Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why I like to write blog posts

When I was an assistant professor it was boom or bust when it came to work. There would be intervals where I worked intensively trying to figure out the essence of the model to gain sufficient insight to write the paper. And there would be other times where I lolled around, not doing much of anything, goofing off, waiting for the inspiration to come or to have the energy to will myself to work through the argument. When I first started, it took me from four to six months to write a paper.

This was before word processors. (I’m talking about typing a paper with a lot of math in it. There was word processing for straight text.) So I hand wrote out the paper, double spacing on yellow ruled pads, with a lot of cross outs and rewrites in the process. We don’t appreciate the productivity gain  from word processing; we take it for granted. But that was one big reason why it took so long to get the paper done.

However, another big obstacle I frequently encountered is that I would get stuck with analysis and then things would slow down to a crawl. I had to stew for quite a while as to whether the line of thought I expected to work could be modified in some way or if I needed to change the model in a fundamental way to drive it home. I don’t really recall this with any specific memories, but I’m guessing that the lolling around happened during the times when I got stuck. And, to use a cooking metaphor that might not be entirely appropriate, I didn’t turn off the range entirely; I left what was cooking to simmer, so that I could turn the heat up again sometime later.

I believe I became quite conscious of the value of the simmering; sometimes proclaiming to my friends the half truth that while I was watching TV I was really working on my paper. This is a dangerous way to work, since the leisure activity can become a thing in itself and an excuse to procrastinate. I’m sure I did procrastinate quite a bit, in part because the working through the model was such an insular activity.

I changed my research program after about three years, from micro foundations of macroeconomics, where I wrote interesting but ponderous papers that I had a hard time getting published, to theoretical industrial organization (and later to theoretical labor economics) in large part because I had some colleagues to talk to about the latter but nobody about the former. Also, to the extent that I thought about what I was exposed to at seminars on campus or conferences around the Midwest influenced my research area, it was natural for me to make the switch that I did.

During the same time, I developed somewhat of a reputation for being very good at seminars (as a member of the audience) in being quick to analyze the model the presenter was delivering and in offering some penetrating insight. I have several distinct memory fragments of being at workshops and offering up important ideas that the researchers themselves hadn’t considered. So I became a valued colleague, as much for this collegial role I played at workshops as for the research of my own that I contributed.

I don’t believe that I reflected on this discord at all during when I was an assistant professor, being quick at the trigger with other people’s work, and yet somewhat slow in the process of cranking out my own research. It just was the way things were. I was too caught up in getting tenure and department politics to make that connection for myself. But from the here and now, having these two antitheses as part of my persona seems critical in understanding my persona and in what the writing of the blog does for me.

I like to explore, to be exposed to new things, if I can digest them in short order and make some headway. Listening to others present their economic paper was a means of exploration for me. My unique skill is to come up with the quick study – a framing of what I’m reading or hearing that allows some insight into the idea. In spite of the occasional senior moment, I’m still pretty good at that, particularly in domains where I’ve had some prior exposure so am not a complete novice.

Now, watching the Charlie Rose show, (this past week he’s had on Maureen Dowd of the NY Times and Judge Richard Posner, interviews you wouldn’t find elsewhere) or reading the times Op-Ed page, or surfing the Web for content, I feel part of an exploration where I’m positioned to make a synthesis. I’m consciously trying to bring in diverse elements that are simultaneously relevant. When I do this well, it provides me no small source of satisfaction. To a certain extent, this is my personal raison d’etre.

But there is the other part of me, the part which lingers on ideas that perhaps should be discarded, the part that stews and gets stuck on hard issues, and the part where my personal demons dwell. This is where my reflections sometimes do me more harm than good.

As it turns out, regular writing is for me a way to emphasize the explorations and reduce the lingering, ponderous times. There is a “pre-writing” phase that is common to both. The pre-writing gets me to a certain point – a topic, a vague notion about the topic, and perhaps some lines of text that I want to make sure that I included. The actual writing is a sharpening of the ideas, perhaps some modifications if when I’ve produced some text it is not what I thought I intended or if the implication seems to lead in some other direction.

Then a wonderful thing happens, though I’m not sure why. Once the post has been published to the Web site, I can forget the idea and move onto something else. The writing is a wonderful way for me to let go. Publishing brings with it a sense of closure. To be sure I’ve had more than once a series of posts on the same topic – variations on a theme so to speak. But even with those I’m not lingering on the same thought, but moving from one idea to another.

For those reasons and because the writing itself is a means of self-expression, though I wouldn’t have agreed to this as an assistant professor, how it is said matters and when that is done well it too is a source of satisfaction, mostly I look forward to writing and feel alive when I’m doing it.

But there is more to the blog posting than that. If it was just what I described above, I could have kept a diary all these years; yet I’ve never done that. There is the additional aspect, about communicating with an audience and the feedback that comes from that. I have the puppy like need to be patted on the back for a job well done. Especially when I first was writing the blog I sent out emails to a few friends and colleagues alerting them about the blog and hoping to get some reaction of the patting-on-the-back sort.

Now, about a half year later, things have changed for me in this regard. The blog is emblematic for me of a style of writing I associate with the New York Review of Books (which, unfortunately, I stopped subscribing to some years back because I couldn’t keep up with it) and particularly of the writing of Stephen Jay Gould, intelligent writing from an expert intended for the layman. Both in tone and in length I try to emulate this style. Increasingly, it represents how my own thought processes work, perhaps partly in how I would come up with the idea initially, but certainly in how I would go about presenting the idea to others.

I believe there is a hunger for this type of writing, in general. Certainly within the sub-population who read edu-blogs, I think there are many who want writing like this on their favorite subject matter. Recently, I’ve gotten some very kind emails from readers who have said they enjoy my posts and will continue to read my blog. Receiving these is gratifying in itself but also serves as a form of validation for the approach to the writing.

I don’t know if it is possible to teach the quick penetration into the model way of thinking that I find natural and is my own forte. But I do think it is possible to teach this type of writing and make it an important goal of college instruction. That serves as a latent motivation for writing the blog.

Let me make one more point before I close. We need highly visible champions of this approach to writing. After seeing Arthur Sulzberger on the Charlie Rose show a couple of weeks ago, where at the end of the interview (most of which was devoted to the severance of Judy Miller and the Iraq-gate mess) he talked about the transitions the newspaper business was going through, the pressures from the other media including the blogosphere, the launching of their Times Select for fee online business, and the costs of running news bureaus like the Times Washington office, it occurred to me that the Times should become the champion for this type of writing. Their comparative advantage is in depth of coverage and analysis, not in speed of getting that content out to market.

As the readership is increasingly online, the Times will be less and less tied to column length as a delimiter of output and more and more will be valued for the quality of writing that is produced in those columns. There is an abundance of sources of quick hitter type of information. We are being deluged by that. Quality writing that is readily available to everyone is increasingly scarce. The Times would do well by making that its modus operandi.

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