Friday, February 29, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #4: Write Another Day?

"Controlling the destiny of James Bond is not a bad way to earn a living," he says. No, he is not talking about M's job, i.e., head of MI6. (In that sense, Bond, of course, controls his own destiny.) He is talking about the enviable job of writer for the James Bond film franchise.

In the extra-material to the Die Another Day DVD edition, we get a brief glimpse into the working day of a script writer. Do notice that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are co-authors, so their process tells us something about how to write collaboratively as well. But I think their individual writing processes are also in many ways exemplary.

The absolutely crucial thing to notice is that the process is divided into distinct activities and they are able to straightforwardly account for them. That is, they can tell you how they get the writing done. They don't shroud their process in mystery: writing a script is about being in specific places at specific times and doing specific things. So, of course, is writing an academic paper.

They plan the structure of the film in meetings with the producers, they "do their work" at separate cafés, and they then talk about the work they have done. (That they do this on the phone is worth thinking about. It may be a more effective way of doing it than a physical meeting.) Finally, they go to the pub to unwind ("calm down"); that is, the day comes to an end.

The whole process, understood as a psychological and biological one, even a material and spiritual one, is "scientific". It is a program, a routine. My recommendation is to make sure that your own writing process has some of these elements of individual and social work. But I also recommend the lightness, if you will, of their writing process.

There is no shame in thinking of the café, the park (in which to go for a walk), and the pub (at the end of the day's work) as integral parts of the writing process. Perfectly non-exotic locations. Find some combination of locations that works for you. Keep searching for them. And keep writing.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blank Post

If no ideas come at the appointed time, just note that down as well. A hour spent not being able to think of something to say is better than a hour spent not thinking about what you are able to say.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Science as Hustle and Bustle (On Travelling)

The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity [Betrieb, hustle] also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written.

Martin Heidegger
"The Age of the World Picture"

Research has come to involve a great deal of "hustle and bustle"—Heideggerian Betrieb. This morning, I want to reflect on how we can incorporate at least our travels into the writing process.

I have always had a hard time travelling. I find that it interrupts my routine, that it takes me out the stable framework within which I can work. But travelling is an unavoidable part of scholarship today. And after becoming an editor I've been learning how to do it much more painlessly.

Most researchers will have to attend at least one conference every year. Others will also be invited to hold talks at other universities. And at some point in your career you are likely to spend a semester or year as the guest of another institution. For my part, I have been getting used to travelling in order to hold workshops.

The most important thing is to make sure that the trip is "worth it". You must compare what you will get out of it with the investment of time and money that it necessarily implies. But once you have decided that it is, essentially, worth the effort, don't go on the cheap. Make sure you spend the money you need to give you a reasonable amount of comfort. Minimize the amount of practical problems you might have by choosing a good airline (including a handy airport) and a good hotel (located close to wherever you are spending the day).

Also, my advice is to avoid trying to do too much. Some people think that if they are going somewhere on business they should take in some of the local sights. My view is that you will be happier just showing up, getting the job done, and going home. Come back on a real vacation if you really want to see something.

I have noticed that there are many places in Europe I can go rather easily. If my destination is three hours flying time away, I can leave my home after 7:00 am hold a half-day of workshops after lunch, followed by a full day of activities the next day, another half-day of workshops, and then I can fly home in time for dinner on the third.

Such a trip allows me to stick to my blogging and jogging schedule. This may seem over-zealous but it is one way of keeping things in proportion. If I were going to Singapore, for example, I would not be able to work the trip seamlessly into my daily routine. So it would be a different kind of trip, demanding a different kind of decision.

The most important thing, however, is to be very clear about why you are going. How will you incorporate the experience you gain from your trip into your research? You will hopefully learn something new and you will almost certainly make new professional contacts. You need to make sure you have the "absorptive capacity" to take this information in.

We are "thrown" into the world. But we can enter the fray resolutely or frantically. I, of course, suggest the former.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Resilience and Resentment

an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury

(Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary)

Do not resent the world for disturbing your writing. Make your writing process resilient to the interruptions of the day.

If you have planned to write all day you have made too big a target of your process. A vaguely planned writing session is easily interrupted.

Set off a few hours every day, or every other day, to write. Let the world do what it may outside your door. Write, and then go back to the world.

Do not resent the world because it needs you. Do not think it needs you so badly that there is no time to write.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jogging and Blogging

Progress in the arts depends on discipline and repetition. The essential thing is to set up a program that gives you relevant experiences on a regular basis. It is only in the context of such discipline that instruction (i.e., a teacher) can help.

And such mastery has two important components: skill and strength. In the latter I include endurance. (I'm just thinking out loud here; it's not a fully developed theory; there may be other essential components of mastery.)

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be trying a new regimen. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I will blog as usual. That means writing for about an hour between six and seven in the morning. Friday's post will continue to be a reflection on that week's webcast.

But on Tuesday's and Thursday's I am going to go for a jog instead of sitting down at the machine with a cup of coffee. In the park, I will try to compose a little aphorism or epigram: a little bit of wisdom, if you will. I will post it when I get back from my run.

Readers of the blog should experience this as an oscillation between longer and shorter posts. I'll keep it going throughout March and April before assessing the results. I'm calling this program "Jogging and Blogging", of course.

In fact, I often compare writing to physical exercise. While jogging arguably requires little skill, it does require a combination of muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. It is only within a regular program of exercise that you can callibrate these two things.

You have to set up a realizable program that forces you to run a certain distance on a regular basis. (My program also includes a longer run before lunch on Saturdays.) While you should pay attention to your body's real needs, of course, a program gives you critical distance to its whims and caprices, its flashes of excessive zeal and habitual patterns of laziness. (Yes, we're talking mostly about my body there; the distribution of pattern and flash may be different for you.) Given too much freedom, how you feel at the moment will drive you either too hard or not hard enough.

Like I say, progress in the arts also requires a program, a regime of discipline and repetition. So does the daily practice of an art at a high level. It is necessary to think about your program especially if you have many different responsibilities in your working life. The teaching, adminstrative and research functions of most academics often interfere with each other. It is easy to misinterpret this as "not having enough time" for writing. (That's like saying "I couldn't make it up the hill this morning.")

My advice is to protect your writing time by making it a permanent, recurring, regular part of your academic practice. When writing, write for the sake of writing. Write because you planned to write, not because you have something to say. (But do plan to have something to say over the long term.) When jogging, run just to, yes, do it—not because you have to be somewhere. Obviously, you get much more out of it than that. But these results don't have to be obvious to you every morning.

Before I sign off, let me draw your attention to the very useful new label on Jonathan's Mayhew's blog: "scholarly writing". Always worth reading.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #3: Sampling

I think it was Blaise Pascal who said, "I wrote a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one." That is a deep truth about editing: it takes time. This week's video is about a minute and a half too long simply because I ran out of time to edit it. There are, in my opinion, a lot of nice effects in it, but very little content.

One thing I didn't say, but should have, is that sampling is not plagiarism. Musicians who use their samples properly, and "clear" them, are not doing anything wrong. In fact, the point I wanted to make in this webcast is that scholars should sample rather than plagiarize. What Timabaland did with Tempest's composition is not sampling, [update: though what he did to Glenn Rune Gallefoss's performance very definitely is (please see the insightful comment below on this point).]

If you are interested in the details, here are links to the sites I mention:

Wikipedia's article on the case is called "2007_Timbaland_plagiarism_controversy". I also recommend Chris Abbott's detailed technical analysis "Doin' it for themselves: what's going on in Timbaland?" Finally, there is the YouTuber who provided an audio-visual demonstration of the similarities between the two songs (and the related ringtone). It received a bit of press coverage at MTV. Notice the list of "favourites": the discover of one trangression raises suspicions, which leads to the discovery of others.

Sitemeter tells me that some of the visitors to this site get here by searching for "Weick" and "map" on Google. This underscores my point. Today, it is very easy to discover the problems with Weick's scholarly practices for anyone who is just a little curious about the topic of the plagiarized text.

Nelly Furtado probably did not lose any fans. Nor did Timbaland. But he lost respect in the Chiptune community. Since he uses the sound that this community cultivates (and "takes to the next level," as Jonathan put it on Wednesday), that's rather unfortunate. What he lost was the respect of his peers. In popular music that may be a price worth paying. In scholarship the respect of ones peers is a very serious thing to lose.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making Sense of Paraphrasing

It's not just about putting it differently; it is about putting it in your own words. Paraphrase is not the art of using another scholar's ideas without being accused of plagiarism. It is about legitimately using another's research to your own ends. This assumes something very important, namely, that you have your own reasons to write about the subject.

Reading those opening pages of Sensemaking in Organizations we at first think that Weick wants us to know about battered-child syndrome in its details. We believe him about these details because we have no reason not to and he seems to know what he's talking about. How else could he know all those facts? (This is a bit like that amusing anecdote about a drug deal, except that the ruse is discovered. We're not going to swear by Weick ever again.)

For as we get to the end of the section we see that the details didn't matter at all. In some cases, they were even a bit odd. It is certainly not clear why he wanted us to know so much about BCS except, perhaps, that he wanted us to think he knows a whole lot about it.

If you look closely you can see how things go awry for Weick because he is paraphrasing with the sole aim of saying the same thing as Westrum using different words. After quoting Westrum's definition of BCS, Weick continues as follows:

The injuries can often be seen only in X rays, which explains, in part, why it took so long for this syndrome to be recognized by the medical community and eventually outlawed by every legislature in the union. (Weick 1995, p. 1)

This sentence is an attempt to paraphrase the content of two sentences on page 386 of Westrum's paper:

Beginning as uncorrelated observations, the "symptoms" of the BCS became increasingly recognized, if somewhat controversial, in the medical community and, following a public furor, became the basis for legislation in every state in the union. ... In many cases the injuries may be visible only on X-ray photographs, a factor that contributed to delay the initial recognition of the BCS and also contributed to the skepticism of pediatricians that the injuries had really occurred or were the result of parental assaults. (Westrum 1982, p. 386)

The sentence about the X-ray photographs actually follows right after the definition quoted by Weick and he therefore, properly speaking, fails to cite Westrum for the idea (the reference gives credit for the quoted material, not the elaboration that follows).

He also fails to cite Westrum about the enactment of legislation. But because he is trying to say it using different words, he makes an additional mistake, ultimately saying something that is actually nonsense. Westrum tells us that the symptoms of the syndrome became the basis of legislation. Weick finds himself saying that the syndrome was outlawed. What could this mean? It was now illegal to have the symptoms? To diagnose them as BCS? This is not the writing of someone who has gained mastery of the subject.

So should Weick simply have left this whole topic alone? No. He found a well-researched paper on an interesting topic that bore upon issues he had been thinking about himself. Worries about plagiarism should not frighten anyone away from reading other people's work. What lessons, then, can be learned from all this?

Well, beyond getting the work of others right and referencing it properly, I can make some suggestions at a perhaps deeper level. Avoid writing any passage of prose simply to get the reader to believe something another researcher has discovered. In academic scholarship there is an implicit assumption that things are either known or not known. If they are known then your reader in principle also knows. Don't insult your reader by informing them about something they could have read somewhere else. Just mention that all the facts are available in that other place. Scholars will know how to find them. Spend your effort telling the reader what you want to do with these facts.

Jonathan already pointed this out in his comment to yesterday's post. "When another scholar has done a significant amount of one's work already," he also said, "then that provides an opportunity to take things to the next level." Faced with an interesting idea, we might say, the plagiarist laments not having thought of it first instead of celebrating not having to come up with it himself. He offers neither himself nor his reader the opportunity to take anything to another level.

Only laypeople (readers of what Nabokov rightly called "topical trash" and "illustrated ideas") aren't interested in the next level. (We are all trashy laypeople on topics where the next level is of no interest to us.) Weick has in fact mistakenly put himself in the role of a popularizer of Westrum's ideas. He does not imagine that his readers might want to converse with Westrum; he is not bringing battered-child syndrome into the conversation. He thinks that transferring knowledge from the sociology of science to organization studies is a mere matter of relating what is known in one field to those working in another. He is not talking to peers but to laypeople.

But Weick's misunderstanding of interdisciplinarity in this case is worth a post of its own (much later). In an important sense, neither Weick nor his reader knows anything about BCS by the top of page 4. Knowledge is always part of a conversation. And here let us end with another nod to Anne Huff's very useful manual.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rewriting Weick

How could Karl Weick have avoided the charges of plagiarism that I have been making over the last two posts?

As a start, he could have written a few sentences about Ron Westrum's paper right at the beginning. This would indicate that he is entering into a conversation that Westrum is already a key figure in. In the end, we still want this section of the book to be about the sensemaking that was involved in the discovery of battered-child syndrome (BCS). But because Weick draws every detail of this story from Westrum, it is much safer to clearly present the story at second hand.

Here's how it might look:

Ron Westrum has shown how child abuse slowly became the subject of social policy in the United States from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Injuries in children caused by parents originally constituted what he calls "hidden events" but would ultimately be fully recognized as "battered-child syndrome" (BCS), a now standard medical diagnosis. Once this diagnosis was developed, it could serve as the basis of social policy throughout the United States. Until then, the systematic mistreatment of children in many American homes had been "a virtually invisible social condition" (Westrum 1982: 386).

Once we have produced a chunk of prose clearly describing Westrum's work, rather than its object, something else becomes clear as well. Weick deploys a great deal of unnecessary detail in his account of BCS. His defense of "richness" notwithstanding, it simply does not matter for his purposes exactly how many years sometimes lapsed between the time that the injuries were incurred and the time of their reporting. Nor do we need to know exactly how many cases Caffey, Silverman, and Wooley and Evans reported. Nor do we need to know that the survey data that was presented in 1961 was drawn from reports of exactly 77 disctrict attorneys and 71 hospitals. What we need is a simply a good sense that the diagnosis of BCS evolved from a basis in "uncorrelated observations or experiences" (Westrum 1982, p. 384; on his page 3, Weick gets the page number right but misquotes Westrum as saying "uncorrected observations and experience") to a basis in much more substantial survey data.

More importantly, Weick's main project in these pages is needlessly obscured by downplaying Westrum's contribution. If Weick had begun by presenting Westrum's analysis of the "social intelligence" that conditions the reporting of hidden events, he could have offered an explicit argument for the similarities between social intelligence and sensemaking. Sensemaking could be offered as a way of sharpening our eye for the organizational implications of social intelligence. What Westrum did for social policy, Weick could propose to do for organization. His readers would be in a much better position to follow along; they would be enjoying much better intellectual company.

More on this tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Pattern of Injuries

The careful scholar might worry about plagiarism. Replicating another's work is plagiarism, which is a serious offense because it erodes the trust necessary for scholarly conversation to take place.

Anne S. Huff
Writing for Scholarly Publication, p. 56.

The first three pages of Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations replicates substantial parts of Ron Westrum's "Social Intelligence About Hidden Events" (Science Commmunication, 1982 3(3), pp. 381-400). Because Westrum's name is mentioned seven times in the course of only three pages, with four specific citations, we are likely to think he has been given more than enough credit for his contribution. Weick certainly doesn't seem to have been trying to hide anything.

In this post, I want to show that Weick's referencing is nonetheless inadequate. First, let me summarize the passage in question with an emphasis on what Weick does and does not cite Westrum for.

After the opening paragraph that I covered in my last post, Weick cites Westrum in the second paragraph in order to define "battered child syndrome" (BCS), correctly citing a specific page.

The third, fourth and fifth paragraphs are devoted to the history of BCS. Weick's account appears to be well-versed in the clinical literature, mentioning a central article by John Caffey, along with contributions by Silverman and Wooley and Evans. He describes these articles in various degrees of detail. He also tells us about a 1961 meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a subsequent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Here he is even able to emphasize the crucial introduction of "data from a national survey of 77 district attorneys and 71 hospitals" which yielded 749 cases of BCS (p. 2). It is only in the last of these paragraphs, when noting the reaction of the public, that Weick finally mentions Westrum again (and again citing a specific page), this time as the source of estimates of the prevalence of BCS in the U.S. between 1967 and 1976 (p. 2).

Weick now goes on to defend the idea that BCS constitutes "an instance of sensemaking" by redescribing the events in terms of the "seven properties of sensemaking" that will be presented in greater detail in Chapter 2. His argument here is that if the story of BCS can be told in terms of these properties then it involves sensemaking. Along the way he invokes Westrum's "fallacy of centrality", quoting at some length (p. 2-3).

He next moves on to the question of how this counts as organizational sensemaking and presents some normative suggestions about "incentives for reporting anomalies and penalties for non-reporting" (p. 3). He closes the section by noting the importance of deploying an effective symbol: "battered child", he points out, "evokes a graphic picture of parents beating and killing their children" (p. 4).

All in all, Westrum is credited with the definition of BCS, a set of statistics, "the fallacy of centrality", and the phrase "uncorrected observations from experience" (which is actually a misquote). But everything except the redescription as sensemaking and the gesture at organization can be found, often using very similar wording, in Westrum's article. All the scholarship and most (I'm inclined to say all) of the analysis of BCS research has been carried out by Westrum.

Let's look at some examples. On page 387, Westrum writes:

The public reaction was immediate. Newspapers, magazines, and professional journals printed articles on the problem and stirred up medical and public opinion, leading within a few years to laws requiring reporting of apparent cases of BCS in all the 50 states.

On page 2 of his book, Weick writes:

Public reaction was prompt, and within a few years, laws in all 50 states required that suspected cases of BCS had to be reported.

Two more sentences of statistics now follow:

By 1967, when better reporting channels had been established, it was estimated that tthere were 7,000 cases. This estimate climbed to 60,000 by 1972 and to 500,000 by 1976.

Here Weick references (notice that he has not quoted) Westrum's paper on page 392, which reads:

In 1967 when the reporting channels were better established, one epidemiologist estimated a total of about 7,000 reports (Gil, 1968). In 1972 this figure had reached 60,000, and by 1976 it passed 500,000 (Sheils et al., 1977).

As we try to decide whether this paraphrase is too close for comfort, let's not forget that the sentence about the public reaction immediately before it was not referenced at all.

Here's another example. Weick does not once refer to Westrum's recommendation on page 395, which reads:

The most desirable system as far as information is concerned would be one in which there would be positive incentives to report or penalties for nonreporting by qualified observers, as in the case of the battered child syndrome today.

But he does offer a suggestion of his own, as it were; namely,

Organizations stay tied together by means of controls in the form of incentives and measures. This suggests that incentives for reporting anomalies, or penalties for nonreporting, should affect sensemaking.

Even the word "anomalies" belongs more to Westrum's article than Weick's chapter.

Finally, what about Weick's observation of the "graphic picture of parents beating and killing their children"? Westrum is given no credit at all for it, even though he writes the following on page 398 (my underlining):

Caffey certainly recognized the problem for what it was, but he was reluctant to come out in print and say unambiguously that parents were beating and killing their children (cf. Miller, 1959: 1209). The reason for this diffidence is not clear; but there is no question that the graphic label "battered-child syndrome" did much to persuade the public (and probably physicians as well) that there was a definite problem to be faced (Silverman, 1972).

We could perhaps take any one of these examples as an isolated anomaly if they were separated by ten or fifteen pages of independent, discursive prose and involved multiple sources. Gathered together on barely three pages at the beginning of a book and drawn from only one source, however, they suggest something we might call "shoddy work syndrome", to borrow an epithet from the American Historical Association's professional standards. There is now talk of a systematic pattern of scholarly offenses.

Ironically, Westrum defines the battered child syndrome as "a pattern of injuries" that go unreported for a long time and then turn up only under the close scrutiny of X-rays. At first, researchers like Caffey thought parents may simply not have "fully appreciated the seriousness of the injuries" (in Weick's paraphrase) but they soon began to suspect "intentional ill-treatment" (Westrum, p. 386). It's a bit like that here. At first, one simply thinks, "It can't be, therefore it isn't." In this spirit, perhaps, I still believe that Weick just doesn't understand the seriousness of proper citation.

Tomorrow I will offer some suggestions about how to avoid the charges I am making here. Here, again, I like the American Historical Association's attitude: it's about protecting you from this kind of charge, it's about "the formation of work habits that protect a scholar from plagiarism". It is also about not misleading the reader. Finally, of course, it is about giving due credit to thorough scholarship like that done by Ron Westrum.

Monday, February 18, 2008

More on the Scholarship of Sensemaking

Plagiarism is the act of writing one text on the basis of another without informing the reader about the relationship between the two texts. I have identified an example in Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations (Sage, 1995) before. This week, I want to look at another example in the same book. This morning, I will simply make a first indication of the problem; over following days I will try to show how the passage could have been written to avoid the charge of plagiarism. That is, I will show how it should have been written.

The passage I want to look at occurs at the very beginning of the book (pp. 1-3). Weick here introduces sensemaking with an example in which it is "tested to the extreme", namely, battered child syndrome. (You can read the passage in full at Amazon, where the chapter is used as the excerpt. Just "look inside".) The chapter begins as follows:

Sensemaking is tested to the extreme when people encounter an event whose occurence is so implausible that they hesitate to report it for fear they will not be believed. In essence, these people think to themselves, it can't be, therefore, it isn't. Just such an event is the battered child syndrome.

Four short paragraphs to describe this syndrome follow. Weick draws heavily on a paper by sociologist of science Ron Westrum called "Social Intelligence about Hidden Events" (Science Communication 1982 3(3), pp. 381-400) but he only references it twice, first for a definition of the syndrome (on page 386 of Westrum's article) and then for a set of statistics (on page 392). (He also cites Westrum in his subsequent analysis, which we will get into later.)

On page 382 of Westrum's paper, at the beginning of the first main section, we find the following sentence:

An event may be described as "hidden" if its occurrence is so implausible that those who observe it hesitate to report it because they do not expect to be believed.

On page 383 we find the section heading "It Can't Be, Therefore It Isn't." The passage from Weick's book that I quoted above gives the reader no indication of the real connection between these two texts.

On its own, the appropriation of these sentences might be considered a minor slip-up in Weick's scholarship. But in this case it actually indicates a more serious breach of scholarly practices. For if we read Westrum's paper we find that Weick does nothing more than report Westrum's analysis as though it were his own analysis of facts. These are presented as in part taken from Westrum's paper and in part discovered by Weick's own scholarship. Indeed, it turns out that Weick's "sensemaking" in this case is little more than Westrum's "social intelligence" by another name.

I'll say more about this tomorrow. But consider another arguably minor appropriation. Weick notes that BCS was "eventually outlawed by every legislature in the union" (p. 1). This nice rhetorical way of saying "in the United States of America" (which is available only to Americans, I should point out) can be found on page 386 of Westrum's paper, where he says that BCS "became the basis for legislation in every state in the union." As I normally point out when talking about Weick, he is universally acknowledged for the style of his writing. Here we find a disturbing indication of where he got it.

Tomorrow I will look more closely at Weick's appropriation of the content of Westrum's paper.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #2: Research in Cold Blood

Here's the second installment of Shadow Stabbing. I've called the episode "Research in Cold Blood" as a reference to Truman Capote's famous work of literary non-fiction, but I notice as I watch it this morning that I don't really make much of the connection. (I'm still a bit nervous in front of the camera and sometimes forget what I was going to say. This week, I actually edited some of the humming and hawing out, as you may notice. Perhaps it would have been easier to re-record it.)

The connections between the research and writing done by academics and the work Truman Capote did when he wrote In Cold Blood might be the subject of another post, actually. According to the movie that this scene is from, Capote's approach should probably be taken as a cautionary tale.

The basic point, however, stands: an academic text is a natural site of controversy. It should be full of "problems" and "issues" and its author should be aware of its potential to provoke. You should not try to avoid writing "one of those problem texts"; on the contrary, you should be trying to write such a text. The mistake is thinking you can write an at once wholly radical and wholly unobjectionable work. I sometimes mention Thomas Carl Wall's Radical Passivity (SUNY, 1999) as an example, though it is in many other respects an admirable book.

I notice I'm actually twisting Baldwin's worry a little bit. Baldwin (I think) was talking about a particular kind of problem within the novel, not the reception of it. Capote replies that, given his topic, he doesn't have much of a choice. The situation he describes simply is a problem. This way of putting it, however, also serves my purpose here. As an academic writer, you will normally be describing situations that are problematic; in fact, in many cases, you will be offering solutions to such problems.

Whatever you are writing about, don't think (and don't hope) that "everyone's just going to be quite pleased" with your topic. Face your rhetorical problems head-on. Engage with them.

As always, whatever you do, keep searching and, of course, keep writing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Strongman Contest

B— strikes back:

I’m not sure Latour would say that the doctors were right. Clearly, whatever the symptoms were, the symptomatology put together by the doctors didn’t resist the “trial of strength” that characterizes any realization process. The disease was thus translated from fact to fiction. That was a real translation, so let's be more specific: the movement from fact to fiction was real in the sense that it was realized and cannot easily be undone. This specific translation made it a realized fact that he did not have a disease. The future of his symptomatology, however, remains to be seen, realization is always an empirical question. You never know what diseases are coming your way. According to Latour, "reality is that which resists". However, in Latour’s framework there is no transcendent position outside this reality. Most Latour-followers thus prefer to trace the concrete trials of strength through which subjects and objects are constituted, instead of starting out with assuming that they are fixed entities, already out there to begin with.

I have edited her response lightly already, but let's see if we can't make it even clearer.

Latour would not say that the doctors were right. Clearly, their diagnosis did not pass the “trial of strength” that characterizes a realization process. The disease was translated from fact to fiction and this translation was real in the sense that it cannot easily be undone. The future of the disease, however, remains to be seen; realization is always an empirical question. According to Latour, "reality is that which resists" but this does not imply a transcendent position outside this reality. Instead of assuming that subjects and objects are "out there" to begin with as fixed entities, Latour prefers to trace the concrete trials of strength through which subjects and objects are constituted.

Notice that this statement is written as a passive observer of realizations (a "tracer" of concrete trials) rather than a participant in them (a doctor or patient trying to realize the disease in different ways). The "empiricism" of the doctor-patient relationship is different in precise proportion to the stakes. Whether or not the patient has a disease and therefore requires an operation to deal with the symptoms is "an empirical question" in a different sense than that suggested by Latour.

The classical realist assumes precisely that the object (i.e., the disease, i.e., the cause of the symptoms) and the subjects (i.e., the patient and his doctors who are trying to understand the object) are "out there" before the question is raised. They are given by what Michel Foucault might call "the historical a priori". They have something "at stake" in the diagnosis before a given translation and/or realization occurs. (One complaint about Latour is that there nothing at stake for him when he denies the transcendent position of the disease.)

The independent (and arguably "transcendent") position of the cause of the symptoms (the "facts" of the case, the "nature" of the disease) is what allows the patient to seek a second, third, and fourth opinion. If Teppo had allowed the first three doctors to "construct" his disease for him (as the classical parody of social constructivism goes), he would have let them operate. This would, in one sense, have "realized" his symptoms as the disease they had named.

But he didn't. And Teppo's point, as I understand it, is that the "trial of strength" did not play out between the doctors and the patient but between the symptoms and their cause. He ignored the advice of the doctors and the so-called "disease" went away (not much of a disease!). This was, in an important sense, risky. If the doctors had been right, he might have suffered terribly; reality would have struck back against him rather than his doctors.

Teppo's story arguably shows that there are real, empirical questions beyond those that Latour answers in hindsight. I say "arguably" for a reason. As Latour would insist, Teppo has cut the story off at a time when his hypothesis can be declared the victor. He writes history from that point of view. But to insist on this is precisely to insist that the doctors may not "really" have been wrong: whether they were remains Latour's "empirical" question. So perhaps Latour's ontology is simply a refusal ever to settle empirical questions?

I'll leave that as a question.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


The word "pace", B— writes to tell me, "seems like a fun term to use for juggling arguments while not having to do justice to them." That, in any case, is what she thinks Teppo was doing in the snippet I quoted yesterday.

Labelling Latour as a social constructionist seems to be an all too frequent misinterpretation (pace Teppo) most often to be found in the works of scholars who have not actually taken the time to read his texts. In fact most of Latour's authorship (1979 and onwards) has been dedicated to arguing against the social construction of scientific facts (along with whatever other entities in the world that social constructionists may reduce to mere gossip and storytelling).

Notice that B— is not defending social constructionists; she is saying that Latour isn't one. If Teppo had written "pace social constructionists" she may have granted his point. While constructionists (according to B—) do believe that "a disease is what a few doctors decide to call it", Latour does not.

Now, in so far as you are explicitly arguing against another position, taking issue with it, contending with it, I don't recommend using "pace". It should be reserved for disagreements you don't really want to get into. In fact, all disciplines are defined in part by the arguments they juggle without doing justice to. If we didn't dismiss certain approaches to reality out of hand without reading them, we'd have way too much reading to do. And, yes, "peace" to those who seem to have misunderstood reality at a fundamental level but whom we don't have time to read properly.

Still, as B—'s mail demonstrates, this gesture has a particular rhetorical function in our writing. Those we don't explicitly contend with help us to find our feet in relation to those we do.

"The state of affairs outlined by Latour is thus much worse than most critiques of social constructionism could possibly imagine," says B—. This is because social constructionism assumes what she calls a "double ontology", "retain[ing] a nice and quiet reality out there behind language and social constructions, (thus reducing nature to “a dull affair”, untouchable, colourless and meaningless without human interpretation)."

Now we get to the crux of her argument:

In the ontology of Bruno Latour there is thus no objective reality out there beyond our perception. Everything is equally real, albeit not equally realized, and the realization of objective facts should thus be explained accordingly: as a process of becoming. This process can never be understood if only seen through the lenses of language/the social/discourse.

Notice that there are really three positions here, and at least two points of contention. B— is positioning herself among social constructionists, critics of social constructionism, and Bruno Latour. (Or would it be more accurate that she is positioning herself and Bruno among social constructionists and their critics?)

She is also dealing with the opposition between realism and relativism. There are non-relativistic realists, there are relativistic non-realists, and then there is Latour: a relativistic realist. But the relativism of constructionism also has that "dull" reality to refer to (and otherwise say nothing about).

So is Latour an ordinary realist, i.e., one who writes about reality and whose statements are true or false depending on what is actually the case? Well, in a sense, yes he is. But not in the sense that Teppo is talking about. Remember that Teppo's illness (which fortunately turned out to be not quite an illness after all, or at least not one requiring the treatment his doctors proposed) was, in his view (and pace Latour), part of an "objective reality". According to Latour, however, the doctors are always already constrained by that reality too. As B— puts it, there is no place outside of reality to relegate our analysis of their diagnosis. Things are indeed "much worse than [Teppo] can imagine": his doctors were right!

Now, as Teppo would note, this argument simply won't do. There is an important sense in which his doctors were wrong, and would have been wrong even if he had had the operation. This wrongness is the stuff of contentious facts. I would add that there are styles of writing that lack this contentiousness precisely because they reject the existence of a shared objective reality to talk about (or at least think it is a "dull affair"). Such writing has only peaceful facts and accomplished facts to work with. Either we don't talk to each other or you believe what I have to say.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Academic writing is as much a system of deferences as a system of references. In fact writing depends for its stability on a great deal of respect for established positions in the literature. That does not, however, mean that there cannot be disagreement.

One simple way to state your disagreement with an established opinion involves the Latin word "pace" (I pronounce it PAH-chai). It means literally "peace to" and is generally used to say "with deference to" or "or with all due respect to". It is therefore also sometimes used to say simply "contrary to the opinion of" but I advise against using to signal important points of dispute. It is a preposition, is generally put in italics, and is normally followed by the name of the person being defered to (less commonly a reference to the position being defered to).

Teppo, over at, used this preposition as follows:

Note that though 3 of 4 doctors called it something (cf. “social construction”), that nonetheless did not make it so (pace Weick, Latour), as there was an objective reality independent of what they thought.

Blog comments of course do not have to be as well-written as scholarly prose, so I hope Teppo won't mind being edited a bit.

The point of the dispute here is "social constructivism", according to which (according to Teppo) naming something makes it so. The parenthesis here probably means "while I find Weick's and Latour's work insteresting in other respects they are wrong about this naming business". That's the standard sense of "pace", and last I checked Teppo did in fact hold at least Weick in some esteem.

There are really two possible points of respectful disagreement here, though the grammar of Teppo's comment focuses on the first:

Pace Weick and Latour, you don't have a disease just because three out of four doctors call your pain a symptom.

Committed social constructivists might of course take issue with this. They might point out that everything depends on what we mean by "disease", for example. And Weick and Latour should perhaps object to the caricature in any case, but the "pace" lets them know that this is mainly a bit of playful ribbing. In any case, here's the second possible point of dispute:

Pace Weick and Latour, there is an objective reality independent of what the doctors think.

Like "with all due respect", "pace" can of course also be used sarcastically. And if we didn't know anything else about Teppo's intellectual commitments (about which I may also be wrong) we might suspect him of doing so here. Notice that "pace" is being used to attribute a position to Weick and Latour and that this position seems a bit suspect (depending on who you are).

One last thing. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English warns that pace "is an intellectual’s term: make certain that your audience will understand it and won’t think it pretentious; otherwise, use English." This actually also offers a positive suggestion: if your readers are part of an intellectual audience, the word "pace" can signal that you expect them pass lightly over the mentioned disagreement. You do not, in this case, expect criticism of your position to be directed at your view of social constructivism.

You are showing that you know that you are not going to change anyone's mind about it on this occasion. You are therefore also suggesting that nothing depends on whether you or Weick or Latour are right about the ontological effects of naming. Your point about modern medicine would still hold, "peace to the constructivists".

Monday, February 11, 2008

Facts and Problems

In the early days of this blog I wrote a post about the sorts of facts that are normally invoked in academic writing. This week I want again to emphasize the importance of understanding the various roles that facts play in your writing.

Back then, I distinguished between accomplished facts, contentious facts, and peaceful facts. The first are the facts you establish for yourself through your research. They are facts about which you are the expert. While you should always be willing to discuss them, you expect people to believe you when talking about them and you would be very surprised to discover that you are wrong. This also implies a responsibility. You are likely to be cited as the source whenever these facts are used in other people's writing.

You expect people to engage with you rather than believe you when you invoke the second class of facts: the contentious ones. You know that in presenting them, you are identifying your position on a particular issue and that there are other positions. You expect other researchers to question you when you invoke these facts. That is, you are not the only authority in regard to these facts and you know of some the arguments that may be offered against you.

The last class of facts are the peaceful ones. These belong to your background knowledge and are not really up for debate. You may be aware of a number of researchers who do not agree with you, but they are in an important sense not your "peers". You know they exists but you don't really care what they think. In using these facts you normally identify with a whole community of like-minded researchers. That is, you should not feel that you are completely alone in your endorsement of facts you are not willing or able to discuss.

This week I want to talk about how to write about these different kinds of facts. That is, I want to talk about the difference between straightforward reporting and audacious provocation. This difference, of course, implies different stylistic challenges. I want to approach the arrangement of facts as an essential part of the problem of writing.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #1

Okay. The viral video experiment here at RSL is now under way. I will be posting a video every Friday from now on and I hope to get sixteen of them done before the summer. If it goes well, I'll start up again in September.

I'm still learning how to get the most out of Windows Movie Maker. In fact, this first video showcases my limited video editing abilities more than it actually presents any useful information about editing academic texts. I will be more focused on content next week but do note the coffee-cup transitions at the beginning and the yeah-out at the end. These could still be improved but I'm really quite proud of how this video looks.

When asked whether writers should give interviews, Nabokov emphasized "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" (1969 Vogue interview, reprinted in Strong Opinions, p. 158). I feel a bit like this here. Vain as I am, I've had my doubts about coming out from behind the written text. But I hope I can construct a plausible and pleasant personality to associate with an editor. I see it as an opportunity to put a human face on grammar (I know, I know ... What could possibly be more human? A modern human face, let us say).

I'm planning to keep each video post under six minutes. We'll see how topics develop differently in this medium and whether it is a useful supplement to the written blog at all. Do let me know what you think, either by email or in the comments (either here or over at YouTube).

I'll be back next week. Until then, keep searching, and keep writing. Yeah ...


Yesterday, Jonathan Mayhew posted a good example of a sentence that could be "rewritten a few more times". Here's how it might look in an organization theory paper:

The perspective from which Lean should be evaluated is from within the myth of Japanese efficiency.

As Jonathan notes, it suffers from both the passive voice and an "overall awkwardness".

Let's start with the awkwardness. "The pesperctive from which ... is from within ..." The fact that the preposition "from" is used twice should raise a red flag and the second instance is in fact superfluous. Since we are always getting things in perspective, nothing is added by saying "from within". (Don't say "from within" if "from outside" would make no sense.)

The perspective from which Lean should be evaluated is the myth of Japanese efficiency.
Once this has been done, we can see that the "is" does little more than identify two things:

The perspective from which Lean should be evaluated = the myth of Japanese efficiency.

So we can freely reverse the order, which makes it less awkward in this case:

The myth of Japanese efficiency is the perspective from which Lean should be evaluated.

Now, I'm uncertain about how to identify the passive voice here. The auxilliary verb "should" forces us to use the past participle of "evaluate" and the passive voice is imposed by is + the past participle. But the "is ... should be" is certainly less active than simply saying:

Lean should be evaluated from the perspective of the myth of Japanese efficiency.

This seems more active but it is still, I think, formally in the passive voice. If there is some particular reason to hold on to the "within", then you are actually free to put it back. But consider using only one preposition:

Lean should be evaluated within the perspective of the myth of Japanese efficiency.
Now, let's turn put it resolutely in the active voice and recover the "from within":

We should evaluate Lean from within the perspective established by the myth of Japanese efficiency.

We could convert it from the indicative mood to the imperative it glosses over:

Always evaluate Lean from within the perspective established by the myth of Japanese efficiency!

But academic prose normally avoids the imperative mood even when giving instructions. It politely turns them into statements of fact about how things ought naturally to be.

It may help to sort out the descriptive from the prescriptive point of this sentence. It is trying to say something about what should be done but also about how things in fact are. They could be separted as follows:

Lean management emerged from of the myth of Japanese efficiency and it should be evaluated in that perspective.

I will leave it to you to go back to Jonathan's post and decide whether what I have done here can count as a rewriting of the sentence he quoted.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Verbs More Generally

The passive voice is a special case of the use of verbs more generally. "Bad writing," says Christopher Lasch (Plain Style, p. 75), "relies on nouns and adjectives to carry the thought and relegates verbs to an insignificant role." Lasch's rather harsh judgment should be of particular interst to us here at Research as a Second Language: he identifies the enemy as "dull, noun-heavy, Germanic prose" (my emphasis). That is, he seems here to blame continental Europe for bad academic writing in English.

I don't know about the Germans, but he definitely has a point about nouns. When we learn a language we naturally approach the problem in terms of amassing a vocabulary, and we tend to think of this as a lexicon of nouns. This is no less (and perhaps more) true when we set out to acquire our academic language competency. Here we construe our field of specialization in terms of the things that our terminology refers to and what those things are like. It is no wonder we learn all the right nouns and adjectives first.

If we don't make a special effort to identify the verbs that circulate in our field and learn how to use them as well, we are likely to succumb to the repeated use of the verb "to be". This should be avoided. "Verbs signify action and movement," Laschs reminds us, "and a sentence built around a lively verb will tend to generate far more energy than a sentence that merely piles up nouns, adjectives, and other modifiers." The problem arises because, once we have a list of things to refer to (a list of nouns) that easily identifies us as users of a particular idiom, we can in fact make do with "to be", "to get", "to have", and "to go" when joining them together.

But the world is not populated only with things and people that have names and attributes. These things and people also act. They do things. And your particular academic field is as much defined by its interest in what they do as its interest in who or what they are. It is interested in some things and not others; but it is not interested in everything that its object do. Or, perhaps more accurately, specific capacities for particular actions contribute to the constitution of the object-hood of your field's objects.

I'll have to say more about this later. I'll finish this morning by suggesting that you make a list of the sorts of doings and happenings and goings-on that your field is interested in. A list of "action words": verbs.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Passive Voice

It looks like it's going to do me some good to review the basics of grammar and style. Yesterday, I confidently suggested that the following sentence is in the passive voice.

It is the number of writing sessions, not their length, that determines how much writing you get done.

Fortunately, Jonathan spotted the mistake and pointed it out, and this sent me back to the Chicago Manual of Style to relearn what I thought I already understood.

The passive voice is covered in §5.112. First lesson: voice isn't a property of sentences but of verbs. The voice of the verb determines whether the subject acts or is acted on. If the subject acts, i.e., carries out the action of the verb, then the verb is in the active voice. The following is in the active:

The number of writing sessions determines how much writing you get done.

And the following is in the passive:

How much writing you get done is determined by the number of writing sessions.

The question is whether the subject (the number of writing sessions in the first example and how much writing you get done in the second) is acting (determining) on the object (how much writing you get done in the first and the number of writing sessions in the second) or being acted on (being determined by) it.

Second, as Jonathan also reminds us, only transitive verbs have voice. So while it is true that passive voice involves the verb to be (it is "formed by joining an inflected from of to be ... with the verb's past participle," as the CMS puts it), non-transitive uses of to be don't have any voice at all. "It is raining," for example, is not passive. Nor was my sentence about the number of writing sessions.

The main reason not to use the passive voice is that it has a tendency to obscure the identity of the agent, i.e., the thing or person that is acting. That isn't really a problem in the examples we've been looking at. We can approximate such a problem by starting with the following sentence in the passive voice:

The quantity of writing was determined.

This is grammatical but not informative. How do we make it active?

... determined the quantity of writing.

The only way to make it active and grammatical is to introduce a specific subject that was not mentioned in the passive version. That's normally what is meant when you are being critized (oops, what I mean when I criticize you) for using the passive voice. The active voice normally forces you to consider the question of who or what is doing what to whom or what.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Return to Usage

Jonathan's comment on my 80 x 3 post raises two interesting points. I'm going to say something about grammar this morning, but I wanted to begin by responding to what he says. First, Parkinson's law applies to academic writing as much as to official paperwork (and a postcard to Bognor Regis). "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." This means that (within reason) it is the number of writing sessions, not their length, that determines how much writing you get done.

Jonathan suggests 7 x 2 hours per week instead of my 5 x 3. I would still suggest at least one day of rest: a day during which success does not depend on satisfying your writing schedule. I suggest two in order to keep things realistic for those who have small children or are "graduate students" in the fun sense of that of word. (I leave it to the reader...)

There is another piece of advice in the difference between 2 and 3 hour writing sessions. If you are not getting enough done by writing three hours a day, try cutting it down to 2. Sometimes that extra hour just undermines your focus or wears you out. This is actually a still more general heuristic. If you have nothing to do but write all day, and you feel you are spinning your wheels, try replacing your 6 (or even 10) hour writing day with a one-hour writing session. Once you get used to this discipline you can lengthen the sessions.

* * *

Okay. I've now written three paragraphs in response to Jonathan and haven't even started on the intended topic of this post. I want to leave these questions of discipline and process for a while and turn my attention to English grammar and style.

Here's the blogging regimen for February. Each of my morning writing sessions will present an aspect of style, usually letting the Chicago Manual of Style decide matters of convention. Consider the following sentence in the first half of my post:

It is the number of writing sessions, not their length, that determines how much writing you get done.

Some might think it should have been "determine" (plural) because "writing sessions" is plural. But the subject of the sentence is actually the number of sessions not the sessions themselves. A number is singular.

Also, notice the commas around "their length". They serve a definite purpose where they are, but the sentence could also be written without commas. Just move the references to the length of the sessions closer to the reference to their number.

It is the number not the length of writing sessions that determines how much writing you get done.

The commas would not be wrong here, mind you, but they are less needed.

Finally, notice that the sentence is in the passive voice. [Update: it isn't in the passive voice, as Jonathan points out in the comments. I'll explain tomorrow.] Fixing that is easy:

The number of writing sessions, not their length, determines how much writing you get done.

The passive voice is not always wrong and I would actually defend its use in my original sentence. But knowing the difference is an important element of your style. As you can see, I also prefer the original position of "not their length". It puts the emphasis in the right place.

The active voice gives you still another option for the location of the reference to the length:

Not the length but the number of writing sessions determines how much writing you get done.

A comma after length would not be wholly out of place. Now, this morning I don't actually have the Chicago manual at my side, and I'm a bit in doubt about my freedom with the comma. I'll let you know tomorrow.

Friday, February 01, 2008

RSL Goes Viral!

RSL: the Blog

Well, things are coming along nicely here at RSL. As the readership of this blog expands (and will soon include a YouTube audience!), it may be useful to recap what I think I'm doing here.

Research as a Second Language is a competence-building initiative at the Doctoral School on Knowledge and Management at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy of the Copenhagen Business School. Its aim is to support the efforts of PhD students to develop their ability to publish the results of their research internationally. In practice, this of course means helping them to improve their written academic English. I run courses and workshops for them to that end, and provide continuous, individual feed-back on their written work.

My own training, however, is not as an English teacher. My masters thesis was about the philosophy of scientific explanation and my PhD was on the problem of knowledge and power. Today, I consider myself a practicing social epistemologist. Over the past ten years, the work of Steve Fuller has had a strong formative influence on my work and I was proud to have him serve on my doctoral committee. I call myself a practicing social epistemologist because I don't hold an academic post. This means that I am not burdened by either teaching or research responsibilities and can devote all my time to helping others meet theirs.

RSL occupies about half my time here at the department. The other half of my time as Resident Writing Consultant goes to the full-time academic staff of the department. Here I am basically an in-house editor and proof-reader. My function is to support the researchers' attempts to get their research published in international peer-reviewed journals.

In both jobs I spend a substantial amount of my time correcting grammar and style and I have posted basic grammar instructions to this blog in the past. A number of other concerns, however, have also come up in the course of my work. There are some general normative questions, for example, related to the pressure to get your work into peer-reviewed journals. This is the now familiar "publish or perish" issue. In a continental European context, meanwhile, there is the more specific concern about the Anglo-Americanization of academic discourse. For perhaps obvious reasons, "international publication" means publishing in English and this constitutes a new crisis of the European sciences (to steal a phrase from Husserl).

I have also come to appreciate the importance of the writing process. Your writing is most likely to improve if your process is calm and regular, and includes a great deal of rereading and rewriting. Some of my thoughts here at RSL have accordingly been about how to organize your academic practice to ensure that the writing you need to do actually gets done, and gets done well.

Finally, I have become increasingly concerned with the state of scholarship in, especially, the management sciences. There seems to be a real need to foreground basic skills like careful reading, correct citation, and clear thinking. Actually, I think the problems here follow from the first two concerns: working under intense pressure and increasingly complex conditions, academic writers are not encouraged to engage in careful scholarship. While this may explain things for the time being, it will not do as a justification over the long term.

RSL intends to be part of the solution to the problem of academic writing. Everyone is welcome to participate in the discussion. You can always post a comment below to get things going, or you can send me an email by following the link in the sidebar to my departmental homepage.