Learning from What Isn’t

With May finally here, we’ve reached the home stretch of the 2014-15 school year. Make no mistake: This is an achievement. You deserve to celebrate. Grab an extra fro-yo cone next time you’re in the dining hall, and enjoy knowing the machine has more handles than there are weeks remaining in the semester.

Here’s hoping your fro-yo cone turns out better than mine.

After that *debauchery*, ease back into the research world with a reflexive book – like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, which was recommended in my African American Studies class last semester. As the title makes clear, it’s a series of short sentences about how to approach the writing process. Klinkenborg replaces oft-repeated mechanical suggestions with much more useful ideological ones. My favorite appears on page 29: “Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.”

Following Klinkenborg’s words, every sentence in your research papers is a deliberate choice. Every argument could have reached a different conclusion, but did not. As you question, test, and analyze facts in your independent work, a crucial step is to recognize why you chose a particular arrangement of information. This goes beyond mere adherence to a thesis. Why did you pursue one research lead, and not another?  What viewpoints did you leave out? What sentences did you type but then delete – and why did you decide to backspace?  At the start, research is a realm of infinite possibilities. Armed with your own and others’ observations, it is your choices that narrow them down. You can also clarify your research intentions by acknowledging that other possibilities exist.  This reflection reveals great areas for future study: whatever your paper could have been, but isn’t, is worth further investigation.

There’s no reason why Klinkenborg’s words can’t be applied more generally. Just as every sentence could have had a different ending, so too could any research opportunity to which you applied. It’s no secret that May is also application season for summer projects or internships. If your research proposal got rejected, or you weren’t offered a fieldwork position, the result could have been otherwise. You might even say the result should have been otherwise – a conclusion I’d agree with if you’ve been taking advice from PCUR! But reality isn’t what you envisioned… and that’s not all bad.  Knowing what isn’t helps you understand what is – most obviously, what the research position is looking for, in case you want to apply again. But it also reveals what moves, motivates, and inspires you; why you submitted an application in the first place; and in what other research fields your excitement would be useful. The thought experiment is less about understanding past decisions, and more about using them to guide future independent work.

Considering just one of Klinkenborg’s several short sentences contains this much meaning, I highly recommend picking up his book. But I also recommend recognizing what could have been – in your research, writing, and summer endeavors – as the foundation for what will be. Your independent work reflects how you construct your approach, so what you choose to leave out is assigned to the realm of “could have been.” It’s all up to you. You put the independent in independent work.

And if that empowering realization isn’t worth another fro-yo cone, I’m not sure what is.

— Melissa Parnagian, Social Sciences Correspondent