Thinking vs. work

Great post today on Prof Hacker today about the difference between thinking and working. Key paragraphs here:

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, for example, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the English Short Title Catalog. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all scholars—need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584). This is a key insight that students and scholars alike need to be reminded of: tortured and laborious thinking does not automatically translate into anything of importance.

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the physical forms of books, digging into etymologies, paleography, and so on. Work is engagement with materials and objects. It is not staring off into space with a blank screen in front of you.

I like Stallybrass’s and Mark Sample’s distinction between thinking and work here. Too much thinking and we just end up staring at a blank page, hoping some perfect nugget gets formed. It rarely, if ever happens that way. Working, wrestling with materials, trying to write through an idea as you’re coming to it I think is more useful. I’m a heavy reviser by nature, so I am more likely to just put words on a page and worry about how they sound later. But I also know I have more fun if I worry less about how important what I’m saying is and focus more on the texts I’m wanting to work with.


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