Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are YOU Adrift?

Arum and Roksa showed that, by and large, undergraduates only get smarter if they are enrolled in programs that require them to do a significant amount of reading and writing. Now, the older we get the less justified we are in blaming our schools for our failure to learn. Indeed, when I talk to undergraduates, telling them about Arum and Roksa's study, I always emphasize that this is not another opportunity to blame your program or your teachers for your learning problems. On the contrary, since reading and writing are individual activities that anyone can do on their own, and since there is no real mystery (unless you insist on mystifying things) about what you could read and what you could write, it is within everyone's power to stop "drifting" and start "sailing" at any time.

This, then, also goes for PhD students and early-career researchers who no longer have a "writing requirement" as such. There is an increasing pressure to publish, to be sure, but there is no teacher or program that specifically requires you to write. Apart from not satisfying the demand to publish, the problem with not writing is that you are subject to same effects on your intelligence as undergraduates. My fear (though it is not actually borne out by Arum and Roksa's study) is that, in an academic setting, which insulates you from the need to engage in other intricate practical tasks as well (like those carried out by carpenters and dentists), not writing not only fails to improve your intelligence: it actually makes you dumber. You are letting your mind degenerate.

Remember that scholarship goes on in a sea of prose. You can take that prose in passively, by reading book reviews and newspapers, watching the news, going to lectures (and watching them on YouTube). Or you can keep your keel and rudder and screw squarely in the water. It will keep you in control of the ship and this will maintain your sense of direction. No one may be asking you stay at the helm and steer. The ocean itself is your imperative.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Are PhD Students "Academically Adrift"?

After reading Arum and Roksa's book, I define "academically adrift" as the condition of being enrolled in a school that does not require that you read and, especially, write on a regular basis. Last week, I started thinking about whether PhD students can be said to work under those conditions. Programs vary, of course, but I think it is safe to say that many of them (especially in Europe) involve a great deal of independent study. Also, few PhD programs set a hard and fast deadline for the submission of the thesis at the end. The funding runs out, but the program does not thereby end. This means that it is often only after it is too late that problems in the writing process become conspicuous. Finally, supervisors, who are themselves busy people, rarely actually supervise the work in the sense of providing a surveillance function. If the student wants to defer a deadline or cancel a meeting, that's normally allowed without question.

This means that the typical PhD program is a great place to develop bad work habits. But it is also a place where all sorts of non-curricular activities impinge on the core activity of researching and writing the thesis. PhD students are embarked on an important leg of their careers as scholars, and they are acutely aware of the need to network, which often means participating in a wide variety of "social" activities that do not directly contribute to their project. In some periods, moreover, they are are also likely to feel the pressure to teach more strongly than the pressure to learn. All of these factors resemble, albeit at a "higher level", the conditions that keep undergraduates from learning anything of lasting value in school, i.e., that keeps them "adrift".

What Arum and Roksa showed is that being adrift in this way wastes the opportunity to become smarter. It is only students who read and write regularly who improve their capacities for analytical reasoning and critical thinking. They are keeping their brains in shape by swimming in a sea of knowledge rather than just floating on its surface.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Silence, Exile, and Cunning

Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning. (James Joyce)

As always, let me urge some caution when interpreting the pronouncements of literary types about their art. First of all, as an academic writer your aim should not be to "express yourself" nor to do so "as freely and as wholly as you can". Secondly, in serving the modern university, you are very likely to be serving something in which, at least partially, you don't quite believe. That is, you will be subject to a great deal of ambiguity that Joyce was pretending to keep himself aloof from. (A good example of something similar in the world of academia is Wittgenstein, who was also able to decide for himself what he would and would not do, even when he was at Cambridge. But there is good reason to think that he was armed with more than just silence, exile and cunning. He was also very rich.) Still, I bring this up because there must be some part of us, often precisely the part of us that has the task of writing, that must experience "the loneliness which is the truth about things". We write in order to communicate a truth to others that they don't yet know. And so our knowledge of that truth is a lonely one as we write. Fortunately, as scholars, we are very much first and foremost (Heidegger's "proximally and for the most part") embedded in a community of shared knowledge. This makes the work easier. It means that we must withdraw into our exile for only a few hours each day.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Exiles

Jonathan has joined a writing group started by Tanya. He meets with four other writers in a café twice a week to "do [their] solitary writing in company". It reminded me that, many years ago, I read a biography of Guillaume Apollinaire, in which he was described as meeting with a partner every day to sit at desks facing each other to write. I don't know how many other writers have worked this way, but it obviously works for some people. It is important, however, to remember that writing remains a solitary activity. If you're having trouble sitting down to do the work, I normally don't recommend solutions as drastic as meeting up with other people to keep each other motivated.

Then again, for what must be a couple of years now, I've been meeting with a running partner, for similar reasons. The social commitment makes it (or at least made it at the time) a bit more likely that I would actually get the run in. The trick here was that neither of us was allowed to cancel if we couldn't make it. We'd just not show up. The other would thereby have gotten "fooled" into running. I've heard of other jogging partnerships that fall apart precisely because one calls up the other the night before to say they're not feeling well, or will be away on a business trip, and the morning jog is thereby essentially cancelled. So, if you're going to have a writing group, I say, make sure that you show up regardless of whether anyone else does.

Yesterday, I started thinking seriously about organizing a retreat for writers, or possibly just an internal exile (a short version of the "Writers' Colony" I did last year.) I'm generally resistant to this idea too because it gives the false impression that writing is supposed to get done in a short period of intense work. But my retreat would involve three hours of writing every day and three hours of discussion. So it would really just enforce "ideal conditions". And the social dimension would certainly help some people maintain their discipline.

James Joyce famously advised "the artist as a young man" to cultivate "silence, exile and cunning". More on this later.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mens sana...

I'm trying to unpack Juvenal's slogan "mens sana in corpore sano". "A healthy mind in a healthy body," some translate it. Apparently, however, it really means "a sound mind in a healthy [or sound] body." That suits me fine because it allows me to avoid talk of "mental health". But what is a "sound mind"?

If good health (a sound body) is about being "in shape" to carry out the work that gives you pleasure, I want to argue, then a sound mind is likewise one that let's you experience pleasure in your work. We don't have to distinguish between physical and intellectual labour in this regard. Any craftsman needs to be of both sound mind and sound body in order to enjoy the work he or she does. There is an aesthetic dimension to the careful manipulation of materials, their composition into a particular arrangement, to a particular end.

"Beauty is aptness to purpose," Ezra Pound reminds us. To produce an object, whether a piece of music, a painting, a table, or a text that is beautiful is a pleasurable experience. Or, at least, it ought to be. Even the most romantically suffering artist, I like to think, suspends that suffering in the actual creative moment. I.e., when the work is going well, when the artist feels that object is becoming increasingly apt to its purpose, this is a pleasurable experience.

Writers, especially academic writers, sometimes lack this soundness of mind. Their texts are written in painful confusion rather than pleasurable illumination. They loathe the work of writing because it gives them pain. They struggle, sometimes, with the language (even, sometimes, when it is their first language), and sometimes with the ideas they are trying to express. They are like untrained bodies climbing a flight of stairs. They quickly run out of breath.

How do you keep your mind sound? A healthy and varied diet: read different kinds of text, and read in moderation. And chew your food: read carefully, with comprehension. Exercise: write every day, in moderation. (Don't wear yourself out.) And write in a calm and orderly way: one paragraph at a time, 30 minutes at a time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

...in corpore sano

"It is more than the simple athleticism of the mens sana in corpore sano. The conception of the body as perfect instrument of the increasing intelligence pervades." (Ezra Pound)

What is a healthy body? We often associate health with a certain kind of look, promoted by health magazines, television and movies. A healthy body "looks good". It has a certain leanness; it is slim and muscular. It is also clean and (often) relatively hairless (at least neatly trimmed). It has a fresh smile. Or a serious, determined look on its face. Its eyes are clear, bright.

In a more substantial sense, being in good health simply means not suffering from any diseases and, more generally, a healthy body is a resilient body—one that doesn't get sick. We can add to this that a healthy body has strength and endurance. It is capable of effort. It also has a certain way of carrying itself. It is comfortable within its skin.

Health is, fortunately, still associated with moderation, balance, the middle way. Body builders are not "pictures of health". They are artists, working at the extreme limits of what their bodies can accomplish. Even professional athletes, like cyclists and football players, are not what we immediately think of when we think of healthy people. They are successful, to be sure, but we understand that they are sacrificing their bodies to the cause.

Like wealth, health is about knowing when you've got enough. The healthy body has the strength it needs to do the work that needs to get done. If you live on the fifth floor and can take the stairs easily, two steps at a time, you're demonstrating health. If you can get out of bed in the morning without grumbling (too much), you're demonstrating health. If you can stay awake, concentrate, and make intricate movements as needed you're in good, practical health. You've got good posture. You move gracefully. Etc.

The capacity for work has become an almost legal definition of health. The body is healthy so long as it can contribute to the gross national product. An unhealthy body, accordingly, is more difficult to insure. It is more likely to get hurt and sick.

I want to add a more subjective but very important aspect of health. It is a capacity for experience of a particular kind, namely, a capacity for pleasure. A healthy body is able to enjoy life.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sleep, Rest and Repetition

The key to keeping in shape, whether mentally or physically, is to maintain a regular pattern of work and rest. Too much work, too often, wears you down. Too much rest, too often, drains your strength.

Sleeping is a normal, nightly way of getting some rest, and if you feel as though you're not performing at your best in your work, you may want to look at your pattern of sleep. Spend a few days prioritizing sleep, which means getting to bed at a suitable time, i.e., mindful of when you're getting up. For me, this actually means getting up at a suitable hour and then avoiding any extended napping during the day (which makes it hard to fall asleep when I need to). Given a good alarm clock, it is easier to control when you are awake than when you fall asleep.

By a similar token, if your periods of inactivity and activity are too long (say three eight- or ten-hour days working on a project followed by a week of vaguely worrying about it, you can begin to discipline the process at both ends. On the working days, stop earlier (you should be cutting this down to three or, at most, four hours a day). On the non-working days, force yourself to work on the project, no matter how ineffectually, for thirty minutes (it's much easier to begin work on a project knowing that you'll stop half an hour later).

You should not rest only when you sleep.

I don't know whether there's a non-arbitrary reason for the length of the week. But the idea of having a day of rest every seven days, in any case, is firmly entrenched in our culture (and pretty much all cultures). It is worth observing. Knowing that you will rest a little every day and that you will spend a whole day largely resting and enjoying the company of your friends and family is a good way to keep your workday focused. The whole idea is to have regular routine that you can count on: know when you will be doing what. Let your mind and body count on when it will be exerting itself and when it will be recovering.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Socratic Position

"Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion—but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates." (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

Socrates considered himself a "midwife". The god, he tells Theaetetus, did not grant him the power to conceive ideas of his own, but he could help others give birth to theirs. Also, once delivered, he could help his client determine whether what had been expressed was a true brain child or a mere "wind egg". Socrates, that is, did not possess any knowledge himself. Instead, he possessed the ability to distinguish between the known and the unknown.

I like to think that this is what I do too. The difference is that Socrates practiced his art in conversation, whereas I practice it in writing. I help scholars get their ideas written down on paper, where they can be examined. I then help them edit their texts so that they become the clearest possible statement of their views.

But Socrates' approach is often distinguished from that of the Sophists, who also helped their clients express their ideas. The Sophists were spin doctors, helping people express themselves more persuasively. More concretely, Kierkegaard reminds us that Aristotle defined "sophistry as the art of making money" (PF, p. 6). That is, part of the Socratic position is not to charge the client for the service. This is something I've been able to do for the past five years by having a permanent position within an academic department. I made a salary, but I didn't charge my authors individually for services rendered. So while I did help people become more persuasive, I could say that was not thereby practicing "the art of making money".

The challenge of constructing a socratic position now lies in making sure that my economic relationship is with the institutions that hire scholars, i.e., universities. My work with the individual authors must remain that of a barren midwife helping deliver the ideas of others into the world ... for free.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Half-hour Literature

In the preface to his Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard announces that the book is "merely a pamphlet". It's his way of simulating Socratic ignorance ("I know that I know nothing") in writing. He says he is not offering a contribution to "the scientific-scholarly endeavor", and that we should please not ask him what his opinion is. Holding an opinion, he says, is counter to his training in "danc[ing] lightly in the service of thought". He thereby renounces "the concordance of joys that go with holding an opinion" (I think we can safely read some irony into that statement). This passage, in particular, struck me when I read it last night:

It is merely a pamphlet and will not become anything more, even if I ... continue it with seventeen others. It has as little chance of becoming anything more as a writer of half-hour pieces has of writing anything else even if he writes folios.

"Half-hour pieces". Blogposts? Another translation talks about "half-hour literature"; the Danish has "halvtimeslæsning", i.e., "half-hour reading", which suggests that it's the time it takes to read the piece, not write it, that is in question. In any case, I've decided to cut down my blogging sessions to 30 minutes. In a sense, I've become too effective at writing one-hour pieces of prose. They come off too composed, too "opinionated" if you will, and certainly too long. I'm going to use my blogging as a training in "dancing lightly" instead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Métier

I'm in transition these days. I've decided to leave my position as "resident writing consultant" and go into business for myself, working with writing processes and publication strategies at a number of different European universities. My focus remains on the efficiency and integrity of the individual writing process, which is to say on "the work" itself. But I'm increasingly interested in how research institutions can support that work actively. Too much knowledge remains "in the heads" of scholars, or remains there unnecessarily long.

So I'm once again thinking very seriously about my "métier". What is it that I do? What's my trade? My aim is to help scholars get their ideas "out" in the best possible journal in the shortest possible time. "To put forward" is a root meaning of "to edit", and in that sense, I suppose, my trade is that of an editor. But I'm also seriously concerned about the factors that actually hold their ideas back. These factors are sometimes found in the lives of individual scholars, and sometimes in the scholarly environment in which they work. Overcoming them sometimes requires something more akin to a coach, and sometimes a management consultant.

At a more abstract level, I remain an epistemologist. A philosopher. I am interested in what Kant called "the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects" or, more colloquially, in what makes knowledge of the world possible. Knowledge is an inexorably social affair. Many of the conditions that enable and inhibit knowing are found in the social environment of research. And many of these are "conversational" in the sense that knowing is always the ability to participate in a conversation. My task, as a philosopher, is simply to make scholars more conversant. This is arguably what Socrates was also doing.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Formal Occasions

Jonathan and Andrew recommend against "signposting" in your writing. This recommendation is in line with their cultivation of the "classic" style, as presented in Thomas & Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth (2011). I haven't read the book, but Princeton University Press tells us that

In classic style, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader and writer are intellectual equals, and the occasion is informal.

My approach to academic writing endorses all but the last of these; that is, I think academic writers should present truths to peers, but I don't think formalities are entirely out of place. This may well be because I work mainly with writers in the social sciences. The style of writing in the humanities is probably less formal, more classic.

Among the formal constraints of social science writing are the need to present your theory and your method. And the need to state a clear thesis and draw some theoretical or practical implications from it. Another is the need to summarize the argument, first, briefly in an abstract, second, in the introduction and, third, in the conclusion. (These three summaries are directed at subtly different "audiences"—an issue I will speak to in a later post.) The constraints are formal in the sense that they are imposed independent of considerations of content. The reader expects to find a theory section, a methods section, etc. The reader has certain expectations of what the the introduction and conclusion will tell us.

This allows the (experienced) reader of social science to read a paper very selectively and therefore survey its contents very quickly. The classic style, by contrast, presumes that the reader will read the text from start to finish. This presumption, I want to emphasize, is very good for your style. If you write a section on the presumption that most readers (or just bored ones) will simply skip over it, you're liable to lower your standards while editing it too. What I suggest therefore is writing a paper that has a certain kind of surface structure (including signposting, e.g., "In this paper, I show that...", "This section will shift our attention to...", "I will now draw out a number of implications...") but that would make sense without that structure. The best of both worlds, in a sense.

In my heart, I agree with Andrew and Jonathan. Whenever you have to talk about your argument, the "paper-ness of the paper" as Andrew put it, you are taking some of the intensity out of the presentation. But that's also what formalities are for. In business and legal writing, as in social life quite generally, various institutions guide us through what would otherwise be complex intellectual and emotional situations in a few simple moves, recognized by all as well-intentioned, if often not very interesting, attempts to satisfy a range of interested parties. It is sometimes said that we resort to formal rules in order to "avoid misunderstandings". Sadly, but I think unavoidably, we also resort to them in order to avoid understanding each other too well. More constructively, we might say that they spare our readers the trouble of having to understand everything we think we know in order to engage with some of it. The formal constraints of academic writing allow us to share our thoughts with each other without having to share all of them. They let us examine each other's ideas one at a time, as Ezra Pound hoped we could.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The First Three Paragraphs

It is difficult to overstate the importance of a good introduction. If your reader does not have a good sense of your argument by the end of the third paragraph (before reading the 600th word), there is something seriously wrong with your paper. Or, perhaps more tellingly, if you are unable to outline your argument straightforwardly and clearly in three paragraphs, you will be unable to write a good paper. When I talk about what a scholarly article is, I always use the opportunity to sketch "the ideal introduction". It consists of exactly three paragraphs and no more than six-hundred words.

The first paragraph tells us about the world we are living in. This should obviously be the world that your paper helps us to better understand. It's the world that needs to be understood in precisely the way you understand it. But in this paragraph we (your readers) don't want this understanding, we just want a recognizable description of the world we share with you. Talk to us like we only need to be reminded that this is where we live. It should be familiar to us and based on widely available sources. While you should avoid the letter of a statement like "We live in a world of ..." or "Ours is an age of ...", this is very much the spirit of the first paragraph. It's a time for commonplaces; it provides a shared place for you and your readers. In an important sense, you are here describing the practices that your paper is about. And these practices are interesting because there is some problem with them.

The second paragraph tells us about the science that studies this world. It summarizes the body of scholarship that has taken an interest in the problem that is described in the first paragraph. There are two good ways and one common but bad way to structure this paragraph. It can state either a constitutive consensus in the literature or a just as constitutive controversy. Scholarship will normally be characterized either by broad agreement about some issue (which your work will then challenge) or by a standing disagreement (where your paper will provide support to one side). Many papers these days begin by identifying a "gap" in the literature (which the paper then proposes to fill), but this is a false start. The gap is only interesting because what you have found there bears upon some interesting consensus or controversy. So you should fill in the gap in advance (i.e., in this second paragraph) with the theoretical assumptions that shape your readers' expectations of your subject matter. Indeed, if the first paragraph is about practice, this paragraph is about theory; the problem persists despite precisely this theory.

The third paragraph tells us about your paper. "In this paper, I show that..." is a nice, tight way to do this. Notice that supporting such a sentence requires you not to offer evidence but to outline your paper; it's a statement about your paper not about your object. So here you have to say something about, especially, your method (what have you done to put yourself in a position to know you are right). It should also briefly sketch the content of each section and leave us with a good sense of the implications of the paper as a whole (a paper will normally have a section for implications, so you may just summarize that section). The implications may be either theoretical or practical: you may show that practice ought to fall in line with a perfectly good theory, thus solving the problem by making the world a more "ideal" place, or that the theory has be adjusted to better capture the "real-world" practices, thus at least acknowledging the problem. Or you may argue for some combination of such implications.

These three paragraphs, finally, should each be organized around a claim that can be expressed in a single, declarative sentence. The rest of the paragraph merely supports that claim. Notice that the thesis of your paper is stated only within a larger claim about its being the thesis of your paper. And that claim has been nested in a claim about the world and a claim about the research that has already been done about that world. Since the world is construed in terms of some interesting problem, there should be no need for an explicit "statement of the problem". But if your editor (or teacher) insists, there's no harm in providing it.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Resolve

Though we all know it doesn't do any good, many of you have probably resolved to be more disciplined about your writing this year. Resolutions don't work, but discipline does. So let's, once again, begin the year by issuing the 16-Week Challenge.

First, some basic math. There are eight weeks from the second week of February until the Easter break (in Denmark many of us take the week between Palm Sunday and Easter off; some also take week 7 off because it's a school holiday. If you do this as well, you can recover that week by starting a week earlier, right at the end of January). There are then another eight weeks until the end of May. 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. Let that be the maximum limit. Try to appreciate the finitude of the problem.

Now, look into your calendar from February 6 to May 31. Block out the Easter and May holidays (in Denmark there are quite a few statutory holidays; adjust the challenge to your local conditions; in fact, Easter may not be especially relevant for your purposes). Resolve to write every remaining weekday for at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours. (Never write for a whole day.) Book these sessions into your calendar. In an ideal world you would book 80 three-hour sessions from, say, 9:00 to noon. But you'll probably have to settle for about 70 sessions, many of which will only last 30 minutes. It all depends on your time and, to an extent, on your resolve.

How many hours of writing time does that give you? How much do you realistically think you can accomplish in that time? Set some writing goals on that basis. Then break those goals up into smaller tasks ("things to do") and assign those tasks time in your calendar. Be as a specific as possible about what you will be writing on a particular day. Try to be realistic. If you need time for "free writing" or "thought writing" (writing to find out what you think) book that into your calendar as well, but the important part of the challenge is to find time to write down what you already know needs to be written. If you don't yet know what you're going to say this semester, then your challenge is, in part, to figure that out. But you should still find at least 30 minutes a day to write down something you know you want to say. Keep in mind that we are only talking about sixteen weeks in the very near future. Surely you know something about what you have to get down on paper.

Assuming that you do have something say, then, here's the challenge: write always and only when (and what) your calendar tells you to. Don't write when "inspired" to do so (unless this happens to coincide with your writing schedule) and do everything possible to keep your appointments with yourself (the writer). Make a plan and resolve (if you must) to stick to it.

Happy New Year!