Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Intelligently Managed Quantity

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Jonathan Mayhew: "my second stupid motivational principle of the day is that quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Writing Workshops in 2008

One of the most satisfying things I did this year was to run a weekly writing workshop. It was great fun both for me and for the participants and we all, I think, learned a lot.

The idea is very simple. We work with a single page of text (14-point, double-spaced, Times New Roman) which we project onto the overhead screen using Word. We then edit it mercilessly in real time, with everyone making suggestions and asking questions. For many, it is a real eye opener, in regard to both what editing can accomplish and what textual criticism can be.

If there has been a downside it has been in securing regular attendance. This sort of thing has its greatest effect if it is repeated many times and over a significant period. So next semester I'm running 16 workshops in all: two afternoons in a row, every second week. Unlike this year, next year registration will be required. Participants must commit to the whole series.

This is for their own good, of course. They will simply get more out of it if they attend regularly and as part of a disciplined program. It's like writing on a schedule: you can't just do it when you feel like it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Five Paragraphs of Prose

Composition teachers have a useful exercise that can also serve as a thought experiment. It's called the Five Paragraph Essay. It is generally presented to prove that any idea, topic, theme, suspicion, belief, opinion, or thesis can be converted into prose. It immediately moves us from the question of whether or not writing is possible to the (much more important) question of how good it is.

Here's my version of the exercise. I have deliberately presented it to be agnostic about whether the essay should have a positivistic or deconstructive bent.

Start with an object or event that interests you. Next, identify three major elements of its composition or traces of its presence. That is, choose three things you could say about it to make it either more or less present to the reader. These will serve as your material for reconstructing or deconstructing it in prose.

Now you write a single paragraph that introduces your object or event and the three things you want to say about it. You then write one paragraph for each of the elements or traces you have introduced. Lastly, you write a paragraph that summarizes the preceding four.

The first and fifth paragraph will be very similar in content but will differ in form. The main difference is that the first should presume a reader that does not yet know what you're going to say and the fifth should presume a reader that has just read what you did in fact say.

Try to make the first and last sentence in each paragraph resonate with each other. Try also to make the last sentence of each paragraph resonate with first sentence of the next. One way to do this is to make sure that (1) each opening and closing sentence brings two important notions together, (2) one of these is repeated in the opening and closing sentence of one paragraph and (3) the other is used in the closing sentence of one paragraph and the opening of the next.

Notice how neat a structure emerges from this.

§1 A+B ... B+C
§2 C+D ... D+E
§3 E+F ... F+G
§4 G+H ... H+I
§5 I+B ... B+A

If you complete the exercise exactly as instructed, you can predict the following:

B will name your object or event.
D will name the first element or trace.
F will name the second element or trace.
H will name the third element or trace.

C will connect your object or event with its first element or trace.
E will connect your first element or trace with the second.
G will connect the second with the third.
I will connect the third element or trace with the object or event you have chosen.

Notice that C, E, G, and I could be reduced to one notion:

§1 A+B ... B+C
§2 C+D ... D+C
§3 C+F ... F+C
§4 C+H ... H+C
§5 C+B ... B+A

In this case, you will be continually referring the discussion back to the object or event you have chosen.

Objects and events are tractable to research in so far as they can be turned into peer-reviewable prose. That means they must have a name and there must be something to say about them. If that is possible then a five paragraph essay is also possible. You keep working on those five paragraphs until they are interesting to your peers. From there you expand the essay to make it convincing. This will of course often require much more than five paragraphs.

In my next post, I’m going to try to offer a positive example and, in the post after that, a deconstructive one.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Writing Schedule

I am reading Paul J. Silvia's How to Write a Lot (APA, 2007) and once again find myself in like-minded company. Like Anne Huff's Writing for Scholarly Publication, it is a shamelessly practical book. Its basic argument is that if you write on a schedule, rather than according to whim, you will be more productive and happier as an academic writer. My experience (both with myself and with the authors whose work I edit) suggests the same conclusion.

Writing projects (even whole writing careers) too often go off the rails when writers abandon their schedule and start waiting for inspiration. Or they never get started because they never consider the question of exactly when they will put all their great ideas into writing. You can't start talking about writing processes, editing practices, stylistic decisions, or even improving your grammar until you know that the author has time to try things. If you know that someone will ultimately write "what I feel like when I feel like it" (which too often means in the dead of the night before the deadline) then no amount of grammatical rules or stylistic tips will help them.

Silvia takes great pains to make academic writing seem like an ordinary, non-existential activity. "Academic writers," for example, "cannot get writer's block" (45). Writing a journal article, he says, is nothing like writing a poem or a novel. I think he is right about this in principle. But, like Huff, I know some writers who do perfectly well on different assumptions. Such writers are beyond the reach of writing teachers and editors, I'm afraid.

And all other writers should try to stick to a schedule. They should write at least as regularly as they teach classes, ideally as regularly as they (ideally) prepare for them. This is the only way to make sure that all the needed writing, reading and revising actually gets done. More on this later.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

An Amusing Anecdote about a Drug Deal

"What is this?"
"It's an amusing anecdote about a drug deal."
"Something funny that happened to you while you were doing a job."
"I gotta memorize all this shit?"
"It's like a joke. You remember what's important, and the rest you make your own. The only way to make it your own is to keep sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it, and sayin it."
"I can do that."
"The things you gotta remember are the details. It's the details that sell your story."

This exchange occurs in a famous scene of Quentin Tarantino's first movie, Reservoir Dogs. I always associate it with an interview with a famous screen writer that I read in a Danish newspaper. For obvious reasons, I think that writer is Tarantino himself, but I haven't been able to find it to make sure. It could be David Mamet. If anyone knows, drop me a line in the comments...

Anyway, he explains that if you want to write a screen play you have to be able to sit a good friend down over a cup of coffee and tell the story. Not, "I'm thinking of making a movie about this guy who... no, no, wait, did I mention that he ... anyway, he goes into a store, or a restaurant, or ..." etc., but "There was this guy who...and then he went over to he opened the door...and..." etc. You just tell the story. If you can hold your friend's attention for half an hour until you get to the end then you may have the elements of a good movie. If you can't, you don't.

I'd like to suggest the same thing to writers of academic papers. A paper should always have some interesting intellectual content. Sit a colleague down with a cup of coffee and say, "Do you know what happens when companies try to brand themselves on their gender politics? Well, let me tell you..." And if you can hold their attention with the facts, just the facts, for (let's be generous) about fifteen minutes, then you might have the basic content you need for a good paper. Don't say, "I want to write this paper about ... well, it's complex, it's going to draw on systems theory and combine it with deconstruction ..." etc. I'm not saying you can't combine systems theory with deconstruction. But then start the story right. "Do you know what happens when you combine systems theory and deconstruction? No? Well, let me tell you..." And then keep that story interesting.

The scene we started with continues as follows:

Now this story takes place in this men's room. So you gotta know the details about this men's room. You gotta know they got a blower instead of a towel to dry your hands. You gotta know the stalls ain't got no doors. You gotta know whether they got liquid or powdered soap, whether they got hot water or not, 'cause if you do your job when you tell your story, everybody should believe it. And if you tell your story to somebody who's actually taken a piss in this men's room, and you get one detail they remember right, they'll swear by you.

That's it. Make your colleagues believe you know what you're talking about. That's the trick. Make them swear by you.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Writing for Scholarly Publication

I've been reading Anne Huff's Writing for Scholarly Publication (Sage, 1999) with great interest. In many ways, she saves me the trouble of having to write a book of my own. "The tone, formal excercises, and shameless advice" (ix) she provides are largely in keeping with my own approach. There's even an appendix about academic writing for non-native speakers of English. I definitely recommend getting a hold of this book (unless you're already tired of hearing my advice).

Huff invokes Thomas Kuhn at the very beginning of the book to support the idea that academic writing is a "conversation" (3). She could perhaps also have mentioned him in her chapter on "exemplars" (55-63), which is a very Kuhnian notion. Indeed, Huff's book can be read as a handbook for participation in what Kuhn called "normal science", i.e., research carried out within a paradigm. And that is also largely the approach I suggest.

My twist on this, if I have one, is perhaps to suggest a "dangerous supplement". That's Derrida's term for the stickiness of the nature/culture or knowledge/power or science/politics or research/management distinctions. Huff gets us to appreciate the importance of a scholarly community, but she understates the importance of rogues and bandits—the fellowship of thieves that lurks behind any text.

In a sense, she takes the scientific pretensions of academic writing a bit too seriously. The corrective is to see academic texts in relation to not just paradigms, which take scientific communities for granted, but also discourses, which shape science at a deeper (or at least broader) level and are continuously undermined by strategy and desire. That is, if I were to write such a book, I would probably choose Michel Foucault over Kuhn when establishing the background.

This does not make the problem of academic writing any less practical. And even deconstructivists are going to have to think about what they will write in the introduction and conclusions of their papers. They will have to identify examples of work done by others to guide them. They will be looking to get into (and out of) various key conversations. They will have to plan their writing process as part of their research process. And they will have to express themselves in good English.

That is, all of Huff's advice holds also under "postmodern" conditions. In fact, the "shameless" practicality of Huff's book already anticipates everything I might add.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How to Draw a Fish

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish.

Ezra Pound
ABC of Reading

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

Oliver Senior
How to Draw Hands

I'm helping to coordinate a PhD course later this week. This post is an attempt to articulate my teaching points for the group work.

In the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal (v50, n1, 2007), Karl Weick makes an argument for "the generative properties of richness". He introduces his piece with the famous story of Agassiz and the fish, which you can read here in full. (The essential elements of the story can be found in Samuel Scudder's account, also available here.) In a nutshell, the zoologist and geologist would ask his students to describe a fish without the aid of (1) special equipment, (2) talking to anyone, (3) reading anything. They were to use only their hands and eyes and were encouraged to draw the fish in great detail. We might say that they were to engage in atheoretical description.

They were not to label the parts of the fish with their latin names, nor regurgitate accounts of their evolution and bodily functions from reference works. They were simply to look at the fish and describe what they saw and eventually to compare one fish with another. Moreover, as Scudder points out, "Agassiz's training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them." There was always more to be seen.

Lane Cooper's account (published in 1917) seems to have informed the poet Ezra Pound's statement (in the epigraph above). But it also jibes nicely with any artisan's attitude to his basic skills more generally. Thus, Oliver Senior has written a wonderful little manual about drawing hands (also quoted above). He describes the hand as "a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism" and correlates "the notorious difficulty of drawing hands" with "the mental equipment by which [the student's] vision may be directed, extended and refreshed."

The better draughtsman has more "on his mind" concerning his subject; and, by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent—or even real—ease an expression of form, character, action—whatever may be his immediate object—that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on vision alone, finds beyond his power.

This "better draughtsman" was of course what Agassiz also wanted to encourage his students to become.

Note Senior's emphasis on the improvement of one's vision. Learning how to draw a hand improves your ability to see hands as such. On this background, with that much more "on your mind", you are able to detect the significance of positions and gestures of the hand of your model, and can therefore incorporate the hand naturally and informatively in your drawing.

An organization or management context is also, of course, "a familiar yet complex mechanism"; and management theory, in whatever form you may be pursuing it, is "the mental equipment by which your vision may be directed, extended and refreshed." Management theory is what you "have on your mind" when looking at something. And it may be useful to describe simply what you see rather than the theory that informs your vision. What is your mental equipment doing for you? Are you equipped to think about modern organizations?

Indeed, Agassiz was apparently not wholly adverse to theorizing. "Facts are stupid things," Scudder recalls Agassiz saying, "until brought into connection with some general law." His aim was to ensure that his student grounded their general laws in observations of particular fact. He did not want them to develop the habit of replacing a concrete description with a symbolic label, "to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand," as Senior puts it.

The lesson is simple: we should not resort to generalities simply because we are unable to describe specifics. You should always treat a general statement as an implicit claim that you can provide a specific, detailed and well-drawn example. The exercises we will be doing during the PhD course are intended to train precisely this art of connecting an empirical specificity with a theoretical generalization. I want to see if we can't help each other to achieve "with apparent—or even real—ease..." an expression of the form, character, and action of whatever management phenomenon may be our "... immediate object."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing on Demand

For some reason I thought the slogan "Publish or Perish", and its attendant polemic, was a product of the 1980s.* So I was surprised to see it used in a literary journal in 1960:

A great deal of harm has come out of the necessity for academics to publish as a means to promotion and to compete with their fellows in the domain of the physical sciences. Driven on by the same categorical imperative, 'Publish or Perish', they invent this drivel by the yard. (X: A Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 2., March 1960, p.159.)

This is precisely the sense in which the slogan is used today. My own view is that after half a century of complaining it may be time to approach academic publication in more constructive terms.

I don't want to deny that writing suffers when the writer feels the demands of adminstrators more strongly than the demands of readers. Indeed, there is an interesting tension here between the senses of "demand"—the demands of a boss vs. market demand. Ideally, authors should write to satisfy their readers, not their administrators (who aren't even editors or publishers of their work). But in reality, as the editors of X suggest, a great deal of writing is produced simply to keep one's job or to improve one's position.

I am certain that writing "drivel" more or less consicously, i.e., writing without a serious intent to satisfy the curiosity of an imagined group of readers, drains writers of the strength they need to keep the research process running, the writing process included. A long list of publications produced with this attitude may constitute a Pyrrhic victory.

Here's what I suggest instead. Let's accept that the only way your department head (whether present or future) can evaluate your work is to see that you are publishing and where you are publishing it. No adminstrator can reasonably be expected to evaluate the content of what you write. (Which is why jargon-ridden drivel will do just fine in most cases.) But this should not lead you see publication as an end in itself, nor even the means to an end.

The proper means to the end of winning time to pursue your own research interests (something approaching tenure, let us say) is not merely publishing your work but having it read. If you make it your business to find and maintain a readership, you will have no problem getting published. You will then satisfy both sets of demands as an ordinary part of communicating your results.

My point is that a sincere desire to be read is much more useful to you as a researcher than a half-hearted ambition to be published. Not "Publish or Perish", then, but "Find a Readership or Perish".

*Update: The phrase is of course much older than I had thought. Eugene Garfield traces it back part of the way to its source (The Scientist 10 (12): 11, June 10, 1996. PDF). I will join the quest.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Deadlines, Line Editing and the Death of the Author

By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader.
Vladimir Nabokov

The habit of sequential reading, which unifies the act of reading a chapter or paper in a single sitting, fosters the illusion of sequential writing. One imagines that writing a paper is a single act, a sweeping gesture, carried out by a unified consciousness with "something in mind".

The romantic poets sometimes claimed that a poem comes into being through a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", a single flow of ideas onto the tranquility of a blank page. The truth is of course very different. Writing is a fragmentary process that binds words, phrases and paragraphs more or less seamlessly together. It is rarely done in a single sitting. It consists in drafting, revising and discarding, not whole texts, but delimitable passages of prose.

Romantics have in fact been caught editing their texts. Indeed, even the writing of essays and monographs is a social process. That is, writing for publication is writing for someone else. You are investing your time in a product that is only meaningful if someone else takes the time to read it. In some cases, you are producing something that is a demand on someone else's time.

I've talked before about how academic writing depends on the arrangement of facts, which indicates a spatial dimension to research texts. The facts that your text refers to impinge on it all at the same time. But there is also a temporal dimension to writing. It simply takes time to produce a text. What I want to do here is both to defend the virtue of organizing the writing process and to provide an indication of how detailed one can be about it.

The familiar (if ominously named) phenomenon of the deadline is often the most well-defined threshold in this process. But it is a mistake to think that the rest of the process is infinitely maleable. Writers, whose experience will teach them each to draw their lines in different places, must all develop a sense of what sorts of textual operations they should be engaged in during the hour, the half day, the day, the week and the month before their deadline arrives.

You need to feel no guilt about your editor because it is his job to read what you write. He therefore constitutes an excellent opportunity to practice your time management skills.

Consider two very different kinds of editing (which may be carried out by the same person): line editing and copy editing. The first provides a comprehensive critique of how the argument is made, what elements work and what elements do not work, whether the tone of the paper you are writing is appropriate, how the argument flows, and so forth. Ideally, it involves a line-by-line commentary that includes concrete suggestions for how to address the editor's concerns. The effects of line editing on a text can be quite dramatic. Copy editing, meanwhile, simply corrects grammar and punctuation when the manuscript has found its final form.

Researchers working with English as a second language should not think that the defects of their text can be fixed by mere copy editing. (Actually, no one should.) I often find that work that begins as "just fixing the language" leads to substantial revisions that go well beyond grammar and punctuation. This is often because the writer becomes more conscious of what he or she is trying to say. It becomes clearer what the sentences in the text are capable of meaning. For this reason, I suggest that one always plan for the first round of editing to consist of line-editing—of reading a text with the assumption of a rather wide range of possible improvements.

This act of editing, then, must occur well in advance of the ultimate deadline. The author must have time to make a great many decisions about the text in the wake of the editor's intervention. What the editor thinks the text ought to be doing may not be what the author had hoped it suggested.

Although it is important to present an editor in the first instance with an open site for intervention, it is no less important to at some point present an editor with a text that is largely finished. This means that the writer has read it through many times to ensure that everything is order and, especially, that the references have been completed and double-checked (it is always a sign of trouble when a writer leaves this to the "very" end and gives me a paper to edit where this has not been done). A copy-editor is looking mainly for misplaced words and pieces of punctuation. This does not mean that the sense of the text is ignored in favour of its syntax, it just means that any recovery of that sense must be accomplished with very limited means.

It is easy to see how the occasions for line editing and copy editing might structure a writing process. The act of producing a text fit for line-editing is not the same as the act of producing a text that is fit for copy-editing. They ought to be superficially similar (both should have section headings, references, fully formed prose sentences, and be free of typographical errors) but the writer should have a very different opinion of them (and therefore a very different reaction to receiving criticism).

While this does mean that the writer will also feel differently about them, emotions are not my concern here. What is important is how the time before and after the editor's work is done is spent.

Before the first encounter with the editor, a text of roughly the right length must be produced. It must include all the relevant empirical and theoretical material and, of course, the field of references that the text emerges on the background of. What I am trying to suggest is that even after the bulk of the prose is written, i.e., even after you've written a sufficient amount of sentences covering enough aspects of your research, there is a lot of activity still left to be done.

The editor will respond by suggesting a new text that, so the editor claims, better accomplishes what you "had in mind". But he only has the allegedly "inferior" text to base his opinion on. So it is important to clear some time in your calendar for when you get the text back. You have to keep an eye on these people.

Editors are behaviorists about textual meaning by (second) nature. They don't know what you mean except through what you actually say. Thus, the encounter with the editor is a terribly unromantic one. The "spontaneous overflow" of powerful ideas onto the blank page is hardly respected at all. Each word is asked to account for its place in the paper not in the larger whole of your "intellectual tradition".

One important part of your textual behaviour lies in your responses to their suggestions. Your editor tries to push the text in a particular direction and you either let it happen or push back. These acts are important indications of what you mean, and may often surprise you.

Roland Barthes famously proposed "the death of the author" as a point of departure for reading texts. "The death of the author is the birth of the reader," he said. Well, your editor is among your first readers. He is there to produce a text that will say what you mean, without further help from you—a text that can take care of itself after your role as its writer is over.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Basis and Elaboration (3)

Keep in mind that both empirical and theoretical statements can serve as the basis of your argument. I have been trying to emphasize the difference between brute facts and sublime ones in order to show what it means to use one kind as the basis of a particular paper or chapter that elaborates on the other.

In a longer work, like a book or a dissertation, you are able to elaborate on something in one chapter that you then use as your basis for another. Some writers forget this. Most commonly, they forget what they have accomplished in their theoretical chapters and therefore feel uncomfortable applying their (hard won) theoretical perspective to their empirical material.

I had pointed out that brute, empirical facts are often a "private" affair, while sublime, theoretical ones are open to public discussion. That's one of the reasons it can be a good idea to pivot your argument across the empirical/theoretical divide. It makes it clear to your reader what your contribution to their understanding of the world is—but also where they will have to trust you—and what "their" (i.e., the field's) contribution to your research is—and therefore where you're demonstrating your trust in "them".

Friday, September 07, 2007

Basis and Elaboration (2)

Theoretical and empirical statements are not completely different kinds of beast. Ever since the fall from grace of positivism and falsificationism, however, we have had to make do without any simple connection between them. (Karl Popper, you may recall, got many people to believe that a single statement of empirical fact could render an entire theory suspect.)

Theoretical and empirical statements are properly "about" the same thing, the former are just more general than the latter, which are more specific. In my last post, I started talking about the "sublimation" and even (yikes!) "brutalization" of your research. I want to say a bit more about that now.

Theory is "high culture" to the "base nature" of our empirical world. Theorizing is a more elegant and sophisticated way of engaging with otherwise empirical experience. But theories are as "factual" as the objects they are about; they are, after all, very precisely about those objects.

So my point is that there are sublime facts and brute facts. As in the more familiar (Freudian) application, the sublimated object is just less embarrassing to talk about. Brute facts are just that—you can take them or leave them. But sublime facts (the objects of theoretical statements) can be discussed in public.

This "publicness" is important. As a researcher, you normally have largely "private" access to your empirical materials. Your reader can believe you or not in matters of brute fact. But your conversion of those facts into theoretical insights allows them to be discussed on a ground that you share with the reader, even if the reader is wholly unacquainted with your data.

I'm still thinking this through. More later.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Basis and Elaboration

It took me a long time as a student to accept the procedural distinction between "empirical" and "theoretical" work. In fact, it wasn't until I became a teacher that I understood how important the distinction is. And it wasn't until I became an editor of academic texts that I understood why it is so important.

The empirical/theoretical distinction, as employed especially in the social sciences, offers an opportunity to distinguish between the basis of your argument and its elaboration. It is only paradigm-shattering, "revolutionary" research that will, as it were, "work out" an idea "fundementally", i.e., elaborate the basis of a field.

Most work will "normally" either provide a theoretical elaboration on an accepted empirical basis or provide an empirical elaboration on an accepted theoretical basis. It is the natural tendency of intelligent and creative people to assume that their work will have profound consequences that resists the challenge to focus (or tilt) your work in one of these two specifiable ways. What you are resisting are some perhaps evil, but quite necessary, constraints on your intellectual creativity (or creative intelligence).

Once we consider the challenge posed by the standard academic journal article (which you must publish or perish) these constraints become both obvious and practical. In order to get 8000 words to have a specific set of effects you will have to decide where you want to stand and what you want to move. If the academy is to remain a "garden" it is simply impossible to give everyone enough room to put everything anywhere they want.

The most effective way to find your footing and maximize your leverage is to work across the empirical/theoretical distinction. It is not impossible, of course, to write an entirely theoretical or entirely empirical paper. The trick here is to decide what part of a theory or set of empirical facts you want to base your argument on, and what part you want to elaborate. But it is much more effective to either sublimate (as theory) one part of your argument or brutalize (as empiricism) another, i.e., to impose the theoretical/empirical distinction "for the sake of argument".

I can see now I'm going to have to continue this line of thought with another post. More later.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Academic Perspiration

Sten Jönssen's contribution to the European Business Review's special issue on academic journals and academic publishing is a good elaboration on the familiar maxim that genius is a matter perspiration not inspiration. Indeed, most of his advice "on academic writing" is of either a moral or practical kind. While he talks of "tricks of the trade" he is really saying there isn't a trick to it. It's just a matter of working at it, moving forward a bit at a time. Writing academically is not so much about ideas as about sweat and a healthy attitude to the sometimes tedious writing and publication process.

Putting it that way may seem to take the joy out of it. It is therefore important to keep in mind that good work habits and linguistic mastery, once established, fall into the background, allowing you to use your skills and endurance to produce the most interesting effects possible. Once you are in shape, you may well be able to make interesting interventions in the academic discourse without breaking a sweat. That's when your ideas will once again be decisive.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More on (Not) Citing Wikipedia

The New York Times ran a good story about citing Wikipedia back in February. You can read it online here.

The most interesting thing about the article is the way the issue is framed by defenders of Wikipedia. With some justification, they take the rule against citing Wikipedia as a criticism of it. But they are not (necessarily) right to see it as a reactionary "censoring" of a perceived "threat to traditional knowledge". As I said in my previous post, there is no contradiction in banning citations of Wikipedia while encouraging its use.

As the article points out, Wikipedia can even be usefully included in classroom activities. (But, in my opinion, this requires that the teacher has a good deal of experience with Wikipedia, or that an experienced Wikipedian is drawn into the project in a supporting role.)

There is simply no contradiction between "I use it all the time!" and "Don't ever cite Wikipedia!"

While this policy proposal offers some interesting insights, it is too soft on the citation issue. Wikipedia should never be cited. That is, it should under no circumstances be cited as a source of information. It can of course be quoted in studies of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Aphorism

Maybe one day I'll put together a collection of my pithiest sayings. Here's one that might qualify:

An academic paper paper will always be much less knowledgeable than its author—and much more sure of itself.

This may of course be because knowledge and certainty are inversely proportional. The more you know the less certain you are. An academic paper, however, reports only part of what you know and therefore allows you to invert the proportions once again.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Don't Cite Wikipedia!

I've now seen enough cases of students and journalists, and even some academics, citing Wikipedia as a source to cause alarm. I think it is time academics educate themselves about what Wikipedia is and isn't, and then teach their students how to use it, so that the situation doesn't get out of hand.

The first thing to stress is that Wikipedia can be a very, very useful tool in your research. I am a firm believer in Wikipedia's potential to transform both how we come to know something and what we think it means to "know" something. I am also certain that, used properly, Wikipedia can make us aware of facts we would otherwise not have been exposed to.

But none of that justifies citing Wikipedia when reporting names, dates , places, statistics, facts, events and ideas in your own writing. First of all, Wikipedia is not a reliable source: there is no guarantee that the information in its articles is correct (i.e., no one to blame if it is not). Second, Wikipedia is a not a stable source. That means that your readers are likely to find a wholly different article than you did and this makes it impossible for them to check your sources.

Wikipedia should be treated as hearsay. Articles can vary greatly in quality and are subject to vandalism, sometimes very "sneaky" vandalism. You might bump into something interesting, but you have to check for yourself whether or not it is true. To this end, Wikipedia's "reliable sources" policy is a good thing. You will often find that facts in the article are sourced to reliable, mainstream, published accounts. (This is because it is a way of resolving controversies between editors of the articles.) These sources are what you must evaluate: you then cite them, not Wikipedia.

My motto is, "Wikipedia is a dependable source of reliable sources. It is not itself a reliable source of information." Sometimes Wikipedia won't provide its sources. It's not 100%. But it's getting better and better.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Getting Back to Work

I'm back a from vacation and I hope everyone has had a good summer. As always, I bought a copy of the Economist for the train and, as always, I now find myself recommending that you read it simply for its grammatical tightness.

Also, I noticed that some Danish newspapers have taken to citing Wikipedia as a source of background information. This is a very bad idea, even in journalism, and academic writing should certainly never cite Wikipedia. That is, you should never find yourself claiming to know that something is the case on the grounds that it says so in Wikipedia. It can be a perfectly useful tool in research, however, and I think my next post will be about this difference. In fact, it may be time to hold a seminar on what Wikipedia can and cannot do for your research.

Until then...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Form in literature is an arousing and fulfilment of desires.

Kenneth Burke
Counter-Statement, p. 124.

Burke's famous definition of literary form can be applied also to academic writing. "A work has form," he said, "in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence."

But the words "gratified" and "fulfilment" should not be taken to mean that form depends on telling readers what to expect and then giving it to them. To be "gratified by the sequence" of parts may involve being surprised, even disappointed. The point is that even surprise is possible only on the background of an anticipated outcome. The task of arranging a literary surprise cannot be completed without first "arousing a desire", which may then be left unfulfilled, or be fulfilled by unexpected means.

Think of "theory" as your means to arouse your readers and "empirical analysis" as your means to fulfil them. The theoretical part of your paper should anticipate the empirical conclusions. It is perfectly in order to present your theory opportunistically, i.e., to set your reader up for your conclusions. Even where they are surprised, your readers will be gratified to have first derived a clear image of what you "should have found" from their own theoretical assumptions. That gratification, as Burke points out, is an indication of good form. And it will be felt when they turn their disappointment (about your conclusions) into constructive criticism (of your theory or method). That criticism, in turn, will improve the form of your next paper.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Relentless Revisions

Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

As a resident writing consultant I often find myself torn between two tasks: editing and teaching. (I wonder if this gives me a basis for empathizing with academics about the tensions between teaching and research.) This seems especially clear in my blogging. I feel a responsibility to periodically summarize the general grammatical principlies behind my specific editorial suggestions. But I often find myself at a loss for words.

This may be partly because I'm not trained as an English teacher but as a philosopher. It may be partly because, like everybody else, I find talking about principles (rather than practices) tedious. But it is also because I agree with Lasch that good writing does not emerge from a mastery of rules and techniques. It comes from continuous exercise. I have the privilege of participating in this process with the researchers at a single department, including its PhD students. I concentrate my efforts on their specific problems, supporting their own efforts to revise their texts relentlessly. I am not saying that rules can't be useful and I still intend to try to identify the rules that seem most relevant. But the important thing is to keep the conversation going. In writing and in English.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

An Unsuspected Discipline

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Jorge Luis Borges

After more than a month of silence on this blog, it may be fitting to post something about literary procrastination. It's not that I haven't had any ideas, of course. I've promised my workshop participants two or three answers to questions I didn't know on the spot, and a more substantial post on the importance of analyzing your objects rather than just naming them. I just haven't been able to commit these ideas to prose. That's a problem familiar to all writers. Editors and writing coaches probably make light of it a bit too often, tending to reduce any specific blockage to the same general solution: persistence and planning. I want to get back to setting a good example by writing a small, sometimes very unfinished, thought at least once a week.

Today, I simply want to draw your attention to the short story that gave me my epigraph. It is about a playwright who is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death before he is able to finish the play he had "contrived to cover up his defects and point up his abilities and [which] held the possibility of allowing him to redeem (symbolically) the meaning of his life." (I leave it to you, dear reader, my likeness, to identify with this sentiment, except to add that I have composed many a blogpost in my head to vindicate my talents after an error in my editing shows up in the final copy.) The key to the story is that he writes his play in regular meter, which means that he can hold the whole text in his mind and work through it, changing it, adding to it, and committing the new version perfectly to memory: "a discipline unsuspected by those who set down and forget temporary, incomplete paragraphs". The night before his execution he prays to God for an extension: one more year. Just enough time to finish his play.

But God grants him more than a year. He grants him all the time in the world. "The physical universe [comes] to a halt" just before the triggers are pulled by the firing squad. Paralyzed in the courtyard, the playwright is allowed to finish his play, and this he undertakes to do. He succeeds (in his own mind, you will note) and is then promptly executed. The story is called "The Secret Miracle", the playwright's play is called (in part) the Vindication of Eternity.* It is a story, I want to say ... an allegory, no doubt ... about a particular illusion that keeps writers from meeting their deadlines: the fantasy of a single instant of infinite duration immediately before the text is due and everything comes to end. That moment, of course, never arrives. Eternity is never vindicated. Never.

Academic writing does not depend on miracles. It depends on the lesser discipline of "setting down and forgetting temporary, incomplete paragraphs". There isn't time for everything, but there is always time to get back to work.

*This is wrong. The play is called only The Enemies. Hladik had previously written a work of philosophy called Vindication of Eternity. I owe the mistake to what I assume is a typo in Harriet de Onís' translation, which appears in Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964). Here Hladik is described as "the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, or Vindication of Eternity" (the King Penguin edition, 1981, p. 118). Anthony Kerrigan renders this "the author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of..." Ficciones, (Everyman's Library, p. 114). Kerrigan also describes the discipline as "not imagined" rather than "unsuspected".

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Textual Contingency

I've been cutting down on the amount of time I spend online lately. That's not really an excuse for not posting to this blog, however, because there is nothing to stop me from writing (as am I now doing) a post in an ordinary (offline) text editor and then spending a few seconds online to post it.

But by staying away from web-texts for whole evenings at a time (!), I have noticed something about them: they are contingent in a very striking way. Now, as an editor, I deal with textual contingencies every day. Indeed, I try to get my authors to see their texts as much more contingent than they are normally inclined to. I try to approach a text as something that could be otherwise, something that doesn't necessarily have to be the way it is, something that can be improved.

But that implies a sometimes burdensome responsibility. After all, if something is less than good and you are in a position to change it, then you can't just leave things as they are. You have to take action.

This is why it is good know of a few really good books. As an editor, it is painful to read a poorly written book (after it has been published), but it is a real joy to read a well-written and carefully edited work of literature. It's nice to read something you don't feel you have to do anything to.

That brings me back to the Web. Comment boxes, blogs and wikis provide opportunities to interact instantly with what what you read, and the readiness to do so is a physical part of how you read. (I'm almost certain a neurologist could prove this by measuring various kinds of synaptic activity.) There is a great difference between writing onto a blank page (unconnected to the Internet), reading a book, and "interacting" with a website.

There is something to be said for separating the activities of writing, reading and editing. The web has a tendency to blur them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Physical Exercise

This idea has been growing on me for some time.

[Hunter S.] Thompson had an interesting way of studying the writers he loved. He would take and transcribe their works on his typewriter in an effort to discover each writer's particular rhythm and flow. He typed 'The Great Gatsby' and 'A Farewell To Arms' in their entirety.(Kevin Kizer)
I have a feeling that academic writers working with English as a second language might benefit enormously from typing just a few pages every morning on this model. The trick is of course to pick writers you "love", i.e., the work of peers that you consider exemplary. One of the things that Thompson pointed out in regard to this exercise, however, is how physical it really is ... and, occasionally, painful.
You're writing, and so were they. It won't fit often--that is, your hands don't want to do their words--but you're learning.*
The point, as I see it, is that you're learning to do something with your hands. Typing a good sentence (thinking while writing) is as much a physical skill as typing a word quickly and correctly. You need to get your writing to happen on the page (or screen), not in your head, and this exercise is an effective way of shifting your focus into your fingers.

*Quoted in William McKeen's Hunter S. Thompson (Twayne, 1991), p. 106. Cf. also p. 6.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Required Reading

Jonathan Mayhew knows what he's talking about. His sense of language is formed by experience. Read him. (Including the comments and the sequel.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Free-standing Text

One thing I often notice about the texts I edit is their dependence on an external set of references to establish their form. It got me thinking about an analogy, namely, two different tent designs. The first is the familiar military-style pole tent.

Notice all the poles and guy ropes that are required to give the tent its shape, and how the skin hangs loosely off the poles, offering very little surface tension. Texts like this can be recognized by rather abrupt passages between the elements (poles) of perfectly good outlines (e.g., introduction, method, theory, results, discussion, conclusion) and a sense that the citations (ropes) are the main source of truth and meaning of the sentences they support. It is also often clear that the only people who can really make sense of the empirical content are those who have the experiences that ground the paper. That is, the paper is held up precisely by being pegged down. It will stand up only in the exact spot that it's been built.

By contrast, a modern, self-standing tent uses few poles and sometimes no guy ropes at all to establish its structure.

It retains its shape even if you pick it off the ground and shake it. (A good way to "sweep" it out.) You can set it up, and if the ground underneath it turns out to be too lumpy you just move it somewhere else.

That's not possible with the old-style pole tent. Not only would you have to take it down altogether and set it up from the beginning, it takes a good deal more work to get it all done. It also takes more people, some of whom have to hold poles while others attach the ropes.

Imagine the difficulty of setting a tent up and pulling it down as what a reader has to do in order to "use" you text, to "inhabit" it, as it were (always temporarily of course). The trick is to stitch your material together as a coherent whole (the skin) so that once the logic of the argument is introduced (the poles) a nice rigid shape results. It means having an eye for internal rigour of your text, not just its external tenability.

There will always be a need for some external support, of course. To sleep in a tent it will have to rest squarely on the ground. A few well-placed pegs and guy ropes will not only keep the tent from blowing off in a high wind (discourse can be a stormy business, as you know), it will keep the fly off the cabin and reduce the chances of the rain getting in. But, at the end of the day, if you can pick up your text and shake the dirt out of it, you've done something right.

Monday, February 05, 2007


It is a peculiar thing how people come to write less confidently as their intellectual sophistication grows.

What they should be doing: saying less. Saying it more confidently.

Because their sophistication is nothing other than an awareness of their basis for saying it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Style Council

"And you can be all that they want you to be."

Last week I connected the mood of a field of research to the style of its written work. This week I want to elaborate this idea a little, leading up to what I hope will soon be a full-day workshop here at the Department. In doing so I also want to put a rather theoretical point into practice, namely, the connection between Michel Foucault's "enunciative modalities" and Thomas Kuhn's "exemplars". Clicking on the links will bring you to the relevant posts on a blog I ran with Søren Buhl Hornskov for a course in disciplinary reflexivity. What I want to develop here is how we can use these insights precisely to get a bit wiser to our own style.

Editors sometimes talk about helping writers "find their voice". That is very much what Foucault is getting at when he identifies a certain "manner of statement" or "enunciative modality" ("mode" just means "way", to "enunciate" is to speak, i.e., there is a "way of talking"). Part of the "discipline" of an academic discipline has to do with shaping the way people talk. This goes beyond simply mastering the concepts and recognizing the objects that define a discipline. It is about knowing how statements about those objects, and statements which use those concepts, may be legitimately challenged, corroborated and developed. It is about knowing when to make a statement in a defensive posture, or when to be more assertive. It is even about knowing when to present a claim with a measure of irony.

It is also about knowing when and where the discipline's voice may, as it were, be "invoked": the "sites" that offer suitable acoustics so that it may be heard. (A discipline's voice may also be "modulated" to be heard outside its primary academic context: so a psychologist doesn't sound like an economist or a philospher, even when speaking in the same newspaper.) Here a great deal of course depends on your awareness of the journals that pertain to your field, but also the various interdiciplinary settings that will give your work a proper hearing. Among these we increasingly find teaching situations outside the disciplinary context that shaped us.

Ultimately, it is about about who is speaking, as Foucault also notes. But this "person" should not be confused with yourself, or at least not all of you. It is a persona (a mask) that you wear while "on the job" so to speak. You will of course want to find a mask that you have some degree of sympathy with; you should still, let us say, recognize your smile in the mirror. But if the various academic contraints work as they should, you should be able to develop your deeper sense of self (in the existential sense) more or less independently of the style that emerges in your academic writing.

The question is how to proceed. And here I think Kuhn's emphasis on "exemplars" will prove to be useful. As a start, pick out three to five texts that you consider "formative", i.e., texts that have influenced your sense of what a good piece of academic writing looks like. It should be a text that speaks in "your voice", that deals with problems you find interesting, and that serves as a model for how solutions to those problems are presented. A good portion of developing your style consists in imitating these exemplars.

I'm trying to make this post worthy of both its title and the spectacular new-media, audio-visual epigraph. So now that it looks like I'm arguing that academic style is all about conforming, about speaking in a voice that is not quite your own but one you must nonetheless pretend is truly yours, it may be fitting to quote the Style Council again:

There’s room on top - if you tow the line
And if you believe all this you must be out of your mind.
That is, at the end of the day, you'll be better off, and more sane, if you accept the formative processes of academic work as a more or less friendly force in your life. Not something to grudgingly conform to. It's all just a part of being-with-others in an everyday sort of way, as Heidegger says. It won't always feel right, and at such moments your style should actually "break the mood". Toeing the line won't work in the long run.

PS. Please note that "tow the line" (in the quoted lyric) is not idiomatic, but I'm not sure the Style Council is to blame. I found the lyrics on-line and I'll check it to be sure. When I find out, I'll post the results.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Being with Others in Writing

"Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done."

That must be my favourite sentence in Samuel Beckett's Watt (1958). It summarizes Beckett's way of getting into the problem of "the social", of being with others. It is, of course, a kind of joke. But this is not just because it sets him up for a comic episode a few pages later; Watt has fundamentally misunderstood what a smile is by trying to learn how to do it by watching others. A smile is not a smile if it is always a pretense. When someone says, "You have a nice smile," they are not congratulating you on your training. They mean to suggest something deeper in your face. They assume that your smile has developed through years and years of friendly feelings, that your face has been shaped by your pleasant disposition.

Last week I promised I would find the passage in Being and Time that would make all this relevant to academic writing. It can be found on page 138 of the standard German edition. "Even the purest theory," Heidegger tells us, "has not left all moods behind." But this should not, he warns us, "be confused with attempting to surrender science ontically to 'feeling'." He identifies Aristotle's Rhetoric as "the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of Being with one another," and emphasizes its investigation of "the affects" (feelings, emotions). Like oratory in general, academic writing is a public affair, and

publicness, as the kind of Being which belongs to the "they", not only has in general its own way of having a mood, but needs moods and 'makes' them for itself. It is into such a mood and out of such a mood that the orator speaks.
The important thing here is that this mood, which may be thought of as an arrangement of emotions, a set of conditions that guide or shape the way we feel, is grounded in "the everydayness of Being with one another". That is, the ordinary sense in which we have to get along with other people in order to get anything done.

It is because our academic work is always related to the work of others that it cannot get beyond the problem of mood. Even the most academic text will have an emotional aspect, an underlying feeling. We sometimes call this feeling "style", but Michel Foucault may have been onto something when he called it an "enunciative modality" (a way or manner of speaking, let us say). Now, we learn a style from others, just as we really do learn to smile, or at least learn what a smile is, by watching others. But it is not enough to have seen a style to know how it is done. In order to develop a style you must find a way really to feel the mood of the particular research community you are writing for.

Smile and the world smiles with you, "they" say. In any case, you have to find an effective way of making your reactions to the work of others known, e.g., your puzzlement, your disagreement, your approval. You have to make your smile clearly distinguishable from other emotional expressions.

Indeed, Beckett tells us, while Watt's smile does clearly look more like a smile than a sneer or yawn, "to many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth." A few pages later, like I say, there's a funny episode where Watt meets a gentleman:
My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Watt smiled.
No offence meant, said Mr Spiro.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Academic Writing: now with feeling

Writers normally begin the year with a resolution to write more, or at least more often, more regularly. That's certainly my intention with this blog. So, it's Monday afternoon, I'm waiting for my two o'clock meeting, and I pick Harry Blamires' Compose Yourself off the shelf. "This book," he begins (I don't recommend beginning that way), "is directed at readers who want to be able to express their thoughts on paper clearly and logically." There is nothing wrong with that desire, of course, but I think being able to write well is a broader skill. Let me start the new year by explaining what I mean.

First, let me suggest that "being able to express a thought" is really identical with the ability to put it "clearly and logically" to paper. So Blamires is simply proposing to help people express their thoughts in writing. Or, which is the same thing, he proposes to help people to write clearly and logically. Now, I think there is also a need to help people express their feelings on paper. Indeed, people arguably need more help in this department than the one Blamires proposes.

Even the most academic text has a mood. (I'll try to find Heidegger's remark to this effect in Being and Time.) Many research papers are difficult to read not just because their thoughts, but also their feelings, are imprecisely expressed. "Clarity" is our name for precision in thinking; "intensity" denotes the corresponding precision of feeling. So while I think people do well to write clearly and logically, I also feel that there is a need to help people write more intensely and passionately.

I don't mean they should write more "personally" or that they should say more about how they feel. I simply mean that the very specific set of feelings that underlie a particular research result could be much more precisely rendered in writing than is often the case. Writing involves thoughts and feelings. The difference between texts is a distribution of emphasis, not the absolute absence of one or the other. So, this year, whenever you are preparing your second-to-last draft, try saying "once more, and this time with feeling" before you begin your editing.