Summer Writing Goals

As a Ph.D. student in the summer, I have, it seems, quite a bit of freedom. I’ll be working, of course, and I have no shortage of things to learn, but I’m faced with a vast expanse of time in which there is much to accomplish but little which is due. My time is my own.

It’s a gift, really, but one which requires some discipline and forethought to accept successfully. I spent much of last week putting together week-by-week learning goals for myself; papers to read, specific topics to study.

Looking through it now, though, I am struck by just how mechanical my goals are; I want to learn specific algorithms and approaches, catch up on specific literatures and authors. These are good and important uses of my time, but it strikes me, too, that something is missing.

I started this blog three years ago in part because – as a generically over-busy employee and adult – I wanted to ensure that I took time out in my life to think. I bunt on a lot of days, to be sure, but nonetheless it seems a worthwhile goal to try to think at least one interesting thought a day.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about the summer, then, is that it’s a time that allows for stepping back to look at the big picture; to remember the broader questions which motivate my work. I have learned a great deal of valuable knowledge in my classes, but they have done little to relieve my Wittgensteinian doubt that people can’t deeply communicate or my Lippmannian skepticism that ‘the people’ aren’t ultimately up to the task of governance. I have found, on the whole, my writing drifting away from questions of justice and equality towards questions of implementation and practicality.

I have written before that my primary motivation comes from the civic studies question: what should we do?  In that sense, it seems fair to say that my attention lately has been focused primarily on the ‘what‘ and the ‘do,‘ while, perhaps, neglecting the ‘should.

This is entirely to be expected, of course – the three elements are equally important but traditionally divorced in the academy. If I were a humanities Ph.D. student I’d no doubt be finding that I focus too much on the should with an unfortunately loss of practicality.

My summer writing goal, then, is to explore this should. I will continue to use the bulk of my time to study more practical topics of implementation, but this blog will be my space to step back and think about the broader questions. That’s what I want to make time for.

I’ll also keep writing, of course, about whatever random facts or interesting historical notes come my way. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that.

Broadly, then, and entirely for my own benefit – as this blog unapologetically is – here are just a few of the questions on my mind which I plan to spend some time thinking and writing about this summer:

Power – what is the role of power in the Good Society? How does it shape interactions and experiences? Is it achievable to eliminate power dynamics? Would we want to?

Dialogue – what are the strengths and limitations of dialogue as a tool for the collective work of governance? What institutions ought to be supplemented with public dialogue and when should public dialogue be supplemented by institutions? What are the realities of power dynamics in dialogue? Can they be overcome?

Institutions of democracy – What institutions are vital to democracy? How should they function and what should they accomplish? What institutions detract from democracy?

Historicism and morality – if human institutions and ideals are constantly subject to change, how do we know what is good? What would a continually Good Society look like? How would it change and adapt without simply falling into fads of the day?

Global society – why does it seem that the whole world is going to hell and what do we do about?  What structures and institutions can support the Good Society on a global scale? What are our individual responsibilities as global and local citizens?

Pessimism and skepticism – why hope is not always required. Or warranted.

Divergent views – What does it truly mean to make space for divergent views? How do you distinguish from creating space to consider unpopular opinions and giving a platform to trolls and bigots? Can one be accomplished and the other avoided?

Phronetic and computational social science – what is the role of measurement in social sciences? What does it add? What does it detract? Is social science trying too hard to be ‘science’? What results from seeking predictive social science?

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