Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration

A column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by former Idaho State University provost and official Stanley Fish biographer Gary Olson has been making waves this weekend. Entitled “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” Olson’s column is really about scholarly publishing, not scholarship itself.

Or maybe not. I don’t know. Olson conflates so many issues and misrepresents so many points of view that it’s difficult to tease out a single coherent argument, other than a misplaced resistance to technological and institutional change. Nonetheless, I want to call attention to a troubling generalization that Olson is certainly not the first to make. Criticizing the call (by the MLA among others) to move away from single-authored print monographs, Olson writes that a group of anonymous deans and department chairs have expressed concern to him that “graduate students and young faculty members—all members of the fast-paced digital world—are losing their capacity to produce long, in-depth, sustained projects (such as monographs).”

Here is the greatest conflation in Olson’s piece: mistaking form for content. As if “long, in-depth” projects are only possible in monograph form. And the corollary assumption: that “long, in-depth” peer-reviewed monographs are automatically worthwhile.

Olson goes on to summarize the least interesting and most subjective aspect of Maryanne Wolf’s otherwise fascinating study of the science of reading, Proust and the Squid:

…one disadvantage of the digital age is that humans are rapidly losing their capacity for deep concentration—the type of cognitive absorption essential to close, meditative reading and to sustained, richly complex writing. That loss is especially deleterious to humanities scholars, whose entire occupation depends on that very level of cognitive concentration that now is so endangered.

Here again is that conflation of form and content. According to Olson, books encourage deep concentration for both their writers and readers, while digital media foster the opposite of deep concentration, what Nicholas Carr would call shallow concentration. I don’t need to spend time refuting this argument. See Matthew Battles’ excellent Reading Isn’t Just a Monkish Pursuit. Or read my GMU colleague Dan Cohen’s recent post on Reading and Believing and Alan Jacob’s post on Making Reading Hard. Cohen and Jacob both use Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which offers a considerably more nuanced take on reading, distraction, and understanding than Olson.

But Olson is mostly talking about writing, not reading. Writing a book, in Olson’s view, is all about “deep concentration”  and “richly complex writing.” But why should length have anything to do with concentration and complexity? There’s many a book-length monograph (i.e. a book) that is too long, too repetitive, and frankly, too complex—which is a euphemism for obscure and convoluted.

And why, too, should “cognitive concentration” correspond to duration? Recalling the now ancient Stephen Wright joke, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?

I am not saying that I don’t value concentration. In fact, I value concentration and difficult thinking above almost all else. But I want to suggest here—as I have elsewhere—that we stop idealizing the act of concentration. And to go further, I want to uncouple concentration from time. Whether we’re writing or reading, substantive concentration can come in small or large doses.

The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?
There’s a cultural prejudice against tweeting and blogging in the humanities, something Dan Cohen is writing about in his next book (posted in draft form, serially, on his blog). The bias against blogs is often attributed to issues of peer review and legitimacy, but as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observed in an address at the MLA (and posted on her blog), much of the bias is due to the length of a typical blog post—which is much shorter than a conventional journal article. Simply stated, time is used as a measure of worth. When you’re writing a blog post, there’s less time standing on the shore like an idiot. And for people like Olson, that’s a bad thing.

I want to build on something Fitzpatrick said in her address. She argues that a blog “provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers.” It’s that concept of ongoing process that is particularly important to me. Olson thinks that nothing fosters deep concentration like writing a book. But writing a scholarly blog is an ongoing process, a series of posts, each one able to build on the previous post’s ideas and comments. Even if the posts are punctuated by months of silence, they can still be cumulative. Writing on a blog—or building other digital projects for that matter—can easily accommodate and even facilitate deep concentration. Let’s call it serial concentration: intense moments of speculation, inquiry, and explanation distributed over a period of time. This kind of serial concentration is particularly powerful because it happens in public. We are not huddled over a manuscript in private, waiting until the gatekeepers have approved our ideas before we share them, in a limited, almost circumspect way. We share our ideas before they’re ready. Because hand-in-hand with serial concentration comes serial revision. We write in public because we are willing to rewrite in public.

I can’t imagine a more rigorous way of working.

(Digital Typography Woodcut courtesy of Donald Knuth, provenance unknown)

16 thoughts on “Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration”

  1. A follow-up note:

    A colleague wondered if my image of a scholar “huddled over a manuscript in private” was too much of a caricature. Indeed, I was trying to parody the monastic ideal that Olson and Stanley Fish privilege as the paragon of scholarly inquiry. In hindsight, though, I realize that my image conflates form and practice in the same way I’m fighting against. So let me be clear: there is nothing about writing a book that has to conform to this vision of a lone scholar toiling in private.

    As an extreme case in point, I think of the collaboratively written manuscript I and my fellow co-authors handed in to MIT Press in January. Ten of us wrote a book, using a single, seamless voice. We did this on a wiki, and every line that I wrote was “public” to my nine co-authors, who were free to critique it, revise it, or build on it. And I had the same power over their work. We wrote an entire book this way. And it’s a good one, too. So there’s that form—a long monograph—but our practice was entirely different from the traditional methods that Olson so prizes.

  2. I have to wonder if you read Olson’s entire article? I mention this because there are several misconstrued notions presented in your article. First, you should actually read ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’ so you can fully understand what is meant by ‘deep concentration.’ The fact that technology has had an adverse impact on our ability to maintain an attention span has been written about several times in the last 10 years. I would recommend as well reading the book ‘The New Brain’ by Dr. Richard Restak who also highlights (while using years of research) the negative effect technology can have on our brains. No one is discounting the positive aspects of technology it’s just raising awareness on its dangers. As far as the traditional and accepted avenues for scholarly works… The point was not so much the length of the work but that the works have an opportunity to be vetted not just by colleagues but also by “responsible experts” before being published. This ensures that when students, colleagues and others read the work they can know that the work is academically valid and not just an opinion. Furthermore, I don’t even know why you felt it necessary to use a fishing analogy since that wasn’t even close to the essential point Olson was making. The fact of the matter is that it takes time to get a scholarly work published and sometimes it just isn’t going to happen. This may be difficult to hear for someone who has trouble publishing articles through more traditional venues but it is what it is and, as mentioned by Olson, it would be a tragedy to lower the bar to accommodate those who lack the required finishing touches to get their work published. The process in place is there for a reason and it is best to wait it out (much like in fishing though when doing research and writing it should be, I would hope, much more intense and include extremely active intellectual participation). In short, reread the article, lose your bias for technology and consider the grave consequences of opening the flood gates by allowing serial works that have not been properly vetted into the scholarly arena. This doesn’t mean that you can’t blog or use serial forums as part of your writing/research process. It just means that you have to convert them into the proper forms before they get accepted onto the scholarly stage. Olson’s article was completely reasonable and well though out. Don’t forget that he wasn’t closing the door to incorporating some of these digital genres. He only indicated that the timing is right mostly because no one has proposed a logical way of doing so that maintains the highest of academic standards.

  3. Let me first say that I have not read “Proust and the Squid,” but I have read and followed Fish’s work for some time. Perhaps you will forgive me for as I am not a humanist but a sociologist. Yet I feel qualified enough to speak. Feel free to shout me down as not being qualified if you wish.

    I am quite interested with Kelly’s response, which borders on an ad hominen response. The first instinct many scholars have is to argue long=good. I want to point out the biases inherent in this position.

    First, there is the assumption that a person has limitless access to a single task for long stretches of time. To have this is to have control over one’s time, and likely by extension, to have tenure. Most junior scholars do not have the luxury of controlling their time for long swaths of leisurely writing. It is simply impossible to do whilst earning a living.

    Second, the very conflation of Mark points out is implied in Kelly’s response. Technological “bias” is not at all a wholesale adoption of technology, nor is it an ignorance of “brain science” and what technology may (or may not..the jury is still out there) do to our brains. Rather, Mark’s position is an optimistic embrace of the positive aspects of technology. Does that necessarily imply that he is pro-technology, and disregards its shortcomings? No, absolutely not.

    I think what is going on here is that technology is slicing and dicing our timescape, and slicing and dicing our approaches to analysis and collaborative scholarship. There are those who believe this holds no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But these tend to be people who fail to see their own privilege, and their own conservatism. Should we abandon the monograph? I’m not sure. But I can tell you it is not serving anyone but a minority of other scholars. It is certainly not innovative, and it is not helping us reach out to those beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

    I encourage other scholars to resist the form’s hegemony and attempt new ways to analyze texts (or social phenomena, as the case may be).

  4. I haven’t had a chance to reply to these comments, which is a shame, as a delay in commenting is often interpreted as disinterest. This perceived lack of engagement is an obvious drawback to blogs, and it makes me think that alongside serial scholarship we need something like slow commenting. Not commenting that proceeds at the pace of book reviews and journal rebuttals, but a commenting that at least recognizes 24 or 72 hours might go by before one has an opportunity to respond.

    The line that interests me most from @kelly’s comment is the “the grave consequences of opening the flood gates by allowing serial works that have not been properly vetted into the scholarly arena.” There’s been so much thoughtful work done to allay my concerns about these “grave” consequences that I hardly know where to begin. Again, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s work is crucial, articulated most extensively in her book, Planned Obsolescence (NYU Press, 2011). Note that Fitzpatrick’s book—published by an esteemed university press—was posted in draft form online and peer-reviewed in an open, transparent system.

    I have more to say about the metaphor of opening the floodgates, which plays upon our fears of legitimacy in the humanities more than describing the actual consequences of serial scholarship, but it’ll have to wait until another post.

  5. I have been following this discussion for 6 months or so, and am really interested in the level of anxiety expressed by those who are concerned that the era of the monograph is passing and with it an essential form of sustained scrutiny expressed in a static document. Although I deeply admire books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow (the product of 30 years of sustained concentration), I have been equally impressed by the creativity, courage and rigor I have seen in the collective work of young(er) scholars working in DH. While I am outside the DH community (teaching at a comm college), I can see that there is another kind of peer review going on all the time–something captured in gaming language as “reputation points”–earned through retweets, mentions, hat-tips etc. I can see the difficulties such a culture of reputation may have for tenure committees, etc. But from where I stand (at my laptop, that is) scholars in this new informal collective ensure a level of quality and just-in-time revision that is qualitatively different from previous modes–an almost ant-colony-like collective consciousness developing which I find as scary-good as anything I used to read in Social Text in the 90s….

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