Following my own advice, I'm taking a scheduled one-week break from blogging. This blog is updated on a regular schedule in eight week periods from February to March, April to May, mid-August to mid-October, and mid-October to mid-December. This discipline is part of my effort to let my ideas about scholarly writing form (perfect themselves) gradually in discourse. I'll be back on Tuesday, April 2, for another eight weeks of posts, twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 AM.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
One reason to plan your writing is to focus your attention. If you give yourself, say, eight hours in a particular week to write, and you conceive of these eight hours as opportunities to write sixteen particular paragraphs, then you can shut out a lot of distractions and concern while writing each of them. Also, since you'll be making sixteen definite attempts to contribute to your writing projects, you can make each attempt in a careful, deliberate way. The trick is to remember that for the 27-minutes that you are working on it, that paragraph is all you need to accomplish.
It helps to choose the paragraph wisely. Always choose it the day before and always choose one that you are confident you know enough to write. (If you're writing for one hour, choose two paragraphs. If you're writing for two hours, choose four paragraphs.) Don't set yourself a task that you aren't ready for. Pick something you know rather well, and pick it in the spirit of "What's the next paragraph I both can and should write?" Once you've decided that you will write, you may as well choose, from among all the things you haven't yet written down, something that you know.
That is, don't set yourself a vague writing task that might require knowledge you don't yet have, or only just barely understand. Write clearly about ideas you are confident about. When the writing session begins remember that you will be working on this paragraph for only the next twenty-seven minutes. There's nothing else that you should be doing in that time. This will help you focus.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
It's very difficult to decide what counts as a reasonable amount of effort in scholarship. Physically, it's hard to take the effort of reading and writing seriously. And you can even find some scholars that think the idea of "intellectual" effort is a bit quaint. But academic life, like life in general, is actually quite difficult existentially. You are always managing a system of social relations, you are working to secure your place in a social network. Making a knowledge claim is always also a presentation of self: you are identifying yourself as someone who believes something in particular. Those who share your belief and those who oppose it will take notice.
That can be hard. But how hard should it be? How much work should it demand? I constantly struggle to convince the authors I work with that they should try not to think of this effort subjectively. They should not feel like they are working very hard. They should not work as "much as possible" on a paper up to the date it is due unless they have a very realistic sense of "the possible". As much as possible, we might say, while having a life.
They should do a limited, planned amount of work every day, somewhere between one half and three hours. They should decide in advance what work they are going to do, and then do it in a calm and collected way. The existential consequences (the alliances and conflicts that your knowledge claims imply) are deferred until your paper meets its readers. Think of the boxer. Training for a fight is "hard work", but not, importantly, in a way that wears the fighter out. It must build the boxer up.
The same is true if you're writing a conference paper or a journal article. Don't think of the writing as a performance but as training for a particular "confrontation" with your peers. You want to be strong when that confrontation happens. The conference paper is training for your conference presentation. The journal article is training for the revisions that your reviewers demand.
That last notion is important. Think of writing a journal article as a way of preparing your mind to receive criticism from other knowledgeable peers. Then, when the reviews come back, deal with them matter-of-factly and practically. Think of your daily writing mainly as a way of keeping yourself in shape to produce the selection of paragraphs that you will actually publish.
In the moments when you are struggling to understand and respond to a peer's questions and suggestions, you might sometimes, and rightly, feel that scholarly work is hard. But wearing yourself down, from day to day, week to week, on the actual writing will only make it harder. It's like a boxer who runs a marathon twice a week for six months before a fight. That's not a good strategy.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
I'm openly and unapologetically* nostalgic about academia. I think things were better when fewer people pursued higher education and advanced degrees. And I think things were better when there was a significantly lower "overhead" on research. In that spirit, here are some "old school" rules that I'd like to see considered again.
1. Primary sources. Let students concentrate not on "textbook" summaries of great ideas but on the expression of those ideas in their original contexts. Instead of being told that Feyerabend said "anything goes", let them read the relevant pages in Against Method. The cheerful, confident voice of the textbook has produced a generation of intellectuals that aspire to become the next Malcolm Gladwell (and will risk becoming the next Jonah Lehrer). We don't need "better" textbooks; we need to insist that the primary expression of ideas is the basis of instruction at the university.
2. Chalk and talk. Having read some good books, let students come to class to talk about those books and hear their teachers talk about them. There will always be some use for "illustration", and here the blackboard (or whiteboard) will do just fine. The idea is to transpose the reading experience into a conversation. The idea is not to make a movie out of a book.
3. Communication by "letters". Academics are not very interesting in person except as "characters". Some are remarkably good people. Some are remarkably bad. Most are just, well, ordinary. As an observer of human life, you can of course find them as "interesting" as you like in that moral sense, but you learn what they know from their writing. So we must get back to the writing ... and, perhaps more pressingly, we must get back to the reading of each other's ideas. This process can very fittingly begin in school, where we can focus interaction between students and teachers on the classroom and the supervision and grading of written work.
I think one of the reasons that many people find it so difficult to write these days is that their early training in the "hustle and bustle" of academia didn't impress the importance of writing upon them. They learned very quickly that it was their performance in other "media" that mattered.
I'm not anti-technology, and I'm not some kind of primitivist about face-to-face communication. There are plenty of perfectly good and at least reasonably new media: I think academics can make good use of blogs, for example. And with a little diligence they might also be able to use Wikipedia as force for good in the world. But "chalk and talk" is in any case a very intimate, very interpersonal form of teaching, requiring strong social skills. The point is that those skills are grounded in what the teacher knows, not their mastery of pedagogical techniques or pyrotechnics.
I should admit that I've had a hard time "adjusting" to the new university. I'm young enough (42) that I have to take a good portion of the blame myself. It's not like I couldn't see what was going on, and I could have started adjusting earlier. But I think I came into it with a great deal of baggage or, perhaps more precisely, I came into it with my head in the clouds rather than my feet on the ground, running. So I kept avoiding the important points at which I might have connected myself to the new form of academic life.
And I should admit also that I've avoided a whole series of connections to "modern" life quite generally. I got my first cell phone about a year ago, for example. The truth is that I'm a relic from a past when scholars were still able to pretend that their approach to the world was very different from, say, that of a businessman or an entertainer, that they worked more slowly, and in isolation from immediate practical matters. That's very "old school". We'll see what the future brings.
*When I posted this I'd left off the "un-". I apologize.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
"...it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows."
Heinrich von Kleist
In the comments to my last post, Thomas Presskorn has been grilling me about the notion of knowledge as a mental "state". It's always invigorating to defend my approach as a proper "philosophy", so I thought I'd try to make the issue explicit in a separate post. If I understand him correctly, Thomas is insisting on a strict philosophical distinction between "states" and "stances". I, on the other hand, am willing to use these words in ways that let their meanings overlap, shading off into each other.
In my seminars, I define knowledge, in part, as "justified, true belief" and then emphasize that this definition should not lead us to think of knowledge merely as some "exalted mental state" that it is the purpose of research to get us "into". It's not enough to be in a state of justified, true belief, I argue; you also have to be in a "state of readiness", as I put it last week. Specifically, you have to be ready to talk about it and write about it.
This idea of "readiness" jibes nicely with Foucault's notion of an "apparatus" (dispositif). Our minds, when they are knowledgeable, are "set up" to "stand in readiness". They become a kind of instrument, a disposition to think about certain things in certain ways. They are sensitive to certain thoughts and impressions, and they also offer resistance to them. (There can be no particular sensitivity, except in so far as other sensitivities are reduced.) Someone who knows a great deal about something is in one sense better able to think about them, but in is also precisely unable to think certain things, or to think those things only with great difficulty. If I know something, I'm ready to think about it in particular ways, and not others. Ready and able. We sometimes refer to this as having "chops".
At a deeper level, I would argue that "state of mind" in general is always also a disposition to act in certain ways under certain circumstances. If I'm irritable, for example, I'm "in a state", and this state conditions my responses to whatever is going on around me. I think Thomas would agree with this; he allows that there are "emotional states". Now, I want to say that being "knowledgeable" is not very different from being "irritable". If I'm knowledgeable about something, I'm disposed to engage with it intelligently. I'm disposed to assert particular facts and defend those assertions in the face of criticism.
When I assert something I adopt a "propositional attitude". I mean this as a pun on the philosophical notion of such attitudes, namely, believing, thinking, wishing, hoping, etc. A belief is always a belief in something, a belief that something is the case. That is, a belief is mental state that is essentially related to some "propositional content" (propositions are those peculiar entities in the world that may be true or false).
So I've been presuming that a belief is a mental state. And this is something Thomas is quite sure Wittgenstein would reject (and I agree with Thomas that if Wittgenstein would reject something then we should at least consider it carefully before accepting it). My view is that he would reject any philosophical problem that arises simply because we think of it as a state. That is, I think he would agree with me that the problem is not its "statehood" but its "exaltation". Beliefs are states but they are not states in some special philosophical sense. Calling them states does not accomplish anything philosophical.
There is no particular glory in achieving a state of belief or even knowledge. It's not an end in itself. What is impressive is being able to adopt an epistemic stance. Feet squarely on the ground and well spaced. Able to absorb criticism and return it. There is no particular providence in the acquisition of belief. The readiness is all.
Thursday, March 07, 2013
There is another interesting issue of translation in Kleist's essay "Über die Allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden". "Reden" is here usually translated as "speech" or "speaking", but the standard translation of, say, Heidegger's Being and Time renders it as "discourse". Kleist is, of course, very focused on actual speech situations, i.e., talking, but we can extend the idea to written contexts as well. Somewhat trivially, for example, the process Kleist proposes could presumably be initiated also by writing a letter to a good friend that tries to explain the idea.
From here it is a short distance to a "discursive" conception of knowledge, as famously articulated by Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge. He talked about "discursive formations", which comprised the formation of particular objects, concepts, "enunciative modalities"*, and strategies.
The individual scholar thinks something and perfects that thought in conversation with peers (including students). The scholarly community, meanwhile, collectively shapes the objects and concepts of their knowledge in discourse. Kleist says that "it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows." As I never tire of saying, knowledge is indeed a "state of mind", i.e., "justified, true belief", but that state should also always be thought of as a "stance", a practical orientation in a social context. When we know something we are in a state of readiness to converse about it and write about it.
It's important to keep in mind that discourse is made up of gradual, ongoing processes. And they are supported by a whole array of practices, from the very local practices of the college classroom, to the very global practices of the published literature.
It is ironic, if you ask me, that our increasing awareness of the embeddedness of universal, theoretical knowledge in particular, practical contexts, which Heidegger emphasized already in 1927 (in his description of "the existential conception science"), and which really took off with post-Kuhnian and post-Foucauldian "science studies" in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have motivated initiatives that have largely eroded precisely those sites (the classroom and the literature) that were supposed provide occasions for the careful formation, and indeed "perfection", of our thoughts.
On Tuesday I said that we seem to have grown impatient with thinking. We might also say that we have too much blind trust in science. We no longer try to get our minds around difficult ideas. Instead, we imagine that "the facts are known" and that an expert somewhere knows those facts. All we have to do is listen and believe. It is the role of the scientist to confidently assert, not to "think out loud". We're unwilling to entertain a tentative formulation.
Fortunately, there is increasing awareness that the mere "communication" of research results in scholarly journals and their subsequent "popularization" in the media has very little to do with the growth of knowledge or the perfection of thought. In the language of TED talks, it's merely about "spreading ideas". On this view, it sometimes seems to me, we're expected to believe things even if we don't understand them. As long as the claims are supported by "science", i.e., by a study conducted according to an accepted method and framed by a recognized theory, the "fact" is said to be established. We then let the Malcolm Gladwells and Jonah Lehrers of the world "get the word out". It is considered "educated" to be receptive to them. To propose to subject a fact to further "thinking" (as it were, "after the fact") is considered either quaint or rude, and in some cases outright dangerous.
Once again, it is important to let Kleist remind us that the spirit moves slowly. Just as importantly: it moves (gradually, gradually) towards perfection only when we are talking to each other, whether in speech or writing. And this is why it is so important to write as participants in a conversation about imperfect notions, not as public speakers of incorrigible truths. Peer review should not try to determine whether or not the result a paper presents is valid but, rather, whether or not the result has been presented in a way that makes it possible to discuss it. To use Foucault's language, it must be formed as a statement in a discourse. The conversation continues...
*He seems to use this phrase to avoid the loaded terms "subject" and "style", both of which would perhaps be too easily understood, i.e., misunderstood. Specifically, just as he uses "discursive formation" to avoid the philosophical baggage of the term "theory", I think he uses "enunciative modality" to avoid the baggage of "subject". He'll sometimes talk about the "position of subjectivity" (of a statement) essentially synonymously, however, and I usually read him as providing us with an account of "theories" that emphasizes the historical contingency of their objects, concepts, subjects, and themes.
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
I am grateful to Oliver Reichenstein (HT Andrew Shields) for reminding me of Kleist's illuminating little essay, "Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden". It allows me to get into the important distinction between thinking and knowing without simply opposing these two "states of mind", which are also, of course, mutually supporting "mental processes".
First, let me address some delicate (indeed, delicious) issues of translation. Consider the word "Verfertigung". I've seen it rendered both as "formation" (PDF) and "construction" (PDF). I like Laura Martin's translation of "Verfertigung" as "perfection". After all, to "per-fect" something is to "do" (facere) it "completely" (per-), that is, to "finish" it. And "finish" is actually the root of the German word, namely, "fertig". When Kleist speaks about the situation in which the mind is already "finished" with a thought ("wenn der Geist schon ... mit dem Gedanken fertig ist") he is using the same root. The only way to keep the association as explicitly in English would seem to be to translate "Verfertigung" as "formation" and then talk about about how a thought might be "already fully formed in the mind". Or, like I say, we can render it, perhaps more implicitly, as "perfection" and "finished".
Now to the importance of speaking as such. Kleist focuses on private conversation and almost denigrates public speaking in the traditional "prepared" sense. The kind of talk Kleist is encouraging us to engage in is the spontaneous, honest expression of our ideas, even if it is clumsy and halting, and certainly even though the thought is unfinished, half-formed, under construction. The gradualness of the process of perfecting a thought is important because it indicates its permanent incompleteness. That is, no thought is ever actually perfect; rather, it is undergoing a process that is directed towards perfection. A thought is never finished. To borrow that phrase from the U.S. constitution that Obama made famous in 2008, what we need is a context in which to develop our thinking towards an always finally imperfect but ever "more perfect" state.
The classroom ought to provide such a context, but it has largely stopped doing so because students (under the influence, perhaps, of either their parents or their future bosses) are demanding that teachers tell them not what they think, but what they know. They are expecting to learn the truth, not perfect their own thinking. That is, teachers are expected to see classroom instruction as a kind of public speaking in which they deliver a prepared message in the most effective way possible. It is no longer proposed as an occasion upon which teachers might discover what they think by hearing what they say.
Teachers are asked to pretend, we might say, to be perfect in their engagement with students, who are likely (indeed, they are trained) to complain about the teacher's performance, after holding them to an impossibly high standard: what we might call "instant perfection of thought". That is, the students are expecting instruction to introduce clear and distinct ideas into their minds that will require no further reworking by the students themselves. Students can, accordingly, be expected to confidently evaluate their teachers at the end of every semester (and in practice this means after every class; the students do not ask "What did I learn?" but "How was class today?"). That's long before the process in which they are involved can be expected to yield definitive results. In fact, for many students, since both they and their teachers have misunderstood it, the process never begins.
I'm increasingly worried about the state of higher eduction—indeed, specifically, the state of university teaching. Even more specifically, I'm worried about the disconnect between what teachers actually know and what they talk about in classroom. It is impossible to learn what someone else knows without letting them say what think.
On Thursday, I will continue this discussion in relation to what happens in the journal literature. Unfortunately, this is also too often seen as the public communication of "finished thought" than part of an imperfect conversation about ideas. In general, I think what has happened is that we have grown impatient with the slow process of thought. Kleist is right to remind us that it is a gradual one.
Friday, March 01, 2013
"Without a sense of the big man who wrote the prose, all [Hemingway's] later work would be only skeletons of abstraction, the flesh gone. The Old Man and Sea is, for my opinion, a bad piece of work if one knows nothing about the author. Only when one feels, more or less subliminally, the face of Ernest on the body of a Cuban fisherman does the fraud of the tale take on its surrealist truth." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself)
The vodcasting team at the Copenhagen Business School recently asked me to make a video introducing myself to assistant professors, explaining what I can do for them through my seminars and workshops. I agreed to put my body to the cause and here's the result. I'm very interested to hear what readers of this blog think of it. Is this the person you've been imagining has been writing these blog posts? Does it make the writing more credible or less credible? Conversely, does the writing on this blog make the guy in this video more or less believable?
For those of you who are familiar with my approach, either through this blog, or by participating in my seminars and workshops: Is this a good advertisement for what I do? Does it leave the right impression? Will it repel people (like you) who you know would actually enjoy and benefit from my work? Will it attract people who won't then get what they thought they would get?
Obviously, if you know me personally, you'll recognize that I am here presenting a "persona", putting on a mask (as I also of course do when I run a seminar or facilitate a coaching session; I'm a professional after all), but I hope I don't reveal myself to be a complete fraud. Mailer once also said that "ego" is "that extraordinary state of the psyche which gives us authority to declare we are sure of ourselves when we are not." I certainly had to get into that state to make this video. I wonder if I pulled it off.
Note that this "authority" is also precisely what puts the "I" in your text, whether explicitly or implicitly, as an "author". You've got to have a healthy ego to write, a sense of yourself as an author. But since I mention Jonathan in this video (I cite this post), it's only fitting that we heed his warning too.
Anyway, though there's no need to be brutal (I don't need to have my illusions smashed), please be honest. As some of you know, I did once make videos of myself for this blog, but my vanity finally got the better of me and I had to stop. I like this guy (i.e., "Thomas Basbøll") enough to put him out there for your consideration, but I'm not entirely sure I want to commit myself to being him. What do you think?