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Feb 28 / aroddick

More perspectives on writing

Hi all,

Just a few quick other fun things on writing. First, I cam across this incredible file of writing quotes from the writer Denis Johnson. (A great American novelist, if you’ve never heard of him!). Apparently he shared this, a sort of common-place book, with some of his students over the years. Here are a few golden quotes in there (but there are many, many more!)

Write as if all too soon you’ll be dead.

When besieged by doubt or depression, take a shower and change your clothes.

– Donal Justice

I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.

Flannery O’Connor (Mystery and Manners)

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time a tremendous whack.

Winston Churchill

And so on…

The other is a more ethnographically directed discussion on ethnographic writing by Anthropologist Rebecca Lester. Six simple points, but worth a look.

Feb 11 / aroddick

Anthropologists on writing…

Hi all,
Turns out your not the only Anthropologists thinking about your writing. In fact, at this very moment there are a large number that are actively reflecting on their writing habits and practice,  and keeping each other accountable!  For example, check out the project happening over at Durham University (in the UK)  This website is dedicated to, “supporting social science researchers who are seeking to engage more effectively with the practical and intellectual issues that arise in the quest to produce texts that are engaging, accurate and analytically insightful.” There are lots of things that might be useful, including a section on graduate students chatting about the thesis writing process. I wanted to draw your attention to the section on “writing on writing”, which includes some interesting short pieces on the writing process. There are quite a few Anthropologists involved, and our old friend the sociologist Howard Becker also appears.  This appears to be mostly qualitative writing, but may be of use to the most quantitative amongst you as well. Some highlights:

Marilyn Strathern (a big name in Anthropology if you haven’t heard of her) on the “data-theory gap”

What initially may appear to the young research student as a gap between data and text changes colour over time.   Habituation to writing creates other kinds of gaps, such as that awful one between everything one has already written and a new venture, or between the magnitude of the field of enquiry, the heap on the plate, and the bit one wants to bite off for now.   I describe one particular gap just as I find myself often describing it to students who seem cast down or a bit low or even depressed about writing.  I am sure there are times when my comments come over rather unfeeling, as not caring enough about the state they are in.  I think that is because I want to say that, while I am sorry if someone is feeling miserable, it doesn’t help for me to feed it with commiserations.  Rather, what I from my own moods can tell them about what may be happening (sometimes not always) is that the gap opening up between what needs doing and the capacity to do it can actually be a prerequisite to writing at all.   Similar gaps can make people stumble at any point or in any corner of their lives; for the would-be writer they can be the threshhold of creativity.

Tim Ingold on handwriting:

I am saddened by the rule, observed in my own institution as in most others, that requires students to produce work in a standardised, word-processed format. I am told that one reason for this rule is that it allows work to be checked for originality, using anti-plagiarism software. From the start, students are introduced to the idea that academic writing is a game whose primary object is to generate novelty through the juxtaposition and recombination of materials from prescribed sources. Word processors were expressly designed as devices with which to play this game, and it is one that many academics, having been trained in its conventions, are only too keen to carry on. But the game is a travesty of the writer’s craft. Contrary to university regulations, I encourage my students to write by hand, as well as to draw, and to compare their experience of doing so with that of using the computer. The response has been unequivocal. Handwriting and drawing, they report, re-awaken long-suppressed sensibilities and induce a greater sense of personal involvement, leading in turn to profound insight.

Medical Anthropologist Arthur Kleinman on “searching for a voice”:

But perhaps my strongest advice on writing comes down to these two recommendations. First, if you are going to write, then write. Write every day. Write when you are most wide awake. But write. And edit yourself (and do so severely) and rewrite. Second, aspire to prose that is arresting, prose that is beautiful. Most of the time, like me, you won’t achieve it. No matter, it is the journey of aspiration that counts, that lets you weigh the best words of strong writers and test them against your own strengths, that lets you experiment, eventually comes to burnish and improve what you do write. And that will matter for your readers and ultimately for the writer in you.

…and finally, Becker on some [more] “words on writing”:

The most common faults arising from such causes these days include the piles of unnecessary bibliographic references decorating academic writing and the incessant use of passive grammatical constructions. Authors generally insert those unnecessary references because the item has turned up in a bibliographic computer search or because some critic has said “You haven’t mentioned So-and-so, who has also written on this subject.” It’s far easier to insert the whole list the search engine turned up or to mention So-and-so than to make the perfectly good argument for not doing so you might have ready. I solve this problem for myself by insisting that every reference in what I write contain specific page numbers–not the whole article or book, just the pages relevant to the point where the reference has been inserted. Occasionally I do mean to refer to the whole book or article but usually not, there’s just a paragraph or sentence that’s relevant and I have the page number to put in. I generally suspect, perhaps unfairly, that authors who don’t provide page numbers haven’t read the item they’re citing.

There is lots more there, so do take a look!

Feb 5 / aroddick

Previous Blog 7 Examples

Below are a few themes that students have taken on in recent years. (I’ve simply posted the title along with their introductory paragraph). Hope this helps!

“In conversation: Histories in the Making”:
“This week’s blog takes a look at current issues of history, or what constitutes the past within the disciplines of religion and anthropological archaeology. Exchanges between a religion studies student, Sam M., and an archaeology student, Stefanie W., take place to first understand the differences between these disciplines and to highlight the variety of approaches in search of multiple truths that cross-cut the making of histories. Underwriting this in our conversations between religion and archaeology is the focus on misnomers of “objectivity” and “accuracy,” as well as our perceptions of what history constitutes in the interpretations of identities and worldviews amongst different individuals, communities, and societies.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) : Making of a Hindu India
“Earlier this year, riots in Delhi resulted in the death of at least 51 individuals, with the majority being Muslims (The Guardian, 16 March, 2020). These riots were the direct result of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a controversial citizenship bill passed by the Indian parliament in December 2019. This act offers citizenship rights to the so-called persecuted minorities of India’s neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) where Muslims are the majority population. According to the CAA, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Christian migrants from the aforementioned countries who took refuge in India earlier than December 2014 would be naturalized as Indian citizens under the basis of religious persecution. However, those who claim citizenship under this Act are not required to prove said religious persecution. Identifying as non-Muslim is sufficient to claim Indian citizenship, making it clear that with the CAA, the ruling party of India, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), is trying to create an environment of existential fear amongst Muslim Indians. This blog will explore the rise of religious nationalism and discrimination in India through an examination of the region’s religious and political history and archaeology; discussing initially India’s history of mistrust, followed by a study of the Partition Era and archaeology’s role in the creation of Indian identity, and then the attempted erasure of tribes in India – an underrepresented minority in the country. Having provided this context, we will discuss the role of the BJP in appropriating the past in order to spread false narratives about what it means to be Indian, equating Indian identity with the Hindu religion.”

“Blurred Prospects”
The anthropology graduate student experience can be incredibly rewarding on a personal and professional level but remains marked by institutional, sub-disciplinary, and individual uncertainty. We invoke the metaphor of “blurriness,” a quality of haze and ill-defined sight, to discuss our thoughts on the academy as two first-year doctoral students. Loa Gordon is a social-medical anthropologist who studies the self-administered care practices of Ontario university students with mental health struggles. Julien Favreau is a geoarchaeologist who studies 2 million-year-old stone tools from East Africa to determine from which outcrops human ancestors procured raw materials. Below we will reflect on the precarities we face as hopeful academics. By discussing the blurriness we encounter in the academy, in our respective sub-disciplinary niches, and in our individual research, we will delineate common feelings among our cohort and provide a platform on which to openly address these pressing issues.

“Identity and Interdisciplinary Studies: a comparison of archaeological and bioarchaeological perspectives”:
Identity is a broad and encompassing topic that touches on every aspect of our lives, so it makes sense that anthropological engagement of identity takes many forms. This blog post looks at two of these engagements, archaeology and biological anthropology, to (1) see where differences and similarities lie in the investigation of identity, and (2) to explore if one sub-discipline really needs the other. To do this, two articles were selected by specialists in the respective fields: one of us is a biological anthropologist looking at Roman diet through stable isotopes, the other a paleoethnobotanist exploring early hunter-gatherer diet, subsistence, and foodways in the south-central Andes. A brief description of the articles are presented below, as well as discussions on common threads and divergences between the articles.

Anthropologists are ‘Story Telling Animals
The concern for narrative and story telling is one theme that cross-cuts anthropological archaeology and social anthropology. We have covered this topic in class but there are particulars that are unique to each sub-field that we wished to cover in this week’s collaborative blog. The one commonality that the two fields share is the troublesome notion of objectivity. In the following paragraphs, we would like to examine narrative and its effectiveness in the two anthropological sub-fields.

An Experimentation in Collaboration: A Dual Approach to Traditional Ecological Knowledge:
Inspired by Koster et al.’s (2016) research in Current Anthropology we have chosen to discuss a topic which intersects our disciplinary interests of natural and social science. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a body of knowledge that is site specific and is developed through generation of cultural transmission (Drew 2006). This knowledge concerns relationships between Indigenous persons, other organisms, and the living environment. Various disciplines have incorporated TEK in their research programs, and here we focus on its presence in anthropology. In this collaborative blog, we explore this issue from archaeological and sociocultural perspectives. These intersections concern the historical and ecological perspectives, management practices, and cautions of TEK.

Feb 4 / aroddick

Mitch Allen’s Blog, Johnson’s book, and how to Read a Book (seriously)

Hi all,

Later this semester, I’m hoping that we will have Mitch Allen in to chat with us. He spent his considerable career running Left Coast Press, a publisher that had a very good relationship across the various Anthropology sub-disciplines. He  has a blog that you might want to check out. (We’ll be reading some sections from his book in the coming weeks).

I also wanted to share a couple of books that I am always pushing on people. Let’s start with an oldie but goodie (which is also available for free on the internet as a PDF)

I’ll discuss the book in more detail next week, but for now, here is a great quote from his Chapter 9:

Every book has a skeleton hidden between its boards. Your job is to find it. A book comes to you with flesh on its bare bones and clothes over its flesh. It is all dressed up. I am not asking you to be impolite or cruel. You do not have to undress it or tear the flesh off its limbs to get at the firm structure that underlies the soft. But you must read the book with X-ray eyes, for it is an essential part of your first apprehension of any book to grasp its structure.

You know how violently some people are opposed to vivisection. There are others who feel as strongly against analysis of any sort. They simply do not like to have things taken apart, even if the only instrument used in cutting up is the mind. They somehow feel that something is being destroyed by analysis. This is particularly true in the case of works of art. If you try to show them the inner structure, the articulation of the parts, the way the joints fit together, they react as if you had murdered the poem or the piece of music.

That is why I have used the metaphor of the X ray. No harm is done to the living organism by having its skeleton lighted up. The patient does not even feel as if his privacy had been infringed upon. Yet the doctor has discovered the disposition of the parts. He has a visible map of the total layout. He has an architect’s ground plan. No one doubts the usefulness of such knowledge to help further operations on the living organism.

Well, in the same way, you can penetrate beneath the moving surface of a book to its rigid skeleton. You can see the way the parts are articulated, how they hang together, and the thread that ties them into a whole. You can do this without impairing in the least the vitality of the book you are reading. You need not fear that Humpty-Dumpty will be all in pieces, never to come together again. The whole can’t remain in animation while you proceed to find out what makes the wheels go round.

This reflects some of the themes that I have been bringing up all semester. Underlying structures of writing matter…but they should also impact how you read and annotate.

The other book, which I’ll put a section from up onto zotero (that is completely optional), but it may be a nice complement to my discussion of PDF management and info-glut next week. This book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is written by Steven Johnson. It is a fascinating read (and you can watch a short animation here of some of the ideas), but in particular his discussion of common-place books.

The philosopher John Locke first began maintaining a commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over the next decade he developed and refined an elaborate system for indexing the book’s content. Locke thought his method important enough that he appended it to a printing of his canonical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here’s an excerpt from his “instructions for use”:

“When I meet with any thing, that I think fit to put into my common-place-book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example that the head be EPISTOLA, I look unto the index for the first letter and the following vowel which in this instance are E. i. if in the space marked E. i. there is any number that directs me to the page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first vowel after the initial letter is I, I must then write under the word Epistola in that page what I have to remark.”

Locke’s approach seems almost comical in its intricacy, but it was a response to a specific set of design constraints: creating a functional index in only two pages that could be expanded as the commonplace book accumulated more quotes and observations. In a certain sense, this is a search algorithm, a defined series of steps that allows the user to index the text in a way that makes it easier to query. Locke’s method proved so popular that a century later, an enterprising publisher named John Bell printed a notebook entitled: “Bell’s Common-Place Book, Formed generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke.” Put another way, Bell created a commonplace book by commonplacing someone else’s technique for maintaining a commonplace book. The book included eight pages of instructions on Locke’s indexing method, a system which not only made it easier to find passages, but also served the higher purpose of “facilitat[ing] reflexive thought.”

The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association. The historian Robert Darnton describes this tangled mix of writing and reading:

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings.

But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.”

A few pages later Johnson discusses DEVONthink as a useful way to do such work digitally. I’ll discuss this software next week. 

Jan 29 / aroddick

Mary Weismantel on “serious play” narratives

Today, in our discussion of narrative genres, we discussed a bit the value of different modes of writing, but also the role of art. I mentioned a recent chapter by Mary Weismantel, in this recent volume. Here are the relevant pages…

Jan 17 / aroddick

New book on my radar

Just came across this book “Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment” edited by Carole McGranahan. It is based on a variety of posts that were initially posts on the Savage Minds anthropology blog (now retitled Anthrodendum). There are also some new ones. I’ll report back once I’ve had a chance to check it out!

Jan 6 / aroddick

Welcome to Anthropology 703…and Blogs, Zotero, and

Welcome to Anthropology 703, writing the field – I’m looking forward to our first class. In this first blog I want to introduce the tools we will be using in this class, and encourage you to start to play with some of them. As I mentioned in my first email to you (and as you’ve seen on the syllabus I have already shared), we are very much engaging in social reading/writing in this course. This will be useful for you to be aware of your own reading/writing practices as well as those of your colleagues. As such, I want us to employ a few tools.

Let’s start with this blog.  On the right you will find a link to several Anthropology blogs. If any of you have any other good ones to add, please let me know in the comments.  I will be including a link to all of our blogs on the right. So, please, once you have a blog address, do share it with me, and I’ll update our list as they come in. If you would like to set up a blog through the library you can work through the library website by clicking on the link at the top of the page (“request a blog or wiki”). Otherwise you can follow the link in the handout I provided to set up your own blog. Once you have your blog set up, click on the dashboard (hover your cursor over the course name in the top right, and it should be an option).

From here you can set your settings, and customize the appearance. You likely will want to first go to “settings” section, then “reading”. Here you’ll likely want to head to “site visibility” and click on either “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” or, for more restrictions (available at least from the McMaster Library blogs), “Restrict site access to visitors who are logged in or allowed by IP address”. You’ll also likely want to go to “discussion settings”, and click on the “E-mail me whenever” settings and perhaps “Comment must be manually approved” (beware the spambots!). If you have any issues setting this up or navigating WordPress, let me know and I’d be happy to arrange a meeting.

Another blogging tool that you might consider using for this class (and your other on-line reading practices) is RSS – Rich Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication. This technology allows you to keep track of blogs very very easily in one place. There are a variety of options, but I recommend using either Feedly or Digg Reader (both of which have ios/android versions for your devices).  Once you have signed up, you can add our blogs to your blog roll. Then you can check in and quickly scan to see any new blog posts that have been added.

This semester I want you to think not only about your writing practices, but also your reading and note-taking in general. There has been an explosion in recent years in what is often framed as the “digital humanities” (but also encompasses many social sciences as well). I have been following this with great interest, and am integrating some aspects in both my undergraduate and graduate classes. While I understand that many do not like reading on screens, I want to encourage you to try some new tools that will help highlight the social aspect of reading/writing, and tame what we will be discussing in terms of “info-glut”.

Even if you read on paper, I’d encourage you to do a “second run” on the digital PDF copies I’m sharing on Zotero. (I have just sent you all an invitation to join the zotero group for this class). Later in the semester I will discuss some other bibliographic software, and walk you through my own workflow. But for our purposes, zotero will be very useful – it is ideal for sharing bibliographies, notes, etc. I’m sure some of you have played with zotero before. It is fairly intuitive, but if you are new to it, here are a few introductions to the software. Have a gander, and again, feel free to follow up either in the comments below (or more privately, via email to me) if you have any questions.

Our Zotero library. If you click on the title of the file, you will be able to access the PDF. Once is installed, you can annotate away!

The final other tool we will be using this semester is miro. When I teach seminars, I tend to rely heavily on Blackboards/Whiteboards. This is because I like to brainstorm, and work through readings with all of you as a group. [Here you have to imagine me pacing back and forth in front of a class with chalk all over me!]. This semester I cannot do this. As such, we will be taking advantage of a software solution to help us work as a group – specifically an on-line whiteboarding program called Miro. Miro allows folks to easily collaborate, to brainstorm, to debate, and to take polls. It is free for folks with an education account, but you should not need to sign up, as I will be inviting you to my Miro Board. Here is a really quick introduction to the program, but we will explore this together on the first day of class on this board (which is very much still a work in progress on my end!).  We will have zoom running at the same time as running this program (our recurring link is allowing us to chat.

Online Whiteboard | Collaborative Free Online Whiteboard | Miro

So, please, as you are setting up your blogs and doing your first readings, do spend some time having a go at opening your PDFs from our Zotero group, and annotating them with  If you have any issues – not to worry…we will have plenty of time to work out the kinks in the coming weeks.

Until our first meeting!