Of hands and minds

Those who have been reading this blog for awhile will know that I have recently changed from Microsoft Word to Scrivener for writing purposes. If you want the reasons why, read this post, but suffice to say it has made a startling difference to my productivity. Scrivener was built on the Mac platform and is still only available on Windows in Beta, but it’s already so indispensable to my life that I am considering buying a Mac, after 19 years as a happy Windows user.

It’s not easy to contemplate this move. To be frank, from the outside at least, Mac users can come across as a little obsessive – even cultish.  The story I have always told myself is that those shiny aluminum Mac cases look nice and all, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. So what if the Windows interface is a bit ugly!? It works for me. I’m the kind of girl who prefers flats to heels after all.

OK – maybe I have become a bit reactionary. I haven’t been an architect for over a decade so it doesn’t really matter what type of computer I use. But still, being a Windows user has become part of who I am, so I continue to buy them.

However, while reading a book called “Writing a novel with Scrivener” (which I highly recommend for all you Scrivener converts by the way) I realised that Scrivener on beta on Windows is still missing some of the full functionality of the Mac version. I have been contemplating  replacing my old Dell Netbook and Mr Thesis Whisperer is provided an 11 inch Macbook Air by his employer, so he kindly lent me it for the day to see what I thought.

So here I am… writing on a Mac.

Although being a Windows user is more of a habit than a necessity, habits have a way of becoming hard wired. The first thing I notice is that my hands think they are still in the PC world. I keep hitting the = sign instead of delete and the alt key instead of command – or control – or something. And what is that funny curly symbol for? Argh! Everyone on Twitter keeps telling me it is more intuitive and that I will get used to it – but I just don’t feel it.

This ‘platform confusion’ in my hands is making me think about how much our habits of thought are deeply affected by the things we handle in our work. A scientist is a scientist in their hands as well as their heads; same with an architect, a social scientist and any other discipline you can name. We all have procedures for manipulating the world which help us to think.

Take scientists as an example. The first empiricists worked hard to create systems to record and measure sensory data – what we can see, hear, smell touch and taste. A key plank in the scientific method is the idea of ‘witnessing’ – hence the principle of repetition. If an experiment is repeated, there is more than one witness and (hopefully) a more reliable observation, which can then be used to build a theory.

Early scientists thought some witnesses were better than others, to be specific, it was better for an experiment to be witnessed by a Gentleman than a Servant. Servants (and women for that matter) were supposedly unreliable because of their tendency to be emotional, distracted, dishonest etc – despite the fact that Servants were doing much of the work and, presumably, in a better position to give a reliable report (if you are interested in learning more, I recommend looking up some of the papers by Stephen Shapin).

When I talk to scientists involved in teaching research students they tell me that the problem of the unreliable witness is still there, in a slightly altered form. Undergraduate science students are taught the techniques of their trade by replicating experiments which are known to work; they learn that an unexpected result is a failed experiment, probably because the equipment or conditions were set up incorrectly.

However, in research, a lot of the experiments are new so it can be difficult to tell a valid result from a mistake. Research students, as I pointed out in an earlier post, can easily overlook a valuable result because they are in the habit of thinking they did something wrong.

It is possible to use this tendency to develop habits to our benefit. For instance, you may not realise how much writing can help you to structure your thinking. In the book “They say / I say: the moves that matter in persuasive writing” Graff and Birkenstein argue that critical thinking and writing can be aided by using ‘skeletons'; sentences which set up a standard piece of argumentation. For example, the following sentences could be seen as a ‘kit of parts’ for thinking through the work of others – just fill in the blanks:

  • “The evidence about________ shows that__________”
  • “The findings of X have important consequences for the broader domain of________”
  • “The standard way of thinking about (topic X) has it that_______________”
  • “____________ for instance, demonstrates___________________”
  • “In making this point I am challenging the common belief that _____________”

You can make your own templates by stripping out words from papers you read. Is this plagiarism? No, because we academics rely on conventional forms of writing and speaking to be understood within our respective disciplines. If you make and use scaffolds they can help you form different writing habits. Over time, the ways of thinking scaffolds encourage become habitual and words start to come out of your hands ‘pre-fabricated’ in a more academically legible way.

If we are to believe some of the cognitive scientists, our bodies can literally change our minds. I think the strong connections between thinking and doing partially explains why becoming a researcher can be so uncomfortable: most of us have to pick up new habits of some kind – or let go of old ones. What do you think? Do you have habitual ways of doing things which help your research? Might some of them be getting in the way?

While you ponder that, I am going to try and make up my mind about this Mac…

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15 thoughts on “Of hands and minds

  1. I converted to Mac two years ago and haven’t looked back! I even convinced hubby to replace his computer with a Mac four weeks ago and he’s loving it too:) Give me a call at work if you’re ever stuck Inger – happy to be of assistance…

    BTW I’m going to convert to Scrivener! Wish me luck!

  2. I just read this and mentioned to my other half that I liked the look of Scrivener, you should see my desk and my screen what a mess, and lo and behold I’m on my way to being a Mac user. Will only be a mini mac, and I will still need my pc for banking, but he’s all fired up and is on updating said mini mac as I type. I must not be distracted from my essay any longer, so back to my mass of notes, piles of paper and overheated brain :)

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  4. Really interesting topic! Angela Clarke has written on something similar in her paper ‘The hand knows more than the mouth can tell: embodied cognition and drawing’. Details here: http://rmit.net.au/browse;ID=1i3z7hla8h6i

    About the mac thing – I converted over 3 years ago (PC to Mac) and know what you mean. It took me about 2 weeks to get my head and hands aligned. Now I have the reverse issue when I go to use a PC.

  5. My hands actually finish sentences for me — sometimes they know what I am saying even before my cognition catches up! I really have to concentrate if I want to write, for example, ‘Austria’ instead of ‘Australia’ or for that matter ‘Australia’ instead of ‘Australian’ (my hands automatically put an ‘n’ on the end!). But not just words, I think my hands use those sentence skeletons too.

    After reading Joseph Williams’ book *Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace* there were a number of sentence skeletons I had to work hard to get rid of, and to replace them with more direct ways of writing, writing that ‘tells a story’. The problem is that we pick up ways of writing from the stuff we read, not all of which is good. Identifying bad writing is a start.

    But one of the other ways I improve my writing is to read classical literature (good stuff, that’s fun to read, like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf). Your brain then just gets used to seeing graceful and well structured sentences and these seem ‘normal’ — and badly written, obfuscatory academic writing then seems ‘abnormal’. I’m a human geographer so these books aren’t really relevant to my subject matter, but I reckon I can absorb their writing flair by osmosis!

    I’ve also explored this idea with regards to ethnographic research — how much my body knows before my cognition really kicks in. Things like knowing where and how to sit, the body language for giving and recieving gifts, table manners and seating positions and so on. My research was particularly on mothers in northwest China, so even my bodily interactions with my children in public space in China was/is different from how I would in Australia or NZ.

    Fascinating stuff!! I think I will start my next chapter by writing a number of skeleton sentences with fill the blanks, thanks for that example!

    And re mac and scrivener. If I switched to mac it would solely be for scrivener. I was hoping the windows beta would be finished by now, but it hasn’t been. However, I spend so much time using apple as an example of irresponsible manufacture in my course on globalisation that I just don’t think I could stand up in front of my students with an apple logo on my laptop :-) (I’m sure many of the producers of PCs are just as bad, but I haven’t been using them as an example.)

    • I share your discomfort about the apple brand. It’s figuring in my decision making too – but I didn’t want to foreground that in the post and start a flame war! Part of the problem with the windows beta is the constant upgrading and I have a lost a bit of work recently. They warn you of this, so I’m not pissy, but it is annoying.

      My thesis was an ethnology too – I think you are right that there is a connection between the kind of meta reflection ethnography provokes and a more mindful writing practice. I think working as an ethnographer certainly helped me in a lot of respects, especially in committee meetings! Perhaps there is a post on this? Anyway – thanks for the thought provoking response :-)

  6. I took a digital cultures unit at uni which required 2 hours per week on the Macs in the computer lab. I did not find Macs intuitive and usually spent 2 hours doing what I could do in 10 minutes on my PC. In the end I had to do all my prac work on my PC at home. However, Scrivener is a powerful reason to use Mac. I’m just waiting for that Windows version to bed down and I’ll be onto it ASAP.

    Re the use of skeleton phrases for writing: I have found this a wonderful way of improving my writing. In particular, I have used it to replace the boring, XXX said, “….” However, this can be used to introduce non-conventional as well as more academically conventional phrasing while still adhering to the requirements of clear argumentation. The judicious use of phrasing that is not standard in academic literature can be refreshing to read. I reckon that there is no harm in making the academic reader sit up every now and then as they come across unexpected phrases.

    But we don’t want to make readers sit up too often – they might get uncomfortable! The introduction of the nonconventional phrase needs to be done sparingly and adhere to the requirements of good argumentation.

    • Maybe 2 hours a week (for how many weeks?) is not enough to be as productive on a new system if you never used the system before. Even on a Mac.

  7. Those people who say that Macs are more intuitive are WRONG! Maybe for some people, but certainly not for me. I have to use one sometimes for work and it is a total nightmare. They are pretty but you have to learn to use one, just as you have to learn to use anything.

    Same with iPads. They were advertised as ‘you already know how to use it’. Um, no. I kept having to ask for help.

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