Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Center

Do not hold to that center, Jack, it is the a pusillanimous sludge of liberal and conservative bankruptcies, a pus of old jargons which will whip into no militant history, but may be analyzed eventually by the chemists as the ingredient which smudges the ink on such mothers of the center as the N.Y. Post.

Norman Mailer's open letter to JFK
(The Presidential Papers, p. 78)

There's an interesting discussion at about alleged "intellectual inefficiency" of mainstream journals. In this case, I agree with Brayden and Omar and disagree with Norman Mailer. It's a good example of a distinction that I think must be maintained: we cannot straightforwardly transfer literary sensibilities into academic contexts.

In fact, my point may be almost Weberian. We cannot express our political support for "marginal positions", and general boredom with "the center", in our scientific work. I'm not saying we can't engage in oddball projects, or that we have no right to be bored with the pace of intellectual change (i.e., the slowness with which our brilliant ideas are acknowledged in our academic community). I'm just saying that we can't make our marginality a mark of our legitimacy.

In science, there is only mainstream legitimacy. The legitimacy of a marginal position is a contradiction in terms.

Marking Quotations

When I first began to edit texts, I was puzzled by a typographical convention followed by many Danish authors. They would italicize quotations. Most would use quotation marks as well, which they would also use when block indenting quoted material. Let's review the basics.

Block indentation is used to set off long quotes. Journals and publishers differ on what to count as a long quote and they will sometimes allow some leeway for stylistic reasons. Some will say anything over 40 words should be block indented, and some, like Booth, Colomb and Williams, will say anything over three lines. Here's an example:

The Stoics were especially interested in grammatical correctness. They taught that everything should be called by its proper name and carried this to the extreme of denying that any word is in itself obscene (Cicero, To His Friends 9.22.1). They preferred a simple, straightforward style, and their definition of ornamentation is a narrow one. According to Plutarch (On the Contradictions of the Stoics 28.1047a-b), in the first book of his work on rhetoric Chrysippus required "a liberal and simple adornment of the words," while rejecting such niceties of style as avoidance of hiatus. (Kennedy 1994: 91)

While house styles again differ, most American publishers ask that you use double quotation marks to set off quotations that are "run into the text" (CMoS 11.33) and that you replace double quotation marks with single quotation marks in the quoted matter. According to George Kennedy, for example, the Stoics "taught that everything should be called by its proper name" (1991: 91). Citing Plutarch, Kennedy tells us that "Chrysippus required 'a liberal and simple adornment of the words,' while rejecting such niceties of style as avoidance of hiatus" (Kennedy 1991: 91). Notice that Kennedy's double quotes have now been replaced with single quotes.

The ASQ would ask you to put the reference right after the author name. According to George Kennedy (1991: 91), for example, the Stoics "taught that everything should be called by its proper name". Notice that the period (full stop) goes outside the quoted matter. Again, you will find some variation among publishers on this point, but normally not among those who want the reference after the quote, where it's usually close quote, reference, full stop.

In any case, before coming to Denmark I have never seen the convention of italizing whole quotations, or of setting off blockquotes with quotation marks as well. If anyone knows where these conventions came from, I'd love to hear about it. I'd also like to hear from anyone who has seen these conventions in other countries, and know when, if at all, they have been used in English.

Monday, April 28, 2008

1000 x 8

A standard journal article is about 8000 words long. Journal articles are different, so there is no single recipe for how to make one, but it is normally a good idea to think of writing an article as a set of discrete tasks. One of those tasks, of course, is putting it all together. This morning I want to talk about the parts, not the whole.

To begin with, then, let me divide a paper somewhat arbitrarily into eight parts consisting of 1000 words each. It's never that simple, of course, but it does offer us a way of breaking the task down into manageable units. You might want to keep Kafka's thoughts on how the Great Wall of China was built in mind. You can divide your own papers differently if you like, but here is one suggestion:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Theory
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Analysis
  7. Recommendations
  8. Conclusion

Obviously these won't all end up being exactly 1000 words long. But there is nothing wrong with producing a first draft that follows an arbitrarily regular pattern. You can then have a look at it and decide which parts to elaborate and which parts to condense.

Consider section two. This is where you provide some journalistic context for your work. You tell the reader what parts of the real world and its history your paper is about; it should be relatively free of theoretical jargon and it should be epistemologically unambitious. (The most ambitious section in terms of knowledge should, of course, be your results section.) You are here saying things that the reader might not know but could easily find out and will have no difficulty understanding.

It's a particularly good section to work on in isolation, i.e., separate from your theory, results and analysis. What this section says should be true regardless of what your research has discovered. An unanalyzed illustrative example—an example of the sort of thing your results pertain to—could be one element of such a section. It may be an example of the problem your research offers an understanding of, even a solution to.

By a similar token, your theory and method sections should be comprehensible (to the relevant theorist and methodologist) without any reference to your particular results. Writing them as more or less stand-alone sections is therefore a useful exercise. It will give them a particular kind of strength.

The most important reason to divide your work into chunks like this is that it gives you a straightfoward procedure for generating your first draft. It can be carried through without making a whole lot of decisions about the shape of the final product, which should really be made as editorial decisions about the drafted material (not as decisions about something in your head). A thousand words is about three pages. Most people can produce a page of prose in under an hour, three pages in three hours. So it will take you 8 three-hour sessions to produce a first draft using a procedure like this.

I am not trying to sell this as the only way to write a journal article. But it is very definitely one way. Why not give it a try?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Shadow Stabbing#10: Craft

Yes, spring has come to Copenhagen. In this week's video, you can catch me undwinding in my office after work. I've been able to get a lot of my own writing done this week and I'm quite happy with the results. I should be sending it off to review early next month after some of the people here at the department have had a chance to read it and comment on it (just as the editors of ASQ suggest).

I don't know about the aesthetics of eating pizza and drinking wine during a vlog post. Let me know whether I pull this off with my dignity in tact. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The brief notice in the New Yorker about Richard Sennett's book can be read here. I really do think we should hold a seminar on this book, along with the important "critical" companion, which was published a few years ago, The Corrosion of Character. Sennett is rightly worried about what globalisation is doing to "the skill of doing things well". I have an almost religious respect for such skill—I think it may be the most practical sense we can give to the notion of "soul". In any case, I think we should stop trying to keep up with everything, everywhere, every second of the day, and spend, you know, 10,000 hours becoming good at something. It's just common sense, really.

As a vlogger, I have many influences. See if you can make out how my Shadow Stabbing persona is a "hidden transformation" of Russell Davies and Glenn Gould (needs RealMedia player).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stylistic Virtue

"The virtues of speech are five."
Diogenes Laertius

I have decided to start organizing my posts with labels. Today's post will be filed under "usage", which I will use to identify all my writing on style and grammar, i.e., the actual construction of texts. Monday's post will be filed under "process", which is how I will label all my thoughts about how to organize the task of writing. My scattered thoughts on more topical subjects will perhaps get other labels. I hope to go back through the archive and label my posts retroactively as well.

One of my workshop participants suspects that I have some sort of ideal text in mind when we edit our samples together, that I am guided by a set of identifiable stylistic ideals. I am normally coy about that sort of thing, but today I feel like professing my faith in Stoicism.

The Stoics were not known for their eloquence. Despite this, perhaps because of it, they developed a perfectly good theory of style, however. In fact, it wasn't very different from most other theories of style, they just happened to emphasize some things over others. The five virtues of style, as defined by the Stoics, were Hellenism, clarity, brevity, propriety, and ornamentation (Diogenes 7.59). My account here follows George A. Kennedy's A New History of Classical Rhetoric (pp. 90-1).

The first virtue of style, Hellenism (good Greek), returns as Latinism (good Latin) in Roman rhetorical theories (like Cicero's). My Stoicism would, of course, invoke Anglecism (good English) as a virtue. In any case, the Stoics insisted on good grammar, and as I have emphasized before, good grammar was defined by the literary canon.

None of the virtues of style indicate absolute ideals. Propriety, for example, means using style that is "suitable to the subject", for example, and brevity means only saying as much as "strictly necessary". Virtues are best thought of as heuristics for thinking and talking about choices, not as absolute standards against which to judge results (in this case, written texts).

My own two favourite virtues (which is what my workshop participant has asked about) are clarity and brevity. Write as much, and no more, than necessary to "expound the thought intelligibly". Beyond grammar, which the Stoics were very interested in, a commitment to these virtues is probably at the root of their reputation for terseness. The virtue of "ornamentation" lay mainly in its absence. "They preferred a simply, straightforward, style and their definition of ornamentation is a narrow one," Kennedy tells us (91).

As a house editor for an eclectic department, I can be as much of a Stoic as a like, but I have to respect the needs of some of my authors to produce somewhat more ornate writing. That's where propriety comes in: suitability to the subject. Some fields cultivate a somewhat more obscure rhetoric (as least seen from the outside) and obscurity has its own virtue. It is called the Sublime. And I will write a post about that next week.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Every Other Day

One of my favourite poets, Kate Greenstreet, has a blog called Every Other Day. She has stopped posting to it, but I encourage you to have a look at it, both for its own sake, and for the regular work habit implicit in the title.

Not only did Kate in fact blog every other day, she had a number of regular features, or types of posts. She would often post original interviews with other poets about their first published books. And she had many interesting posts consisting of a picture and a caption. All of it was part of the "plot"—"the whole thing: just trying to be at home."

This idea of structuring your writing through a series of recurring tasks is worth considering. I believe it can be extended also, at least to some extent, to your non-writing activities and even to your non-academic activities. For example, I have been blogging every other (week)day and jogging every other day. In both cases, I have settled (more or less) into a pattern that determines what I do on a particular day.

Actually, I've been blogging every day. Every Friday there's a video post (the video is made on Thursday's but the corresponding post is written on Friday morning). I would have ordinary posts on Mondays and Wednesday's and shorter posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, written after returning from my run.

I'm going to drop the Tuesday and Thursday posts altogether now, in part because I'm increasing the length of my run. Here, too, I am trying to establish a repeating pattern. Five easy kilometers on Tuesdays, hills on Thursdays, and a longer (8-10 km) run on Saturdays. The new regimen has, of course, been talked through with my 'running coach' (one of the profs at my department).

He always reminds me that jogging programmes go awry because people try to get fit too quickly. They think they should just go out and run five kilometers every day from the beginning. After a few weeks, they're worn out. By contrast, I have found that starting slowly, running every other day, has let my legs get strong enough to make my runs truly enjoyable.

You know where I'm going with this. If you do all your writing in a "gotta get it done" spirit, setting aside whole days for a week at a time, you may, indeed, get a paper done, but you will not build up your strength to write over the long term. On the contrary, you'll be draining that strength.

As I am doing now, it is possible to adjust the pattern. If you spend more time on certain activities, others have to give way. The trick is to make sure that you are not always making ad hoc adjustments. Give some thought to how to write within a sustainably repeating pattern. That pattern can change as your other activities change; you may have a heavy teaching load one semester, or be doing field work, or dealing with administrative tasks. But try to see the changes you are reacting to in the bigger picture of a few months at a time.

A good way of establishing the basic structure of a repeating pattern is to ask yourself, How would I get this done if I were working on it every other day?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Schedule (Time)

Like everyone else, I like to think of myself as an existentialist. I like to think of my self as resolutely my own, while acknowledging that one must live among others. I consider myself thrown into it all with everyone else.

So here's a little bit of philosophy. "What?" is to space as "Who?" is to time. ("Not 'When?'," you ask. No, "Where?" is to space as "When?" is to time.) If your outline tells you what you will be writing, your schedule tells you who will be writing. So a schedule is, indeed, a rather existential affair. It is about who you are.

I'm kidding, of course, but only a little. You have to find time to write your papers, and what time you have depends on your other commitments, on what you are "with others" before you find time "for yourself".

As a standard model, that you can of course modify to suit your particular temperament, a weekly writing schedule is spread over ten possible time slots. This normally means mornings and afternoons, five days a week. (That's one thing you can modify. If you don't get up until late morning, you will obviously need to think in terms of afternoons and evenings.) At most, five of these slots should be devoted to your writing project and, ideally, no more than one a day.

For example, I have a lot non-writing commitments. I edit other people's work at least three times a week, sometimes more, for about three hours at a time. I do that in the morning. In the afternoons, I talk to my authors, attend meetings, and hold workshops. That means that if I want to write a paper (I actually have four in the works) I have to fit my work on them into a number of "ongoing activities" (the Heideggerian Hustle, Betrieb). I can't just set aside a week and "get that paper written".

I can expect to get at most two sessions a week (some weeks, none, some weeks, one) free to work on a paper. So I need to know very specifically what I will be doing in those sessions. As I have been saying, the outline is a useful tool in this regard.

Over the next two weeks, I need to find about 6 sessions (18 hours) to work on my paper about sensemaking scholarship, all of which exists already as prose in a number of drafts and working papers. It's about editing a final version to send off to ASQ. First, I will work on the introduction and conclusion. Then, I will work on the theory section. Next, the Westrum case. Then, the Mailloux case. Then I will return to the introduction and conclusion (sharpening them in the light of the other three sections). Finally, I will copy-edit, check the references, and send it off (after a few colleagues have had a chance to read it through).

It should all take three or four weeks (one or two sessions a week). I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Outline (Space)

An outline is the sketch of a paper. (A painter sketches the outlines of the objects she will be painting.) You can make several outlines very quickly and choose which one you want to attempt to realize in full. Even if you have a first draft completed, and especially if you have several drafts that you want to combine into a single paper, an outline can provide you with a useful indication of the structure of the finished product.

A structure establishes a space for the paper. The prose that fills in that space, giving it texture, will put various "loads" on the structure and too much detail may bring the structure to the point of collapse. At that point, all the contents end up in a pile at the bottom of the paper. The introduction just keeps going, all the way down to the conclusion.

Here's the rough outline of the paper on sensemaking scholarship that I'm working on:

  1. Introduction
  2. Soft Contraints (style and scholarship as theory and method)
  3. The Hidden Transformation of "Hidden Events" (the Westrum example)
  4. Making Sense of "Interpretation" (the Mailloux example)
  5. Conclusions

Each point then has several sub-points, which implies a finer outline. Each example consists of several details, which can be listed under each point. The theory section ("Soft Constraints") has a number of aspects. The introduction and conclusion have to emphasize a specific set of salient points. The subpoints need not become sub-headings in the paper.

The outline allows you to work some "head room" into the paper. This space gives your reader a place to think. It allows the reader to stretch his arms, and even jump around a little. More importantly, and by the same token, it gives you a "work space". Instead of building the paper up by stacking each idea on top the one immediately preceding it, your ideas can be a attached to a common frame.

Writing an outline is your way of establishing a spatial scheme for the paper. This gives you a sense of exactly what you will produce. Tomorrow, I want to talk about how this sense of your product correlates with a temporal scheme—how it become a motive for who will produce it. That is, we will bring the outline into contact with the schedule.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Time and Space (Scheming)

"Time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once," said Henri Bergson. Space, we might say, keeps everything from piling up in the same place. Without time or space there would be no experience to speak of.

Kant called time and space "principles of a priori cognition" and he installed the "schematism" between the pure forms of experience and their real-world objects. In order to give my ideas about planning an air of philosophical depth, I want to suggest here that the practical corollaries of the schematism are the outline, which organizes your paper in space, and the schedule, which organizes your paper in time.

Reading and writing are experiences precisely because academic papers occupy space and take time. These days, they fill up space on various more or less infinite storage devices, but there was a time when redrafting a paper had real material costs (paper), as did the decision to publish it (printing it, putting it on the shelf). A paper still fills some twenty pages in the issue of a journal.

Planning is the key to a good paper because it engages with "the pure forms of sensible intuition". Your schedule and your outline get you from a priori principles of experience to the actual writing. Planning is the first step to realizing your ideas. Unfortunately, there is a tendency among academic writers (a truly "romantic" one) to see planning as the cynical antithesis of "creativity". It is dismissed as so much "scheming". "Let Kant take his regular walks and keep his notes in order!" they say. "I will do my own thing."

Just don't say you haven't been warned.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The 16 Week Challenge

There are seventeen weeks from the last week of August til Christmas. I want to challenge you to plan a writing process for those weeks long before you go on summer vacation.

Here's how to go about it. First, scratch one week for vacation (for most this will coincide with the fall break). Next, scratch the weekends (plan to have fun; plan to relax). That leaves sixteen five-day working weeks. Divide each day into two three-hour sessions.

A writing schedule should never dominate a whole day. The standard solution is to write in the morning (9 til noon) and then do other things. If you can only write in the afternoon or in the evening, that's fine, but then you need to make sure you leave some other part of your day free to do the things that "normal" people do in the evenings. Otherwise you are asking for burnout.

In any case, at most one of the two daily sessions should be devoted to your writing. Some quick math: 5 times 16 is 80 sessions. 80 times 3 is 240 hours. The most intense "writing semester" I recommend, then, without knowing anything more about your research practices, is to devote 240 hours specifically to publishing your results.

My challenge to you is to decide over the next few weeks what you might use those 240 hours for. You have to be realistic, of course. So if you know you are going to do a lot of teaching, consider 3 sessions a week (144 hours), or even just one (48 hours). But keep in mind that you already have half your day free for teaching and administrative work.

In order to use your writing time effectively, you have to have something to write about. You have know what you want to say. Do not use "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" as an excuse not to make some decisions about what to work on. Even if it captures an important truth about writing, you have to know what you are going to discover what you think about before you can see what you say. You have to plan to say something.

So your writing schedule needs to map onto the outline of one or two papers that you plan to write. (If you have a lot of drafts in the works that are quite far along, you can consider working on three or four papers. But if you really want to get published, less is probably more.) Part of planning a writing process is planning the written product. So write an abstract and make an outline for each paper you plan to write.

That's it. The hard part, of course, will be sticking to your schedule. But you can't begin to do that until you make one.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #9: Research as Elegy

This is little more than the sketch of a video. It is all I had time for this week. Enjoy.

Have a great weekend ... Keep searching ... and keep writing.

Grammatical Workhorse

Dionysius defines grammar as acquaintance with what is said in the poets and prose writers, meaning the classical canon as it had emerged in his time. The subject has six parts, which were the daily activities of teachers and students in school: reading aloud, including understanding meters used in verse; identification of tropes in the text; explanation of the meaning of rare words and historical references; construction of etymologies; practice in declining nouns and conjugating verbs; and that is called "judgment" of the poets.

George A. Kennedy
A New History of Classical Rhetoric (p. 83)

The video is a bit late this week, but I should have it up later today. Back in the old days (Dionysius wrote his handbook around 100 B.C.) the study of literature was an important part of the study of grammar. I thought of this when I suddenly remembered an oral exam in English literature that I took many years ago. I had been asked to analyse Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and to read it out loud. I did well on the analysis, demonstrating that I understood what the poem was saying. But when I read it out loud, the examiners pointed out that I had misunderstood the meaning of "that" at various points. This misunderstanding was evident my reading. When the video comes up, you'll see what I mean.

Pam Peters, in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage, has called "that" "the workhorse of the English language". It can be used as a conjunction:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain

But it can also be used as a demonstrative pronoun.

That is an owl. It is moping in yonder ivy-mantled tower.

And as a determiner:

Save that owl from yonder woolly-mantled mammoth.

Notice that "that" can mean "yonder": "We have to save the owl from that woolly mammoth over there." But here's the part I remember from the exam:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The "that" in "all that beauty" and "all that wealth" works as in:

All that your wealth ever gave you will be taken from you when you die.


With all that beauty and all that wealth, you'd think she'd be happy.

That's how I read the "that" during the exam. It sort of sticks with you.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Comparatively Remote Presence

Yesterday one of my workshop participants managed to expose my ignorance of the grammar of time. (I am of course fully versed in the texture of time.) This gives me a good opportunity to review the basics (CMOS 5.115-5.121).

There are three major tenses (past, present, and future), each of which also has a "perfect" tense "that indicates a comparatively more remote time" (5.115). Yesterday, I failed to distinguish the past tense from the present perfect. If you think about it, you have to grant that it isn't (formally speaking) easy. What is "a comparatively remote present" but the past?

Well, there is actually a good answer to that question. The "comparatively" refers to the major tense and "remote" really just means "before". Future perfect "refers to an act, state or condition that is expected to be completed before some other future act or time" (5.121).

The paper will be submitted at the end of the month. (future)
It will have been rewritten three times. (future perfect)

Past perfect "refers to an act, state or condition that was completed before another specified past time or past action" (5.120).

The paper was submitted at the end of the month. (past)
It had been rewritten three times. (past perfect)

Present perfect works the same way "It denotes an act, state, or condition that is now completed or continues up to this day" (5.119). It is a present tense because the "state of completion" remains in effect (once something is done it stays done—until things come undone).

The paper is being submitted as we speak. (present)
It has been rewritten three times. (present perfect)

Can we say "The paper is being submitted at the end of the month"? Formally, this is just the present tense. The odd thing is that indicates a time in the future. It would obviously mean something like "The paper is being written and will be submitted at the end of the month". So while I think it grammatical incorrect, it may actually be acceptable to say that a paper is being submitted at the end of the month. It means that we are working on it more or less continuously up til then. (I'm willing to hear objections.)

When we say that the paper is being written we are using the "present continuous" tense. The present indicative would run something like, "Smith writes interesting papers" or "The paper presents a complicated issue in simple terms."

Well, that helped me get things straight (past) and will help me to avoid embarrassment in the years to come (future). I hope it has helped you as well (present perfect) and that, when you look back on this post years from now, you will have found it to be helpful (future perfect) in your writing. It helps to write things like this down (present indicative), actually. It is helping right now (present continuous), isn't it? It had not helped simply to ignore one's ignorance of grammar (past perfect).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Reading Comprehension

I held a seminar about Weick and Westrum yesterday. While preparing for it, I noticed a peculiar shift of meaning in Weick's account of Caffey's original paper on BCS. Here's what Westrum says:

He published an article reporting six such cases in 1946, some eight years after his initial observations.

And here's how Weick presents it (albeit not, unfortunately, as a paraphrase of Westrum's point):

Some cases in the article were reported 8 years after they had first been observed.

(Westrum's spelling out of "eight" and "six" is the generally accepted way to do it, by the way.) As I read Westrum, he is saying that the paper was published roughly eight years after he had begun to notice the anomalies. Now that may, of course, mean that at least one of the cases was exactly eight years old at the time the article was published, and it is, in one sense, the first time the cases are being "reported". But Weick's sentence, to my mind, subtly misreads Westrum to be talking about the reporting of the cases (to medical authorities or the police) rather than doing the reporting himself in the 1946 article.

Weick might rewrite Westrum's sentence as follows:

He published an article describing six cases of BCS in 1946. Some of these cases had been reported eight years after they were first observed.

But I think Westrum was really saying:

In 1946, some eight years after his initial observations, he published an article reporting six cases of BCS.

Westrum is using "some" to mean "roughly" or "about"; he is using it as an adjective. Weick is reading it as a pronoun. I'm going to look into this today to be sure, but I think grammar actually rules out Weick's reading.

Update: Weick might have been reading Westrum's sentence as follows:

He published an article reporting six such cases in 1946[;] some [of the cases were thereby being reported] eight years after his initial observations.

And this sentence might even be true. But that still does not justify Weick's gloss, which leaves out the idea that Caffey's article constitutes the reporting. Weick doesn't explicitly say so, but he does leave open the possibility that these case had been reported eight years after their initial observation. Both the observation and the reporting could have been done by someone other than Caffey. But that's not what Westrum is saying.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Subjunctive 2

The Chicago Manual of Style has a useful account of the subjunctive:

The subjunctive mood expresses an action or state not as a reality but as a mental conception. Typically, this means that the subjunctive expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, or otherwise contrary to fact. (CMS 5.114)

So one can see how it might be useful in academic writing. CMS (5.127) offers a couple of examples of the difference between the indicative and subjunctive mood:

If I am threatened, I will quit. (Indicative)
If I were threatened, I would quit. (Subjunctive)

Here the threat is much more real (though still hypothetical) in the indicative mood. It is closer to: "Don't threaten me. I'll quit." The subjunctive mood could be used in a situation where, for example, the speaker does not expect to ever be threatened, but is, say, empathizing with someone who has been.

Here's the other example (I have added a "will" in the example of the indicative):

If the canary sings, I will smile. (Indicative)
If the canary were to sing, I would smile. (Subjunctive)

Here the canary is more likely to sing in the indicative mood. Indeed, the subjunctive could be used as a kind of sigh (I'm not smiling because the canary won't sing), whereas the indicative is almost a challenge (if you want me to smile, get the damned canary to sing).

We can easily imagine examples in management writing:

If this does not happen, company managers will find themselves without influence. (Indicative)
If this did not happen, managers would have no influence on such events. (Past Subjunctive)

The "past subjunctive" is not a tense but a grammatical form. In this case, we are not talking about whether something did or did not happen in the past. The subjunctive is here being used to talk about something that always happens, i.e., something that is part of the nature of organizing, something managers can count on happening. That is, in reality it always happens, but for the purpose of this sentence we need a mental conception of what would happen if it were otherwise.

By contrast, the indicative mood presents the possibility that something really will fail to happen and, if it does (i.e., fails to happen), this will have negative consequences for management. I have to admit, the more I look into it, the less I am able to understand grammarians and linguists who imagine that English will one day be entirely without a subjunctive mood.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Subjunctive

If that be foolish ... ah, I see you smile at that use of the subjunctive. I confess my weakness for that mood and for fine speech in general. A weakness that I criticize in myself, believe me. I am aware that an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one's feet are dirty. Nonetheless, style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema. My consolation is to tell myself that, after all, those who murder the language are not pure either.

Albert Camus, The Fall

My cousin speaks a lot of languages. He recently suggested to me that, while there is no way around it in French and Spanish, hardly anyone understands the subjunctive in English. I told him I would try to write a post on it, only to discover, of course, how hard that will be. But I'm going to give it a shot, and I'll devote this week's posts to grammar and linguistics. I note that Jonathan Mayhew has written quite a bit under this label at Bemsha Swing. has the American Heritage Book of English Usage available for free. Here's what is says about the subjunctive. The subjunctive mood "is used chiefly to express the speaker’s attitude about the likelihood or factuality of a given situation". The indicative mood is used when something just is the case; the subjunctive mood is used when something may or should be the case.

"If that be foolish ..." begins Clamence in Camus' The Fall, but stops to reflect on his own predeliction for "fine speech". Indeed, many people would no doubt say "If that is foolish". The subjunctive here marks the uncertainty of the proposition that it is foolish (to seek the company of intelligent men, in this case). It is the formally correct way to say it.

What about the sentence that ends "an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one's feet are dirty"? Given Clamence's desire to be eloquent, why does he not say "that one's feet be dirty"? The answer is that it would be wrong to do so. The difference can perhaps be seen in a situation where the subjunctive would be correct:

Getting into the doctoral programme requires that one's grades be good.

This says that you should have good grades if you want to get into the programme. So "that one's feet be dirty" would be correct if the sentence were trying to say that wearing silk underwear requires you to keep your feet dirty.

The subjunctive, it seems, is of interest to linguists because it falling out of favour. People use it less and less. Sentences like:

Should her summer grades be good enough, she would be allowed to register as a regular student in the fall.

Are being replaced with:

If her summer grades are good enough, she will be allowed to register as a regular student in the fall.

I think the difference between these two sentence actually suggests a defence of the subjunctive mood. The first sentence leaves much more open the question of whether she will even want to register, or whether it would be a good idea for her to do so even if she could.

Have a great Monday. More grammar tomorrow.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Shadow Stabbing #8: Compulsion

I'm rather pleased with this week's YouTube video. By dividing the presentation into three sections, and recording them separately, I was able to keep my focus a bit better than usual. I think I will use that approach again in the future.

The idea of "research as compulsion" was derived mainly from Ezra Zuckerman's "Tips to Article Writers" (PDF), which Brayden mentioned in this post. When I am talking about "structures of expectation" or "programmes of perception", I mean essentially what Zuckerman means by "a compelling null hypothesis". Here are his notes:

7. Build up the null hypothesis to be as compelling as possible. A paper will not be interesting unless there is a really compelling null hypothesis. If there is no interesting alternative to the author’s argument, why would anyone care about it? Flogging straw men is both unfair and uninteresting.

8. Save the null. Since the null is compelling, it must be right under certain conditions. The author’s job is to explain to the reader that s/he was right to believe x about the world, but that since x doesn’t hold under certain conditions, s/he should shift to belief x'. This helps the reader feel comfortable about shifting to a new idea. Moreover, a very subtle shift in thinking can go a long way.

Perhaps not everyone will understand the idea of a "null hypothesis". It is used mainly in statistical studies and you can read a bit about what it is here. Roughly speaking, the null hypothesis is what the results would show if the effect you have discovered did not exist. In that sense, it is "business as usual".

A null hypothesis does not follow from your field's expectations by definition, but when Zuckerman says that it should be "compelling" he is moving in that direction. A study that discredits an implausible null hypothesis is not really very interesting. (The plausibility of a hypothesis is determined by the dominant theories in your field.) The most interesting (and publishable) papers are those that compel us to think differently about something.

Other recent posts of interest at include "What Makes for a Good Presentation?" and "Grad Skool Rulz #18".

My cousin, who speaks several languages, recently pointed out to me that very few people understand the subjunctive in English. Next week I'm going back to basic grammar issues. Until then, keep searching and keep writing. Yeah ...

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Workshopping & Debauchery

F. débaucher is, according to Littré and Hatzfeld, derived from a n. bauche, of which the precise sense and origin are according to the latter unknown; according to the former it = ‘a place of work, workshop’, so that desbaucher would mean orig. ‘to draw away from the workshop, from one's work or duty’.

Oxford English Dictionary

The OED defines the current sense of "debauchery" in vivid terms, viz. as "vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures." It also provides an obsolete sense: "seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption." The etymology provides an indication of how they are connected. The modern sense of "debauch" apparently emerged in the 17th century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when humanity began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure. Today, of course, these pursuits are specialized, and localized in places like factories and brothels, office buildings and movie houses, computer and television screens.

That's how I usually introduce my writing workshops. Workshopping is the attempt to "get back to work", to take craftsmanship seriously, to derive pleasure from the first-hand manipulation of materials. Quality in any art, I believe, depends on integrating (and in our age this means reintegrating) productivity and sensuality, industry and creativity. It is the opposite of the vicious idulgence in sensual pleasures, the pursuit of false pleasure, we might say. Quality is a true pleasure, it is the sensuality of work.

My workshops try to establish the microcosm of a bauch, a place of work. I have two groups of four people this semester. Each group meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays for an hour and a half every other week. We work on a one-page, 14 point, Times New Roman, double-spaced sample of text that has been submitted by one of the participants. We print the original submission, and work on it together in Word using an overhead beam projector. As writers, it is our duty to edit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Writing Process Reengineering

There is an important link between writing effectively and writing efficiently, between the optimal use of your mind and the optimal use of your time. Yes, I find myself sounding more and more like a management consultant these days. This week I'm even working on the outline of a whole-day organizational development seminar for university departments that want to improve their international publication record.

Here's how it could look.

  1. Introduction to international publication
  2. Sample workshop: close editing of a short sample of writing produced by a member of the department
  3. Analysis of a published paper in a relevant field that has not been written by a member of the department
  4. (Lunch)
  5. Master class: feedback on a paper written by a member of the department
  6. Guided discussion: the department as a writing environment
  7. Wrap-up

While a given department could obviously bring in a writing consultant like me to facilitate such a day, it could also assign members of its own faculty to these tasks. The important thing is to raise the problem of writing as an explicit issue and to begin to talk about how the department's organizational structures can support a writing environment. (If your department wants to give me a try, my contact information can be found here.)

The discussion about the department as a writing environment can be used to imagine the life of a typical researcher over 17 weeks, including a one-week "reading break" (i.e., 16 working weeks and one week's vacation). How much time can realistically be devoted to writing? How can that time be organized? How many 3-hour writing sessions are available per week? What could those sessions be used for?

The first step towards reengineering your writing processes, both individually and collectively, is to get a good sense of your resource situation. That mainly means knowing how much time you have. Once that is done you can begin to set some realistic goals. And you can then begin to help each other to achieve them.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Theory, Thesis, Process

You will find it easier to write a good paper if you have interesting, straightforward answers to three questions.

  1. What does your field expect your research show? (This is a question of form.)
  2. What does your research in fact show? (This is a question of content.)
  3. How do you plan to get the paper written?

The answer to the first question should include a short list of the names of specific, living researchers who hold these expectations and whose work expresses them. The answer to the second question should make use of the same terminology as the first and include a few easy-to-understand declarative sentences. And the answer to the last question should include specific dates, times, and tasks—it should be the outline of a writing schedule.

If you can answer these questions without too much trouble then you have a good sense of your theoretical context, your empirical thesis, and your writing process. If you are writing your paper to discover the answers to these questions, you are likely to run into trouble. People are different, of course, and if you write and publish often without answers to these questions, you are an exception.