Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Information Overload or Peak of Intellectual Power?

I've got to be honest with you. Cicero's On Invention was a rough one for me to get through. I'm a big picture, sweeping ideas, get caught up in the whirlwind kind of thinker, and the endless dissecting, listing, and re-listing of each subsequent and carefully categorized "part" of rhetoric made my mind go a little numb.

There was, though, a very interesting line at the beginning of Book 2. Here, he is explaining his process for creating a book on rhetoric. He explains that the ideas are not his own. Instead, he "excerpted what seemed the most suitable precepts from each, and so culled the flower of many minds." He goes on to explain that more people should follow in his footsteps, for "if men would choose the most appropriate contributions from many sources rather than devote themselves unreservedly to one leader only, they would offend less by arrogance, they would not be so obstinate in wrong courses, and would suffer somewhat less from ignorance." (Ahem. Fox News viewers, I think he's talking to you.)

Finally, he gets to the part that I find most interesting. Here he explains that he is at a peak position because he has "a larger number of models to choose from" than previous writers and was therefore "able to set out before [him] the store of wisdom of all who had written from the very beginning of instruction in rhetoric down to present time, and choose whatever was acceptable."

Inch by inch 18 January 2011

Dear Lord, what would he say if he saw Tumblr? Or Google Books? Or even Amazon reviews?

I probably have more text to sift through to make an informed movie purchase than Cicero had when he set about to look at what he considered "the store of wisdom of all who had written from the very beginning of instruction in rhetoric down to present time." After all, there are nearly 5000 reviews of Mean Girls on Amazon, and that doesn't even touch on its Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB pages. 

Cicero's claim also touches upon another problem that--even in today's age of seeming information egalitarianism--still exists. What we think is the "wisdom of all" is really only the wisdom of those who have been privileged enough to make it through the crowd. 

It does not seem, for instance, that Cicero's understanding of "all" rhetorical theory has any consideration for ancient Chinese rhetorical practices or the rich African rhetorical traditions in existence during his time. 

See, in Cicero's time there was no Google or Facebook to bring him information he may or may not actually need.

Totally. Necessary. 
Even still, he was able to ignore huge swaths of relevant information while doing what he thought was a comprehensive examination of his subject matter. 

Here's the thing. There is no comprehensive examination of his (or pretty much any other) subject matter. We will constantly be blinded by the privileges that society has bestowed upon certain segments of the population, our own biases in which information we choose to consume, and--perhaps most dauntingly of all--the limited capacities of our own abilities in the face or mortality. 

In theory, we have more information available to us than any other human being has ever had at any point in history. There are millions of pieces of discrete information being created and freely shared around the entire globe on a continuous basis. You could start reading right now and never stop (which, you know, is impossible because you have to sleep and eat and whatnot) and keep going until you die and barely make a dent in the "comprehensive" study of a topic. 

Sure, maybe you study something really rare like, I don't know, the impact of mosquito bites on calico cats named Sven, and maybe you really can read all there is to read on that subject, but you still need to read all there is to read about mosquitos, and bites, and cats, and the calico genes, and the name Sven. No one escapes this trap. 

That. . . that can be overwhelming. It can be particularly overwhelming to someone who read this very book in preparation for her comprehensive PhD exams. 

So I turned to an old (haha, cause in today's world, a year-old article is "old") NPR article about the impossibility of catching up on anything. You should go read it all; it is beautiful. 

After establishing in no uncertain terms that taking in everything worth taking in is an impossibility, author Linda Holmes leaves us with this comforting thought:
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
So, for a moment, I'm going to stare into my cup with my back to the ocean. But only for a moment. I'll be back, back to take in the immenseness of what I cannot know, back to accept what I can, back to swim. 


  1. I was just looking at De inventione yesterday as it had an anecdote concerning Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, that I thought would be useful. Turned out to be not as useful as I thought it would be, but still helpful.

    The idea of being "well-read" is a HUGE trap when it comes to the dissertation- it is so easy to read something and realize you need to read something else, and that gives you three more pieces of bibliography in the footnotes to chase up, etc. etc.

    I'm hopefully a year or so out from defending, and the three best pieces of advice I've received on writing the PhD (two from the same person, and one from my husband) were these:

    1. "I hate the term 'writing up'. No one should ever decide to write up. You should just always be writing."
    2. "It's a waste of time to do too much reading. You have to write because writing actually tells you what your ideas are and shows you what you actually still need to read. If you read too much you'll waste time by reading things that ultimately turn out to be irrelevant."
    3. "No one ever finishes a dissertation. At a certain point they just decide to stop."

    I know you need to get through the comps first, but these words (the first two anyway, I only just heard the third last week, which came at EXACTLY the right point for me) have made a huge difference in keeping me to task, keeping me focused, and keeping me from drowning in the literature. I write them in the hope they will be helpful to you one day.

  2. Thank you! That seems like excellent advice, and I really do think it will be my hardest part. I've always been a very thorough reader, but I'm figuring out that I'm going to have to find a way to temper that. For one thing, the amount of time it takes me to read a book the way I want to read a book would make it impossible to remember anything by the time I got to the end of the list.

    I'm sure I'll come back to read this comment more than a few times as I move closer and closer to actually writing the dissertation!