Friday, June 4, 2010

If wishes were hobbyhorses

This is the fifth (good grief) post in a series on the practice of responding to others' writing, which I've come to see as a core but relatively unsung element of the academic humanities.

For some reason I've chosen to dwell at length on the art of receiving feedback, which is, I believe, not entirely obvious. We've all taught courses in which we've laboriously commented drafts, only to get the final essays back and find that a good half of the students didn't do a damn thing to their essays. I have no illusions about the rampant snowflakery in this world, but I don't think it's entirely students' fault when they don't know what to do with a response to their writing. Receiving and using feedback is a practice that's partly intellectual and partly emotional. I try to prep my students to receive feedback using a pair of articles by Nancy Sommers (one co-written with Laura Saltz), which are pedagogically great in a number of ways (they're cited below), but which unfortunately don't really address the specifics of receiving feedback.

In my last post, I outlined some general things to do with feedback. Today I'd like to discuss a specific common feature of feedback, the hobbyhorse.

We've all encountered it. In fact, we've all inflicted it. For example, I have an incurable penchant for bringing up Luigi Galvani. I try to restrain myself, but somebody that awesome just can't be kept a secret. Yes, he is relevant to your chapter on the queer temporality of lolcats! He's relevant to everything! He matters, and I highly recommend that you rethink your account of temporality in light of his work. You know, his work on trying to re-animate dead frogs.

So you see what I mean by "hobbyhorses." You get a manuscript back, you're following along in the comments, and you realize that the reader has started harping on some really unlikely point, and it's something that reader talks about a lot. What, oh what to do?

In my last post, I exhorted one and all to distinguish between what it means and what to do. So I'll sort of do that now.

1. What does it mean?

  • Often, it means genuine engagement. We all have intellectual investments and influences--we wouldn't be scholars if we didn't. I was sort of kidding about Galvani earlier (only sort of kidding, as some of my less fortunate friends can attest), but I'm definitely going to think about any drafts I read in terms of ideas I know well, questions I'm interested in, whatever book I've just been reading. Always. In fact, that's why you want readers who are not you: so they will bring their investments and mental bibliographies to an encounter with your ideas. So when a reader rides a hobbyhorse, she or he is often genuinely interested in your work and is trying to relate it, in a substantial way, to ideas that she or he is actively invested in. Which is cool!

  • Occasionally, it means utter laziness. It's also possible that your reader hasn't read you carefully, and substituted greatest hits from her own personal Scholarship iTunes Playlist for what you were actually saying. There are uninvested readers who will tell you, every single time, that this is a fine draft but you need to devote more space to questions of aesthetics. It's regrettable, but it happens.

  • Sometimes, you asked for it. I wrote a few posts ago that responding to someone else's writing is a creative act. That's especially true when it comes to very unpolished or incipient work. Your reader is working hard to fill in conceptual gaps, detect the unstated assumptions, understand unstated implications, and generally make sense of something that's about fifty percent nonsense. The less clear and less developed a piece of writing is, the more likely hobbyhorses are. In fact, hobbyhorses are kind of necessary in those situations. If I don't know what you're saying, I have no choice but to think you are talking about some likely idea that I already know and understand.

2. What should I do?

As before, it's all about making the writing better. So you don't precisely need to know why the hobbyhorse has trotted in in order to know what to do with it. Even a hobbyhorse ridden in laziness can be useful. The question is: how much of this hobbyhorse was elicited by my writing, and how much of it is my reader's fevered obsessions? It's up to us as writers to figure out two things:

  • Is there really something to this seemingly zany connection? Roughly, we're asking here whether there's really something in your ideas that's related to the hobbyhorse. Depending on where you are in the writing process, even a truly weird connection could be worth fleshing out. Try honestly to evaluate the extent to which this is the case. Just give it some thought. You can't really know how carefully your reader read your work (I mean, you can have your suspicions, but that's something else). So it's best to take suggestions seriously and try to evaluate them on the merits, even if your reader does tell you you need to say more about Luigi Galvani every time. And if the hobbyhorse turns out to be relevant, then for goodness's sake, follow the reader's suggestions!

  • But if you've considered it carefully and determined, in a sober and fair manner, that this hobbyhorse is not helpful, you need to then ask: Have I written something that would make it likely for others to make this zany suggestion? Now we're asking if some superficial formal element of your writing is related to the hobbyhorse. It's possible that something in your writing genuinely warrants the wacky ideas your reader just brought in; it's also possible that it was something about your writing that you didn't intend. If you've considered the hobbyhorse suggestion and rejected it, then check to see if there's anything about your writing that's unclear or that wrongly gestures in the terrible, mistaken direction your reader took it. In my experience, using a specialized term to mean something unspecialized is a common culprit (e.g. using "duration" to mean "period of time," without the Bergsonian sense). Clarify the writing (which often means clarifying the argument) in a way that disallows the kinds of misunderstandings that could have led to the hobbyhorse suggestion.

It seems that responding to writing, and responding to responding to writing, is my own personal hobbyhorse these days. It's in good company with Galvani, though.

Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (Dec. 1980): 378-88. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2010.

--- and Laura Saltz. "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year." College Composition and Communication 56.1 (Sept. 2004): 124-49. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2010.

Previous posts on responses to writing:


Julia Bloch said...

All right, Natalia. I'll work on an abstract for a chapter on queer temporality and lolcats, since you keep bringing it up. But really: awesome post.

Natalia said...

Ha! Thanks, Julia. Hillary and I were thinking we should have a fake conference...