MAPH Week 9: U of C Encourages Procrastination

Yes, right now, at this very moment, I am procrastinating.  I have about four pages of drafting left on one seminar paper–followed by hours of polishing–and a whole ‘nother paper due in exactly eight days that I haven’t even started on, but I am writing this post instead.  Now, the very fact that I’m sharing this with you suggests that I’m–at least–a recovering procrastinator: “My name is ____ D. ____ and I’m a procrastinator.  Hello ______!”  However, I’d like to argue that what I really am is a recovering perfectionist.

It is a little known fact that procrastination and perfectionism often go hand in hand.  In my undergraduate days I routinely spent twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, semester after semester, and took three more classes each summer–so let it not be said that I am lazy in my school work.  As a grad student I spend more time thinking and writing and less time reading than I did as an undergrad, but I still spend an insane amount of time on my classes.  However, that does not mean that I’m not a procrastinator.  It just so happens that research and drafts are my preferred form of procrastination.

The paper that I am currently putting-off is on Hilary Putnam’s theory of reference in his “middle” period–during the time of Reason, Truth and History.  In preparation for this paper I read the whole book cover to cover six times–its only about three-hundred and fifty pages and written in “analytical” style English so I can read it in about eight hours with a few breaks.  I also read three other books by Putnam: The Collapse of the Fact/ Value Dichotomy, Ethics without Ontology, and Representation and Reality and three secondary sources: Reference and Essence by Nathan U. Salmon, The Twin Earth Chronicles edited by Andrew Pessin and Sanford Goldberg, and Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and relativism edited by James Conant and Urszula Zegien.  Those books represent another 1,412 pages of research plus many, many philosophical journal articles on Putnam and reference works on Frege and others.

Now, I know–I really do–that reading books academically amounts to pillaging them for the information you need for your project and moving quickly on to the next coastal village or cliff-side monastery.  However, I am frequently compelled to read a book long after I have the sense that it has given up all its secrets for  fear that there is something else in there somewhere that contradicts my earlier reading–some later revision of an earlier concept that a learned Professor will throw in my face if I go with my initial gloss.  I also live in mortal fear that I have incorrectly generalized some species or sub-species of thought.  This trend began with very broad and largely agreed upon generalizations like “Platonic,” “Continental,” and “Pragmatist” and–while I’ve made my peace with my understanding of those categories today–Philosophy is forever coming up with new designations and arguing about the application of others.

So the question becomes: why am I so afraid?  Where is this paralysis through analysis coming from?

Perfectionists tend to indulge in procrastination because they fear that their work will fail to meet with the high standards they–or others–have set for them.  University of Chicago is a place characterized by frighteningly, insanely high standards.  I’m not one of those perfectionists that console themselves by putting forth half-hearted effort and then falling back on the belief that if they had really applied themselves they could have blown everything else out of the water.  I know a few of those guys and they aren’t the type to find themselves at a place like University of Chicago.

I also find that I am incredulous of the “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” approach so often called “progress” by well-meaning writing programs.  The idea that each paragraph followed by another and another aggregates into a paper just doesn’t sit comfortably with my experience of crafting a great paper.  I can run on and on in paragraph after paragraph without actually going anywhere (as readers of this blog would likely agree).  To return to this Putnam paper, I wrote nine pages, got my thoughts onto paper, and only then realized that my thoughts were rubbish–I needed to rethink the whole approach.  Such massive rewrites are the norm in my experience and every great paper I’ve ever written has had at least one complete lob into the waste-paper bin followed by a fresh start.

The problem is not procrastination, in and of itself, so much as it is procrastination as a manifestation of my perfectionism.  Unfortunately for a person like myself, University of Chicago encourages–nay demands perfection–yet, endeavoring to meet that challenge launches wave after wave of research, note taking, aggregation and fact checking followed by draft after draft–I’m on the tenth draft of the Putnam paper.

So what can be done constructively to overcome the kind of procrastination that comes from perfectionism?

1) When selecting a topic for a paper, choose a topic that is bounded.  For example, an analysis of a particular paper rather than an analysis of a particular thinker.  A discussion of the application of a particular thinker’s concept or approach rather than a discussion of the development of that concept or approach throughout their oeuvre.

– Topics not tightly bounded tend to suggest the possibility that just outside of what you have read there is a massively important idea that you haven’t read.  For that reason those topics tend to demand mastering a literature, a thinker, or a conversation compounding bibliographies into an incomprehensibly gargantuan reading list that one could possible read in a year–let alone in a quarter or semester.

2) Write “analytically” rather than “continentally.”  The terminology I’m employing here is philosophical, but the idea is more broadly applicable.  Continental philosophy tends to write so as to situate thoughts within a historical pedigree focusing on how various thinkers and conversations amended or introduced ideas.  Analytical philosophy tends to write as though all that matters is the truth or interest within the current conversation.

– Writing “continentally” demands an encyclopedic knowledge of your subject going back as far as that particular subject was treated and all the thinkers that contributed to those discussions.  One of the short comings of being raised as a philosopher within the continental tradition is that I always felt that I had an infinite regress of books I ought to be reading–in order to understand Derrida, you must understand Heidegger.  In order to understand Heidegger you must understand Husserl.  In order to understand Husserl you must understand Stumpf.  In order to understand Stumpf you must understand Freud.  In order to understand Freud you must understand Brentano.  And so on.  Writing analytical means that you write horizontally rather than vertically.  Where vertical means this infinite historical regress, writing horizontally means that you can limit the width of your discussion to the present conversation in the ways mentioned in rule (1).

3) Remember that you can identify a problem without solving it.  Often in researching a topic I will discover a seeming inconsistency in the application of a term or ambiguity in the term that demands some distinction or revision be employed to provide a cohesive argument.  Such things are great clues that there is a paper worth consideration with regard to that topic, but every single one of these issues could be a paper.  Sometimes you can–and should–limit your time investment with regard to clearing up this inconsistencies and ambiguities by pointing them out and then bracketing them out of your treatment.

– Many, many times the further I dig into a thinker the more times I find that their terms are ambiguous.  For example, in Putnam, the term “intention”–not intension–is deployed in a few places sometimes suggesting that it is a legitimate contributor to meaning and in other places not.  The idea of intention is not key to Putnam, but it is a very important concept for me–but is only part of what I want to talk about in my paper.  So, rather than spend pages and pages treating intentionality I have written a definition that works with Putnam’s project without trying to address the ideas’ ambiguities and the ways that other authors have understood the term.

So, I’m a perfectionist and U of C isn’t helping–but there are some tricks to help others like myself make it through.


One comment on “MAPH Week 9: U of C Encourages Procrastination

  1. I am, of course, reading this instead of finishing yesterday’s paper or starting next week’s. But I had a couple of thoughts to share (instead of nodding knowingly as I read and then going on to the projects for which I will be judged by UC the Great and Powerful).

    Re: “However, I am frequently compelled to read a book long after I have the sense that it has given up all its secrets…”

    Reminded me of this section of an interview with my undergrad thesis advisor and mentor Iain Thomson from the truly excellent document Being In The World:

    (Trailer is here: — I’ll loan it to you once I get it back from Jessica if you’d like.)

    Secondly, I mounted, over dinner, a defense of obfuscation (ever the Derrida apologist, but Nietzsche counts, too) that I’d like to run past you at some point and see if it holds water. The neuroscientist with whom I live was skeptical.

    Lastly, I now return to the paper, rather than re-engaging in the hours-long philosophy debate that claimed me on Facebook last night.

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