Process Stories

There is an episode in Season Four of the West Wing by the same title as this post. President Bartlet has just won reelection and the staff is celebrating, but the press is pushing for stories from the campaign, to get the behind the scenes version of what the campaign did to win. While the West Wing as a show was, to an extent, an idealized version of an extended process story, one of the themes of the show is that they do not want the media to cover the process because it detracts from the issues–and in this episode, it allows for some know-nothing to claim a role that he had not played.

It seems to me that when it comes to some things, people are excited to see a dramatized version of that process story, but, much of the time, people have a vested interest in presenting just the final product, whether because the process will reveal weakness or uncertainty or just detract from the overall product. But the emphasis on the final product is a disservice to the process, or to the idea that education itself is a process, whether what is being learned is algebra or essay or story writing or a language or pedagogy itself. My comment here is hardly novel, but students and even dedicated teachers sometimes manage to skip the process in favor of results, or at least a particular emphasis one what the successful end product looks like without establishing the process by which those products are achieved. A parable about fish comes to mind.

The issue of process versus product has been on my mind recently as I have struggled to pick up steam on my dissertation. I have been obsessed with the process of writing it, both in a sort of intellectual curiosity and in terms of establishing good work habits that will hopefully serve me well in years to come. Along these same lines, I have long been interested in hearing academics talk about their intellectual development, again as a form of my own intellectual curiosity and also as a motivational, self-help tool. It is sometimes more depressing than helpful to hear the stories, but it usually helps remind me that nobody emerged from the uterus as a fully-formed intellectual titan and that everyone has to cover up or otherwise cope with their own insecurities. What people know they have had to work at at some point in their lives and, almost more importantly, there are always going to be times when they don’t know something–a situation that can be met with intimidation or curiosity.

One of my failings is that when I am overworked (so, always) I have a tendency to get discouraged in situations when I don’t know something. While I try to learn at least a little something about the topic for the next time I run into it. Here I do not mean the specifics of an argument or a case, but knowing so little about the topic at large that I can not really interact with it at any level. Being able to admit ignorance and move back into that role of learner would save me quite a bit of angst. Of course, having this ingrained compulsion to know things before they are taught to me quite defeats the purpose of an education.

I have also witnessed other people ruminate about related problems in the classroom and how they can be coped with. Most obviously and necessarily, these issues focus on grades, which are a product that the students want but is mostly divorced from the actual processes of learning. I have not yet heard any ideal solutions, but it is the right idea.

I do not know that I have any particular process, at least not one that bears out under scrutiny. Ideally, I have time to balance out my desires and hobbies–the reason that I am making a legitimate effort to keep reading literature through the dissertation, as well as exercise, baking, doing a bit of socializing, writing here, and doing a little bit of gaming, is that I am a happier person when I do these things and a happier me is a me who is better equipped both to think well and write well. But this is general life philosophy that, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because I am exhausted all the time and somnolent me is not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful writer (note my current battle to keep my head from rolling to one side as I type this). “I read stuff and I write stuff,” while true in principle also fails to capture any sort of process.

So a few general process thoughts about my own slow slog towards the various plateaus that substitute for actual completion:

  1. Coffee. Lots of coffee. If I cross a certain threshold, tea. I have spoken to some people who swear by various teas as fluids of choice while writing and I agree with the principle. Nevertheless, I am a coffee junkie who likes tea as a change of pace, but only after the system reaches a sufficient saturation level.
  2. A corollary is that I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, even now that I am without a laptop. As much as I might wish it were so, I am not dreaming of imitating Hemingway in the cafes of Paris, but rather that my office is far too warm for me to concentrate in and there are always chores to do when I am at home. The environment limits the number of sources I can have with me at any given moment, but this handicap is recovered by actually working.
  3. I also change formats. A lot. I will alternate between hand-writing, typing at a computer, and, at moments of panic, writing on paper that is upside down. I used to believe that I think at about the same speed that I write–this is still true, but I have also come to appreciate the momentum provided by the speedy, rhythmic spew that typing can engender. The latter requires extensive revision, but at least there is something on the page. Recently, I have taken to printing out whatever I have typed for the day, editing somewhat, and then adding about another page of material by hand, which I then type up the next day and from which I can launch into another day (or half day, with another round of editing and writing over lunch) of typing.
  4. In terms of time, I have been fighting a battle to reclaim my mornings, since I am a matutinal being these days, working best first thing in the morning and wind down about one in the afternoon–I can, and do, work after that time, but I am best at grading or other low-intensity tasks unless I have another hefty infusion of caffeine. Of course, reclaiming and defending my time has been one of the most difficult steps in this process.
  5. I have been learning to maximize available time, but if I have twenty minutes I am much more adept at grading an exam or two rather than writing a few sentences. I tend to write with my sources at hand rather than from notes and in all my writing, from this post to my journal to my dissertation, I prefer to clear time and work at a deliberate pace rather than feeling pressed by imminent appointments. If I had to pick a single one of these steps to build and improve upon, it would be this one, even if it was just toward writing here more often and save the time I can truly dedicate to the dissertation.
  6. I read as much as I can, particularly novels. I have a hard time reading non-fiction in my “free” time simply because that is what I spend the majority of my work time doing, too. There are exceptions to that rule, too, particularly because I have been making an effort to start knocking books off my academic to-read list, an ambition that meshes “fun” and my goal of being a well-rounded scholar. But I am also reading novels, slowly, but surely. First, I enjoy reading novels and, as stated above, if I can indulge myself just a little, I stay saner. But, second, I also do this because it makes me a better writer and I want to be both a good scholar and a good writer (though this also slows down the whole writing process).
  7. For similar reasons, I listen to other writers, historians and otherwise, talk about their writing. One of the more intriguing discussions has been the difference between discovery and outline writers and I suspect there is an academic parallel to that literary dichotomy, but as I am at far more words than I intended, that may be a topic for another post.

The writing phase feels as though I am in an interminable process, shoe-horned in between other responsibilities. I am dwelling on the process because there doesn’t ever seem to be an end–above and beyond the idea that maybe now, finally, I will learn one or two good study skills. The destination, or, at least, a destination is out there somewhere, but all I have right now is a journey.

I may return to this topic or something similar, but, for now, I would be interested to hear anything other writers or creative types have to say about their own process or reflections on process versus product more generally.

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