Friday, August 29, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #13: The Checklist

Here's the first video post of the semester. Enjoy.

Also, I read an interesting post about titles over at

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Theory as a Verb

A new paper by Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline offers us an opportunity to reflect on the verb "to theorize". The paper, "Enabling Courageous Collective Action: Conversations from United Airlines Flight 93" (Organization Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, July–August 2008, pp. 497–516), uses the phrase "we theorize that" about a dozen times. But this happens in at least two different ways. First, there are statements in which Quinn and Worline "theorize" about particular cases:

We theorize that one difference between the conditions aboard Flight 93 and those described in the Mann Gulch fire has to do with the resources available to the participants. (504)

... we theorize that the people aboard Flight 93 had mutable and dynamic resources (Feldman 2004), such as extra time, a constrained common fate, and a way to contact people outside of the situation for information, which the smokejumpers at Mann Gulch or the people aboard the other flights on 9/11/01 did not have. (505)

Second, there are statements of a more general kind:

We theorize that, when people receive sanction from others who play relevant and important roles in their life narratives, it helps them manage the emotions of extreme duress through mutual connection with another (Dutton and Heaphy 2003) and through validation of one’s identity (Weick 1995). (505)

... theorize that people require narratives as a basis for courageous collective action, and the first involves reestablishing personal narratives. (506)

Even these last two statements are different in an important sense: the second theorizes about courageous collective action (their object), while the first theorizes about how people handle extreme duress (a more general notion).

I don't have a fully worked out reaction to this use of "to theorize", but something seems wrong here to me. (I'm sure examples can be found in other papers.) Are Quinn and Worline doing the same thing, or even similar things, every time they "theorize"? Or are they not, perhaps, in some cases actually "speculating", "noticing", "observing", "concluding", "interpreting", "hypothesizing", or even just "thinking" or "believing". (As in "we think that...", "we believe that...") I find it especially odd that they describe themselves as "theorizing" when pointing to differences between one case and another. The other two cases do seem to cast "theorizing" as the activity of developing general statements about a phenomenon (here "courageous collective action").

One interesting use of "we theorize that" can be found here:

We theorize that a fragile trust forming among the passengers, bolstered by a vote, would have been critical aboard Flight 93, because attacking multiple armed men with control of an airplane is a risky, interdependent activity. (508)

They do not say, "We believe that fragile trust was critical aboard Flight 93," rather, they "theorize that" it would have been critical. This means they are not offering a claim that can be tested by looking at details of the case. What they are saying is that, regardless of particulars, what they know about collective action forces them to conclude that trust must (or just may?) have been involved.

Theorizing, in the sense used here, seems to be something like looking at the world in a theory-laden way, drawing conclusions about the object of study, not drawing general conclusions about the type of object under study.

I'll probably write more about this soon (perhaps to eat crow). If any one has any ideas, I'm all ears.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Welcome to the Working Weeks

"I know it don't thrill you, I hope it won't kill you."
Elvis Costello

I'm taking a work-flow management course tomorrow, which I'm looking forward to. As the semester begins, this is in any case a good time to reflect on how my work week is organized.

There are now 17 weeks until the Christmas break begins. One of those will be devoted to the fall break. As you know, I am a big supporter of knowing what you will be doing when you get up in the morning, five days of those 16 sixteen remaining working weeks.

My plan is similar to what I was doing in the spring. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will blog bewteen 6 am and 7 am. (Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will jog.) Monday's post will be devoted to writing process or scholarship issues. On Wednesday I will normally write about grammar. Friday's post will consist either of a Shadow Stabbing vlog post (the goal is to make 12 before Christmas) or some reflections about the new media.

After blogging or jogging, I will go to the office where I will normally edit someone's work for about three hours. Then I'll eat lunch. The afternoons are devoted to meetings with authors, my writing process reeningeering groups, and writing workshops.

That's pretty much it. I think it's going to be a good semester.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Our Work Is Never Over

As we begin to power up for a new semester (my 16 week schedule begins on Monday), I'd like to draw attention to this now somewhat dated internet gem. "Groovy Dancing Girl" is, in my opinion, evidence of the inner truth and greatness of YouTube. It uses a very simple effect (see if you can figure it out), to turn what would otherwise just be a girl dancing and lip syncing in front of a camera into, well, art. I have soooooo much to learn! Watch for similar effects in next Friday's season opener of Shadow Stabbing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Editing a paper today, I came across a word that I find myself correcting often. One sense of the verb "to coin" is "to frame or invent", but the OED is careful to specify what is normally being invented, namely, "a new word or phrase". One does not "coin" a theory or an idea, nor is the act of naming something itself "coinage". Coining is something one does to terms, and what one does is to create them, usually, the OED tells us, for a "deliberate purpose". The verb is also "occasionally used depreciatively, as if the process were analogous to that of the counterfeiter".

In academic writing, I suggest you stick to using "coin" only when saying something like

Wittgenstein coined the term "language game" to describe an essential part of his philosophical method.

Please note that it is not correct to say "Wittgenstein coined this part of his method a 'language game'". You always coin the term, not the thing it refers to. He would have called it a "language game".

Finally, remember that the phrase "to coin a phrase" is always used ironically, immediately after uttering a cliché for example. That is, one only says "to coin a phrase" when this is obviously not what one is doing. The phrase may have been coined for this deliberate purpose.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Academic Push Ups

Jonathan Mayhew, ever the role model, is trying out the 100 push ups program, which is a bit of an internet fad these days, I'm told. I think I may try it myself. But in this post, while the olympics are still on, I want to transfer the idea of "training" into an academic context.

Last week, I offered what I hope is a compelling image of training in my post on Milo of Croton. I want to suggest a more concrete, and hopefully more realizable, model of academic exercise based on the 100 Push Ups program today.

I said you should try to write something you know down every day. Well, let me be a bit more specific. Call it the 100 Sentences Program (with apologies to Tony Tost). Start with an initial test: write down as many well-formed, grammatically correct, and true sentences as you can about your research object. Stop when you are either exhausted or have run out of ideas. Then plan out a six-week, three-days-a-week training program.

Roughly every other day, sit down and write an increasing amount of sentences. Start with significantly fewer than you wrote in your initial test (say about 60%), and work yourself up to 100. The idea is to get yourself into "shape", i.e., to make the task of writing 100 clear and true sentences within your area of specialization a natural act—i.e., something that is well within your capacity to carry out.

Don't worry about repeating yourself, but do use the occasion to try out new turns of phrase, and alternative styles, if you can.

Like all exercise, don't overdo it. And do "consult a doctor" if you start feeling suspicious pains, nausea, disorientation, etc. In fact, the 100 Push Ups Program recommends that you consult a doctor before you start your training. In academics, that means talking about the program with a dissertation supervisor, teacher, trusted colleague, or, of course, your resident writing consultant.

Let me know how it turns out.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


It is said that Milo of Croton, the six-time Olympic wrestling champion, maintained his strength between the Olympiads by lifting a calf onto his shoulders every day from its birth. After four years, then, he was lifting an ox, and, so the story goes, he carried this ox on his shoulders right into the stadium, where he killed it with his bare hands, cooked it, and ate it.

You know where I'm going with this. How like a PhD student was Milo the Crotonian! For three years (give or take) you grow with your task until the day comes to defend your thesis. You throw the dissertation from your shoulders to the ground, deftly slaughtering it before the amazed eyes of your committee. Then you cook it, of course, and consume it with the utmost relish.

What intellectual exercise can serve as a fitting analogue? Well, from the first day of your doctoral studies, write down something you know (I mean really know) about your topic. Do that again on the second day and then again on the third. Do it every day for a thousand days (three years or so) and you will then know enough about your topic to justify your degree. You will also have written, more or less, your thesis.

Give your research a daily workout (an e-labor-ation) in writing from the very beginning. By this means you will arrive at an articulate body of knowledge just as surely as Milo achieved his Olympian strength.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Fray Formula

I hope everyone has had, or is having, a good summer. I know I have, and I'm looking forward to getting back in the swing of things (my jet lag is now almost behind me). Before going on vacation, I found an interesting commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the use of formulas in writing instruction. I decided to write a post about as soon as I got back.

While I remain a fan of the five paragraph essay, I completely agree with Birkenstein and Graff that one of its weaknesses is its tendency to isolate writers among their own ideas. That's not really a problem with the formula, however. It's just a matter of placing constraints on the topic of the assigned essay.

Now, I don't really teach writing; I work with writers, i.e., researchers and PhD students, to improve their work. So formula are not pedagogical exercises to me; they are editorial heuristics. There is a lot of clarity to be gained from the act of restating your ideas in five well-formed paragraphs. But what I want to emphasize here is the "they say/I say" formula(s) that also provide the title of a book I'll be ordering shortly.

What Birkenstein and Graff righly point out is that when we write an academic text "we enter the social fray, presenting what others have said not as an afterthought or as mere support for our own argument, but as our argument's motivating source, its very reason for being". Getting the particulars of the fray right is an important "rhetorical move" in your writing.

To that end, the formulas they suggest are entirely useful, and I'm sure I'll be using them in talking to my authors in the weeks to come:

Although it is often said that _____, I claim ____.

I agree with X that ____, and would add ____.

Group X argues ____, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, ____ . On the other hand, ____.

I used to think ____. Now, however, after ____, I have come to see ____.

Debates over ____ tend to dominate discussions of ____. But these debates obscure the far more important issue of ____.

At this point you will probably object that ____. While it's true that ____, I still maintain ____.

Like Birkenstein and Graff, I'm less worried about how such formulas constrain thought and more interested in how they provide structured occasions for thinking about our rhetorical situation. I look forward to reading their book.