Where does the mental structure of the PhD live

User interface design is fascinating to me because of what it reveals about what the designer thinks of the user and the kind of work they should do. Good design makes use of our natural abilities to free us from unnecessary mental work (Siracusa, 2003, crucial nuance added by Feldman, 2005). Bad design thrusts decisions onto the user without giving them a context to understand them. For example, one way of implementing a good computer file system is to allow you to interact with virtual objects using spatial memory. I put an object down. I expect it to be where I put it.

Apple Macintosh computers used to be very good at this and now they are, if not very bad, getting noticeably worse. Vital interface elements appear and disappear depending on what you are doing. Objects do not occupy coherent places in virtual space. It is as if a postmodernist philosopher showed up in the Apple offices and offered to design a deconstructed operating system which would continually cause the user to question ontological certainty and object permanence. The system forces its mental model onto the user who has to keep remember, oh yes, if I move the mouse over there, only then does the folder path appear.

In that same sense we can ask how the way we do intellectual work ends up costing us vast cognitive effort by depositing the mental model of the PhD in various places at once, or just letting it exist in our head. The discussion of the Macintosh interface by Siracusa can be summed up as: does it force the user to be aware of complex constructs like file system hierarchies or does it hide unnecessary complexity behind easily graspable, familiar metaphors. Likewise do our software tools allow us to grasp and work on the stuff of our research. Or do they force us to constantly think in abstractions unconnected to the reality described by the data. Just as a caveat: humans are perfectly good at dealing with abstractions but there are better and worse ways to abstract. One worse way is to break the relationship between the abstraction and the object.

Two things:

Does the software you use allow you not to have to think too much about where you put bits of the PhD, and does it allow you to very easily rearrange it or bring in new parts as simply as you would if you were assembling a real world document. Does it do the complex work of remembering where you put stuff. Can you switch bits around, dump currently unused stuff in an easily accessible pile, without having to think very much about how you are doing it. In short, is it Word or is it Scrivener?

One a more reflective point, does the way you write your work do this to the you and the reader. Can you and the reader pick up the mental structure of the argument from what you write? Consider how writing such as that of Judith Butler forces the reader to constantly look elsewhere to understand what she is actually saying. This prevents the reader grasping the essence of what she says. Like the MacOs Finder, the essence constantly changes when you try to pin it down. You can tell this when it comes to how her work is taught. It is instructive that nobody recommends you start understanding Butler by reading Butler. Instead you have to start by reading what someone else wrote about her.

With a writer of the elegance of Erving Goffman you begin with the text. Nobody – and I mean nobody – needs a further explanation to grasp what The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life means. It is immediately graspable. Nor why Asylums is a vital, searing book. I say that not to say you should write like Goffman. But that you should make things easy for yourself by looking at your text as a series of graspable statements about the thing you are examining. Like a file interface, it becomes a lot easier when you can intuitively know where everything is, without necessarily having to explain why they all go in particular places.

Feldman, D (2005) About the Spatial Debate, https://dfeldman.medium.com/about-the-spatial-debate-4ccb8064f1df

Siracusa, J (2003) ‘The Spatial Finder’, Arstechnica, https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2003/04/finder/3/

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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