Friday, October 15, 2004

Grad School Tips 3, 4, and 5

A few days ago, I started writing a post about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, specifically pondering whether Diamond's work counts as history. But I haven't read the book, and the post would be relying almost entirely on a capsule summary by a classmate, so I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the best idea. It's too bad, since it got me thinking about just what history (in the sense of writing about the past, not the past itself) is. Expect more ruminations on that.

But here's the second installment of Tips for Grad School. Tonight's first two tips are rather obvious and trivial, while the third is more substantial.

3) Figure out where the books you need are as early as possible. You'd think that in a university as large as Cambridge, it'd be relatively easy to find the books you want. Well, even setting aside library decentralization, there remains the problem that there's just not enough copies of the books to go around. If you're in a class of eight, and there's two copies of a required book in all of Cambridge, you've got a problem. Which leads to tip #4.

4) Stay in contact with the other students in your course, and be friendly. The book problem more or less vanishes when everyone gets coordinated enough to share the books. Everyone has questions, and the collective knowledge of the group goes a long way to answering those question.

Tonight's final tip is unrelated to the other two.

5) Discuss and argue in good faith.

The goal of academic discussion should, as far as I'm concerned, be reaching a satisfying conclusion, incorporating the relevant facts and the insights various people bring to the discussion.

Discussion is not about showing off or demonstrating undying loyalty to an ideological principle.

Here's what happened in class yesterday:

In a discussion regarding the rise of nationalism, one student argued that the spread of the written word was the key development that led to nationalism. The mass availability of the U.S. Constitution, for example, allowed all (literate) Americans to see themselves as beholden to a single document and government. The medium, in this view, is more important than the message.

Now, I certainly agree that a widespread print culture is an important precondition for widely dispersed nationalist sentiment. But I vehemently disagree that the message is ancillary to the medium in which it is expressed. Would Americans really rally around the Constitution if it did not express political ideas they supported? It's awfully difficult to ignore the populist sentiment of the opening words of the Constitution - "We the People of the United States..." In short, the message matters.

In class yesterday, I said as much. The other student's response was to maintain the primacy of the medium over the message, more or less ignoring my argument.

A few minutes later, another student pointed out that it's a bit silly to look for a single cause for the rise of nationalism and suggested that we look for a more nuanced explanation.

The first student's response was more or less as follows, "But it's more fun to take an extreme position!"

Well, fine. Have your fun. But ultimately, it's damn unproductive for the class as a whole if we have someone who refuses to budge from his initial position.

Now, I'm not suggesting that people avoid taking extreme positions. Quite the contrary; I think it's often useful to adopt extreme premises and explore their implications. But there's a reason why such explorations are typically prefaced with "For the sake of argument..." That way, it's obvious that the speaker doesn't necessarily believe what follows, but rather that it's something to think about.

The problem arises when you argue for the sake of arguing and fail to take account of inconvenient facts or other people's arguments. Class discussion is not the place to win points. If your primary concern is being right and proving other people wrong, you're not discussing in good faith, you're just trying to look good.

Just keep in mind that the goal is to figure stuff out, not show that you're the smartest or the best. If you really are the smartest or the best, that'll be obvious as discussion proceeds, and you won't come across as a jerk.

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