Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The obviousness problem

Have you ever worked on a research project long enough and hard enough and deeply enough that you began to lose all perspective on it? It can happen with coursework papers, but normally most of us first experience the full weight of Research Vertigo when we write our dissertations. Research Vertigo can take several forms, but the one I'm thinking of right now is what I call "the obviousness problem."

What happens, usually, is this: you become the world's leading expert on (let's just use my own case) personal computer advertisements from the period 1981-1986. You spend a couple of years tracking down the canon of texts, and reading every scholarly book even minimally related to personal computing, or computing, or the 1980s. You hone the knife-edge of your critical capacity by reviewing all of postmodern and most of poststructuralist theory, with a special eye to feminist materialism. If you're like me, you probably put off writing the actual dissertation text in favor of excruciatingly detailed notes. When you get to the actual writing, you get stuck, because by this point it all seems ... sooooo .... obviouuuuussssss.

When I finally sat down to write the Real Dissertation, I pretty easily produced a couple of hundred pages, then nearly a hundred more. It was drafty and prolix, sure, but that's the way of all drafts, I think. I had so many ideas I wanted to disseminate. But then I started to edit.

It was about that time that I was struck by the obviousness problem. So immersed was I in the research, that everything I was writing began to seem ... obvious to me. It was naive. Unsophisticated. Not interesting. And then, like a late-stage hypothermia patient who in the very throes of freezing to death begins to take her clothes off because she feels too hot, I started cutting. Ugh--this insight is just obvious. Cut! This whole reading of Short Circuit is just so evident in the movie itself. Cut! Yuck--this bit about kitchen settings for personal computer ads is not even worth reminding people about. Cut!

I was in despair, and my dissertation was shrinking at an alarming rate. Luckily, my supervisor is the kind who will read many chapter drafts--Heather (Zwicker! Founding editrix and 3M Teaching Fellow!), to my amazement and consternation, kept telling me I was going too fast, that I needed to explain.

"But that's all so obvious!" I replied, doubtful, "I don't want to bore anyone by rehashing all that stuff that everyone already knows."

Eventually she brought me around to this: Just because it's obvious to me, doesn't mean it's obvious to anyone else.

Researching involves becoming the expert in what you want to write about. At the end you will probably know more about the topic than anyone. Since that's the case, you have to, as they say in Grade 1 math homework, "show your work."

So in this month of looming coursework deadlines and end-of-term dissertation writing milestones and the time of the making of detailed summer plans of research, let's take a pause to chant quietly to ourselves;

  • Just because it's obvious to me, doesn't mean it's obvious to anyone else
  • Remember to show my work.


Good? Have you ever fallen prey to the obviousness problem?


5 comments:

  1. An u/g prof of mine once said that if it seems obvious to you, then you're doing good work! His comment was really helpful in more ways than one: I think I'm a better writer now because I DO want to make what I'm saying seem obvious.

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  2. This problem also applies to teaching, too. I constantly fight the urge to "not bore students with the obvious" in tutorials. Often we look straight ahead at the obvious, but when we take a step to approach it, we are unpleasantly surprised at the chasm that separates knowing from doing when it comes to the obviuos.

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  3. I am glad to see this post ... I've often had a conversation with grad students making points like the ones described Aimee, but this is the first public discussion I've seen that names it.

    I think there's a similar phenomenon that is related to what Aldona says. Sometimes, when you really teach the lights out on a particular topic, students will leave the classroom with a "well, I already knew all that" reaction. You know they didn't know it, because you've seen students who've "covered" the topic in other classes who are completely lost while the students in your course have all the ideas straight. But there will be a supply of students who think they didn't learn a thing from ya. Just how frequently does good teaching leave students thinking they already knew what you taught them?

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  4. I have been saying this for a while. When grad students tell me how discouraged they are that they've done all this work and have nothing to say that isn't banal and obvious I congratulate them: "Congratulations! You are almost done." Throws them off, cheers them up, and normalizes what really is normal. Now we can all just link to this post.

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  5. I received related advice from the grad chair during my MA: that for a seminar, if it feels slightly too simplistic, you are doing it right. For oral presentations, anyway, you need to make sure your audience can understand what you are talking about. For papers, though, it is good to be highly complex yet still accessible. I think I suffer from the obviousness problem, which is why I tend to write complicated and strange papers: to avoid my grad student version of said obviousness problem.

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