For some reason, a bunch of the manuscripts and job documents I’ve been dealing with this past week have shared one fatal flaw. The flaw is list-addiction. It’s the oddest thing. I hardly ever saw lists in client writing, and now I can’t open a file without tripping all over them.
I suspect that maybe excessive list-writing was there before but I just hadn’t yet learned to see it as the problem that it is.
The fact is, too many of you are addicted to lists in your writing. What does this look like? Well, something like this:
“In sum, my dissertation uses interviews, surveys, textual analysis, and internet research in order to explore the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace on the social networks, family connections, and romantic relationships among a range of undergraduate students at large universities as well as small colleges, in order to analyze the differences in usage patterns by variables such as race, gender, sexuality, and age.”
The list is the weakest, flabbiest, wimpiest, and most cowardly form of a scholarly argument. It is basically additive instead of analytical, and it simply piles on new variables instead of doing the work of winnowing and ordering them to make a clear, focused argument.
List-addiction is epidemic among young scholars who are trying to please everyone instead of fighting the good fight of declaring an argument and seeing it through to its singular conclusion.
If you find lists in your job documents, and this would include lists of methods, fields, variables, and in particular courses that you propose to teach, remove them immediately.
This one in particular: “I am prepared to teach any of the following courses on your course listing: ANTH 101, ANTH 102, ANTH 124, ANTH 125, ANTH 303, ANTH 364, ANTH 401, ANTH 402, and ANTH 499, as well as other courses as appropriate.”
Gheesh. Come on, people! Who wants to read a list of course numbers? (Do you think I’m making this example up? Oh, I assure you, I’m not.)
With lists like this, you sound like a grad student. Someone desperate who is trying to please everyone with no confidence in her own distinctive profile.
Some lists are necessary—sometimes you must list the texts you study, the methods you utilized, or the topics you cover. The litmus test is not the appearance of a single list, but of a series of lists. If you have lists in every sentence (and beware the hypnotic overuse of the dyad as well), or almost every sentence of a paragraph, then that is list addiction.
A professional will, by contrast, take a single variable, method, field, or course, and demonstrate, with evidence, its centrality to her core research project and pedagogical vision. She will take a stand, and be prepared to defend it. And that courage of conviction—manifested in the choice of one thing as the best thing—is what makes a scholarly reputation, and incidentally, gets tenure track jobs.