Sitting, Academic Style

Skeleton At Computer 1

STS as Equipment for Literature: Sitzfleisch Material Semiosis

(draft for 4S talk for panel, “Get your theories up and running with lively machines” – comments welcome)

the title is a variation on rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s brilliant piece, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” describing the uses of inspirational and self-help books, noting that most people read book after book, never quite doing what the books say to do, but paradoxically being inspired by those books because just feeling like the good life was only ten steps away was inspiration enough. If only one keeps reading. So i want to ask whether STS with its intense modes of studying productivity through ANT and SCOT and Material-Semiotics and Enacting might turn its sights on improving our own practices of writing and living. Or is that taking things a bit too far, a bit repugnant to sensibility, even if you are still very curious as to what I might say?

When Sarah McCullough and I conceived this project, it involved taking our projects at the time, studying how computer and cognitive scientists think through diagrams and paper tools, and how athletes inhabit their bodies while running, and turning these methods on our colleagues. In a materialist reflexivity, we became interested in our how STSers make words.

my midpoint outline

While a more inclusive view of this project would involve how we gather data, write notes, analyze through coding, outlining, notecards, software programs like Tinderbox, AtlasTi, DevonThink, Scrivener, WriteRoom, Microsoft Word, etc., — or writing out longhand, typing up drafts, printing them out with numbered paragraphs, cutting those paragraphs up, rearranging them on the living room floor, making a new outline on butcher block paper, and cut-and-pasting the new draft together on the computer again (my process) — this is for another time.

Here we wanted to focus on the materiality of sitting, as an endurance activity. The technical term for this according to blogger Nancy Friedman is Sitzfleisch: The ability to endure or persist in an endeavor through sedentary determination. A borrowing from German, it literally means “sit-flesh”. Writer Richard Rhodes in his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections (1995) gave the most succinct formula for making words: Apply Ass to Chair. Simple enough to say, but what does it look, feel, sound, and smell like in practice? How do we sit?


Our methods are hit and run. I cornered colleagues for five minutes at a time at conferences while waiting for the speaker to start, in hallways, at lunch tables. With my spy pen, the PulsePen LiveScribeSmall commercial here for this elegant fieldworker’s tool (thanks to Jerome Crowder for the inspiration): it records what you write while audiotaping what is said at the same time. Afterward you touch one of your notes and hear the audio from the moment when you were writing it. Coding and taping at the same time! End commercial. We also adapted Sarah’s methodological innovation for athletes: Exertion Interviewing. Sarah was fascinated by the difference between what runners said about their running when sitting, and what they said while running and decided the only way to find out was to run with them, talking while huffing. In our case the challenge was to interview writers while writing which she solved by opening chat windows with them and occasionally interrupting their process with questions: so what are you doing now and how does it feel? Does anything hurt?

So how do we sit? Or as one professor immediately interjected: “Do we really sit for very long? I’m always getting up, making coffee, warming my cup, fixing a plug, moving my laptop, going to the bathroom, arranging my desk, finding a book, getting a snack…” We might want to start with the basic question of duration. How long do we sit? For what intervals? With what breaks or stretches? I’m not yet ready to answer this as I do think it is an exertion interview question: i really don’t trust people to remember what they really did.

Then there is the question of what we sit in? One chair or many? A professor described her sitting by explaining that when she started to ache or needed to read that she moved to her massage chair. One of those wonderful Sharper Image (may it Rest In Peace) recliners that vibrates and rubs your back as you recover. Recover from what? From what she called “The Torture Chair,” laughing as she realized the truth of her description. In her office at the University she has a similar arrangement, a large leather comfy recliner next to her studious torture chair. 

Timing was another top concern: almost everyone described their own habits that they had learned to conform to, the talents and limits of their bodies. For many the morning was the only period of real productivity they could muster. To be protected at all costs. For others like this author, morning exists in an eternal fog, and the hours after 10pm are the only ones that result in words worth repeating. Sleep researchers distinguish between Larks and Owls, whether you wake up quickly or slowly. More sophisticated researchers describe “Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome” when you can’t reset your circadian clock to anything other than six hours later than socially acceptable (why some of us are academics).

A surprising number of informants described quite complicated rituals of duration management, often arising from self help writing manuals like “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day,” or increasingly from “coaches,” that new breed of mutual help taskmasters. Most of these involve an alternation between writing and breaks, termed production and rewards, replicating the industrial rhythms of work and leisure. One rewards oneself for a job well-done, say 45 minutes of writing with 15 minutes of other activity (everything from a stretch to email to chocolate); or a set number of words. In more advanced scenarios, one might have to write three good pages before allowing oneself to retire for the day; or one might have to work until 5pm solidly and then anything goes at night.

Some regimens involve a sophisticated scheduling of interval training borrowed directly from elite athletes. Work every day in units of 45 minutes writing, 15 minute break, being sure to get away from the computer when not writing. Stay focused on writing through chapter one for one week, chapter two the next week, etc. till a whole draft is produced no matter the quality. Then repeat at a smaller interval, 5 days for each chapter, then 3 days, then 2 days, then one day per chapter. The informant at this point reiterated that she was convinced this was an excellent regimen in that it allowed her to understand the relation of each chapter to the whole, and then confessed that she nonetheless broke from it to binge on one chapter until it was “done”.

This confessional mode seemed to follow everyone’s description of their regimens, something they abided by, swore by, seemed indebted to for rescuing them from some writing hell, and yet took a perverse pleasure in listening to their bodies and independent self and indulging in their own felicitous mode.

This oscillation between regulation and binging contravenes researcher Robert Boice’s detailed studies of academic productivity. In a series of intense books

— like Advice for New Faculty Members and Procrastination and Blocking and Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing

Boice divided professors into steady writers and binge writers, tortoises and hares perhaps. Making a strong case for academics to stick to a plan of regulated writing and to avoid binging at all costs. He reports that steady writers are more productive and even happier than bingers who go for long periods between their intense frenzies of writing. I was always a bit suspicious of this division as he didn’t give any evidence that the steady writers were qualitatively as interesting as much as having an increased quantitative output. But this may be the sour grapes of a inveterate binger. But in the current study we discover a different pattern, folks who regulate their writing and binge in a much more varied biorhythm. Certain this needs more work. (my current favorite recommended by Amazon: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia) A lot!

Next we come to question of sheer bodily endurance and maintenance. We hadn’t pursued the questions of nutrition, who eats a good breakfast? are vegetarians lacking in critical analysis? and so on. But liquids emerged unbidden in every interview.

Not surprisingly caffeine in all its splendor occupied the touchstone in every life, even those who abstained made sure that we noted this. In general caffeine needed to be managed, it was essential to the care of the writerly sitter. Personal rules abounded: “I have to have my triple expresso in the morning and cannot touch it after 3pm or I will never get to sleep.” Coffee versus Tea, number of cups, forbidden times of day were crucial physiological variables for each person to ascertain, clearly from bitter experience of experiments gone awry. If we had more time, exploring the failed caffeinations would be an agenda item. One professor described her regimen: a pot of coffee in the morning was crucial. In the afternoon she could have herbal tea, and “in the evening, alcohol is justified.” I love the word “justified”, testifying a moral-physical calculus of productivity and desire. Indeed a surprising number of professors admitted (in the sense of lowering their voice a little when speaking of it) to alcohol assisting their nightly work, usually qualifying it by saying that this helped with email and administrative duties or reading, when the late hour did not allow true writing.

Tip for Owls: Split the difference :-)

Drugs were not pursued as aggressively as they should have been, in retrospect. Partly due to time constraints. But history records that some of the most prolific social science and humanities scholars in the past have been pharmacologically assisted: from Freud’s Cocaine to Sartre’s Wine-Tobacco-Speed concoctions. And then there’s the 20% of scientists responding to a survey in Nature last year claimed to have used cognitive-boosting drugs, including Ritalin and Provigil (Modafinil) to enable them to perform better, sleep more efficiently, or increase their concentration or memory. Clearly we need to be pursuing the question of enhancing our scholarly inscription devices.

Not the place here, but worth noting that the most charged ethical questions among undergraduates in my Drugs, Science & Culture class over the past few years has been whether Ritalin enhanced schoolwork or SAT scores is cheating or just a smart strategy. Certainly the next generation of STSers will be drawn from former high schoolers who will have almost all have tried or thought about trying this route to productivity.

Along the line of drugs and literal enhancement, one of the books I have used in teaching is a self-help book with a very Actor-Network like title: Managing Your Mind and Mood through Food. Written by an MIT research scientist Judith Wurtman (and a ghost writer), the book assumes a theory of two chemicals Serotonin and Dopamine, the former makes one more awake and the latter more relaxed. The theory is that the foods we eat are digested into precursors to these two chemicals, so what you eat and in what order, can greatly affect how you feel and think. Simply put, protein raises you up, carbos lower you down. There are two other groups: fatty foods make you sluggish and caffeine makes you more alert (there’s a whole chapter on how great caffeine is for everyone but i’m trying not to involve you in my obsession more than necessary).

Anyway, the key insight of the book for me comes in the chapter on how to pull an all-nighter (“How to eat to beat your inner clock”). Based on extensive empirical research on architecture students with overnight assignments, Wurtman came upon a paradox: there was no one food that worked. She ended up discovering a key material-semiotic distinction: the question one had to ask oneself is whether one was motivated or obligated. The motivated student was completely excited about the assignment and wanted to stay up all night, whereas the obligated student would much rather be asleep but had to do it. For the obligated student, any dopamine seemed to immediately send them off to slumberland, and they had to be assiduous in sticking to small portions of cottage cheese and lowfat yogurt. For the motivated student however, eating too much protein made them buzzy and a bit incoherent. Not the right mood to get the assignment done well. They were fine with some pasta, where the dopamine relaxed them enough to focus properly on their work.

The same drugs, if you will, but different effects depending on what you think you are up to and how you feel about the task in front of you. Care of the self here is dependent upon the self caring or not. “You” are different physiologically depending on your state of mind, and your state of mind is at the same time a product of what you eat. No one said this was easy.

Wurtman’s discovery I would like to qualify as brilliant. For it sheds light on the distinction that Sarah and I were surprised to discover between our two groups, professors and graduate students. Way too schematically, because we’re running out of time:

Professors repeatedly used motivated phrases like: when i want to write… whereas students speak in the modality of obligation: when i have to write…

Students talk of the torture of writing, the struggle to get words out, to find the idea, and feelings of inadequacy and unproductivity while sitting.

Profs speak of the torture of not writing, of administrative work, of the struggle to get the time to write, of unproductivity while not writing.

For students, the body is an instrument to be fought with, even sacrificed at the altar of production. When asked if anything hurts, they often pause blankly before responding with a shoulder or wrist, as if they were completely disidentifying with their body. There is even a sense that pain may be the point: hurting is proof one is working, pain implies effort. Productivity as squeezing a recalcitrant body to give up its life for words. (see Sarah’s paper for more and more painful wordful sitting).

Profesors in contrast talked as their bodies, a language of accomodation and long-duree relationship. How they care for their bodies so that those bodies are able to write. Pain is omnipresently conscious, and the interviewer must be prepared for a long conversation if he embarks upon this topic. Writing is often an epic story of how a body comes to make words between chairs and aspirin, caffeine and children, sabbaticals and wrist wraps.

Roald Dahl writing

Instead of excuses not to write, professors sometimes talk of making up excuses to write: taking on a new topic for a conference just so that they can put off, for a small duration, every other pressing duty, turn off the email, and carve out a few hours at the keyboard. The author offers up this humble example.

my desk-bridge

So now we are in that contradiction of biochemistry that we call the rite of passage: how to help graduate students make the switch from obligated writer to motivated writer earlier — if that makes sense — to exchange the torture of writing for the torture of not-writing sooner. To give up one life for another; to become an STSer.

if you made it this far, then please post your sitcare stories and strategies (or if you want to remain anonymous, email them to me)

Still to be incorporated: 

Sitting is a Lethal Activity (a study conducted with magic underpants that measure how much you move, the results are disturbing)



Dumit, Joseph. 2009. “Sitting, Academic Style.” ms.

One Response to Sitting, Academic Style

  1. Marisa says:

    I got a dog before I began dissertation fellowship year. I felt that I needed another creature–his biological dependence on me getting up to walk him at least twice a day–to compel me to care for my own body during such a long endurance writing project. Several friends treated me like I was crazy, because, after all, who would willingly introduce a new distraction during a time that requires so much productivity?

    Also, I almost never write at a desk. It is horrible for my posture, I’m sure, but I love writing on a couch, especially curled up under a blanket, wrapped around the laptop.

    I have no one good writing time. Often it is in the late evening, but sometimes in the morning. Sometimes in the middle of the day. I felt guilty about this for a long time, especially in comparing myself to people who know exactly when their time is. But I’ve made my peace with it; it generally does come at some point during the day and for that, I’m grateful.

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