Yesterday, I wrote about my pithy writing as a graduate student. Today, I’m discussing my shift from pithiness to chewiness.
But, slowly and gradually, as I studied more critical theories that challenged claims for clarity, common sense and singular narratives/reading and as I became more immersed in feminist challenges to theorizing in the academy as a Ph.D student at Emory University, my writing style began to shift. Or, at least my understanding of it did. My purpose in writing was no longer simply to clearly explain (or report/summarize) an author’s ideas, raise a few critical questions to those ideas and then tentatively provide my own proposals for future work. Instead, it was about crafting sentences that packed a punch, that pushed the reader to think and question and that required me (as the writer) to devote a lot of attention to processing and reflecting on the ideas and theories that I was writing about. My writing, although still direct and efficient, was becoming increasingly dense and packed with ideas, questions and provocations. It wasn’t just pithy, it was chewy too.
In 2001, I presented at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Minneapolis. Before attending the conference, my dad agreed to read it. My dad was always awesomely supportive of my academic work. Other than my committee, he might the only person that read my dissertation. When he returned it to me, he added the following post-it note: Winner of the 2001 Chewy Bagel Award
I loved that he posted that on my presentation! I can’t remember exactly what he said as an explanation for his award, but his idea that my work was “chewy” stuck with me. After earning my Ph.D and starting to teach and research at the University of Minnesota in 2006, I embraced my chewiness. I often told my students the story about my dad and talked about the importance of writing chewy papers. And, when we encountered a particularly challenging text (like one by Judith Butler or Jasbir Puar), I often opened our class discussion with, “Wow, that was a chewy bagel!”
Chewy writing is dense and requires that both the writer and the reader devote substantial time to thinking through the ideas, theories or experiences that are being written about.Unlike some pithy writing, which is aimed at getting to the point quickly and efficiently so that the reader can easily digest the ideas, chewy writing is aimed at encouraging (or forcing) the reader to stop and engage in slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:
But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).
A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents.
For now, I’m a little stumped on how to connect this chewy conversation back to my continued love of pith. And I want to incorporate a discussion of the limits of dense, chewy writing (too time consuming, can turn us into annoying and exhausting over-thinkers, inaccessible) with J Butler’s discussions of difficult writing. I just posted notes from one of my class discussions about it on Undisciplined. I also am debating whether or not to bring in a discussion of the negative connotations of being “pithy”—too easily consumed, flattens complexity, is a buzzword for Bill O’Reilly and in the title of his upcoming book (ugh).
UPDATE (January 11, 2013): Last night my sister texted me to let me know that it was not my dad who created the post-it note and put it on my presentation; it was my brother-in-law. After exchanging a few texts, we determined that my dad had declared the presentation “a chewy bagel,” and then, as a goof, my brother-in-law created the post-it note. I really appreciate that my sister regularly reads this blog and alerted me to my memory fail. Part of the reason that I’m doing my “giving an account” project is so other people who read my accounts can challenge, correct or contribute to my memories of past experiences and events. While the exact details (facts/Truth) of stories/memories aren’t as important to me as what they’ve come to mean, I still appreciate having a more accurate account of what really happened. It can help me to rethink my understanding of an event or to clarify my perspective.
For example, my sister’s correction is enabling me to reflect some more on my thoughts on being a chewy writer and receiving the chewy bagel award. I can’t remember what I was exactly feeling when my dad told me my presentation was a “chewy bagel.” I probably was a little annoyed. Was that all he said about it? It seems that calling it a chewy bagel could have been a way to dismiss discussing it. I might have also been a little frustrated and filled with resignation. Describing my work as chewy might have been his subtle way of admitting he didn’t understand it and so he was unable to engage with it. I was used to that.
Over the years, many people have been unable to understand my perspective and how I articulate it in my writing. Why? For a long time, I struggled with believing that it was all my fault. I just need to explain it better, I thought. But, as I discuss in my post on pithiness, being clear and direct has never been a problem for me. My teachers consistently praised me for my clarity, economy of words, and ability to zero in on the most important points of an argument. Now, I still accept responsibility when others don’t understand me, but I also recognize that their failure to understand could also be a resistance to my work and ideas. Maybe they don’t want to try to understand it because of the trouble it might cause to their ideas/ways of being or because the perspective that I have is so radically different from theirs? Maybe they don’t have time to understand what I’m writing because it’s too dense and demands that they stop and think (ruminate) for longer than they’d like?
But, since my memory seems to fail me so much, I can’t remember what my reaction to my dad was or the various reasons why he labeled my presentation “a chewy bagel.” I do believe that his feedback was intended to be useful and not dismissive. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter. I like writing chewy bagels. And I like embracing labels (like chewy) that others might interpret as negative or dismissive. My blog is about making trouble and my online identity is Undisciplined, after all.