"Look at the documentation"

I'm going to make a very obvious point in this post.

It's so obvious, in fact, that I hesitate to make the point at all for fear of looking like an utter fool. But in several years of graduate school, in lots and lots of research reading, and in hours and hours of observations and interviews with research subjects it's a point which is tacit and almost never explicitly stated: we often know because we write; we often remember because it's written down; and we often reflect meaningfully because there are observable traces (written records) upon which to reflect.

This stunningly obvious realization was brought home to me while reading three very different pieces of writing recently. First, there's this bit of advice from Stake's (2010) Qualitative Research:
“...if I were nowadays asked to give just one piece of advice to the novice researcher, it would be as follows: look at the documentation, not merely its content but more at how it is produced, how it functions in episodes of daily interaction, and how, exactly, it circulates.” (p. 89, note)

Stake is an 80-something year-old veteran and pioneer of qualitative research in education studies. It's interesting to see his focus on documentation (written records—writing) here, as a footnote midway through his book, almost an afterthought. More important, to my way of thinking, is his contention that a novice researcher should pay attention to how documentation is produced, how it circulates within a given research context.

To study writing is to study more than texts—it is to study texts in contexts of production and circulation—writing as an activity, sure, but more importantly, writing as a benchmark of human activities where the actual writing is often merely an afterthought, some convenient residue.

I'll give you another example. In June of 2010 Errol Morris wrote a five-part essay for the New York Times called The Anosognosic's Dilemma. It's all very interesting, but what stood out to me was the discussion of Woodrow Wilson's health problems near the end of his presidency, recounted by Morris in part 3 of the series.

"Wilson’s personal physician, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, took elaborate notes and kept a day-to-day log of the president’s condition," Morris tell us. Admiral Grayson wasn't the only person close to Wilson to commit so much to writing. Detailing a series of strokes during the last 10 years of the president's life, Morris goes on to discuss the diagnosis of Wilson's neurological problems by a neuropsychiatrist named Edwin Weinstein, some 50 years after Wilson's death.

How could a neuropsychiatrist in the 1970s be called upon to make such a diagnosis? By poring over copious documentation.

Wilson's physicians, his head usher, his wife, Edith, and a series of others close to the president wrote things down, repeatedly, in great detail.

I'm certainly in no position to determine the merits of a neuropsychiatric diagnosis. Instead, I read this article in awe, dumfounded and amazed by the very attempt to determine the neurological disorder of a man who had been dead for over 50 years by simply reading through the notes that remained. Morris himself seems to see nothing interesting in this point.

To me, focused as I am on writing as a human activity, a thing like this is incredible in the sense of "difficult or impossible to believe." Further still, I marvel at how little attention is paid to the writing, or to the contexts of writing (the subjectivity of the various writers, their specific perspectives, the pressures under which they wrote, their reasons for writing, the accuracy of their observations, etc., etc., etc.). To be fair, Morris attends to some of these factors to the extent that they help him recount the story, and I understand that a focus on writing as an activity is not his purpose here.

But in such situations (this is hardly an isolated example), the writing is this inert thing, a transparent record of actuality that can simply be consulted for truth and accuracy, or plumbed to find something that someone else missed.

Perhaps I've lost you by now. I'm probably not making this point as clearly as I should, but I'll press on, offering one more example.

Michael Lewis's The Big Short is amazing—both the story it tells and the way it's told. Early in the book, Lewis brings the reader into contact with the life and professional dealings of one of the major figures in the subprime mortgage debacle, Michael Burry.

Lewis is an expert storyteller who paints a vivid picture of the events leading up to the 2008 financial collapse, weaving together character-driven narratives about the real people who saw the bubble years before anyone else. The case of Burry is particularly intriguing on a variety of levels, but part of the reason that Lewis is able to tell his story so well is embedded in the narrative itself.

In developing the reader's interest in Burry's professional life, Lewis repeatedly describes Burry as someone who is socially awkward in face-to-face scenarios, but socially and professionally astute in writing. In fact, Burry's preferred mode of interaction, Lewis tells us, was via email, professional newsletters, forum posts, and the equivalent of a blog (before blogs were blogs). Burry's great friendships, we are told, were fostered via email and supplemented with very little face-to-face interaction.

More to the point, Lewis is able to yield such intricate detail about Burry's professional history largely because such things were written down and archived by Burry himself.

In other words, Burry's professional life left traces—a time and date-stamped, infinitely copyable and archivable record of the things he saw in the subprime mortgage market, years before the rest of the world noticed or cared.

Perhaps most importantly, Burry noticed trends light years before the major banks and investment firms caught wind of them because he was willing to do something almost no one else would: he read the documentation.
Every mortgage bond came with its own mind-numbingly tedious 130-page prospectus. If you read the fine print, you saw that each was its own little corporation. Burry spent the end of 2004 and early 2005 scanning hundreds and actually reading dozens of them, certain he was the only one apart from the lawyers who drafted them to do so—even though you could get them all for $100 a year from 10KWizard.com. (Lewis, 2010, p. 27)

The focus here is on Burry, his fastidious research, and his keen understanding of the impending subprime mortgage crisis. The story is about interesting people and the things they do—novice qualitative researchers, president Woodrow Wilson, Michael Lewis and Mike Burry.

But let me make this obvious point once again: we often know because we write; we often remember because it's written down; and we often reflect meaningfully because there are observable traces (written records) upon which to reflect.


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