Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Writing and Teaching

As I reach the end of my teaching for the semester, I notice that I've neglected blogging since September. This is an unfortunate symptom of a common malady in academia today, viz., the disconnect between teaching and research. Many of us feel that our teaching duties conflict with our research tasks.

I want to take a few moments to say something about that. While there are general institutional reasons for the trend, I think everyone owes it to themselves (and their students) to maximize the connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the field (or laboratory or observatory or archive). There are principled grounds for this, of course: we should be teaching things we know something about, i.e., something we have a serious intellectual interest in. That is, our teaching should be based on our research. But there are also practical reasons to connect the two. Indeed, I want to suggest that it is always wiser to keep teaching and research connected than to remain commmitted to the trajectory of either one. That is, you will regret pursuing a research topic that is relevant to your teaching less than you will regret dropping a research topic that is not relevant to your teaching. Likewise, you will regret following your own interests in interpreting the themes of a course less than you will regret conforming to a syllabus that lies too far outside your field of experience.

Experience is the key word. Linguistic expression always deteriorates in the absence of experience. You must use your language skills if you want to keep them healthy (grammar is usage, after all). Both your teaching and your prose will benefit from continuous exercise on the same set of themes. You will find that presenting your knowledge in a variety of fora (and languages) activates your sense of detail, and those details are absolutely essential to your style. Your style improves every time you successfully write down a clear, shiny detail. It rarely benefits from the assertion of a vague generality ... even when successful.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Giving Sources and Punctuation

I was wrong again. At this week's workshop I said that when quoting a whole sentence you should put the period inside the closing quotation mark and nothing after the closing bracket of the source. That is only correct in the case of a blockquote.

I was wrong again. At this week's workshop I said that when quoting a whole sentence you should put the period inside the closing quotation mark and nothing after the closing bracket of the source. (Basbøll 2006)
That is a correct citation. "At this week's workshop I said that when quoting a whole sentence you should put the period inside the closing quotation mark and nothing after the closing bracket of the source." (Basbøll 2006) This way of doing it is not correct, however. "At this week's workshop I said that when quoting a whole sentence you should put the period inside the closing quotation mark and nothing after the closing bracket of the source" (Basbøll 2006). That's the way to do it.

This also goes for quotations of several sentences: "I was wrong again. At this week's workshop I said that when quoting a whole sentence you should put the period inside the closing quotation mark and nothing after the closing bracket of the source" (Basbøll 2006).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Like Writing a Bike

My daughter learned to ride her bike remarkably quickly. She had a very hard time of it the first day, of course, but already on her first attempt of the second day she had found her balance. Learning to brake showed the same pattern. One day she was running into walls, or falling over, the next day she was skidding to a stop and landing her foot expertly on the pavement. Yesterday, she suddenly sat herself up on the seat and started from a complete stop. This opportunity to brag about my daughter got me thinking about how we learn things, and how we form ideas.

Here's my not very scientific theory. Felice is learning how to ride her bike (and everything else) in her sleep. She is, for lack of a better word, dreaming about it. Once she became familiar with the bike -- what it was like to sit on it, steer it, drive it forward, and even fall over on it -- she had learned all she needed to know. She needed one day to learn, "the hard way", what pushing the pedals backward could accomplish and a good night's sleep to catch up with that understanding. She had won the necessary experiences. The rest happened, if you'll allow it, subconsciously.

Hemingway said that he wrote this way. He would struggle with a text in the morning and then (this was the hard part) not think about it all the rest of the day. He trusted his subconscious to be working on the problem in the meantime, while he was free to live and observe things that he might use in his writing. But the story he was currently working on would left well in the back of his mind.

This method can be recommended to academic writers as well. Try writing at a particular time each day, gaining whatever experience this may offer, even if you don't make any notable progress. You may not hit on the exact formula you are looking for as you work, but if you try not to think about it, knowing you'll have a crack at it again tomorrow, you may loosen the knot in your sleep and untie it when you sit down to write in the morning.

There is an important rule that my daughter now no longer needs me to enforce. Always get back on yer bike when you fall off. Never stop the day's work right after getting hurt. Or, as Hemingway said, stop when you know how the story is going to continue. That can be difficult; it is tempting to keep going when you know what you are going to say. But always stop with some "juice" left. Give your subconscious something to be optimistic about.

Monday, July 31, 2006

New Technologies of the Word?

Here's a sharp looking new journal for Deleuzians. Besides being a new forum, it is also an attempt to make use of the potential of broadband, offering filmed paper presentations rather than printed texts. I also think there is enormous potential in digital media, and that we are not really making use of them. In fact, academics habitually repress (in several senses) the very existence of alternatives to the standard prose paragraph. Ideologues of the paragraph, like myself, would do well notice that what many academics today do poorly in prose, or only with great difficulty, might be accomplished much more effectively with photography, video, sound, and their combinations in hypertext. We have the technology to do so, but we seem to lack the nerve to do away with books, which, in a sense, is precisely what Deleuze suggested we do.

It is also what AV seems to be gesturing at (the acronym stands for Actual Virtual but the pun on audio-visual is no doubt intentional). On closer inspection, however, there is something odd about this journal. It begins with its editorial mission:
To provide current Deleuzian academic research papers presented as they were meant to be seen... rather than publishing the written word, each paper is filmed ... and presented here as streamed movies.
What do they mean by "research papers as they were meant to be seen"? When editing papers, I often find myself reminding authors that their papers are not transcriptions of monologues or lectures (just as a lecture should not consist of reading a manuscript out loud.) One must try to use the medium to its own best advantage. Even the basic idea of videotaping a "live" presentation (they largely film academics holding standard academic talks or seminars) is somehow bound to fail. Most of their "authors" are trying to present the content of a paper or chapter they're working on. There is almost an obligatory apology for the "in progress" character of the work (e.g., here and here) or the impossiblity of doing the written text justice in the space of forty-five minutes. Add to this the imperfect representation of the classroom experience on film, and the idea that this is how the papers were "meant to be" begins to lose its intuitive appeal.

The times are changing, and I'm not trying to deflate the idea behind this journal. But I would think that, if you're going to be filming anyway, you could be more daring in your choice of settings and approach to editing. I suppose I'm wondering why we would want to do this with a medium that can do this.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Robert Boyle's Dead Mouse: some remarks on style

Academic research has a distinct literary dimension. Indeed, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer showed in their influential study of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle*, the early days of modern science saw important innovations in what they call "literary technology", i.e., the style of writing that Boyle pioneered in reporting his experimental results. One aspect of this style, and one that he himself 'apologized' for, was his "prolixity" even "verbosity". Shapin and Schaffer call the aim of Boyle's writing "virtual witnessing": he would describe his experiments in elaborate detail in order "[to produce] in a reader's mind such an image of the experimental scene as obviates the necessity of either direct witness or replication." (p. 60) To show what this means in practice, they point out that even Boyle's illustrations, which could only be printed using arduously produced engravings, would include such details as "a mouse lying dead in the receiver" (p. 61)**. While it was not strictly speaking necessary to actually depict the mouse, and it took real effort to do it, Boyle's quest for a vivid image of the experiments led to an innovation in writing that remains with us today.

Ezra Pound, the infamous American poet, once said that "the attainment of a style consists in so knowing words that one will communicate the various parts of what one says with the various degrees and weights of importance which one wishes." (Guide to Kulchur, p. 59) He also said that his aim was to present "one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader's mind, onto a part that will register." (p. 51)

Marcel Proust said something similar but in a less cantankerous way.

What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art)...
He goes on to express his desire to "remove [the sensations] from the contingencies (accidents) of time". Think of these sensations as your observations (by whatever method you prefer) and think of memory as the disciplinary history of your field, summarised by the theory or theories you use (whichever they may be). The trick is not to give either your theories or your observations an air of absolute truth and necessity but, on the contrary, to respect their contingency and "enclose them in the rings of your style", in order to surround their meeting with this important atmosphere of necessity and truth.

This means you will sometimes have to go into greater detail in describing your observations than is strictly necessary for making your point. If you don't provide this "prolixity" or excessive sensuality, you risk making it appear that you are only able to observe what your theory tells you you will see. In Proust's terms, it's like only having sensations that confirm your memories, which is not really the mark of an inquiring mind, is it? Choose details that exercise your memory, even exacerbate it, even exasperate it. You have to keep Proust's warning in mind, of course, and avoid simply describing every object you see, but every now and then you will probably have to throw a dead mouse in the receiver.

*Cf. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1985, Chapter 2, pp. 22-79.
**You can see one of the engravings here, though without a mouse. Mice are mentioned in the caption, however, where the "receiver" is called a "receptacle".

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Communities of Detail: new media notes

I've been having a great time lately learning how to use and edit Wikipedia. It makes me want to stop and reflect upon the use and abuse of the new instant publishing outlets that the Internet has made possible.

Wikipedia and Blogger are very different platforms, but both afford the illusion of cutting out the middleman, i.e., of getting around the barriers established by the peer review process. The quickest way to disabuse yourself of this illusion is to begin to use these outlets. The peer review process is simulated in the two media in different ways. On blogger, the quality, consistency and, often, the brevity of your writing determines whether or not you have a readership. (Keep in mind that that is all your journal editor and peer reviewers do as well: determine your readership.) On Wikipedia, your outrageous ideas are likely to be cooly "reverted" until you can provide proper sources and a neutral point of view from which to present them. Language and knowledge are, here as elsewhere, social affairs.

Once this is understood, you quickly begin to use the Internet with the humility that befits such unrestricted access. Your ideas are prima facie as good as anybody else's. To have an impact (and to be impacted) your ideas have to be clearly articulated, interestingly framed, and relevantly situated. This is why mainstream thinking, established ideas, dominant paradigms, and so forth, have very little to fear from the Internet in general. The social nature of communication has a natural inertia that writing a blog post or making a wiki edit will not automatically overcome. The order of discourse applies, as always.

(Most of the readers of this blog, for example, are embedded in a common social context that grants me whatever soapbox I think I have, viz., a university PhD programme.)

The point is that neither Wikipedia nor Blogger are in and of themselves good ways of promoting your ideas. They can be good places to develop them, however: to hone and to test them in a semi-public forum. They also have the very real potential to gather a group of people together on some particular point of shared interest. The most enjoyable writing that is done on the Internet arises when a group of people set themselves to working through an issue in elaborate detail. Such discussions are sometimes ruined by the intrussion of "egos" but, while they last, such "communities of detail" (as I'm thinking of calling them) can be an excellent respite from the often lonely business of advanced research.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Karl Weick and I

[Update: there have been some new developments. Read about them here and here.]

When Henrik Graham brought the source of Karl Weick's famous "anecdote of the map" to my attention, we took a close look at it together. Most people are familiar with the story: a detachment of soldiers used a map of the Pyrenees to find their way out of the Alps after a snowstorm. From this Weick famously concludes that "any old map will do" in situations that call for urgent action, and this has become a central tenet of the "sensemaking" approach to organization theory.

But Weick plagiarized the story from a poem written by Miroslav Holub and published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1977. (Holub provides Albert Szent-Györgyi as his source; Weick also plagiarizes this reference but misspells it Szent-Gyorti.) As Henrik and I discovered, Weick has been telling the story the same way since its first appearance in Weick's writing in 1982, and in all cases his method of citation (mostly the lack of any citation) makes it a clear-cut case of plagiarism.

After looking at the issue for some time, and discussing it with peers, we have now published our results in ephemera (volume 6, number 2, link to PDF file here). Ephemera's editors have, to my mind wisely, contacted Weick himself for comment. It appears in the same issue (link to PDF here) and it is an interesting document. I want to take a few moments to note my reactions to it.

The first thing it did was to remind me of the conventional definition of plagiarism, especially as stated by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams in their widely used manual, The Craft of Research.

You plagiarize when, intentionally or not, you use someone else’s words or ideas but fail to credit that person. You plagiarize even when you do credit the author but use his exact words without so indicating with quotation marks or block indentation. You also plagiarize when you use words so close to those in your source, that if you placed your work next to the source, you would see that you could not have written what you did without the source at your elbow. When accused of plagiarism, some writers claim I must have somehow memorized the passage. When I wrote it, I certainly thought it was my own. That excuse convinces very few. (167)
It uncannily anticipates Weick's account of how the story made it into his own writing.
By the time I began to see the Alps story as an example of cognition in the path of the action, I had lost the original article containing Holub’s poem and I was not even sure where I had read the story. This occurred in the early 1980’s which was quite some time before internet search was a common form of inquiry. I reconstructed the story as best I could. I obviously had no idea whether the reconstruction was close to the original or not since I had no original in hand for comparison.
As Booth et al. point out, this will not convince you if you have both Weick's version and Holub's "at your elbow". Consider:
The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are.

The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are.

(To emphasize the similarities, I have removed the line breaks from Holub's poem. You can read it in its original form in ephemera.)
It is far more likely that what has happened here is that a word-for-word transcription has found its way into Weick's prose because he forgot to mark it properly in his notes. That's the more common excuse, and it is one that the American Historical Association has apparently grown tired of hearing. Their standards (link here) now clearly say that:
The first line of defense against plagiarism is the formation of work habits that protect a scholar from plagiarism. The plagiarist’s standard defense—that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes—is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. A basic rule of good note-taking requires every researcher to distinguish scrupulously between exact quotation and paraphrase.
The most disturbing thing about Weick's response to our charges is that he doesn't take them at all seriously in terms of a breach of scholarly standards. In 1990, at roughly the time when a "helpful colleague" pointed out his mistake to him, he won the Academy of Management's Irwin Award for "contributions to scholarship". And yet, this distinguished member of the academic community, when confronted (for at least the second time) with his mistake, boldly declares that, "Other than to insert a footnote saying ‘source unknown’, I would not have done anything different were I in the same position today."

Now, I don't recommend such a method of citation to any of my authors. But Weick here does, which is more than unfortunate and, I think, somewhat shameful. If he had written "source unknown" it would today look like he was outright lying. (I stress the "look like": one of the troubles with plagiarism is that it makes people say the darndest things in their defense. I don't think Weick has really thought this response through and is, as both the AHA and Booth et al. predict, trying to talk his way out of it.)

Weick goes on to make the absurd claim that "I took no credit for inventing or discovering the story, and instead, used it as one among many examples to illustrate [a] general idea," when the truth is that that he in most cases gave no credit for the story (and thus implicitly, by all standards, took it) and in the two cases where he made some acknowledgement, mentions (but does not cite) Albert Szent-Gyorgyi as its "discoverer" or "inventor", Miroslav Holub as its "preserver", but no one (other than himself, by implication) as the story-teller, i.e., the crafter of the particular wording that appears in his text. Interestingly, it is precisely that credit, i.e., for mastery of the art of making "interesting verbal patterns", that Barbara Czarniawska (in Contemporary Organization Theory, eds. Jones and Munro, Blackwell, 2005: 274) has given to Weick. That is his lasting contribution to organization theory.

But the main point here is not which writer deserves credit. Avoiding plagiarism is about being up front with the reader about where your words come from, so that your reader can proceed on the same scholarly basis that you have. Without that respect for your reader, you don't have a serious interest in the academic community. And I think it is that effront to the (very supportive) sensemaking community that really sticks in my craw. In 1990, Weick should have recognized his oversight and made ammends by publicly acknowledging the shortcomings in his citation, ensuring it did not carry over into subsequent reprintings, and (it is odd to have to say this) by not doing it again. Sixteen years ago, he did none of these things.

Weick mistakenly believes that his references to Holub in the 1990 and 1995 appearances of the story are sufficient citation. But as Booth et al. point out:
You plagiarize even when you do credit the author but use his exact words without so indicating with quotation marks or block indentation.
(Weick knows how to do this when quoting Pablo Neruda, for example, in Sensemaking in Organizations, p. 18-20.) The travesty here is that, while Weick may well get away with it, many others will not, including his students. Facing expulsion and, later in life, loss of tenure, they are being given some very bad advice in Weick's response.

Lastly, let me note that "this style of using stories," as Weick puts it, does not "displease" me, as he also puts it, because I "favor other forms of evidence". I simply insist on conventional forms of citation--minimal standards of scholarship.

Thus noted, for the record.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The phrase "research as a second language" is of course too clever to be left by fate to a single individual to discover. And sure enough, it has been used to pitch an idea that I am very sympathetic to, viz., greater cooperation between librarians and composition teachers. They present it under the broader rubric of "research as a conversation", which is another good idea. I am not so much a teacher as an editor, but I can see the value of increased cooperation with the librarians here at the Business School. In fact, we already have something in the works for the future.

Anyway, the idea of linking the library to the composition (shades of Foucault's "archive"), is defended by Paula McMillen and Eric Hill in "Why teach 'research as a conversation' in freshman composition courses? A metaphor to help librarians and composition instructors develop a shared model" (Research Strategies 20, 2005, pp. 3-22). One part of their model at least is familiar to us: "research is like learning to converse in a second language" (I would probably add "training" after "research" to improve the grammar of that claim). In a follow up working paper, they hit on the formula "research as a second language" (and even the abbreviation "RSL"). Since I actually work with ESL writers, the parallels I draw I are perhaps stronger than mere metaphor. On the other hand, McMillen and Hill work in undergraduate settings, which is also where most of the ESL literature draws its material from. All in all, I think there will be a lot of fruitful connections between their work and mine.

I'm looking forward to reading their work more closely.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The famously ambiguous atmosphere of Franz Kafka's writings seems to have been the result of a meticulous process. Malcolm Pasley noticed this when he edited The Trial, as Jeremy Adler draws attention to in a piece in the Times Literary Supplement (13/10/1995).

Pasley’s study of its manuscript brought major insights into the composition, such as the fact that Kafka wrote the conclusion immediately after the opening chapter, to provide a narrative framework, and so ensure closure. He then composed individual chapters like episodes, which he subsequently tore from his notebooks and kept in separate folders, working not unlike the building method in The Great Wall of China.
The method that Kafka described in that story is well worth dwelling on.
One could not, for example, let them lay one building block on top of another in an uninhabited region of the mountains, hundreds of miles from their homes, for months or even years at a time. The hopelessness of such a hard task, which could not be completed even in a long human lifetime, would have caused them distress and, more than anything else, made them worthless for work. For that reason they chose the system of building in sections. Five hundred metres could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.
Anyone who has written a PhD thesis can, of course, already begin to empathize. And Kafka even provides an ingenius solution.
while they were still experiencing the elation of the celebrations for the joining up of a thousand metres of the wall, they were shipped far, far away. On their journey they saw here and there finished sections of the wall rising up; they passed through the quarters of the higher administrators, who gave them gifts as badges of honour, and they heard the rejoicing of new armies of workers streaming past them out of the depths of the land, saw forests being laid low, wood designated as scaffolding for the wall, witnessed mountains being broken up into rocks for the wall, and heard in the holy places the hymns of the pious praying for the construction to be finished. All this calmed their impatience.
This is not just an argument for "piecemeal construction", i.e., for accomplishing great deeds by the accumulated successes of small feats. It is also an argument for shifting back and forth between laborious details and a broader view of things.

I want to make two suggestions, one that applies to writing books and dissertations, the other to writing academic papers, both based on Kafka's procedures, whether real or imagined.

When writing a large work, you must occassionally read the whole thing all the way through with a pad of paper at your side on which to write down the things you need to do to improve it. You must resolve not to do those things, i.e., not to get immediately back to work. You have to give yourself a tour of the whole work, to look at it from a distance. That is, you must devote specific periods of time to an appreciation (and celebration) of the way the individual pieces of wall indicate a much larger, much greater whole.

When writing smaller texts (including chapters of larger texts), consider working at it from both ends. That is, write your introduction and then your conclusion. And then fill in what lies between them until it all forms a coherent whole. Even if you prefer to write sequentially, from start to finish, your editing can begin by sharpening the introduction and conclusion in order to frame the task of tightening the prose between them. This gives you a clear sense of your goal.

The most important reason for suggesting this way of working is that I often see texts that are trying to do too much in too limited a space, work that, it seems, would only ever be satisfying if it were possible to complete it all at once, and therefore remains forever an open question. It is important, however, to establish a framework that gives you cognitive and rhetorical closure. In your introduction, raise a problem that you have the materials on hand to solve. Make sure your conclusion echoes your introduction. Then see these two sections of your text as a kind of promisory note: a check written against the cash you provide in the body of the text. Your conclusion on its own should not convince anyone, but it should be clear from reading it alone what one would become convinced of if the rest of your argument holds.

All this can also make editing your work much more fruitful. A clear sense of what the text wants to achieve (beyond simply filling up pages with prose) is useful when making editorial decisions. Recall that Pasley's discovery helped him precisely in his attempt to piece together an unfinished work.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Theory, Method and Style

Earlier this month we had a workshop and seminar focusing on scholarship. We talked about reading and writing processes and the nuts and bolts of citation, quotation, paraphrase, and plagiarism. That is, we were learning how to deal with the intertextuality that is so characteristic of academic writing.

After the summer break, I want to take up the somewhat subtler issue of style. That is, we will try to understand how the texts we draw on in our work influence the way we write. There is, of course, also a wholly personal aspect of style. But, where academic writing is concerned, and especially when writing in a second language, much of our style derives from the forms of expression that are used in our field. Looking at our precursors will help to make our stylistic choices perspicuous. This will allow us to keep them from becoming too conspicuous.

A good style develops not from straight imitation of others but from the appropriation of specific elements we find useful. This is why it can be a good idea to do some "extra-curricular" reading in English throughout your career. It will help you to determine your preference for the sound of certain words and phrases on relatively independent grounds.

Also, it may be useful to see your style as the point where your theories and methods meet. Theories are programs of perception, as Bourdieu pointed out; methods, I would argue, are procedural programs. Your style is the synthesis of how you see things and how you do them.

Given a perfect style, you can arguably do away with theory and method. Given a perfect theory, you need worry neither about method nor style. A perfect method absolves you of any responsibility for style or theory. You see the point, of course. Nothing, no one, is perfect. I look forward to taking this challenge up in future workshops.

The tentative date for the next RSL Day is October 19. Mark your calendars.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lead/led, but not read/red

Altså: hånd, hænder - men ikke ånd, ænder.

Henrik Nordbrandt

Today, I lead men into battle. Their bullets are made of lead and I am worried. Tomorrow, it will be clear that I have led some of them to an early death.

I have not yet read the little red book you sent me. I will read it soon, I promise.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Kinds of Mistake(s)

At today's workshop I said that one should always write "kinds of thing" not "kinds of things". I wasn't sure that it was a rule, and I promised to look it up. Well, it would seem that I was wrong. The Chicago Manual of Style's online Q&A page says, "According to Webster’s, 'kinds of' takes a plural if the relevant noun is countable."

I'm still not sure, however. Most of the online discussions about this seem to favour "kinds of cat" and "sorts of cat" over "kinds of cats" and "sorts of cats". Certainly, I would always write "varieties of cat" not "varieties of cats". There is something, well, crisper about the singular after "kinds of", "sorts of" and "types of".

Most online usage, however, does favour the plural where possible. (Don't ever write "kinds of funs", for example; always write "kinds of fun".) Well, there are many kinds of grammatical error. In my own writing (as you just saw) I'm going to stick to my guns (I have several kinds of gun, of course). But I will also stay on the lookout for a better argument for my usage.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Five Obstructions

A notebook is an improvement on the art of living.

Jørgen Leth

Here is a short exercise that might improve your sense of the problems of academic writing. It proceeds from two quintessentially ‘academic’ presumptions, namely, that your writing is, at least in some sense, ‘about’ something and that there are others, your peers, who are able to understand it more or less as you intend it. This exercise is designed to help you figure out what you are talking about. It is about getting your facts straight; it is about determining your object sphere. It will also help you to get your act together; it will help you to establish a subject position.

The basic operation in this exercise is the writing of sentences. You will be producing five groups of ten sentences according to some simple assignments. These assignments constitute ‘obstructions’ in a sense I am taking from the film The Five Obstructions, a documentary by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth about the quest for artistic perfection. The idea is that satisfying a set of perhaps somewhat arbitrary constraints leaves you free to accomplish some very specific effects perfectly.

Before you start, write a 150-200 word paragraph, in your preferred style, about an event: something that has happened. Assume that your reader is roughly as knowledgeable as you are about the topic. That is, imagine the best possible conditions to present the event both concisely and precisely.

What follows are the five obstructions:

1. Write ten numbered sentences, each sentence on a new line. Let the first five tell us what happened and the next five tell us why it happened. Draw a solid line between the first and second group of sentences (between the fifth and sixth sentence). We will refer to the first group as an account of the event and the second group an account of its ground.

2. Reduce the last five sentences, which indicate the ground, to one. Expand the first five sentences, which describe the event, to nine. This time, draw the line between the ninth and tenth sentence.

3. Reduce the first nine sentences (event) to three and expand the last sentence (ground) to seven.

4. Reduce the last seven sentences to three, numbering them 8-10. You now have two groups of three sentences, numbered 1-3 (describing the event) and 8-10 (indicating its ground). Now write four sentences (4-7) that indicate the context in which those two groups of sentences are related in this way, i.e., as a ground to an event (a ‘why’ to a ‘what’).

5. Now, write five sentences (1-5) that prescribe an action that constitutes a fitting response to the event. Draw a solid line. Write five sentences (6-10) that provide reasons why this action should be carried out, i.e., five sentences that ground the action.

You are now obviously free to repeat steps 2 through 4, and when you get to 5 you might consider describing a new event that you imagine would result from the successful completion of the action. You can repeat this cycle as many times as you like.

I want to propose that you have just learned a means of (very carefully) noticing a fact, namely, the situation that the event in question leaves us in. Part of this means imagining the act that this fact demands of us. I want to say that you have learned a procedure for writing facts down, a system of objective notation. And you have done so in a way that necessarily implies a locus of agency, a subject, around which the facts may be thus noted.

Whether you want to reconstruct the objective fact or deconstruct the subjective act in your own writing, being able to note them down in this way will, I hope, be useful to you. Obviously, there remains the work of transferring this shorthand from your notebook to your academic text.

As a final point, note that what is being described here is a procedure not a theory. It presumes only that things do happen, that sense can be made of them, and that all this can be put in writing. These presumptions are nothing other than the underlying presumptuousness of research in general. They are implicit in all academic texts and without them we would have no reason to read such texts. In undertaking these exercises you become aware of the conditions of the possibility of your research experience. They articulate the connections between your theories and your methods. It loosens up the joints of your texts.

Practice makes perfect.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Don't Try This at Home

for Jonathan Mayhew

"You are not unique," I sometimes tell the authors I work with, "you are different." I find it a useful slogan to guide my editing as well: the trick is not to turn a phrase so as to make it exceptional but so as to make it diverge in some interesting way from what is already available. In fact, I spend much of my time weeding out "exceptional" (i.e., not idiomatic) phrases.

Last year, however, I had the dubious pleasure of assisting in the writing of an admittedly unique text with a colleague here at the department, Bent Meier Sørensen. I want to use it as an extreme example of what not to do unless you are working under exceptional editorial conditions, as we were. Even then, I want to point out a particular downside of working under such conditions.

You can find the text in Manifestos for the Business School of Tomorrow (Dvalin, 2005), edited by Campbell Jones and Damian O'Doherty and available online (as a PDF file) here. We supplied the chapter called "Resentment" (pp. 131-139).

Instead of writing "about" resentment, we wanted to perform that particularly insidious form of sentimentality. We decided that the best way to do it was to express our resentment toward the editors themselves. (We knew they could take it, but not that they would.) We undertook to write a text that would be almost impossible to revise once it had been written. Like resentment itself, we wanted to establish an irreversible procedure.

Here's how we proceeded. Starting with the word "resentment" (which had been assigned to us by the editors) we let the first letter of every word in the piece be determined by the order of the letters themselves. That is, the piece consists of 3001 words (one more than we were allowed) that begin with the first 3001 letters in the piece. Each letter we typed constrained word-choices that would be made increasingly further down in the text. By the time we typed the last word, it would be very difficult to change anything in the first 3000 letters (since this would demand changes elsewhere in the text) and almost impossible to change anything in, say, the first 300 letters (since their implications were compounded).

It also made us smile that the text's implications (its possible lines of development) were infinite and unknowable. In any case, an editor who wanted to correct our spelling or grammar while respecting our principle of composition would have a difficult time of it. As an aside, I knew I wanted to participate in this project when Bent sent me a single sentence and asked me to "correct" it. Once I realized what the constraining principle was, I understood how little room there was to move and then, immediately thereafter, how desperately I wanted to dance.

Poetry to the side, if you read it you will easily convince yourself that the text is almost incomprehensible. It is saved only by its somewhat clever gimmick (though we leave the discovery of its procedural logic to the reader) and by the occasionally striking imagery (much of which surprised even us). It is unlikely to have any determinate effect on "the business school of the future"; but, depending on your tastes, it may offer a pleasant or painful diversion from the present.

That is, the text is unique. As a contribution to "the management literature", it has no precursor (we are aware of) and shares no common influence. (In literature as such, however, it obviously shares in the spirit of Oulipo and other "procedural" approaches.) Its effects (like those of resentment) are nonspecific, unintentional, and counterproductive. It was not intended to "make a difference" but to manifest indifference with the status quo. It presents a particular form of disapproval, and not a very helpful one.

(I should add that Bent and I might be of at least two minds about this.)

To see what I mean, consider the possibility that there are one or two useful insights in the text. What good does it do to have such insights trapped in a piece of writing that is (a) very unlikely to be read by anyone not already firmly outside the mainstream and (b) not elaborated in such a way as to allow it flow even in a minor tributary?

As it turns out, Bent has gone on to include one of its points in a forthcoming paper of his own*. He there finds a use for the (arguably sarcastic) suggestion that "when giving orders, [one should] always leave something completely obscured", connecting this to the way students are trained to "think big", i.e., in terms of "grand narrative episodes" (which he also cites from our piece) or what he also calls "grand scheme delusions". In that form, a sufficient amount of ordinary (i.e., anonymous) reviewers seem to have found the idea palatable or, at least, passable (and even this can be counted as lucky, I would think.)

Note that Bent's efforts also afford his editors, readers and critics a way to comment on his argument, offer possible improvements and fruitful lines of further inquiry. In the case of "Resentment", our editors were only is a position to refuse to publish it or let it pass (despite everything); and, worse, our readers are really only in a position to stop reading or continue (in spite, I imagine). We did not write a text that was open to detailed points of criticism and finer forms of resistance. Even if someone were to suggest a slightly more polished turn of phrase (as I have since quietly done to myself on many rereadings) there is little one can do to accomodate it. The whole text would come apart.

By contrast, your task as an academic writer is to frame your own research experience in such as way as to make a contribution to others, who are themselves embedded in an experience conditioned by their research. You must be different from (sometimes differ with) them in specific, detailed ways. An academic paper should not look anything like our "Resentment", precisely because it should emerge from the effort of converting your ressentiment (in Nietzsche's sense, which all too often encourages us to think of our own ideas as exceptional, unique, and ultimately unassimilable) into something that will be useful to others in their inquiries. Such a paper should result from a series of intentional actions, editorial decisions, all of which could have been otherwise, and some of which might still be reversed.

Academic writing, that is, is often the specific effort to leave your resentments at home. It's what you do when you are at work.

*Sørensen, Bent Meier. ‘Identity Sniping: Innovation, Imagination and the Body’ in Creativity and Innovation Management, 15(2), 2006.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Creative Reading

John Rossiter has some good advice on how to deal with international publication (there's a PDF of his workshop notes here.) One of the problems he identifies is that academics are too often unable (I would propose unwilling) to "fully understand and analyze typical papers in the top journals" (2). According to Rossiter the vast majority of business school academics cite papers in order to establish very superficial credentials and rarely in order to engage with the theories and methods that ostensibly define their field. If you want to improve your writing skills, he suggests, you may have to improve your reading skills.

One way to do this, I often say, is to identify a few pieces of exemplary writing, i.e., major journal papers that you respect and would be willing either to imitate or engage with critically. These are papers that define your field in a very important sense; they articulate your methodological standards and are important indicators of the active state of your theory (see my last post). They also give your editor a sense of how to help you by indicating what you are aiming for.

At the level of the department or research team, Rossiter makes a useful suggestion (4). Try to hold a regular seminar that takes a major article in your field as a point of departure. On this background, someone from your own department should then present some of their recent results. The presenter is thereby forced to make a particular set of empirical results or theoretical considerations relevant within the perspective of an internationally acknowledged peer (one that should of course also be acknowledged by you). Can your own knowledge be articulated in terms provided by another researcher? To what extent? What modifications in the theory or method presented in the major article would be necessary to suit it to your results? How do your results look from the point of view presented in the article? The answers to these sorts of questions are the stuff of a "major article" of your own.

Journals generally publish "new" work, but this does not normally mean especially "original" work. The standard of useful innovation is defined by the existing literature in the field. Creativity in the academic realm lies not just in how we write about what we know, but how we read about what others know.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Where are Theories?

It's been long a time since I've posted to this blog and I want to get back into the swing of things now. This will probably mean shorter, more frequent remarks--details from my experiences as an editor of academic texts.

Here's something that occured to me recently. People often mistake the opinions of theorists for aspects of theories. They seem to think that a theory is located in the mind (not always a living brain) of the theorist who invented it. It is a misconception most often found in the social sciences and humanities, and can be very debilitating to writers. It makes the task of mastering a theory in all its intracies essentially insurmountable.

The alternative is to think of theories as a social phenomenon, a consensus among a great many major and minor researchers about how to look at the world. Learning a theory will accordingly be a matter of reading current research articles, not great books. It will come from the experience of applying the theory to real world situations and reporting the results. It will come especially from registering the reactions of one's peers.

The intellectual concerns of any one theorist do not in and of themselves constitute "theoretical" concerns. Issues become matters of theory in so far as a particular community of researchers take an interest in them. You find out what the essential parts of theory are by seeing how your fellow researchers use them, not by reading the works of the major figures who inspire them.