Tortoise Tuesday: From Evidence to Argument in Haircutting

One unexpected perk of quarantine is that I’ve been able to live my alternative career fantasy of cutting hair. It started sometime in October when my bangs grew past my eyes and I decided I was less afraid of trimming them myself than of going to a hair salon in the middle of a pandemic. I studied a series of online how-to articles, picked up the right kind of scissors from CVS, and gingerly set to work over the bathroom sink. A few weeks after the (relative) success of this endeavor, one of my housemates asked if I would cut her hair, too. We set up shop in the kitchen (the plastic bar stool we picked up on the side of the road made an excellent impromptu salon chair!) Thirty minutes of careful cutting later, my housemate had a perfectly acceptable bob. 

I’ve always thought that if I were to decide against higher education and take my life in a completely different direction, I would want to be a hairdresser. Maybe it’s the attention to detail that appeals to me, or maybe it’s the idea of getting to share brief but meaningful moments of connection with so many people, and to watch them leave feeling even just a little bit more confident. More than anything, though, I think it’s this idea I have that hairdressers have vision, and that they get to realize that vision on a daily basis.

Of course, my current skills are nothing like this romantic fantasy I have of what haircutting could be— I’m just happy if I manage to get a relatively straight line.  But when I imagine how a master stylist gets from before to after, I wonder if it’s similar to the way I get from evidence to argument when writing a paper. Looking at a mountain of evidence with all its tensions and contradictions can be overwhelming, as can looking at a head of hair filled with tangles and split ends. But a good stylist like a good writer can also discern potential within all the messiness.

For anyone who’s ever watched Queer Eye, there’s something distinctly satisfying about watching Jonathan Van Ness come up with the perfect haircut for each episode’s hero. In creating a style for someone, he always takes into consideration their own preferences and comfort, the amount of time they want or are able to spend on grooming, how they want their appearance to help them meet their goals in life (whether that be by boosting their confidence or helping them look professional for job interviews), etc. As a result, it seems that Jonathan manages to find a style that not only looks fantastic, but that genuinely suits and feels authentic to that particular person. Even better than seeing the dramatic difference in their hairstyle is seeing the difference in the way they look at themselves in the mirror. It’s like Jonathan can see something in them that the rest of us can’t— and oftentimes that they can’t even see in themselves— and bring it to light.

I think a strong argument in an academic paper does something quite similar. To write a strong argument, you need to start by carefully examining the source texts, taking the time and care to get to know them and understand what they want to say rather than forcing your own interpretation of what they “should” say.  In writing as in haircutting, it’s not about making something up; it’s about seeing something in what’s already there and presenting it in such a way that everyone else can see it too.

— Meigan Clark ’23