Tuesday, May 31, 2011

First Approximations

There are about 30 scholars in the CBS Writers' Colony. They have all (with one exception) picked a single text to make progress on throughout the month of June. After between 20 and 80 hours of work, they expect to submit the paper for review sometime in early July (the precise dates vary). Some will be submitting to a journal, some to a conference, some will be handing it off to a co-author, others will be presenting it as a working paper at a seminar. Some will just give to their supervisor to read.

I have explained to them that they are all working on a text that consists of around 40 paragraphs. So, we've got 30 people spending 20 to 80 hours spread over about 30 days, all trying to make, and support, around 40 claims. As their coach and editor, I've got my work cut out for me, then.

So does each of the authors. Suppose you've set aside 40 hours, 2 hours at a time, on 20 separate occasions. What are you going to do in those hours? First, you should write whatever paragraphs you're missing. Start with the introduction and conclusion. That's going to be a about five paragraphs. Great, now how long is your theory section going to be? About 5 paragraphs, say. It'll take you at least half an hour to write each of them. So find out what's missing and write it. Do the same with your methods section. And your results. And so forth.

Make a plan so that the first 20 hours of work get whole paper roughed out. (Starting from scratch it is possible to write 40 paragraphs in 20 hours. But most of the authors in the Colony are not starting from scratch. They've already got a working draft.) And make a plan for how you're going to spend the remaining 20. What parts, do you think, will require the most work? You can revise the plan later, but at least have some sense of how you're going to get finished.

Remember you'll need time at the very end to copy-edit, check references, and make sure the document is prepared properly for wherever you're submitting. Make a plan for that too.

If you can't fit everything you need to do into the plan. Rethink your goals. Or find more time. Don't try to accomplish an on-the-face-of it unrealistic goal.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Colonial Diaries

This is the last day of the Sixteen-Week Challenge, which I issued in January. I had almost forgotten to stop up, and take stock. And to change the rhythm of my work for the summer months. The challenge begins again in mid-August, running until Christmas. That is, I have two periods every year in which I make a concerted effort to protect and make use of those 240 ideal hours of writing time.

This also means the end of my regular blogging routine. This summer I'm going to be jogging three times a week instead, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and I will be writing on my book for an hour Tuesday and Thursday mornings (which is when I've been jogging). For reasons that I'm now going to explain, I'm going to blog very briefly and without much discipline in the evenings.

This year, I'm trying something new for the whole month of June. The HR department at the Copenhagen Business School has enlisted me to do something for all the researchers. We decided to invite them to participate in what we're calling the CBS Writer's Colony: a virtual community of scholars who see the month of June, after the end of exams and before the summer vacation, as a "big block of time" (to use Tara Gray's phrase) in which to "get some writing done".

Big blocks of time are too often squandered because we don't carve them up into smaller blocks of time (like hours and half hours). So we sent out a mail asking everyone who has a piece of writing that they hope to complete before they go on vacation to help us build a sense of community around the problem of writing for the whole month of June. We will bring them together regularly to help them not only improve their writing (and I will even do some editing for them) but to support them in their efforts get something done. I will introduce them to Writing Process Reengineering and, of course, some of Jonathan's "stupid motivational tricks".

We're having a kick-off meeting this afternoon. There will be some of the usual math: four weeks of five working days, with a maximum of four hours of writing each day (and, I will suggest, a minimum of fifteen minutes). That's 80 hours in an ideal world. How ideal will your June be? And what do you hope to accomplish in those 80 hours. It can be useful to work on a paper one paragraph at a time for 30 minutes (including taking a short break between sessions). That's 160 sessions. A standard journal articles consists of 8000 words composed into 200-word paragraphs. About 40 paragraphs. Your problem for the month of June, then, is to figure out how (when, where, what) you are going write those paragraphs.

We will form some smaller groups that will meet once a week so that the writers can report on progress and keep each other focused. We will also facilitate an exchange of papers for brief and efficient commenting. Most of the work (the writing) will, of course, be done alone. But it will be nice, I think, to know that there are some 30 writers at the School who are engaged in the same struggle.

To establish some continuity, I'm going to use this blog to keep a diary of our progress and activities, writing more or less every evening to keep everybody informed of where we are, and where we're going. I hope that might also be interesting to the regular readers of this blog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Scholars Do

Scholars are participants in a conversation. Their job is to make claims and defend them, and to provide occasions for their peers to defend the claims they make. This job description is as general as saying of dancers that they make movements in front of an audience. Or of musicians that they make sounds for others to hear.

In the development of a craft, it is important to see yourself as a maker of something, not a particular kind of being. It is true that becoming a scholar will change you as a person, but it is your activities that will change you, not some act of will, and certainly not some state of mind. I have found, for example, that many students, and even young faculty, need to become much more assertive, much more confident about what they have to say. Some of them think they are following the example of the self-deprecating scholar who always reminds you how little they know, how new this topic is to them, how difficult it is even for them to understand. The students who witness this performance forget that it is an exercise in irony. The pose of the searching, uncertain scholar is grounded in an underlying confidence in one's ability to speak intelligently on a range of subjects (those that define the field). Don't think that if a famous scholar admits to being uncertain then your uncertainty, and your willingness to admit it, is a sure sign that you've got a future in scholarship. Look at what scholars do, not what they say they are, and ask yourself whether you can do it too.

Notice that even someone with no musical training can appreciate, and to some extent evaluate, the ability of a professional musician. I may not be able to select from among a group of aspirants to the Berlin Philharmonic who would be best for the job, but I can hear whether or not an individual is a reasonably accomplished cellist simply from listening to her play. Likewise, I can hear, simply from listening to someone speak, whether or not she is a learned scholar of the subject she is speaking about. The cellist is able to articulate sounds (produce them and join them together) into melodies; the scholar is able to articulate claims into arguments. I can follow the tune or the argument without being able to produce it myself.

The novice musician or scholar, having tried for many years to make what the experts make, is able to also appreciate the difficulty. The aspiration to become a scholar is always tempered by this awareness. One may have some basic intelligence, just as one may have some basic musical ability, but one may have failed to develop this ability, to overcome a particular set of difficulties. The particularity of this development is worth keeping in mind.

Obviously mere "musical ability" is not enough for a cellist. The cellist may be good enough to play in the finest orchestras in the world but only, precisely, as a cellist. Her general musicality will not help her play the same pieces on the piano or the violin at the same level. Likewise, the scholar must recognize that merely being intelligent is not enough. That intelligence must be applied to the formation of a particular set of strenghts, an ease and gracefulness in a particular area of scholarship, an ability to participate confidently in a particular conversation.

The musician naturally develops her talent by practicing. She takes out her instrument and tries to get it to make the sounds she wants. She is rarely satisfied with the immediate "result" (i.e., the actual sounds she produces while practicing), of course, because she is practicing precisely those sounds and phrases that she wants to get better at. But she knows that she is getting better with each attempt. She knows that she is learning how to do something, how to make something.

Scholars are in the same situation. They too often forget this. They should spend more time making claims and supporting them. Even when there is no one around to hear them.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Excommunication

It's one of those mornings. As always, my alarm wakes me a 5:48, which gives me twelve minutes to shake the sleep out of my body, drink two glasses of water, make a cup of coffee, and sit down in front of what Henry Miller called "the machine" to write. As usual, I know what I'm supposed to write about because I have decided on a topic before going to bed. But sometimes, the words just don't come. So I quickly changed my title to "ignorance", thinking I could at least write about that, and then, when nothing came, I thought of that line from part three of Miller's Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch called "Paradise Lost" (also published as a separate novella under the title A Devil in Paradise):

"It was too wonderful a morning to surrender myself to the machine." (354)

If you're up now, at 6:26 on the twenty-third of May, 2011, in Copenhagen, you will know it is indeed a beautiful morning. But that is no excuse not to excercise your prose (if that's what your plan lays out, what your discipline requires.) But what do you do when nothing comes?

Let me admit that I've been feeling a bit sorry for myself these last few weeks. My life has been quite hectic; too many "projects", not enough time to reflect, and not enough time to write seriously about serious things.

There is a great passage in Big Sur, where Miller describes his relationship to his muse:

That voice! It was while writing the Tropic of Capricorn (in the Villa Seurat) that the real shenanigans took place. My life being rather hectic then—I was living on six levels at once—there would come dry spells lasting for weeks some times. They didn't bother me, these lulls, because I had a firm grip on the book and an inner certainty that nothing could scotch it. One day, for no accountable reason, unless it was an overdose of riotous living, the dictation commenced. Overjoyed, and also more wary this time (especially about making notes), I would go straight to the black desk which a friend had made for me, and, plugging in all the wires, together with amplifier and callbox, I would yell: "Je t'écoute ... Vas-y!" (I'm listening ... go to it!)

(An aside: I have always loved that image of Miller sitting in front of typwriter "wired" into some cosmic callbox shouting for his muse to have at it.)

And how it would come! I didn't have to think up so much as a comma or a semicolon; it was all given, straight from the celestial recording room. Weary, I would beg for a break, an intermission, time enough, let's say, to go to the toilet or take a breath of fresh air on the balcony. Nothing doing! I had to take it in one fell swoop or risk the penalty: excommunication. The most that was permitted me was the time it took to swallow an aspirin. The john could wait, "it" seemed to think. So could lunch, dinner, or whatever it was I thought was so necessary or important. (128-9)

There are two things to remember. First, Miller is a novelist and a particularly romantic breed of novelist at that. Second, he is here constructing an image of himself as a writer, which we must always approach with caution. Miller is no role model for us as academic writers. But he is useful to us because he here articulates a romance that I'm sure all academic writers (myself included) sometimes indulge in, namely, the need for "inspiration"—especially, the need to wait for inspiration. And then the need to set aside trivial things like eating and, yes, going to the bathroom, in order to listen to that message from "the celestial recording room". To ignore the inspiration (to merely note it down in that little book we carry with us) would be to risk, we tell ourselves, "excommunication".

It is important to keep in mind that, even among novelists, there are less romantic images of inspiration. The most relevant here is probably Stephen King's. Yes, he grants, you need inspiration (at least at times) to write a novel, but your muse has to know where to find you. You don't go for weeks living (as Miller puts it) "riotously" and call this a "dry spell" of inspiration. Rather, no matter how beautiful the morning is, you sit down, in the same place at the same time every day, in front the machine and actually suffer through it. Have faith that the muse will strike one of these days.

For academic writers, especially, the risk of excommunication does not come from holding the muse at a distance when "the dictation commences" because, in an important sense, there is no dictation. That's not how an academic text gets written. You build them claim for claim, paragraph for paragraph. You risk being excommuicated from the source of your ideas only by breaking your discipline. By not writing though you have planned to write. And even (as I did this morning) by writing about something other than I had planned to write about. It couldn't be helped. It really is a wonderful morning.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Hard Line

One should never take mental illness lightly. But in an age dominated by the "diagnosis", one may be skeptical about people's psychological self-assessments. This goes for their amateur excursions into both normal and abnormal psychology. That is, it goes as much for people who claim to know what what is "wrong" with them as those who, less clinically, claim to know what "type" they are. I have said before that I don't believe there are different kinds of academic writers. In this post I want to talk about why I don't think very highly of mental diagnoses of difficulties in writing. I mean "mental" here in contrast to "moral" and "intellectual".

The theme was suggested to me by an article I read over lunch in a free daily newspaper here in Copenhagen yesterday. It is a first person account of a student's difficulties in "getting help" to deal with her "part-time" depression, which she had posted to the paper's blog. The post is in Danish, but I will summarize her story here.

"Camomilla" is a first-year master's student, and for the past two months she has "not been feeling too well". Like I say, I do not want to take this lightly, but it is important to keep in mind that this is all she tells us about her condition. At the beginning of the story, she does not have a more qualified opinion about how she is feeling. In fact, her story is a complaint about how difficult it is to get others to qualify her low spirits in professional terms.

She begins by approaching student services, but they were very busy and could not give her an appointment until mid-June. So she contacted the student advisor at her own department in person, but she "had barely gotten in the door before the tears began to roll down her cheeks". She now complains (I realize that is my word, not hers) that the advisor "lacked the tools" to help her with her real problem (i.e., the reason she is really "not feeling so good") and that they ended up (uselessly, one may imagine) discussing how she might prepare herself to write her thesis. As for the deeper issues, he suggested student services (which she had already tried) and her doctor.

Her doctor said she "might have a light depression", but that she could not tell for sure on the basis of a 15-minute consultation. She could come back in two weeks to see how things are going, but since there were no signs of "full time" depression, i.e., since the problem did not seem very serious, she could not refer her to a psychologist, at least not in a way that would be covered by health care. If she wanted to talk to a professional, she would have to pay for it. This struck her as absurd and deeply unfair, as does what she describes as the standard advice, namely, taking some time off from one's studies to "find yourself".

The moral of the story, which Camomilla makes quite explicit, is that students with light depressions are being left in the lurch by the educational system and the medical establishment. And this is where I begin to worry.

Education is not an easy or painless process. If you are learning something important, you are going through an emotional, transformative process. You will sometimes feel wonderful because you have finally gotten a point that has been eluding you for months, even years. You will sometimes feel miserable because it is eluding you, and this misery may, indeed, persist for months. Your teachers and counsellors must assume, as a first approximation, that your problems—even those that bring tears to your eyes, or angry words to your lips—are intellectual not psychological (critical not clinical, to play on the title of one of Deleuze's collection of essays). If you feel lost or confused during your studies, the most likely (and most constructive) reason for this is that you are having a hard time understanding the subject matter. So that's where the conversation begins. It is, after all, precisely the set of problems that educators have "the tools" to help you with.

Moreover, before they reach for the tools of clinical psychology (or the limits of their competence to help you), educators are entitled, indeed obligated, to approach you as a fellow human being. If you've been "out of sorts" for a few months, there may be a reason that it does not take a science to understand. You may find the program you are in difficult and have lost your girlfriend. Or someone close to you may have died. Or you may have begun to hang out with radical leftists who have introduced you to marijuana and you are now questioning your Christian faith. That's the sort of stuff that is supposed to happen at a university. It is the sense in which university is a period of both intellectual and moral formation.

Sometimes your moral struggles will take precedence over your intellectual ones and your grades will suffer. Most people for whom this happens end up understanding the necessity of the tradeoff, and some even talk about that semester with pride. It was the time they realized that "there are more important things than school", etc. But it is, of course, possible that there is something truly wrong with your mind. I know people whose problems in school can convincingly be attributed to mental causes, not intellectual or moral difficulty (because they are convincingly intellectually and morally qualified to be in school). My point is just that it will not (cannot, should not) be immediately clear to anyone (from the fact that you are crying or a 15-minute conversation) that your problems are more serious. (Note that if you haven't been able to get out of bed for two weeks, then it is immediately clear.)

The boundary between the "moral" and the "mental" cannot be patrolled by your teachers and counsellors. They can only offer advice at the boundary between the intellectual and the moral dimension of your studies. They can encourage you to work harder to try to understand difficult material. And they can, at the limit, try to get you to see that the program you have enrolled in is not right for you. Indeed, my problem with the shift to clinical explanations is that they avoid the obvious solution to being unhappy in school: find another major, or even another school. Learning is hard, but it should, on the whole, be a satisfying experience. If it doesn't make you happy, don't think there must be something wrong with you.

And if there is something wrong with you don't make it the school's responsibility to deal with it. You may have particular difficulties in your studies because of the way your mind works. Well, get help (outside the program) and if it gives you the tools to succeed that's great. If not, your mind simply may not be suited for the kind of work your studies are trying to prepare you for. There's no shame in that. It's like learning you don't have the hands to be a surgeon or a pianist. Or the eyes to be a pilot. Or the legs to be a football player.

So, yes, take some time off and find yourself. Figure out what you want to do and are able to do happily. Then do it. And when it gets hard, work harder. You may need to conquer some old-school laziness not some newfangled medical condition. That's what I did.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Demotivation

"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 84)

Scott Eric Kaufman has a talent for writing about his encounters with his students. (Or perhaps his talent is simply to attract noteworthy encounters, which then only need to be transcribed. Here's his most famous one.) Last week, the encounter was about the difficulty of abstracting writing skills from writing courses; I guess in a deeper sense it was about the difficulty of teaching students skills that will help them in life rather than merely help them get through the course. (I'm not going to spoil it with a summary. Go read it, then come back.)

This difficulty persists in the acquisition and maintenance of any craft skill. Everything you have learned how to do well, and everything you actually do with some facility (ease) today, you have learned through regular practice. Hard work and dedication. And yet, again and again, when we realize that we are not "good enough" at something we would like to be good at, we look for someone to "make us do" something to improve our abilities. This dependence on the teacher's rules and tricks (and regular kicks in the pants), then, gets in the way of grasping the general lesson. In Scott's story, the fact that the teacher "made" the student revise interferes with the student's grasping the general utility of revision.

Psychology has always baffled me. Students can sometimes be remarkably lucid about their counterproductive ticks and still give the teacher the task of overcoming them. So, for example, one student explained that my repeated insistence on the importance of writing some prose every day just got tiresome and eventually became the reason she was not writing every day. (The class clearly "needed" a weekly reminder, but it didn't help much. Perhaps this was because I was only "suggesting" it to them, not "making" them do it by giving them a weekly assignment.) It is entirely possible that I'm not a very good "motivator", but the weird thing here is that the student knows she is being "demotivated" by something that has nothing to do with the quality of the advice. She knows that she is "resisting", and she still does not overcome it.

I hear this word, "demotivating", too often used by people who really should know better. It's always a way of explaining why someone is not doing something they actually know they should be doing. Someone else (higher up in the hierarchy) has "demotivated" them, by being inattentive, thoughtless, stupid, or even mean. The teacher's indifference, say, "demotivates" the student. The teacher may have made the student feel "stupid", or where did the teacher "get off" implying that the student did not work hard enough? Things like that.

I'm not defending such pedagogy, of course. But I am puzzled by people who recognize (often very accurately) the source of their lack of motivation as someone else's thoughtlessness or simply lack of teaching skills and then still let it "demotivate" them. I like Scott's story because I suspect it locates the problem more precisely.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Articulated Self

In philosophy, there is a long tradition of construing the self as a featureless entity. As Blackwell Reference Online puts it:


The Cartesian self and related versions of the "philosophical ‘I’," [is] classically a separate, simple thinking substance, tracing a subjective path through the world and capable of surviving bodily death.

But there is also a long tradition of rejecting this view. Hume, for example, unable to discover his self by introspection (i.e., "looking inside"), proposed that the self was merely a "bundle of perceptions". (I distinctly remember my philosophy professor getting us to try to find ourselves by introspection in a class one day. As he expected, we failed.) The problem with the "bundle theory", though, is that it's unclear what is finally doing the "bundling". It's a bundle of perceptions, it must have some sort of "twine" (as in inter-twine).

I'm feeling very philosophical this morning, as you can tell. There's a report coming out of the Carnegie Foundation soon, called Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, which a number of us around the department are very interested in. My own approach to the question of "liberal learning" (or a "liberal arts model for business education") is to see it primarily as a process of self-fashioning. I get this from Jonathan Mayhew's reading of Stephen Greenblatt. If business schools adopt a liberal learning model they will need to take an explicit interest in the self-formation of their students as "business people" (administrators, organizers, managers, leaders), and part of this identity will include "scholarly" competence: a facility with words, an ability to read and write, an understanding of language, literature, and culture. But what does it mean to "shape" a self?

My provisional answer is that we are trying to make ourselves and our students more "articulate", which gives a special sense to teaching them how to "express themselves" (a term that generally leaves the wrong impression, if you ask me). What does it mean to be articulate? Well, many years ago in a seminar, a scholar (I forget who) used an image that has stuck with me, that of the British call an "articulated lorry":

"An articulated vehicle is a vehicle which has a permanent or semi-permanent pivoting joint in its construction, allowing the vehicle to turn more sharply. There are many kinds of articulated vehicles, from heavy equipment to buses, trams and . Steam locomotives were sometimes articulated in that the driving wheels could pivot around turns." (Wikipedia)

In making students more articulate, we are trying to put some "joints" or "pivots" into their thinking and to strengthen them. And I've come to realize that this means exercising the joints in their selves. There is a strong "Cartesian" presumption in everyday culture, i.e., people generally think their self is "one and indivisible", that it is simple and, as Blackwell puts it, merely "tracing a subjective path" through life. But this construes the self either as a hard little shiny thing inside us, or as some sort of malleable putty on which a form can be imposed. Something to be put in a box and treasured, or something to be moulded into shape. I prefer a different model.

"The articulation of the human hand is more complex and delicate than that of comparable organs in any other animal. Without this extra articulation, we would not be able to operate a wide variety of tools and devices, nor achieve the wide variety of possible hand gestures." (Wikipedia)

The self isn't like a stone (no matter how precious) dropped into a lake. It is like a high diver jumping off the platform. Because it is jointed it can make the most beautiful movements (gestures) even in the air.

The self is not "bound" together by something. It is articulated. But it is more "complex and delicate" even than the hand. So complex and delicate, indeed, that we ought really call it “subtle” (Ezra Pound talks of the “subtle joints of the craft” of poetry); it is as much "joint" as it is "bone". It must shaped by training, by practice, and it must be “kept in shape”, by exercise. It must not be overworked (wearing down the cartilage) and it must not languish in inactivity. The self, that is, has parts. Working parts. It is to that sense of self that I address myself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Philosophy of Writing

"In every day terms, we understand ourselves and our existence by way of the activities we pursue and the things we take care of." (Martin Heidegger, BP, p. 159).

It's nice to be understood. The other day a PhD student who has been attending my workshops for some time gave me this gift of understanding. She described what I am trying to teach them as a "philosophy of writing" and my philosophy, she said, is that we must love our writing, we must "care for the text". Now, another participant explained to the group that this so-called philosophy of mine (which is also very clearly a moral philosophy) is tied to the contingencies of my own subjectivity, which, in turn, has been produced by a particular disposition of bio-political forces. They are both right.

Your own writing also expresses a "philosophy". And you don't have to adopt mine or anyone else's to write well. (But mine is pretty good.) As a scholar, writing is an important part of "the activities you pursue and the things you take care of", and it is therefore an important part of the way by which you understand your existence. Specifically, your academic writing will be an expression of your philosophy of language and your epistemology (you philosophy of knowledge). Your reader will get an implicit sense of what you think language and knowledge are from the way you write about what you know. Your reader may even (as I have in the case of one prominent organization scholar) try to make this philosophy explicit by carefully attending to what John Van Maanen (1995) has called your "literary performances", your style.

"Le style c'est l'homme même," said Georges-Louis Leclerc (Buffon) back in mid 18th century. "Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste .... The style is the man himself." (This is commonly taken to be the source of the motto "Style makes the man"). I like to say that a perfect style would do away with the need for both "theory" and "method". (Van Maanen has talked about how a style can essentially be a theory, as in the work of Karl Weick. Barbara Czarniawska has rightly tied the question of style to issues of methodology.) Indeed, the "liberal arts", as classically understood, arguably have this as their stylistic ideal. "Social science", we might say, is the attempt to accomplish with theory and method what humanists must accomplish by style.

It is important to keep in mind that your academic style does not have to express your whole existence; it is not an expression of your self entire. It must express only that part of you that cares about knowledge. Or, if that be the case, your academic writing could express the part of you that could care less about knowledge. There are skeptics out there who proudly declare that knowledge is a vain illusion that is fostered by a privileged elite. But they might be said to care about knowledge too, only they care about it as one might care about injustice (it is something to be opposed). And there are academic writers, of course, who are simply charlatans. They pretend to know but they don't really care about knowledge. This, my philosophy says, will show in their writing. The style of your writing tells us how much and how well you care about knowledge (and, obviously, how much you care about language) and what you take that care to imply. It tells us this whether you like it or not. What the reader learns from your style is not part of the "intention" of the text.

This may provoke some anxiety, as it should. It is impossible to understand the complex "bio-political" forces that are trying to make you care about particular things in particular ways, i.e., shape your subjectivity, i.e., make you who you are. We must proceed in a more intuitive and tacit way and we call this procedure the development of a "clarity of mind, soul and taste", in short, moral development, or what is traditionally called Bildung, and what Leclerc identified with your style. You cannot pretend to care about knowledge in a particular way, on this view (which is also largely my view). What you really care about will always be apparent in your style, at least to the careful reader. And whether or not you care about what the careful reader thinks may be the most important thing of all.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Priorities

It is my belief that real happiness comes from developing one's talent. Mere success and pleasure are not enough. You have to feel like you are getting better at something and this skill must be an essential part of you. The difference between a mere skill and a talent has to do precisely with how important it is to your identity.

When I was an undergraduate, I was the founding member of a rock band. I had learned to play violin as a child, and began to play double bass in grade six, with the intention of playing bass in the junior high school stage band. You didn't get into the stage band until grade eight, and the normal thing to do was to play tuba in the concert band, starting in grade 7, if you were going to play bass (same sheet music). So I learned how to be play tuba and then electric bass. I had imagined that I would play upright (acoustic) bass at some point, I think, but as a teenager it was pretty cool to have an "electric guitar" in my room, even if it was a "just a bass".

In high school, however, I didn't join the school band. I decided to focus on electives that would prepare me for business school (I was determined to become a captain of industry, if you can believe it). So it wasn't until I had gotten into university, changed my major from pre-commerce to history, and then to philosophy, that I thought very seriously about music again. In 1991, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" inspired everyone with even just a little bit of a talent to start a band. (I'm not saying Nirvana wasn't a very talented band, but they did make it sound easy!) I was recruited by a self-taught and very talented guitarist to be his bassist. He had written some songs, and for a short while, if I recall, we even had a drummer. Dave's Dog never did play for an audience, but there were times when I thought we were pretty good.

I was also developing my talent for philosophy at that time. And I remember distinctly the moment when I "gave up rock and rock roll" to become a scholar. When I moved to Europe to go to graduate school, I was fully committed (arguably a bit too committed) to my identity as philosopher (as many philosophy students are). At one point, I declined an invitation to play jazz once a week with some guys who did it just as a hobby and needed a bassist. (I didn't have an instrument, for one thing.) But then, not long ago, my wife brought her guitar home from her parents' house. I had learned three or four chords in college, mainly in an attempt to impress girls, and I would now pick up my wife's guitar once in awhile and strum it. For a time, this happened almost daily.

Our children were getting old enough to learn an instrument of their own. We settled on piano, and bought a small electric one (we live in an apartment). My talent here was a little less developed than my guitar playing, but I also soon found myself playing almost daily. I even took some lessons for a while as part of my project of learning how to do things with my hands. (At that time, I also did some drawing.) Today, I play a little piano every night, and I'm improving slowly and pleasantly.

I have clearly been ambivalent about my musical abilities. It is not, I would argue, one of my "talents", precisely because I have not subjected myself to any particular discipline in developing my skills in this area. Entering middle age, I do vaguely regret it. (I'm sure many people in my generation look on their twenties as a wasted opportunity, indeed, a series of wasted opportunities, to get really good at something worthwhile.) But this post is not about the neglected musician in me, it is about priorities. I tell this story as an example of something that I have devoted some time to throughout my life, but which has never been a priority. It has been a pleasant diversion.

But the point is that it really does take up some of my time. And my musical identity is, in fact, getting some love from the rest of me these days. Similarly, I do find time, two or three times a week, to go for a run. And I make sure my children get to their own piano lessons and skating practices, etc. That is, any impartial observer of my life will be able to read my values off what I do. I am the only one who can see everything I do, however, the only one who knows what I devote the balance of my time to.

This brings me to my point. Like any parent, I hope my children can see that they are important to me simply by the regularity of the attention I devote to them, and to ensuring that they get to the places they want to be (sport, music, school, play dates, etc.) They know I also have "work", but there is very distinctly "room for them" in my life. The musician in me also looks at how I spend my days, and he learns from this how important he is to me. He has to accept that he is not very important, of course. I treat him like a good but not very central colleague; I'm friendly with him and I keep my appointments, such as they are.

But the writer in me rightly looks at all these other relationships I have with some measure of jealousy. If I can jog three times a week, I better also keep this appointment to write a blog post three times a week. If I give myself time to develop my amateur "talent" as a pianist, I better well set aside time to develop my ability as a professional writer. Since I am a scholar, my talent for writing should be very central to my identity. And I must therefore devote serious amounts of time to it. I must see it as a core component of my talent for research.

Scholars do not need to be great poets or novelists; they need only be talented writers of academic prose. They don't need to be the best academic writers of their generation, but they need to see it as a core talent. If I didn't think my ability to write well (and to write good academic English, no less) was important, I would be leaving out an important part of my scholarly identity. An important part of me would feel neglected, in precisely the way that I don't feel like I'm neglecting anything very important by not developing my drawing skills or my musical ability. It's a question of priorities.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Evaluating Writing Workshops

Jonathan asks how well my proposed workshop works in practice. The feedback I get is generally positive, but it is always hard to tell exactly how much of an impact I'm having. Most of what I teach people only "works" if you keep at it, if you practice. So the cases where I'm certain I've had a positive impact on someone's writing are also cases where I've had a chance to look at how their work develops over time. And then it is hard to know whether it was the workshop or the continuous feedback that followed that did the trick.

I have heard that some of the places I've visited now have a writing culture that is "lit" or "coloured" by my ideas. People talk about their "writing self", they keep each other writing every day, they are acutely conscious of what a paragraph is, and how an introduction works. Here the workshop becomes a kind of "delivery vehicle" for a way of thinking about writing. We might say that the practice serves as a "medium" to impart a theory of writing. When I meet people from places I've visited, what they tell me about how they write, and especially how people now talk about writing at their departments, warms my heart.

It's important to emphasize that my "ideas" are utterly unoriginal. My "theory" is cobbled together from the most ordinary of writing manuals and "gathered from the air" of a very established tradition of writing instruction. There is not much of a mystery about what you have to do to improve your writing. But there is, let us say, a "mysticism" about it. How well a workshops works in practice depends a great deal on the personality of the workshop leader (me) and his ability to create the right mood. Since I do have to do a bit of moralizing, and since clear writing does actually depend on clear thinking, and since the participants really do have a lot of work to do (there's a lot of room for improvement), I need to find just the right balance of irony and sincerity to get the message across. This goes both for general principles and specific tips.

One thing I've only come appreciate fully recently is how emotional one can be about one's writing. In a workshop, participants are really discovering their own mediocrity; they are exploring it at what Jonathan calls the "granular" level. They are discovering what they are unable to do easily, what they lack the grace and strength to do well. Crucially, these are things that they naturally would like to do well and easily. Things that they invest some pride in. One does not want to make it an unambiguous sign of success, but when participants resist with anger or with tears I know I'm getting at something important. A workshop is not trying to transfer knowledge, it is not trying to fill a open space of ignorance. It is trying to correct a misunderstanding, to move people from wrong ways of doing things to right ways of doing things. One is trying to get them to see the errors of their ways. People are not naturally inclined to have such visions.

There's one very concrete thing I have learned the hard way, especially from doing workshops at other institutions. Avoid whole days. Listening to me talk is, of course, a very pleasant experience. But after three hours, the charm sort of wears off. And I get tired and therefore unconvincing. Since it is the delivery that matters, not so much the ideas, this is an important thing to keep in mind. That's why I'm now trying to fill the first half day of what might otherwise be a full-day workshop with activities for the participants to do by themselves.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Workshop

The essential thing about a workshop is, of course, the work. A workshop is a place to work on your ideas, not play with them, and I usually introduce my writing workshops by explaining the etymology of "debauchery".

F. débaucher is, according to Littré and Hatzfeld, derived from n. bauche, of which the precise sense and origin are according to the latter unknown; according to the former it = ‘a place of work, workshop’, so that desbaucher would mean orig. ‘to draw away from the workshop, from one's work or duty’. (Oxford English Dictionary.)

Today, the word means "a vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures", but it stems from "seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption." The current sense of "debauch" apparently emerged in the seventeenth century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when we began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure. A workshop is not a playground, and it is not a brothel. It is not that there is no pleasure to be had in a workshop, it is just, and very definitely, that it is not "fun", it is not a vicious indulgence in pleasure. It is the deeper pleasure that the craftsman finds in working seriously with materials.

This morning I want to write something about the workshops I offer, especially to those who would like to invite me to visit their own institutions. Here in Copenhagen, I run 8-week workshops that meet once a week for three hours. I expect participants to devote at least one hour a day to their writing outside of our meetings. "Seriousness", to my mind, is established by demanding a commitment to the workshop (a commitment to attend all 8 meetings) and a commitment to the work itself (by demanding that writing be prioritized during the period of attendance). Also, by expecting people to spend more time writing than meeting, I am trying to bring the materiality of writing into focus. The workshop is not an opportunity to talk abstractly or "in principle" about writing, it is a place to assess the concrete results of a practical activity.

So, when I do these workshops out of town, I demand some preparation from the participants and (this is a new thing) I demand that they set aside as much time during my visit for writing as they do for meeting. So, if I'm doing, say, three 3-hour workshop meetings on the afternoons of three consecutive days, I will expect the participants to be writing (doing specific assignments) for three hours each morning. I want them to come to the workshop with a very concrete sense of their writing as a text—a piece of work. If I'm doing only one meeting, I will expect them to write the morning I arrive as well.

As preparation I expect the following. First, they must select a writing project to bring to the workshop and one published piece of "exemplary" scholarship, i.e., a recognized work of quality in the tradition that they are working in. These selections provide us with our materials. Next, they must produce an "after-the-fact" outline of their own writing project, i.e., a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the text. This is ultimately just a list of each paragraph's key sentence. Finally, they must choose one paragraph from the text they are going to be working on and give it a minimum of 30 minutes attention: they must read it out loud, edit it for style and grammar, make it as coherent as they can. They must bring the prose in that paragraph up their highest personal standard. The result of this preparation should be sent to the workshop coordinator and to me one week in advance of my visit. This is the best possible way of focusing the attention of the participants on the craft-dimension of writing and of giving me an insight into the linguistic and academic level that the workshop should be run at.

Suppose, then, that I come for a three-day visit to meet with a group of, say, eight PhD students, who have all prepared in the way I just described and have committed 18 hours over three days to working on their writing (9 alone, 9 with me). This establishes a space of serious pleasure, a place to work. In the morning of the first day, before we meet for the first time, they will be given the assignment of writing (presumably re-writing) their abstract, introduction and conclusion according to my increasingly famous formula. We will then meet for three hours.

In the first hour I talk in general terms about "how to write". The second hour is a master class in which the after-the-fact outlines of two participants are discussed with their authors in front of the rest of the group. The third hour consists of an editing demonstration: I project a submitted paragraph up onto the screen in an active Word window and edit it for 30 or 40 minutes, explaining my actions as a go. I then give them their assignment for the next day.

Their assignment will be to spend 1 hour on the theory section, then 1 hour on their methods section, and then 1 hour getting the two to fit together. They bring an after-the-fact outline and a sample paragraph from this work to class that afternoon. Again, I spend the first (less than an) hour talking about what a good theory section and methods section should accomplish and then master-class one or two outlines. The final hour or so is again spent editing a paragraph and giving them an assignment.

The assignment for the third day will be to write some empirical prose. "Empirical" prose is methodologically qualified and theoretically informed. So the previous day's work will have set up the task for them. They simply write about something that "is the case" in the terms they have articulated. They bring an after-the-fact outline of the three-hours of work to the class and, again, a sample paragraph. We master-class the outline and I edit the paragraph. Then we wrap things up for about twenty minutes.

While there is no need to have everyone in the workshop be at the same level of academic development or the same stage of completion on the selected project, some uniformity here may be a good idea. One way to do this is to have me come twice, doing a "getting started" and "getting finished" version with 8 or 10 weeks of individual work in between. The workshops would proceed in essentially the same way, but with different assumptions about the participant's familiarity with their own texts, and my principles.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Visiting Card

People who hear what I do sometimes ask whether they can get me to come visit their universities. My answer is generally yes, and this morning I want to reflect a little on what sorts of visits I am willing to make. This post will become the beginnings of page like Jonathan's "Fees and Services". Also, I am (as always) trying to set a good example for young researchers. Think a little bit about how to fit your travelling into your life. Many job announcements (I'm thinking mainly outside academia now) make clear how much travelling you can expect to do. They don't want people to apply who don't want to or can't easily travel if that's what the job requires. In academia, meanwhile, you have some freedom to decide how much travelling your job is going to entail. So you may as well think explicitly about it.

First, some logistical questions. I have both professional commitments (a job) and personal commitments (a family) in Copenhagen, so I like to keep my travelling focused and limited to four nights away (preferably less) and twice a month at most. I was recently asked to consider a two-week visit, and my immediate response was "yes, but...", where the "but" was simply that it would have to be four days there, three days back here in Copenhagen, and then another four days there. So when I think about what I can offer, I'm usually thinking about what I can accomplish in a few days.

Next, money issues. Here I have to distinguish between the primary nature of my visits. If I'm being invited somewhere, I will expect to have my travel and accomodation paid by the host university. If I am being invited only to come and discuss my research (at a seminar, for example), I will not of course expect any fee, but if I'm coming to do a writing workshop for PhD students or faculty I will normally expect a daily rate. Most universities have standard rates for external teachers, and I'm settling on around 500 Euros as a reasonable fee (but there are all kinds of considerations, so just ask).

Here then are some things I'm likely to accept invitations to do.

1. Research seminar. I sometimes get invited simply to talk about my research. I have a pretty focused research agenda, and I'm always eager to discuss my projects.

2. Academic writing seminar/lecture. I have a packaged presentation that can run from 1 to 3 hours and can run, depending on the size of the audience, either as a seminar or a lecture. It is a combination of a "how to" talk and "motivational" seminar. I try to give people a fresh perspective on academic writing, some basic principles of composition, and some time-management tools. All along, I'm trying to get them excited about the particular challenges of writing for an academic audience.

3. Writing workshops. This is something I do mainly for PhD students (and sometimes junior faculty). The workshops run from 1 to 3 days, 3 hours per day. Depending on the city, it is usually possible to fly in on the morning of day 1, do an afternoon workshop on the first day, then another in the morning on the next day, and get me home that same night. That sometimes makes it easier for me to fit into my schedule, but the ideal situation is to meet only in the afternoons, and have the participants work on their writing in the morning. For these workshops, all participants are expected to contribute their own writing projects and we cover issues of organizing a paper, writing an introduction and conclusion, thinking of your audience ("research as a conversation"), principles of composition (especially the importance of paragraphs), and time management (the importance of discipline). The workshops proceed as discussion about the work the participants are doing, with some elements of the "master class" format: a participant is briefly "coached" through an issue in their paper as an illustration for the others. There are "basic" and "advanced" versions of this workshop.

4. Longer-term visiting positions. Here in Copenhagen I run my workshops on a weekly basis, in 8-week series. I am not averse to building such a workshop into a longer stay at another university, but this will of course require a lot of planning and, in all likelihood, some way of bringing my family or letting me return to Copenhagen often. We can talk.

Okay. Those are my thoughts on visiting your institution. Drop me a line at tb dot lpf at cbs dot dk if you're interested.