Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taking a Paper to Its Logical Conclusion

I've been asked to say something concrete and practical about how to write a conclusion. Some people, it seems, have gotten all the way to the end of their PhD studies without ever having to write one! So let me try to say some pretty standard and elementary things about how to go about it.

Anne Huff (1999: 92) has more or less said it all, actually. She nicely summarises the main pitfall of the introduction-body-conclusion model, for example, and thereby also the standard (though specious) argument against using that model:

Scholars have to be careful that they don't bore intelligent readers by repeating information from the introduction in the body of the paper and then reiterating it once again in the conclusion. The strategy of repetition also forfeits the opportunity to deliver as much information as possible to skimming readers, enticing them to read the whole paper because their time was well spent looking at a brief amount of material.

Notice that the conclusion should be written with two kinds of readers in mind: the intelligent ones and those who are skimming your text. These may of course be one and the same person. Smart readers want to know what they will come to believe if the body of your paper is convincing. They should be able to learn this simply from reading your conclusion.

So it should be able to stand alone, as Huff points out. Keep in mind that "readers who have worked through your paper typically need to be pulled back to the big picture with a conclusion." You achieve this by writing "the most assertive statement of your paper's benefits that you can make" and then indicating a way forward: "add some last thought that enhances your work's significance" (Huff 1993: 92).

That last thought should be the only new piece of information in your conclusion. You should not introduce new textual references or factual claims. The last thought should be like salt in a rich sauce: it should sharpen the edges of your argument, crystalize the structure of your materials.

One way to do this is as follows. In order to avoid adding anything new, you construct your conclusion exclusively by copying and pasting sentences from the body (not the introduction) of the paper. You next introduce the salty new thought that brings it all together in a significant way, and then rework all the copied sentences so as to add up to that new thought (again without adding any new information).

Doing it this way, however, is possible only if you have left the conclusion to the end, and I don't actually recommend that. Like Huff, I recommend writing the conclusion first. Kafka concurs.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Holiday

"No more working for a week or two."

As an intellectual, you should avoid soul-destroying labour. I've liked that sentence ever since I came up with it a few years ago. Professional athletes must take care of their bodies. Ballerinas must not risk destroying their legs in stupid accidents. Pianists, after years of training, must keep their fingers in good working order.

This is not just common sense. It's a duty. The body of a specialist contains the state of an art. Your mind, likewise, if you are an intellectual, is a heritage site, a repository of our culture. It is not just unwise, it is irresponsible, to wear out your brain. This summer, then, relax. You owe it to yourself and to your peers and to your culture to enjoy what you do. I'm going all out on this one.

With the stakes identified, let me say something more practical. My theme today is rest, and one obvious version of resting is sleeping. It's perhaps the paradigm case, and for good reason. You should get a good night's sleep, not every once in awhile, not "after it's all over", but every night. Another good example of resting is taking a vacation. Establishing these two kinds of leisure in practice requires the same thing: planning.

I don't mean you have to plan what you will do on your vacation. "Fun and laughter on our summer holiday: no more worries for me and you." Whether it's sleeping or vacationing, the whole point to leisure is freedom from worry, even if that freedom is always temporary. Enjoying your leisure time, and therefore actually getting some recreation, depends on being able to let go of your ongoing projects for a time.

Here's the best known way of letting go: define your last-task-before-the-break and your first-task-after-the-break well in advance. Don't just run out of time and get on the plane (or collapse on the bed). Make a realistic plan and finish something before you leave work. More importantly: have a clear image of what you will be doing when you get back to work. Decide what file you will open at 9.00am Monday morning and what you will be doing to it.

The reason for this is not so much that it will make your return to work more productive. It may or may not. It will, however, very certainly put your mind at ease. We've seen it in the movies; let's see if it's true.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fall 2008 Activities

A number of courses and workshops are part of the Research as a Second Language initiative here at the Doctoral School. Here are two that just went online:

  • The increasingly popular (I certainly think they're great!) semi-weekly writing workhops will start on August 27 (registration deadline is August 4). A good way to work on your literary discipline.
  • The Sense and References course and workshops will run again this year. They're a great way to get started on your library research and start thinking about your discipline's literature. [Update: this course is now being held under the auspices of CBS's professional development initiative. We'll have more information soon. It has been moved to October 21 for the time being.]

We're also planning a seminar series about the Craft of Resarch (a nod to Wayne Booth et al.). They will be held on the first Thursday of every month from 14-16, at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy (room to be announced). Here's the plan:

September 4
Getting in the Door: the ethics and ethos of field work
Maja Horst, Director of the Doctoral School

October 2
‘You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?’: writing for publication
Thomas Basbøll, Resident Writing Consultant

November 6
Impractical Questions and Practical Problems: how to read documents
Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, Research Director (politics group)

December 4
‘How do you know what they think until you see what they say?’: getting what you need from an interview
Robert Austin, Professor

Most of these activities are open, space permitting, to all interested PhD students, inside or outside the Copenhagen Business School. Moreovover, if you are enrolled at another doctoral school but would like to receive regular language support from me, we are experimenting with various ways of retaining my services. Drop me a line or give me a call if you're interested in hearing more.

I also offer a variety of seminars and workshops for departments and doctoral programmes who want to improve their writing environments. I'll go pretty much anywhere in Europe and my fees are pretty reasonable. (I'll consider Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well, but we'll have to work out the specifics on a case-by-case basis.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Social Epistemology

I'm in the midst of editing an interview/profile of Steve Fuller that will be published later this year. It's coming along well, and I'm hoping to be done by the end of the week. Right now, it has got me thinking about some theoretical issues that I've been leaving on the back burner while thinking about grammar and writing processes.

Steve's "social epistemology" was an eye-opener for me, albeit a slow one. At first, I thought I disagreed very strongly with his attempt to approach the problem of knowledge as a set of sociological problems, or even as a set of social problems. These days, of course, I take that as an obvious thing to do.

Any self-respecting theory of knowledge ought to have implications for research practice. On the ground, I like to get people to think about what they mean when they say they "know" something and then to see whether what they do as academics can reasonably be expected to bring such a thing (knowledge) about.

Social epistemologists want to know what sort of social organization is needed to maintain knowledge of a particular subject. Does your current position actually give you the conditions to know what you claim to be an expert in. Are your own practices likely to give insight into the range of topics that define you as a researcher?

Perhaps more obviously, given what we think knowledge is, how likely are our teaching programmes to impart knowledge to our students?

Consider the idea that research is a conversation. Knowledge, then, is something that emerges from discussion, both oral and written. (This is essentially the insight behind Foucault's concept of "discourse".) Well, how often do you talk about what you know? Do you view your knowledge as an ability to participate in particular conversations?

If so, with whom? That's a question I really like to emphasize when editing journal articles. Many authors begin, more or less consciously, with a monological sense of their own knowledge. They imagine a patient, willing audience that doesn't hold any particular view on the given topic in advance, someone who will listen to them. At bottom, they are imagining a "popular" audience. They often need to rethink the article in terms of a reader who already knows ninety percent of what it says and who may disagree with the remaining ten.

That is, they need to understand themselves as actors in a social field, not holders of privileged knowledge. They are privileged, of course, but only in a sense that is as sociological as it is epistemological. More later.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The word "intention" can mean a number of things. Its etymology suggests a "stretching towards", perhaps a "reaching out". In phenomenology, "intentionality" is the "directedness" of consciousness towards its object. We talk about intentions as our reasons for doing something, e.g., "I intended no harm". But even in that sense we could also say, "I didn't mean to do it." So our intentions are in an important sense related to what we mean. "I didn't intend it as an insult." "I didn't mean it that way."

The "intentional fallacy" in literary criticism consists of answering questions about what a particular text says by telling us what its author meant. As a limit to literary interpretation, I think the intentional fallacy is a perfectly good rule (a "don't" of literary criticism). But when you are writing, there are good reason to insist on your intentions.

Granted, it is not enough to want-to-say something. You have to ask yourself whether your readers can reasonably infer your meaning from the prose you set before them, and it is all too easy to commit the intentional fallacy when reading and editing your own work. If you are writing in a second language, as many of my authors do, this can be especially difficult.

That's where editors, peer-reviewers, colleagues, and friends offer a useful service. They can tell you what they think you mean with the words you have written. Keep in mind that they are people too, and theirs is not the only possible interpretation of your work. But if you have received several very different interpretations from different readers, don't let that be a sign that all readings are arbitrarily related to your intentions. It probably means that your text is too open to the imposition of the reader's opinions.

A text should restrict the space of possible interpretations. I find it easier to edit a text that is obviously motivated by its author's sincere desire to say something very specific, even if is written in very broken English, than to edit even a grammatically flawless text that isn't trying to say anything in particular.

This is obviously also true of writing. I find it much easier to write when I am definitely trying to say something. It allows me to ask, first, "What am I trying to say?" and, second, "How could this be misunderstood?" (In a sense, the second question is, "What would my readers prefer I had said?") You then write words down to accomplish the former and avoid the latter. This is the space in which you "stretch out" your text; it is also the space between your reader and your object, i.e., the space between the possiblity of being misunderstood and what you want to say.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

And the Living Is Easy

Regular readers might have been are puzzled over why there was no post yesterday. I have decided to take a break from the regular blogging regimen until late August. A that time another 16 week plan schedule will begin.

It will include 12 video posts more regular posts about grammar, style, and usage. I will spend the summertime engaged in less planned thinking and writing, posting sporadically.