Nuno Monteiro, now an assistant professor at Yale but once my preceptor at the University of Chicago, has an interesting note on two aphorisms of the French poet Paul Valéry and how they apply to scholarly research. My favorite is the second:
“A work is never achieved — meaningless word — but abandoned.” (“Un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé — mot qui n’a aucun sens, — mais abandonné;” sometimes also liberally translated as “A poem is never finished, merely abandoned,” or some such variation.)
Nuno goes on to apply this thought to his experience advising students (and I–perhaps as liberally as the errant translators above–read myself into this passage):
I have witnessed a great deal of unnecessary, counterproductive agonizing by students and other authors attempting to perfect their argument beyond what is feasible or useful. Like the poet, the researcher must know when to drop the project, call it done, and move on to the next question. One of the few certainties I have about research is that one will never feel one did a perfect job; that the project is finished, or achieved. The trick is to learn when to drop it; to learn to identify the point beyond which the marginal utility of additional effort becomes negative. Then it’s time to call it a day.
That’s perhaps a perfect note on which to pass along the paper I’ll be presenting at this year’s American Political Science Association annual meeting, available for download at SSRN. Should you happen to be attending APSA, please drop by the panel where it will be presented, or the panel I am chairing, which features a paper coauthored by another of my U of C advisers, John Schuessler, who’s now at the U.S. Air War College.
In other news, I will be doing a bit of live-blogging (well, sort of live), reporting on sessions I’ve attended during the APSA annual meeting over at the Cato defense and foreign policy team’s new blog at the National Interest magazine. Keep an eye out for APSA-related posts starting next Thursday.