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Jan 4, 2008

On writing

I was able to write a little over the break, and reflect on joys and pains of writing. My current project is a book, with a working title Labor of Learning. This is a treatise on economics of learning; a project I have been engaged in for several years. I have some ten papers written and published with this book in mind. However, when they all are put together next to each other, and I begin a search for some logic, it becomes apparent that there are some glaring gaps. For example, there is no way to write this thing without confronting Dewey directly. I was avoiding doing it, mostly because Dewey scholars expect a lot of detailed knowledge about Dewey in all writings about him, so it is almost impossible for an outsider to publish something in a refereed journal. They always say "But you omitted this passage from the Public and its Problems…" Or whatever. They also love the guy too much. Dewey was a prolific and an incredibly dense writer, and I cannot imagine reading all of his stuff. That would kill me. Yet I must engage with his main ideas, because mine contradict his. Anyway, here is where a non-refereed publisher helps – I can say whatever outrageous things about Dewey, and it will get out.

But my goal is to understand the particular drive; what is it that moves me and many other people to do this? The work is tedious, incredibly time-consuming. It takes one away from real human interaction with family, colleagues, students. The returns of it are not that great: unless you write a best-selling textbook, money is puny. There is not much glory in it either: with the exception of a few academic superstars, most academic books never break a 1000 copies sold ceiling; out of those sold most are never read, because libraries buy them. The whole industry of academic publishing seems to be in great peril, with opportunities to publish a book dwindling. I have finally gotten a book contract with a start-up publisher out of the Netherlands, after some thirty rejections. Also, as an administrator, I am not expected to keep up with academic publishing to the same extent as faculty. In other words, it is a lot of hassle without much in return.

And yet, any time I have any time, my mind inevitably wanders into one or another writing project; it just does. It starts laying out logic, structures, points to be made, etc. SO, here is my hypothesis: people like me are easily bored, and are not good at relaxing. We create an alternative reality; so writing is a lot like computer games. The world has certain rules, certain obstacles, and one can overcome them all and reach an end. That's it, it is a pure mind game, a way of glorified entertainment. It has the same sense of agency without really any danger and much responsibility like computer games. Reading fiction does similar thing, but it is too passive; you don't get to act.

I don't think it is possible to write because of the tenure expectations, or because you want to improve the world, or because it is your job. None of these strike me as strong motivation. People who find other ways of occupying their brains are not addicted to writing, and do just fine without it. This particular way of living and acting does not appeal to everyone. It is easy to judge someone and claim my particular preference to be more honorable and more advanced. We always like to measure ourselves with a stick to which we measure well. So, being good at chess – good; being a computer game champion – bad. Scholarly writing – good; spending all the time teaching – not so good. The institutions we create are biased in favor of some people and against some others. I don't think it will ever be corrected, although some openness and some broad-mindedness should be welcome.

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