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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