Friday, April 15, 2011

Paragraph Paranoia

One glaring feature of adult life in general is the lack of clearly defined markers for success and mechanisms for the delivery of positive feedback on that success. This is also true of writing a dissertation, or indeed all grad school after the coursework stage. Whereas during classes, you have a paper to write, on which you get a grade, usually delivered promptly a week or so after the end of semester, the dissertationer has nothing. Nothing. Not until the dissertation defence, which may be three or more years in the future. One of the implications of this is that it is crucial to define your own measures of success or progress. Mine has become "the paragraph". One problem with using paragraphs is that value is not monotonically increasing in volume, i.e. at some point writing more doesn't help you. The paragraphs have to be good as well. But you as the dissertation-writer cannot assess the quality of your paragraphs, first because your writing seems tropical-island-lagoon clear to you even if it is mud-bespattered Hegel to everyone else, and second because paragraphs have an emergent quality; a collection of them together can be worth more than the sum of its parts. A day in which two dynamite paras were lovingly chiseled from the Carrara marble of your thoughts might be thought a success. But what if these do not fit into the wider structure of the paper? Or if the paper itself will not be any good? From such paranoia lassitude and despair arise. It seems like a solution is not to worry about how good the paragraphs are, but then you are left in the bizarre situation of writing but not caring about it. Naive and idealistic observers would say that the dissertation committee provides feedback. But this feedback, if it is forthcoming at all, is almost never fine-grained enough to be applicable to individual paragraphs. All that is left is to drift in the leaky rowboat of our intelligence, alone.

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