Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 04 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Here we go round again edition)

Cue Ray Davies:

And we're back where we started,
Here we go 'round again,
Day after day I get up and I say
"I better do it again, do it again."

I've quoted it before and probably will again--ideas become cliches because they're accurate, not the obverse. Four days into the semester and it already feels as if we've been back-in-the-saddle for quite some time.

Much of my teaching work is much simpler than it was, because much of it is based upon courses I've now taught in 3 or 4 or 5 iterations, and so, no matter how much revising/digitizing I do, it's still not like conceptualizing the course for the first time. Although the initial brainstorming of topics and modeling of procedures is largely internal (you don't have a lot of tangible physical evidence, like lecture notes or playlists) at that early stage of the game, it's in fact the most difficult and sometimes the most time-consuming part of the process. Having the idea, and working out how to articulate/implement the idea, is the hardest part of designing a course, or a thesis, or a dissertation (or a book, for that matter). One reason we run both our undergrads and grad students, both musicology and non-musicology majors, through multiple repetitions of the "topic idea - thesis statement - short bibliography - abstract - annotated bibliography - background paper - final paper" paradigm, with assessment and response at each of those stages, is because the best way to learn how to formulate a new idea, thesis, project, or course is to do it multiple times, tinkering with what works. This is less painful and more efficient before you actually apply it in the public academic marketplace, or before (for example) you put a classroom full of undergraduates through an experiment whose efficacy you can't yet predict.

On the other hand, it does get easier. Not only because revising an existing course is easier than creating an original one. But also, and equally significantly though less obviously, because you can learn to get better at the process. The task of generating the ideas for a new project is unique to each individual, of course, but something I have observed to be remarkably consistent amongst most people who are reasonably productive is that the task is not linear but rather comparatively intuitive. You don't say "well, I know that I am interested in Topic A within Time Period B and Culture/Content Issues C and D and so therefore I know that the original thesis X will lead me to interesting and worthwhile research." In my observation and experience, it's much more like the line from Malory's Morte d'Arthur, where he describes the knights of the newly-minted Round Table deciding that they must go out seeking adventure singly, not in a group, and each enters the trackless forest alone, "where the trees seemed thickest."

What this gets at is that new scholarship does not actually proceed by "building upon existing work." Of course it must take the existing work on a given question into account--that's what Literature Reviews, the bane of most dissertators (and of most editors trying to turn dissertations into books), are precisely intended to do: to comprehensively internalize and accurately summarize the existing scholarship on a topic or question. But the Literature Review is not the foundation of the original hypothesis or insight. The Review gets all that stuff into your brain, so that (a) you can command the existing information and (b) assert with reasonable confidence that the work you propose to do does not replicate existing scholarship.

But the map is not the territory. The Lit Review shows you the known world, and your job is to contribute to that known world by scoring a path through some portion of the White Space ("where be monsters") on that map. You can't comprehensively diagram that territory--there is too much of it and, absent a specific point on the horizon as a goal, you won't know where you're trying to go--but you can provide a "reading" of the terrain; show somebody at least one efficacious way to negotiate the ups and downs and twists and turns. It's the rough spots--where you're lost--that lead to new insights.

Below the jump: sunrise on the South Plains.

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