DISCOURSE as quilting

Welcome to the intersection of P. L. Thomas writing about his writing and other writers' writing to explore discourse as quilting.

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remnant 56: “thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness”

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Writing about Franz Kafka, Bob Blaisdell explores Kafka’s relationship with writing:

As he told Felice, one of his fiancees (he would remain a bachelor): “My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.” This last sentence is part of Kafka’s thinking about the unavoidable self-revelation of writing. How often we read work whose loudest message is “I wish I were doing anything but writing.” Kafka had poor health; he needed to conserve all his energy and attention for writing. Writing did not give him vitality; it certainly did not give him money or fame in his lifetime. It was a compulsion, a habit, a refuge. It made life possible and purposeful; it sometimes, not always, gave him peace of mind. Sometimes it brought him to despair over its difficulty, or it exposed his weaknesses to the light, but he also noticed how sometimes, in the midst of that despair, writing gave him distance from (and thus rescued him from) that despair:

I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength.

As a young man firmly in the grasp of the compulsion to write, struggling with what that meant, floundering with the evil twin of wanting to be published, I read, re-read, marked in, and carried around (also compulsively) a copy of The Basic Kafka.

The Basic Kafka

The mid-term assignment I now use in my first year seminar that is writing intensive invites students to interview professors, academics, or writers about their lives as writers; one of the questions I recommend they ask is about what compels them to write. Many students are surprised to find that so many who write have extremely conflicted relationships with needing to write, wanting to write, or being compelled to write (and that many academics dislike writing, dread it).

I have many writer-Selves, and I share that with students.

The writer-Self for me most like what Kafka details in his journal is my poet-Self.

In all writing contexts—poetry, blogging, scholarly work—I am compelled; these are not things I choose to do. But the poetry is the most beyond my conscious control.

For lack of a better way to explain it (odd, yes, for someone who calls himself a writer: as Kafka also warned, words tend to fail us), poems simply come to me.

And therein is the problem.

With blogs and scholarly work, there is certainly inspired writing. And with all my writing, the moment I finish a piece I am immediately petrified I’ll never again have anything to write. This is what being a writer is.

But the great bulk of prose writing allows me to make some decisions, step back, reject ideas, experience fits and starts, and sometimes abandoning all together.

To ignore a poem is like turning your back on a child.

So recently I felt moved—in other words, these poems called out to me to write them—to write poems about the shooting of Jordan Davis, poems that feel akin to poems written about Trayvon Martin: Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

criminal acts (black&white)” came first and then “misfire (trigger warning).”

The latter represents the most difficult part of being a poet—being compelled to write poetry—for me.

I was (I am) petrified by the piece. The topic is hard, the language walks a thin line of confrontation and offense, and the act of writing poetry about other people’s tragedies feels invasive.

Writing is necessarily and simultaneously two contradictory things: intensely solitary and private as well as nakedly public, communal.

One aspect of the communal element of writing is that many writers thrive on collaboration—the most important of which is an editor or readers who see drafts before a wider public reads the work.

Scholarly work often goes through several drafts and editors before publication.

My blogs and poetry, however, tend to reach readers after having passed only my eyes and mind, and there is a terror to that, a terror that suggests that only those compelled to write would continue to go through the process.

Many writes have confronted all this, possibly few better than Kafka.

So key moments sustain the writer (and I would argue all artists)—and the writer above all else needs sustenance; and therefore, it is no surprise Kafka wrote again and again about hunger and starving (see A Hunger Artist).

One moment is the kind reader. The “I like this piece” or the truly wonderful “I love this piece.”

The other moment is selfish and comes also in that solitary state.

You revisit a piece, possibly one you barely recall. And you think “I’m glad I wrote that.”

And then being a writer creeps across your skin as you are immediately petrified that you’ll never again write anything that good.

Sometimes we get a second or two, but rarely more…

And so we steel ourselves against the insecurities of being a writer, the fears that threaten to paralyze. We recall and imagine the kind reader, and then we move on, feeding the beast within us. It is ravenous and self-consuming, yes.

But there are days, quite by chance, that we read ourselves and find peace in our own words, a peace we feel thousands of times in the words of others. And we smile:

layers (stranger in my own dreams)


Written by plthomasedd

February 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm

remnant 16: “a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production”

with 3 comments

Two online pieces jump out at me in a way that may seem unrelated at first:

For me, the pieces speak to the Brave New World of scholarship that has swept over and past academia, while most academics weren’t paying any attention.

The online world, often marginalized as “social media,” of blogs and Twitter has sprung up, evolved, and become relevant—even influential—without the blessings of the powers that be within academia—the faculty status committee and all the trappings [1] associated with tenure and promotion, that nefarious [2] world called “scholarship.”

So in the cusp of April (the cruelest month) and May in 2013, Sean Reardon, an academic and scholar, posts what the NYT has deemed a “commentary”; yet, the piece is anchored throughout by statistics, research, and his expert analysis of what all that evidence means. Reardon is doing the heavy lifting of the public intellectual, but this is being carried out online—thus, comments are posted and the piece gains a momentum of sharing through Twitter, Facebook, and a whole host of engines for distribution that is driven by Reardon’s dear readers. [Not his department chair, not his colleagues, not his university, not a panel of peer-review, but his dear and patient readers from all walks of life.]

I will venture onto a pretty sturdy limb here and add that this NYT piece from Reardon will garner more readers, impact more thought, than most of his recent scholarly publications [3] in quite a few years. I have had pieces online at the NYT and The Atlantic, and can attest to the seemingly never-ending ripple effect of having had my work published (although only virtually) in both.

And this leads to Germano’s piece about readers and a question I have come to ask quite often: If an academic publishes in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it, does it really matter? [4]

Germano opens with a very writerly thing to claim (as opposed to a scholarly thing to say [5]):

Go ahead. Keep working on your book. But before you finish, I hope you’ll consider a modest proposal. Your book will never be entirely yours—it can’t be. Because the book you’re writing needs an important collaborator: the reader.

Today our paradigms for scholarly writing may never have seemed less paradigmatic, our disciplinary affirmations never less comforting. Yet professionalism remains tied to the idea of confirmation through writing.

Traditionally, the scholar has been allowed to seek “the idea of confirmation through writing” within an insular and somewhat hollow mechanism of authority—faculty status committee, peer-reviewed journals. In effect, the incestuous echoes of scholars writing to, for, and against scholars. And for the most part, that structure was built quite sturdy, essentially sound-proof so that no one outside the fortress of academia and scholarship could hear even if anyone wanted to [6].

I sit here this morning about to venture into my every-other-year duty as a professor, the self-evaluation. It has taken me almost a dozen years to understand what this process means, and how best to go about it. That has been an adventure filled with fits and starts, most of which I find tedious and unproductive (higher education is a passive-aggressive world in which those expectations that are most vital to any professor’s success are also those things “which must never be uttered”; even that those things which must never be uttered is never uttered).

And part of that self-evaluation will once again include my own self-advocacy linked to a larger advocacy that the public work of a scholar deserves a place in the academy, and I don’t mean a token sidecar. For some, if not many of us, public intellectual work existing almost exclusively in the non-peer-reviewed virtual world is our best and most effective work.

But only if we concede Germano’s recognition of the role of the reader:

And yet there’s a paradox here. Even if scholarly publishing may be in trouble, readers—even scholarly readers—aren’t. In fact, readers may never have been more important in the ecology of knowledge production….

New reading conditions make old questions even more important: Whatever we write is for readers, or it’s nothing at all. Do we write as if we mean to welcome readers? And what do we want to happen after the handshake and the hello?

The traditional model of scholarly production is based on scrupulous research methods and well-documented results. But that same model, especially as applied to the job of writing a first scholarly book, has also tacitly endorsed a principle of precise and modest display. Nothing too flashy, nothing too speculative. The reader’s presence has respectfully been acknowledged, but not often actively engaged.

That’s how we’ve done things these past 30 years. But our writing protocols need to change now, in part because the digital environment increases potential visibility and exposure. Let me propose here a controlling metaphor: We’ve been writing snow globes.

And as Germano acknowledges, the life of the academic/scholar is nothing if not a quest for avoiding mistakes, controversy, or disturbing in any way the land-mine littered territory of most importance, other people’s scholarly turf. One misstep and there goes the foot to stand on when you seek tenure and/or promotion. The culture of fear is palpable:

Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

As we fear, so we write. Fearful writing is different from covering the bases. It’s building a glass wall around one’s project so that the reader can look at but can’t disturb the pleasant scene within.

It’s no surprise that the snow-globe book doesn’t do much. It can’t. There’s nothing to grab onto, no space for the reader to get into the text and texture of the argument. There may not even be an argument, or a thesis, or a claim, or even a very good, almost entirely coherent half-an-idea.

Academe has been in the snow-globe business for years. The problem here is not the specificity of research but the intention of the finished product. Inward-looking, careful to a fault, our monographs have been content to speak to other monographs rather than to real, human readers.

Traditional scholarship is not just insular and spawned from fear; it is moribund, static, defunct—dust-covered as those scholarly books neatly catalogued in library stacks around the world where most of the hardback sales go to rest like sarcophagi in rarely visited museums.

While we often hear warnings about the Brave New World of the Internet—emails exist forever, Facebook posts exist forever—we tend to fail to recognize that the virtual world being permanent because of the infinite replications is a type of living, a type of evolution that rises above paper-based publications that literally begin to deteriorate the moment they are produced.

And thus, Germano’s argument:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

Or as I have been exploring, discourse as quilting. And now I seek you, reader, to join the cause.


[1] By “trappings,” I mean definition 1, not 2:

  1. The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success.”
  2. A horse’s ornamental harness.

[2] In the blur of drafting, I misspelled “nefarious” (the red line told me thus) so I copied my version, pasted it into google, and was rescued.

[3] Mostly peer-reviewed and published in hard-copy print form (in the real and not virtual world).

[4] With my apologies to trees everywhere falling in the woods without a precious human their to verify and make real that falling. We are a self-centered, navel-gazing species, humans.

[5] As Ernest Hemingway admitted, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” But while the writer toils in solitude in order to reach out to the world, the scholar often wallows in solitude as if the world doesn’t exist (and even worse, as if the world is beneath him/her).

[6] And so we have the life of the sad professor, as the lyrics to R.E.M.’s “Sad Professor” detail: “everyone hates a sad professor./I hate where I wound up./dear readers, my apologies”:

Written by plthomasedd

April 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm

remnant 4: “good enough for one of your blogs but…”

with 3 comments

Recently, I had the kind of experience with a scholarly submission that I wish I could someday identify as rare, but the truth is, this is essentially typical—even among the progressive and critical colleagues, scholars, and publications where I place a good deal of my academic and scholarly work.

I submitted a chapter and was prompted to revise and rewrite it multiple times (I, in fact, appreciate and thrive on substantial editor feedback in my work, especially since much of my public work—see below—is produced in isolation). Often, when editors ask for revisions of my academic work, the initial comments revolve around the work being too conversational—too much personal narrative.

For the record, when I submit public work, the editorial complaint is my work is too scholarly.

In both the academic/scholarly press and the public media, I have a very purposeful commitment to submitting work that simultaneously offers a message I am seeking to share while simultaneously using the mode, discourse, genre, and medium to confront the norms of both contexts; I want to challenge the academic/scholarly norms of discourse, and I want to challenge the public norms of discourse.

My work with journalists, for example publications such as AlterNet and Truthout, has been some of the best on-the-job training I have ever experienced as a writer. While I remain often frustrated about certain entrenched conventions for public work (journalism is too cavalier about citations, for example), I have learned a great deal from careful editing, questions, and suggestions when working with journalists.

As I turn back to the opening experience with a recent piece (which eventually found a home at AlterNet, by the way), I must say that I am more troubled by the entrenched expectations for discourse among academics and scholars—notably critical scholars who want radical and critical messages wrapped in reductive, stilted, traditional discourse conventions.

And what is more troubling, I think, is the not-so-subtle condescension found among academics, including the “this piece is good enough for one of your blogs but…” refrain.

Traditional academic and scholarly discourse has much to learn from the world of blogging and online discourse. My blogs, for example, allow me to pursue the quilting I have begun to examine in this blog, first inspired in me by the hybrid scholarship of Maxine Greene, whose writing in educational philosophy opened up to me a world in which literary, historical, and personal references were weaved with the so-called weightier business of philosophical rigor (an ugly word that should never be used in the positive contexts people do use it).

I have been using Joseph Williams’ Style (a work that comes in enough versions and editions to set some Guinness World Record I suspect) with students since the mid-1990s when a member of my doctoral committee, Craig Kridel, held up the book at our first doctoral meeting and told us everyone should read it and know it.

A key point made by Williams that has remained with me as a writer is the concept that we humans are interested in people doing things, even better is real people doing real things.

Vivid writing of all genres, modes, and forms is concrete, and the most engaging case any writing can make involves personal narrative (see Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing). But as Greene models, I also think that claims, evidence, and elaboration become effective and compelling with a richness that quilting can offer, pulling from literature, history, quantitative statistics, personal narrative, journalism, philosophy, and non-print media such as films, music lyrics, and graphic texts.

In a recent piece, I came to see that teaching is an invisible profession, and that idea was made more engaging for me when I began to consider Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. So I grabbed a copy (after looking through the previews at amazon and google books), eventually rereading the Prologue and Epilogue. In that re-connection with literature, I also came to see that teachers have been hibernating, like Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

The finished piece is more rich for my literary research, but also for my shaping the finished piece around those passages.

For journalism to ignore the power of citation and for academics/scholars to belittle blogging and the thriving online media are both serious failures to seek discourse that public intellectuals can engage with the wider public in ways that bring about change.

While it stings to have my own work negatively criticized and eventually dropped from a project I very much supported, I am much more concerned about the entrenched insular nature of academia and scholarship.

In academic publishing and processes such as tenure and promotion at the university levels, peer-reviewed journals and traditional forms of discourse remain not just honored but exclusively tolerated and rewarded—despite the tremendous imbalance of few (if any) people reading the peer-reviewed works while thousands are exposed to public work (I had an online piece in The Atlantic that reached 1000+ Facebook “likes” in a few days; my blog allows me to see daily visits of 100 or more).

The work of scholars as writers needs to be about what we say, of course, and there must be great care in making informed claims within and from ones field of expertise. But academics must not ignore how we communicate and especially to whom.

To put a twist on a cliched riddle, If an academic publishes an essay in a peer-reviewed journal and no one reads it…