Break The Cycle of List-Addiction (Or, Just Say No To Flabby Logic)

[This is a repost]

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.”

Sigh…..

The list is the flabbiest 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.  Or who are trying to prove that they can do everything and have no gaps in the project.  Or who are just imprecise writers.

Here is a typical example, adapted from a client document:

My research focuses on transnational Latin American history and culture, comparative race and ethnicity, and critical geography. At its core, my work is interested in how cultural and economic processes produce social inequality and how ordinary people interpret, inhabit, and influence these processes. I employ critical theories of race and space to investigate how national and transnational histories of war, empire, labor, and migration articulate through Latin American social and cultural practices. My research explores how these histories shape the formation of LatinAmerican identities and communities in relation to the production of racialized landscapes.

Count the dyads (8), and the lists (3).

The outcome is a dizzying and tedious jumble of words that skims over a giant set of variables instead of clarifying a project.

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 common: “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.”

Who wants to read a list of course numbers?

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 dyads as far as the eye can see then that is list addiction.  Want a quick diagnosis?  Do a universal search for “and” in your document–if you have a case of list addiction, it’ll light up.

A mature job candidate will articulate a singular position, 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 gets tenure track jobs.

 


Comments

Break The Cycle of List-Addiction (Or, Just Say No To Flabby Logic) — 18 Comments

  1. An interesting post and argument. I think that listing is probably so pervasive because many are taught it as a writing style from grade school on up. “Your first paragraph should list three things in a topic sentence. Subsequent paragraphs should examine each of those things in detail.” That is the basic tone of what I remember from English class on up with variations appropriate to academic level. So my question, is all listing bad? The ANTH 101, 201, 301 etc. example surely seems to be, but your concluding comment seems to leave open the door for having an introductory sentence that is list-oriented which then gets expanded upon in detail….or should we abolish all listing, and if so how does one convey a multi-part argument in a opening paragraph?

    • There are things that have to be listed, like, for example: “my work is interdisciplinary and draws from the methods and theory of xxx, yyy, and zzz.” The occasions that you want to say, “letter from my references xx, yy, and zzz will be arriving under separate cover” is another. Ie, generally in the “admistrative” side as opposed to the scholarly. For the matter of the dissertation description, for example, you can have one substantive list: “my project examines three populations of social media users—xxxx, yyyy, and zzzz– in order to examine the variables shaping their usage patterns,” and then move on to substantively explain the significance and findings of the three populations, and how their study leads to a conclusion. That is not a list of the type that I’m referring to, because it INCORPORATES these variables into an overarching analysis and argument. I hope the distinction is clear.

  2. but in defense of listing course numbers…it shows that the candidate has checked out the university catalog. Perhaps list the general name of the course and then in parentheses the institution’s course name and number? The latter strategy would show the candidate has done the requisite homework on the department and institution…

    • It is good to do research and show it; it is bad to blind the reader with an undifferentiated list of letters and numbers. You will want to refer to 1-2 courses, by name, that you would teach with perhaps a word or two about your approach. That does far more than a long list.

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  4. If a junior faculty taught a large number of undergraduate and graduate courses, should they not list them?

    In the last 4 years I taught 7 different undergraduate courses and 2 graduate courses.

  5. I’m having trouble seeing how
    “my project examines three populations of social media users—xxxx, yyyy, and zzzz– in order to examine the variables shaping their usage patterns,”
    is an improvement on:
    “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.”
    Not only is the former repetitious (the word “examine” appears twice, as does user/usage), it takes out all of the specifics. I get that listing can sound desperate when it comes to potential course, but I’m just not sure how this person could have efficiently summarized the multiple methods, objects, and variables of their a research project without using lists.

    • The larger issue o list addiction is very real. People fall into an unconscious habit of listing, listing, listing, sentence after sentence, para after para, listing in every sentence, sometimes putting multiple lists into single sentences as well.

      Listing the facts of an issue—a set of methods, a set of texts, a set of courses—is not the problem. it’s the epidemic unconscious writing tic among academics that if one thing is good, three is surely better. The dyad is a particularly common form of this, but endless dyads are rarely seen in isolation, but usually interspersed with lists of 3-5 elements throughout the document, as well.

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  8. “The list is the weakest, flabbiest, wimpiest, and most cowardly form of a scholarly argument.”

    …is meant to be ironic, right?

    “The list is the wimpiest form of argument.” You’re right, that *is* better.

      • And also:
        “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.”

        I remain confused as to when lists and days are fine and when they are not.

  9. Without concrete examples of alternatives to the list, this post (and its related post on dyads) remains unconvincing that lists are as problematic as you claim. How are we to discuss disparate activities that are nevertheless linked? What do we do when discussing facets of a project that are individual yet related? This post would be more useful if you also provided some before-and-after examples.

    In the given example, I could see replacing “interviews, surveys, textual analysis, and internet research” with “various methods” — but wouldn’t that leave the readers wondering, which ones? I could also see replacing “Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace” with “social media” but in other contexts lumping a group of things together under one heading may disguise the complexity of a topic. Same for looking at “race, gender, sexuality, and age.” Aren’t the distinctions among these related elements important to demonstrate that this dissertation writer has asked a number of questions of her topic?

    Lists and dyads do not bother me, and I remain confused as to why they bug you so much.

    • The complexity of your argument does not matter if your reader has gotten lost in the verbiage. For example, a simpler way to say it might be:

      “In sum, my dissertation studies how social networks influence how undergraduate students communicate and how the various methods break down demographically.”

      That might be still be too verbose, but at least its is half the size and says mostly the same thing. Besides, “In sum” suggests that the major details were already covered. A summary is meant to simplify the overall argument into one easy to digest morsel. If you need to use a list for these types of summations, I think it helps if it is a separate sentence from your main point. i.e.”For example…” Placing placing necessary lists in separate, short sentences will help the eye from getting lost and reduce reader fatigue.

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