investigate further], until all in a rush today I computed and submitted final grades, threw my essays and exams in a box to be mailed back east. . . and then turned around, grabbed another sheaf of papers, and sat back down at the kitchen table to review an already overdue article manuscript.

But still: what pleasure to be reading something other than student writing! And to learn new things about a very familiar work!

Except that, after reading the thing twice, I'm still not sure what I think of it. It seems publishable, were it not for the fact that I'm unable to articulate exactly what its overarching argument is, or whether it's interesting.

Now it's true that I'm only slightly familiar with the critical literature that the essay is locating itself within, but I don't think that's the problem: the author quotes from that literature liberally, writes very clearly, and his local points are both understandable and modestly engaging. The essay is well organized, with ample signposting and clear transitions. . . and yet somehow the larger argument remains, winkingly, just over the horizon.

At times like this, I really think I'm stupid.

I'd like to have faith that if I don't understand something it's because there's a genuine problem, but I'm never entirely sure that's the case; I've long suspected that my brain just works more slowly than those of most people in this profession: it's difficult for me to keep multiple ideas in my head at the same time, and I've never been someone who can synthesize and assimilate information on the spot or revise a theory on the fly--I need to go off and think about it for a while.

This isn't entirely a liability, of course; one of the reasons that my scholarly writing is so good (and as writing I do think it's good, although in saying so I imply nothing about the quality of the ideas therein expressed) is precisely because, in order to understand anything myself, I have to work through it so slowly and lay its parts out with such care.

But I hate feeling dumb. I wish I could explain to the author exactly why the parts of his essay don't cohere--that is, I wish I were quick enough to grasp their probable or possible relationship (or to state emphatically that they're not related), and make suggestions for revision. As it is, I'm left with the nagging feeling that I'm missing something.

And that, in turn, makes me feel like a spectacular intellectual fraud.


Belle said...

You say it well. I have that trouble with some students' papers. I know it's not good, but have trouble getting them to understand what they need to do to fix it.

And then there are days when my brain doesn't want to put things together. I'm old, so I give self the benefit of the doubt most times. There are simply times when my brain wants to work on X rather than Y. So I go work on X and feel competent. Maybe you just need to put it down and enjoy the holiday?

Sisyphus said...

You mean they don't mail reviewers a box of incomprehensible comments on little squares for you to put on the dartboard and choose among that way? Hmmm.

I vote for sleeping on it, at the least.

With my own stuff, sometimes it helps me to go far away from my material and then email someone not involved with the work about the problem I'm having. (I don't usually actually _send_ the email; but not being able to refer back to any words or passages and having to articulate my argument and lack thereof to someone unfamiliar with it helps me see what I'm leaving out.) Maybe that will help you put your finger on what's missing from the article?

I second doing mindless fun and relaxing things too.

G-Fav said...

I agree with Sisyphus; sleep on it.

Maybe we're at that point in our intellectual careers when we can start to differentiate between the textbooks and journal articles that are "correct but too advanced or inhumanely-written for us to realize" and "just as incorrect or non-monumental as we suspect they are, but we lack the confidence to strike it down."

The way I've dealt with reviewing a manuscript with questionable contribution is by throttling back my cynicism by sleeping on it... and then figuring out whether to check the box that says "not appropriate for this journal" or "accept with significant changes."

Usually if 80% of the references they cite are their own, it's a good clue that the paper is incremental nonsense.


Abby said...

Maybe this suggestion is too basic, but I'm throwing it out there because it has helped me in similar situations. I try to write the main idea -- just a word or two -- next to each major paragraph. Then I can go through and see that sort of map and usually get a clearer picture of whether or not it's actually leading me anywhere. Or if there's anywhere to lead me to, you know?

I often feel the way you do. Sometimes I'm good on my feet, but other times I'm trying to think things through but it's like my brain is stuck in slow-motion, walking through sand. I suspect you're not as alone in this as you (we) often feel.

Maybe try the paragraph thing. Or maybe take a nap. So many things look better after a nap.

What Now? said...

Sadly, I often feel this way, to such an extent that I'm pretty convinced that I'm not actually smart enough to be an academic. It's true that much academic writing is deliberately obfuscatory, which is annoying, but I don't think that's the only cause of my regular confusion. This is perhaps a both/and rather than an either/or state with me.

But enough about me; try that nap idea!

Flavia said...

Belle: I do feel this way with student writing, sometimes, and I hate it equally when I'm unable to explain how to fix a problem. . . but at least I'm always certain there is a problem!

And thanks to the rest of you for the advice, too. I did wind up setting the thing aside, although less as a matter of strategy than of necessity (there were presents to buy and people to see!), and now that I'm looking at it again both its strengths and problems are much clearer.

I'd done a more minimal version of what Abby suggested on my second read-through, marking key passages and writing little signposty things in the margins, so now, flipping back through, it's more apparent where the essay starts wandering--how that possibly awesome argument on page five isn't really what winds up being (sorta) proven at the end of the section on page fifteen, etc.

What's interesting about this essay is that its transitions are so clear and lucid that every paragraph seems to connect to the one before it. . . and yet after several of them the entire thing has shape-shifted into something else. That's fixable, definitely, but harder to see on a first read-through and possibly also hard for a writer to recognize himself.

I strongly suspect that the essay was written by a graduate student (among other things, he's very quote-y and reference-y with the critical literature; he also continually describes things as "the famous passage where. . . "; "that infamous description. . ."; "the famous scene. . ."; I want to say, dude! The entire work is famous! just quote the goddamn passage!), and if so that's rather heartening. It's a good first publication attempt.

In other words? R&R.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I strongly suspect that the essay was written by a graduate student (among other things, he's very quote-y and reference-y with the critical literature; he also continually describes things as "the famous passage where. . . "; "that infamous description. . ."; "the famous scene. . ."; I want to say, dude! The entire work is famous! just quote the goddamn passage!)

Hee. Now, at least, I can rest assured that I am not the author, since I steadfastly avoid writing about works that are famous even in parts (except for the obligatory Shakespeare Sections of the diss, which will probably never see the light of publication because I'm not really convinced I can say anything new and interesting about Shakespeare).

R&R seems like the right answer.

Horace said...

Actually, it sounds like kind of a revise-and-resubmit to me, for all of the reasons you describe.

I think we forget as readers all of the things we tell our writing students: that it's incumbent upon them to make their argument clear and forceful to their audience. But the it's-not-you-it's-me/ impostor syndrome of academia leaves us feeling like it's incumbent upon us to make sense of it.

Plus there's the habit that we have as professional readers of literature to locate patterns hidden deep in the fabric of a text.

But really, Flavia, if YOU of all people--a subtle reader, a good writer, and well-versed in the field--have trouble discerning the pattern in the fabric, well maybe the pattern isn't printed boldly enough.

Heck, if my last revise-and-resubmit had been articulated as tactfully as your post about this essay was, I'd be thrilled!

Flavia said...

Horace: aww! Aren't you sweet. I may have to buy you a drink for that at MLA.

And Fretful: the author is definitely not you, but it had occurred to me that the essay's author could be a lurker--I mean, if Lindsay Waters and Michael Bérubé are lurking out there somewhere, who knows, right?--so I deliberately said as little about the content/structure as possible.

Anyway, the review is now written and sent off, and it actually proved to be a fairly pleasant and intellectually rewarding task, as refining one's ideas and forcing them into clear prose always is. But man, am I glad that I don't direct dissertations (or deal more than occasionally with MA theses)! Such hard and time-intensive labor it is, getting a grip on someone else's work and telling him what works and what doesn't.