Hello everyone. I finally got edged out for the first post, but I will try to persevere in the face of this outrageous adversity. So, today we’re going to start out talking about peer review, since that is on my mind after today’s 130 session, then we’re gonna loop back around to Bartholomae and the titular concept of Dry Land Swimming. I have to warn you that I am going back once more to the Bruce Lee lens to approach both topics, so be prepared for that. It’s interesting though, a significant portion of the man’s writing was about teaching and how learning should be structured. He was very much a proponent of progress over tradition, and learning by doing, both of which were controversial approaches to martial arts in his time, so I feel like we could almost adopt him as an honorary member of our little cabal of forward-thinkers here. Anyway, man-crush on Bruce Lee aside, let’s get into some real stuff here…..
Seems like a strange title for a section about peer review at first, after all we aren’t “hitting” them literally or metaphorically, but there is a shared concept. The idea at work here is that what you can do in a sterile/safe environment doesn’t have much to do with what you can do in the “real” world. We’ve heard Kim say a few times that whatever structure you prepare, it will get “peopled” and things will get all messed up regardless of how well they were designed initially. Another way to approach this is through the old chestnut that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” This is equally true for writing… You can write something that seems immaculate and powerful — the same way your punches seem while you’re breaking the boards — but that falls apart when viewed through a critical lens by someone outside of your own worldview. Just because it makes sense to you, because it works well in the vacuum so to speak, does not mean that it will make sense to other people. So this is where peer feedback comes in: We may not be “hitting them back” but there is a definite pushback against the initial effort. The notes about what to change, what to add, how to shift the format, all represent the external forces that the writer needs to prepare for when writing. So if you don’t practice with these external forces in play (by having someone else read your work), you won’t feel much of a need for improvement and your writing will stagnate. This stagnation leads us to…
Dry Land Swimming
The person who refuses to subject their work to outside eyes, who continually punches the boards, is engaged with what can be called “dry land swimming.” The phrase is taken from the metaphor of getting into the ocean, suddenly as you swim you are being buffeted by waves and currents, and the technique that was so perfect on the shore must be adjusted constantly to survive. In other words, the act of moving from the shore to the ocean forces you to grow and develop your technique in new ways. The board-breakers of the world shun this growth because of the pain and anxiety that surrounds it. There is going to be a while there where you feel like you suck at swimming, before you eventually adapt to the new environment and feel skilled again. Many people would rather not go through that process, preferring to stay safely on the shore where their expertise is not challenged by the unpredictable.
In the Bartholomae essay we have an example of one such soul, the “football socks” author. Bartholomae talks about how this author preferred to stay safely within their familiar boundaries, rather than electing to “try on” the more complicated academic language that was shown in some other examples. By playing it safe this way, the author ensured that his/her expertise would shine unblemished, however it also stands out as extremely limited. What good, after all, is an expert swimmer who won’t get in the water? The “football shoes” author will remain stagnated at their current level of expertise until he or she eventually decides to get in the water, get knocked around a bit, and learn new methods of expertise to deal with it.
We see other examples in Bartholomae’s essay who submit much messier entries, and yet are viewed in a more positive manner. In the process of trying on the academic language they inevitably make mistakes, but on the whole these mistakes can be seen as a positive because it means that growth will follow soon behind. They are willing to leave their comfort zone, willing to be “hit back” by the ocean (if I might be so bold as to mix my metaphors), and as a result they will grow into the requirements of their new, larger and more arduous, environment. By getting in the water they risk appearing like they have less expertise than those that perform on land, but they also give themselves the chance to improve their abilities beyond the expertise shown on land. To get good at something, you have to be willing to be bad at it first.
I’ll wrap this up with another saying from martial arts (just in case you weren’t sick of it yet), that we tell people as they go into competition the first time and which neatly encapsulates these ideas:
“You either win, or you learn.”