Friday, November 28, 2008

The Clash of the Media

In lieu of a real post this morning, here's a classic meditation on the effects of developments in one form of expression on the status of another. Will blogging kill the academic journal author? Will YouTube kill blogging? Well, what did happen to "the radio star"?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

First and/or Firstly

This came up in the workshop last week. Should you write "first" or "firstly"? My answer is quite generally to use "first", "second", "third". What was interesting is that I couldn't come up with even one instance where I would even allow "firstly". I think I have come up with one now. The difference lies in whether you want to emphasize temporal or hierarchical order, i.e., sequence or weight.


If I were put in that situation I'd do three things. First, I'd straigthen him out about the correct use of quotation marks. Second, I'd call all his friends and relations to tell them never to take his advice when it comes to grammar. Third, I'd send him a one-way ticket to some faraway place where writing hasn't even been invented yet.

I think there are three things to keep in mind. Firstly, you can't let grammatical errors pass unnoticed because this constitutes tacit approval. Secondly, don't let down your guard against people who are trying to trap you into showing you're just an ignorant snob about grammar. Thirdly, you can always send your author a one-way ticket to some faraway place where writing hasn't even been invented yet.

Now, I'd still just use "first", "second", and "third" in that second example. But I would probably allow the -ly ending.

Pam Peters, in the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, notes the history of the problem. There was a time when one would say "first", then "secondly" and "thirdly". Today, we prefer consistency and therefore allow that "firstly is perfectly logical as the preliminary to secondly, thirdly." But she rightly adds that "an obvious and easy alternative is to use first, second, third etc." (208) Kenneth Wilson's suggestion in the Columbia Guide is similar and can be found here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


"I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write."

Michel Foucault

In the old days, before there were journals, scientists would write letters to each other about their results. These would then be circulated and (if I recall my history of science correctly) the readers would add their own comments, sometimes the results of their own attempts to replicate those in the original letter. There was very little question back then about who your peers were.

Today we have too many peers to know this exactly who we're writing for, and even who we are. But that does not mean we can't identify some of our readers concretely. I think too many academic writers see the journal literature as a completely anonymous authority, a faceless bureaucracy that you somehow have to force or fool into accepting your work.

In order to change this image of the journals, keep that old-fashioned circulation of letters in mind. As your research progresses, make a conscious effort to imagine your readers. Who might be interested in the results you are producing? Name these people, and learn something about them. Where do they work? Where do they publish? And don't just imagine commmunicating with them. Write them emails. Seek them out at conferences. Arrange to visit their institutions.

Putting faces on your readership is a way of taking ownership of your writing. After all, it also requires imagining your own face on it. Publishing—which is to say, making your ideas public—is a way of communicating with other researchers. It is not just an exam you pass to impress your university administrators and further your career.

Much as I admire Foucault, I think his resentment (even ressentiment?) of academic writing is an unnecessary affectation. Why should sincere researchers, striving, shoulder to shoulder, in the pursuit of knowledge, leave anything to the police and the bureaucrats? We should insist on letting only our peers evaluate our "papers" (admittedly in another sense), i.e., those with whom we also sometimes speak face-to-face. It is their "morality" we should engage with when we write.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Effective managers know how important it is to get people to take ownership of the organization's goals. It is not enough that people know what their jobs are, nor even that they will be fired if they don't do them: people have to identify with the tasks they are assigned at some deeper level.

In academia, one of the most important tasks is publishing. Academics have little difficulty identifying with tasks that involve data collection, reading, thinking, and even writing. But they sometimes have a harder time identifying with the aim of publishing their results.

This is actually strange. Publishing is something that researchers have a major stake in. In fact, a substantial list of publications offers a considerable amount of freedom to academics. It is very much a way of building "equity"; it increases the value of your academic credentials. It makes your career portable by making your qualifications objective.

Being published makes it easier for you to apply for research grants (to reduce your teaching load). It makes it easier to grant you tenure (or equivalent forms of security). It makes it much more realistic to think about looking for jobs at other universities. It also makes it easier for your peers at other institutions to invite you to come and visit them for an all-expenses-paid semester as a visiting scholar.

It is not to satisfy your adminstrators that you should publish. It is to improve your own position in the world, and the ease with which you move around in it. And I haven't even said anything about the intrinsic importance of having a readership yet.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

You cannot learn to write publishable prose overnight. Nor can an editor convert your notes into a publishable article by fixing the grammar. Successful academic writers are people who have made a habit of prosing their world, as Foucault might put it. They have submitted to a discipline.

Are you writing regularly? Does your writing schedule include periods of revision and proofreading? Does your reading respect your writing (and vice versa)? Do you have time to take your writing sessions seriously as learning opportunities? Do you study your own writing alongside the good prose you are reading?

Do you have conversations with peers about the things you are writing about? That is, is there a "spoken language" for your research?

Do you stop writing before you are exhausted? Before you are interrupted? (I.e., do you stop because your writing session is simply over?) Do you write even when you don't feel like it?

It is a long journey. There are about a 1000 days between the start a PhD program and its completion. Perhaps another 1000 between your assistant professorship and your associate professorship. You have to be relentless about your writing in those days. You have to be paying attention.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Power of Facing

"[Writing] isn't really even an ability at all. It's a knack."
Christopher Hitchens (18:05)

A bit later (21:18) on Hitchen's talks about Orwell's view of himself as a writer, emphasizing the "power of facing unpleasant facts". He rightly says that this is "nicely phrased: he could have said 'an ability to face' or 'a power to face". This immediately struck me as somewhat at odds with his claim that writing isn't an ability, but a knack. The tension is emphasized by his reinterpretation of the "power of facing" as (less nicely phrased) an "ability to face". Hitchen's does seem to grant some ability here.

Hitchens says that, in addition to this power, Orwell recognized in himself "a certain literary ability", which Hitchens (quite clearly, I think you'll agree if you watch the clip) shrugs off as of little importance. Interesteringly, Orwell did not quite claim to have "literary ability"; he claimed to have discovered that he had a "facility with words". And I think Hitchens is right to paraphrase this as he does with a shrug. Writing itself is not an ability. You either have a knack for it or you don't. If you do, you are, as Hitchens says, lucky. But it should be possible to make your way in academic life (with somewhat less "facility", let's say), even if you find the act of putting words together difficult.

Nor do you, stricly speaking, need a power of facing unpleasant facts. That's something politically minded writers like Orwell and Hitchens need, but academic writers less so. You do need to have an ability to register possibly unfashionable facts, I would argue. How else would we learn anything new? But the insulation of academic life will hopefully keep this from being an unpleasant experience.

In general, however, all good writing depends on a "power of facing" some corner of reality combined with a particular "facility" with words. Hitchens shrugs off the latter, and this morning I want to grant that he's probably right about that. It is, precisely, the "easy" part (look up "facility"). The important thing is how you face your facts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Knack

"[Writing] isn't really even an ability at all. It's a knack."
Christopher Hitchens (18:05)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

John Stuart Mill
On Liberty, Ch. II

At the PhD course last week, I attributed this idea to Christopher Hitchens, hastily adding that it no doubt was not his own. I had forgotten that Hitchens himself had already attributed it to no less than three individuals, one of them, of course, being John Stuart Mill. By this oversight, I robbed my audience of an important reference point in the discussion of freedom of speech. Ironically, I was using it as an analogy for my defence of proper citation in academic writing.

"It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard," says Hitchens (at 2:19); "it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear."

My application of this idea runs as follows. Plagiarism is often seen as an act of "theft", i.e., a violation of the property rights of authors. There are two immediate problems with this view. The first is that it seems to grant the possibility of getting permission to plagiarize. One could, for example, simply pay the original authors for the right to pretend their words are your own. The second is that the "postmodern conditions" of today's academy make moral* claims to "intellectual property" increasingly untenable. Many of the authors I work with, for example, are essentially anarchists or socialists, and this especially when it comes to the "marketplace of ideas". My stock answer to this is to see "the moral right to be identified as the author of a work" as more like "personal" property, which anarchists generally allow, than "private" property.

How can I give my insistence on proper citation more general force? By borrowing the language of Mill and Hitchens: The peculiar evil of failing to cite an author is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation. What is violated is not just the right of the author to be identified as the source of the words or ideas in question; when you plagiarize, you violate the right of the reader to know where those words or ideas came from.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sensemaking to Go

While teaching a PhD course this morning I was reminded of a telling feature of Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations. In "Concepts, Style, and Reflection" (in Jones and Munro, ed., 2005), Barbara Czarniawska notes that Weick ignores the "strange logic" that "separates reading a story in a newspaper from hearing it retold by a manager and then reading it again from one's transcript", and which also distinguishes between "empirical data" and "anecdotes" (275). In fact, Weick does not make any judgments about his sources in order to determine what weight to give them in his own work.

The material that Weick collects to develop, corroborate, and illustrate his theories..

(He does not actually really distinguish between development, corroboration, and illustration either, I would add.) amazingly wide; he is a master of collage, and his criteria of selection are relevance, accessibility, and theoretical satiation. (275)

Let's see what "collage" means in practice. In Sensemaking (p. 24), he writes:

The idea of retrospective sensemaking derives from Schutz's (1967) analysis of "meaningful lived experience." The key word in that phrase, lived, is stated in the past tense to capture the reality that people can know what they are doing only after they have done it. Pirsig (cited in Winokur, 1990) makes this point when he says, "Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality" (p. 82).

In this paragraph (I have quoted it entire), Weick brings together Alfred Schutz's The Phenomenology of the Social World and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the latter of which is a novel, here as "cited"* by Jon Winokur in a book called Zen to Go. We go from a work of social theory to a work of fiction-cum-philosophy by way of an anthology of "bite-sized bits of wisdom". But we are not given any indication of the differences between these books. Winokur could have been an (unfamiliar) social theorist, as could Pirsig, who appears without his first name, is not listed in the bibliography**, and never comes up again. Perhaps we've reached a point of "theoretical satiation"?

I am not sure Schutz actually emphasized that "lived" is in the past tense (and I'm not really sure that it is)***, but Weick does not tell us where in the book (he cites the whole thing) Schutz might be suggesting this. In any case, the idea that Pirsig and Schutz are "making the same point" is somewhat odd. Alfred Schutz is a Zen Buddhist? Then again, Weick doesn't even tell us that Pirsig's point is an elaboration of Zen. And Zen "to go" at that. It's drive-through theoretical satori! Coming soon to a location near you.

(Continues ... click here)

*This way of putting it gives the false impression that Pirsig is cited in a text written by Winokur. Actually, Winokur is the editor of the book. In it he has collected a variety of zen-like statements without comment.

**Formally, that's actually in order. Weick does not claim to have read the novel. In fact, he doesn't claim to know that the original source even is a novel.

***"Lived" is the past participle of the verb "to live", but it is not used as a verb here (and therefore has no "tense"). It is an adjective that modifies "experience".

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Plagiarism and Scientific Progress

When Martin Kilduff was editor of the Academy of Management Review he wrote a helpful little comment called "Publishing Theory" (2006, Vol. 31, No. 2, 252–255). It presents his dos and don'ts for writing a good theoretical paper, which is to say a paper that might be published in AMR. Under the heading "Don't Copy" he writes as follows:

Most people in the field understand that it is wrong to plagiarize the work of others. But it is perhaps less well understood that you should not plagiarize yourself: do not send to AMR a paper expounding precisely the same ideas you’ve published elsewhere. Similarly, it is not well understood that AMR does not publish summaries of research for the uninformed. We do not publish popular science articles introducing esoteric ideas published elsewhere. Each paper must contain an original theoretical contribution. One indication of papers that lack original content is the tendency to include extensive quotations from famous thinkers. (253)

Interdisciplinarity exacerbates the problem. Is it an "original theoretical contribution" to introduce a familiar idea from sociology, psychology, history, or philosophy to management studies?

It certainly can be. The key to an original contribution is understanding its unoriginal basis. You have to understand what part of your contribution is original and what part is not.

Unfortunately, writers sometimes simply plagiarize the ideas they run into in other fields on the (half-considered) assumption that their extra-disciplinary reading itself constitutes "originality". Such plagiarism can occur even where the source is cited, and even where no plagiarism of the actual words of the source occurs. The writer and would-be theorist simply forgets to indicate the extent of that source's contribution. (See this post for an example.)

Kilduff's phrase "summaries of research for the uninformed" is apt. If you imagine that your reader does not know of, and will never read, your source, it is tempting to make yourself the local representative of its content. But you should always ask yourself whether your reader will cite you or your source for any particular part of your summary. The reader, remember, is (by assumption) "uninformed" about the source. If it would be natural for the reader to cite you for something your source taught you, you are doing something wrong.

In the end, you need to inform the reader about those esoteric ideas that you want to import into management studies and organization theory. You need to fully acknowledge their unoriginality as such by giving the reader a good sense of their origin. That can take a lot of work. It is the work that goes with the desire to be interdisciplinary. Only after you have presented the extra-disciplinary idea on its own terms to the reader can you begin to apply it.

I think this sort of problem is more widespread than we like to admit. The cross-disciplinary plagiarism of ideas gives us a false sense of progress in our field. If we did not plagiarize the progress made in other fields, and instead adequately represented it, we would get a more accurate sense of our own originality. It would take much more work. We would have to really understand work in those other fields and we would have to explain it properly to our readers. Progress would be slower, to be sure; but it would actually be made.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ethos is the rhetorical appeal of your character. Your ethos in writing is who the reader "gets to know". Even in the most impersonal paper, the reader gets a sense of the writer, a sense of his or her credibility (which should be taken to mean quite literally "believability"). In Greek, ethos could mean custom, habit, disposition, or character. It is also at the root of "ethics".

Unlike politics, however, scholarship does not make any explicitly moral demands of you. You don't have to be a good parent, spouse, or patriot to be an organization theorist. Your ethos may, however, be affected by your political positioning. While scholarly ethos is not always damaged by the simple fact of stating your political position explicitly, or by inadvertently expressing your implicit position, different fields do have different political "leanings", so sometimes you can get in trouble simply by having inappropriate views.

But in academic writing your main ethos appeal lies in the work you do to esablish and maintain a scholarly persona. (Persona means "mask". You are trying to generate a stable image of yourself as a scholar in the reader's mind.) Booth, Colomb and Williams have pointed out that simple things like getting your references right (so that your reader can find your sources) contribute to your ethos (3rd edition: page 195-6). Naturally, there is also the problem of getting simple facts straight. If you make claims about the world that the reader knows to be false, your ethos will suffer. As it also will if your reader goes back to your souce and discovers that you have plagiarized it.

Don't think to yourself that only a pedant would require you to double check your draft against your sources. Think of it as a point of honour. Your reader often will.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tradition and Performance

It is tempting to think of a journal article as a performance. Like an actor or a musician, we tell ourselves, we take the stage and either fail or succeed. Either way, we will have to do it again the following night with a new audience.

I recently noticed that Karl Weick thinks of his work in these terms. Here's how he puts it in Sensemaking in Organizations.

Among [jazz] musicians, there is the saying "you're only as good as your last date," by which they mean that history and reputation count for less than does the most recent exhibition of your craft. The same can be said of the topic of sensemaking.

Sensemaking, as a focus of inquiry, is only as significant and useful as are its most recent exemplars. (64)

Notice that he is not just talking about the individual scholar here. He is talking about a whole "topic", a "focus of inquiry". This strikes me as obviously wrong. What, after all, counts as a "most recent exemplar" of sensemaking inquiry? The publication of an article does not guarantee that it will be read, nor that it will have an effect on other researchers. Surely the sensemaking topic is as "significant and useful" as, well, its most significant and useful exemplars.

The truth is that you do not stake your whole reputation on your most recent publication. People who found your article from five years ago useful will continue to use it in their work even if you have moved on to, for them, less interesting topics, and even if you have since changed your mind and now disagree with your celebrated paper. In that sense, it is quite possible to be much better than your most recent performance.

When trying to understand a research tradition (a particular approach to a topic or focus of inquiry), history and reputation should count a great deal more than Weick here suggests. You have to go back through the literature and find the lasting "monuments", as Foucault might put it. You don't have to read everything that is happening right now.

Jazz, for obvious reasons, is not merely as useful or significant as its most recent performance. There are masterpieces, which are both scored (i.e., written down) and recorded. They are permanent parts of the tradition. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew do more to determine the validity of more recent jazz performances than recent performances do to determine the validity of jazz as a genre. They also do more to determine the validity of the specific kind of jazz (cool, rock) than any given contemporary exemplar. They are permanent parts of a tradition. A tradition without permanent monuments is neither significant nor useful.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Takes long, goes fast

There appears to be something called post-election blues this year. For a few weeks it seemed like something very, very important was going to happen. Then, suddenly, it happened. And now it is difficult to think of anything to say.

After breaking my knee, during the first week or so of being confined to the couch, I got hooked on first the financial crisis and then the election. I developed an addiction to Talking Points Memo in the last days of the race. Tonight I just read something there that may lead me back to the real world of grammar:

"I don't think they view him as a miracle worker who in two months is going to solve an economic crisis," Mr. Benenson said. "It is a matter of being straightforward with people about what we are going to achieve and how fast it's going to take."

That's the problem, of course. Change has come to Washington, America and the World ... slow change ... and in that order (if at all). But that's not what's bringing me back. Can you spot it? That's right ... you don't say "how fast it's going to take". You say "how long it's going to take" or "how fast it's going to go". Things take long or go fast. They don't take fast or go long (not in the sense needed here).

Things are looking up.

Monday, November 03, 2008


My knee has healed and now it's all about using it, rebuilding its strength. Yes, friends, we have another great opportunity to compare physical exercise to writing processes...

Writing processes are sometimes interrupted for a period of time by extraneous events. Some of these are not interruptions, properly speaking, but planned breaks. Vacations are an example. You may also suddenly be burdened by an increased teaching load. Or you may simply have felt "burnt out" for a time (a common situation immediately after submitting a dissertation or, less commonly, a book.) Whatever the reason for the break, as with physical exercise, "getting back at it" is a specific challenge, and it is not to be taken lightly.

The most important thing is to establish a regular pattern of activity. You have to decide exactly when you will be writing, and you have allow the first few weeks to be less productive than you might wish. (I want to go jogging as soon as possible, I can assure you, but it's not going to happen this week. I will be going for some slow, careful walks first.)

Once you have to decided to write again, start out small. An hour or two every other day should be sufficient. Even half an hour is a start. But make yourself a schedule and stick to it.

Don't set unrealistic goals about content, but do define some themes to write about. Your schedule should tell you not just when to write, but what you will be writing about. (A minimal theme would be "whatever pops into my head", but then you really have to carry this free writing exercise through for that session.)

My doctor says I need to use my knee as much as possible. But I should it let it tell me when I've done enough or too much. Your writing "arm" will also give you feedback about how hard you are driving yourself at the beginning. Don't push yourself too hard at the beginning. It is too likely to make you stop before you have built up the necessary strength to maintain a healthy writing habit.