Executive summaries

by CarlD

At this terrific thread over on Praxis about the emergence of modernity a’ la N Pepperell we are, in effect, torturing poor NP, who’s out of the country on a grand European tour and indisposed to comment up to the customary high NP standard. Lucky Praxis gets to talk with NP personally (I hope pints are involved) but this does the rest of us little good so the torture is moochle.

In defense and as usual NP would like to say everything all at once and nothing less will really do. Right, that’s true. NP is one of those people who rewards further reading, so something is always being lost in the shorter versions. I may or may not reward further reading, but I imagine I do, so I’m very sympathetic to this argument.

There’s this famous Borges fragment, “On Exactitude in Science,” in which an empire decides that no map of lesser exactitude than complete 1:1 correspondence will adequately represent it. So their map is the same size as the country, which might well be described as, ahem, cumbersome. In the inevitable scaling down of maps to make them actually useful, exactitude is indeed lost. The map is not the territory (this is a particularly good wikipedia entry).

I’m pretty happy with my current job, for many reasons not least of which that it took me three years on the market to get it. (For historians of modern Europe in the U.S. in any given year there are about 20 tenure-track openings and upwards of 200 well-qualified candidates for them. As an intellectual/cultural historian without a country specialization I was automatically out of play for at least half of those.) One of the absolutely essential and decisive skills I picked up during that time was the trick of self-vulgarization.

At the height of my powers (I’m rusty now) I could explain what I was up to in one sentence, one paragraph, one page and three pages, in addition to the twenty and two hundred page versions that got me the doctorate; in writing and orally; in versions tailored to experts, non-experts, Rotary clubs, alumni picnics, numbskulls, and administrators. I could do each with a straight face, without apology, as if what I’d said was fully adequate — which it was, for the purpose at hand.

At first, this all made me die a little inside. So much essential detail lost. I was enough of a brat about it to not even be a serious candidate until my second year out. By then, refashioning myself to look qualified to teach pickup courses in philosophy and sociology at local schools in the Bay area had worn me down and wised me up. Having to find a way to slip some tiny fraction of what I knew into the brains of students who had no foundation and all sorts of other fish to fry was the last straw.

People with very interesting things to say always have more to say. But whether they do it themselves or someone else does it for them, it’s going to get boiled down into the one sentence, one paragraph, one page, and three page versions. And those are the versions that will get out there into the world. Because life is short, we’ve all got places to go, and the map is not the territory.

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3 Responses to “Executive summaries”

  1. lol – not torture (being in airports and/or in planes for the next 24 hours, now that’s torture…) – but definitely no time to respond until I’m back in Melbourne and caught up a bit to my own time zone. πŸ™‚ Praxis is, I will say, very good at dragging inchoate ideas and half-baked project plans out of a person πŸ™‚ Now that I won’t have our conversations in the evenings (and yes, there were pints and the occasional bottle involved), I might actually have a few thoughts left over to put up on the blog πŸ™‚ Signing off for now though πŸ™‚

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