When is enough enough?

At the moment, I’m focusing on two things: swimming, and an article. The article is based on the archival research I did for my doctorate, but which also addresses several other fields, fields that aren’t really in my comfort zone. To give you an idea, my doctoral research was into the lives of the singers and storytellers that a man named Félix Arnaudin collected folklore from at the end of the nineteenth century. An obvious field to address this to is other folklorists working today, and that is part of the intended audience for this piece, but I am also (ambitiously!) quite interested in what I can say to transnational and global historians, and people interested in Actor Network Theory and similar approaches.

These are huge fields, where people are producing a lot of exciting and complex research on difficult and important topics, including violence, racism, war, and the structures of the modern world. I basically want to swoop in and say “Hey people, check out this woman who sang lullabies!”

So, thinking about the main problem I face (aside from a wild overestimation of the importance of my research) I recently asked historians on twitter “How do [you] know when enough reading is enough? Have you ever shaken the never enough feeling?”

Cue much collective hand-wringing.

And some light humour. David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress) pointed out it’s all about deadlines. You’ve done enough reading when you HAVE to start writing. Joking aside, this is of course a key point. How often do we actually have the leisure to dictate our own timetables?

But let’s imagine a perfect world (ah, academic escapism!), a world in which you have as long as you need to nail these readings. So, Rob Priest (@Archivebeaver) suggests that there is a point of diminishing returns, and I agree with this kind of idea. You read until the point when it isn’t useful any more. Similarly, I often find there’s a point when I feel ready to write.

But I wonder if we can do better than this. The point of diminishing returns, or the point when I feel ready to write, both are elusive, not to say capricious. On Monday morning, the whole field of Atlantic history beckons, yet on Wednesday I feel like I don’t need to bother with any more of it. It hinders planning, and is worryingly dependent on mood and environment.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that most of us know what we need to deal with this problem better: specific tools and self-awareness. Let me use an analogy, drawn from my current experience having swimming lessons. (I’m not having them because I CAN’T swim, but because in the pool I look a little bit like a donkey trying to waterski). The teacher who’s been coaching me gives me a set of tools, or drills, which I practice in order to get the better technique into my head. But the tools are useless without self-awareness. I have to be able to recognise when my head is in the wrong position, or when my stroke is finishing with a flick. You can’t correct what you can’t break down.

If I apply this to reading for historical research, I find that the tools are easy enough to outline, but I don’t find myself naturally putting them into practice, because I’m not focused enough on the self-awareness.

What are these easy tools? We all know them.

Speed reading. It’s not hard to learn, and invaluable when applied. In reality, it’s just the systematic use of a tool we deploy all the time, when we look at the table of contents of a book and prioritise whether we need to read it, and if so, how much, and how carefully. A similar tool might be to find book reviews, which often give a clearer view of the argument and the weaknesses of academic works than the books themselves… We rely on other people’s opinions, and there’s no shame in that. Have other researchers recommended a reading? Do you trust their judgement?

Another tool: I like to think of a pyramid of prioritisation, which is probably deeply personal to my own sense of what should be important, and is woefully disconnected from what I end up reading. (In swimming, you can’t learn your own lessons. I think sometimes it takes someone standing on the poolside – readers – to correct that tic).

So here (for the purposes of comparison) is the hierarchy I propose when writing the kinds of things I do at the moment (my thesis, research articles, grant applications). It goes from things I SHOULD read in fine detail at the top, to things that are surplus, even unnecessary, which I should NEVER beat myself up for not reading. (Of course the categories are fluid and blend in to one another.)

1. Most important: empirical research directly touching on your topic. In my case, other people had researched this Arnaudin guy, and other people have written about the kinds of rural life in this period that I am interested in.

2. Historiography. This does have to be in there (I think) otherwise you aren’t advancing the state of the field, but, unlike the empirical stuff above, this doesn’t require super-fine reading. Doesn’t the best historiography often boil down to an argument that can be stated in one sentence? Historians love historians who make bold claims. Even better if those claims are carefully backed up by research, because then they can spark a real debate. But I’m not above taking shots at headline statements backed by shoddy work…

3. Contextual empirical research. Say you’re talking about rural labourers in the nineteenth century (as my thesis did). Some of these rural types also worked for railway companies and the French equivalent of the Highways Agency. But (a lesson I learned the hard way) perhaps I don’t need to spend months reading the specialist literature on that! Prioritise what will help you make sense of your main focus (in the point 1 territory).

4. Other theory. Don’t get me wrong. As historians go, I think I am quite the fan of theory. Judith Butler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway: all appear in my thesis footnotes. But I have come to recognise that the choice of theorists is rather arbitrary. I ended up with the theorists I came across, and who is to say what other theories would have worked with my thesis? Empirical research is what makes me a historian rather than a philosopher of history. In a world where time is never enough, reading more ANT theory simply is not a priority, no matter what I convince myself.

5. Poetry blah blah… Again, don’t get me wrong: I love a good quote from something a bit, well, recherché, to set things up. The nineteenth-century folklore movement is full of people, like Yeats, who were both authors and ethnographic folklorists, and who blurred this line. I can’t resist a good Yeats quote at the start of a chapter, and I even have some little snippets from contemporary rural novels. They are fun, a different way of easing into a topic. Eugen Weber uses the phrase from Keats ‘fled is that music’ in his classic book Peasants into Frenchmen to describe the decline of traditional singing. It’s totally superfluous… and a little bit awesome. But at the end of the day, I remind myself, I do NOT need to read that novel I came across just because another historian found a witty aphorism about rural love-making in it. Perhaps I am the only historian who succumbs to the temptations of this level 5 nonsense? Anyone?

Those are the tools. What about the self-awareness? The question is, why am I worrying about reading? I’ll try not to get too pop-psychological on you, but I’ve often had the thought Steven Gray (@Sjgray86) eloquently summed up in reply to my tweet. We feel like we are ‘all bluffing’. I also like the way David Foster Wallace put it in a commencement speech he gave before his death: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” (You can – must – read the whole thing here, if you haven’t already: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/20/fiction).

This worrying about reading comes from the performative nature of doing research. Deep down, no matter what our motives for choosing topics that speak to contemporary concerns, reclaim overlooked heritages, and so on, academia as all about showing how smart you are.

As I’ve said, (one of) my weakness(es) is that I love a good quotation, and by good I mean deeeep, man. Bordering on internet quotation site material. I just can’t shake that literary training!

But there are different ways of showing how smart you are. I increasingly realise that those ‘deep’ quotations are often distracting, not to say pretentious. They draw attention away from what it is about what I am saying that is original in its own right. They are a form of academic armour, as a whole range of people have been saying for a while about footnoting practices.

And showing how smart you are can be toxic. There are ways to behave that might get you ahead, but which frankly make you a jerk (I love this: http://thesiswhisperer.com/2013/02/13/academic-assholes/) … like trying to read every single book in a field, then writing about how EVERYONE in that field is wrong. That’s either insecurity, genius, or a Messiah complex, and the odds aren’t looking good, buddy.

So I come back to the solution I am working on for myself: tools and self-awareness.

When I was swimming this morning, I feel like for the first time I really got the point of focusing on the catch, the part where your hand and forearm seize the water and begin to drive backwards. This wasn’t just a matter of the tools I had been refining, it was about me having the self-awareness to know I needed those tools, and why. I guess I’m in training for a similar learning process in terms of reading: skimming techniques, hierarchies of importance, but don’t be insecure, and don’t be a jerk.

And don’t forget to come up for air.

(p.s. aaaaaand again I’ve managed to blog instead of doing the work I set myself. I’m going to console myself with the idea it’s therapeutic and necessary.)

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