Two pieces of advice from my M.A. stick with me still. First was a pretty consequential piece from an advisor who said during my first semester, “If you plan on getting a Ph.D. to be a Mark Twain scholar, don’t.” The second, which I find myself saying more and more as I write, was a bit of wisdom from my thesis chair: “It’s like bowling. You set the pins up and knock them down.” Without laboring the metaphor too much, I think what I’m working on is reminding myself to set them up, and learning how to set them up, because bowling without pins probably looks stupid.
With that image, I think my advisor then—as my committee now—recognized that I have a tendency to lob large theoretical claims at objects of study that aren’t fully explained. And being among humanities folk I think it’s fair to say that we sometimes want to latch onto broad claims before truly breaking down what’s in front of us. This past weekend I got a text from an old teaching friend saying that Hail, Caesar! upends Frankfurt School dialectics, or something, and for that reason I should see it, before plots were even mentioned (he then wrote a great piece on it, but the point stands). And now I’m forming dissertation chapters saying things three pages in about how the sub-field of rhetoric of science has neglected data as a thing—as if I’ve earned that claim on page four?
In more zen moments I see this idea—setting them up before knocking them down—at work beyond my writing, too. At ATTW last week entire panels were dedicated to dealing with and conceptualizing the things in front of us: new workplace models, the weird history of technical writing, the lack of ethics as a subject in our curricula, the fact that user manuals are now all on YouTube. And there’s the leg work of doing that conceptualizing (far before the sweeping claims of and therefore everything about [major scholar’s] claims are shortsighted!) that I’m learning to value more.
I’m doing that kind of leg work now. It isn’t glamorous. But as Joanna Wolfe and Susan Youngblood reminded me after my ATTW talk, there’s little that’s glamorous about the mess of writing, the scrapped pages, or the actual monotony of setting up the pins. (I have no qualms in saying some of this research is monotonous—I mean, some of this work is about defining things like “p-value” and “correlation.”)
The project is a workplace observation of a non-profit that allows me to track the life of public policy data in “A Large Midwestern City.” I attend their meetings, get cc’d on their e-mails, track their collaborative work on Google Drive, go to their events, and interview team members and members of other, partner organizations that they interact with regularly. And I’ve been doing this since June. It’s a lot to keep track of, a lot of “pins” to get set up and in order before I toss a 10-lb. theoretical claim at it. I have a “hook” in mind, something like the “life” of data as it’s mined, aggregated, disaggregated, has rhetorical scaffolding built around it, and is sent into the world to be acted on, but neither my observation notes nor the actual practices of this workplace—like most writing practices—are that neat.
So I’m working on making sense of the things in front of me—the circulated drafts, the observation notes, the interview transcripts—and getting it set up and in some sensible written form. I’m working on valuing the richness of the data I collected, the tensions and contradictions in it, so that before I make claims with phrases like “ecologies, not networks!” and “iterative invention!” and “the rhetoric of the algorithm!” I have my evidence lined up.
And if anyone wants to go bowling, let me know.
Patrick Danner is a third-year doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition. His research interests are all over the place, a result of finding too many things interesting. He has ongoing/under-review projects about (1) the anti-vaccine movement and biopolitical rhetoric, (2) voter data and invention in technical communication, and (3) an on-hold project about 19th century public health. He likes teaching about data visualization and group writing processes, and somehow finds himself involved in digital projects all the time (check out MASH, folks), too. He once bowled a 190, which he thinks is pretty good, and fully embraces “going to protests” and “activism” as legitimate hobbies. Current nightstand books: Mina Loy, a Belgium travel guide, and some Spinuzzi.