Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?

Forgive the dramatics. I'm holding a seminar about writing for publication on Thursday. Readers of this blog are of course welcome to attend:

Doctoral School Seminar Series
The Craft of Management Research

You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?
Writing for publication

Thomas Basbøll, resident writing consultant

Thursday, October 2, 14.00
Room 3.125

Doctoral School of Organization and Management Studies
Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy
Copenhagen Business School
Porcelænshaven 18A, Frederiksberg

The irony of my title (which I came up with long before my injury) is not lost on me. I can't even walk. I'm all talk. So be it.

The take-home message of my talk will be that "writing for publication" means making your work the subject not of examination but conversation. The trick is to stop writing as though you are taking an exam and start writing as though you are making a statement. This goes also for your dissertation, which must be written "for publication" at least in a figurative sense. I have also been asked to talk a little about what was once called "new literary forms" and to this end I will try to say something useful about how to approach the stylistic challenges of academic writing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Academic Blogging

I've been meaning to add Eric Kaufman's Acephalous to the blogroll for some time. Here's a video of him talking about the pros and cons of academic blogging. But he also says something in passing about the importance of having a writing project that is not your dissertation. (If you've already written your dissertation, let's just take this as an argument for diversity in your writing portfolio. And specifically, of course, for blogging.) Here's my transcription of the passage. Most of this I could have said about my own blogging as well.

For the most part, my posts are actually long considered. I have a drafts folder. And that's one thing I can't speak highly enough of: it's constantly writing. Every night I sit down when I'm done working on my dissertation at 8:00 PM ... I sit down and write something that is absolutely not my dissertation. But I craft it. I actually work on my prose (my bold, Eric's italics). I don't just dash things off. I try very hard to write entertaining, funny, things, that are not my dissertation...

(Unlike the entertaining and funny things that are his dissertation, of course.)

Otherwise I would come, as I did actually before I started blogging, to hate writing. [Writing a dissertation] is a painful experience. And blogging is not.

Notice the regular pattern, the habit of writing that his craft implies.

Here's part two (about the Valve):

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Making (Non)sense of Social Movements?

Quinn and Worline's "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516) offers us an example of the way sensemaking research too often deploys research from other fields without any attempt to translate between them. Before I get into it directly, consider this made-up paragraph, which I hope we can agree is seriously flawed:

Resources alone are not sufficient to ensure the survival of a community. As Planner-Urban (2000) points out, some U.S. cities are wealthy in assets and still are not resourceful in how they use those assets. To ensure the survival of their community, the villagers of My Lai would have had to be resourceful in how they managed the emotions of extreme duress, made moral and practical sense of a senseless situation, and organized interdependent action among people who had known each other all their lives.

While U.S. cities are certainly communities, and do of course have their problems, their survival is not threatened, certainly not in the sense to be invoked in what follows. This oblique application of urban planning theory to the behaviour of victims of a war crime is groundless. The problems of American cities, however interesting they may be, have nothing to do with the My Lai massacre.

Now, here is an almost identical line of reasoning taken from Quinn and Worline's paper. It differs mainly in that, instead of ignoring the context-bound meaning of "community", it ignores what "social movement organization" (SMO) means in the "social movement literature" that they cite.

Resources alone are not sufficient to enable courageous collective action, however. As Ganz (2000) points out, some social movement organizations are wealthy in assets and still are not resourceful in how they use those assets. To enable courageous collective action, the people aboard Flight 93 needed to be resourceful in how they managed the emotions of extreme duress, made moral and practical sense of a senseless situation, and organized dangerous interdependent action among insecure strangers. (505)

Ganz (2000) analyzed how the union movement in California's agriculture sector developed in the late 1950s and early 60s. He focused specifically on two unions (one successful, one not) each of which easily count as an SMO in the standard sense of that term, i.e., "a formally organized component of a social movement".

In the passage I have quoted, the tenuous link between the first and second sentence, namely, "collective action", by which Ganz does not mean what Quinn and Worline mean*, is entirely broken by the word "courageous", which Ganz does not use at all. Worse, what is the logical link between the second and third sentence? The third's "people aboard flight 93" must be understood as an instance of "some social movement organizations"; that's the only way to make sense of putting them together like this. But surely the "wealth" and "resourcefulness" of a labour union cannot be compared to the means by which a group of "insecure strangers" face a momentary crisis? In fact, I don't see any way that the passengers and crew of a particular flight, no matter what their immediate problem, can be counted as a social movement organization (even, I should note, if they were all members of Greenpeace on their way to a demonstration). If they can, then the term simply has no meaning—a "social movement" becomes people doing stuff, you know, "together".

*There are different ways of describing this difference in sense. It's not quite as bad as the crank call that goes, "Good Evening, Sir, this is the electrical company. Is your fridge running?" "Ah, let me check ... " (comes back) "Yes, it is." "Well then you better catch it before it gets away!" (click). Nor is it as bad as the guy who asks the fishmonger to throw him his fish so that he can say he "caught" it. But it's sort of like running along the route for a few miles and then telling people you "ran" in the New York Marathon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

More Comparative Criticism

Here's another thing that puzzles me about Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline's "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516). They suggest that "Given the problems of collective action aboard Flight 93, a useful literature for helping explain events comes from the study of social movements" (498). They also spend a substantial amount of time at the end of the paper identifying their "contributions" to this literature.

I don't know very much about social movements, but I did immediately check two of their references which, as I expected, deal with things like the civil rights movement and the nuclear disarmanent movement, in one case applying this to a study of shareholder rights activists.

Quinn and Worline do nothing to explain how the crew and passengers of UA93 might reasonably be compared with civil rights activists, nor how their revolt constitutes "collective action" in the sense used in that area of research. But surely a group of people merely in motion together, even towards a common end, does not in and of itself constitute a "social movement"? So what social movement (in the sense that the literature they cite adopts) were the passengers and crew participating in?

Benford and Snow's review article "Framing Processes and Social Movements" (Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2000. 26:611–39) is especially puzzling as a reference. "Collective action frames," they say, "are action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization (SMO)" (614). Here they tie the definitions of both "collective action" and "social movements" to particular kinds of organizations, namely, SMOs. But surely there were no SMOs involved in the UA93 episode (except of course al-Qaeda, whose "courage" the authors are definitely not trying to explain). As I understand it, an SMO is a "formally organized component of a social movement".

Like I say, and as my citing of Wikipedia demonstrates, I'm no expert on social movements. But shouldn't a reviewer have demanded that the authors who cite this literature on large social and historical processes make explicit its relevance to an isolated and doomed act of spontaneous resistance?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fear of Napping

"Nothing intimidates me when I write."
Jacques Derrida

"...there is a very strange moment when I don't write ... when I have a nap or something and I fall asleep ... At that moment in a sort of half sleep, all of a sudden I'm terrified by what I'm doing."

Dancing vs. Writing

"I was just flabbergasted that anyone could work under these circumstances."

I've been a fan of Fran Lebowitz for a long time. Here she presents a writer's take on the art of choreography.

Pretense: the New Look

Along with the new "critical" focus of this blog, I'm rethinking its aesthetic. My aim is to become a legitimate peripheral irritation or a learnéd situationist ("in Lave and Wenger's sense") to organization studies. A gadfly. An occasion for critical reflection and the reflection of an occasional crisis. A pain in the ass. It's a Socratic project.

Like Socrates, I believe that critical thinking requires a sense of irony. It requires that we establish a working distance between our selves and our words, an understanding that we can't mean exactly what we say, or say exactly what we mean. Still, we have to speak as though we mean it. As my new epigraph on the sidebar says, we have to pretend to be exactly who we are.

The same goes for our reading. When reading an author we have to take the pretense of knowingness seriously for a time. Yes, at bottom, we're all in some sense faking it. But that assumption doesn't give us much of a platform for critique. The actual flesh and blood author is pretending to be exactly who the author is, namely, an author, a spectral being behind a concrete arrangement of words. When reading critically we are engaging with what Wayne Booth calls an "implicit author", a persona that we construct as the agency of the rhetorical decisions that are behind the text we see on the page. It is this author that we "get to know", that we "hold responsible", as our reading progresses. It is this author that wins our respect or earns our contempt. It is the implicit author that "knows what she is talking about", even as the real author may have her doubts.

Socrates, of course, tried to pretend he didn't know anything, and is now remembered as among the wisest people that ever lived. Irony is a tricky thing, however; perhaps Socrates only pretended that he was pretending not to know anything. Perhaps he really was an ignorant fool. Perhaps we all are. But in academic life it is okay to be an ignorant fool and yet pretend to be knowledgeable and wise. That pretense is the occasion for criticism, and it is criticism, not knowledge, that makes us who we are. I mean really are ... I'm not kidding ... Nevermind.

Socrates pretended not to be a scientist; that is, he claimed not to be among the professional "knowers", the professoriat of his day. My ironic trick has been to pretend that I am not an academic, that I am a mere "writing consultant", part of the "administration", not the "faculty". Nobody really buys it, of course. But I really am pretending to be exactly who I am.

By a similar token, many of my readers and viewers are pretending to be academics. And they also really are academics. That's a curious thing. Not to be taken lightly. But not to be taken too seriously either.

Monday, September 22, 2008

More Accidents

Running to catch a train yesterday, I fell and fractured my knee cap. So I am confined to the sofa for a while, but I imagine this may actually be good for the blog. I'll try to keep up the regular morning posts, though I will move them to 9:00 AM instead of 7:00. Maybe I'll even do one a day. Right now, however, I'm waiting for the painkillers to arive. I'll hopefully be back at it within a couple of days. Keep searching, please. And keep writing.

Oh yes ... you may notice that there are two new videos up at Shadow Stabbing. I was supposed to teach a PhD course this week, and so this is the contribution I was able to put together yesterday. They sort of rough out content for one or two official vidoes I may make later. But I will take these down in a few days.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #16: Quotation (part 2)

I managed to find some time after all. This is part 2 of my tutorial on quotation. The example is from Karl Weick's "The Generative Properties of Richness" (Academy of Management Journal, volume 50, number 1, 2007, p. 17). The book being quoted is Greg Dening's "Performances" (University of Chicago Press, 1996). I'm going to continue along this road in two week's time by taking a stab at paraphrasing the long quotation that makes up the bulk of Weick's paragraph. Enjoy.

No Video Today

Part 2 of my video about quotation is almost finished. Reviewing it last night, however, I realized that I was using way too small a font to make the slides I was showing. (Trying to show way too much text at a time.) It's going to take a bit of work to fix that, so the video will have to wait til next week.

According to my 16 week schedule, I am supposed to make 5 or 6 out of twelve videos before the fall break. So, having made 3 and a half after four weeks, I'm doing pretty well.

Check out the conversation we're having about what a "statement" is in the comments to an earlier post.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Exemplary Comparison?

In a recent paper called "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516), Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline offer an analysis of how the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 organized their revolt against the hijackers that had taken control of their plane on September 11. Since this is a study of how a crisis situation unfolds in real time, they rightly cite Karl Weick's famous 1993 analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster (ASQ, 38 (4), pp. 628-652) as an exemplary piece of prior research, but they go on to compare the two cases in a very strange way.

The UA93 episode involved a handful of passengers and crew members, most of whom had never met before and had no concrete shared experience with hijackings. The Mann Gulch episode involved a comparable amount of people, but all of them had been trained to deal with the danger they were facing. Indeed, they had been sent into harm's way. The source of danger in UA93 was a group of four human beings; in Mann Gulch it was a raging forest fire. The crisis on board UA93 called for a plan of attack; the crisis in Mann Gulch called for a plan of escape.

Now, this does not make it simply an "apples and oranges" situation, to be sure. But it does, I would think, rule out the following observation as a plausible point of comparison. Summarizing Weick's analysis, Quinn and Worline note that "by refusing to drop their tools during the 16 minutes between realizing that the fire had jumped the gulch and their tragic deaths, the smokejumpers reestablished their identities as individual firefighters but lost their identity as a social unit" (504). They then "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) and count time as a relevant difference. The people on UA93, they note, had "approximately 35 minutes between their own hijacking and the crash of the airplane (19 more minutes than the firefighters at Mann Gulch)." (505)

To compare the 35 minutes that an unorganized group of amateurs had to take back control of a hijacked plane with the 16 minutes that a crew of trained fire fighters had to escape from a forest fire already strikes me as odd. But it is surely absurd to take it the analytical step further and "theorize" that this counts as a difference of "resources"—a 19-minute difference in the time available to solve the problem at hand. It's a bit like noting the fact that a brain surgeon had a scalpel at his disposal while a mechanic had a wrench as a relevant difference in "material assets" (i.e., tools).

Sensemaking scholars often promote "eclecticism" of one kind or another. And we can actually go back to Weick's Mann Gulch exemplar to find support for this kind of anything-goes comparative empiricism. Recall that his paper is about 16 woodland firefighters in a crisis. Weick notes the "eerie coincidence" that 16 members of a Uruguayan soccer team once survived for ten weeks on a glacier in the Andes. This is of course only a coincidence after Weick has selected the story for comparison (no doubt based on its amenability to this particular literary trick of association). Beyond that, the situations are in no way alike, and neither their differences nor their similarities are in any way illuminating, as he actually goes on to show while claiming the opposite:

The team in the Andes had 10 weeks and changing threats of bleeding, hygiene, starvation, avalanche, expedition, rescue, and accounting, whereas the team in Mann Gulch had more like 10 minutes and the increasingly singular threat of being engulfed in fire. Part of the problem in Mann Gulch is the very inability for intergroup structures to form. The inability to form subgroups within the system may be due to such things as time pressure, the relative unfamiliarity of the smokejumpers with one another compared with the interdependent members of a visible sports team, the inability to communicate, the articulation of a common threat very late in the smokejumpers' exposure to Mann Gulch, and ambiguity about means that would clearly remove the threat, compared with the relative clarity of the means needed by the soccer players to deal with each of their threats. (648)

There is of course much to learn from all three stories (the Andes, Mann Gulch, UA93) about how people act in a crisis. But at that level of generality, sensemaking scholars can string together any number of stories (all of which, perhaps tellingly, have been made into movies). This sort of thing concerns me because the irrelevance of the comparison seems to be right on the surface of the text. You don't have to be an organization theorist to criticize it. Perhaps, however, you have to be an organization theorist not to criticize it. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Practical Crisis

Over the past few weeks I have become increasingly worried about the scientific quality of work done in organization studies. My worries have been occasioned by my study of the "sensemaking" tradition, more specifically my critique of Karl Weick's analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster, which I am preparing for the upcoming "Practical Criticism" conference in Leicester. (Here's a PDF of the CFP.)

The organizers of the conference are concerend about the apparent "atrophy of the critical function in the academic study of management". The (ineffectual) criticism of one approach by another is of course allowed, but one rarely sees (truly inconvenient) internal criticism, i.e., direct criticism of a piece of research by other researchers who have both a stake in its claims and the expertise to understand them in detail. Peer-reviewers, it sometimes seems, are more interested in approving or disapproving of the referential posturing in an article, than assessing the astuteness of its observations or the quality of its thinking. Worse, there are very few outlets in organization studies for writing that simply critiques already published work.

Thinking about these things has led me to refocus my purpose with this blog. Until now, I have focused my attention on the problems that face academic writers who don't have English as a first language. From now on, I am taking the pun a bit more seriously. Many organization theorists, for a variety of historical reasons, but especially the uncritical proliferation of "interdisciplinary" studies, seem more often than not be using the research idiom as a second language. That is, they don't quite know what their words mean. Making this explicit will also, I hope, continue to help my non-English readers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Making a Statement

Good academic writing does not consist of merely grammatically correct sentences. At the risk of vulgarizing his work a bit, Michel Foucault famously taught us that it consists of discursively correct statements. Part of your disciplinary competence is your ability to make a statement: your ability to arrange words in a recognizably knowledge-bearing way.

In the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault was quite clear about what determines the "correctness" of a statement in a given discourse. As a first approximation, making a statement requires that you talk about the right kinds of objects, that you deploy the right concepts, that you adopt the right style, and that you support the right strategies.

It is worth thinking explicitly about these things when working on your writing. I recommend that you spend some time at regular intervals identifying a passage of prose that you would count as a distinct statement. Then ask yourself what makes you count it as such.

Simplifying a great deal, you can begin by asking what the statement is about and how your choice of object identifies your discipline. You can also ask what parts of the statement have a certain kind of precision (where can the statement be made more or less precise); this will help to identify your concepts. You can also ask how the statement shows that you have "good manners". Do you write in the right way? What does it mean to do so? Finally, what collective project or shared set of values does your statement promote?

When thinking about these things, it will be useful to select similar passages of prose from the published work of your peers. Find passages where you would answer these questions in similar ways. Then decide how the relevant associations and allusions are achieved. How is your writing, and that of your peers, "marked", if you will, as a work within a particular area of academic specialization? In a sense, you are looking for your shibboleths.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #15: Quotation

This week on Shadow Stabbing I present two examples of how not to use quotations in your writing. Both are taken from Karl Weick's reflections on methodology, and I use the opportunity to engage with Weick's explicit defense of his way of quoting. As I was editing it, however, I noticed that my original critique of the second example probably isn't quite right, and next week, when I will take up the task of paraphrasing the quotations, I will add a bit more about what Weick might have been trying to do there.

I am quite happy with the editing of this video is general. I'm getting better at alternating between sample texts and the talking-head monologue (which is also a good way to edit out mistakes), and I like the look that is achieved by simply photographing the pages. Also, I hope you will agree that my on-screen manner, my YouTube persona, is coming along nicely too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

That and Which as Shibboleth

It will not do to change every that to a which—a corrective feat one instructor reported with an air of accomplishment.

Christopher Lasch
Plain Style, p. 109

A grammatical rule should ultimately help you write better. It serves this purpose if it anticipates a misunderstanding between you and your reader, not just an objection from your copy editor. If it does not help you to avoid real misunderstandings, the rule is just a "shibboleth", i.e., an aspect of usage that identifies social position of the language user. This is Jonathan's objection (in his comment to last week's video) to the that/which distinction, and I'm going to see if I can counter it this morning.

I should begin by saying I feel the force of his objection quite keenly. I didn't know how to distinguish between that and which until I became a copy-editor myself. And I think if there is talk of a shibboleth here, it is mainly one that identifies the language user as a copy-editor. As Jonathan notes, perfectly articulate users of both American and British English don't make the distinction that the Chicago Manual of Style makes a mark of "polished American prose".

Moreover, there are the pseudo-editors and grammar snobs who insist on the that/which distinction in plainly stupid ways, like the instructor Lasch says changed "every that to a which". No, you must know when to use that and when to use which. And my argument for observing the difference is precisely that it forces you to decide whether you are deploying a restrictive clause or not.

A telling example of the need for such decisions can be found in the work of Karl Weick, a top-rated organization theorist who is actually renowned for his style:

A book that is about interpretation would be a sham if it were grounded in paraphrase that rubbed the nuance off an author’s remarks, discouraged reader exegesis, and squelched divergent readings. (Sensemaking in Organizations, p. xii)

I have suspected this sentence of being strategically (i.e., intentionally) ambiguous for some time. Weick is here justifying his use of extensive quotations throughout the book, which are often inserted into the text without comment, i.e., without Weick's own interpretation (though this is not something he is explicitly trying to justify). He is presenting this not only as a virtue, but the alternative as a vice (a "sham").

But notice that the dangers of rubbing off nuance, discouraging exegesis, and squelching readings are only arguments against paraphrase if they are used in a non-restrictive clause to modify the noun "paraphrase". Otherwise they are just arguments against paraphrasing badly, which goes without saying. That is, only if these dangers are inherent in the art of paraphrase, not descriptions of particularily defective kinds of paraphrase, can they be used to claim that "a book grounded in paraphrase is a sham". Using Chicago's rule, we would write:

A book that is about interpretation would be a sham if it were grounded in paraphrase, which rubs the nuance off an author’s remarks, discourages reader exegesis, and squelches divergent readings.

But that is of course false. Everyone who interprets texts for a living knows that there are perfectly good ways of paraphrasing, i.e., paraphrases that do not, for example, discourage exegesis but, rather, encourage readers to find the source and read it themselves.

So Weick might mean that when he paraphrases he does it so poorly that the result would be an interpretative sham. No, of course not; he can't mean that. Which is why I suspect he is trying to have it both ways here. But if he had committed himself to the that/which rule, he would have had to decide how he wanted to modify "paraphrase". He would then have had to rethink the claim he is making. And this, I would submit, is a good reason to have a clearly marked occasion to reflect upon restrictive and non-restritive clauses. Poor usage here may be a shibboleth of muddy thinking.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Form and Error

Wittgenstein, knowing no financial necessity, had no such creative dialogue between form and error.

Richard Sennett
The Craftsman (p. 258)

Much research today is done with the support of a grant and is expected to be completed within a specific period. These projects are subject to external constraints that do much to establish the "form" of today's research practices and their written expression. An important effect of these constraints has to do with how you react to error.

Sennett devotes part of The Craftsman to a comparison of two houses in Vienna: the house Ludwig Wittgenstein built for his sister in Kundmanngasse and the Villa Moller, built by Adolf Loos. "When the foundations were not laid as specified, [Loos] could not afford to dig them up and start again; instead, Loos thickened the form of one side wall to accomodate the mistake, making the thickened wall an emphatic side frame for the front" (p. 258). Wittgenstein, by contrast, was not just building a house: "I am not interested in erecting a building, but in ... presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings" (p. 254)*. (Yes, that looks a lot like Wittgenstein's early philosophical project, but more on that some other time.)* So, as Sennett notes, he found himself having to rebuild a part of the house in order to raise the ceiling about an inch. He was working without constraints because his client was his sister and both of them werehad been heirs* to one of the largest fortunes in Europe at the time.

Loos had no such luxury, and it is his example, not Wittgenstein's, that we are therefore bound to follow. (In philosophy, I sometimes think, we are likewise bound to follow Heidegger's example rather than Wittgenstein's for the same reason. Again, more on that later.) Once the foundations of your project have been laid, you can't just tear them up if they don't give you what you need—or rather, what you thought you needed. You have to rethink the building on the foundations you happen to have; you can't keep tearing them up and starting over. You must establish a "creative dialogue between form and error".

*Do read Presskorn's very illuminating comments and corrections below.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #14: That and Which

Christopher Lasch called it "the subject of vast confusion". This week on Shadow Stabbing, we look at the use of "that" and "which" in what the Chicago Manual of Style calls "polished American prose". I hope you find it useful. If you want more, here is the post I wrote on the subject in 2005.

* * *

Following up on yesterday's post, I have a couple of announcements to make regarding upcoming events related to craft and criticism.

First, the doctoral school is holding a seminar series here at the department about the "craft of research". 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 schedule::

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

(I have posted this schedule once before. Note that the September seminar was cancelled. It has been moved to February.)

Second, if you are interested in close, critical readings of major management writers, there is a very interesting conference just for you. It's the "2nd Conference of Practical Criticism in the Managerial Social Sciences" at the University of Leicester on January 8 & 9, 2009". Having attended last year, I highly recommend it. Here's a PDF of the CFP.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Critic and the Craftsman

perfectionism n. 1 the uncompromising pursuit of excellence. 2 Philos. the belief that religious or moral perfection is attainable.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary

PERFECTION, n. An imaginary state or quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.

Ambrose Bierce
The Devil's Dictionary

Yesterday, a PhD student accused me of being against perfectionism. That is not altogether unjustified, but I need to make some qualifications, of course.

Richard Sennett describes "the craftsman" in terms of "a strategic acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism" and Ambrose Bierce declares perfection to be an "attribute of the critic". (He did not think highly of critics: "A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him".) An academic writer, I want to propose, is both a craftsman and a critic. That may be precisely the ambiguity that Sennett says we have to be strategic about.

Submitting work for critique, whether to your fellow students or to your thesis supervisor, to your local colleagues or to your community of peers (a journal), will always be a compromise. You always want to say, "It's a work in progress." "This is not a finished thought." "Obviously there is much more to be said." Indeed, "perfect" simply means "all done". Well, you never finish. Of course.

Of course. Neither my PhD student, nor anyone else I've talked to, seriously defends perfectionism as a philosophy for very long. One wants to say that one finds writing very difficult because one is a perfectionist. And that is right in one sense, perhaps in principle. But, like all "strategically ambiguous" people, academics know that the principle is flawed. Nobody and nothing is perfect. Least of all ourselves, our selves.

At the end of the day, it will be a work in progress, an "open site", a "journey not a destination". Craftsmanship has to do with accomplishing a "work" within a set of constraints, including temporal ones. It also, and very importantly, has to do with completing things incompletely, if you will. You have to reach a state of completeness that allows you to begin anew, an "attempt" that implies the opportunity to "try again". The craftsman hopes to perfect her craft, not the table she is working on today.

She has to work through every step in the process, knowing that the table will be subject to critique from the master (and perhaps even the user) when she is "finished" (but never "all done"). She has to finish a set of tasks in this ambiguous way again and again before she attains mastery. And the master craftsman also continues in this way. You must do the best you can within the allotted time in order for criticism to teach you what you can do better.

In woodworking, each step in the process has a certain irreversability to it. Once you have turned the leg on the lathe, or cut the tabletop, or assembled the frame, you can't go back and do it better. The materials have changed. They are now in their final position. In writing, by contrast, we have the illusion that the text can always be improved, that the materials don't suffer from being taken apart and put together again countless times.

There is some truth to that (but also some illusion, which I will talk about another time). That is why your writing schedule is so important. It defines tasks (like turning the legs, cutting the top, assembling the frame) that can be completed without attaining perfection. Let perfection be an attribute of your critic. And I do know that you, too, are a critic. But the critic looks at the page after the craftsman's work is finished.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Cover Your Tracks

Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Annie Dillard
The Writing Life

I'm not heeding my own advice enough. This morning I got up knowing only that I should write a blog post and that it should be about style or usage. The words "style" and "usage" together cover a vast area; I might as well have said I had to write about writing, or write about language. Or just write. My theme did not offer me a focus. My plan did not begin with a task.

So we have this rambling post about not knowing what to write. Actually, now that I'm writing, it feels sort of good. "When you write," says Dillard, "you lay out a line of words." There is something pleasing about doing that freely, for the sake of getting words down itself.

I have been doing a lot of editing these past weeks, both of my own work and the work of others. When we edit we are trying to find those "soft and careless" parts of the text that seemed so important at the time. Those sentences may have been enjoyable to write and that might make it hard to change them. But remember that the joy was in the writing of those words. If it is no longer a joy to read them, they will have to go.

I have now gone ten minutes over my writing time. I got up late and I didn't know where to begin. Everything was wrong. Perhaps tomorrow the birds will eat the crumbs.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Facts

Wittgenstein famously proposed that "the world is the totality of facts, not things" (T 1.1). We know not just that a number of things populate the world but how these things stand in relation to other things. We know not just "what there is" but "what is the case".

While your academic discipline and empirical theme should acquaint you with a specialized class of objects, your knowledge of these things is not limited to knowing their names. As you gain knowledge, you should become better and better at making factual claims about these things.

There are various kinds of facts. When I first started blogging, I wrote a very long and rather unbloggish post about getting your facts straight in which the main point was probably lost. It is worth repeating, however. All researchers should develop a system to organize their knowledge of a particular set of facts; those facts go a long way towards defining your expertise.

As an academic, you should be the "go to guy" for people who want a straight answer about whether or not this or that is the case. How do you keep track of the facts that we are counting on you to know for us? Where do you keep your knowledge of them?

Some of these facts are scholarly, i.e., facts about what has been written on a particular topic. You demonstrate your knowledge of these facts in your literature review. Others are about the "real world" of practice. The authors I work with usually have specialized knowledge of an industry, political domain, or set of organizations.

It is worth making a list of the facts that constitute your world. Every now and then, choose ten or twenty facts to write down. Give them a one-sentence description. Then unpack these descriptions into a whole paragraph. You will find all kinds of uses for such prose in your writing. A fact is what a true sentence refers to, and good, clear, true sentences, whatever else we may think of them, are good for your style.

Remember the story of Agassiz and the fish. Practice making true descriptions; practice writing facts down. These are like the sketches of animals made by zoologists. Making such a sketch is a serious test of their expertise. Also, it is your responsibility as a researcher to keep your notes in some semblance of order. You must be able to retrieve an account of the facts when you need it.

In the end, "facts are stupid things", as Agassiz said, and at some point you will need to introduce some theory to make sense of them. But first you need to learn how to put a "simple fact" in writing. And how to store it for later reference.