Twelve Week Article: Week Eleven (and One-Half) Recap

[Alternative post title: The Miraculous Benefits of Actually Speaking to Real People]

I was hoping that this week would be my final week of working on my Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks article. I was looking forward to telling the world that I’d submitted my article to a prestigious journal and that I was celebrating. However, as the post title indicates, I’m not quite done yet.

I hit a serious snag last week, when I began adding more evidence to the final section of my article. As I began integrating the final pieces of evidence and remaining secondary sources, my heart sank as I realized that my argument and evidence didn’t fit together. The more I tried to force the argument and evidence to work together, the less my article made sense. I lost track of what I was really arguing. Panic set in. I was horrified to find myself so close to the end of my twelve week article and still struggling to come up with a coherent argument.

In despair, I called Writing Buddy. I had sent her my half finished article with a desperate plea for help. I hoped that talking through my dumb argument with her might clarify some things.

I’m pleased to report that Writing Buddy managed to save me (and my argument and my article) from myself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this post about how some people give deconstructive criticism. Being on the receiving end of deconstructive criticism feels devastating. On the other hand, getting genuinely helpful feedback feels awesome. I am fortunate that Writing Buddy knows how to give really great feedback, which helps me become a better thinker and writer.

When we finally got to talk about my article, I remembered why it’s so important to talk to other people about ideas. Talking with her for just fifteen minutes about my article clarified a slew of things I’d been struggling with.

What I appreciate about Writing Buddy is that even before she gives me feedback, I know she supports both my ideas and my writing. She’s got my best interests at heart. Getting feedback from someone who really wants to help feels way different than getting deconstructive feedback from passive-aggressive people bent on sabotage. Writing Buddy gives me constructive responses to my writing, rather than criticizing it or trying to fix it. She says things like this:

“What I thought was so interesting about your article was X, but your argument seems to be about Y.”
“You’ve got so much great evidence about Y, so really, it’s just a question of changing your argument to reflect that.”
“The part I didn’t understand was A. Are you trying to say B?”

I then get to explain my thinking and my ideas to someone who’s really listening. I feel validated and heard, rather than shamed and shut down. We listen to each other respectfully, which means that we get to have interesting conversations about ideas. We ask each other questions and clarify things.

Most importantly, Writing Buddy told me what she understood the actual argument of my article to be, as opposed to the one I had written. I had forgotten how massively helpful it is to hear someone else explain my argument in different words. By the time she finished explaining my argument back to me, I saw exactly where the problem was between my argument and my evidence. Even more importantly, I saw how to fix it.

When we finished discussing my article, we’d managed to revise my failing argument into one a much stronger one that said something even more interesting. I’ve got a new list of revision tasks: refining my argument and re-interpreting my evidence. Once I’m done with the big structural revisions, I’ll focus on omitting needless words, as I’m also dangerously close to the word count for the journal I picked. When I’m done with these chores, I’m going to submit my article, regardless of how perfect or imperfect it is.

Talking with Writing Buddy reminded me how important it is to talk to actual humans about our writing and ideas. As always, writing works best when made social. We can’t write in isolation. We create new ideas in response to other people’s ideas and then revise them further when other people respond with their own ideas. Writing is always a conversation, not a monologue.

The blog and I are off on vacation this week, but I look forward to updating the world on my writing progress in two weeks!



Twelve Week Article: Week Seven Recap

I’m over halfway done with Wendy Belcher’s workbook, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. I’d been feeling pretty smug, as up until now, I’d been keeping up with the weekly assignments. However, I knew that eventually I’d fall behind. This was that week.

I read the workbook and anticipated completing the exercises. Nevertheless, I had life and work responsibilities to attend to, which limited how much I wrote and accomplished. Some days, I only wrote for fifteen minutes.

Despite my lack of serious progress last week, I am undaunted because I can see my article improving every time I sit down to work on it. For example, I realized last week that I needed a few paragraphs that connected the particular (a small world’s fair in Guatemala) to the general (larger global debates about race and native peoples). In one of my short writing sessions, I drafted a few short paragraphs and managed to solve just that problem.

My main argument continues to evolve as well. The argument currently reads like this:

Although scholars have often viewed world’s fairs as cultural sites where elites constructed top-down structures of social control, I argue that visitors understood displays of race and science at these mega-events in ways that challenge our ideas about them as sites of hegemony, power, and social control.

I think it’s getting better. Adding some super-charged words (e.g. power, control, race, science) helped make a bland argument (people don’t always understand things in the way that other people intend) pack a lot more punch. I need to revise it a little bit so that both clauses don’t end with “social control.”

Week Seven of Writing Your Journal Article focuses on presenting evidence. Successful academic articles must have evidence to support the main argument. Without evidence, we’re just making things up and presenting them as factual (post-structural arguments etc. etc. etc. notwithstanding). In my own writing, I sometimes think I have a great idea, and then find that I have no evidence to support it. I either revise my argument or create a new one to fit with the available evidence. In academic writing, progress is often anything but linear.

Wendy Belcher asks us to think about what we consider to be credible evidence in our fields. Ideally, I would have called up some colleagues and talked with them about what they consider as credible historical evidence and sources. I regret to report that I was unable to complete this task, but I hope to have these conversations with colleagues at a later date.

Historians, obviously, rely on a wide variety of historical documents. I’ve used historical images, newspapers, song lyrics, travel brochures, archaeological reports, and personal papers as sources. As long as a source is historical, its probably fair game. We often find our primary sources in archives, though many of my sources are published. In my dissertation, I divided the bibliography between archival sources and published primary sources to show that I didn’t skip the archive, but that much of my evidence was published, rather than archival, in nature.

As far as reading and analyzing the evidence, Belcher identifies two main approaches in the humanities: close readings and cultural studies. I already knew that I used a cultural studies approach to read my sources, but to recap, cultural studies approaches:

  • Reproduce the conflicts of a period
  • Participate in constructions of knowledge systems
  • Highlight political or social contradictions

In my case, I’m looking to see how my primary sources reproduced the conflicts about the meaning of race in nineteenth-century Guatemala and helped construct knowledge about the Maya.

My main primary source for this article is a short narrative piece written by a German geographer named Karl Sapper. In it, Sapper records his first-hand observations of his visit to the Central American Exposition in 1897. Sapper was particularly interested in Maya archaeology and ethnology, so I interpret his text as one that can tell us something about how scientists thought about the Maya in the nineteenth century. I contrast his narrative with some other historical documents from the planners of the Central American Exposition, which tell us how Guatemalan elites thought about the meaning of native cultures. I also provide evidence from some international (primarily U.S.) newspaper articles to emphasize the global nature of this very small world’s fair and further connect the particular to the general.

Belcher also gives us some useful pointers on what to avoid doing with evidence when using cultural studies approaches, such as:

  • Biographical sketches
  • Speculating about intentionality
  • Avoiding simple politicizing

I’d been guilty of all of these when I originally tried to analyze Sapper’s narrative in my MA thesis. I blathered on endlessly about his background. I speculated wildly about his intentions. I flattened people, contexts, and ideas into two-dimensional tropes in my incredibly unsophisticated analysis, rather than reveling in their complexities. I explained Sapper’s work in absolute terms and ascribed to him intentions that I now realize were my own. I didn’t have yet the analytical skills to think about his story in nuanced ways.

This time around, I wanted to be more careful and understand the subtleties of the text. I pulled out all of my sources for the Central American Exposition and reviewed them for evidence that I could add to my article. I re-read Sapper’s narrative and made some notes about what I thought he said and implied, as opposed to what I wanted him to say and imply. I re-read some of my other sources as well. I checked my article draft to see where I could insert evidence from his narrative and other sources to support my main argument.

One particularly strong piece of evidence I have shows how Guatemalan elites thought about the Maya. A government official at the exposition gave a speech in which he identified the Maya as the nation’s primary “social problem.” Employing a metaphor of technological progress, he explained that he hoped the exposition would “give a much needed electric shock to stimulate those folded and almost dead wings among us.” From the surrounding context, it is obvious that he suggests that the Maya are the “folded and almost dead wings,” imagining that with some economic stimulus, the nation would unfold its wings and soar. It’s a telling piece of evidence, as it shows how elites wanted to integrate the Maya into the emerging capitalist system in Guatemala, transforming the nation from a backwater into a bastion of modernity and progress.

In some paragraphs, I noticed that my evidence was less than compelling. For example, in his narrative about the fair, Karl Sapper rarely said anything directly about the Maya. However, he visited and made notes about the archaeology and ethnology displays, which contained artifacts and objects of Mayan material culture. His notes are interesting for what they say about those displays, but also for what they did not say: namely, in contrast to most nineteenth-century social scientists, he never characterized the Maya as either racially degenerate or culturally backwards. His notes suggest some ways that he thought about Mayan culture, but the evidence isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. I’ve found that I need to incorporate some of Sapper’s other writings and work in which he does directly talk about his Maya studies.

I’m writing my article using Scrivener, so I’m highlighting different things as I write. Things I need to revise, I’ve highlighted in yellow (lots and lots). The places where I’ve inserted the main argument are highlighted in orange. Pieces of evidence are highlighted in blue. Secondary sources that corroborate my reading of the evidence are highlighted in pink. I’ve never used a color coding system for my writing, but it’s working really well. I see where I have paragraphs without evidence and where I might need to add some more where my sources aren’t quite as strong as I’d want them to be.

I’ve got high hopes for week eight. My article title (”Of Great Interest to the Geographer and Ethnologist: A German Scientist at the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897”) needs some serious work.