Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Become a Better Writer

No amount of advice will get you around the need to practice. The best writing advice, in fact, will always be advice that gives you something to do, exercises to practice. If you're not writing as well as you'd like, it is probably not because there is something about writing you haven't been told or didn't, when told, understand. Rather, there is something you are not doing every or every other day. There's no rule of writing that you've misunderstood, but there may very well be one you've disobeyed. Let me tell you what it is.

For academic purposes, the paragraph is the unit of composition. A paragraph states one thing you know and tells us how you know it; it makes a single, well-defined claim and offers support for it. It is usually at least six sentences long—one of which, the "key sentence", states its central claim. A paragraph also normally consists of no more than two hundred words and can be written in under half an hour by anyone who knows what they're talking about. Don't say that that's your problem: you don't know what you're talking about. You know a lot of things, and those are the things you want to be better at writing down.

In any case, here's the rule that will make you a better writer if you obey it (you should have no difficulty understanding it): Every or every other day spend exactly 27-minutes writing one paragraph about something you know. Do this at least once and most six times on any given day. Always decide what you will write about the day before, which means articulating a relatively simple declarative sentence that says something you know to be true for every paragraph you're going to write tomorrow. It's a good idea to write this sentence down.

Include in your decision about what you're going to write a decision about who you're going to be writing for. Have a clear sense of your reader and what the reader's situation will be when reading. That is, don't just imagine Jim down the hall. Imagine a peer working in the same discipline as you, steeped in the same tradition, and, say, engaged in reading the third paragraph of your theory section, or the second paragraph of your introduction, or the first paragraph of your conclusion. What are you trying to say to whom in this moment, given their situation as a reader?

Finally, always decide the day before exactly when tomorrow you're going to write the paragraph. Then, when the appointed hour arrives, just sit down and write down what you thought you knew (and hopefully also knew you knew) the day before. Remember that your goal is to say one thing in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Work on it, struggle with it, for twenty-seven minutes. Then stop, no matter how well it went. Take a three-minute break, and then go on to the next paragraph, or the rest of your day, just as you planned.

It is this experience—that of writing down something you know at a particular time, for a particular length of time, for a particular kind of reader—that will make you a better writer. It's this experience that teaches you what writing is. There is no better advice.*

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*Okay, that's probably going a bit too far. There may well be better advice. Perhaps even some that I might offer. There's certainly lots of perfectly good writing advice out there that doesn't suggest exactly this and I can't say with 100% confidence that it's "no better" than mine.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Are Our Referencing Errors Still Undermining Our Scholarship and Credibility?

Have a look at this paragraph, which appears in a recently published paper by Xingsong Shi and Peter Franklin in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources ("Business expatriates’ cross-cultural adaptation and their job performance", vol. 52, pp. 193–214):

Acculturation and cross-cultural adaptation have long been favoured subjects of research. Business expatriates represent one important group of sojourners, and previous research, reported on by Black and Mendenhall (1989), reveals that between 16% and 40% of expatriate managers return prematurely from their assignment, premature return being used as a measure of failure. Black, Mendenhall and Oddou (1991), Graf (2004) and Black and Mendenhall (1989) report that a failed expatriate assignment may cost organizations between $50 000 and $150 000 per return on average. Even if some doubts have been raised about the accuracy of these estimates, e.g. by Harzing (2002), the costs are no doubt high rather than low. Black and Mendenhall (1989) also point out that some further costs of expatriation failure cannot be easily calculated, such as the damage to the morale in the companies, the damage to the relationships with local business partners and governments, as well as losses in corporate reputations and business opportunities.

The first thing to notice is the age of the sources. We are being given a 25-year-old source to support the claim (made in the present tense in 2014) that between 16 and 40 per cent of expatriate assignments fail. Surely, either our knowledge or the reality, or both, has changed since then? This is even stranger in the case of costs, where we're being given a dollar figure without being told how it has been adjusted for inflation with sources ranging from 1989 to 2004. It turns out (I've looked at the sources) that the figure is reported in the 1989 Black and Mendenhall paper, which means that, here in 2014, we're being given a figure that's not just 25 years out of date, but missing 25 years of inflation. Indeed, Shi and Franklin simply misreport Graf's 2004 figure of $200,000-1.2 million. Graf's figure, however, is itself somewhat vaguely based on three sources published between 1986 and 1996, and also without being explicitly adjusted for inflation. "Doubts ... about the accuracy of these estimates", indeed!

Which brings us to the deeper problem with this paragraph. Just what exactly are those "doubts" that were raised? The paper they are referring to is Anne-Wil Harzing's absolutely eviscerating takedown of the myth of high expatriate failure rates and the sloppy scholarship that perpetuates it. Her paper is organised around twelve rules for correct referencing, showing how every one of them is broken by scholars who cite high expatriate failure rates. (Rule number 6: Do not misrepresent the content of the source. Rule 9: Do not cite out-of-date references. Rule 11: Do not try to reason away conflicting evidence.) It is not merely a critique of Black and Mendenhall's (or anyone else's) "estimate". Here's how she puts it:

The 16-40 EFR range became popular in the late 1980s and, by the late 1990s, became the most cited EFR figure. The origin of this EFR range, however, is unclear. None of the studies used to substantiate this claim actually mentions the 16-40 per cent range. Only one article (Shilling, 1993) mentions the 16-40 range without referring to other articles, but the claim is not based empirical evidence. The Shilling article, however, does not appear to be the source the 16-40 per cent figure either since only one other publication refers to this article. Most publications that mention the 16-40 per cent figure refer back to Black (1988), even though Black quotes a 20-40 per cent range. Since three subsequent articles by Black and co-authors mention the 16-40 per cent percentage, the 16 per cent lower boundary may well be simply a slip of the pen.

That is, after reading Harzing 2002 you are not obligated to merely note that "doubts have been raised about the accuracy" of the 16-40 per cent expatriate failure range before assuring us that "the costs are no doubt [!] high rather than low". You are obligated not to report that range because it has, literally, no factual basis, as Harzing points out:

Black’s 1988 statement that: ‘Studies [Baker and Ivancevich, 1971; Tung, 1981] have found that between 20 to 40 per cent of the expatriate managers do not successfully make the transition and return early’ (p. 277), however, fuels a whole series of attributions. […] Quite an achievement for a source article—Black (1988)—that offers as support one publication that does not include any failure rates (Baker and Ivancevich, 1971), and one publication in which only 7 per cent of the American companies have failure rates in this range (Tung, 1981).

There you have it. In 2014 researchers are reporting an "estimate" of expatriate failure rates that stem from egregiously misreading a 33-year-old study, while simultaneously misreading a paper (Harzing 2002) that shows that this very figure is the result of egregious misreading and endemic poor scholarship in the field. The title of Harzing's paper? "Are our referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?"

I'm sure one day I'll find a paper that dutifully notes that I have "raised doubts" about the accuracy of Weick's story about those Hungarian soldiers in the Alps, being careful, of course, not to mention the plagiarism and, for good measure, plagiarising a couple of sentences from my paper!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (3): Boredom

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

"One might ... give the name 'philosophy' to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §126)

"Perhaps after all philosophy began with a sense of boredom." (Lin Yutang, ibid., p. 79)

In yesterday's post I complained of melancholy. I could have said apathy instead. My aim in these somewhat strange posts (even to me) is not confession, however, but an analysis of the difference between an "epistemic" and an "epistemological" project, each striving towards a different goal, each beholden to a different standard of virtue.

In his lectures The Basic Problems of Phenomonology, Heidegger suggested to his students that they did "not in fact apprehend [the] walls [of the lecture hall]—not unless [they were] getting bored" (p. 161). Philosophy, it would seem, begins by going into, or through, one's boredom, rather than allowing oneself to be entertained or, of course, following one's natural curiosity and making a discovery or inventing something. We can apprehend the wall, but soon we wonder what's on the other side of it, or who built it, or where that crack came from. Or we can, as it were, remain bored, and dwell upon the "being" of the wall and, therefore, the being that sits there apprehending it, i.e., our own existence.

I'm suggesting that philosophy is the act of checking our curiosity, of abstaining from the immediate pleasure of discovery and invention, for the sake ... well, yes, for the sake of what? As Wittgenstein puts it, perhaps philosophy is precisely the investigation of what is possible before we satisfy our curiosity. In a profound sense, perhaps, philosophy is an investigation of our curiosity itself. We're trying figure out what it is we really want or need to know, and we're trying to determine, in advance of an actual scientific (or "epistemic") inquiry, what it would mean to overcome our ignorance, what it would mean to know. That is what epistemology is about.

To put a positive spin on it, the philosopher is trying to refine our curiosity. In tackling our boredom, the philosopher is looking for something similar to what T. S. Eliot called a "superior amusement", i.e., something like poetry. (Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy should be composed like poetry.) It is not just that philosophers lack curiosity (about microbes or stars) but that they are skeptical about our attempts to satisfy it. It's not just that they bored, either; it's that they are critical. Before learning what is actually going on, they want to be clear about what might possibly be going on. They want to know how the actual is possible.

In a famous poem, John Berryman quotes his mother's words: "Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources." There is a similar social censure of the incurious. In fact, we often think of those who lack curiosity as boring. If curiosity and playfulness are widely regarded as virtues, however, we must grant that they are normally associated with youth. So maybe I'm just getting old. What I experience as a lack of curiosity is perhaps just a feeling of having learned quite enough about life. What I experience as boredom is just ordinary contentment. It's not that I lack resources, but that I have too many of them. Instead of thinking of my melancholy as a lack of something, then, a lack of interest in life and learning, for example, perhaps I could think of it as a distinct passion in itself. Maybe it is finally time for me to think.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (2): Curiosity

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results. Good medical research doctors are more interested in microbes than in human beings, and astronomers will try to record or register the movements of a distant star hundreds of millions of miles away from us, although the star cannot possibly have any direct bearing on human life on this planet. Almost all animals, especially the young, have also the play instinct, but it is man alone that playful curiosity has been developed to an important extent." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

If knowledge is a good then curiosity is a virtue. I said yesterday that I'm not a curious person. I hope, of course, that I have other virtues!

I've been reading Lin Yutang's lighthearted prose in attempt to rouse myself out of a vague melancholy that has been weighing on me, then lifting, and then weighing on me again since I returned from the US last month. The quote I'm using as an epigraph for this post tells me something about what I mean when I say I lack curiosity. First of all, I don't approach knowledge very playfully. I suppose that's understandable since I'm an academic writing coach. Knowledge (or at least the process of seeking knowledge) is the focus of my work. I have a professional interest in science.

But it gets worse. More often than not, I find knowledge oppressive, or at least distracting. Don't get me started about the popularisers! Certainly, I don't think the task of finding new knowledge is a very pressing one. I am, indeed, much more interested in human beings than microbes, much more interested in the lives we lead on this planet than the motion of distant stars. And here's the kicker: I think we know more than enough about human health and our place is the universe. Eat well, sleep regularly, get some exercise. Treat your neighbours with kindness and respect. At the political level, provide an unconditional basic income for everyone so that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you will have to move into a smaller apartment, eat plain foods, and amuse yourself by throwing a frisbee around at the park with your children.

I suppose it's easy to see why my "knowledge" about life would leave me incurious. I think the deaths that result from our ignorance about cancer are less important than the deaths that are caused by knowing who the enemy is. Everything we need to know is already known. The bulk of knowledge (and I'm not saying it isn't knowledge) blinds us to those simple truths, which, if we lived by them, would make this planet so pleasurable a place to live that we'd be perfectly content to think the stars are campfires and the planets the chariots of the gods, or whatever we'd think if we weren't so damned curious about what things "really" are. Obviously, this will not do in the long run if I'm going to keep (or at least enjoy) my job. I have to recover that sense of "playful curiosity" that is at the heart of science. A sense of its marvellous futility. Perhaps it will be useful to recall that our word "school" derives from the ancient Greek notion of "leisure".

Immediately after this remark about curiosity, Lin goes on to excoriate "censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thought". Such agencies, I think, are even less curious and certainly less playful than I. And I think their attitude, unfortunately, can be found among some of the most well-meaning people in our midst. As Lin puts it: "Short-sighted politicians and clergymen may think that uniformity of belief and thought contributes toward peace and order, but historically the consequence is always depressing and degrading to the human character." For my part, the earnestness with which some scientists (and their popularisers) "know" their stuff and insist that those of us who won't believe them quickly enough (because we don't understand them) are foolish and even dangerous depresses me immensely. I have enough things to worry about before worrying about whether or not my opinions conform to the current state of scientific orthodoxy.

And anyway, the universe would be a cruel place if our happiness depended on the success of our quest for knowledge. For countless millennia, human beings have found happiness on this planet without knowing anything about microbes or the true nature of stars. Ignorance and error, even outright stupidity and folly, must surely be compatible with the enjoyment of life. But the satisfaction of our curiosity is an intrinsically pleasurable thing. It's something that happens when we play, not when we work. I think science may have forgotten this.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (1)

"The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What's so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an "epistemic" component, and worrying about that dimension suggests an epistemological one.*

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the "ethnic side" of life, if you will.* The ethnographer is not, qua ethnographer, interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community, but what it means to be a native in a particular land. I'm less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I'm less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I'm not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I'm against curiosity altogether. I suppose that's a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I'd like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We're much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We're much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent study has shown. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they'd look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think peoples decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by "priming" your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I'm interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we're striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for "good" epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is "good" knowledge. I think it's much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

I'll have some more to say about this later.

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*It should be possible to distinguish between "epistemic" and "epistemological" as easily as we distinguish between "ethnic" and "ethnographic". Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce "an ethnography" of a group of people (sometimes called "natives") ethnographers delineate their "ethnicity"—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce "an epistemology" of a group of knowers (sometimes called "scientists") they delineate their "epistemicity"—okay, that's not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of the knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means "people" in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about "sciences". He preferred to talk about "field[s] of scientificity" over talking of "scientific theories".