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.