24 feb. 2009

Avoiding the "info dump."

One of the most common problems in dissertations--and consequently in barely revised dissertation chapters sent out as journal articles for review--is the info-dump. I define this technique the presentation of research findings directly, nakedly. Some examples might include:

Long summaries of the work of other critics and scholars who have written on your topic.

Information on historical background that is readily available elsewhere.

Textual analysis that seems excessive in relation to the points being made.

More or less complete results of your original research--when not everything you found is relevant.

Summaries of theoretical ideas that are well-known (e.g. Foucault on power).

These categories of information are all relevant and necessary to some extent. What makes something a "data dump" is

(1) A lack of awareness of audience. What does your audience already know? What do they need to know? What can they find easily for themselves? The info-dumper really hasn't thought through those questions.

(2) A certain "inertness." The information just kind of sits there on the page. It isn't integrated into an argument. It is hard for the reader to get through because it is inherently boring (not the information itself, but its function.) It's function seems to be to fulfill a requirement; it is perfunctory.

Can info-dumping be avoided? Think of a work of science fiction (I owe this example to Scott Eric Kaufman) (two tts in Scott, one enn in Kaufman; middle name Eric with a cee). A data-dump in this case would be a long exposition section in which all the background knowledge about the particular world where the plot takes place. Obviously, a skillful exposition in narrative is already narrative. In other words, narrating and expositioning are not two separate activities. In the same way, in scholarly argumentation and the presentation of research are not two separate things. The research, of whatever kind it is, is there to support the argument.

There might be kinds of writing where the presentation of information is the main point, or where the proportion and relative prominence between argumentation and information are different from what I'm presenting here. My remarks are valid mostly for my own field.

3 comentarios:

Andrew Shields dijo...

As I just noted on my blog, with a link to here, of course:

The undergraduate version of the "info dump" in essays about narrative literature: a detailed plot summary of the short story, narrative poem, novel, or play in question, full of tidbits from the plot that might be interesting to know but are utterly irrelevant to what the paper is actually about.

Jonathan dijo...

And they also tend to put in extra biographical information about the author if they haven't been told explicitly not to.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Or even if they have been explicitly told not to!