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HELLO THERE SPORTS FANS

It’s been a while! Once again the vagueries of misfortune prevent me from explaining why I don’t update my blog more frequently, but suffice it to say that there were dragons involved. And time-travelling lesbians. And a magic sword.

ANYWAY, welcome to another post in the “Cheat Sheet” series, which contains posts designed to make YOUR life easier as you navigate scholastic settings! Today’s post is inspired by several conversations I’ve had with professors, and by many, many interactions I have had with students. These interactions center around writing, something which I, unusually, know more than zero things about!  I’m actually not a novice when it comes to writing (although I would definitely put myself in the “proficient to intermediate” category); I have been working on writing since before I understood what it meant to be an adult. I also demonstrate my proficiency with writing quite a lot, whether in academic work, in my blog (which you are reading), or my Tumblr (which is significantly more informal and contains a great many intentional grammatical errors).

The upshot of all this is that occasionally, people remember that I am a writer, and ask me to edit things for them. And sometimes, I remember this, and talk to professors about it.  In the course of both of these activities, I have come to recognize something–or, rather, several somethings. And it is precisely these somethings which dictate the course of this latest “Cheat Sheet”; things which I almost always tell anyone whose work I edit. In short, these are the three things which I will tell you to do with whatever it is you’re writing, probably before I even look at the title.

THE THREE ARE AS FOLLOWS: Number, Speech, and Force. 

So what the heck does that mean? 

Number is the easiest to begin with, because it’s the easiest of the things to become muddled upon.  What I mean by number is, quite simply, subject/verb number agreement. And by that I mean: are you making sure that you’re referring to the right number of things in every part of the sentence? If you’re talking about “either light or dark”, you’re talking about one thing. Because you’re talking about light. Or dark. Get it? So you’d have to build the sentence as if there was one subject. This is something everyone screws up (even me!), because language is imperfect and words are hard. Luckily, there are two ways of fixing this: One, you can look it up, and remember the rules for five minutes after you’re done writing, or two, you can use the second of our trio: Speech. 

When I say Speech I am not referring to Diane Duane’s ancient language of magic and wizardry. Sad for us all.  No, I mean something far simpler, and something that can really quite genuinely revolutionize the way your writing sounds and looks.

You see, the secret here is that writing is language. Written words are a representation of actual speech words, which we speak. In speech. So, in a sense, the “true” form of language is…spoken.

Take it back to its true shape. Read your writing aloud. And I mean read it. Print it if you can, squint at the screen if you can’t. Perform it. Imagine you’re speaking to an audience if you’re a poet. To a classroom if you’re an academic. Act out your lines if you’re a novelist. But bring the words to life. Speak them. When you speak a sentence aloud, you’ll more often than not realize that the numbers were out of order, or you typed a common turn of phrase backwards, or you were thinking of something else and accidentally put HAIL SATAN something in the middle of your sentence.

That is the power of speech, which I now give to you. You can even take it further and have someone else read it aloud for you! But then you might as well just have them edit it.

Finally, the most important of our trio is Force. 

In some situations, people don’t really express themselves as clearly as they probably should. When this happens in your writing, it can really make the point a little difficult to uncover, and take a lot of the “punch” out of your rhetoric.

For example: the two sentences above can be rewritten as follows:

People don’t express themselves as clearly as they should. In your writing, this makes the point difficult to uncover, and takes the “punch” out of your rhetoric. 

THIS is the advice I end up giving most of all in academic work. And by that I don’t just mean schoolwork; I mean theses, papers, editorials–anything meant for the academic eye. And I get it–it’s hard to take a stand. It’s tough to make yourself into a target, even if you are reasonably sure you’re doing so in good faith. I struggle with this every day myself: especially on a website as continually ideologically charged as Tumblr, taking up a firm position seems like a good way to be assaulted from every side.

But then one day I realized: What do I stand for, if I don’t stand for anything? What am I saying, if I’m not saying it confidently? What good am I doing, if I’m not certain in doing it? As Chesterton says; “The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have…is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make the whole world like that vision.”

This, by the way, is one of many things I love about Chesterton. He is loud and pompous and full of sass and bombast. He is an unapologetic apologist, and therein lies the crux of his every argument: for Chesterton is always fighting for our right to fight.

From the same chapter of the same text; “…We may say a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed. […] For the orthodox there can always be a revolution, for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good.”

So go back to your text and strip out the unnecessary words. They hide in groups of one to three, in words like “probably,” “mostly,” or “really.” They gather in little insidious cells, in cliches like “for the most part,” “to a certain degree,” or “a level of.” Find them. Destroy them. Look at each sentence and ask yourself: ‘What am I saying here?’ As you expurgate these venal little vermin, you will find that not only does your writing become clearer, colder, and more powerful, your speech becomes so as well! Turns out, when you assert yourself in writing, you practice asserting yourself in the world. 

So take a stand! Pick your idea! What does it mean? What is its purpose? What are you SAYING? If you think it important enough to say, it had damn well better be worth saying–and if you’ve decided to say it, it’s worth saying well and fearlessly. 

That is all for now, dear reader. I hope these little tips prove helpful, or, at the very least, you found them entertaining.  And like every other book or blog or note ever written about writing: This will only help you if you are already able to learn this on your own. And if you’re able to learn this on your own…you won’t need my help to do so.

Until next time!

 

 

GREETINGS, MEATBAGS.

Welcome to another episode (?) of the CHEAT SHEET series, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the Cheat Sheet:

How to write a stupidly long paper.

This is a critically important skill if you are an undergraduate (Hell, if you’re a high school student) who is in any kind of writing-intensive class or program.  And like every academic skill, it begins OUTSIDE the classroom.  The first steps of this eight-step How-To guide, ideally, take place weeks or months before you start writing.  But I know that’s probably not how you run your life, so try to do Step 1 and 2 a few days before you start? Please? You won’t regret it.  (You might regret it)

Step 1: This is a critical step. Know what you’re writing. Read what you’re writing about.  Doesn’t matter what it is; there’s literature about it.  Read an example of what you want to write; are you writing an essay? Read an essay. (Montaigne is a good place to start; so is Orwell; both are masters of the essay genre)  Writing a novel? Read a novel.  But the bottom line is, you become a good writer by reading good writing.  Want to write a good essay? Read a good essay.

Step 2: Start writing before crunch time, but don’t start writing your paper.  Don’t write to the prompt.  Write about what you just read for Step 1.  Write about what you think about your class.  Write about anything tangentially associated with the prompt. The goal is to prime the pump and get the juices flowing.  DO NOT THROW THIS OUT. Keep this work in its own document.

Step 3: Now look at what you have written from Step 2, and at your notes from class.  If you’re lucky (and probably even if you’re not) you should have at least a few sentences in your writing that interest you.  They jump out at you.  You think “Hmm. I could say more about this.” Do that.  Grab anything that jumps out at you and plug it into your prompt.  Keep THAT in your Step 2 document as well, but in its own section at the bottom (or the top).

Step 3: You now already have some of your paper written, before you even started writing it.  Dang you’re smart. You go, Glen Coco.  Good on you.  Now it’s time to really begin.  Open up a new document and start writing your paper. I won’t tell you how to structure the introduction, or make transitions, or what voice to use—that depends on what you’re writing, and you already know that, because you read great examples in Step 1.  Write for a while.  Try to get halfway.

Step 4: Now you’re part of the way through your paper.  Take a break.  Do anything that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.  Eat something. Exercise. Build a giant robot. Grow a beard.  Don’t think about your paper.  At all.  You got this; don’t worry.  If you find yourself obsessing about the paper, don’t stress about that either–it’s normal to have it keep running through your head. Just keep exercising, building your robot, or growing your beard, and it will flow out of your thoughts.  Good self-care is key to every enterprise–and that includes writing a kick-ass academic paper.

Step 5:  Now that you’re all fresh and ready to go, return to your writing from Step 2. Look it over again.  Something new will jump out at you.  Maybe you’ll realize that half of what you’ve written was dumb.  Cut it from your paper—but don’t throw it away forever.  ANYTHING YOU CUT goes into your Step 2 document. If it doesn’t have a place in this paper, it will find its way into another one.

Step 6: Okay.  It’s the Eye of the Tiger.  Get into writing mode and slam it.  Don’t worry about quality. Just write until you can’t write no more.  Tie your prompt into everything that interests you about your Step 2 document. You might find some connections easier than others—and you should take advantage of that.  Develop those, and let the trickier ones retreat into your Step 2 doc. Let the writing find its own course. You were halfway at the end of Step 3; now take it the rest of the way.

Step 7: You should now be close to your character limit/word limit/page limit/final chapter.  Take a fifteen-minute break.  This is KEY.  I recommend a shower here. When your break is done, return to your document and READ IT OUT LOUD.  You’ll find a lot of typos that way.  Make edits as you go.

When you finish, go back and make an edit on that one thing that was bugging you.  If a section seems superfluous, cut it and drop it away into your Step 2 doc.  If you are intrigued by something you wrote, develop it.  Any really good sentence can always be clarified, reimagined, repurposed.  What are the repercussions of your thought? What does this mean for your field?  Keep doing this.  As your points grow denser, you’ll glide into the home stretch, and after re-reading it you should have a sense of where it’s going.  Bring it home.

Step 8: STOP.  Your paper should have an ending–I won’t lecture on structure–and you should have a nice fat document full of your fragmented ideas. You can dump that straight into your Academic Journal (if you don’t have one, you should make one now).  The relevant parts of your Step 2 document can be funneled into your next paper–so you already have part of your next assignment written before you start the process.

There are no further steps.  That’s it.  Your paper should be done.

If it’s not done, try one of these strategies for a productive break: 

Take a shower. Again, if necessary.  Sing if you can.

Pick a building.  Run around said building twice.

Build a beehive.

Pet a dog or other small animal.  In lieu of a dog, an undergraduate student will do.

Eat an entire jar of frosting.

Stare at a bright pink object for ten minutes and marvel at how green everything is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you ever read gender theory?

sweet mother of

 

oh god make it stop

Now, this is not exactly “gender theory”; this is feminism in a raw, elementally academic form.  This is not just any feminist theory: this is Judith Butler.

Judith Butler, whose Wikipedia picture stares out at you with the piercing gaze of Galadriel, has written extensively about gender theory–and identity at large–including Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex.  She has produced many brilliant pieces, which are just as easy to read as other writing we have previously discussed, like the Outline of a Theory of Practice:

oh please not again

oh please not again

Why is that? It’s not just Butler (who, I stress again, is brilliant).  Gender theory at large is permeated, saturated with big words.   I’ve discussed this before.   If you haven’t read Bodies that Matter, you should. Butler’s writing is fantastic, and mind-blowing, and meshes well not only with gender theory but with contemporary phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Butler is also somewhat impenetrable.  No worse than Bourdieu or Foucault or Husserl or any number of other academic writers, but then the purpose of feminism is not “merely” academic, is it? It should not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that feminism is concerned with theory only as it relates to the achievement of certain stated goals; I.E. the advancement of a political perspective which co-opts the affectations of academic discourse to further its own propagation.  Thus, authors like Butler infiltrate the larger ongoing discussion of identity by using the regular linguistic patterns of “academia”; a subversive approach to feminist writing.

Partly that’s because it’s JUST SO EASY to slip into jargon.  We (and by “we” I am broadly generalizing about anyone who has been taught to talk about gender) have learned certain words, and we have trouble thinking about the topic in other words, let alone speaking about it.

But “the academic discourse” is not the only conversation.  And for every person who finds Butler’s work illuminating, there are lots more who find it inhospitable.  The language which feminism has learned can integrate it into academic discourse quite effectively, and more’s the pity; many promising fields and causes have failed as a result of being entirely integrated with academic discourse.

For feminism to succeed, it needs a voice that can be understood by everyone, not just by academics. For a broad cultural change to take place, feminism must permeate to every level of this big Marxian layer cake called “society.”

When I say “feminism must do x to succeed,” of course, I am drawing on actual stated feminist goals, which tend to exist either in the short term (I intend to use this paper to show the production of gender in interaction, I intend to challenge the perception of the body as a single entity, etc.) and also in the longer term (reshaping society, dismantling the patriarchy, creating cultural change).  To both of these types of goals, the academic voice is, of course, crucial.  We learn from the academic voice.

But we also need feminists who speak plain English.  Who can explain that gender is not quite as solid as it seems.  It isn’t an impossible task, but it is a challenging one.

For example, we can explain that (although we use it to define ourselves, identify ourselves, give ourselves shape and solidity), gender is like a handshake.  A handshake takes place between two people.  The handshake exists only in the interaction between the two people, and everyone involved in the handshake thinks about the others based on what they observe in the gesture.  Let’s slow that down and repeat: The handshake exists in the interaction between two people.  The handshake does not have an independent existence above and beyond two people.  It is not a “thing” you can point to.  It is the product of interaction, and it is created each time two people grab each other’s fingers and squeeze.

Now, no one identifies themselves by their handshake (except perhaps used car salesmen from the 1950s), but you could. You could define yourselves as a soft shaker or a hard shaker (shut up).  And you judge other people based on what you learn from that quick interaction: Do they have a strong handshake? Do they have a good grip? How are they holding their fingers?

Gender is the same way—we make decisions about ourselves and other people based on what we see, and what we do.

Are they wearing a dress? Makeup? What’s their body language like? And we can define ourselves as a dress-wearer, or a feminine-body-language-have-er—or, to use shorthand, a woman.  True, there are more moving parts in gender than there are in a handshake.  Handshaking involves how you hold yourself, your shoulder, and your hand.  Gender involves how you hold yourself, how you use your body, how you talk, how you think, what you wear, what you say, when you say it, whether or not you are comfortable saying it–and more.

Have you ever found yourself being more of a “dude” when surrounded by dudes? More “womanly” when surrounded by women?  Have you ever “dialed back” your gender (or heck, any other identity) in order to fit in?Have you squeezed harder on someone’s hand because their handshake was firm? Did you begin to make nerd culture references because you were talking to nerds? Have you changed what you do, to change what people think of you? Yes you have. What we do changes when we talk to different people. We’re human.  We calibrate.

shut up, Garrus

“Hey! That’s my job!”

In turn, when we have figured out who we are, when we make that apparent in our gender “handshake,” other people take that and interpret it in their own way.  You do that too.  It’s how we understand people.  Is someone wearing an Attack On Titan hoodie? Are they whistling a song by Fleetwood Mac? What other people are doing changes who and what we think they are.

Slowing it down; what does this mean? Gender is like a handshake.  A handshake consists of things we do (sometimes unconsciously–have you ever given a handshake without really thinking about it?) in interaction with other people.  It doesn’t exist outside of human context.  A huffy anthropologist once said “Human thought is consummately social.”

What does that mean? Gender exists only in human interaction and in human minds, not as a thing unto itself.  Does that mean gender isn’t important?

Not in the slightest.  Some other time, I’ll address the idea that just because something exists only in the human mind, it isn’t real, but for now we’ll bracket that issue and set it aside with the comment that it’s dumb.

Gender exists only in the interaction and performance of people.  Gender isn’t important?

Then why do we still shake hands?*

*You can replace “handshake” with any other reflexive, person-to-person cultural gesture, like bowing, high-fiving, greetings, language, the NHL…)

 

Gender is fundamentally important to us all.  The history of the world agrees.  But what is it? I am beginning to discover that it is much more than it seems.  And it is only by understanding that, that we can begin to talk about gender in any productive way.  Only by realizing that gender perpetuates itself in what we do, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day.  Gender is something we do, and something we have done since childhood.  It is habit many times over.

That is what feminism is up against.  “Patriarchy” merely refers to billions upon billions of habits across billions of people, all placed below the level of consciousness, which have the final, practical, real-world result of destroying, oppressing, and handicapping human development. 

That’s a big job.  It’s not one you’ll finish just by controlling academia.  It needs to be the groundwater.  Feminism needs to be ubiquitous.  So if you’re still reading, and you’re a feminist, I would say this:

Take feminism everywhere. Not even in your overt actions, but in your thoughts.  Feminist theory can be at its most potent and most subversive when it is behind the scenes, when it is upsetting the foundations of the world and pretending to be business as usual.  When it seems to be the most natural thing in the world, feminism has the upper hand.

We have a big task.

Time to get cracking.

“On account of its somewhat unusual content, my little book requires a short preface. I beg of you, dear reader, not to overlook it.  For, in what follows, I shall speak of the venerable objects of religious belief.  Whoever talks of such matters inevitably runs the risk of being torn to pieces by the two parties who are in mortal conflict about these very things.  This conflict is due to the strange supposition that a thing is true only if it presents itself as a physical fact. Thus some people believe it to be physically true that Christ was born as the son of a virgin, while others deny this as a physical impossibility.  Everyone can see that there is no logical solution to this conflict and that one would do better not to get involved in such sterile disputes.  Both are right and both are wrong.  Yet they could easily reach agreement if only they dropped the word ‘physical.’  ‘Physical’ is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way.  If, for instance, a general belief existed that the river Rhine had at one time flowed backwards from its mouth to its source, then this belief would itself be a fact even though such an assertion, physically understood, would be deemed utterly incredible.  Beliefs of this kind are psychic facts which cannot be contested and need no proof.

Religious statements are of this type.  They refer without exception to things which cannot be established as physical facts.  If they did not do this, they would inevitably fall into the category of the natural sciences.  Taken as referring to anything physical, they make no sense whatever, and science would dismiss them as non-experienceable.  They would be mere miracles, which are sufficiently exposed to doubt as it is, and yet they could not demonstrate the reality of the spirit of meaning that underlies them, because meaning is something that always demonstrates itself and is experience on its own merits.  The spirit and meaning of Christ are present and perceptible to us even without the aid of miracles.  Miracles appeal only to the understanding of those who cannot perceive the meaning.  They are mere for the not understood reality of the spirit.  This is not to say that the living presence of the spirit is not occasionally accompanied by marvelous physical happenings. I only wish to emphasize that these happenings can neither replace nor bring about an understanding of the spirit, which is the one essential thing.

The fact that religious statements frequently conflict with the observed physical phenomena proves that in contrast to physical perception the spirit is autonomous, and that psychic experience is to a certain extent independent of physical data. The psyche is an autonomous factor, and religious statements are psychic confessions which in the last resort are based on unconscious, i.e. on transcendental, processes.  These processes are not accessible to physical perception but demonstrate their existence through the medium of human consciousness: that is to say, they are given visible forms which in their turn are subject to manifold influences from within and without.  That is why whenever we speak of religious contents we move in a world of images that point to something ineffable.  We do not know how clear or unclear these images, metaphors, and concepts are in respect to their transcendental object.  If, for instance, we say ‘God,’ we give expression to an image or verbal concept which has undergone many changes in the course of time.  We are, however, unable to say with any degree of certainty–unless it be by faith–whether these changes affect only the images and concepts, or the Unspeakable itself.  After all, we can imagine God as an eternally flowing current of vital energy that endlessly changes shape just as easily as we can imagine him as an eternally unmoved, unchangeable essence.  Our reason is sure only of one thing: that it manipulates images and ides which are dependent on human imagination and its temporal and local conditions, and which have therefore changed innumerable times in the course of their long history.  There is no doubt that there is something behind these images that transcends consciousness and operates in such a way that the statements do not vary limitlessly and chaotically, but clearly all relate to a few basic principles or archetypes.  These, like the psyche itself, or like matter, are unknowable as such.  All we can do is construct models of them which we know to be inadequate, a fact which is confirmed again and again by religious statements.”

Carl Jung, Answer to Job; Collected Works Vol 11, paras 553-555

Hello reader!

Welcome to the ‘Cheat Sheet’ section of my blog, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the cheat sheet, I talk about my experience reading philosophy and anthropology–some of the most impenetrable reading on the planet–and try to explain how I do the thing.

To clarify: When I say I “do the thing,” I mean I read all the time.  I read things that are really quite incomprehensible.  I slam dense readings into my brain repeatedly until they start to make sense.

In fairness, it took a year of reading, several bottles of wine, and a lot of help from a man with a doctorate, BUT STILL.

This makes sense to me.

Today we’re going to talk about how to read literally anything, in any field of study, in such a way that you understand its ins and outs and all its little complexities.

NOTE that this is NOT always the same thing as reading QUICKLY; a large part of why I read stupidly fast is because I’ve been reading college-level for a vast majority of my life.  I read anthropological texts before I even knew what anthropology was, and I retained a lot of that–because I read them in the way I’m about to describe.

Before I go further, I should credit one of my professors with the inspiration for this post.  Turns out, he recommends much the same method of literary assimilation that my father does, and the same one I’ve been using for years to devour anything with words on it.

Okay, so remember what I said about me reading a lot when I was a kid? Let’s take a trip back in time to when we were seven.  Imagine we’re reading something that isn’t so complicated.  Something like this excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird: 

To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Now, first of all, we’re seven, so we might not know every single word in this sentence.  For example, we might not know what stock-market quotations are.  The Mobile Register might also be a mystery, as well as the words literate and interfere.  But we know what Miss Caroline is saying, we’ve got that shit on lock, and we can figure out the general sense of what’s going on from the words that we know.

Later on, we might come back after having learned what The Mobile Register is, and looking up the meaning of interfere, and then the paragraph would make more sense.  We might even be able to puzzle out the significance of the word literate, and decide that we really don’t need to know what stock-market quotations are in order to understand this segment.

“Okay,” you might say, “But I came here to learn how to read graduate-level texts! Why the hell are we reading To Kill A Mockingbird?”  Well, first of all, because it’s an awesome book, so shut up, and second, that’s it.  That’s how you do it.

Let’s break it down.

So now let’s go back to Bourdieu.  Take this passage:

Theory Of Practice

Don’t panic. Deep breaths. Remain calm.   Just let your eyes drift over it.  Read the words you recognize and string them together to get a sense of the general point.

“The privilege in which all activity arises never more governs that activity than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to a theory of practice which is the neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a distortion as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and to decoding operations.”

OKAY. So we don’t know quite what that means.  We can sense that there are key words missing.  But find the parts you understand.  There’s something in there about the anthropologist’s relation to the object of his study, and how that causes a theoretical distortion.  And we know that distortion reduces all social relations to…something.  Good.  See those bolded points? Those are the parts we know.  We’re sure of those.  My professor calls them ANCHORS. That’s good.

Now we can read it again, from the beginning, and try to figure out more.  Maybe we can look up some of the words, and then we realize that hermeneutics means ‘the discipline surrounding interpretation of texts.’  So that’s another anchor.   Using the parts we know, we then try to figure out the parts that are confusing.  It might take a few passes, but eventually we will be able to read the entire paragraph and understand what Bourdieu (and it is Bourdieu) is saying.

Now blow that up to a whole new level.

We have a book to read, not a paragraph but an entire book, and this is the DENSEST SHIT YOU’VE EVER READ.  You understand MAYBE 40% of what you’ve read so far, and it’s daunting.

Well:

Step 1: Scan.  Read a few chapters.   Not the whole thing, unless it’s super short.  Maybe read a fourth of it.

Step 2: As you read, find your anchors.  Find the things you understand.  Try to get a general sense of what the book is saying.

Step 3: Put down the book and wrestle with the ideas. Try to connect the ideas (the ones you understand) to other things.  [I strongly advise that you] write down the ideas that really leap out at you.  These are reading notes.   By the end of this step, you should have a pretty basic idea of what the first fourth of the book is about, and you will be (almost) certain about the meaning of specific portions. There will still be huge parts you won’t understand. This is okay.

Step 4: Return to the book. Read again, from the beginning.  It’ll be easier this time; you will recognize your anchor points as you pass them, and you’ll read what you know more quickly. Try to keep it slow and really read it, really digest it.  You should be able to start to figure out exactly what the text is saying.  Some new anchors will jump out at you.  Excellent. Write them down, underline them, whatever, and keep moving.  You might be able to finish it this time, but if not, no problem.

Step 5:  After this point, you should have a confident idea of certain parts of the book.  Not all of it.  You should be able to talk pretty definitively about most of the first half of the book.   Take a break again. What I like to do now is to find a summary of the piece.  For philosophy, try The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Ask someone who’s read the book.  Look it up online.  You already know the first half–if you pay attention to the summary, you can try to start figuring out how the first half leads to the second half, even before you actually read it.

Step 6: You already know a lot about this book!  Getting to step 6 can take anywhere between half an hour and six hours…or more.  Some books are SUPER DENSE, even for people with a doctorate.  A Ph.D doesn’t give you magical powers.  But now that you KNOW the first half, and now that you have a very basic idea of the second half, stop and think about the book. Try to think about how its ideas are similar to other things you’ve read.  We learn by making connections.  Think of knowledge as a spiderweb: THE MORE CONNECTIONS YOU DRAW, THE STRONGER IT IS. 

Not to mention, the more you do this seven-step process, the faster it goes.  You will learn to read faster, because your brain will learn to start picking out key points and wrestling with what you don’t understand.

Congratulations; you can now talk about this book fairly confidently! You know the majority of the first half (and you have pretty good notes, if you took my advice), and you know roughly the arc of the second.  But we’re not done yet–we don’t just want to skim, we want mastery. 

So now for the final step.  You’re going to re-read the first half, and then go from there to the second half–reading from the first page to the last.  As you venture into unknown territory, remember to plant anchors.  Find something that is beginning to make sense, and slow down and make it make sense.  When you do, WRITE IT DOWN IN YOUR NOTES.

But now you should have an idea of what it feels like to read a text and digest the softer parts.  It should go faster than before, smoother. That doesn’t mean it won’t be unbelievably painful.  This could easily be the longest part of the process, time-wise.

But it does mean that by the time you make it to the last page of the book, you will know your shit. You might not know it backward and forward–you might not be able to cite pages from scratch–but you will be able to write an essay on the book now.  You can have a real, intelligent discussion, and you’re on your way to mastery.

So it’s not really a final step. But it is for now.  If you started this book and made it to the final step in the same day, then stop.  Take a break.  Relax.  Go do something that doesn’t involve thinking about this. The most important rule of reading academic texts is this:

It is impossible to master a book in one day.* 

*it’s not, but you really don’t want to do that if you don’t have to.**

**but if you decide to try, just do this, but without taking breaks.

CONGRATULATIONS.  You now know how to master a book–and in the process of mastering it, you will also produce a killer set of reading notes.   Those will be INVALUABLE.  When you write a paper, or a blog post, or anything really, you can just go back to your reading notes and drop them straight in.   And you will seem UNBELIEVABLY smart.  You will know. your. shit. 

This has been the Cheat Sheet.  Thanks for reading this 1776-word monster. Next time,  I will try and set down some other snippet of cutthroat academic trickery from my arsenal of mind games.  Until then, good luck, happy reading, and make sure to use adequate light sources!*

*if you’re reading on a computer screen, make sure the brightness is set so that you can clearly see the text, but not too much brighter than the surrounding environment. That will reduce eye strain, which means you can read longer.

That’s all.

Hello reader,

I am confused.

Welcome back to jungwildeandfree, the vaguely anthropological/psychological/philosophical blog of an undergraduate student, a mixture of content which is either stripped from my academic journal or generated ex nihilo in cafes and coffee shops across the continental United states.

Let’s get this straight before I get started: I love academia.  It is my favorite place in the world, the place where I feel most at home.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can say “Geil is the dump truck!” and get a dramatic response.  Passive-aggressive academic critiques make me laugh my head off, and I would love to spend hours reading any collection entitled “Things Clifford Geertz Has Said Of Other Things.”   It’s full of people and concepts with complex names that are perfect for puns.  Pierre Bourdieu.  Cultural capital. Michel Foucault.  Archaeology.   The only other place in my experience that has such a massive wealth of in-jokes and stealthy puns is the internet, and I enjoy bandying about those memes as well.

Possibly it’s because I grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

You’ve never heard of the Flying Circus?  Now I’m even more confused.

Let me explain.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British television sketch comedy show that ran for four series and five years, created almost unilaterally by graduates of high-powered academic communities.  It was a sometimes surreal, often intellectual, frequently incomprehensible, completely hilarious show, and it was like (almost) nothing that had ever come before.It cannot be adequately described in text, so here are some classic samples: How Not To Be Seen, The Dead Parrot Sketch, and Philosophers’ World Cup.

It was my bread and butter growing up.  The theory I like to put forward (indeed, the theory am putting forward right now) is that it fundamentally shaped my sense of humor toward the strange, the bizarre, and the unapologetically intellectual, and sometimes the completely dumb.  As evidence I provide some of my favorite authors: Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett, John Kennedy Toole, and of course Spongebob Squarepants.  These were my cultural capital, my intellectual heritage and the means by which I connect with other people who share my weird taste for sass.

That is my establishing monologue; now you have some sense of where I’m coming from in my life.  Now we’ll move on to the actual point of the blog post, which is explaining why I’m so confused.

You see, I am an anthropology major.

Anthropology, for the uninitiated, is the science and study of humans.  It consists, broadly, of four categories: Archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology.   I am a cultural anthropologist.

Cultural anthropology is the science of gradually becoming less and less certain about anything you once considered to be real and solid, until such time as you become a void of total confusion/improvisation and gain the ability to pass this intellectual angst on to others.

Or, to put it in a more complementary light: Cultural anthropology is the practice of questioning every assumption we make, with the intention of laying bare the hidden motivations behind things that we might normally think are natural. 

Case in point: Gender.

When I started college, I learned the simple definition of gender.  Gender is the cultural/psychological part of the masculine or feminine, and sex is the biological.  Either way, easy.  Simple.  “I got this,” I said to myself.  But then I thought back to my biology courses and things got complicated.  And then I took more anthropology courses and things got more complicated.

I read an article by a dude named Goffman, “On Face-Work,” which suggested that when two people interact, they inter-act. When we interact, we perform ourselves, whether we do it on purpose or not.  When we interact with people, we do what we’ve learned to do, and we do things that we want to be seen doing.

Which is troublesome when it comes to gender, because gender is heavily performed.  How do I know what gender you are if I can’t tell from your clothes? Your hair? Your makeup? Even the way we refer to ourselves can be part of gender.

But it’s the word performed that is really messing with my head now, because the other day in class I was brought face-to-face with an even more nebulous possibility:

An actor isn’t actually the role they perform.  It’s not an identity that they assume, unless that role was a particularly meaningful one.  If the role becomes important enough to them, then the actor might take it on with a certain fondness.

So…then, if we perform gender like an actor performs a role, doesn’t that mean that gender isn’t really a thing in and of itself? What if that means that gender identity isn’t anything that we could nail down as existing in any kind of actual meaningful way? What if “Gender” is just a part of the way we interact with others? 

Well, shit.  That kinda throws a wrench in the works.  At least we still have biological sex as a benchmark. Right? Right.  That’s something physical.  That’s something real. I am biologically male.  I can say that definitively–because my phenotype (physical shape) happens to line up with my genotype (genetic design), which happens to line up with the level of hormones in my blood.   Because my body looks male, acts male, and because my genes read as male.

…Which isn’t always true.  Not everyone’s body always lines up along that biological game of tic-tac-toe. So that really isn’t particularly helpful either, now is it?  Turns out we might have people who are biologically and genetically male, but hormonally female or hormonally asexual.  Or people who are genetically male and biologically and hormonally female. GAH. I don’t even.

Now, I’m not going to demand to see a blood screen before I call you “Miss” or “Mr.”  Really, the ultimate point is,  there’s no way to tell who you are, unless you give me a hint.  If you tell me your pronouns, if you show me a hormone count, if you perform your gender in a certain way, then I’ll know what’s up. (Or I’ll think I will, until you surprise me)

But until that happens…well, if I think about it too hard, I’m gonna need a stiff drink.

As I said; cultural anthropology is the gradual process of becoming less and less certain about anything you ever considered to be solid or natural.   That doesn’t mean it’s not fun.   And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

But I’m still confused.

The only thing that’s changed is that now, you might be too. Oops.

Hello reader! Welcome to the final post in the Divisions series!  Today is where we bring it all together, from my academic journal to the assertion of powerful cultural meaning in myths, from the way humans create their world to the struggle of creating fairness in an inherently imbalanced, dynamic universe.

This semester I am taking a course entitled Reflexivity.  This course (and the instructor) are more than a little responsible for this recent flurry of blog activity.   I hold him entirely responsible for any further blog posts in the next 16 weeks or so.  Yes, it’s your fault.

Reflexivity is an anthropology course.  And a history course.  And a writing course.  It is at its most basic a study of the way that the author’s views influence the work they produce; in other words, a course focused on asking the question “How am I part of what I write?”

It’s a worthy question.  It is well known that we write what we know.  In fiction, we’re likely to write characters who remind us of us, someone whose brain we can get inside.  In nonfiction, we’ll pick topics we’re familiar with.  It sounds obvious.  After all, how could you write about something you know nothing about?  Even science fiction writers draw from what is known.  We write what we know, and we know  what we notice.

Let’s slow that point down.

Think back to the last time you remember being at a party.  It doesn’t matter what kind of party.  Think about when you walked into the area and took your first look around.  What did you notice?   You certainly didn’t notice everything, because  the sheer quantity of sensory information would have fried your frontal lobe like a particularly wrinkled cruller doughnut.  And you didn’t notice nothing, because you have some memory of the party (remember remembering that?).  So you chose something between everything and nothing; in other words, you or your brain somehow decided what information you needed to see.  Once you saw it, your brain made another decision, creating a kind of sensory-input American Idol process where judges narrowed down a field of possible contestant observations until there was a manageable number left.

Just chilling with my friends

Did you look at the people? What were the light fixtures like? What was the dress code, and how well was it followed? Did you see what the floor looked like, or what the food was like?   If you are a party planner or a chef or just a foodie, you might have noticed the refreshments and the decor.  If you work in retail for a clothing company, you might have noticed what everyone was wearing.  If you once had a traumatic experience with a poodle, you might have noticed the dog.  An anthropologist trained in the United States is likely to notice different things from a sociologist trained in France, or a Jungian analyst trained in Zurich–whether they’re interpreting text or simply observing people at a party.  This is not a new fact to anthropologists.  For a few decades now, the big trend in anthropology has been one of reflexivity.*

*the other trend in anthropology has been the manufacture of an increasingly isolating nomenclature, including a number of words that just look made-up. “Positionality?” Seriously?

In sum: we are part of the words we set down when we write.  And before our fingers even touch the keyboard or the pen or the pencil, the impression we have of our subject has been influenced by our brain, our upbringing, and our history.  Writing is about more than just cramming the outside world into a funnel, or holding up a mirror to reality; the writer becomes a prism, a lens through which the world is filtered into experience.

Even ‘objective’ information is subject to this filtration effect–this kind of cultural/subjective reverse osmosis.  This article about human anatomy contains a prime example (in not-especially-obfuscatory language) of the way that “objective” scientific information is changed by our cultural perspective.

The universe has a lot of information to take in.  We don’t even come close to noticing everything, seeing everything–basically, we don’t experience everything that we experience.  So we break it down.  We divide our time into sacred and profane, using the moments of great importance to anchor ourselves in our life and identity. We divide our spaces in the same way–hell, we divide our brain spatially!

What does this mean?

On the one hand, on the downside, the bad news; we aren’t objective.  Not even close.  Trying to disconnect your intellect from your cognitive landscape would be like drawing a four-sided triangle.  Because the world is so interconnected, we break it down into segments; sacred and profane, house and outdoors. We thrive on dichotomies, and so we make dichotomies.

“But writer,” you might say, not knowing my name, “What about science? The much-reviewed, lab-tested pursuit of truth?  I can be objective when I describe the state of a cloud of interstellar gas! It’s not as though we’re making value judgments when we measure carbon dioxide levels!”

Well, dear reader, my question is this: How are you measuring your cloud of gas?  Are you measuring its temperature? Why? When you’re monitoring carbon dioxide levels, do you measure its level in cubic inches? No? Why not?

Because that’s not the right unit of measurement.  Before we even input the data, we’ve made a judgment about what kind of information it is.  And before we’ve made that decision, we’ve looked at our research subject and decided the right way to measure it.  In other words, before we even get started, we’re already halfway through a huge maze of value judgments.

Objective? We can’t even be objective about a math problem.  So where does that leave us?

In a very interesting place.

My semesters often have themes.   Last semester, the overarching theme to the semester was statistics, the way that numbers and their interpretation can sway every aspect of science and social science.  This semester, the theme seems to be reflexivity.  This semester, the world is a dynamic system powered by inequalities and disagreements, where the only fixed points are the ones we all agree on.   We are constantly being pounded by various stimuli and phenomena–and it’s up to us to interpret them, to find the point of balance between our sensory input and our oh-so-subjective  response.

That’s it; that’s the semester.

Have a nice day.

Hello reader,

Welcome to the fourth post in the Divisions series! I could make this segue more gracious, but I’d rather hurl you right into the thick of it.

Have you ever played an online multiplayer game? No? It’s somewhat poignantly similar to real life.

I myself am an avid player of an online multiplayer game about spaceships.  I have always been a fan of flight simulators, and like many people I am also a fan of explosions and pointless violence.   Therefore, this game is perfect for me, because it allows me to (a) fly really fast, (b) blow things up, and (c) be a little bit of an asshole.

Actual in-game footage.

I’m a special person.

Now, I don’t just mention this because I’m playing the game as I write this post. NAY, I mention this because it made me think about ethics as I was playing it.

A perpetual source of frustration in online player-against-player games is the skill gap, as any gamer can tell you.  Nothing is more infuriating than going up against someone who is just legitimately better than you at pressing a particular sequence of buttons to make your magic box turn a particular color.

What’s just as frustrating is the premium gamers.  The people who have, for whatever reason, elected to spend money on the game and improve themselves accordingly.  These people usually have some inherent advantage over the other players–even if it’s just that their ship looks cooler.

In other words, it’s not fair.  Which can be annoying.  Studies have shown that even monkeys understand when a situation is unfair.  Now if monkeys can pick up on an unjust pay system, surely popular news programs video game players can figure out when something is unjust.

This had been much on my mind recently when I went into my Chinese Philosophy course. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I found my exact concern addressed by my professor, who addressed the idea of fairness in Chinese culture.*

*keep in mind that this is an idealized concept of “Chinese culture,” which was doubtless designed more to help provide a foundation for understanding for students who had never been to China, nor studied anything remotely Chinese.**

**but why on earth should that mean that we can’t use it to draw useful moral lessons?

His essential point was tied back to earlier discussions of the communal, fragmented social system, in which each individual in the heirarchy is responsible for their own little bit of power.  Much like the mythological landscape, where each brook and bramble has a spirit, everyone has a little power, which they exercise as subtly as possible. Even the housemaid has her own little sphere of influence–piss her off, and your dishes will be ever so slightly dirty for months.

Their society, like every society, is unfair. Civilization is unfair.  Civilization is based upon structures of asymmetrical power, upon hierarchies and hegemonies, and it is inherently incapable of becoming ‘fair.’  No one is born with the exact same set of privileges and plans as anyone else–and think how boring it would be if we were all the same!  There would be no one new to talk to.  Every conversation would be like watching a Frasier re-run for the seventh time–once, it might possibly have been interesting, but now, it’s exactly what you expected.

What I find interesting is that we, in the West, have come up with this idea that somehow the world needs to be fair.  Somehow everything needs to be balanced.  Everyone needs to be equal.

I think this is stupid, not to mention perspicaciously false.   (whoa) (what a big vocabulary) (and you know what they say about guys with big vocabularies) (they have large theories about the nature of reality)

If you’ve grown up and existed anywhere ever, you realize that people are not equal.  Some people are smarter than others.  Some are better at sports, or at wearing clothes, or at asking questions or doing academic work or hanging clothes–and whether this disparity is the result of legitimate skill-building or not doesn’t matter, because the end result is: nothing is ever going to be truly fair. 

This is obvious.  And I should stress at this point that I don’t disagree with fairness as an ideal.  I think it’s a good place to start.  But it isn’t enough.  Do we really want equality? I think that sounds dull, like a movie where everyone is the same character.  Real life has a dynamic quality–and I mean that in the dictionary definition of the word, as in life is a dynamic system, constantly changing, kept in balance by the flow of energy and advantage from one person/group to the next.

I still reflect on ethics when I play my spaceship game.  But now I fly secure in the knowledge that, while we may not all fly from the same starting point, my ion emitters can turn the enemy to slag just as effectively as anyone else’s.  And that’s what we really want–not for everyone to be equal, but for everyone to be able to have fun, to enjoy life, to develop themselves to the fullest point of their potential, and to unleash molten hell upon their enemies in the form of 70-pound coil-driven mortar shells.

Tune in next time, reader, when we take this point about value, inequality, and fairness and apply it to the universe!  

Hello again, reader! Welcome to part three of the Divisions series of posts! Last time, we left off talking about mythology and values.  In this post we’ll be talking about space.

Interstellar space?

Not exactly.

We’re not talking about the cold, remote void between planets.  We’re talking about space in the sense of space.  The world around us.  The space in which we build buildings and interact with one another. Space. You know, space.

Space often gets a little funky around humans.  One minute we’re wandering around on the plains, and the next we have thresholds and houses, and begin to chop up the universe into little manageable bits and pieces, some of them with great meaning and significance.   Space is all around us–but not all space is made equal.  Or, more accurately, we make space unequal.

Think of the space inside a church.  If you’re like me, you’ll notice instinctively that there is something different about a place of worship.  No matter how dogmatically you believe that all religion is hogwash, your voice is hushed, your breath is stilled, and all minds turn inward in reflection.

In reflection and in contemplation of copyright laws protecting photography of gothic cathedrals.

If that example fails to move you, consider another space: your home. Your home sits in the same open air and under the same weather as any other point on the planet. Why, then, does it seem so completely solid? Why does home seem so safe? Why do we relax when we close the door behind us? There is nothing particularly magical about a door.

Of course, we don’t call these spaces sacred any more.  There is nothing magical about the first dorm room we ever inhabit, or the first job we ever held.  We have progressed beyond the need for religion, right?

“…this experience of profane space still includes values that to some extent recall the nonhomogeneity peculiar to the religious experience of space.  There are, for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth.  Even for the most frankly nonreligious man,  all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had recieved the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” 

The spiritual world is coterminous to our own.  Sacred and profane overlap, but the sacred moment breaks through only occasionally, bringing with it timeless moments that influence us for years or decades.

WE’RE GOING BACK TO CHINA NOW.

Remember how we talked about mythology in China?

One thing that you might know already about eastern mythology: everything depends on where you are.  Every shrine, tree, and stream has its own place spirit, its own genius loci.  Space in our culture is divided.  Space in China and Japan is microdivided. A forest is divided into glades and rivers which are divided into individual trees and pools.  And the space matters.  If you’re on the river, you’d better be prostrating yourself to the river spirit.  If you’re in the forest, you’d better be damn friendly to the trees. And if you’re on a mountain, you’d better be showing proper respect to that mountain spirit.

The same thing happens in social spaces, not just in China but in many more communal cultures.  Each social task and economic niche is taken care of on a local and individual level.  It’s like the atmosphere at a small school.  If you want to get some help with your coursework, you don’t go to the outside world or onto the internet; you go talk to Kim in Learning Enrichment.  If you want to get into a club, you don’t fill out an application online; you find Will and schmooze with him for twenty minutes.  The division of sacred space is paralleled by the division of social space–and so, in Chinese mythology, it’s all about who you know.

So to recap: our experience of the world is divided.  Space may be infinite, formless, and homogenous–but humans slice it up into bits and pieces.  The same thing happens with social roles, although the West has by and large moved away from this model (except in small towns).  We divide the formless mass of society into infinite little groups, as this XKCD cartoon clearly shows:

In the next post, we’ll look at possible implications of a worldview where everyone has their own niche and responsibility–it makes for a very commonsense approach.