Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

All That Is Solid…

Abstract figure under seigeI’ve been flitting around a bit this morning, as I tend to do when trying to complete essentially administrative tasks – I generally have a long list (either in my head or, if it’s particularly complex, written out) of relatively atomised things I need to finish. I learned some time ago – one of the lasting legacies of managing a business – that I could work most rapidly if I would skip over any item on the list that – for whatever reason: mood, complexity, resources, etc. – I didn’t feel I would complete as quickly as possible. This strategy means that I keep working on something – that something gets done – and that I don’t delay finishing simple things I’m in the mood to do, because I’ve held myself up with complex things I wasn’t… As things get done, and I loop back through the list, I often find that I’m now in the mood to do something that seemed unappealing earlier – or that I have gotten through enough that, if I now have to spend quite some time ferreting around after bits and pieces required to finish a task, or if I drag out a task I dislike, this process won’t hold up everything else I need to complete.

Before starting on a complex task, I also tend to spend a bit of time thinking over what it will involve and what I’m trying to achieve – getting the relevant issues in my head. And then I take a quick break to do something completely unrelated – basically, because I find that, as with so many other things, I tend to sort things out somewhat nonconsciously, and this process facilitates a certain level of nonconscious problem solving… Lately, the unrelated task to which I turn my attention is often blogging – so readers can tell, if I have a spurt of fragmentary posts in a day, this means either that I’ve had a day filled with meetings with tiny breaks in between that aren’t suited to any other productive purpose, or that my blog posts are functioning like tick marks on my list of things I needed to get done… ;-P

Today has been a day of tick mark blogging.

Thus far, each tick has been for a relatively simple bit of drudgery. Now, however, I have to turn to something much difficult: rethinking the organisation of one of the courses I’ll be teaching in a couple of weeks. (I know, I know – why am I only doing this now, instead of, say, several months ago… What can I say? My professional life has been in freefall for months, and even now things aren’t completely and irrevocably certain – although they’re a whisker away from being so – and I have a deep aversion to investing time in course design work that may not lead anywhere…) But I hadn’t actually expected this particular rethink to be difficult: I’ve covered this course before and, although I was unhappy was some issues relating to readings and assessment, was not basically dissatisfied with the structure of the course or the issues I covered.

So why is it, then, that as I sit down to glance over the old course guide and my lecture notes from last year, I find myself in a state of panic, and feel like the conceptual structure of the course is sifting away through little pores that have suddenly opened up everywhere in my brain? The old structure – these things I claimed with great conviction last year, the concepts with which I armed a small clutch of students heading off into the wider world, my course one of the last they would take before leaving the university – just looks absurd to me now. Unfortunately, so do all of the ideas that are springing up as possible replacements…

This sensation – the panic, the sense of absurdity – is intimately familiar: it seems to be an integral element of my work process, something I put myself through before it is eventually replaced by another sensation – that of settling in, of committing fully to whatever vast task needs to be undertaken to complete the work before me. I experience this most often in relation to writing, but it’s obviously creeped across to infect my course preparation, as well (it’s quite likely that the only reason this hasn’t happened before, is that I’m generally slotted in to cover courses at the last minute, so I don’t have time to go through this process – although I also find it interesting, in a way, that what feels experientially like blind panic should have the common courtesy not to intrude when it can see that I’m too busy… ;-P If everyone’s panic is this polite, no wonder people procrastinate…). Somehow recognising that this is part of my work process doesn’t mitigate the felt experience… It’s as though I have to go through a process of profound uncertainty about whatever structure I’m trying to impose on my material, and then come out the other side to reconstruct something (often, perversely enough, the same thing with which I started…) in which I can have sufficient confidence again.

In relation to an old course, the sensation is one of strange alienation: I read back over the course guide – which I wrote, but don’t remember writing – and think that it actually sounds quite polished and professional. It has a clear, strong narrative structure that I could see providing a decent scaffolding for students to organise what they’re reading. Pity that I’m completely unable to deliver such a thing. I don’t feel like I possess the requisite background knowledge, I’m not completely sure I agree with the underlying assumptions, and I’m fairly dubious about many of the substantive claims… Was I just having some kind of extended out-of-body experience when I taught this course last year?

This sort of thing is of course worse when it comes to writing, as writing involves the creation of something new, something I’m doing for the first time. With an old course, I can at least cling to the mantra (even if, experientially, I can’t quite bring myself to believe it): you’ve done this before, you’ve done this before… With writing, I haven’t done this – not this exact this – before, although I may well have been sketching and drafting and reworking related concepts for quite some time. So the sense of hubris, of absurdity, of the rapid dissolution and disintegration of everything I used to pretend I knew, is particularly strong.

I’m almost afraid to ask: does everyone (anyone?) go through something similar when they try to write?

[Note: image @Cynthia Cooper: ]

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