That half conscious state between sleeping and waking seems to be the time that I begin to compose a blog post. I often wake up relatively early with a half formed idea. I then work on it idly, gradually waking up, before finally getting up and getting it down.
This post began in exactly this way, with a five am wondering about what my favorite academic books would say about – and to – me. As I started to go through the books I’d put on a very, very short list I realized – and it was one of those kind of Homer Simpson d’oh moments – that the books I most valued were ones which were the kind of work I’d love to do.
So I want to suggest here that it could be helpful to think, more often than I have been doing, not simply about the research that you want to do, but also the kind of writing that you aspire to. When thinking about answers to the question “ What academic work do I want to be known for?” the answer might just as well be about the quality of the writing as the actual subject matter…
Here’s how this consideration went for me.
My first choice was a book I read early in my doctoral work. Lives on the Boundary, by Mike Rose, is about academic writing and the difficulties experienced by many students from what are euphemistically called ‘non traditional backgrounds’ . At the time of writing Rose ran the writing centre at UCLA. Rose combines his own life story, that of an immigrant Italian boy who was nurtured by scholarly priests, with stories of some of the university students he has worked with, and with a theoretical exposition of the implicit linguistic and knowledge assumptions made about university students’ prior knowledges, interests and capacities.
The story that stuck with me most was of Maria, who put herself through high school and community college in order to become a psychologist. Her brother suffered from a severe mental illness and there was no health care available in the neighbourhood. Maria was determined to get qualifications and provide the kind of care needed by her brother and many others similarly afflicted in her community. Very early in her course at UC, she was introduced to the work of Norman O Brown and Thomas Szaz and the debates about whether there was any such thing as madness, or whether it was simply a cultural construction. This made no sense at all to her and she struggled so much to write her assignments that she was referred as a writing problem to Rose’s centre. Rose explains that Maria did not have a writing problem, but rather a serious case of not being able to understand the point of arguing about whether madness existed or not. Everything in her life, all her life experiences, told her this was not a debate.
The book is beautifully written and its narratives are economically but tellingly presented within a structure that leads the reader seductively through the argument. Layer after layer are built up into a convincing case. I love Rose’s weaving of the threads of biography, empirical work and theory together and really wish I could write a book like his.
My second book found its way into this blog a few posts ago. It’s Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. This was the first book of “French theory” that I really took to. The most well known section is his two page description of walking in New York, which it is both a delightful exegesis of the material reality of such perambulation, and a metaphor for de Certeau’s theorization of tactics and strategy. It’s not the theorization that I like most, but the beautiful writing about tactics – walking, daydreaming and various other forms of ‘poaching’, those moments when people can exercise agency within structures… it’s the evocative nature of the writing that I admire. Poetic and provocative, the prose always stimulates tangential ideas in me no matter when I go back to it. It’s the book I reach for when I think I have no more thoughts left, ever. Well, who wouldn’t want to write a book that could do that?
Then there’s Clifford Geertz’ description of the Balinese cock fight and its possible meanings, and his writing about writing/authoring… Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer which argues that it is impossible and also not acceptable for a researcher to remain dispassionate in the face of human suffering… and of course Roland Barthes Camera Lucida where he struggles with the question of why some photographs are moving and others aren’t… All of these share a particular quality of writing, a strong authorial voice married with what reads as scrupulous representations of empirical data.
So the pattern of the books that mean the most to me is one which sometimes combines the life experiences of the person writing, and always folds together very rich descriptions of everyday life with an interesting theoretical development. It is this interlacing of subjectivity, detailed texture and elaboration that pricks and maintains my interest.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that this isn’t what I write most. Most often I write relatively dull refereed journal articles. It’s in the books and the odd book chapter where I come closest to the combination of the books I love. This makes me wonder about my own research and writing agenda, and whether it isn’t time for another revision, another plan, another opportunity to think about whether and how my own work might inch a little closer to the kind of work I’d like to do.
What do your favourite academic books say to you?