A Day in the Life


By now, I'm sure many of you have seen this amazing article, which chronicles a graduate student's attempt to watch black widow spiders mate in order to further her research on their courtship behaviors.

The first thing I thought when I read the piece was, "This makes me feel better about the pace of my own research!" The second thing was, "Wait. This is the pace of my own research!" And so, in that spirit, I give you:

Christina VanDyke Spent All of Friday Afternoon Waiting for Her Projects to Progress

CVD: So, what are y'all up to? I'm waiting for some ideas to develop, & they are taking their sweet time. #philosophy 1:46pm

Christina VanDyke is a philosophy professor working at Calvin College. She's studying medieval mysticism, Thomas Aquinas's account of perfect happiness, and gendered eating norms. That means her research often involves waiting for projects to progress.

And because her computer is portable (so she doesn't have to go out to her office to record each new idea every time she has one), even when she's not on campus, she can be waiting for ideas to develop. That was the case last Friday, when she opened up three work-in-progress files to try to bulk up the numbers in one area of her research profile.

Once she'd opened up each file, she settled in to drink coffee. When we asked why, she explained, "I was sitting in the coffeeshop hoping to catch an idea in the moment because it's easier to tell for sure that ideas are plausible when you're working them out in real life than by reviewing sentence fragments in files when you've forgotten what you meant to say."

Her wait, recorded in tweets, gives you a taste of how much patience goes into studying philosophy.

By 2:00 pm on Friday afternoon, she’s already spent two hours watching her ideas act like middle schoolers at an 8th grade dance.

CVD: These 3 ideas entered their respective paper projects about 2 h ago. One of them just touched on the central thesis! The others are just chilling

CVD: oh wait no, the first idea to touch on the thesis has taken a step back, and is now engaged in some serious self-reflection. 1:49pm

Things start looking up when one idea shifts into philosophical critique.

CVD: IDEA #1 IS THROWING SHADE ON THE THESIS! this is where it starts to get exciting, folks. The 'synthesis' is happening!!!! 1:56pm

But it backs off.

CVD: Nevermind, I spoke too soon. It's gone back to destroying the introductory paragraph. 1:57pm

Hopes are raised, and dashed again moments later.

CVD: oh wait it's back! more shade-throwing is happening.... but the central thesis starts asserting itself and the idea beats a hasty retreat 1:58pm

And over in the other projects, there’s not a lot of philosophical innovation going on.

CVD: Thesis 3 has stopped shifting around finally. Come on idea 3! Now is your time to shine! 2:21 PM

CVD: ..... Idea 3 remains motionless .... 2:22 PM

CVD: now thesis 2 is on the move, & idea 2 has retreated to the far edge of the plausibility spectrum. This is going to be a long day. 2:30pm

Leaving VanDyke to put her hopes on the pair in project #1.

CVD: I have high hopes for idea #1. It's going to impact the central thesis any time now, I can feel it. 2:31 PM

Kant and Bentham @kant&bentham: Maybe you should have some more caffeine. :3

CVD: As I said, I've had my second cup of coffee. I don't know what more I can do. @kant&bentham 2:34pm

This is the point when we find out she’s not just waiting for the ideas to develop, she’s sitting in the dark waiting for the ideas to develop. She has no idea what the truth is. Ah, philosophy.

Back in paper 1, there’s some potential action.

CVD: Idea 1 is making its move!!!

CVD:... and the thesis casually brushes him aside with a direct quote from a primary source. Idea 1 drops to a footnote, and regroups. 2:38 PM

Apparently, ideas can do this for hours.

CVD: Idea #1 is boldly approaching the thesis for a second try. He is maintaining his tiny little distinction like a champion. 2:40 PM

CVD: Idea 1 is carefully laying down a brand-new clause on the thesis's clearest statement. 2:42 PM

CVD: Now it's right on top of the thesis, but a layer of further distinctions lies between it and the main point. That's not gonna work, idea #1. 2:43 PM

CVD: IDEA #1 HAS DONE IT. HE HAS CHANGED THE THESIS! 2:46 PM

Huzzah! But after a couple of minutes...

CVD: Idea #1 has decided that the distinction it was making wasn't quite right. It has removed its clause from the central thesis, and moved to the 'misc thoughts' section of the paper. ::::( 2:49 PM

What about the other projects? Nope, no thesis development there, either.

CVD: For those just tuning in, we're following the progress of 3 philosophical ideas that are supposed to be developing 3:14 PM

CVD: In project 1, we have idea #1, equipped with only one distinction, but of the 3 ideas, the only one that has managed to modify the paper's thesis 3:14 PM

CVD: In project 2, we have idea 2 and central thesis 2. Thesis 2 has been inert for some time. Idea 2 has been working out its wording for a good 15 minutes. 3:16 PM

CVD: And in project 3, idea and thesis 3 have done nothing at all for, oh, I'm guessing about an year? 3:16 PM

CVD: Now that thesis #1 has made some repairs, idea 1 has to go back and undermine more of its framework again 3:29 PM

Before philosophical ideas start changing a project, they destroy part of the central thesis's framework. VanDyke has found that this behavior keeps other ideas from finding the thesis and edging the first idea out. If the thesis re-establishes its grounding, the new philosophical idea needs to back up and re-destroy part of it. VanDyke also explains why it matters that idea #1 only has one distinction.

CVD: The cool thing about philosophy is that its units of analysis (distinctions) are totally separate from its insights, where original ideas are produced 4:14 PM

CVD: When a philosophical insight matures, it opens a new file and ejaculates original ideas onto it. 4:14 PM

CVD: Then its sucks the original idea up into its distinctions (which make analytic philosophy possible) 4:15 PM

CVD: With its distinctions thus "charged" with original ideas, the philosophical insight is ready to go find a paper project and stuff the original idea inside the paper's allotted word count 4:16 PM

CVD: Meanwhile, back in project 1, idea 1 is moving closer and closer to the central thesis. 4:17 PM

This is, for those of you counting, idea #1’s sixth move toward the thesis.

CVD: Everything is happening all at once! Idea 1 is making contact with the thesis. The crucial point of its distinction is moving into the thesis's primary formulation! 4:25 PM

Archimedes Is a Boss @archimedes @CVD can we yell eureka yet?

CVD: Idea 1 edges ever closer to the thesis, but no, not yet. Have patience. @archimedes 4:38 PM

And it's sure taking its time about it. After another 30 minutes, it’s still hanging right next to the original thesis.

CVD: We're back, and as predicted, not much has changed. Idea #1 remains motionless. Idea #2 is still. Idea #3 is - you guessed it - not moving 5:13 PM

VanDyke's been incredibly patient, but she’s hungry. Fortunately, she has a philosophical fix for the waiting and wondering problem.

CVD: Unfortunately, as riveting as these last 5.5 hours have been, I have to go home and eat dinner. 5:28 PM

CVD: I've formed some dispositions in the absence of occurrent belief. I'll check back tomorrow and look to see if these ideas seem more plausible. 5:28 PM

As of Sunday, she still doesn’t know whether her ideas have developed.


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Written by Christina Van Dyke
the academic world
philosophy professor at a liberal arts college, writing about medieval views on the afterlife, gendered eating, and the perils of on-line dating.

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