Thursday, February 25, 2010

Submitting Work

I normally say you should submit work for publication six times a year. The number is a a bit arbitrary and may even seem unrealistic. But if you allow conference submissions, resubmissions, and submissions of work rejected from one journal to another journal, it starts to seem possible for most people.

At the beginning of the year you finally submit the paper you were working on last year to your target journal. Three months later, you are told to make major revisions and resubmit; four months after that you've finished the revisions and submitted it again. That's two submissions.

At the same time, you've started two new papers and submitted them to the summer conferences. Four.

Now, that first paper we talked about may be accepted with minor revisions. Next year, you'll have to submit it again. And this means we can imagine that around the time you submitted it, you got that kind of review back on another paper. You make those revisions. Five.

Finally, one of those summer conferences may have gone really well. You got some really useful feedback on your presentation and were able to sit down and work the paper into shape for journal submission in under two months. So by November you're submitting it for publication. Six.

The other conference paper can wait till next year.

Last year, I finished a paper and began to submit it to journals for publication. It was rejected from six different journals before it was finally accepted (with minor revisions). The final version was submitted early this year. That paper alone meets my quota of six submissions for last year. In fact, it exceeds it: after being rejected six times it took another two submissions to get it accepted.

If I were a department head or research director, I would not worry too much (although a little) about how much my researchers were actually publishing. I would want to make sure they were submitting work often.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Framing an Argument 2

In my last post, I proposed the following thesis statement to organize a paper around:

T: The relationship between leaders and followers is often managed by the strategic use of boundary objects.

The next step is to decide why exactly a paper needs to be written to support this thesis. Who would have a hard time with this claim? What would the difficulty be? My three candidate difficulties are not intended to be exhaustive, but they do capture the most common rhetorical challenges of academic writing. Will the reader find it hard to believe, hard to endorse, or hard to understand?

If the reader will find it hard to understand it will be because it introduces notions (often drawn from another discipline) that are unfamiliar in the discipline for which you are writing. In this case, the concept of "boundary objects" may be unfamiliar to the scholars working on leadership. The most likely reason for this, in turn, will be that actor-network theory is not often used by these scholars to understand their material. (I don't know how true that is, but let's assume it is for a moment.) You can then write three quick sentences to mark the background conditions under which a statement about the strategic use of boundary objects will be hard to understand:

1. There have been few attempts in the literature to use actor-network theory to understand the relationship between leaders and followers.
2. The role of boundary objects, specifically, has not been studied at all.
3. These objects are normally taken to condition epistemic relationships, like those between knowers and non-knowers, not ethical ones, like those between leaders and followers.

Here we make it clear that leadership scholars may be forgiven for not immediately understanding the thesis. Even if they know what "boundary objects" are, they will be surprised to find the concept applied in their context. This sets up the rhetorical problem for the paper quite nicely.

But what if the problem was not one of understanding but one of belief? In such a case, the reader will be presumed to understand the claim and to hold certain additional beliefs that make it difficult to assimilate. Sentence 3 above may actually also be part of the background for this construal of the claim:

1a. Boundary objects are normally taken to condition epistemic relationships, like those between knowers and non-knowers, not ethical ones, like those between leaders and followers.
2a. Indeed, previous studies have shown that boundary objects rarely have an affect on power relations in organizations but are, rather, contingent on them.
3a. Moreover, even in epistemic situations, boundary objects appear to play a mainly tactical, not strategic, role.

It is not difficult to see how the claim that boundary objects play a strategic role in leadership processes might be hard to believe on this background. But it is also clear that if the reader and writer share this background, and the writer knows T (on the basis of a thorough field study, for example), then there is good reason to write the paper. The same is true in the case of the first background I constructed. The claim (T) is the same, but the rhetorical problem differs. We have here framed two different arguments around the same thesis.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Framing an Argument

A number of readers have written to tell me that they found my "10 steps to an argument" useful. Some have also sent me their first attempts, which make interesting reading. One such attempt has reminded me of the importance of articulating a strong, clear thesis statement here. Sometimes people write papers to show things like the following:

T: Actor-network theory (specifically the notion of boundary objects) can helpfully augment recent theoretical discussions about the relationship between leaders and followers.

The writer then defines the paper's rhetorical problem as getting the reader to "understand" this thesis on a background that can be characterized as follows:

(1) Few leadership theorists rely on the arguments of actor-network theory.
(2) While boundary objects have been mentioned in the leadership literature, it is normally only in passing and in caricature.
(3) Despite its empiricism, actor-network theory is often lumped in with anti-realist social constructivism.

Notice that all of these sentences are about the literature, not about anything in the world. But why do we need a paper to argue that the leadership literature "can helpfully [be] augment[ed]" by actor-network theory. Be helpful! Augment it! Here's one way:

T: The relationship between leaders and followers is often managed by the strategic use of boundary objects.

It is at this point that you have to ask to yourself what the reader is supposed to do with that statement (believe it, endorse it, or understand it) and then capture the difficulty, i.e., the difficulty of getting the reader to do it, by expressing three key background assumptions that the reader is likely to set T against. More later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How to Build a Scholar (part 2)

[Read Part 1 here.]

"The king's goldsmith once learned to work in flesh"
Leonard Cohen

Research into artificial intelligence (AI) often assumes that it is possible to make an intelligent physical object. (John Pollock calls this "agent materialism".) The basis of this assumption, of course, is that you and I are intelligent physical objects.

But the question of whether an intelligent object (a thinking machine) can be made of something very different than you and I, i.e., something other than flesh and bone, is often not raised at all. It is simply assumed that our intelligence is essentially a "computational" process, which can be simulated by the sort of "processor" we already have in our computers. The problem of "building a person" is the problem of designing a computer program.

Why am I interested in this subject? I promote something I call "writing process reengineering", which is essentially, if with no small amount of irony, scientific management applied to the organization of scholarly labour. I tell people to write every day, at fixed times (like 9 to 12 or 9 to 10) and to sit in front of their computers even if they don't "feel like" they have something to say. I tell them not to wait for inspiration but just to get to work when their writing schedule tells them to write.

Most people understand that I am just offering advice for them to use in their own attempts to build their writing discipline. But some people, at least sometimes, think I am trying to make rules for them. They think I think there is a right and wrong way to work, regardless of whether or not it yields results.

But I always say that a writing a process is something you must work out for yourself. You have to find out what works best for you. And that's the insight in Jonathan's comment to my last post: "We talk about shaping, molding our students, of a scholarly formation. Or Greenblatt's 'self-fashioning.' The human, then, is seen as raw material, the scholar or student or self is fashioned or sculpted out of this material." The important thing to keep in mind is that this "human material", flesh and bone, is not infinitely malleable. You can't make any kind of person out of any kind of body. You probably can't make a scholar out of just anybody.

[Update: Indeed, the point here that you can only ever make a scholar yourself—you can only make a scholar out of your self.]

Ultimately, the problem of "how to build a person" is the problem of how to "fashion a self". There is no such thing as a generic person. In trying to become a scholar, then, you are not just moving parts of yourself around according to "computational" rules. Building a scholar is always a matter of building your discipline. A scholar cannot be built by another scholar, just as a computer scientist cannot build a person. That's because "building a person" cannot happen by any other process than the self-discipline of the flesh.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How to Build a Scholar (part 1)

To keep in touch with my roots in analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science I regularly read It's Only a Theory and Certain Doubts. Last night, the CFP for the third annual Formal Epistemology Festival made me curious (in part, probably, because it is being held in Toronto). This year, the festival is dedicated to the memory of John Pollock, whom I haven't spent a lot of time on, but who has had an important influence on how philosophy is done (in some corners) since the 1970s.

In 1989 he published a book with the wonderfully provocative title How to Build a Person, which he followed up with Cognitive Carpentry in 1995. He's using language that's close to my heart to develop ideas that lie far from it. In this post I want to explain what I mean.

Part of my objection is certainly a predictable reaction to his titles, and that's no doubt intentional on Pollock's part. (Though there is apparently some question about whether he was deadpanning or wholly serious.) Creating people is not, I would hope, a craft skill that can be developed like making furniture. It's something we want to leave to impersonal forces like evolution or, if we prefer, personal but omnipotent beings like God. While people may be "physical objects", as Pollock argues, they are not simply arrangements of physical matter. And it is at this point that my objections pass from the gut to the head.

The rhetorical effect of a title like How to Build a Person comes from its combination of sublime and quotidian elements. It reminds us of books called things like How to Build a Table or, my favourite in the genre, Oliver Senior's How to Draw Hands. But its subject is more often dealt with by books with titles like What is man? Or in evolutionary terms: The Origin of Man.

The strangeness of the title can perhaps be seen more clearly through intermediary cases. Suppose a botanist wrote a book called How to Build a Tree. On the other end of the of the scale, an astronomer might write a book called How to Build a Galaxy. In different ways, neither object, though perfectly "physical" is the sort of thing we "build", but presenting its structure as a "design problem" is certainly a way of approaching the task of writing a book about it.

But there are limits to the analogy. Building something requires not just formal knowledge but craft skill. You have to know not just what a table looks like, and not just what its parts look like, and not just how its part "go together". You have to know how to put them together. Moreover, you have to have some sensitivity to what the parts must be made of. You have to be able to select the right pieces of wood for the project. Both your practical skills and sensitivity for materials develop through years of training, and in the end, as any master craftsman (always a kind of zen master) will tell you, you no longer impose your will on the materials but, rather, let the will of the materials be expressed through you.

A table is not just something you make. It's largely the realization of a form that you find in nature. No book can tell you how to do that. You become good at it by trying (and failing) again and again. The contents of an "instruction book" are only the tip of the iceberg, and the author assumes that you will try the instructions provided in it and that you will honestly assess the results. Simply following the instructions in a book called How to Build a Table will not bring about good results (if any) the first time around. The book must be taken as guide to a series of exercises that, if practiced regularly, will lead to mastery of the art. Most of the "knowledge" that goes into making a table comes from experience.

And this is why Pollock's project must (I think) fail. Even if it were possible to "build a person", the knowledge required to do so would be tacit and unconscious. In the end, a table "grows" out of the ground in a process that begins in the seed (indeed, that begins in the tree that the seed came from and so on ad infinitum). I'm being as intentionally (and, I hope, wittily) "mystical" as Pollock was when he pretended that rationality is merely a "design problem". In the end, any instruction book, whether about drawing hands or making tables or writing articles or thinking rationally could be called How to Build a World*. Craftsmanship is the presence of the sublime in the ordinary.

___________
* "The essential thing in a poet is that he builds us his world," said Ezra Pound.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Language on Vacation

"Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."
Ludwig Wittgenstein (PI§38)

One way of promoting your blog is to participate in discussions on other blogs. Not suprisingly, this has given rise to so-called "comment spam", which are usually automatically generated comments whose only purpose is to link to another website. "Braydon" left such a comment on my last post, and normally I would just delete it. Out of curiosity, however, I clicked through to his "splog" (via his user account, not the link in his comment) and found a delicious piece of irony: a poorly written post about language learning.

At first pass, it looks like a piece of grammatically correct writing. In fact, if you paste it into a Word document, the grammar checker only underlines one sentence and one word. But if you try to actually make sense of it, you get the strange sense that it has been written by a machine. More distressingly, it suffers from some typically "academic" defects of style. Consider the first paragraph:

People utilize the concept of vacation as a necessary tool to help them breakaway from the daily demands of family and work so that they can recuperate their mental capacities. The idea of vacation has expanded tremendously as technology brings the world closer together and individuals desire the experience and knowledge attained from visiting another country. One of the major factors in the development of any culture is found in their language.

All of these sentences are subtly wrong in ways that suggest that the writer wasn't really paying attention to what he was saying. (I put "Braydon" in quotation marks because I don't think he's a real person, and certainly not being "himself"; if the "writer" turns out to be a machine, that wouldn't surprise me.) Like I say, it also resembles bad academic writing in a number of important ways.

While the text is really just about vacation as such, it talks about the concept of vacation, as if that somehow makes the subject more important or "smart". But people don't use the concept of vacation to break with the daily grind, they actually go on one. Likewise, it is not the idea of vacation that has expanded, it is the actual range of places that people go. It is true that this paragraph could have been about how people use their thoughts of vacation to get through the working day, but it clearly isn't. It's about actually going places where you will need a second language.

Like bad academic writing, it also uses big words like "utilize" and "recuperate" without quite knowing what some of them mean. (One recuperates from something, like an illness or injury.) And it hasn't considered the appropriateness of the qualification "necessary". Vacation is a good way to break away (two words!) from a daily grind, but it is not the only way (if you want a break, a vacation is not necessary, but certainly advisable). Finally, look at the last sentence. The idea it's trying to express is that language is an important aspect of culture, but it ends up saying that one factor is found in the language. Clearly, (traces of) a great many cultural factors can be "found in" the language, so if you're going to talk about only one of them you'll have to name it. (The "writer" of course thinks he's already naming it: the language.)

Virtually every sentence in the post suffers from this pseudo-academic turgidity: "enhancing the abilities of your vacation" (vacations have abilities?), "citizens are more open to your tourist advancements" (which comes off rather creepy, if you ask me), "maximize the potential of your vacationing experience" (meaning simply that you will get the most out of your vacation).

Then there's the opposite of the first defect I pointed out. Here the idea or thought of something is left out and replaced with the thing that needs to be thought about:

Many travelers make the mistake that the only second language acquisition they require is learning how to ask simple questions regarding location, directions, or medical assistance.

They make the mistake of thinking this, not of it actually being the case.

One soon catches on, of course. This text has not been written to be read by someone who is interested in the subject, but in order to deploy a number of "search terms" so that Google will identify the blog as one that is about the same thing as the website it links to, "second language acquisition" in this case. (This becomes really obvious when it talks about "learners of second language acquisition": one learns or acquires a language; one does not learn the acquisition.) Here, too, it resembles bad academic writing. Such writing is not trying to communicate any specific idea to the reader. It is just trying to use a specific list of words in grammatically correct combinations.

It is in this use of language—when it "goes on holiday", as Wittgenstein puts it—that the meaning of perfectly good words is eroded. Like tourism, such writing doesn't really convey an experience, just the pretense of an experience. I tend to agree that this is the source of all our philosophical problems.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Materials and Craft Skills

When I hold academic writing workshops I always ask for three things from participants. First, I want a work-in-progress that is intended for journal publication. Second, I want a one-page (double-space, 14-point, Times New Roman) excerpt from that paper, which I expect them to have edited closely for style and language (to bring it up to their highest personal standard). Third, I want one or two references to "exemplary" work in their field, i.e., work written by established researchers that is "like" the work the participants want to produce in some significant sense.

I was recently asked whether this doesn't rule out participation from people in the early stages of their PhD research. These people, after all, will not have written very much and may not have a clear sense of who the major figures in their field are.

I always try to push back against that view, because I think it empathizes too much with a misconception among PhD students (and even some young researchers). No one is asking them to get published before attending, just to write as-if-trying to get published. A workshop can't build their confidence about writing if we keep letting them say "it's too early to start writing like I mean it". Getting participants to do some writing in preparation for the workshop, not only helps me to understand my audience (and therefore to make the workshop more relevant to the particular needs of the participants), I find that people who have recently selected, proof-read, thought about, and worried (constructively) about a piece of their own writing are much more receptive to the things I tell them. Getting them to select "materials" is the best way I know of establishing the practical "craft" spirit that characterizes a workshop.

So what do you do if you haven't yet thought seriously about writing for publication but would like to attend one of my workshops? Well, spend a couple of hours a day for a couple of weeks making an honest attempt to write 5000 words for publication. Here's a way of getting started:

1. Articulate an empirical claim in one simple declarative sentence.
2. Articulate a theoretical claim that is somehow implied by the empirical one in another simple declarative sentence.
3. Identify a body of scholarship that is interested in the theoretical claim. You can write a couple sentences about this area of the literature at whatever level of generality your knowledge allows. Try to name specific authors.
4. Within that body of scholarship, identify an acceptable methodology to license the empirical claim. This will likely resemble the method you are thinking of using for your own project: will you be reading documents, conducting interviews, doing surveys, or making on-site observations?
5. Identify the general area of human concern (usually some corner of managerial reality) which makes 1-4 important. Write a couple of sentences about "the time in which we live" that anticipates the much more specific claims you have just made.
6. Identify two or three journals that publish stuff along the lines of 1-5.

OK. Now write about 1000 words elaborating each of 1-5 with the journals (see 6) in mind. That ought to give you everything you need to fill out the following outline:

Introduction
Background
Theory
Method
Results
Conclusion

Then work through it for style and language submit that for participation in the workshop. Piece of cake, right?

My workshops are an occasion to show writers what they are already capable of, and what skills they need to develop. If they are not interested in demonstrating their current ability to write for publication, their minds are not yet ready for the workshop. They are not ready to consider who their public is.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Keep Your Writing Back

My attempts to learn how to draw hands are bearing fruit. Here's an early attempt (from around Christmas):



And here are a few more recent drawings:




One important thing I've noticed is that my feelings about the drawing change over time. Normally, the picture gets better simply by putting it away for awhile. Also, whether or not it felt easy says very little about how successful the drawing is. Even a painfully mechanical session can produce a perfectly good hand, though, like I say, this is often something I can only recognize a few hours later. The following drawing, for example, was quite difficult to produce:



Needless to say, I learned a great deal from making it.

Oliver Senior, whose book, How to Draw Hands, I'm reading to support my efforts, says it is important to "keep your drawing back". By this he means that if you are drawing a human figure, you should not draw any particular part of it first, and especially last, but gradually bring out the whole image. Never commit yourself to a shoulder, or nose, or knee, before you are sure it's in the right place relative to every other part of the figure. I've discovered this to be true also in the case of drawing a hand by itself. The place you put a joint or a knuckle at first may not be the place it belongs in the end.

In the case of writing, the same thing is true. "Composition" is the process of putting all the parts of your text together in a harmonious way. You throw out a few lines in the introduction, then you trace the rough outline of your theory, then you say some basic things about your method, then your results, etc. You never "stick" the results or the method on at the end. (Just as you never stick the head or hands on a drawing at the end.) Each part works or does not work in relation to the other parts of the text.

I can't find the book right now, but Senior says something about the better drawing never being the one that's the most elaborate, but the one that's "better informed". I'll find the passage and post an update later today.