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On Writing in Grad School

I recently filled the pages of the notebook that I carry with me almost everywhere. Free writing is a habit I started as an undergraduate in Paris, agog and doe-eyed and trying to catch as many moments of my time abroad as I could manage. It’s a habit that continued in graduate school and one that offers an unmatched sense of accomplishment.

Even though recently I haven’t felt all that accomplished about my free writing.

I feel guilty. Guilty that I haven’t done more of it, guilty that I sometimes pass off taking notes at a lecture or colloquium as free writing, guilty that I’ve never worked fast enough. And so, filling the last few pages of this notebook, I found myself not thoroughly pleased, as I usually am when I can flip back through all that scribbling. Something was upsetting me.

Here is part of the last entry: “Grad school demands that we unlearn many things, but I never imagined that writing would be one of them. As I write this here, at the end of these thousands of words, I still feel like I just started writing. My hand cramps. I worry. I don’t flow with copious rigor.”

What hit me during this free-writing session was the culmination of a creeping suspicion that my graduate-school training has forced me to treat writing as a back-seat imperative in my research practice. It might have started in my doctoral program’s required course on introductory methods in social science. For one of the first readings in the first class I took, we read sections of Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Popper writes, “The initial stage, the act of conceiving or inventing a theory, seems to me neither to call for logical analysis nor to be susceptible of it. The question how it happens that a new idea occurs to a man—whether it is a musical theme, a dramatic conflict, or a scientific theory—may be of great interest to empirical psychology, but it is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge.”

It’s hard to argue with Popper if analysis is all we’re interested in. What happens at the beginning of an idea is not important for how it works. But refereeing comes later; grad school is often more about the mania around creating ideas than about analyzing them. Or, maybe more accurately, grad school is about learning how to make the two into the same: Analyze with sophisticated nuance in the classroom and then disappear into the dark for the final weeks of the semester to try your own hand.

What we discussed in our methods course very likely indicates a more general diagnosis of social-science doctoral training: We’re supposed to adopt natural scientific inquiry and apply it to the messy social world. This means we “gather” data as though they are in a field at harvest and “write up” our analysis as if it were obediently waiting just beside our desk. Perhaps those metaphors work for many people, but they do not for me. I do not have an easy time deciding the status of examples in my work, often because I don’t find the idea of “representative sampling” very stable. I do not have an easy time writing up my analysis, because I don’t believe it exists before I try to wrestle it to the page. I find it hard to retreat to my escritoire and scribble away with fury unless I know there is a supportive, attentive environment to greet me when I emerge.

What, then, are we supposed to make of writing when we’re told it’s something that makes itself?

Here are the things I’ve never done in grad school as I near the end of my coursework. I treat these absences as symptoms of a social-science training that too quickly sidesteps the marsh that is an intimate engagement with laying words on a page in favor a seemingly steadier, easier, “truer” training that assumes a linear relationship between idea and publication.

I have never workshopped a piece of writing during a course. And no one else in my classes has, either. We usually have a single day in the middle of the semester devoted to talking about our final projects. We go around the room and talk in the most wildly abstract terms about where they might go in 25 pages. It’s very exciting, but it’s not writing.

I have never been taught to read a journal article. I have rarely discussed a text in terms of its formal features. I have never been asked, for example, “What makes this introductory paragraph so good? How can we borrow this tactic in our own writing?”

I have never given others comments on their writing within the format of a course. Our final papers go directly to our instructors, and in most cases we never see one another’s work. When we do, it’s just for fun.

When we write, we’re doing our job. We are a community whose livelihood depends on how we arrange words on paper. Why are we not talking about this duty? Why are we not spending most of our time talking about this duty? Why are we not breathlessly recounting strategies that worked this time around and suggesting them to others? Why, instead, do we pass each other in the hallway with a sympathetic smile as we retreat into our quiet, lonely spaces?

I would gladly trade my daylight for a career if that career included salvation, the way I thought it would before I started grad school. I would gladly unlearn certain things if it meant that my writing life became my whole life. I would even gladly face the job market we’re told is dismal if I could say with confidence that the six years of my life spent working on my doctorate have been devoted to making my writing process something uniquely my own.

In fact, I am gladly doing all this. And yet, how hard it is to write even these paragraphs.

Kevin Gotkin is a Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

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