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?