Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Great Paragraph

But (as the author of Discours sur les ombres said in reference to another lamplight): I know (je connais) a few (quelqes) readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair.

Vladimir Nabokov
(preface to Invitation to a Beheading)


We are getting the New Yorker again. I have recommended the magazine for its prose before, and the other night, while reading Nancy Franklin's review of the new HBO miniseries "The Pacific", I was literally struck by an especially well-crafted paragraph. It made me sit up and ruffle my hair and call out to my wife (who teaches rhetoric and composition), "You gotta see this!"

There are nighttime battle scenes that last as long as ten minutes in “The Pacific”—an attempt to give viewers some sense of the unrelenting, terrifying reality of it all. This artistic decision echoes the one that Spielberg made in showing us almost half an hour of the Normandy invasion at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.” But authenticity in a war movie doesn’t depend exclusively on the accumulation of gory detail; it also requires emotional and psychological realism. Here, when Basilone dies, the camera pulls up from the splayed body in an aerial shot, as if the angels were lifting him up to Heaven, while generically elegiac orchestral music plays, and then cuts to a shot of his widow with a sunset in the background, as the music comes to a sweetly sad resolution. The scene is a lie about death. (The New Yorker, March 15, 2010, p. 70)

This morning, I want to try to understand what makes this such a great piece of prose. First, let's summarize what this paragraph is saying about the television show that is being reviewed: "The Pacific" lacks authenticity. A slightly more detailed summary would add that it lacks "emotional and psychological realism". The brilliant thing about this paragraph is how it gets that message across.

It begins with two sentences that establish "authenticity" as a relevant criterion for judging the show. Notice that it does this by showing, not telling; the word "authenticity" is not used in those two opening sentences. But by describing an aspect of the show in question and recalling a similarity to a movie made by one of its producers (and starred in by the other), the third sentence's "But authenticity..." makes perfect sense. It is so natural to start talking about authenticity at this point that we don't even notice that the concept is only now being introduced. And it is nicely introduced in a sentence that explains how the concept works and what its application depends on. We are now ready to watch a scene from the movie that violates the principle that has been articulated.

This happens in a single sentence that provides what is really the substance of the paragraph. Let's take a moment to appreciate that sentence in isolation:

Here, when Basilone dies, the camera pulls up from the splayed body in an aerial shot, as if the angels were lifting him up to Heaven, while generically elegiac orchestral music plays, and then cuts to a shot of his widow with a sunset in the background, as the music comes to a sweetly sad resolution.

The first four words efficiently tell us what sort of scene it is. (It is what Ezra Pound would call "the simplest possible statement" of "we turn now to a scene in which one of the characters in the show dies".) The sentence then evokes first a visual and then a musical image, and then repeats this sequence a second time. An inconspicuous comma separates each image. The images do all the work themselves simply by juxtaposition. There is no explicit judgment in this sentence, no subjective evaluation of whether it is a good or a bad scene. It is presented as entirely objective description—and let's assume that it does not distort the scene in question. Still, "generically orchestral" and "sweetly sad", as well as the utter conventionality of the two images, suggests a tone of mild condescension, a note of sarcasm.

All the elements are now in place. The paragraph has articulated an aesthetic principle and has committed the object of analysis to it (the principle has been shown to be relevant). It has described a scene that can be evaluated on its terms (which, again, is convincingly the show's own terms.) And in that description, most readers will already have understood that the scene fails to achieve "emotional and psychological realism". All that is left is to close the paragraph—to realize the potential that this arrangement of sentences represents.

Franklin chooses to express terse indignation. The show does not just fail to be "realistic": it lies. It does not just lie: it lies about death. It takes real ability to express this kind of indignation in writing. The paragraph brings together the wholly serious ideas of "authenticity in a war movie", "emotional and psychological realism", and "a lie about death". Like I say, in my opinion, it brings them together brilliantly.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Undergraduate Composition

I've been approached by several people about teaching writing to undergraduates. Here are some of my reflections on the importance of instruction in academic composition. I'm sure that much more can be done, especially here in Denmark, to foster better prose at the early stages of academic development.

Technological progress has not changed the fact that academic work is a textual activity. Scholarship is still largely a matter of reading and writing. These activities, however, are embedded in an ongoing conversation and it is safe to say that research and teaching in an academic environment is fundamentally about listening to what others have to say and then finding something to say in turn. Learning an academic discipline, we might say, is all about becoming conversant in a particular of area of human knowledge, much as one hopes to become conversant when learning a second language.

This insight was the basis of Paula McMillen and Eric Hill’s (2005) collaborative effort to teach “research as a conversation” at the University of Oregon. McMillen, a librarian, and Hill, a composition instructor, were spurred to work together by a confluence of interests:

In composition, there has been a longstanding observation that students are having problems evaluating and incorporating sources for their research or, in most cases, are simply not using the library at all. The libraries' goal was to find a strategic place to begin building a foundation of information literacy skills. (McMillen and Hill 2005)

By working together, they were able to complement each other’s efforts. Writing assignments with a specific focus on library research gave students a clear incentive to make use of the library’s resources and learn how to use them effectively. Those resources, in turn, gave the composition teacher a way to help students develop their sense of the academic conversation they were trying to enter.

A few years ago, a research librarian and I began to do this sort of thing at the doctoral level. We work together to introduce PhD students to the challenges of intertextual writing (i.e., writing that relates to other written works). In addition to McMillen and Hill, we are inspired by—or, rather, motivated by—Anne-Wil Harzing’s study (2002) of the diffusion of “the myth of high expatriate failure rates”. Harzing exposes serious referencing errors in her area and wonders whether they are “undermining our scholarship and credibility”. She notes her “sheer amazement and indignation that serious academics seemed to get away with something that students at all levels are warned not to do” (2002: 127). In our course for PhD students, we followed Harzing in presenting twelve referencing guidelines along with examples of how they have been violated in practice. We then instructed the participants in the use of the library's resources and good writing practices to avoid making similar mistakes.

Like I say, I've been asked to think about how to help undergraduate students write better. One of these requests has actually come from the library, so I'm very encouraged about what is going on. Here, again, the idea is to introduce students to the basics of intertextual scholarship: how to find good sources on which to build your own thinking, and how to write effectively and credibly about them. I think it is very important to teach students that academic writing is not expressive; it is not about "getting something out" and onto the page. Rather, it always about something and addressed to someone. That's why it's so important to use the library to frame your writing.

As textbooks, I imagine we will use The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, and Williams 2008) and Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I say (2007). Perhaps also Anne Huff's Writing for Scholarly Publication (SAGE, 1999).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Order and Repetition

Write every day. Read every day. Talk to colleagues regularly. Talk to students. Teach often. When you are not teaching, spend some time every other day thinking about how you might teach what you know. Think about how to keep the conversation going.

Notice that I am not suggesting you do anything "all the time". I am suggesting you return to each of the many aspects of your scholarship on a regular basis, one at a time. We could also add various administrative tasks, and that combination of research and administration activities that puts a funding application together. Never spend weeks and weeks, day in day out, on any one thing. That includes teaching. And it certainly includes writing. Even if you have "nothing else to do" for two weeks, don't imagine that you will do nothing but write. Reserve half of each day for other things. Some suggestions:

Write every day. Read every day. Talk to colleagues regularly. Talk to students. Teach often. When you are not teaching, spend some time every other day thinking about how you might teach what you know. Think about how to keep the conversation going.

Order emerges from repetition, not merely being repetitive. Your attention passes from one thing to another in a regular cycle. Scholars have better conditions than most people to control the speed and intensity with which they cycle through the tasks that must occupy their attention. And their attention, we must keep in mind, is the thing about them that is valuable. Scholars must pay attention to their object of specialization; they must pay attention to their peers; they must pay attention to their students. They are paid for their attention. It is important to build stable, orderly routines around them.

Write every day. Read every day. Talk to colleagues regularly. Talk to students. Teach often. When you are not teaching, spend some time every other day thinking about how you might teach what you know. Think about how to keep the conversation going.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Facts

Last year, I wrote a post about the role of facts in academic writing. My point back then was that facts are perfectly legitimate things to invoke in your writing, various "postmodern" trends to the contrary. Here's how I concluded:

Facts are things we talk about in particular ways at particular times to particular ends. It is not silly or presumptuous to propose to have such conversations. So, in developing the style of your factual writing, think about the conversation you are implicitly proposing to have with your readers. Don't imagine that they will believe every word you say just because you have chosen to speak in declarative sentences. And, as a reader of such sentences, don't just refuse to believe them, as if that's all the writer wants you to do. Hold up your end.

It is true that a declarative sentence has a certain "power". After all, it asserts that one thing or another is true. But because academic writing is done with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) intention of having a conversation there is no need to feel threatened by deconstruction or social constructivism. Unlike the facts presented or implied in a nineteenth-century novel, the facts you are trying to get your reader to understand are intended to be exposed to criticism. The genre, that is, has many of the values of deconstruction built right in. The power to assert a fact is granted alongside the power to critique that assertion. There is a certain balance.

Indeed, I would argue that academia presumes social constructivism about the facts of discourse. Truth is a negotiated area of stability in the discourse, not a simple relation between a statement and "how it is" (or isn't) in the world. Deconstruction can be usefully applied to more general forms of writing because it reveals how we think (or how we once thought). It does so by bringing suppressed contradictions to the surface of the text. But in academia there are not supposed to be any suppressed contradictions. Any statement of fact implies the possibility of its falsehood; all statements are open to criticism.

It would be correct to point out that there are important limits to debate in the academic literature, however. That's why discourse analysis, especially when applied to the history of ideas, often yields useful insights. But discourse analysis studies the relations between texts, not the contradictions within them. Writers of individual academic articles do not have to fear that they will be "deconstructed". They only have to be open to being corrected on matters of fact.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Academia 2.0

Academic discourse does not happen only in books and journals. There have always been less formal, less stable sites of discourse that test and develop arguments that either have been or will be published in the more established forums. Today, of course, the web offers many opportunities to discuss results and propose new lines of research, and in this post I want to survey some of places I frequent.

First, there are the general organization theory blogs: orgtheory.net and Organizations and Markets. These are great way to see what sorts of issues are occupying researchers today. Both are group blogs, which is to say that they have several contributors, each of whom has his or her own particular focus and style. I read orgtheory more or less daily, and check O&M two or three times a month.

Lately, I've also been following two more focused blogs: Bob Sutton's Work Matters and Quinn, Quinn and Worline's LIFT blog. I found these blogs simply by googling things I was working on. It was good to discover that academic authors that I am interested in are creating opportunities to discuss their ideas online. I am sure that this is good not just for us, their readers, but for the quality and vitality of their own thinking.

Finally, I have been following some philosophy blogs. It Is Only Theory is about general philosophy of science, which is the field I got my early training in. Certain Doubts is devoted to "matters epistemic", i.e., topics in analytic epistemology, which was what I thought I would be doing when I grew up back when I was undergrad. It's a good way of touching base with my foundations—to see what's shakin' and what remains solid.

When following blogs, there is both the passive component of reading the posts, and the more active component of participating in the discussion in the comments.

Blogs are not the only way to participate in academic discourse beyond the journals. The journals themselves are starting to create spaces in which the work published in journals can be discussed. The Journal of Management Studies, for example, recently opened its "correspondence site", which will be interesting to see develop in the future. In combination with journal alerts (where you get your a database or journal publisher to send you an email when something that interests you is published), this will no doubt be an important part of how the institution of "peer review" evolves towards greater openness. Many journals are today thinking about putting the whole process openly online and allowing online comments even on first submissions. There will no doubt be a lot of discussion about that in the years to come.

Lastly, I think we might consider engagement with people who are interested in our areas of expertise by editing the relevant articles on Wikipedia. Articles like "Sensemaking" and "Organizational studies", for example, are interesting for me to follow changes in. My own experience with this new site of knowledge dissemination is somewhat mixed and I have decided not to contribute for the time being. The culture of discussion left much to be desired, in my opinion. But I don't want to dismiss the possibility that Wikipedia will be an important clearing house for research in the future. It's certainly a place we have to keep an eye on.

I'm sure there are both Facebook groups and Twitter feeds that might be of interest. I'm not hip to that scene, though, so I'll just leave that to others. Everyone has to find their own way to keep their finger on the pulse of their field. Spend an hour or so each day for a week or two trying to find interesting places on the internet that are updated regularly. Then go back to them on a regular basis and see which ones retain your interest. It will settle down to a manageable amount of reading and commenting.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Blanking Out

Sometimes you do sit down in front of the machine and find yourself with nothing much on your mind. This can happen even if you went to bed with a clear and specific idea for a blog post (like writing a response to another blog post). You know what are you going to write about, and you know roughly what you want to say, but once you open up the document (or, in this case, the editing window) only fragments and half-sentences come out. You have done your morning exercises. You have made a cup of coffee. But the writing session is now coming to an end (I blog in the mornings from 6:00 am to 7:00 am) and there's nothing there on the page. So what do you do? Well, one thing you might do is is spend the last ten minutes of your writing session reflecting about the session itself. Articulate the experience of not having anything to say. Tomorrow you make another attempt.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mentoring vs. Coaching

The Centre for Development of Human Resources and Quality Management in Denmark is holding a conference to present the results of a PhD coaching project. The project, which involved PhD students from three universities, appears to have been a success. Specifically, they discovered that:

  • The participants got a lot out of the coaching.

  • The coaching did not get in the way of traditional academic supervision

  • Individual coaching works better than workshops.
  • My experience confirms these conclusions. But the theme of the conference appears to be captured in the question, "Do you necessarily have to go through a lot of suffering to get a PhD?" That question, and the fact that the coaching was found "not to disturb" academic supervision, got me thinking about what I do. In fact, it got me reconsidering.

    First, I do believe that "suffering" is an important part of research (in Danish, as Kierkegaard pointed out, suffering rhymes with science). Second, I've long noticed that "coaching" is often an inappropriate metaphor because outside of actual sports the "coach" is often not a master of the craft she coaches; rather she has a generalized ability to motivate others and help them get organized. (This, by the way, does not always mean she has an ability to get herself organized or get anything done herself.) Like me, she may not know very much about the area of scholarship that the PhD student is working in.

    Ideally, however, coaching should interfere with supervision. But this can only happen constructively if the supervisor and the coach are the same person. (I try very hard not to interfere with the relationship between the PhD student and the supervisor.) The role of supervision should include the task of inculcating sustainable work habits. Though many of the "tips" that people like Jonathan and I suggest have a kind of general applicability, we are bound to present them precisely in those very general terms.

    I'm only just beginning to think this through. (Though the question has been on my mind since I started this job.) Maybe the division of labour in doctoral training between coaching and supervising is not such a good thing in the long run. Maybe we need to go back to the integration of these two functions that is presumed in the master-apprentice relationship. Mentoring may ultimately be a better model than coaching.