Last spring, I wrote a series of posts about analysis. In this post, I take a different approach to the same ideas. Two threads contributed to this essay, one sprang from my series of posts on writer’s block, and the other from a conversation with a professor whose students weren’t enthusiastic abut analyzing a text. This post focuses on the question of analysis with respect to writer’s block caused by self-doubt.
In my series on dealing with writing blocks, I most recently wrote a post related to the anxiety-causing doubt about having sufficient intelligence (a primary aspect of what is called “impostor syndrome”). The basic argument there is that scholars should focus on using and developing the skills that got them where they are, rather than worrying about whether they have enough innate ability.
While I was working on that post, I had a conversation with a professor who felt uncomfortable explaining to her students the value of analyzing a text, and that drove me down a tangent of thinking about analysis, and it seemed to me that for both intimidated scholars and uncaring/unenthusiastic students, the general problem was the same: the task seems either intimidating or unimportant because they think what is needed is something special and wildly unusual, rather than commonplace and everyday. For both the scholar experiencing anxiety due to imposter syndrome and the student doubting the value of analysis, some doubts can be eliminated with an appropriate perspective on the nature of analysis. For both the self-doubting scholar and the uninterested/unconvinced student, part of the problem lies in the language more than in the actual difficulty or value of the task. To say you’re going to “analyze” something, gives an intimidating appearance of formality to what is, in fact, a basic skill. If I ask you to “analyze” something, and you’re not entirely sure what “analyze” means, then, naturally, you’ll have some doubt about whether you can do it and whether it’s worth it to try. Understanding analysis, makes it easier to see its value and believe you can do it.
What is analysis?
Analysis is, at its heart, a basic, everyday ability possessed by all humans. It is something we all do automatically. Of course, “analysis” is also something done by highly educated, highly specialized experts using complex and abstruse systems. The word “analysis” covers a lot of territory.
Basically, “analysis” is examination to understand something better, particularly characterized by distinguishing different issues, aspects, contexts, or perspectives relevant to some main idea. (For example, Psychoanalysis identifies different symptoms and causal factors in a patient; DNA analysis identifies different genes within a DNA strand; Chemical analysis something identifies different ingredients.)
Etymologically, “analysis” means “separate” or “unloose;” it can be viewed as a process of intellectually breaking larger wholes into component parts. Such thinking is something humans naturally do all the time. Our visual system separates the colors, detects edges, and otherwise divides our visual input into meaningful groups. Our sense of smell (floral vs. fetid, etc.), taste (sweet vs. sour, etc.), touch (smooth vs. rough, etc.), and hearing (high pitch vs. low pitch, etc.) all discriminate. Our experiences and education teach us to discriminate in countless ways to guide us through the world. We “separate” the world into different categories, a process reflected in language, with different words for different aspects of the world and our experiences in it. In short, we all do analysis all the time.
People analyze for decision making.
Analysis is a basic aspect of learning about the world and decision making. A child eating dinner analyzes, separating things they like from those they don’t. That child might “analyze” a meal, physically separating foods they like from those they don’t on their plate. They might analyze a specific food, distinguishing flavor from texture: “I don’t like okra because it’s slimy. It tastes ok, but it’s still gross!” We wouldn’t expect a child to offer a sophisticated analysis, but they do analyze in a meaningful way.
Decisions rely on basic analysis. If you’re trying to decide what movie or show to watch, you might consider the genre (drama, comedy, action, etc.), run time (do I want to watch for 45 minutes or 90 or 180, etc.?), actors (who do you like or dislike?), director/producer (did you like their other work?), and more.
If you’re trying to decide where to eat dinner, you might consider cost, atmosphere, quality of food, quality of service, etc. If you’re trying to buy a car, you consider cost, gas mileage, comfort, room, power, handling, etc.
We naturally analyze to understand better: we look at the different aspects of the issue in question, trying to get a better understanding of the issue at hand.
Analysis is a skill that can be developed
Analysis is also task that we can learn to do better. It is a skill that can be developed, improved, and refined. The child’s analysis of okra imagined earlier is a simple analogue to the gourmet’s refined critique of a meal based on a trained and discriminating palate. The difference between the two is largely a matter of experience: the gourmet has a larger vocabulary and ability to make finer distinctions than the child largely because the gourmet has eaten more different foods and given a lot of thought and interest to foods. The child eating okra for the first time has limited context in which to judge the experience. The gourmet who has eaten okra many times, on the other hand, has extensive experience for making comparisons: one okra dish is overcooked, another undercooked, one over-spiced, another under-spiced, etc.
A scholar beginning study of some specific subject may fail to notice issues that they would notice with more experience. If you’re performing your first close analysis of a [Dickens/Melville/DeLillo/etc.] novel using [psychoanalytic/Marxist/queer] critical theory, you may not notice the same issues as if you had previously analyzed other works by the same author or using the same theory. These differences in what you notice might be entirely caused by lack of experience rather than any lack of innate ability.
Imagine a pair of identical twins. One takes a job in a wine bar, and the other takes a job in a bookstore. Their innate abilities are presumably identical, but the one working in a wine bar learns to distinguish different flavors and aromas, while the one working in a book store learns about marketing books and issues that affect the marketing of books. If the two are asked to taste (and analyze) a wine, the one will provide a detailed, complex assessment, while the other will offer a much more simplistic analysis. And if the two are asked to read a book, the one might just respond to the story, while the other would provide a more sophisticated analysis that includes not only the story itself, but the book design, and issues of context in the book market. Each sibling might be surprised at the detail noticed (or not noticed) by the other, but those differences would be entirely explained in terms of experience, not ability.
The scholar doubting their own ability needs to trust that their own abilities will grow with practice.
In academic (and professional) settings, analysis becomes formalized because the scholar or professional needs to be able to explain their decisions. The formality involved in academic settings makes the process appear unfamiliar and intimidating, but, in fact, much of the formal detail of academic analyses is the product of persistent, careful attention rather than any specical innate ability of discernment. Simply put, if you study something, you learn more about it. The gourmet is able to make sophisticated culinary judgements in part as a result of having eaten many different foods and many of those foods many times. Someone who has tasted 100 different wines and carefully attended to the characteristics of wines and who has cared enough to learn the language of wines will produce a more detailed analysis of a wine than someone who has not—the difference has little to do with any innate ability, and a great deal to do with the time invested. Complex scholarly analyses arise out of careful attention to detail more than out of any innate brilliance in a scholar.
For those doubting their intelligence, it’s important to remember what’s at stake when dealing with some complicated analysis: it’s just a more complex approach to doing something that everyone does. Inability to use one system of analysis does not preclude using other systems of analysis to good effect. Not every scholar will be able to use every specialized analytical system, but a careful and attentive scholar will pretty naturally develop increasingly sophisticated analyses on subjects of interest.
Analysis is something that we do naturally. It’s at the heart of what academia does, and although academic analyses are often highly formalized, the basic mechanics are still the natural process of distinguishing differences. For those who worry that they’re not smart enough, it’s important to remember that although academic analyses can become complex, they do not necessarily demand more “intelligence” than other analyses, but rather more attention to detail.
It would be foolish and naive to ignore the reality of intellectual differences: not everyone has the same perceptual, intellectual, and imaginative abilities. Most of us are not going to get groundbreaking insights on a par with Einstein’s development of relativity, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do good, important work. Indeed, the vast majority of published scholarship doesn’t include groundbreaking insights. The vast majority of scholarship, however, does make a positive contribution. If you are doubting your ability, it’s ok to admit that you might not be an Einstein, but don’t forget or make light of the abilities that you do have. If you are in graduate school or have already completed an advanced degree, trust the abilities that you do have and look to build them through careful work.