Process and Procrastination

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, August 25, 2011.  Interesting that apparently even then Trump offered the prevailing analogy for any and all things dumb!

To say that historians procrastinate is like calling Donald Trump a blithering ass.  What could be more blatantly obvious or tragically understated?  Procrastination among historians can be so crippling I often feel like there should be a separate term for it, but seriously, who has the time to come up with one.  The cycle of procrastination, self-loathing, resignation, re-animation, and more procrastination is like a bad movie running behind so many promising projects, and part of what makes it so hard to break out of, is the crushing sense that it’s something we bring upon ourselves.  There’s a kernel of truth to that to be sure, but perhaps in part because I refuse to take full responsibility for my own lack of productivity, I’m going to pass some of the blame around.  I may take some heat for that, but given that someone would actually have to get off their biscuit to give it to me, I doubt it!

It may be imprudent to criticize graduate programs while you’re still in one, but prudence is not something I get accused of often.  It’s important that graduate programs introduce you to the great works in your field.  It’s incumbent upon us to understand the paradigm shifts, where and when they occur and why.  So the works we read for our courses and in preparation for our comps should be game changers.  But they shouldn’t all be the works, overwhelmingly written by senior scholars, that reshaped their respective subfields.  There is a universe of scholar’s first books out there that can be very instructive and incredibly inspiring in their modesty of scope and simplicity of structure.  It’s pretty well accepted now that to get a job and advance into a comfortable niche in this field you need to get something published–even if your ultimate goal is to find your way into a job that places greater emphasis on teaching than research (as mine is).  And it seems to also be true that there is no way to “teach” the craft of doing history.  Every project is different, every approach to research and writing fundamentally personal.  So very often, even in research seminars where the objective is quite explicitly to learn how to write history, we don’t read the books that were good enough to get published, we read Edmund Morgan or Thomas McCormick–books that were good enough to redefine modern thought.  What lesson does one logically draw from such an approach other than that unless you can find that truly, radically profound idea that alters the future course of the discipline, you’re probably not doing it right.

When you ask junior faculty about their first books, or even first articles, they’ll say they published the book because it was time to publish a book–and so the product was an inevitable compromise between the book they’d like to write and the one that could be written with the research as it then stood.  There are gaps, flaws, even a few inconsistencies that slip through because procrastination led to hasty work on the part of the author, and compromised the attention of the reviewers.  So if you’re one of those who thinks procrastination is somehow conquered, bravely bested, at some more advanced stage than the one you’re at–think again.

When faculty talk to students about their works (which it shouldn’t need to be said that they should, but it does), they should be frank and open about those compromises.  And they should assign books that are lightly revised dissertations, or articles in the not-quite-flagship journals.  Graduate students would stand a fighting chance against procrastination if the task were cast in a somewhat more practical, less shimmering, light.  Let’s think about how we are leading students to interpret a contribution to the field.

And for god’s sake, let’s talk about process.  Yes, they’re personal, yes they fundamentally change with every new project.  But you still have one.  And young graduate students do not.  And if they can’t find a way to develop one, they are going to suffer an agonizing graduate program (or decide not to) and spend a lifetime wondering why they did.  I recently had a fantastic conversation with my own advisor about how he goes from collected research to written draft.  Having, at this point gathered a vast array of materials from archives across New England and much of Atlantic Canada, and educated myself in the literature of everything from natural history and the origins of government science to the development of public education, conservationism, Anglo-American relations, Canadian political history, industrial expansion, and the fisheries–and six or eight other things I’m probably forgetting, I have a really hard time looking at what I have and trying to shape it into a form from which I can say something coherent.  And the really cruel irony is that I spend hours thinking about the problem and when I can reach no definitive solution, my penance is to do more research and more reading.  Which only exacerbates the original problem!

My advisor, because it seems ridiculous to just repeatedly call him “my advisor,” is Richard Judd, author of Common Lands, Common People, and an impressive, intimidating, and often downright maddening list of further titles.  One thing he very generously revealed to me, though, was that his process didn’t come of age for him until long after graduate school.  And when in a moment of weakeness and desperation I revealed to him my badge of failure–that I had amassed unmanageable sums of knowledge with no clear sense of how to move to the next phase–he offered to show me the inner workings of his process.  He showed me how he collected and catalogued his notes, how he dealt with primary vs secondary material, and how he moved these into very rough blocks of text, and how he conceptualized the process less as writing and more as editing–which for him kept him in a comfort zone and kept him productive.  I can’t say that I now follow his process.  Much like teaching, you adapt the tactics of the professors you admired most and create a style that is uniquely your own.  I took some ideas from the conversation, and some different ways of thinking about the process that have helped me get my wheels down on the ground where they might spin to greater effect.

Problem is, that conversation needs to happen sooner.  The need for it needs to be anticipated.  And it needs to happen continually between grad students at the bar, between students and faculty in the seminar room, between advisors and advisees, in informal panels of faculty talking about their work before an audience of grad students.  I get that history is often of necessity solitary work, and in my cynicism I am sometimes forced to wonder if faculty aren’t sitting in their ill-lit offices conspiring to replicate the same pain and cycles of procrastination and self-loathing that they endured in the early stages of their careers.  Do they see it as some diabolical but necessary rite of passage?  If they have faced down these same demons in their own work, and spent a career evolving their own process, why does the secret seem as heavily guarded as some of their ideas and sources?  Why can’t it be shared, even if just to remind grad students that the problems they face are not new and they’re not unique?  It’s not like giving away a secret ingredient to the sauce or surrendering patent rights.  Seems to me that is should be about being a part of a collegial group of scholars who make each other better, rather than suffer in isolation and silence.

At the end of the day we motivate ourselves or we don’t.  My borderline rant here is not a full shirking of personal responsibility.  I can own up to my own shortcomings–there are oh so many.  But our graduate programs supposedly seek to provide us with the tools to do the work, and in this sense they often erect a bridge that doesn’t quite reach the other side.  We should read the books that revolutionized the field, absolutely we should.  But we should also read the modest monographs that make it into print with little fanfare or exposure, but help their authors along to the next stage of their careers.  And we should talk to each other about process, about the nuts and bolts, and treat it as a profession that’s a little more about lunch pails than Pulitzer prizes–for the sake of the often fragile psyches of those seeking access to it.  Let grad students see their mentors as people with complicated relationships to their own work rather than simply the towering intellects we’re charged with modeling.  It’s a lot easier to model someone who is forthcoming about their insecurities.