Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Breakfast cereal or CD-ROM?

"Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is 'what is this?  Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?' Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops.  Something will be very, very different if it's developed as a CD-ROM than if it's developed as a book." - Douglas Adams.  The Salmon of Doubt, p. 155
I'm re-listening to the Salmon of Doubt for the first time in almost five years, and while the whole thing is brilliant this quote has really stuck with me.  In class, I've been struggling to convince students that form matters - that asking for polished paragraphs isn't an arbitrary rule we've concocted to stymie their writing style - and that the form that a piece of writing ultimately takes should be as thoughtfully considered as the title, the citations or the content (one hopes).
This is also one of those times that what I'm doing in the classroom bleeds over into other areas of my professional life.  As I'm singing the praises of Strunk & White's commentary on form, I'm forced to think about how the form of my own work (and particularly, this behemoth of a dissertation draft staring at me from across the room) could better conform to the aim and argument of the thing.  (There's a whole separate conversation to be had about how, in order to write the most effective history of nineteenth-century philanthropy, and to produce a work that doesn't fall into the historiographical pitfall of disaster/philanthropy particularism, I need to de-center the disaster that has been at the heart of this project since its inception, but I haven't quite figured that out yet.)
I think the assignments for this class - which range from informal blog posts to a formal research proposal - provide great opportunities to talk about the power of form, and I'm gearing up this week for a long-ish discussion on what students are meant to get out of these blog posts that's different from what they're meant to get out of in-class writing, that's different from what they're meant to get out of more formal assignments.  (This week, we're reading Typhoid Mary, and I'd forgotten how beautifully Leavitt lays out her reasons for organizing the book like she does.)
This is a long way of saying that all of this has forced me to think about what to do with this space, and of late I've been tending more and more to use it to think out teaching dilemmas, with moments of archival joy or frustration thrown in when the mood strikes.  For the next few months at least, I'm going to think of this as primarily a teaching blog, focusing on one junior historian's quest to become a better teacher, and as a bit of a commonplace book for teaching-related things I come across.

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