torsdag 6 juni 2013

Research by blogging?

Sometimes you read a text by a scientist-author who totally masters the art of writing. Just as a good magician will "fool" the audience into looking at certain things (his right hand) while equally important not looking at other things (his left hand), some authors master the art of controlling and directing their readers' attention to what is important right here right now. Not a single word is misplaced or redundant and the writing is lucid. This kind of mastery oftentimes seems to go together with having something important to say.

When I think of this specialized ability of expressing your ideas and arguments in text, certain names pop up. I've read two books by Neil Postman (a long time ago) and I've concluded that even if you happen to disagree with him, it is still very hard not to be seduced by his convincing line of reasoning and his masterful art of expressing himself.

I think that I myself has become a much better author compared to five or ten year ago. If I have to pinpoint a specific reason, I think that fact that I, between 2008-2011, squeezed out a weekly ≈ 12 000 characters (2-3 pages) long "essay" on my other Swedish-language blog has had something to do with it. As a researcher, you might write more than the average person, but you for sure don't develop and write up a paper based on a new idea every week. It takes a lot longer to write an academic paper. In comparison, the weekly "grind" of producing a finished text is an excellent "school of hard knocks" for learning both this and that. You learn the art of writing by writing regularly, and by finishing many smaller writing projects before you take on large ones. Producing on a daily basis is something I presume journalists get knocked into them quickly (or they fail as journalists).

This all is also something I've been aware of for some time, but I haven't put it into words before. I nowadays not only write more, but I write better texts than I did some years ago. It's not that I have learned a lot of new fancy words, it's that I now have a better command of how to get the text to do what I want it to do - including glossing over things I can't or don't want to write about right here and right now. I do think blogging has some part in it. This blog doesn't count fully though, since it is pretty easy to just sit down and write something up that uses the events and experiences of the past week as a starting point. This blog is more a diary or a notebook where my other blog presented one brand new argumentative essay every week for three years (145 published blog posts in total). To some extent, I sharpened my teeth as a writer on that blog, rather than (for example) by writing my ph.d. thesis some years earlier. My (probably) most ambitious text is called Rationaliseringens död and it also happens to be one of the texts that I have translated to English: Death of rationalization. It's actually pretty great and I could imagine picking up the basic idea, developing it and including it in a future paper of mine.

What I write about above is something that I've been thinking about now and then, but the idea that made me write this blog is the following: would it not be ideal to force/encourage new ph.d. students to start a blog and write longish blog posts regularly as a way to 1) establish a pattern of writing, 2) as a diary, 3) as a repository of ideas to draw from (later), 4) as a way to communicate current ideas of theirs to their advisors (and others who are interested) and 5) probably for some other reasons I haven't thought of, right?

As a bachelor's and master's thesis advisor, I have introduce the idea of my students writing a blog. Some take up the idea as this is basically the only way they can get feedback from me in-between our scheduled meetings. But why not extend the ideas to (new) ph.d. students? Let's say that a new ph.d. student would write at least one blog post per week. The purpose is not primarily to account for your time, but that would be a beneficial side effect. The primary purpose, as I see it, it is to develop ideas that are generated by reading books, attending seminars, having discussions around the coffee table and by taking on ph.d. courses. The blog would allow you to write up relatively informal texts that are focused on ideas of yours rather than on the form. It would be an excellent means to open up a line of communication between the ph.d. student and the advisor, and it would also constitute a repository for ideas for later, when you start to write papers. If you take care to write carefully crafted texts on the blog, it might even be possible to lift over sentences or whole paragraphs into a future paper.

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the man who blogs, every problem can be solved starting a blog - and that's me. Reactions? Suggestions?

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