The First Discipline: Objectivity

A catalogue of poses and motions produced from within a culture may read, then, like a form of special pleading, or, at the very least, like a product that must be ravaged of bias by scholars prepared to act as objective witnesses.

Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String)

Last year I suggested “seven little disciplines” to foster stronger prose. I want to write a series of posts over the next two weeks that goes through them one at a time, and also generalizes them a little beyond the training exercises that I originally suggested them to be. It is my aim to identify seven things that you should be pretty good at as a scholar and, therefore, seven things you should be working on as a student. These are “poses and motions” that should be familiar to you, which of course also means that they should occasion familiar difficulties that, as you develop your discipline, should become easier and easier to overcome.

The first discipline begins at the end of your working — or, let’s say, learning — day. This ability to end your day should, perhaps, be treated separately, as its own discipline — Discipline Zero, if we want to get dramatic about it. But it doesn’t belong to writing alone and I have in fact broken it down into two phases here. It’s the beginning of the first discipline and the end of the second, which we’ll get to in the next post. The important thing to recognize is that there’s a point in every day when you stop getting smarter, and you should reach that point with self-awareness well before you put your head on the pillow and go to sleep. In fact, it will be much easier to fall asleep if you decided to stop thinking seriously about your research a few hours before you close your eyes. Otherwise you’ll find your research project right there and waiting on the inside of your eyelids.

So let’s suppose it’s late afternoon, or early evening. You’ve finished work for the day, you’re about to start cooking, or, at the very latest, you’re about to call it quits after that extra hour of reading you gave yourself after dinner. Now you’re done. At this point you should call an intellectually interesting object to mind. The point of the first discipline is that “intellectual interest” isn’t a merely subjective matter. An intellectually interesting object is one that connects you to your peers; it is something that is of interest to you and to others working in your field, which, if you’re a student, means your classmates. Spend two minutes picking something to think about.

The best way to do this is to have a list (mental or written, it’s up to you) of things that interest you. Put one of them at the top, and spend the two minutes considering alternatives. You’re trying to pick something that you’d like to write about tomorrow, so it has to pique you a little, and you have to feel confident that you know something about it. What would you most like to write about tomorrow? Obviously, extrinsic pressures are entirely relevant here; the most “interesting” thing in the world right now may be the thing that your supervisor wants to see some pages from you about. Just remember that your supervisor (or journal or book editor) “represents the interests” of your broader community, your readership. So it has to be interesting to your peers more generally, not just to whoever is demanding some text from you. In any case, your two minutes should be devoted solely to picking a thing.

Don’t forget those peers — “scholars who are prepared to act as objective witnesses,” as Ben Marcus puts it. Tomorrow, you are going to be presenting it to this prepared audience, and they will expect, not just a thing, but an object. Something about which there can be facts of the matter. The first discipline is all about quickly and efficiently calling an object to mind, from among all the things that populate our world. You’re trying to pick something that other people also think about, something you can see from their perspective. You’re choosing it with their interests in mind. Give yourself two minutes to do this. Then go on to the second discipline… (more tomorrow).

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