Monday, June 29, 2009

The Rulz of Publication

"Get a thick skin. Every academic has piles and piles of rejection letters."
Fabio Rojas

I've written about the importance of submiting work to journals before. Today, Fabio lays down the rules for graduate students who might be thinking about putting off writing that journal article until they have finished their dissertation. Don't do it; start submitting work to top journals as soon as you can. Always think about your results in terms of their suitability for publication in the journals that define your field.

The best way to do that is to make the rejection letters from top journals a part of your formative experience as a PhD student. "Get a thick skin," is exactly right. But don't develop calluses—don't get callous. You want your skin to be thick enough to take criticism, but not so hard that you can't feel it. If you go into your first submission too hopeful that they will recognize your genius immmediately, then you will suffer too deeply when they reject you. Expect them not to "get it" on the first try. And expect also that you may not yet know enough to make your results interesting to your future peers. Let them tell you why they don't want to publish your work in its current form. Then try again.

And again, and again. The exchange of words between you and your field's journals is one of the ongoing conversations you should be having while you learn your craft. Once you get used to it, it can be a very enjoyable, very constructive experience to hear what your editors and reviewers think. When you meet them at conferences you will usually find that they were much more sympathetic to your work than you thought when you read their "rejection". They really did mean that you should continue to think of their journal as an outlet for your work.

Monday, June 22, 2009


"The teacher or lecturer is a danger. He very seldom recognizes his nature or his position. The lecturer is a man who must talk for an hour." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p. 83).

I've recently had a number of interesting conversations about teaching and instruction more generally. Next week, I'll be talking to a group of faculty members and PhD students about the quasi-literary business of writing ethnographic descriptions, and how we might be able to teach it. I had been resisting this idea until I met a lot of very interesting ethnographers (of various kinds) at a conference recently. Coincidentally, I bought the New Yorker in the Vienna airport and there was an article on creative writing instruction in American universities.

The basic question is, "Can we teach it?" In my case, can we teach writing? I have to admit that I go back and forth on it. The instructor can certainly provide an occasion for writers to develop their skills. I can also, of course, point out mistakes and suggest various all-purpose constructions. But can I really teach people how to write well? When compared to what the student/writer can accomplish simply by practicing, i.e., by sitting down at the machine and really struggling with the problem of writing down what she thinks, I think my contribution is rather minimal. But I can of course encourage them to practice.

This is something I disagree with some of our older faculty members about, I think. Most of them have seen their classroom time with students, and the relative weight of the courses or modules they teach, decline over the past, say, ten years. New subjects and new pedagogies are transforming both the form and content of the lectures. The students and the study boards are demanding changes and cutting back on hours. So you get teachers saying that it is impossible to teach a particular topic in the 2 or 4 hours they now have, though it had been, apparently, perfectly possible to teach it in 3 or 6 hours. They see classroom confontation as a substantial part of the learning experience, and every minute is sacred.

Whenever I hear this argument, I think of Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading—his attempt at a textbook for the teaching of literature. In what he calls "a private word to teachers and professors" (11), he makes a number of very sharp observations. "France," he says, "may possibly have acquired the intellectual leadership of Europe when their academic period was cut down to forty minutes" (83). If you really know your stuff, he argues, you don't need to tell your students very much. You can communicate your ideas in a few words, drawing their attention to examples they can examine for themselves. (In Pound's case, this means indicating examplary poems to read.) Some knowledge is available only to those students who are willing to actually look into the matter. To study the subject. Those who simply want to be told, are not going to learn anything from the extra 20 minutes or even whole hour you spend talking. And those who do intend to look will be mainly bored with your attempts to explain further.

"No teacher ever failed from ignorance," says Pound (84). That is an important point. The knowledge asymmetry in the classroom is very easily established. The teacher does not need to know everything in order to know more than his students when the class starts. The teacher who is afraid to know less than his brightest students about a particular subject at year's end should find another line of work.

Teachers fail because they cannot 'handle the class'.
Real education must be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

The metaphor I've been using is that of making a stew. Too often, teachers see the lectures as the source of the meat and potatoes and vegetables. The "substance". But a lecture is really just an occasion to salt and pepper and spice the material they have themselves but into the pot through their reading and discussions outside the classroom. To forget this is tantamount to thinking of teaching as the art of pouring knowledge into the heads of students. This is, of course, impossible.

It is also undesirable. The aim of Pound's critique of (some) teachers was "to make even their lot and life more exhilarating and to save even them from unnecessary boredom in the class-room" (11). His teaching philosophy is admirably simple:

If the teacher is slow of wit, he may well be terrified by students whose minds move more quickly than his own, but he would be better advised to use the lively pupil for scout work, to exploit the quicker eye or subtler ear as look-out or listening post.


There is no man who knows so much about, let us say, a passage between line 100 to 200 of the sixth book of the Odyssey that he can't learn something by re-reading it WITH his student, not merely TO his students. (85)

At bottom, I think the difference of temperament reduces to the difference between those who judge their success by teaching evaluations and those who judge it by student examinations. There are teachers who want to be respected by the students. They want the students to come away from the class with the sense that their teacher knows something. And there are teachers who don't care very much what their students think of them but are very concerned about whether they have learned something. These teachers read term papers and exams with interest, because it tells them something about the general state of knowledge in their area.

These are also the teachers who intend themselves to learn something every time they enter the classroom. They will win the respect of their students without trying.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Our Circular Ruins

"He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality."

Jorge Luis Borges
"The Circular Ruins"

Thomas Presskorn asks how I propose to avoid circularity when I suggest that researchers can teach their students what they cannot teach their objects*. If practitioners cannot be made to "know" the new theory, how can the theorist be said to "know" the new practice? On the face it, that seems like a reasonable question, but a few moments of reflection will break us out of the conundrum.

First, the student learns a theory, or set of theories, of a practice, or set of practices, in school. The student does not learn the practice itself. The student cannot expect to enter the world of business (if the student be in a business school) upon graduation "fully formed", ready to do what needs to be done, and do it properly. The student is armed (if the school be a good school) with a "realistic" understanding of what goes on in the world (the "real" world) but by no means with a practical, working knowledge of how to get things done. This knowledge will come, well, yes, with practice. There is no other way.

The researcher, meanwhile, comes to the practice as an observer (and a participant only to the end of getting "closer" to the practice to be observed) with a headful of theory. He is mindful of the expectations his peers have of the practice. His peers are teaching those expectations to their students, i.e., his students' future colleagues and competitors. (This is where Steve's "creative destruction" gets it exactly right.) He looks at the practice with a great deal "on his mind", but nothing in his hands to encumber him. He has a theoretical perspective but not much practical advantage.

What the researcher "knows" cannot be passed on to a busy executive who has a great many other things to worry about. This is not because the researcher is smarter or the theory is too hard. When the executive was a student she was perfectly capable of grasping the subtleties and nuances of the books she read. The executive is simply not in a "theoretical" situation. The researcher should leave her alone, for if the executive pays too much attention to the researcher, she will bring her firm to wreck and ruin.

But the academy, too, will be in ruins if the researcher chases too eagerly after the attention of executives, whom the researcher will never really impress anyway. Let the researcher capture the minds of students for a few years and then release them. Let the universities conserve what we already know about social practice, not make up practices that no one, least of all academics themselves, has any desire to live with. Research and teaching produce, in the body of the student, a subject of enunciation, a point of practical agency, that will, subsequently, be "imposed on reality", or, less totally, let loose upon it. The researcher's pride is to see his students on graduation day knowing that they are full of ideas that have been tested in theory but not, in an important sense, tried in practice. He has his mind open, ready to register the results of their imposition. He pulls his canoe up upon the muddy shore to dream.

*Another way of putting this question: "How can scholars teach their subjects when they cannot teach their objects?" A pun, yes, but quite nice.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Academic Intelligence

The most important question we need to ask ourselves about the universities is: are they good places to know something? My introduction to this angle on epistemological questions came with my reading of Steve Fuller's work in social epistemology. He's now blogging on the related question of how to make the universities "safe for intellectual life". There is something provocative about that problem, isn't there? Are you more or less likely to encounter "intelligence" on a university campus than elsewhere in society. We'll be following along with interest.

Writing Process Reengineering

Writing is a core research activity. At the start of next semester, I will once again be holding a seminar to present my programme for developing the discipline necessary to become a productive writer. Though it is possible to develop this discipline as an individual, I normally encourage participants to set up groups that meet on a regular basis to share experiences and monitor progress. I've been gaining a lot experience in guiding firm but fair conversations about how and why people write, and do not write.

My seminar is not an introduction to the ins and outs of academic publication. Instead, we will focus on the day-to-day problem of protecting one’s writing process, both in space and time, from disruptions that arise from other, equally (but not more) important aspects of academic life. Academics must find time to do many things in the course of a given week, and one of these must be writing if they are to succeed.

My suggestion is to plan two or three specific writing projects (e.g., applications, papers, chapters, or popular essays) with a good sense of how they are to develop over a 17-week period, i.e., roughly an academic semester. And I present a simple template for thinking about your available resources and desired outcomes.

Like the imposition of any structured process on an inchoate ambition to produce something, much of the benefit comes from a kind of “Hawthorne effect”. The mere act of paying attention to your writing process in an attempt to improve it is likely itself to increase your productivity. But the most important reason to structure your writing process explicitly is that provides a better platform for learning what writing is. It offers insight into how long it takes you to write particular kinds of texts and will let you see how long it takes you to make a particular kind of progress on a particular dimension of writing (e.g., abstracting, outlining, drafting, editing, or proofreading).

As with business processes in organizations, reengineering your writing process is a way to develop a realistic image of yourself as a writer. The sooner you see this image, the happier you will be in academic life.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mondays, High and Low

Advanced were the High Thursdays, awfully advanced for the Lows. I would ponder some of his conclusions for many a year. If Montague's method of discourse on such days threw the more inexperienced of us over such high hurdles as the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism, he could on any Low Thursday return us the threading of a rusty nut to a dirt-grimed bolt. Indeed, the first day of the first Low had us working for two hours to construct a scenario on the basis of a torn receipt, a bent key, a stub of pencil, a book of matches, and a dried flower pressed into a cheap unmarked envelope.

Norman Mailer
(Harlot's Ghost, p. 411)

Next semester, Monday afternoons will be devoted to the craft of research. Each Monday afternoon will be divided into three one-hour sessions.

In the first, from 13.00 to 14.00, I will meet with a group of researchers under the rubric of my Writing Process Reengineering regimen, also known as the Sixteen Week Challenge (and code-named Palinurus). We will focus on the day-to-day problem of protecting one’s writing process, both in space and time, from disruptions that arise from other, equally—but not more—important aspects of academic life. We will also discuss motivational strategies, break-in tactics, and what Paul Silvia calls "specious" reasons for not writing, i.e., bad excuses. In the last hour, from 15.00 to 16.00, I will do the same thing with a group of PhD students.

This is something I have been doing for a while, except that the meetings have been back-to-back, one after the other. The new thing will be that hour in between, which is where I hope to bring the two groups together. This is will be an opportunity for faculty members to share their experiences, tricks of the trade, and philosophies of academic life with their future peers. It will be an explicit opportunity for apprenticeship.

Each week, we will have a theme that will (hopefully) entice the researchers in the first group to stay around for another hour and the PhD students in the second group to come an hour early. The theme may be something that I can talk about myself (like writing good English or good scholarship practices), or it might require me to invite a guest. The important thing is that the discussion be neither theoretical nor methodological, and certainly not meta-theoretical. Rather, it will be "inframethodological", it will address the everyday practices "beneath the method" that secures the quality of your research results.

I am looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Piano Lessons

I've decided to take piano lessons. I can play, sort of, but I'm self-taught and don't know enough theory to do anything very interesting. (I can't read sheet music for example.) I have the same problem with the guitar. While I can sometimes "make beautiful music", my improvisations always fall back upon the same patterns. So I've decided to let someone else show me what these instruments can do.

Music lessons may offer a model for developing your academic writing skills. If you have someone who will look at your work for, say, half an hour, once a week, then you have a good basis for improving yourself. (I have been doing something like that with some of our PhD students this semester.) In order to get something out of it, of course, it is not enough just to show up for your weekly lesson; you have to support the weekly lesson with daily practice. You do not, properly speaking, "learn" anything during the lesson. It is simply an opportunity for the teacher to correct you: to point out mistakes and suggest exercises.

The program that I'm going to try on this model will go as follows. Each week the student will work on a particular passage of prose (from his or her own project), devoting one half hour a day to practicing a partilar kind of writing (often a particular kind of sentence). The student will essentially be concentrating on an aspect of their writing for a week, a half hour at a time, every day.

I will then meet with the student, also for half an hour, and comment on the result. For the purpose of this exercise, the student will probably have produced (very slowly, very carefully) not much more than one or two pages. As always, we will run the experiment over 16 weeks, from mid-August to mid-December.

I'll report back about it went, and also how it's going on the piano.