On the way from the Arts to the Sciences

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 1:29 AM


I finished an MFA this last spring; five unfortunate years which were educational, but not what I would call productive in terms of a career.

I did, however, learn quite a bit about department politics. I have very few illusions about collegiality, in the sense that it's a miracle when we all get along. I'm prepared to love the shit out of any place which does not have the kind of meltdown which involves lawsuits.

My last department made headlines and lawsuits.

This last August, I started a PhD in sociology. So far, I am prepared to love these people, though the curricula and pace may kill me. I feel like I just entered college for the first time, in the sense that this is the first time I've had to study and the most panicked about my brains I have EVER been.

This week, I was told to assemble seven to fifteen single-spaced pages of references for my comp exams. And then I put my head between my knees and thanked Xanax for the ability not to run screaming from the room.

This is, after all, my first semester.

I have been told that vacillating between "I'm stupid, I'm stupid, I'm stupid" and "holy crap, it's complicated and I get it" is normal for PhD students. I'd say it's nice to be normal, but that may be the relief to no longer be in my previous program talking.

Now that I've joined the sciences, my friends have started to ask me: is it different? How different?

That is a very complex question, and the only way I can answer it is to talk about the different modes for reasoning. The arts asked me to create pastiche or global networks, which the audience is invited, by way of what is omitted, to participate.

In rhetoric, this is the enthymeme-- a way of arguing which manipulates social agreements about what is true or right, by making the most important premises unstated and relying on the audience, who will tend to fill in these omissions in the ways they have been socialized to do, to insert those premises. An enthymeme persuades by attaching itself to what the audience already knows and believes, whether by inverting or confirming it.

Infosec calls this social engineering and applies a different methodology to it.

In the sciences, anything important which has been left unsaid is a failure on the part of the arguer, as is anything left unclear, for a value of clear which depends on the discipline. Persuasion is effected by meticulous attention to detail, re-testing/falsification and demonstrations of accuracy.

Obviously, at some point you have to pick where to stop explaining. You shouldn't have to re-invent the wheel to talk about transportation patterns, and the sciences take for granted a certain baseline of technical knowledge, for entry into the discussion.

While I completely understand the urge to start the conversation at the level which prevent you from having to write a book to make a point, I think some of the things neglected are rather important.

I continue to be very amused with my statistics teacher, when I don't want to slap him for being a tremendous prat. He tells us that the reason to love statistics is that it doesn't bother with all that silly social stuff. He followed this statement, as he has often in the last three months, by telling us that setting the alpha for our confidence intervals or interpreting the relevance of statistical significance is a judgement call.

Maybe it's all that dirty, postmodern training, but I'm tempted to amuse myself by demanding a criteria for that, just to watch him move from equation to rationalization. I think, however, that I'd like to keep my good grade.

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