Friday, June 6, 2008

What is the purpose?

I had a writer pass on an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled the "So What Problem."

It's a big problem. I find that I often read academic work that is just reporting--that is nothing but a collection of facts. While I recognize the value of compiling data, it's what we do with the data that matters.

We should be able to describe our work in a way that people don't ask "so what?" when we describe it to them. Obviously there are some people that you're not trying to reach, and some people who won't care. If, for example, you've been studying historical antecedents to Shakespeare, do you really care if some semi-literate person asks you why it's important?

And yet, there is a level at which the "so what" question can be answered that should reach anyone and everyone. Q: "So What?" A: "I'm interested in it." We might not always have a better reason for our interest in a project.

Now the "I'm interested" response may serve for many, it probably won't serve for a dissertation committee who wants a work that is a contribution to the literature. Of course, when describing something to your committee you don't have the same kind of "so what" problem as with a non-academic, or an academic from a distant field. Your committee probably has done work similar to the work you're doing--so the perspective of what is important is not the same.

But the most important person for whom we want to answer the "so what" question is ourself. We want to be able to say to ourselves, "It is important because of _reasonX_."

I was talking with a writer who said to me approximately "my committee is conservative and they think my topic is frivolous." The first level of response to this has to be to find your own understanding. do you think it is frivolous? If you do, it will be a hard project to sustain for the effort that a dissertation will take. But note well that someone telling you a project is frivolous does not mean that the project is worthless. As Ira Gershwin wrote:
"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
They told Marconi wireless was a phony, it's the same old cry."

As an academic, it's not enough to have an emotional conviction that a work is important. But that's a damn good place to start. You want to be able to follow it up with good arguments, that support your conviction.

It's important to have a sense of the purpose, because that guides what to write, and when the purpose can shine out, the reader can gather the sense of what is important to you the writer. The reader may not agree, but at least the reader can respond. If your sense of purpose is clouded and your reader asks "so what?", then the reader won't bother to look closely or read further. By contrast, if your reader strongly disagrees, your reader may well read for the purpose of finding weaknesses in your argument. Now I'm not recommending writing something that your committee will strongly disagree with, but I think that's better than writing something that your committee can't see any reason behind.

Give the reader something to grab onto. Wear your purpose on your sleeve. If you can frame that purpose in good academic terms, that's great, but even without that academic framework, a sense of purpose can go a long way towards helping guide you in your writing, and can also help guide your reader in the reading.

I repeat myself. I think that I have written similar things about sense of purpose. But it's a recurring problem. I think that academics lose their sense of purpose when they get too deep into the details--or rather, when you get too deep in the details, then it is easy to develop a a sense that the purpose is to get all the relevant information, rather than that gathering the data was to serve some other purpose.

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