The Sophistication of Simplicity

A mentor once passed on to me some exceedingly sage advice about writing: it’s very hard to write when you don’t know what you’re trying to say. So many of my difficulties in academic writing are explained by this obvious but compelling observation. It’s not that I don’t know things, but it’s hard to figure out what I’m trying to say about those things and in what way.

Build it up and strip it down

I blame this partly on my graduate school training. Granted, perhaps I put this on myself, but much of the intellectual work I’ve done in recent years has been about trying to build things up into complication and then to simplify them back down again. You may start with a basic idea or question, but then you must dress it up with theories, models, Foucault, etc., to gain traction with your academic audience. So you spend a year or two “complicating the hell out of it” (to quote Harrison Ford in Six Days Seven Nights), but then comes time to write it up — for your committee or for a journal publication — in the face of short attentions spans and word or page limits. You’ve got to come up with a pithy and insightful introduction and conclusion, distilling all your many months of complication into something streamlined and laser sharp. This. Is. Hard.

But when you see the alchemy of simplicity-from-complexity done well, either in a talk or a paper, it is truly miraculous. I admire this skill more than any other academic prowess. Why don’t we celebrate this more, I wonder? Why does academia often dismiss or denigrate simplicity? It deserves more respect and more examination, which I will do with the reflections below.

Back to the barre

From ages 8 to 18, I took on average about three ballet classes a week. Dance was my extracurricular activity of choice, and where I felt happiest during my tumultuous teenage years. My teacher was great – a brilliant choreographer and compassionate instructor. I went onto continue my dance education at UNC-Greensboro, a school I chose in part because of its excellent dance department. I started taking ballet classes with a dance legend, Gerri Houlihan. I went into my first class with Gerri expecting a whirlwind of complicated choreography. But instead we went to the barre and Gerri started calmly and with her lovely smile demonstrating the combinations. Plies, tendus from first, tendus from fifth…and I started to realize “wait, these combinations are…easy.” Simple, slow…easy.

It was a few classes in that it dawned on me these combinations weren’t easy. They were simple and slow, yes, but this meant you had nowhere to hide. Your technique was front and center, not glossed over by tempo and crazy patterns. My technique improved leaps and bounds (pun intended) during those classes with Gerri, in large part due to the simplicity of the choreography.

Me and the undergrads

I was reminded of ballet class with Gerri this past quarter, when I took an upper level undergraduate class in the Information School at UW. It’s not out of the ordinary for graduate students to take such classes, but it gets a little more unusual when you’re already a few years into a PhD program. But I was interested in the topic, “Information Policy and Ethics,” so I got myself into the class anyway. I attended every lecture and did almost none of the readings (hopefully my TA has already turned in grades if she is seeing this). Some of the moral philosophy content was review from my bioethics courses, but refreshers never hurt. The general pace of the class, and the fact that I wasn’t too taxed by the material, gave me room to come up with some rather interesting ideas for the term paper. The professor said to me at the end, “Wow, you must have been really bored during this class!” On the contrary. It gave me room to think and process, to distill some complicated ideas into what I think was a rather compelling and novel argument in my term paper. Simple — yes. Easy — no.

Three Minute Thesis

The final tale of simplicity I’ll share here was also from the last few months. I participated in a campus-wide speaking competition called “Three Minute Thesis.” Contestants are given three minutes and one PowerPoint slide to present their research project in front of a general audience and panel of judges. In parallel to my preparation for the TMT, I was also putting together a longer conference talk on the same research results. With the TMT, you have to measure out each phrase and idea you want to express — it is the ultimate stripping down. But going through that process, thinking “what is the one thing I want people to know here” helped me similarly focus my conference talk. (It also reminded me I should wear deodorant during high-pressure speaking events.) I think that for future research products, whether it be another talk or a manuscript, I should similarly try to assemble the “three minute” version to help me really hone in on the main points. Again, simple, and hard.

The graveyard of papers

Writing academic papers is a long process. The research is long, writing is long, journal review and revisions are long…it can all be rather tiring. I’ve only done this process a few times and I already grow weary at the thought of doing it once more. The result is what I’ve summed up in this graph:

graph showing time in academia vs. number of neglected manuscripts
Time in academia vs. number of neglected manuscripts

That is, the longer you stay in academia, the larger your graveyard of abandoned papers becomes. Co-authors lose interest, you lose time, other projects take over. Too many journals reject it so you eventually give up. How sad. Collectively, how many thousands of hours spent conducting and reporting on the research, only to be shelved into the darkness. Sigh. I don’t exactly know how to fix this, but I suspect it’s some mixture of belligerence and….yes, simplicity. Economy of words, streamlining of ideas, stripping out the unnecessary complications you added in to gain traction with your peers and mentors.

If you can’t answer “why does this really matter,” there’s always the danger that it doesn’t.

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