Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Vanity and Higher Learning

Some dead-of-the-dark-winter thoughts from Palinurus's Unquiet Grave. On page 20: "Three faults, which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom." The idea is picked up again on page 30: "Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation." It seems to me that Connolly here writes rather vaguely (though not falsely) about cowardice and laziness, but he sharpens a very important point about vanity. We can bring the two passages together in a single sentence: If we are not willing to do something badly we will not be sensitive to facts that might teach us something. Much more can be said on this, but the whole point of aphorism is of course to let the reader mull it over.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas

It's the last day of the sixteen working weeks. I am looking forward to some lateral thinking over the holidays. I'll probably post a couple of thoughts before the new year begins, and intermittently during January. My regular blogging routine will start up again in February. All the best from RSL.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

Ernest Hemingway

There is no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. No writing advice, and no style of writing, can help you write well about something that you have not properly understood. The question, then, is: When have you understood something well enough to write about it?

There is no straightforward answer. In fact, it depends on what you want to say. A simple rule of thumb is that you should never write everything you know about a topic; you should leave a great deal unsaid. Hemingway's image of writing as the tip of the iceberg is apt here: for everything you say, everything you put down on the page, there should be a great deal that is left out, that is not said. Most of your knowledge should be under the surface.

If you find yourself writing a paragraph that exhausts your knowledge on a given topic then it is unlikely to be well-written. Your sentences should always be written in a way that suggests questions; and you should have answers to the questions they suggest. In fact, any sentence that expresses knowledge will always suggest questions. Much of the stylistic problem of writing descriptive prose lies in controlling those questions.

As a writer, you have to make decisions about how to say things and those decisions are best thought of in terms of the questions that the curious reader will most likely be left with after reading what you have to say. We might also say that your problem as a descriptive writer is to manage the reader's curiosity. In a sentence that covers one part of the topic you imply questions to be answered later. If you do this right, the reader feels a series of small but significant intellectual satisfactions.

If you move from one sentence to the next implying only questions you do not answer, the reader will get frustrated. But you cannot, and should not, try to answer all the reader's quetions. The important thing is to be conscious of what questions the reader is likely to be left with at the end of the reading. This is where an imaginary conversation with the reader begins.

You can only make the necessary decisions about what questions to raise, and which ones to leave open, on the basis of deep knowledge about the subject. I mean "deep" in precisely the sense in which all writing is necessarily superficial. If you know only enough to write a paragraph of true sentences about a subject, then you know only enough to a write one good sentence. That sentence should mark the centre of your knowledge, and it should indicate (implicitly, elegantly) fruitful questions for further discussion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Plagiarism and Voice

The Yale Writing Center has an excellent statement on plagiarism, telling us that it involves a

fundamental question for writers: “Where is my voice in this project?” Seen in this light, the strategies that help you avoid plagiarism can also be strategies that help you gain power as a writer. Once your guiding question about your relationship to sources is “Where is my voice?” you are well on your way to using sources in an effective and legitimate way.

It has long been my view that we must reframe the plagiarism issue in terms of scholarship skills not moral integrity. There are, of course, "urgent moral and intellectual reasons to avoid plagiarism," as the people at Yale put it. But their suggestion that it is, at bottom, a question of developing your voice as a writer is also important. To my mind, more important.

Once a case of a plagiarism is discovered, it often goes a long way to explaining a certain lack of confidence in the writing. The writer was unsure of his or her own voice or place in the conversation and was therefore unable to accurately reference the contribution of others.

Consider the poorest possible way of avoiding plagiarism: quoting large passages from other writers. This practice is sometimes defended as a way of a giving full voice to the work of these other writers and letting readers interpret them in their own way. But it is actually a very imprecise way of using other people's work. The prose that they wrote was suited to the context in which they were writing—most locally, the text from which the quote is taken. The extensive quotation will therefore often include a lot of irrelevant details and qualifications that connect it to this original context, not yours. It can therefore be misleading to write,

Jones has argued that '...'. Smith says the same thing: '...'. It is true that, as Ernst has put it, '...' But Phillips's response to this criticism is apt; he has pointed out that '...'.

Nonetheless, you sometimes find several pages in a row that move along in this manner, often simply stringing together very long block quotations.

If your voice is limited to that of a polite moderator, introducing one "speaker" after another, then you are obviously not a participant in the conversation. And in academic writing that's what you have to be. If you solve this problem simply by removing the quotation marks and references to other writers, you are of course engaging in simple plagiarism. "When you plagiarize," the Yale Writing Center reminds us, "you join [the] conversation on false grounds, representing yourself as someone you are not." But they go on to make the much more important point: "the act of stealing another’s words or ideas erases your voice." The real and lasting solution to the problem of plagiarism, then, is to learn to recognize your own distinct voice in the conversation you are trying to enter. It is not just about confessing to your own unoriginality; it is about actually making an original contribution.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Citing Wikipedia (i.e., why not to)

This week I'm going to be posting mainly about basic scholarship, i.e., the way your writing develops in relation to your reading. It is an important part of how you "enter the conversation" that constitutes research in your field.

Even Wikipedia's founder, Jimbo Wales, advises against doing it, but you can always find someone who will defend the practice of citing Wikipedia. Here are some clear statements against it by the Writing Center at Yale and the Williams College Libraries. And here, for good measure, is Wikipedia's own cautious statement. Most of this advice is directed at undergraduates, perhaps because it assumed that scholars wouldn't even consider the idea.

There is, unfortunately, some evidence to the contrary.* Lisa Spiro's post is interesting, but I think it misses a very basic point, which the Yale Writing Center puts in forceful terms: "to rely on Wikipedia—even when the material is accurate—is to position your work as inexpert and immature." The key word here is "rely". Any specific criticism of Wikipedia can be countered, but why on earth would we ever rely on Wikipedia? Scholars do the research that Wikipedia sometimes summarizes very nicely (sometimes wholly ineptly). Wikipedia relies on scholarship; each article is based on "reliable sources". Not the other way around.

I want to stress that the question is whether you can cite Wikipedia as a source, not whether you can use Wikipedia as a resource. That distinction is absolutely crucial. Spiro forgets it when she makes the following argument, for example: (the quote is from Wales's remarks)

"I still would say that an encyclopedia is just not the kind of thing you would reference as a source in an academic paper. Particularly not an encyclopedia that could change instantly and not have a final vetting process". But an encyclopedia can be a valid starting point for research. Indeed, The Craft of Research, a classic guide to research, advises that researchers consult reference works such as encyclopedias to gain general knowledge about a topic and discover related works.

An argument for consulting Wikipedia, however, is not an argument for citing it. An argument for starting somewhere is not an argument for staying there. Moreover, she cites the second edition of The Craft of Research. As I have pointed out in a earlier post, the third edition is unequivocal: "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (37, my emphasis).

My view is that there is never a reason to cite Wikipedia as a source in your academic writing. Never. Use it for the purpose that it was intended: as a starting point for serious inquiry of your own. I also like to point out a side benefit of the "anyone can edit" policy: you will sometimes find an interesting and unorthodox angle on the subject matter that, properly speaking, shouldn't even be in an encyclopedia (because it expresses a subjective or minority point of view as an uncontroversial fact). That angle may shed new light on your own position. But it should always, always, always be developed on the basis of much more reliable sources. (These will sometimes be provided in the the Wikipedia article itself.)

Beyond that, we might approach Wikipedia as a community to be studied ethnographically through first-hand observation, interaction, and interviews. In such cases, however, I don't think we should treat the various versions of the articles as "primary sources" (as we might treat, for example, a novel). What you can do is describe what Wikipedia says on a particular topic, and in so doing, you may of course quote from it. Here you should provide the URL, but keep in mind that Wikipedia has now become an object of study, and there are a lot of things you need to do in order to make sure that you are seeing that object properly. Do you understand the revision history of the article you are talking about? Have you studied the discussion that led to the version you are reading and do you understand the consensus? Do you really understand what Wikipedia is and how it works?**

Matt Kirschenbaum, whom Spiro cites, has argued that (1) there are "content domains" about which Wikipedia is essentially reliable and (2) you can use your understanding of how Wikipedia works to see whether the article you are citing is subject to controversy. On this basis, he says, you can make a reasoned judgement about "whether or not to rely on Wikipedia". I don't want to deny the first point. There are certainly content domains of Wikipedia that are more accurate than others; and some articles are quite good. Wikipedia even has a form of internal (but not formal) review that marks articles as "good" or "featured". But I strongly disagree with the second point, which Spiro restates as follows:

With Wikipedia, as with other sources, scholars should use critical judgment in analyzing its reliability and appropriateness for citation. If scholars carefully evaluate a Wikipedia article’s accuracy, I don’t think there should be any shame in citing it.

I really do think we should be ashamed. Some sources are simply not worth the trouble of our critical judgment; the unreliability of Wikipedia is pretty much right there on its surface. Use your critical judgment to assess the facts presented in Wikipedia, not the source that presents it. Once you have confirmed the fact, cite the source that allowed you to do that, not the website that made the original claim. We do not just rely on our sources ourselves; we are asking our readers to rely on them as well. We owe each other better sources than "the encyclopedia anyone can edit".

* Update: I'm now trying to do study of my own to determine the extent of the problem in organization and management studies. Preliminary results are quite good. The Social Science Citation index registers only 28 citations of Wikipedia, none of them in major management publications. I've only found one instance of what Spiro calls "straight citation" and it occurs in Tourism Management. It does look as though medical and legal publications allow Wikipedia as a reference (I don't have access to check them out in detail). But even here, like I say, there aren't many.

** This paragraph was rewritten on Dec. 19, 2008.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Looking Ahead

The spring break (Easter holiday) begins on April 4 next year. There are 9 weeks from the beginning of February to the break, and 7 weeks from the break until the end of May. Those 17 weeks (including the one-week break) are what I usually propose to call your "working weeks". This morning, let me issue the Sixteen Week Challenge again.

Decide, first, how much writing time you have during those sixteen weeks. This will depend on your teaching load, your other commitments, and your writing goals. But the important thing is to find a finite amount 2 or 3-hour "writing blocks", i.e., time you can set aside in your calendar for writing. You could have anywhere from 1 to 5 of these in a given week. A maximum of around 80.

(I don't recommend planning to spend whole days on your writing. Plan always to spend half days writing.)

Next you need to get a sense of where your various writing projects are at. How far along are the texts you are working on. These could include your journal articles, your dissertation, books, and even book-proposals. (In the case of your dissertation or book, however, take each "project" to be a smaller unit, like a chapter.)

The question is: What stage will my writing projects be at on Monday, February 2, 2009 and where should they be on Friday, May 29? You need to answer this question in the light of the time you have given yourself. And you need to be able to fill in your writing blocks in advance with tasks that will bring you from where you are to where you want to be.

This is neither an exact science nor an authoritarian regime. Think of it like your teaching: you begin with a pretty clear sense of what you will be talking about and when (and where) you will be saying it. You don't know exactly what you will say, of course, but you know you will say something intelligent about, say, strategic management at, say, 9:10 AM on March 10. Your writing time should be just as firm.

This year, don't make a New Year's resolution about finally writing this or that paper, or finally getting disciplined about writing. Just take the Sixteen Week Challenge. Think of Palinurus.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Memoriam

Birgit Vibeke Lindberg, one of our PhD students, passed away last week after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. The funeral is being held today.

Here are a few words from her obituary, written by her supervisor, Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, and department head, Eva Zeuthen Bentsen, which was published in Politiken on Tuesday.

Birgit was woman who had a strong presence at the department. You were never in doubt about her mood when she came to work, and she was never indifferent to her surroundings. So she was also a colleague that most of us had a personal relation to. There was always life and warmth when Birgit was at work. She leaves a place that will feel empty for a long time.

Here at RSL, our best thoughts are with her. Peace.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Be Brilliant

Jonathan Mayhew has recently put up two short posts on scholarly writing that are worth reading. He offers a few basic principles and some supplementary suggestions. It is important to keep in mind that Jonathan takes academic expertise seriously. He believes, without the usual irony, that academics should know more about their subject than, well, anyone else.

There are different ways of taking that. Generally, you and your peers should be the place non-experts go for knowledge about a certain set of topics. Obviously, there will be degrees of expertise within your field, and no one is saying that you have to be the absolutely most knowledgeable person in your area. There will normally be someone you can look up to. But it can be useful to ask yourself: on what specific topics should academics in your field go to you for detailed knowledge? The standards you maintain in that area will say a great deal about your work.

Then there is the question about language and writing. When defining your area of expertise, make sure you are able to write well and easily about its central topics. That's a relative idea, of course. Just make sure it's not an area that you have a great deal of trouble expressing yourself in.

Also, if much of the tradition can be traced back to French or German or Spanish or even Latin texts, spend some of your time learning that language. The main character in Don DeLillo's White Noise is an expert on Hitler who, to his shame, doesn't know any German. When his department hosts a major international conference, he decides he'd better learn and secretly finds himself a German teacher. But by then it is, of course, too late.

Tony Tost, my favourite living poet, once said that when he's writing a poem he's "basically just trying to be brilliant". I think Jonathan's advice just details this attitude towards one's work. To be brilliant you have to have the necessary skills, but you also have to know where to stand in order to shine. Where is your light needed?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Translation, Interpretation, Sensemaking

my bad, people
I could fast-forward life
and look at all this with a numb eye
to be like the total past

K. Silem Mohammad

Af few weeks ago, I raised some concerns about Karl Weick's collage of Alfred Schutz and Robert Pirsig. I've now taken a closer look, and the passage can actually serve as instructive example of common problems of interpretation and translation, i.e., quite literally problems of doing research in a second language. In Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick writes as follows:

The idea of retrospective sensemaking derives from Schutz's (1967) analysis of "meaningful lived experience." The key word in that phrase, lived, is stated in the past tense to capture the reality that people can know what they are doing only after they have done it. (24)

Now, as I already pointed out in that last post, "lived" is not really in the past tense because it is not being used as a verb. The past participle is here being used as an adjective, and adjectives don't have a tense.

There is a deeper problem, however. Weick seems to be be suggesting that Schutz chose his words carefully in order to "capture" a particular "reality", i.e., in order to suggest a particular interpretation. Weick then draws attention to exactly that sense of the of the words. But Schutz wrote the original in German, and in German "lived experience" is written simply "Erlebnis". I've talked about this with native German speakers, and there is simply no "pastness" anywhere in that way of putting it. It could just as well have been written "experience as we live it" or "living experience"*. The "key word", "lived", was required by the translation in order to capture the important difference between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, both of which might otherwise be translated simply as "experience" in English.

So the take-home message here is not to attribute undue significance to the word-choices of authors you are reading in translation. In principle, there is nothing wrong with saying, "I find the past participle here to be a useful reminder that ...", but in this case the whole thing seems to be a misreading of Schutz at a deeper level as well. As far as I can tell, Schutz uses Erlebnis to refer precisely to our present experience. Still more strangely, as I read Schutz's chapter on meaningful lived experience, he is talking about the projective character of experience, and therefore about how we do make sense of our actions before we carry them out. But I'm far from an expert on Schutz.

*I don't have the German original on hand, but it will be interesting to read it. Weick quotes Schutz again on the next page (25). "When, by my act of reflection, I turn my attention to my living experience...", writes Schutz (51, my emphasis). "Living experience" might be translating the same single word, Erlebnis, but there is no past participle in sight. [Update 03/10/14: the German reads "erlebte Erlebnisse", which is arguably using the past participle. It might also be translated as "experienced experience". Re-reading the passage in question suggests I should probably return to this. Weick's reading of Schutz may be better than I thought. It's his writing about Schutz that I have an issue with.

Monday, December 08, 2008

If You Build It, Will They Come?

People sometimes ask me for advice about blogging. The last time that happened, I promised I would write a post on the subject. But, as I sit down this morning to compose it, I find I am full of doubts. After all, am I the right guy to ask? This blog gets about 25 visits a day (easily two of those are by me). That's hardly a very successful blog. If my goal is traffic, I'm doing something wrong.

I use blogging primarily as a way to develop my thoughts in a relatively disciplined way. A good journal or diary is usually written for posterity. That is, it is written on the assumption that one day people will want to know what you were thinking along the way to your great works, and that forces you to write better than you would if you were just writing for yourself. Blogging provides a less presumptuous version of that constraint. You still have to imagine a reader, but not your own future fame.

And this is really the main advice I have. Whether you are blogging by yourself or as part of a group, let the content drive the project.

One way to think about this is in terms of your time commitment. Don't spend too much time at the beginning thinking about how the blog will look. It takes literally minutes to set up a blog. Already from the first hour of your blogging life, most of your time should be spent writing content. You will learn a lot of tricks along the way, and eventually you may have the sharpest blog online. But without the habit of contributing interesting content (by your standards) it's not really going to mean anything.

My advice to would-be bloggers, then, is "just do it": set up the blog without thinking too much about what it is going to look like or who is going to read it. Contribute often, but keep the posts short. Get into the habit of writing brief notes for public consumption about things that interest you. You'll never regret having that habit. And you won't know what "go the distance" meant until you do. The blogosphere is a field of dreams.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Evidence and Audience

If you are new to research, of course, your claim doesn't have to challenge the experts, just impress your teacher.

Booth, Colomb and Williams
(The Craft of Research, 3rd ed, p. 126)

In academic writing it is never enough to be right. At our monthly craft seminar, yesterday, Rob Austin put it very nicely: your work needs to be "compelling", and this requires that it be both insightful and convincing. Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about "making your claim significant" (124-126).

Part of this means being aware of what counts as evidence for a particular group of people. Your research process will have to generate exactly that kind of evidence, and your research writing will have to put it before your reader.

Nicole Berry, an anthropologist now at Simon Fraiser University, apparently held a talk about this issue in 2004.

As I write my dissertation it seems to me that the linguistic data that I have, particularly long transcripts in Kaqchikel Maya, severely restrict my audience, the same way that including lengthy mathematical formulas would repel potential readers.

It is very true that some forms of evidence repel certain audiences. But there are many academic audiences that simply require you to express yourself with mathematical precision, others that require you to quote from your transcripts in the original language. In both cases, you are then normally just as obligated to translate these expressions into prose that can be understood by an ordinary academic reader.

Many members of your audience will take your word for the translations. They will expect both the peer review process and (post-publication) the critical community of your peers to ensure that everything is more or less in order on matters they can't understand. In the long run, the fact that your basic understanding of Kaqchikel Maya (or your math) has not been questioned by those among your peers who are qualified to do so, builds your credibility. It's what makes you an expert.

It is important to make this mental transition to a more general academic audience. At some point (preferably before writing your master's thesis) you have to stop trying only to impress your teacher. Instead, try to be compelling, as Rob says. That means understanding not who exactly you are writing for but what kind of reader you want to convince. Decide on your audience. Then find the relevant evidence.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Citing and Crediting

Jonathan raises an important point in his comments to my last post. If you find that Wikipedia is a great help to your research—if, for example, it is the place you learn some important detail about your subject—then you are free to (not obligated to) thank the project. Over the long term, such acknowledgements by respected academics may even change its status in the academic community. As Booth, Colomb and Williams put it, "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (Craft of Research, 3rd edition, p. 37). There are still technical reasons not to trust Wikipedia as we might trust Britannica, but maybe one day a convention will emerge that will allow us to cite Wikipedia. That day has not yet arrived.

More generally, keep in mind that there is a difference in general between referencing a source for the purpose of telling the reader why to believe what you're saying (the primary reason) and the purpose of thanking the author for his or her contribution. In some cases, keep in mind that accomplishing the latter might actually undermine your ability to do the former. Thanking certain sources (depending on how you do it) might raise doubts about your scholarly judgment or just "the company you keep" (as Booth might put it).

If your original source is unreliable in your judgment then you have to do some work checking the accuracy of what you learn there. You may acknowledge the source of inspiration to do that work. (You might never have known if not for that original dubious source, after all.) But remember to take credit for the fact-checking yourself. Also, if checking the facts in question means simply looking it up in an authoritative reference work or other work on the subject, notice that the source you are thinking of crediting probably just got it from there. And if it had just cited its source, your work would have been that much easier.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don't Cite Wikipedia

[See also this more detailed post.]

There are all kinds of uses for Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia is open to input from anyone who is interested in a subject, you sometimes find little nuggets of specialized information that you would not get (as easily) elsewhere. Its "neutral point of view" policy also often ensures that arguments on both sides of controversies are presented (sometimes in a somewhat artificially "balanced" manner). A good article really can teach you something about the subject matter.

Wikipedia is also a reasonably dependable source of reliable sources of information. That is, it often cites perfectly good sources. But it is not itself a reliable source of information.

Much of its unique value comes from its open and dynamic platform, which is also what makes it a poor source of authoritative knowledge. Wikipedia is "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" and many of its articles change several times a day. So it is of little use to the reader to know that Wikipedia makes a particular claim about an event, or that Wikipedia defines a certain concept in a particular way.

It does not help to specifiy the date you read the article, or to cite the particular version of the article you're quoting from. Either way, you would have to have some special reason to believe that this version of the article is right. And if you have such a reason then you also have a better source for the point in question. Cite that source, not Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Swoopers and Bashers

I've beeen meaning to write something about Kurt Vonnegut's classification of writers for some time. Here's the classical statement, from chapter 35 of Timequake:

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done. (118)

I wonder if this distinction holds in its pure form even for writers of fiction. It is especially the basher I'm doubtful about. Does anyone really write without going back over what they've written? But as a description of two different atttitudes to writing, I think it holds.

I started out as a basher by nature. Perhaps even by gender: "Most men are bashers," says Vonnegut, "and most women are swoopers." But I have come to appreciate swooping more recently. I think academic writing is best done by swooping, and I am usually not very hopeful about writers who claim to be bashers. A linear writing process—one that has no way of reversing its direction—is much more likely to get stuck, blocked, or cramped.

Writers who are swoopers, it seems to me, find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place. (119)

That probably captures part of the reason swooping is more advisable. In academic writing you are allowed to take the existence of other people more or less for granted.

The only way a basher can "revise" a text is to start over. To rewrite it. A swooper knows that the first draft is only that, and that the final version will emerge after much fixing. A basher finds the idea that there is a "higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum" version of the text abhorent. Drafts are discarded, not corrected. Like I say, given this choice, I think swooping is the wiser approach to academic writing. Try not to worry too much about why people are alive as such.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Plausible Personality

"It would be selfish of me to be too modest,
just so you would not think of me as being too arrogant."

Jonathan Mayhew

Walking him over to the kindergarten this morning, my son, 5, said something profound. "I've decided not to be a thief when I grow up." Really, I said, why on earth not? "Because that way I won't get caught." Well put, no?

I tried to capitalize on the opportunity. When deciding on a vocation, I told him, there are three important things to keep in mind. First, find something you enjoy doing. Second, get very good at it. Third, make sure it's something someone will pay you to do. The order is probably important. But he wasn't really listening anymore.

We walked past the furniture upholstering workshop and waved to Harry through the great big showroom windows. One of the professors (we live essentially on campus) drove by and noticed my boy's interest in real workmanship. "That's right," he shouted. "Much better than academia!" But academic research is also a craft, right?

Tonight I read Jonathan Mayhew's reflections on the virtues of his recent book. It reminded me of why his blog is so important. Jonathan enjoys what he does, does it well, and gets paid for it. There is no melancholy in that. No Palinurian death drive (the urge to jump ship because your captain is a decadent fool).

I don't know if he is just pretending, of course, and is, deep down, as much of a resentful academic as the next guy. At Bemsha Swing he doesn't let on. It reminds me of something Nabokov said in a 1969 Vogue interview:

I do not believe that speaking about myself can encourage the sales of my books. What I really like about the better kind of public colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a plausible and not altogether displeasing personality. (Strong Opinions, p. 158)

You should read Bemsha Swing exactly for that: a plausible academic personality. Of course, you never really know what Nabokov thinks, deep down, either. But it doesn't matter. We know enough now not to get caught.

Fast Prototyping

Orgtheory draws our attention to What's New. Fabio recommends especially the post on time management, and I would add that the idea of rapid prototyping is worth familiarizing yourself with.

Tao's immediate inspiration for this comes from software development. Our own Rob Austin (with Lee Devin) has suggested that prototyping in this sense is an important aspect of "artful making". In the case of academic writing, I'd add, it is a way of emphasing the craft of it.

The basic idea is to make sure that you are developing your ideas by way of iterations of expression of them. You are making sure that your argument works at every step along way. The prototype gives you a way of deciding whether it works as you had hoped. And this gives you a very concrete sense of how to proceed. It ensures that you are not just developing something "in your head", but that you are actually working on the paper.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Clash of the Media

In lieu of a real post this morning, here's a classic meditation on the effects of developments in one form of expression on the status of another. Will blogging kill the academic journal author? Will YouTube kill blogging? Well, what did happen to "the radio star"?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

First and/or Firstly

This came up in the workshop last week. Should you write "first" or "firstly"? My answer is quite generally to use "first", "second", "third". What was interesting is that I couldn't come up with even one instance where I would even allow "firstly". I think I have come up with one now. The difference lies in whether you want to emphasize temporal or hierarchical order, i.e., sequence or weight.


If I were put in that situation I'd do three things. First, I'd straigthen him out about the correct use of quotation marks. Second, I'd call all his friends and relations to tell them never to take his advice when it comes to grammar. Third, I'd send him a one-way ticket to some faraway place where writing hasn't even been invented yet.

I think there are three things to keep in mind. Firstly, you can't let grammatical errors pass unnoticed because this constitutes tacit approval. Secondly, don't let down your guard against people who are trying to trap you into showing you're just an ignorant snob about grammar. Thirdly, you can always send your author a one-way ticket to some faraway place where writing hasn't even been invented yet.

Now, I'd still just use "first", "second", and "third" in that second example. But I would probably allow the -ly ending.

Pam Peters, in the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, notes the history of the problem. There was a time when one would say "first", then "secondly" and "thirdly". Today, we prefer consistency and therefore allow that "firstly is perfectly logical as the preliminary to secondly, thirdly." But she rightly adds that "an obvious and easy alternative is to use first, second, third etc." (208) Kenneth Wilson's suggestion in the Columbia Guide is similar and can be found here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


"I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write."

Michel Foucault

In the old days, before there were journals, scientists would write letters to each other about their results. These would then be circulated and (if I recall my history of science correctly) the readers would add their own comments, sometimes the results of their own attempts to replicate those in the original letter. There was very little question back then about who your peers were.

Today we have too many peers to know exactly who we're writing for, and even who we are. But that does not mean we can't identify some of our readers concretely. I think too many academic writers see the journal literature as a completely anonymous authority, a faceless bureaucracy that you somehow have to force or fool into accepting your work.

In order to change this image of the journals, keep that old-fashioned circulation of letters in mind. As your research progresses, make a conscious effort to imagine your readers. Who might be interested in the results you are producing? Name these people, and learn something about them. Where do they work? Where do they publish? And don't just imagine commmunicating with them. Write them emails. Seek them out at conferences. Arrange to visit their institutions.

Putting faces on your readership is a way of taking ownership of your writing. After all, it also requires imagining your own face on it. Publishing—which is to say, making your ideas public—is a way of communicating with other researchers. It is not just an exam you pass to impress your university administrators and further your career.

Much as I admire Foucault, I think his resentment (even ressentiment?) of academic writing is an unnecessary affectation. Why should sincere researchers, striving, shoulder to shoulder, in the pursuit of knowledge, leave anything to the police and the bureaucrats? We should insist on letting only our peers evaluate our "papers" (admittedly in another sense), i.e., those with whom we also sometimes speak face-to-face. It is their "morality" we should engage with when we write.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Effective managers know how important it is to get people to take ownership of the organization's goals. It is not enough that people know what their jobs are, nor even that they will be fired if they don't do them: people have to identify with the tasks they are assigned at some deeper level.

In academia, one of the most important tasks is publishing. Academics have little difficulty identifying with tasks that involve data collection, reading, thinking, and even writing. But they sometimes have a harder time identifying with the aim of publishing their results.

This is actually strange. Publishing is something that researchers have a major stake in. In fact, a substantial list of publications offers a considerable amount of freedom to academics. It is very much a way of building "equity"; it increases the value of your academic credentials. It makes your career portable by making your qualifications objective.

Being published makes it easier for you to apply for research grants (to reduce your teaching load). It makes it easier to grant you tenure (or equivalent forms of security). It makes it much more realistic to think about looking for jobs at other universities. It also makes it easier for your peers at other institutions to invite you to come and visit them for an all-expenses-paid semester as a visiting scholar.

It is not to satisfy your adminstrators that you should publish. It is to improve your own position in the world, and the ease with which you move around in it. And I haven't even said anything about the intrinsic importance of having a readership yet.

Friday, November 21, 2008


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

You cannot learn to write publishable prose overnight. Nor can an editor convert your notes into a publishable article by fixing the grammar. Successful academic writers are people who have made a habit of prosing their world, as Foucault might put it. They have submitted to a discipline.

Are you writing regularly? Does your writing schedule include periods of revision and proofreading? Does your reading respect your writing (and vice versa)? Do you have time to take your writing sessions seriously as learning opportunities? Do you study your own writing alongside the good prose you are reading?

Do you have conversations with peers about the things you are writing about? That is, is there a "spoken language" for your research?

Do you stop writing before you are exhausted? Before you are interrupted? (I.e., do you stop because your writing session is simply over?) Do you write even when you don't feel like it?

It is a long journey. There are about a 1000 days between the start a PhD program and its completion. Perhaps another 1000 between your assistant professorship and your associate professorship. You have to be relentless about your writing in those days. You have to be paying attention.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Power of Facing

"[Writing] isn't really even an ability at all. It's a knack."
Christopher Hitchens (18:05)

A bit later (21:18) on Hitchen's talks about Orwell's view of himself as a writer, emphasizing the "power of facing unpleasant facts". He rightly says that this is "nicely phrased: he could have said 'an ability to face' or 'a power to face". This immediately struck me as somewhat at odds with his claim that writing isn't an ability, but a knack. The tension is emphasized by his reinterpretation of the "power of facing" as (less nicely phrased) an "ability to face". Hitchen's does seem to grant some ability here.

Hitchens says that, in addition to this power, Orwell recognized in himself "a certain literary ability", which Hitchens (quite clearly, I think you'll agree if you watch the clip) shrugs off as of little importance. Interesteringly, Orwell did not quite claim to have "literary ability"; he claimed to have discovered that he had a "facility with words". And I think Hitchens is right to paraphrase this as he does with a shrug. Writing itself is not an ability. You either have a knack for it or you don't. If you do, you are, as Hitchens says, lucky. But it should be possible to make your way in academic life (with somewhat less "facility", let's say), even if you find the act of putting words together difficult.

Nor do you, stricly speaking, need a power of facing unpleasant facts. That's something politically minded writers like Orwell and Hitchens need, but academic writers less so. You do need to have an ability to register possibly unfashionable facts, I would argue. How else would we learn anything new? But the insulation of academic life will hopefully keep this from being an unpleasant experience.

In general, however, all good writing depends on a "power of facing" some corner of reality combined with a particular "facility" with words. Hitchens shrugs off the latter, and this morning I want to grant that he's probably right about that. It is, precisely, the "easy" part (look up "facility"). The important thing is how you face your facts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Knack

"[Writing] isn't really even an ability at all. It's a knack."
Christopher Hitchens (18:05)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

John Stuart Mill
On Liberty, Ch. II

At the PhD course last week, I attributed this idea to Christopher Hitchens, hastily adding that it no doubt was not his own. I had forgotten that Hitchens himself had already attributed it to no less than three individuals, one of them, of course, being John Stuart Mill. By this oversight, I robbed my audience of an important reference point in the discussion of freedom of speech. Ironically, I was using it as an analogy for my defence of proper citation in academic writing.

"It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard," says Hitchens (at 2:19); "it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear."

My application of this idea runs as follows. Plagiarism is often seen as an act of "theft", i.e., a violation of the property rights of authors. There are two immediate problems with this view. The first is that it seems to grant the possibility of getting permission to plagiarize. One could, for example, simply pay the original authors for the right to pretend their words are your own. The second is that the "postmodern conditions" of today's academy make moral* claims to "intellectual property" increasingly untenable. Many of the authors I work with, for example, are essentially anarchists or socialists, and this especially when it comes to the "marketplace of ideas". My stock answer to this is to see "the moral right to be identified as the author of a work" as more like "personal" property, which anarchists generally allow, than "private" property.

How can I give my insistence on proper citation more general force? By borrowing the language of Mill and Hitchens: The peculiar evil of failing to cite an author is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation. What is violated is not just the right of the author to be identified as the source of the words or ideas in question; when you plagiarize, you violate the right of the reader to know where those words or ideas came from.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sensemaking to Go

While teaching a PhD course this morning I was reminded of a telling feature of Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations. In "Concepts, Style, and Reflection" (in Jones and Munro, ed., 2005), Barbara Czarniawska notes that Weick ignores the "strange logic" that "separates reading a story in a newspaper from hearing it retold by a manager and then reading it again from one's transcript", and which also distinguishes between "empirical data" and "anecdotes" (275). In fact, Weick does not make any judgments about his sources in order to determine what weight to give them in his own work.

The material that Weick collects to develop, corroborate, and illustrate his theories..

(He does not actually really distinguish between development, corroboration, and illustration either, I would add.) amazingly wide; he is a master of collage, and his criteria of selection are relevance, accessibility, and theoretical satiation. (275)

Let's see what "collage" means in practice. In Sensemaking (p. 24), he writes:

The idea of retrospective sensemaking derives from Schutz's (1967) analysis of "meaningful lived experience." The key word in that phrase, lived, is stated in the past tense to capture the reality that people can know what they are doing only after they have done it. Pirsig (cited in Winokur, 1990) makes this point when he says, "Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality" (p. 82).

In this paragraph (I have quoted it entire), Weick brings together Alfred Schutz's The Phenomenology of the Social World and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the latter of which is a novel, here as "cited"* by Jon Winokur in a book called Zen to Go. We go from a work of social theory to a work of fiction-cum-philosophy by way of an anthology of "bite-sized bits of wisdom". But we are not given any indication of the differences between these books. Winokur could have been an (unfamiliar) social theorist, as could Pirsig, who appears without his first name, is not listed in the bibliography**, and never comes up again. Perhaps we've reached a point of "theoretical satiation"?

I am not sure Schutz actually emphasized that "lived" is in the past tense (and I'm not really sure that it is)***, but Weick does not tell us where in the book (he cites the whole thing) Schutz might be suggesting this. In any case, the idea that Pirsig and Schutz are "making the same point" is somewhat odd. Alfred Schutz is a Zen Buddhist? Then again, Weick doesn't even tell us that Pirsig's point is an elaboration of Zen. And Zen "to go" at that. It's drive-through theoretical satori! Coming soon to a location near you.

(Continues ... click here)

*This way of putting it gives the false impression that Pirsig is cited in a text written by Winokur. Actually, Winokur is the editor of the book. In it he has collected a variety of zen-like statements without comment.

**Formally, that's actually in order. Weick does not claim to have read the novel. In fact, he doesn't claim to know that the original source even is a novel.

***"Lived" is the past participle of the verb "to live", but it is not used as a verb here (and therefore has no "tense"). It is an adjective that modifies "experience".

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Plagiarism and Scientific Progress

When Martin Kilduff was editor of the Academy of Management Review he wrote a helpful little comment called "Publishing Theory" (2006, Vol. 31, No. 2, 252–255). It presents his dos and don'ts for writing a good theoretical paper, which is to say a paper that might be published in AMR. Under the heading "Don't Copy" he writes as follows:

Most people in the field understand that it is wrong to plagiarize the work of others. But it is perhaps less well understood that you should not plagiarize yourself: do not send to AMR a paper expounding precisely the same ideas you’ve published elsewhere. Similarly, it is not well understood that AMR does not publish summaries of research for the uninformed. We do not publish popular science articles introducing esoteric ideas published elsewhere. Each paper must contain an original theoretical contribution. One indication of papers that lack original content is the tendency to include extensive quotations from famous thinkers. (253)

Interdisciplinarity exacerbates the problem. Is it an "original theoretical contribution" to introduce a familiar idea from sociology, psychology, history, or philosophy to management studies?

It certainly can be. The key to an original contribution is understanding its unoriginal basis. You have to understand what part of your contribution is original and what part is not.

Unfortunately, writers sometimes simply plagiarize the ideas they run into in other fields on the (half-considered) assumption that their extra-disciplinary reading itself constitutes "originality". Such plagiarism can occur even where the source is cited, and even where no plagiarism of the actual words of the source occurs. The writer and would-be theorist simply forgets to indicate the extent of that source's contribution. (See this post for an example.)

Kilduff's phrase "summaries of research for the uninformed" is apt. If you imagine that your reader does not know of, and will never read, your source, it is tempting to make yourself the local representative of its content. But you should always ask yourself whether your reader will cite you or your source for any particular part of your summary. The reader, remember, is (by assumption) "uninformed" about the source. If it would be natural for the reader to cite you for something your source taught you, you are doing something wrong.

In the end, you need to inform the reader about those esoteric ideas that you want to import into management studies and organization theory. You need to fully acknowledge their unoriginality as such by giving the reader a good sense of their origin. That can take a lot of work. It is the work that goes with the desire to be interdisciplinary. Only after you have presented the extra-disciplinary idea on its own terms to the reader can you begin to apply it.

I think this sort of problem is more widespread than we like to admit. The cross-disciplinary plagiarism of ideas gives us a false sense of progress in our field. If we did not plagiarize the progress made in other fields, and instead adequately represented it, we would get a more accurate sense of our own originality. It would take much more work. We would have to really understand work in those other fields and we would have to explain it properly to our readers. Progress would be slower, to be sure; but it would actually be made.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ethos is the rhetorical appeal of your character. Your ethos in writing is who the reader "gets to know". Even in the most impersonal paper, the reader gets a sense of the writer, a sense of his or her credibility (which should be taken to mean quite literally "believability"). In Greek, ethos could mean custom, habit, disposition, or character. It is also at the root of "ethics".

Unlike politics, however, scholarship does not make any explicitly moral demands of you. You don't have to be a good parent, spouse, or patriot to be an organization theorist. Your ethos may, however, be affected by your political positioning. While scholarly ethos is not always damaged by the simple fact of stating your political position explicitly, or by inadvertently expressing your implicit position, different fields do have different political "leanings", so sometimes you can get in trouble simply by having inappropriate views.

But in academic writing your main ethos appeal lies in the work you do to esablish and maintain a scholarly persona. (Persona means "mask". You are trying to generate a stable image of yourself as a scholar in the reader's mind.) Booth, Colomb and Williams have pointed out that simple things like getting your references right (so that your reader can find your sources) contribute to your ethos (3rd edition: page 195-6). Naturally, there is also the problem of getting simple facts straight. If you make claims about the world that the reader knows to be false, your ethos will suffer. As it also will if your reader goes back to your souce and discovers that you have plagiarized it.

Don't think to yourself that only a pedant would require you to double check your draft against your sources. Think of it as a point of honour. Your reader often will.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tradition and Performance

It is tempting to think of a journal article as a performance. Like an actor or a musician, we tell ourselves, we take the stage and either fail or succeed. Either way, we will have to do it again the following night with a new audience.

I recently noticed that Karl Weick thinks of his work in these terms. Here's how he puts it in Sensemaking in Organizations.

Among [jazz] musicians, there is the saying "you're only as good as your last date," by which they mean that history and reputation count for less than does the most recent exhibition of your craft. The same can be said of the topic of sensemaking.

Sensemaking, as a focus of inquiry, is only as significant and useful as are its most recent exemplars. (64)

Notice that he is not just talking about the individual scholar here. He is talking about a whole "topic", a "focus of inquiry". This strikes me as obviously wrong. What, after all, counts as a "most recent exemplar" of sensemaking inquiry? The publication of an article does not guarantee that it will be read, nor that it will have an effect on other researchers. Surely the sensemaking topic is as "significant and useful" as, well, its most significant and useful exemplars.

The truth is that you do not stake your whole reputation on your most recent publication. People who found your article from five years ago useful will continue to use it in their work even if you have moved on to, for them, less interesting topics, and even if you have since changed your mind and now disagree with your celebrated paper. In that sense, it is quite possible to be much better than your most recent performance.

When trying to understand a research tradition (a particular approach to a topic or focus of inquiry), history and reputation should count a great deal more than Weick here suggests. You have to go back through the literature and find the lasting "monuments", as Foucault might put it. You don't have to read everything that is happening right now.

Jazz, for obvious reasons, is not merely as useful or significant as its most recent performance. There are masterpieces, which are both scored (i.e., written down) and recorded. They are permanent parts of the tradition. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew do more to determine the validity of more recent jazz performances than recent performances do to determine the validity of jazz as a genre. They also do more to determine the validity of the specific kind of jazz (cool, rock) than any given contemporary exemplar. They are permanent parts of a tradition. A tradition without permanent monuments is neither significant nor useful.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Takes long, goes fast

There appears to be something called post-election blues this year. For a few weeks it seemed like something very, very important was going to happen. Then, suddenly, it happened. And now it is difficult to think of anything to say.

After breaking my knee, during the first week or so of being confined to the couch, I got hooked on first the financial crisis and then the election. I developed an addiction to Talking Points Memo in the last days of the race. Tonight I just read something there that may lead me back to the real world of grammar:

"I don't think they view him as a miracle worker who in two months is going to solve an economic crisis," Mr. Benenson said. "It is a matter of being straightforward with people about what we are going to achieve and how fast it's going to take."

That's the problem, of course. Change has come to Washington, America and the World ... slow change ... and in that order (if at all). But that's not what's bringing me back. Can you spot it? That's right ... you don't say "how fast it's going to take". You say "how long it's going to take" or "how fast it's going to go". Things take long or go fast. They don't take fast or go long (not in the sense needed here).

Things are looking up.

Monday, November 03, 2008


My knee has healed and now it's all about using it, rebuilding its strength. Yes, friends, we have another great opportunity to compare physical exercise to writing processes...

Writing processes are sometimes interrupted for a period of time by extraneous events. Some of these are not interruptions, properly speaking, but planned breaks. Vacations are an example. You may also suddenly be burdened by an increased teaching load. Or you may simply have felt "burnt out" for a time (a common situation immediately after submitting a dissertation or, less commonly, a book.) Whatever the reason for the break, as with physical exercise, "getting back at it" is a specific challenge, and it is not to be taken lightly.

The most important thing is to establish a regular pattern of activity. You have to decide exactly when you will be writing, and you have allow the first few weeks to be less productive than you might wish. (I want to go jogging as soon as possible, I can assure you, but it's not going to happen this week. I will be going for some slow, careful walks first.)

Once you have to decided to write again, start out small. An hour or two every other day should be sufficient. Even half an hour is a start. But make yourself a schedule and stick to it.

Don't set unrealistic goals about content, but do define some themes to write about. Your schedule should tell you not just when to write, but what you will be writing about. (A minimal theme would be "whatever pops into my head", but then you really have to carry this free writing exercise through for that session.)

My doctor says I need to use my knee as much as possible. But I should it let it tell me when I've done enough or too much. Your writing "arm" will also give you feedback about how hard you are driving yourself at the beginning. Don't push yourself too hard at the beginning. It is too likely to make you stop before you have built up the necessary strength to maintain a healthy writing habit.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

Most people know that I am very interested in the issue of plagiarism. There are many reasons for this, some principled, some more accidental. Today, I want to put some of these thoughts down.

First, plagiarism is an important concern in second language writing instruction. Attitudes toward plagiarism, it turns out, are culturally conditioned, so that students and researchers who started in non-Western educational systems sometimes don't understand the importance of proper citation. Also, even once this is understood, copying the exact words of an English-language source is, of course, easier than putting it in your own. The temptation for second-language users to plagiarize is therefore, at least arguably, higher.

My allegorical notion of research "as a second language" offers a way of transferring this point as well. Some fields are less persnickety about citation than others, and some scholars got their start as writers well outside the academic community. They therefore bring attitudes and habits with them that may not be acceptable in their chosen "second language", their new research idiom. Also, as fields previously dominated by "scientific" styles of writing move towards more "literary" modes, some writers seem to be taking a great deal of "poetic license" in regard to academic standards. We need to keep in mind that the standards we apply to a great poet like Shakespeare cannot be directly transferred to a scholar at the start of her career.

Unfortunately, well-established scholars appear to get away with plagiarism much more easily than students. That is in part more an appearance than a reality. Many more students than scholars plagiarize; not all of them get caught and some are let off without any formal reprimand. And when they do get caught, the clemency they enjoy is less publicized than in the case of high profile scholars. But it is true that highly respected scholars often retain their status even when their transgressions are discovered, while students often fail the course or are expelled from school. As I am discovering these days, too, it is easier to publish an "appreciation" of a major theorist's work, than it is to publish an exposé of his or her poor scholarship.

So I've been thinking about my position on scholarship as "academic misconduct". I think the moral tinge that the accusation unavoidably has hinders our enforcement of the relevant standards. In most cases, I think, students should simply be deducted marks for plagiarizing because it is "shoddy work" (as the American Historical Association puts it), not failed for cheating. It should be treated like getting a fact wrong or drawing illogical conclusions from premises. I leave aside cases of stealing or buying another student's work, or submitting whole passages transcribed from books. That is more obviously cheating. My point is that there is a great deal of plagiarism that should be taken as a deficient scholarship, not academic misconduct.

In a slogan: We need to teach proper citation, not preach it. (I swear I just made that up; but I'm not the only one, of course.)

In this spirit, revealing plagiarism and misreadings in the published work of one's peers should be normalized as acts of ordinary "critical reading". It should be like pointing out errors in reasoning, dubious inferences from data, and methodological problems. It should be taken as a criticism of the paper in question, not the scholar who wrote it. Above all, it should be talked about openly. Community standards are just that: a collective concern.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Comprehensive Vision

Over the past few years I have been pursuing this idea of "research as a second language" by many, often divergent routes. I am going to have to take some time to bring it all together sometime soon, or I may get completely lost. One way of doing this, of course, is to imagine the act of putting together a book.

As the descriptive subtitle of this blog suggests, I really have three main focus areas: writing, representation, and the criticial standing (crisis) of organization studies. These are actually organized from the least to the most "philosophical" concerns, and, perhaps ironically, from the most general to the most specific.

Writing: At the most general, and least philosophical, level I am interested in the writing process. This includes everything from planning your work to developing your voice (your style). One part of a book called Research as a Second Language would address these issues and, hopefully, provide a comprehensive vision of "composition", i.e., the art of drafting, redrafting, and finishing a text. The art of putting your reseach in writing.

Representation: Representation is the ability of one thing to stand for another thing, or one person to speak on behalf of others. And, of course, the ability of a reasearcher to speak on behalf of one or another reality (an object of research). In academic writing, this is a very important capacity and one that we develop whether we like it or not in the course of our studies. I say "whether we like or not" because representation has seen a great deal of challenges over the last 20 or 30 years. But whether representation is something you struggle for or against, it remains central to the art of expressing yourself in the research idiom, your second language.

Crisis: Organization studies faces a number of a specific challenges to its critical standing. This is in part because it is a relatively young discourse, and is still struggling to come into its own as an "academic" field. It lacks a strong tradition of scholarship and therefore a naturalness about how to present and respond to academic criticism. This has deep consequences for what is meant by knowledge in org studies. In an important sense, research is a second language for organization theorists as such, either because they have closer affinities with on-the-ground management than the world of research or because they received their training in more established fields and have to learn a new set of terms, and new set of standards.

Well, there you have it, my comprehensive vision. My suggestion is to develop your work habits, your representational (or deconstructive) capacities, and your criticial faculties (both in your head and on your campus) in order to become a respected member of the organization studies community, a competent user of its language. Pretty much in that order.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Publishing Pressure

Since I talk to academic writers every day, I get a good sense of the pressures that they work under. In general, I support the idea that academics should publish their results and, even more generally, that they should open their thinking to "public" comment. Although I think the most important forum for the dissemination of results (at least in terms of long-term social consequences) is the classroom, the journal literature is a way of improving the quality of the ideas that are taught. It is therefore fair to demand that even very good teachers publish their ideas in peer-reviewed forums as well.

But there have to be limits to this pressure. A research manager (often a research group director or a department head) will have to be sensitive to the mood in which publication is talked about. Are researchers enjoying the craft of shaping their thoughts for peer-review? Does the question of what one's peers think (or, sometimes, who one's peer might be) interest the writer? Or has publishing become an unwanted chore?

Academics do many things. And while they should be reading, thinking, and writing almost all the time, (pretty much every day), there are times when it is less than constructive for them to approach these tasks as a public matter. There may be times when you should write, but not "for publication". Just write. This may give you the energy and desire you need to write for your anonymous peers again in the future.

In fact, my usual suggestion for planning your writing process includes periods of fixation on publishing and periods that are not so fixated.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ramping Up

Okay, I'm almost ready to get back to making videos. I'll probably have one up next week (promises, promises). Here are a couple of drawings that I'm hoping to be able to animate in a future video. I came up with them when explaining to one of my authors what was wrong with an early draft of a paper.

I call this the Ramp for Readers approach. A paper is trying to raise the knowledge level of the reader. We're trying to get our reader to understand something better than they did before they read us.

The problem with my author's paper was, in part, that it assumed too little about what the reader already knew, and, worse, that it gave the reader nowhere to put the new information after reading. I drew this picture:

Reading the paper looked like it would be a constant accumulation of information intended to get someone who knows nothing about the subject to know everything about it. It would be like rolling a ball up a hill, but once once up there you would have keep standing there to keep it from rolling back down to the bottom ... and into the abyss.

As an alternative, I proposed the following image:

Here we have a platform or rest station, both at the top and at the bottom. (We could add a few along the way as well, of course.) If the reader gets tired, the ball rolls down to a level of already accomplished knowledge. If the reader succeeds, there is a nice place for it to rest at the top.

The trick is to identify the ball and the ramps. The ball is your main point, the ramp is your writing. The reader has to get that ball up the ramp. So make sure the ball isn't too heavy, and the ramp isn't too steep.

It also the reader's job to get to that first ramp, where the ball is waiting. That was another problem with the draft we were talking about. It started as though the reader was already pushing the ball up the ramp. But a paper always has to start by identifying the ball and the first platform. It has to tell the reader what the writer assumes about where the reader is, right now, as the reading begins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Ins and Outs of Crisis

I'm going to have to write a longer post about this a some point, but I want a get a few thoughts down. I have long held that academic research ought to be a series of "ordinary crises", which, being ordinary, would be unthreatening while at the same time offering a continuous challenge to one's foundations. The coming and going of such crises, and the habit of dealing with them, is what would turn our writing into what I call "critical occasions", i.e., opportunities to rethink things at pretty deep level.

Academic research is "critical" in way that is very different than what you might find at the "critical care" unit at your local hospital. And yet, it's the same sort of idea. As an academic your work is connected to the possiblity of your being fundamentally wrong. The important difference is that in academics you survive, even if your ideas don't. You have a right to be wrong.

But there are other kinds of crisis. There is, for example, the financial crisis (though I am told this industry is relatively "recession proof"). There is disease, divorce, and, yes, there are broken bones. It makes life difficult, throws you off your game and makes work harder. Like I say, this is not a finished thought. But as I look forward to casting off my knee-brace, I am begining to see the importance of various kinds of a "critical conditions". Now back to the couch.

Monday, October 20, 2008


An orderly writing process is not an end in itself. Neither is a steadily growing list of publications. A sustainable research process depends on the recurring satisfaction of your curiosity. If you are not discovering interesting answers to your own interesting questions on a regular basis you will get lost in a thicket of extrinsic motives.

I see evidence of this all the time, and not just among the authors I work with myself. PhD students start looking for something akin to school assignments from their supervisors. Researchers begin to chase calls for papers and start demanding explicit criteria from their schools and departments (what journals "count"?). And they begin to lose sight of why they got into research in the first place.

External constraints are an important part of academic life. But they only make sense if you insist on your own, internal motives to engage in research. To my mind, the best way to insist on these motives is to acknowledge your curiosity and make a real effort to satisfy it. This effort will shape much of your research process in a natural way.

Beyond that, you will need to impose some artificial structure in order to "get things done", as it has become fashionable to say. The trick is not to let this artificial structure trump your natural curiosity. It should complement it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Grasping the Azure

Know the point of rest and then have an orderly mode of procedure; having this orderly procedure one can "grasp the azure," that is, take hold of a clear concept; holding a clear concept one can be at peace [internally], being thus calm one can keep one's head in moments of danger; he who can keep his head in the presence of a tiger is qualified to come to his deed in due hour.

The Great Digest, §2
trans. Ezra Pound

The Great Learning is a short text written by Confucius around 500 B.C. It outlines, as Pound puts it, a program of "adult study" or, perhaps more precisely, it expresses the spirit in which such study may be carried out. Pound was always trying to glean meaning from the "pictures" in the Chinese characters. In this case he apparently saw in the words "Ta Hsio" the idea of "grinding the corn in the head's mortar to fit it for use" (§1, p. 27).

The bit about the tiger may not seem very relevant to academic writers today. But the value of organizing your study as an "orderly procedure" around a "point of rest" should make sense to most of us. "Grasping the azure" has also been translated as achieving a "calm unperturbedness". (A comparison of the two translations can be found here here.) "Azure is a near synonym for the color blue. Commonly it refers to a bright blue, resembling the sky on a bright, clear day."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Screen Capture Software

I'm trying out this new screen capture software. It should allow me to make movies of my editing in real time. Also (as I am now noticing) it will make me more selfconscious about my typing. Maybe also my thinking. The software is not expensive (and I'm using a free trial version right now). I wonder if there is any pedagogical value in watching yourself type, witnessing your first impulse and your first few corrections.

Well, this has now taken me about three minutes to write. I now going to publish the post and get the video ready for upload.

Friday, October 03, 2008

More on Audience

I used yesterday morning's thoughts on your dissertation's audience in my "craft of research" seminar yesterday afternoon. One of the participants took me to task on the idea: surely, she said, a dissertation can't keep switching audiences? In fact, I found the position difficult to defend for a moment. After all, you do want the dissertation to read like a coherent whole.

So I think I need to modify my suggestion a bit. And that might make it too complicated to count as a rule of thumb. But here's a first stab at it. Your dissertation has a real audience: your committee and those peers who want to read it before your defense (if your system involves a public defense). You may also have some readers in the various hiring committees that you will pass through after you get your degree.

But you can't address these readers directly. If they don't get the sense that you are addressing some wider audience, your work simply won't seem competent. It will read like a term paper.

The first broadening of your implicit audience can, of course, be quite homogenous. You may be able to identify with an area of research constituted by a particular interdisciplinarity, a particular mix of theories and methods applied to a particular set of objects. It may be enough to write your thesis only to this group. In fact, even if you follow my advice and identify different audiences for each chapter, you should go back and "smoothen" your style so that readers in your area of research can follow each chapter without (ideally) noticing the underlying shifts among still wider audiences.

My advice is intended to focus the problem of writing the chapter—to identify the central task that you face in each chapter. And here it can help to construe your audience in a more specialized manner. It also lets you know when you have to mediate from an established discipline to the particular interdisciplinary constellation that defines your area.

It was good to have to defend this idea because it definitely has a limit. It may be much more useful to think of a primary and secondary audience for each chapter. Only the secondary audience changes. The primary audience is composed of the peers in your area. The secondary audience belongs to the disciplines (or other bodies of knowledge) that your inter-discipline brings together. You don't have to impress them enormously; but you do have to satisfy their minimum standards.

If you write about the organizational dynamics at Google, for example, you don't have to be whiz with computers, but you shouldn't appear completely ignorant about the history of the Internet. That may be a more useful way of thinking about the audience of your dissertation.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Your Dissertation's Audience

Can my "1000 x 8" paper outline, asks one of my readers, be used as a guide for a dissertation? I had to think about for a bit, but I think the answer is more or less yes, and the more I thought about it the more fruitful the idea came to seem. Obviously, we'd have to multiply our word count by between 10 and 20. (I'm still negotiating with our professors to find out what an acceptable upper and lower word limit on a dissertation is.) But, from there on, the outline yields some useful insights rather quickly without too much modification.

An outline for a dissertation works best if each chapter is seen as a separate "rhetorical situation". That means it has its particular exigence, audience, and constraints, which together distinguish it from the other chapters. If there is no difference in the rhetorical situation of your chapters, then they really only mark convenient places for the reader to take a break, as in a novel. More on that in a bit.

Exigence and constraints are obviously different in your theory and method chapters. You have to explain your theory or method (that's your exigence) and you have only so many pages and so much time to do it in, and do it in a more or less orthodox way (constraints). So it is tempting to say that we don't need to think about audience as a relevant rhetorical difference between chapters.

Think again. Audience is perhaps the most practical way of identifying your rhetorical problem in each chapter.

Suppose you are writing about media coverage of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, using Luhmann's systems theory as a framework for understanding newspaper coverage specifically. Now consider the eight chapters of our automatic outline:

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Theory
  • Method
  • Results
  • Analysis
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

Let's consider the different audiences for the introduction, the theory chapter, and the results chapter. Who is going to read these chapters? Yes, your committee will read all of them, but your committee will always read your work on behalf of a constituency, and this constituency changes as we go along. So we are talking about an implicit audience (much like Booth's "implicit author"), the composition of which differs from chapter to chapter.

In our imagined example, the theory chapter should be written for systems theorists, sometimes called Luhmanians, who should be able to assess it independent of their knowledge or ignorance of the Lisbon treaty specifically, the EU in general, or even journalism. But your results should be written for people who are interested in the topic of your research. What was written in the papers about the Lisbon Treaty? That's the question it should answer.

The introduction is perhaps the most interesting rhetorical situation. It is written for people who may be interested in the EU, systems theory, or newspaper journalism, of course, but, more precisely, it is written for the actual reader of the book. You are addressing the person who is about to read the whole thing.

Like I say, these audiences are implicit or imagined, often outright fictional. But they are very useful fictions. In fact, the difference between a dissertation and an essay could be explained in terms of the stability of the audience, or the reader's position of subjectivity. An essay, like a novel, is trying to hold the attention of a single mind throughout. The chapters just divide up the task of reading (and writing) into manageable chunks. A dissertation, by contrast, addresses multiple audiences, preferably one chapter at a time.

You can be more or less subtle about these differences (and the subtler the better, I'd say, in general) but here's something to remember: The important thing in the theory chapter is not to force the theorist, who may not care very much about your specific set of results, to take an interest in your empirical content. Don't make it necessary to understand the newspaper coverage in order to assess the rigour of your theoretical framework. Bring in empirical materials as common-sense illustrations, even where they also constitute empirical observations in a strict sense. Similarly, don't force the reader of your results to acknowledge your theoretical sophistication, even where your results are very sophisticated indeed. Let your readers think they are learning something about the newspaper coverage as such. Let a word like "communication" appear in its ordinary sense, even as it also tells the systems theorist what is going on.

Finally, mention the physical book itself, its pages, its development, your efforts at writing it, only in the introduction. Only this audience can be expected to take the book, as a book, seriously. You will meet again in the conclusion.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Positioning Template

I have written about Birkenstein and Graff's They Say/I Say before. What I want to do this morning is to generate what they call a "template" or "formula" that can be used to write a paragraph that positions your research results within a body of existing research. Such a paragraph must show both that your work resonates with current views on your topic and that it has the potential to shape their further development. You have to indicate both the points of convergence between your work and the existing literature, and points of divergence.

In order to generate the template, I will here abstract the rhetorical form of a paragraph of Quinn and Worline's paper "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516) from its specific content. In a future post, I will critique the way they "fill out" the template. Here is the paragraph:

Given the problems of collective action aboard Flight 93, a useful literature for helping explain events comes from the study of social movements (Davis and Thompson 1994, McAdam et al. 1996, Tilly 1978, Zald and Berger 1978) and particularly research on the framing of social movements (e.g., Benford and Snow 2000) because of its focus on language use. This perspective on collective action examines how people work within a social infrastructure to construct interests and mobilize resources. Rather than assume that actors’ interests are given, social movement scholars show how people create the conditions under which social action happens (McAdam et al. 1996). These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the interactive and discursive nature of real-time collective action. Social movement framing focuses on sensegiving rather than sensemaking and largely ignores how people manage the intense and often debilitating emotions that often accompany duress. (498)

The first step is to strip out all the content:

Given the problems of ____x____ in _________, a useful literature for helping explain events comes from the study of ____y____ (_________) and particularly research on ____z____ (e.g., _________) because of its focus on _________. This perspective on _____x____ examines how __________. Rather than assume that __________, ____y____ scholars show how _________ (_________). These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the __________ nature of __(mod)__ ____x____. ____z____ focuses on _________ rather than _________ and largely ignores how __________.

Notice what is going on here. The first sentence identifies a general notion (x) that is relevant to the particular empirical situation that the paper discusses. This notion is the located in a broader literature (y), and then focused by reference to a particular corner of it (z).

Throughout, we are told what the referenced literature "assumes", "shows", "focuses on", and "ignores", often using contrasts ("rather than"). It is important here to make sure that your work shares a focus (in Quinn and Worline's case, "language use"), eschews the same assumptions ("actors’ interests are given"), and seeks, in general, to show the same thing ("how people create the conditions under which social action happens").

But the crux of a paragraph like this is, of course, the identification of limits in the referenced literature. You are listing its accomplishments, we might say, mainly in order to identify its failings. That's where the opening for your contribution is established.

These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the __________ nature of __(mod)__ ____x____. ____z____ focuses on _________ rather than _________ and largely ignores how __________.

Notice the precision that this formula allows. The notion (x) that you share with the specific corner of the referenced literature (z) is restricted using an adjective (mod, i.e., "real-time" in Quinn and Worline's paper). And this restricted notion is further assigned a particular "nature". It is an understanding of this particular nature of the shared notion in a restricted sense that is beyond the "limits" of the existing literature. You can then go on to explain that this limit arises because the literature focuses on one thing at the cost of another, while almost entirely excluding something else. This orthodox focus ("sensegiving") should, of course, not be very interesting to you, while the generally accepted cost ("sensemaking") should not be acceptable to you. And what is "largely excluded" by the literature, finally, should serve some essential purpose in your own work.

On the surface, Quinn and Worline carry off this rhetorical task very nicely. In my next post, we will see whether they get the literature they cite right. That, of course, is important too when writing this sort of paragraph.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?

Forgive the dramatics. I'm holding a seminar about writing for publication on Thursday. Readers of this blog are of course welcome to attend:

Doctoral School Seminar Series
The Craft of Management Research

You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?
Writing for publication

Thomas Basbøll, resident writing consultant

Thursday, October 2, 14.00
Room 3.125

Doctoral School of Organization and Management Studies
Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy
Copenhagen Business School
Porcelænshaven 18A, Frederiksberg

The irony of my title (which I came up with long before my injury) is not lost on me. I can't even walk. I'm all talk. So be it.

The take-home message of my talk will be that "writing for publication" means making your work the subject not of examination but conversation. The trick is to stop writing as though you are taking an exam and start writing as though you are making a statement. This goes also for your dissertation, which must be written "for publication" at least in a figurative sense. I have also been asked to talk a little about what was once called "new literary forms" and to this end I will try to say something useful about how to approach the stylistic challenges of academic writing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Academic Blogging

I've been meaning to add Eric Kaufman's Acephalous to the blogroll for some time. Here's a video of him talking about the pros and cons of academic blogging. But he also says something in passing about the importance of having a writing project that is not your dissertation. (If you've already written your dissertation, let's just take this as an argument for diversity in your writing portfolio. And specifically, of course, for blogging.) Here's my transcription of the passage. Most of this I could have said about my own blogging as well.

For the most part, my posts are actually long considered. I have a drafts folder. And that's one thing I can't speak highly enough of: it's constantly writing. Every night I sit down when I'm done working on my dissertation at 8:00 PM ... I sit down and write something that is absolutely not my dissertation. But I craft it. I actually work on my prose (my bold, Eric's italics). I don't just dash things off. I try very hard to write entertaining, funny, things, that are not my dissertation...

(Unlike the entertaining and funny things that are his dissertation, of course.)

Otherwise I would come, as I did actually before I started blogging, to hate writing. [Writing a dissertation] is a painful experience. And blogging is not.

Notice the regular pattern, the habit of writing that his craft implies.

Here's part two (about the Valve):