Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Revision of Solitude?

According to Susan Blum, academia is beholden to an "eighteenth century model of the self and author [which assumes] a singularity and essence that [is] fixed, unchanging and in some ways isolated (unaffected by others’ influence)." But she and her fellow anthropologists have been questioning these assumptions, noting that recent technological developments render them obsolete and should have us rethinking our basic approach to higher education. Shaped by social media, "our students have become folk anthropologists, speaking out about the impossibility of singularity, the shared quality of discourse, the reality of fragments of texts incorporated into every utterance (or written document) and the collective nature of cultural creation." As Jonathan Mayhew has pointed out, this sort of thing has become pretty orthodox in the social sciences, travelling under the banner of "postmodernism". He's not exactly impressed.

As I was reading Jonathan's post, a remark about Rosmarie Waldrop's use of the "I" in her introduction to Curves to the Apple came to mind. "This 'I'," she says, "has lately been confused with the expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity. But it simply indicates that language is taking place." She doesn't say who "has lately been confused", but it may well be those anthropologists and their students, who think that demanding "originality" of authors is tantamount to requiring them to be "geniuses". Now, Waldrop is a poet and her remarks resonate nicely with those of another poet, Tony Tost. He also doesn't say exactly who he has in mind, but he seems to be correcting a common misconception when he says, "One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here. In conversation, one discusses what rises" (Invisible Bride, p. 46). There's something distinctly postmodern about the "immediacy" he rejects. But, like Waldrop, he suggests that we should just keep talking. Perhaps it's just language.

Allen Grossman, a poet of Waldrop's generation (b. 1932) who recently died, also seems to hold an "eighteenth century" notion of the "in some ways isolated" self. Explicitly so, in fact: he invokes Descartes, the godfather of the "isolated subject". In his postscript to Descartes' Loneliness he tells us that "We, each one of us alone, think in our solitude about our own mind and about the world, in language—and each finds out thought about the self, about other persons and their claims upon the self, speaking and answering by means of language." There it is again—language. Grossman, if I recall, is one of Tost's influences, and perhaps we see a bit of it on the same page I already quoted: "Talking becomes a conscious stammering not in one's language, but in how one thinks," he writes; "a conversation represents not so much a break with solitude, but a newer form of solitude, a revision of the logic of solitude."

I became aware of Tost's work back in 2003, when I read a poem that, interestingly enough, was made by patching together materials found on the Internet by searching for variations on the phrase that constitutes the title, "I Am Not the Pilot". It had a profoundly liberating effect on me. The poet, as I've noted elsewhere, is rejecting the sort of "competence" that is demanded of him, and is performing that rejection precisely by plagiarising every word of the poem. (This "Google sculpting" has since become the hallmark of so-called "Flarf" poetry.) I have never held this against him. He remains my favourite living poet.

I'll continue this soon. There's an obvious tension here between the poetic sense of self and language and the anthropological one. At the same time, Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" is perhaps a sign of a "revision of the logic of solitude", the logic that is characterized by Grossman as "Descartes' loneliness". That revision may be, as Blum suggests, driven by technology. That doesn't mean that we are, to use Tost's word, "condemned" to lose ourselves. What was it William Carlos Williams said? "When I am alone I am happy."

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Originality is Impossible"

One of the most interesting professional tensions that I experience in my work as a coach is the resistance of anthropologists to my ideas about the writing process. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find myself in a disagreement with an anthropologist about the nature of authorship itself.

Susan Blum has provided a useful summary of her distinction between the "authentic self" and the "peformance self" in the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News (March 2008). Two things stand out for me. First, she casts the "anthropological" notion of self as a foil for the traditional "academic" sense of self. That is, she suggests that there is a tension between what professional anthropologists know to be true about the self and what academics in general presume about it. Second, and more worryingly, she believes that students, unlike their university teachers, are in possession of this anthropological truth about themselves. That is, the students, qua "folk anthropologists", are right.

In defending the "academic", "authentic" self let me begin with what I think is a common misconception among patchwriters about originality. Here's one of Blum's subjects, i.e., a student she talked to during her fieldwork:

Ideas are gonna get recycled. There’s no way that a hundred kids in a class could write papers with all fresh ideas. That’d be a hell of a class if you could. In fact, I’d be willing to say that no one—not even one student—will come up with something that’s never been come up with before. And that’s not an indictment of them, it’s just these ideas are all over the place.

Now, academics know this as well as any student. When teachers ask students to submit "original" work, they are not asking them to "come up with something that’s never been come up with before", they are merely asking them to submit for evaluation their own ideas, i.e., ideas that, whether actually "original" or not (in the hyperbolic sense invoked by the student), are ones they actually "came up with". They will have arrived at these ideas on the basis of their reading, and it's therefore important for the student to properly reference the reading they have done, leading up to the part that they came up with themselves, so that the teacher can assess their abilities and give them a grade. Now, if they pass off some part of their reading as their own ideas they are plagiarizing, cheating. The are pretending they came up with something themselves that they just read in a book. But the fact that the teacher already knows what the student has "discovered" is not in and of itself a strike against the student. It's only a problem if the student hides the source.

Originality in the sense of something "new under the sun" is of course very rare. But it is possible to distinguish clearly between what you have learned from reading and what you have thought out yourself. This is very important in school, where almost all of what you learn is already known to others. But it remains important in a research career where "originality" in the strong sense of making that rare "novel" contribution, depends on knowing what is already known.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Against Patchwriting

I've decided to confront the issue head-on, if only for the sake of clarity. So I'll just announce straight off that I am against patchwriting. I use that term in the sense coined by Rebecca Moore Howard: "copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another" (Howard 1999: p. xviii). And when I say I'm against it I mean that I refuse to "celebrate" it as some writing instructors do:

Describing the textual strategies of Tanya, a student who in traditional pedagogy might be labeled "remedial," Glynda Hull and Mike Rose celebrate her patchwriting as a valuable stage toward becoming an authoritative academic writer: "we depend upon membership in a community for our language, our voices, our very arguments. We forget that we, like Tanya, continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership, to grow, and to define ourselves in new ways, and that such appropriation is a fundamental part of language use, even as the appearance of our texts belies it" (152).

These and other studies describe patchwriting as a pedagogical opportunity, not a juridical problem. They recommend that teachers treat it as an important transitional strategy in the student's progress toward membership in a discourse community. To treat it negatively, as a "problem" to be "cured" or punished, would be to undermine its positive intellectual value, thereby obstructing rather than facilitating the learning process. (Howard 1995: 788-9)

I believe, in short, that patchwriting is a problem that should be addressed, even a disease that should be "cured", and in some cases a crime that should be "punished". Though I don't think it really is a "punishment", one simple technique here is to ensure that patchwritten work receives a lower grade. But this is where the "criminal element" comes in, because, like classical plagiarism, it is often not immediately apparent on the surface of the text. The first problem with patchwriting, like other kinds of plagiarism, is that it must be detected. Patchwriting conceals the relationship between one's own writing and the writing of others, and that alone should dampen any possible "celebration" of the student's accomplishment in this art.

The toleration—and encouragement, if that's what "celebrating" can be taken to imply—seems to be founded on a fundamental misunderstanding about scholarly writing, which is clearly on display in the passage I've quoted. It is simply not true that "we forget that we ... continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership". Good scholars are constantly mindful of these acts of appropriation and therefore continually acknowledge their sources. There are acceptable ways of appropriating the work of others, namely, through paraphrase and quotation, always with adequate citation. There is no mystery (though there are of course a few subtleties) about how this is done, nor when it is done right.

I'll be writing about this in the weeks to come, mainly as a way of reflecting on the work of Rebecca Howard and Susan Blum, both of whom I've written about before. Like I say, I'm going to be taking a hard line on this, mainly in the interest of being clear. Let there be no doubt that I think patchwriting is a problem, and one we need to do something about. It is no more "an important transitional strategy" toward mastery of scholarly writing than any other form of plagiarism, nor does it have "positive intellectual value". True, like plagiarism in general, it does offer a "pedagogical opportunity", or what we also sometimes call a "teachable moment", but only in the sense that it provides an occasion to talk about intellectual honesty. Patchwriters are faking their linguistic competence, and they must be told that that is what they are doing, and that that is the opinion competent scholars form of them when they discover the real source of their language.

It's not, I should add, just a problem among students.

Update: it's not a coincidence that I'm returning to this subject today. Andrew Gelman had warned us that a post about this was "on deck" today. And sure enough: here it is.

Friday, November 07, 2014

What are the implications of a theory paper?

Two years ago, thinking myself wittily obvious, I said that theory papers "accomplish their theoretical aims by purely theoretical means". Yesterday, talking to a PhD student about her theory paper, I found myself saying, perhaps, the opposite. Theory papers, I said, do not have theoretical implications; only empirical papers can truly have "implications for theory". Just because you've thought about something, I said, your peers don't necessarily have to change their minds. That would require some actual, empirical results—a tested theory.

Now, in one sense, that's not really true, of course. When you write a theory paper, you are actually trying to affect the minds of your readers. You're trying to get them to see the world differently, to expect different things to appear under particular circumstances. Rather than showing them such things under such circumstances, as you would in an empirical paper, you confront them with aspects of the available literature that they are unfamiliar with or, perhaps, have just forgotten about. Once those writings, or your particular reading of them, is presented to them, you presume, they will come to expect familiar objects to behave in hitherto unthought-of ways.

If you write your theory paper very convincingly you can accomplish this goal—of changing someone's expectations about an object of inquiry—without any new empirical evidence. At the very least, you can shake the reader's confidence in currently held assumptions about how the object behaves in practice. So was I simply misleading that PhD student when I said a theory paper doesn't have theoretical implications?

Not quite. I was making a formal point about the rhetoric of theory papers. The section that corresponds to the "implications" section of an empirical paper has a particular rhetorical goal, namely, to make explicit what "follows" (logically, rationally) from the rest of the paper. Since the whole paper is about theory, the "analysis" will already have established how the theory must change. It will not just have provided premises from which draw "theoretical" conclusions; it will have presented a complete theoretical argument, conclusions and all, just as an empirical paper will draw empirical conclusions already in the analysis (or "results" section), from which (again, in the empirical paper) either "practical" or "theoretical" implications will then follow.

Just as the implications of an empirical paper reach beyond the empirical material itself (into theory and/or practice), so too must the implications of a theory paper reach beyond the purely theoretical arguments the paper makes. As I said two years ago, and again two days ago, these implications will often be methodological. That is, if you convince your reader to expect something different of the object of their research, this will, probably, have consequences for how they do that research. If you convince them to see the world differently, they'll probably begin to do things differently. Minimally, it suggests doing a study to find out if you're right.

A theory paper may also have "meta-theoretical" implications, or what can properly be called epistemological implications. That is, a reflection upon theory qua theory may lead us to rethink what knowledge is or at least what kind of knowledge we produce. Thus, the choice between "theoretical" and "practical" implications in an empirical paper is transformed into a choice between "epistemological" and "methodological" implications in a theory paper one. (Imagine the permutations for a methods paper!)

To sum up then: a theory paper does make a theoretical contribution but it does not, formally speaking, have theoretical implications.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Theoretical and Conceptual Papers

I originally proposed my forty-paragraph outline as a guide for the writing of what I call "the standard social science paper". This is the kind of paper that presents the result of an empirical study, framed by a familiar theory, guided by an accepted methodology, and with definite implications for theory or practice. I was recently asked about theoretical papers and, since I get this question often, I was sure that I could just point to a post on this blog that answered it. It wasn't quite as easy as I thought (though there is this post), and I thought the best solution would be to just write a fresh post on the subject.

What I will be offering here is not a normative guideline for what a theory paper should accomplish, of course. I'll leave that to the major theorists, especially those who serve as the editors of the journals that publish such papers. Instead, I will propose a way of organizing twenty hours work such that, at the end of it, you have produced the first draft of a 40-paragraph theory paper. This draft can then be edited into shape for publication. In outline, it will look as follows:

1. Introduction (3 paras)
2. Historical Background (5)
3. State of the Art (5)
4. Critical Occasion (5)
5. Conceptual Analysis (3 x 5)
6. Discussion (5)
7. Conclusion (2)

Remember that each paragraph should make a single, easily identifiable claim and either support it or elaborate it. It should consist of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. It should be written in exactly 27 minutes.

The introduction will consist of three paragraphs. The first paragraph should be devoted to a history of your field up to the present. The scope of this history will depend on your judgment. Whether your history starts in ancient Athens, in eighteenth-century England, or in Paris of 1968 depends on the contribution you want to make. The second paragraph should be devoted to the present state of the theory. What is the reigning consensus or standing controversy that defines your field of research. This, obviously, should be the state you want transform in some interesting way, either by settling a dispute or unsettling an agreement.

The third paragraph should announce your contribution. "In this paper, I will argue that..." Notice that "supporting or elaborating" this claim, which is about your paper not your theory, does not yet require you to argue your position. You only have to describe a paper that would make such a contribution. And that means you will essentially be outlining your paper. Now, you have already introduced the historical background in paragraph 1, which will have space to talk about in part two of the paper, so you don't have say anything more here. Also, in the second paragraph you have introduced the current state of the theory, which you will elaborate in greater detail the third part of the paper. What is left is to say something about how the theoretical problem you are interested in arose and why you are the right person to deal with it, to outline your analysis a little more, and to tell us why it is important, i.e., to summarize your discussion. That is, the conclusion ends with an outline of parts 4, 5 and 6 of the paper.

Part 4 takes the place of the methods section of a standard empirical paper. In a sense, you are still saying what you did, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that you are explaining what happened to you to force you into a theoretical reflection. It may simply be a development within your field (someone else's or your own empirical results, published elsewhere) or it may be an "event" like the publication of a correspondence or a translation of a previously untranslated work by a major theorist. World events, too, may be relevant here. After 1989 and 2001 there were all kinds of reasons to "rethink" the theories that framed work in a whole range social sciences. Since you're saying how the problem arose, you will also need to say what materials came into view: what texts have you read and how have you read them?

Part 5 will present your argument in detail. It's a good idea to divide the argument into sub-theses each of which can be demonstrated separately. Two to four sections of three to six paragraphs gives you some manageable space to work with here. Finally, part 6 will cash out your analysis in consequences, usually for theory, though sometimes for practice. (You might want to emphasize the important political consequences of your line of thinking.) An important class of "theoretical" implications here is "method". If you're right that we have to see the world in a new way (a theory is always a way of seeing the world) then perhaps we will have to do things differently too?

The conclusion should consist of two paragraphs, one of which states your conceptual argument in the strongest, simplest terms you can imagine. You may want to use the sentence that completes the key sentence of paragraph three (i.e., everything after "I will argue that") as a key sentence here. The last paragraph could suitably extend the history of the field that you presented in paragraph 1 and elaborated in part 2 by imagining a possible future.

I hope that's useful. Don't hesitate to add your own suggestions or questions in the comments.