Against Research–Erik Anderson

When you write nonfiction, or what passes for it, sometimes a person will ask you about research, how to conduct it, say, or else it will come as a lament: I couldn’t do what you do. I know nothing about research. And sure enough, at an interview recently one of the interviewers warned me, with good intentions, I would again be asked about it. Oh shit, I thought, beginning to panic a little – for I also know nothing about research. But as I started preparing a response in my mind, I realized what a lie that was. Since infancy I’ve been investigating the world around me. Even if I hadn’t been to college, I would probably have internalized the itch, often in the form of a question, with which research begins. I would likely know to consult the experts, to read some of the literature, even if it’s just an article about Shingles on WebMD.

Curiosity, I planned to say, is the keystone of our species. Looking into things is just what we do. But I can also see that, in general, the question isn’t about being inquisitive: it’s about how you manage the facts. Not how and what and why you ask, but the way you preside over answers. It aims at determining one’s relationship to truth, and it implies a journalistic standard: that the only acceptable relationship to the facts, in writing nonfiction, is an utterly transparent one. I’m not saying the interviewer believed this, in fact I know she didn’t, but that the question has its own remedial ethos, as though one might ask of a novelist, should one want to strike at the core of her practice, how she plots her scenes – or of a poet how he handles enjambment.

When I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test in high school, I learned I was firmly on the intuitive side of things, and though other aspects of my personality have shifted in the past twenty years – I’ve become less rational over time and more of an introvert – this orientation to the facts has stayed the same. I’m not a reporter. On some fundamental level, it just isn’t who I am and never has been. I’m driven less by detail than by pattern, more by meaning than by the building blocks from which it’s made. It’s a matter of temperament: I don’t like knowing where my questions will lead, though I’m well aware that it’s the questions I’m trailing.

I have friends who use research in a different way, exhaustively planning every purchase, from cars to coffee makers. The final product is inevitably shiny and sleek, more attractive and expensive than my own. But in that shiny pot there’s just coffee, and from what I can tell it’s no better or worse than the stuff I make at home. We both arrive at work on time, in our separate cars, but I’m under no illusions that I’ve spent the commute in the best possible vehicle for my price range on the market. What is this desire to micromanage the products one consumes? Is it that by aggressively attending to the minutiae of existence, its bare and brutal facts, one might exert a measure of control over its unpredictability? Or have we substituted a consumer’s curiosity for an intellectual one? Is the best question we can come up with glass or stainless steel?

On another interview a couple of years ago, I was asked what kinds of things I do with my students to teach them about craft. I hadn’t been expecting the question, though I should have been, so my answer was fairly incoherent, but in the months that followed I thought a lot about how I should have responded. I realized I hadn’t known how to answer because I don’t believe in craft, exactly, in the same way that I don’t believe in researching a coffee pot. Craft sometimes feels like a euphemism to me, or a veil. It’s as though the craftsman were seeking to legitimize himself by deferring the question of content and prioritizing competence instead. But this risks fostering a virtuosity that is, in itself, about nothing, even if this legitimizing gesture makes sense, especially in the academy, where a thing must submit itself to assessment. Craft, that is, can be gauged: how well one uses a semicolon, plots a storyline, manages dialogue, paints a scene. It’s a technocratic approach that lends itself well to the university and its slavish devotion to the STEM fields, even if adopting it means that writing sacrifices a great deal of what makes it valuable.

The other day I met a writer who, by his own account, was part of the first generation to be truly incorporated into the academy. In the ’70s, he said, colleges started looking at writers and thinking it might be nice to have a few of them around to stir things up. And they did initially, but over time, he maintained, as writing and the teaching of writing have become increasingly professionalized, writers have adopted the shape of the academy, rather than the other way around. What this means in practical terms is, often, precisely those practical terms: craft, research, assessment. Fine words, by and large, but what about ones like vision and struggle and attempt?

The same writer told me about a recent interaction with the Dean of his college. There had been a campus-wide push for measurable student outcomes, against which he had understandably revolted. On his syllabus under “Goals,” he had written, “You will still be writing in twenty years.”

“And how are we supposed to measure that?” the Dean asked.

“Call them up in twenty years,” he responded.

He was making a point about technicalities: how they can blind you to the big picture, how pursuing them can even obscure it. His business, he said, was changing lives. It had nothing to do with managing minutiae.

It’s in that spirit I want to propose an alternative model: the pea plant, whose “tendril wending” Amy Leach describes as “swervy and conjectural.” “Like a dancer who cannot quite hear the music,” she writes, peas “are fixed on the imperceptible,” and because “what they want is beyond their powers of apprehension,” “the only direction to grow is yonder.” Even with a lattice, peas can appear chaotic in their growth, total opportunists who cling to anything that presents itself. Some might object here that, though a lattice is orderly, peas don’t seem systematic. And yet, from a genetic perspective, their growth is coherent: they’re simply following their programming. Their searching, which is both aimless and not, is a matter of survival. They do what they must. They send out their tendrils to inquire into the world beyond, but they answer less to that world than to an inner necessity. They don’t care whether their filaments land on metal or wood, on a lattice built for the purpose or on an old bicycle wheel. They only care about the yonder.

Sometimes, when asked about research – when asked about a lot of things, really – I’ve invoked W.G. Sebald, who, I have little doubt, would have enjoyed Leach’s meditation on peas. In one of the interviews contained in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Emergence of Memory, Sebald describes a dog tracing a scent across a field. The dog doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, Sebald says, he’s just following his nose. If you were to map his path, as from above, the route might even appear random or aimless, but in fact the dog’s movement is highly purposive, it just doesn’t conform to our workaday idea of purpose. Which is probably what I object most to in research: one sets out to answer some specific question and – Lo! – one discovers an answer. How much more beguiling, to my mind, to swerve and conjecture, to set out without a question or with only questions – and no investment in an answer. It occurs to me I might write on my own syllabi under “Goals,” should I ever have a Dean who demands it, “You will follow your nose where it leads.” As for measuring success, I suppose one would have to find out where the writer wound up, and if it’s a place no one could have predicted.

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