Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

There's snow on the ground (and on the rooftops and in the trees and on the cars) in Copenhagen this morning. What a great way to bring the academic year to a close! The blog will be taking a break until early next year. It will then pick up slowly and get back to the usual grind in February.

This morning I offer a brief reminder about how best to take a break from your work, especially your writing. Decide what your last task on your last day of work is. (Decide also when your last writing session will happen and what it will involve.) And then decide when you will pick up again (when your first day begins and what your first task will be; here, again, you should also decide when your first writing session will happen and what it will be about.) Having decided these things, your break happens naturally in between your last day of work and your first day back.

This method keeps you from thinking too much about the things you are supposed to be taking a break from. You have closed your projects down temporarily. And you know how you will open them up again.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Style and Knowledge

"The love of ambiguity of in the early Establishment, the endless theses so intricately structured in the syntax of their own jargon that parodies of the old Partisan Review style used to deliver insights, willy-nilly, as good as the original..." (Norman Mailer)

Grammarians, editors, and curmudgeons of various kinds sometimes complain about the obscurity of academic writing. In fact, it is sometimes argued that much scholarly writing is simply empty, a mere pretense of knowing, or even a kind of "put on" (most effectively by Norman Mailer in his characterization of the New York intelligentsia of the 1950s.) The complaint is worth taking seriously, I think, if only because the consequences seem quite serious.

After all, if writing is used, as Kierkegaard quipped, not to hide thought, but to hide the fact that we don't think, or, what may amount to the same thing, if it is used to hide the fact that we don't know, then the system of human knowledge is in a bad way. The editors of X, a literary magazine, lamented the fact that an "abominable, degraded jargon [had become] the common currency of American academic criticism" in 1960. "A great deal of harm has come out of the necessity for academics to publish as a means to promotion and to compete with their fellows in the domain of the physical sciences. Driven on by the same categorical imperative, 'Publish or Perish', they invent this drivel by the yard." (X: A Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 2., March 1960, p.159.) It is the possibility that pretentious "drivel" is doing harm that I want to emphasize.

What harm could it do? Well, if scholars do not express what they think clearly, then other scholars may misunderstand them, or not understand them at all. Worse, if they are mistaken about something, their peers will be less likely to correct them. Clear writing is a way of opening your thinking and your knowledge to critique, and it is through the criticism of others, as much as our own observations and reflections, that we build our understanding of any subject. The quality of our writing has epistemic consequences. Style is a proper concern of epistemologists.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Free Time, Blank Pages, and other Catastrophes

The completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you.

"Call Jonah the model of the poet who fails of strength, and who wishes to return to the Waters of Night, the Swamp of Tears, where he began, before the catastrophe of vocation." (Harold Bloom)

To write, said Virginia Woolf, a woman needs money and a room of her own. Needless to say (I hope), that’s not just true for women. All writers need to secure both a space and a time for their writing (a room is a space, and time, of course, is money). Here is a way to think about this problem in relation to longish writing projects like a PhD dissertation.

First, don’t write onto a blank page or out of inspiration. Write to a thesis in an outline. Before you go to bed at night, you should know what you are going to write about (if not exactly what you are going to say) in the morning. If you are struck by inspiration, jot the idea down in a notebook (always carry a notebook) and take it up in your next available writing session.

Second, don’t write on a “free day” or in a “spare moment”. Write at a specific time in a specific place that has been determined at least 12 hours in advance (with an intervening period of sleep). More ideally: plan when you will write over a period of months, and plan to write every day—but take weekends off. Write for at least 30 minutes and no more than 4 hours. (Feel free to push that envelope at either end, but just demonstrate to yourself that you can keep it up over the long term.) Looking back to the first point, as much as possible, let your writing schedule include particular tasks and topics.

Third, don’t write without an audience in mind. An “academic” audience is defined by what they know and by the fact that they share much of that knowledge with you. An academic writer writes for a reader that knows a great deal about the subject but needs to be informed about particular details or corrected on particular issues. You should know the names of at least a dozen of your potential readers, not including those you know personally. You should also be familiar with what they have written about your subject.

Obviously this mostly applies to the “writing phase” of your research project, i.e., after you have made the decision to “get the thing written”. At that time, following these three simple rules will keep your writing process orderly. It will constrain your project in time and space and keep your work from being too much of an “open site” onto which anyone might walk and disturb your thoughts.

Your room and your calendar are the means by which you protect your writing process from the rest of your life and, not incidentally, the rest of your life from your writing process. Book your writing self into your life; show up on time to write and leave on time to do other things. Don’t let your writing self get irritated by his or her surroundings, and don’t let him or her become a bore to your non-writing self, your friends, family and colleagues.

Your outline and a good schedule of dissertation-related tasks are the means by which your writing process effectively leverages your intellectual energy. When planning, work backwards from the universal, predictable chores you will have to do at the end (checking references, proofreading, fixing the layout). Just before you reach that stage you will have to have a last look at the introduction and conclusion. Before that, you will have to make sure there is consistency between theory, method, and results. And so on. Your outline will help you to think of things that will need to get done, but it should also be sensitive to your research results. As your outline changes, make sure the related tasks are modified accordingly.

Your room and your outline define the spatial dimension of your writing process. They ensure that your dissertation does not intermittently look like a blank white page in a wide open space. You always know where you will be sitting (in your room, behind a closed door) and where the words will end up (in a part of the dissertation, specified by the outline).

Your calendar and schedule of tasks can help you control the temporal dimension. At some point you will have to write a first draft of the introduction and at another point you will have to proofread the final manuscript. These tasks, and all the other tasks, can be predicted and assigned a finite amount hours between now and the deadline. How many hours you have all together can be seen by looking at your calendar. Sometimes you will be working with rough estimates, but there is no point in agonizing over the first draft of introduction beyond the, say, three hours you’ve given yourself to write it. Spend those three hours trying, and then move on to the next task. Move on when you calendar tells you to do so. Book time to return to difficult passages.

Unfortunately, the completion of a dissertation often coincides with the beginning of a career, a daily grind. When they hand the thing in, dissertation writers have often just managed to learn all the bad habits they need to make them completely unsuitable for working life. Don’t let that happen to you. See the completion of your thesis as a work process like any other. I promise you, not only will you be happier for it, you will have learned more along the way. The image of the isolated, struggling scholar with nothing on her mind but the dissertation is a myth. These writers just need a bit of money, and a room of their own.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Writing and Knowing

The essence of academic writing is the communication of the results of inquiry to people who know something about the subject. Writing ceases to be "academic" according to how little the reader is presumed to know. A text book, for example, is not, properly speaking, a piece of academic writing. Nor, of course, is a popular book.

"The popular scientific books by our scientists," wrote Wittgenstein, "aren't the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels" (CV, p. 42). And they earn those laurels, i.e., their credentials, by the hard work they present in journal articles. It is hard work to explain something new to someone who knows a great deal about it in advance.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Editor's Block?

If ever someone needed some stupid motivational tricks, I do now. Jonathan's new blog on the subject is a welcome development. Over the past few weeks I haven't been functioning properly, and it has affected even my work as an editor. I generally agree with Paul Silvia, however: academic writers don't get writer's block. When they do, they have misunderstood the nature of their task. They are, in a sense, being "unprofessional" about their work. That probably describes my current situation. I am being too much the struggling artist about something that is, in fact, an ordinary, workaday craft. I'm like the often-parodied actor asking "What's my motivation?"

(Mordecai Richler's comments about his work are very relevant here. You can find them under "Living in London" at the CBC's archives.)

I will not get the problem to go away simply by chiding myself for being unprofessional, however. Though part of getting through this will, of course, just be getting down to work, over the longer term I need to rediscover the boundaries that once kept the various parts of my job from interfering with each other and made each task enjoyable in its own limited way. Fortunately, we're heading towards a natural break in the routine. This semester's 16-week program ends in a couple of weeks time, and then I will regroup, think things over, and get back at it in the new year.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Belief and Imagination

There is an important difference between the literary and the academic style. The literary writer is first and foremost trying to get the reader to imagine something; the academic writer, by contrast, is trying to get the reader to believe something. In this sense, literary writing has an aesthetic aim, while the aim of academic writing is epistemic. But that is not to say that literature does not engage with our beliefs, nor that academic writing does not engage our imagination. The difference is merely in their primary aim.

Any sentence, in order to be understood, must affect the reader's imagination. But it cannot produce this effect if the reader does not believe something in the first place. We can understand the sentence, "He opened the window," only because we hold certain beliefs about windows and the people who deal with them. (We would be surprised to discover that "he" is a cockroach.) But we can interpret the sentence without believing that anyone actually opened a window. The aim of the sentence is to get us to imagine something, not believe it.

The sentence, "Organizations are social constructions," by contrast, is somewhat difficult to, properly speaking, imagine. It asks us to consider the truth of a proposition, not to form a picture in our minds.

Both sentences express simple ideas. Even when we make them more complex, however, they retain their aesthetic and epistemic focus respectively.

"He opened the window and listened to the hushed voices of the conspirators, who sat on the bench in the garden, entirely unaware of his eavesdropping."

"Organizations are social constructions but this does not mean that they are merely linguistic fictions. After all, reality itself is a social construction."

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. We'll see on Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


"In stating as fully as I could how things really were, it was often very difficult and I wrote awkwardly and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardnesses are easy to see, and they called it style." (Ernest Hemingway)

My piano teacher praised my "musicating" at my last lesson. I don't know if that's a word in English and I was actually surprised that it's a word in Danish. It means "to make music", and in this case she was trying to distinguish it from merely playing the notes. I still find it quite difficult to play the right notes (we've been working on the first prelude of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier) and her point was that even though I'm clearly struggling, I'm nonetheless trying to phrase at least a few bars at a time, and I'm varying my dynamics and tempi. I insisted that in playing quietly or slowly I'm only trying to give myself time to put my fingers in the right the places. Then, when I play loud or pick up the tempo a bit, it's because I hit a stretch that I find easier to play. So it's like Hemingway says, it's my awkward struggle with a difficulty that comes out as "musicating".

Perhaps musicating is a bit a like prosifying. We can distinguish "making prose" (really writing) from merely putting down words (in grammatically correct sequences). When I edit other people's writing I do sometimes notice a distinct struggle to write (to state as fully as possible how things really are). It can be seen in a suddenly shorter sentence, or a change of tense. Sometimes, no doubt, the writer is merely dealing "awkwardly" with a difficulty. But I can actually put myself in the mind of my teacher: she was encouraged by what may be the rudiments of a style.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Clean Text

From now until Christmas I'm going to try to write only about matters of style and grammar. That is, I'm going to blog as a copy-editor.

Editing is probably the most rewarding and most difficult thing I do. It is especially rewarding when I am given a text (as I often am, thankfully), that the author has carefully edited, even proofread, first. This allows me to tackle substantive questions of style and argumentation, rather than superficial questions of spelling and punctuation (often resulting from typos). It is a common misconception that the more unfinished a text is the more open it is to "suggestions". In a sense, that is true, but the openness is ultimately empty. A text needs to offer real resistance to the suggestions of an editor; it needs to push back against the editor's intuitions. There needs to be some friction, and if both the editor and the author understand this from the beginning, the process of improving the text can be truly gratifying—for both parties.

Grammar Girl has a nice post on proofreading that offers some standard advice. I think the most important thing to do (which is unfortunately probably quite rare) is to read your text out loud once or twice before giving it to your editor. This not only helps you to find typos, it also gives you access to the flow and rhythm of your text. You are forced to pay attention to it as prose, one word at a time.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Changing the Pattern

My one-week break from blogging somehow turned into two. I'm occupied with a lot of different things these days, some of which are quite new, and this is not leaving me with the sort of attention I need to blog often. So I am going to change my blogging and jogging pattern. Starting next week, I'm going to jog Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and blog only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Also, I'm going to base my blog-posts on readings of grammar and style guides. Lately, thinking of something to say every other morning has been a bit stressful. Instead, I'm just going to read something about style or grammar before I go to bed (Monday and Wednesday) and write a post about it in the morning.

In general, I think it is important to deal with your work-load pressures by making relatively small changes in the pattern of your tasks. If you suddenly feel you don't have time to write, always consider writing less before you decide not to write at all. Quick, sudden changes of direction, or radical changes in your range of activities can be very stressful. If you're going to shift your attentions from one set of things to another, do it slowly, and do it in way that is reversible at least in the short term.

Bob Sutton's current post is called "When is the change going to be over?". He rightly points out that we should expect constant change. But I would temper this with a call to managers, and of course self-managers (like researchers), to define relatively limited change processes that are set in motion and then brought to a close. There is change as such and then there is the change. I don't think is unreasonable to demand that the change should have a beginning and an end.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Object, Audience

In our writing process discussion today, we were struggling with "what counts" as writing time. We're trying to exclude various pseudo-writing activities, i.e., activities that are only nominally (and sometimes at quite a stretch) contributing to reaching your writing goals (like finishing a paper, or getting your dissertation done on time). After trying out proposals like "writing to flesh out an outline", "writing to a thesis", and simply "writing about something", each of which is good in its own way, we hit on this one: if you can know in advance what you are writing about (your object) and who you are writing to (your audience) it probably counts. This does not mean that thinking about your classes, planning field-work, reading books, and analyzing data are not important activities. They're just not, properly speaking, part of your writing process. Everything has its time and its place. My concern is just that you make sure that you are regularly engaged in full-fledged writing, i.e., (as we discovered) saying something to someone.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Change of Plans

I have a paper due at the end of the month. It's going well, but I need to devote my whole writing self to it (my other selves have plenty to do also), so I will have to abandon the blog until next week. It's Sunday night. This change of plans therefore falls (just barely) within the minimum planning horizon: knowing what you are going to do in the morning before you go to bed at night.

Friday, October 23, 2009

40 x 6

"In dieser Weise wird die zweifache Ausdehnung der Schreibfläche für die Übersichtlichkeit verwertet." (Gottlob Frege)

I've stressed the importance of a finitude in relation to time. In this post, I want to say something about how to situate a paper in a finite space. The space of the page.

I've actually also talked about this before: making outline limits your writing project in space just as making a writing schedule limits the project in time. But today I want to work on this in a more fine-grained way.

Ask yourself, How many sentences does a journal article consist of?

To get a rough sense of the answer, imagine a paper consisting of 40 paragraphs, where each paragraph has 6 sentences. Now, it should be possible to pick one of those sentences in each paragraph as your "key sentence", i.e., the sentence that states plainly the point you're trying to establish with the paragraph. You can make a list of those sentences.

Each will define a sub-unit of the the whole article. It's a good unit to work with for academic writers because a paragraph is judged not merely by its style and grammar, but by its coherence and content. It is in the writing of whole paragraphs that you express your ideas. When writing paragraphs you are constructing the components out of which you will build the whole paper.

Once you have identified the (roughly) 40 paragraphs you need to write, then, you have a good sense of your larger but not unlimited task. You will need to write roughly 240 sentences. A paper can actually be much longer or shorter than that, measured in terms of the number of sentences. But that number gives you that nice 6:1 sentence:paragraph ratio. The intention is to give you a sense your finitude as an academic writer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to Draw

I'm a great admirer of David Hockney, but his introduction to Jeffery Camp's Draw: How to Master the Art makes a mess of the difference between drawing and writing:

Everybody learns to write. We are taught to write by copying marks, and even when we copy marks we all make them individually, we all have different kinds of handwriting. Within a year or two of being taught to write, things happen to our handwriting and personal ways of making marks develop very quickly. That's the way, really, you learn to draw. And in learning to draw (unlike learning to write) you learn to look. It's not the beauty of the marks we like in writing, it's the beauty of the ideas. But in drawing it's a bit of both - it's beauty of ideas, of feelings and of marks.

Later on he makes the following outrageous assertion: "Drawing is a more interesting way than writing of passing on feelings about the world you see, the world you feel about." Anyone who writes often knows that the marks themselves (even when typed) have an aesthetic dimension. And while learning how to write letters may not teach you how to look (at anything but letters), learning how to write prose certainly does imply improving your ability to see things in the world.

I know a woman whose instinctive response to people who claim they don't know how to draw pictures is, "How do you see?" I sometimes feel the same way about people who claim they can't write. How can you think? How can you be sure you know anything at all? "The only time I know something is true," said Jean Malaquais to Norman Mailer, "is the moment I discover it in the act of writing." It strikes me as absolute rubbish to suggest that writing is a less interesting means of expression than drawing.

The analogy of drawing really does help us to think clearly about what it means to write.

And we can go further. If a picture tells you how something looks, a diagram tells you how something works. But there is an asymmetry in this elegant formula. A picture is, arguably, a “diagram of what you see”; a diagram, however, is already something to look at. Perfect symmetry would correlate the diagram’s “seeing in order to do” with a picture’s “doing in order to see”. When, then, is a picture not something we look at but something we do? When is it something we do (with our hands) in order to see better (with our eyes), just as a diagram is something we see (with our eyes) in order to do better (with our hands)? The answer is: when we are in the act of sketching or drawing something. A drawing (the act of drawing) is a doing-done-with-our-hands to improve our vision, our receptivity to light. A diagram, meanwhile, is a seeing-seen-with-our-eye to improve our manipulations, our capacity for motion.

Pictures and diagrams can, of course, be represented in prose.

Hockney thinks that "learning how to write" is a matter of learning how to form the letters. He reduces style to handwriting, and then claims that writing style has nothing interesting to do with seeing or feeling. But in order to write a good sentence you have to be able to see your world, feel it, think it. The beauty of the ideas does not, perhaps, depend on the beauty of the individual marks, but it does depend on how you mark up the page, on where you put the words, and what words you put there. It takes more than a working knowledge of the alphabet to write.

Hockney rightly emphasizes the importance of copying when learning how to draw. It "is a first-rate way to learn to look because it is looking through somebody else's eyes, a the way that person saw something and ordered it around on paper." The same goes for writing. Direct copying in writing (especially when typing) is of course not nearly as instructive as drawing (with your own hand) a hand that someone else has drawn first. (The idea is not completely ridiculous, however, as Hunter S. Thompson's approach shows.) Still, there is a lot to learn from describing something that someone else has already described and trying to do so in that author's style. "One shouldn't be afraid of being influenced," Hockney says. "If you are influenced by something because it has attracted your eye or your mind, and if you begin to deal with it, you quickly sort out what it was that attracted you to it and it can be made into something." What is it the author had to see in order to be able to do that? What did she sense before she could mean it?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Science, Writing and Existence

Before the break, I promised I would say something about the difference between the logical and the existential conceptions of science. Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time, where he distinguishes between approaching science as "an interconnection of true propositions" and a "mode of Being-in-the-world" that discovers truths (H. 357). Heidegger is interested in the ontological conditions of "the theoretical attitude".

He emphasizes, however, that it is not merely the opposite of a "practical" attitude. Science ("theoretical exploration") is not a matter of "hold[ing] back from any kind of manipulation". On the contrary, Heidegger says, science requires a great deal of practical activity: setting up experiments in physics, preparing slides for observation through the microscope, digging up artifacts for archaeological research. Here, already in 1927, Heidegger is heralding the emergence of what we today call "science studies", i.e., the interdisciplinary study of science as variety of social and material practices. Playing on one sense of the German word "Betrieb", I have previously called this conception "science as hustle and bustle" (here and here).

Writing plays an important role in this regard. "Even the 'most abstract' way of working out problems and establishing what has been obtained, one manipulates equipment for writing, for example" (H. 358, my emphasis). In fact, Heidegger has earlier defined human existence by rereading Aristotle's famous characterization of human beings as "rational animals" as "that living thing whose Being is essentially determined by the potentiality for discourse" (H. 25). In this sense, then, Foucault's early work on "discursive formations" can be considered an "existential" analysis of science. It is also, of course, an important part of the transition from the philosophy of science in the traditional sense to contemporary "science studies". While writing is not the only practical aspect of modern research, it may be the most straightforwardly "existential", as the slogan "publish or perish" reminds us.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Philosophy of Science

I've been having some interesting discussions lately at a general philosophy of science blog called It's Only a Theory (great name for such a blog). It has got me thinking about the connection between the study of academic composition and the philosophy of science.

Back in 1837, Bernard Bolzano published his Theory of Science (Wissenschaftslehre). In it, he argued that "logic should be a theory of science", and by this he meant something very particular, namely, "that science which indicates to us how we should present the sciences in scholarly books suited to their purpose" (38). Like (at least the early) Wittgenstein, he believed that science is best approached, to use Heidegger's formulation in Being and Time, as "an interconnection of true propositions" (H. 357). (I'll write another post after the break about why Heidegger's definition of the "logical conception of science" is important.) The question, for Bolzano, was how best to arrange these propositions so that they could efficiently express what we know about the world. He recognized that there are many more true propositions than known propositions, but argued, to my mind rightly, that we do well to write the ones that we do know down in a clear and surveyable manner.

Bolzano talked about "scholarly books" or "treatises" (Lehrbücher, arguably translatable as "textbooks"), which was a natural genre to focus on 170 years ago. But his general aim, separate from the question of genre, was to understand "how we can divide up the entire domain of truth in particular parts in an appropriate way and cultivate what belongs to each of them and present it in written form" (41). Today, I would argue, the "theory" or "logic" of science is about how to present scientific results in academic journal articles.

Also, with the progress we have made from logical positivism (in the philosophy of science) to social constructivism (in science and technology studies), leaving open how far along that route we want to travel, it may be useful to shift our focus from the logic of our store of knowledge ... Bolzano asks us to imagine the totality of human knowledge "written down in a single book" (35) ... to the rhetoric of our conversation about what we know. After all, our knowledge is constantly being revised and the more clearly we express what we think we know, the more efficiently those revisions can take place.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Blogging Performance

Bob Sutton's reflections on his own blogging have inspired me to think about how things are going at RSL. Here's how they are going for him.

Typepad statistics indicate that Work Matters* has as of this moment 768 posts, 2863 comments (thank you!), an average of 822.60 page views per day (thank you), and a total of 1002748 lifetime page views.

By comparison, this blog gets about 55 pages views per day. I don't have statistics from my first post, but I installed a sitemeter when I started blogging regularly a few years ago (I don't actually remember when that was). So far I have yet to reach 20,000 page views.

There has been a steady increase in visits since I started the regular routine. I used to be happy to get 20. These days I'm a bit bummed to see it drop under 30. RSL remains a very modest project.

*A quick style note: Bob puts his blog's title (Work Matters) in italics (Work Matters). That would be my first impulse as well. But the Chicago Manual of Style says something else: "We put blog titles in roman type without quotation marks."

Monday, October 05, 2009

Theoretical Contributions

"If a man starts noticing ANYthing, there is no telling what he mayn't notice next." (Ezra Pound)

A common reason that editors and reviewers give for rejecting a manuscript is that its "theoretical contribution" is either unclear or non-existent. They may grant that the subject matter is relevant and even that the empirical material is interesting, but the paper is unpublishable because it does not "make a contribution to theory development", as the phrase goes. This criticism is worth taking seriously. And to do that we must understand what it means.

The Academy of Management Review is probably the most highly regarded place for publishing theory in the managerial sciences. It is special in that it allows purely theoretical or "conceptual" work, i.e., work that does not present empirical results. But even the other major journals, such the Administrative Science Quarterly or the Academy of Management Journal only publish research that carries a significant theoretical punch. That punch is the subject of this post.

While they were editors of AMR, David Whetten and Martin Kilduff each wrote a brief statement of what counts as a theoretical contribution. (Here are links to PDFs of Whetten 1989 and Kilduff 2006.) I prefer Kilduff's because it is more current and more practical than Whetten's. But both give you a good sense of what theory means for management scholars.

It may surprise you to learn that "the route to good theory leads not through gaps in the literature but through an engagement with problems in the world that you find personally interesting" (Kilduff 2006: 252). This is a very important point. Although theory development rarely succeeds in isolation from the writings of our your peers, a mere gap in the literature, i.e., the fact that your peers have not previously theorized a particular phenomenon, is not, in and of itself, an occasion for theoretical work. There is no merely "formal" justification for a theoretical paper, and the best way to be sure that you have a substantial contribution to make is to ask yourself whether you find your own conclusions interesting, not whether your peers should find them interesting.

That said, a theoretical contribution is precisely a contribution to the form, not the substance, of research. One (non-theoretical) thing that a good research paper does is to inform readers about what is going on in the world of (in our case) management practice. But, in order to transmit information, the sending and receiving station must agree about the form that the communication takes. A theoretical contribution is one that reconfigures, if sometimes only slightly, those protocols. A theoretical contribution transforms the way we look at things and the way we talk about them.

This is why Kilduff emphasizes those "problems in the world". You cannot contribute to theory if you don't have something to say about what is going on "out there" in real life. Our theories need to be transformed in so far as our current theories are unable to grasp the problems that managers deal with today. Your theoretical contribution is the change you are demanding in the way your reader understands empirical information. This is true even in purely theoretical articles where you don't, properly speaking, present empirical results. Likewise, even "purely empirical" work needs to have some implicit impact on how we see things. After reading your paper, your readers should begin to notice things they hadn't noticed before.

Friday, October 02, 2009

No Horizon

I went to bed last night without knowing what I was going to write about this morning, which means I have disregarded what I call "the minimal planning horizon". And, sure enough, I have now spent a solid half hour poking around on the internet, more or less aimlessly.

I started with Bob Sutton's post about Kanye West's VMA incident. I followed the link to Sasha Frere-Jones's post, which led to Choire Sicha's post (because "I don’t think people should be sending Choire hate mail because he happened to have an idea, rather than an emotion, about a video awards show," is a great sentence) and then on to the examples of "terseness" he celebrates (Kelly Clarkson and Trent Reznor). I then zapped over to Language Log and learned what a PHB is after following the link to this post, which also has a pretty good analysis of the trouble with "management": "Making management a profession was arguable; the associated notion that you could manage workers with no understanding of what they did was a disaster."

Like I say, I went to bed last night without knowing what I was going to write about this morning. That's rarely a good idea. It wasn't this time either.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dividing Your Time

The other week, it seems, I told one of my writing process groups that it was okay to count the time spent making powerpoint slides for seminars and classes as "writing time". I don't know how I got trapped into saying that, but it does raise an important subject, namely, that of categorizing your tasks.

Needless to say (I hope), it is not sufficient to use your calendar to distinguish only between "work" and "play" (or what some people call "life"). At work, as an academic, you need to distinguish, minimally, between the time you spend doing the three main kinds of work you will normally do: research, teaching, administration. But that is not enough; the confusion arose because writing can play a role in all three kinds of activity. So let's be clear: your writing schedule is a way to ensure you have time to produce publishable prose.

In your calendar, you should block off the time spent teaching as well as the time you spend preparing for class. This includes any writing that you might do to that end, which then does not count as "writing time". Your real writing time should, of course, also be scheduled, preferably so that you write every day (you take weekends off, of course), starting at the same time, and writing at least half an hour and at most four. Make sure you have at least one three-hour block to devote to your writing every week.

You should also leave time for administrative work. Since you do much of this "on the fly", you may find it useful to leave it blank in your calendar at first, then booking in tasks and meetings as they become concrete. If you can stay disciplined, writing only when you have scheduled writing time, and thinking about your classes only when you've scheduled time for that, then administrative tasks should be able to fill the rest of your day in a natural way.

Other tasks that will obviously be booked into your calendar: research seminars and conference participation. The writing you do in preparation for these things will usually count as real writing time. This is because such prose can, at least in principle, end up as published work.

What about writing research proposals? I think you need to distinguish between the prose component of such applications and filling out forms. The important thing, thereafter, is to make sure that you don't define writing tasks in such a way that you can "stick to your schedule" without writing research papers (and book chapters, if you like that sort of thing). If you do spend some of your writing time working on research proposals, make sure that it is explicitly marked in your calendar. You should be able to see at a glance whether or not you are actually leaving time to write for publication.

There are many different ways to classify your activities. Just make sure that your way of doing it keeps competing interests distinct. A writing plan forces you think explicitly about how you are dividing your time among activities that normally compete for it. This allows you to protect the time you need to keep your commitment (to yourself) to get what you know expressed in writing and into that all-important conversation with your peers. Vaguely defined blocks for "research" (or even "writing", if not specified further) is often not enough to build the habit of productive academic writing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't Hold Back

The verb "to edit" is a back formation from "editor". Editing is what an editor does. Merriam-Webster offers "to prepare (as literary material) for publication or public presentation" as the primary sense. Senses that suggest making changes to a text ("to assemble by cutting or rearranging" or "to alter, adapt, or refine") are listed afterwards. The word "editor", meanwhile, comes from the Latin e ditus, meaning "to put foward". Let this remind you that editing is not merely a matter of moving words around on a page. It is the act of putting them forward.

You put words forward to a particular end and in a particular context. It is impossible to edit a text for publication "as such". You must decide where you want to put your ideas forward and why you want to do so. What effect do you want to have? What are you trying to say? And to whom are you trying to say it? In academic writing, both of these questions can be answered concretely. Your literature review, for example, should tell you who is interested in your ideas. Your after-the-fact outline and your abstract can help you to identify your main points.

Editing gives your text direction. And that direction, like I say, is forward. When editing, then, you are reading your text to discover what is holding it back. What makes it unpublishable? What makes it unsuitable for public presentation. Errors of spelling, punctuation, and basic grammar are certainly among the things you are looking for. But those are only minimal barriers to publication. When editing you are not just trying to get your ideas out of your own office; you are trying to get them into the ongoing research of your peers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Article Length

Teppo Felin at has drawn attention to Isaac Waisberg's interesting observations about the increasing length of journal articles in the American Journal of Sociology and, in a follow-up post, the Administrative Science Quarterly. Note that the length of articles increases steadily from the 1960s, which correlates with the increasingly "postmodern conditions" of research in the social sciences.

In the comments to Teppo's post, it has been suggested that longer articles suggest less consensus among researchers. This seems plausible to me. With less shared assumptions, articles must explain a greater number of concepts and argue for their relevance and validity. Also, more work must be done to situate an article in relation to past and ongoing work in a field, with which the reader cannot be assumed to be familiar. Commenter Cristobal puts it as follows:

Long winded articles must have something to do with the lack of consensus / cohesion of scholarly inquiry. Most papers require extensive explanation as to why the subject/question is interesting. In disciplines like psychology, economics, medicine, etc, the papers are in the form (1) “I’m testing theory X (you all know what that is, so enough said)”; (2) “here’s my data”; (3) “here’s the findings”. In sociology, the sprawling search for ‘novelty’ leads to longer and longer papers. In other disciplines, more intensive focus on main questions leads to papers that are short and to the point.

An alternative explanation, which has also been offered, is that longer articles reflect the increasing specialization of researchers. A third explanation might emphasize the rise of qualitative research, which uses data that is much more difficult summarize. Articles in ASJ and ASQ may offer empirically "richer" prose today than they did in the 1950s.

Next week, I'm going to have a look at some articles in ASQ from the fifties and the naughties.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rat Race

"I'm a professional cynic, but my heart's not in it."

Sometimes I think I represent the aspects of academic life that are least appealing. I'm talking about those that it shares with other forms of life, other vocations. Once you divide your time between teaching and research, and then schedule your research time (your writing time in particular) as rigorously as your teaching, scholarship can come look as much like "one damn thing after another" as, say, marketing or accounting. More disturbingly, once we buy into the link between performance measures (publication) and promotion ladders (tenure, permanent chairs, etc.) it becomes hard to distinguish academia from any other rat race.

There is, indeed, a real danger in letting your awareness of the practical and rhetorical problems of research foster a kind of cynicism about your work. Once you distinguish between what makes a phenomenon interesting to you and what makes it interesting to your peers, as I did in a PhD course yesterday, and especially if you frame this distinction (as I may accidently have done as well) as one between what makes your work interesting and what makes it publishable, or between what you have learned from your research and what your peers should learn from it, it is tempting to think of the social aspect of research as a kind of pretense. The idea that social life is fake is at the heart of cynicism.

The original cynics took the consequences in a radical way. Diogenes, it is said, lived in a barrel on the outskirts of town. He dressed in rags and masturbated in public. He didn't care what people thought. Modern cynics (the reference of the modern sense of the word) are a bit less authentic in their response to the inauthenticity of social life. Since social life is fake, they argue, there is no shame in being instrumental about one's participation in it. It is okay to lie and cheat, it is okay to "perform" according to whatever standards society offers, and it is okay to succeed. When the rat race becomes too much, they argue, you can ("ooops, I've got a lot of money," as the song goes) retire to a country house and be yourself. Why suffer life in a barrel?

Both senses of cynicism turn on the question of whether or not "your heart is in it". That's why that line in Blur's "Country House" is funny, and actually somewhat inspiring. There are aspects of research that you need to be instrumental about if you want to succeed. There are things you'll have to do without your heart being in it. But if you let them constitute your main problem, you risk becoming a real cynic. (These people exist in academia, as you may already know.) Make sure you respect the part of your research that your heart is in. Make sure that you don't find your heart in your cynicism. In a word, be professional about it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shapes and Forms

"The Dasein finds itself primarily in things."
Martin Heidegger

Today, it has been exactly one year since I broke my kneecap. (In fact, the annual PhD course that I was not able to participate in because of the accident starts again today.) Needless to say, my jogging schedule was affected quite seriously. This semester I started running three times a week again, but it's been hard going. The knee is fine; I'm just out of shape. I had a really great run yesterday, though, so things are looking up. And I actually didn't do so badly in the relay race on Tuesday, come to think of it.

Also, this semester I'm taking piano lessons during my Friday lunch break. As with jogging, the trick is to practice regularly. I need to get into shape and then to maintain it. I have some exercises to do every day, and I can already, as expected, feel my hands getting stronger and more precise. My main goal with these lessons is to make my left hand a little more independent and versatile. That's all coming along nicely.

Finally, I'm reading Heidegger. His "Dasein" (the "entity" that each of us is, our "being there") is, I'm told, an attempt to interpret Aristole's definition of the human soul as "topos eidon", "the place of forms". Our existence gives "shape" to the world in our perception of it. The mind is "where" that happens. (This may be the source of the imprecise image of a "head full of ideas"). Thinking is an activity that we keep in shape for; our so-called "ideas" come from the shape we're in mentally. And, as with jogging and playing the piano, the only way to keep in shape is through regular practice. It takes discipline.

I very seriously suggest that you train your ability to think, i.e., to shape our world, i.e., to be "the place of forms", on the model of all other practical exercise. As researchers, we can concentrate on staying in shape (maintaining a form) in regard to a relatively narrow range of objects (particular kinds of organizations and managerial practices for most of my authors). And the most concrete way to think of this training is through your writing. Set aside some time every day to practice. Describing things is like practicing scales and running up a hill. It makes you stronger, more precise.

"In every day terms," says Heidegger, "we understand ourselves and our existence by way of the activities we pursue and the things we take care of" (BP, p. 159). Heidegger's preferred example is the craftsman and the "things" in the workshop (tools, materials, end products). Researchers craft their research objects in language, mainly in writing, and, as the appeal to metaphysics suggests, the stakes are pretty high. This is all about keeping yourself "in the world", or, better, of keeping the world in shape.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Popular

Gail Hornstein takes up a familiar theme in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Academic prose, she tells us, is "impenetrable" by nature; the problem of writing well arises in the context of "writing that appeals to a broader public". While she is, of course, right about the state of academic writing in general, I think we need to push back against the idea that only popular audiences (and their editors) demand good, clear writing. Your peers like to understand what they're reading as much as your "public".

My main objection to Hornstein's argument is her suggestion that the academic genre "allows" bad writing. What she forgets is that the proportion of bad writing in popular genres is as high as in academic genres. The majority of all writing is bad. Good writing always finds an audience. Bad writing leaves the audience cold. This is true no matter how small the potential audience is at the outset.

Consider the following attempt to define the difference between popular and academic writing.

Revision requires making choices, something that academic writing allows you to avoid at all costs. Much of what makes that kind of prose so complicated is that nothing gets left out. Writing for a popular audience, in contrast, forces you to figure out what the hell you're trying to say and come right out with it.

This is simply not true. Something always gets left out. The difference will only ever be what gets left out. It would even be misleading to say that academic writing leaves out less material than popular writing because popular writing is, in that sense, also trying to say less. All writing is the tip of an iceberg. There is no useful distinction to be made between leaving nine tenths or eleven fourteenths under the surface.

Hornstein is, of course, right that academic writers do well to consider a "different way of relating to our audience." But she is wrong to suggest that this problem only arises when we shift out of the academic genre, where, she says,

We'd have to start caring about (our readers) interests, learning what they know and what they don't. Popular writing, by definition, invites lots of different kinds of people to invest their time and money in your ideas, and your expression of them.

Knowing what our readers know (i.e., not knowing the same things, but knowing how much of what we are about to say they already know), is arguably more important in academic writing than in popular writing. When writing for a popular audience you can choose your audience; your editor will help you to decide how much your reader will be assumed to know. When writing for academics you are, in principle, writing for the most knowledgeable people on your subject.

Hornstein believes that writing for a popular audience will challenge your "arrogance" and (here's the good news) make you less "lonely".

Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience—other academics—will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.

But I think this is a very presumptuous thing to say. And it's a tired caricature. Academics do not "get away with" bad writing; nor do your peers "read your work even if it's impenetrable". A great deal of published academic prose goes unread (and certainly uncited) precisely because it is so poorly written. Not all academic writers are lonely, and popular recognition is not the only reward for a researcher. There is a genuine, deep satisfaction in having written a paper that thirty of the most well-informed people on a particular subject read, reread, and discuss. Such papers are rarely "impenetrable".

Hornstein quotes, but quickly dismisses, Gerald Graff's warning not to "exaggerate the distance between the academic and the popular, especially if doing so excuses bad academic habits of communication ... Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself." That's partly right. But you also need to be able to explain it to your brightest student and your professor. They are not a more forgiving audience. In fact, mediocre students and parents are much more likely to bear over with, or even admire, your turgidity.

"Discovering that I could write in a way that appealed to [a popular audience] was surprisingly touching," says Hornstein. "It made my work feel more real, like it actually mattered." I'm sure it did. But it's actually the easy way to feel like you know something that matters. Just find an audience that is bound, but its relative ignorance, to accept everything you say uncritically. Find an audience that lets you "prune" away all the difficult stuff. What is really touching is when three peer-reviewers, an editor, and eventually an audience of a dozen or so experts acknowledge your contribution to expanding the frontiers of the known. To do that you have to write well. Very well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Style and Grammar

I've been thinking about style and grammar lately. This is mainly because I want to write more regularly about good English and academic prose. In general, I prefer to approach the problem in terms of developing your style, not improving your grammar. Normally, grammatical mistakes are poor style, of course. Errors in verb agreement and punctuation is something you want to avoid if you want to impress your reader as a stylist. But I wonder how much a post on basic grammar can help.

For example, in Danish "er" (pronounced roughly like "air") means "is". So I will often find people writing, say,

Innovation are the key to the success of modern companies.

Well, that's wrong, of course. "Are" should be "is". But I think these authors understand how to conjugate the verb "to be". I think mistakes like this arise mainly out of carelessness.

So my goal, when working directly with authors, is to engage with their prose at the level of style. My aim is to get them to think about how they want to say things. Here the idea that a sentence may be poorly written because the author "isn't good at English" generally gets in the way. It is much more constructive to talk about what the author wants to say and then find ways of saying it effectively. The solution is rarely simply to turn an ungrammatical sentence into a grammatical one. We must turn an obscure sentence into a clear one.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hyper-focus Hocus Pocus

Bob Sutton recently assured the blogosphere that he is in good health. He had been receiving worried emails because he hadn't posted in almost a month. Here's his explanation:

The reason I have not been posting is that I have been hyper-focused on getting a complete draft of my next book done. For better or worse, when I get close to finishing something like that, I get so obsessed that I don't even realize how much I ignore other things.

I'm glad he qualified the strategy with "for better or worse" because there are real downsides to this approach to the final stages of a writing project.

Note that there is a difference between letting a manuscript occupy increasing amounts of your attention as you get closer to completing it and getting "so obsessed" that you begin to ignore other things (that you value) without realizing it. A writing plan can easily accommodate the former. The latter suggests the absence of a writing plan. Planning is the means by which you consciously (so that you do realize it) prioritize your activities. If you know you will think only about your book for a month, plan not to blog.

Likewise, in periods when you've got things to do that you can't ignore, don't plan to enter this "hyper-focus" mode. That means you should keep your deadlines (and ideally, this does not just mean your editor's deadline) away from periods in which you are doing a lot of teaching or fieldwork. In short, use planning to prioritize your attentions, don't focus on one thing to the detriment of others.

That said, writers need and deserve a bit of a magic circle around their work. Sometimes they need to allow themselves the luxury of dropping everything and immersing themselves in a particular text. They need to sit silently at dinner, brooding on their sentences, and take long walks to try to get things to fall into place. During this time, their friends, family and acquaintances might well ask them whether they are "feeling all right". In the olds days, this was called "melancholia" and was a perfectly accepted (if temporary) state of mind. Maybe "hyper-focus" is a fitting magic word. Invoking it secures a bit of space, a freedom from interruption, and a certain amount of license for anti-social behavior (like not blogging, or, I guess, updating your Facebook profile). It even rhymes with hocus pocus.

Just don't, if you'll pardon it, believe your own hype. Don't begin to romanticize your obsessive process or your disregard for other things. Like all magic, it's a trick. There is a more natural, more efficient, and less dramatic process that could explain how you completed your manuscript too.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Being There, Presence

Gertrude Stein famously said "there is no there there" of Oakland, California. I think she meant it as something of a put-down; after all, a place with no "there" is not much of a place. To be present is to be there, of course. When the teacher took attendance at school, she'd read our names off the class list and we'd say "Present!" or just "Here!". Presence is the state of "being there". In fact, Heidegger's Dasein can be translated literally as "being-there" and, arguably, as "presence" (prae + esse, "being before" us.)

It is not rare to read a text, especially an academic text, and think "there is no there here". In an important sense, the author has not shown up. If you called out her name, you'd get no answer (and you could put a little "x" beside her name on the list, meaning "absent"). Reading such papers is a bit like hearing someone at a conference read their paper out loud without enthusiasm. It is possible to "perform" a reading, which is precisely the act of giving it presence, but when people do not do this, they are just pouring words into the air. The words fail to occupy the space. They just sort of sit there.

The same is true of a written text with no presence. The words are on the page but the page is not a "there", so the words can't be said to be anywhere. They're just sitting there next to each other. How, then, do we give our words presence?

One important rule is to make to sure that each paragraph is trying to establish a single proposition. You express this proposition in a key sentence and orient the rest of paragraph around it (the key sentence is essentially your "there"). In oral presentations, in interviews (like those at Videojug), in conversations with colleagues and students, the trick is always knowing what single sentence you are trying to convince your audience is true. You lose the "there" if something someone says reminds you of a funny story and you then just tell them the story. You preserve the there, maintain your presence, by being always mindful of why you are telling the story. Why are you telling the story at this time and in this place? Why should your reader/listener care?

The story may be true or funny or both. But neither is a reason, in and of itself, to tell it. Once you know why you are telling a story, you are in a good position (the right place) to deliver it effectively, to give it presence. The same goes for factual details and narrative accounts in your writing. Don't fill up the page with true, or even interesting, facts and events. Always be aware of why you are telling the reader something.

Also, presence is established as a sense of "having been there". The reader, as he reads along, must increasingly feel like he's "getting into" your argument. That he is occupying a place (a "there") inside your subject matter. Needless to say, this means that he will think you have already been there and that you've been there for a long time. You should seem at home there. (Travel stories rarely have presence. People come back from vacation and tell stories, but they are rarely compelling. Good travel writers are valued precisely because they are able to give those foreign places presence.) Keep Tarantino's "amusing anecdote about a drug deal" in mind. Write for an imagined audience that might have been there too. If anyone who is familiar with your subject would know you are faking your knowledge of it, then you are unlikely to be writing with presence.

Stein's little jab at Oakland would not still be quoted if readers were likely to say, "Hey! I've been to Oakland, and I can assure you it's all there." The general consensus, I'm told, is that she knows what she's talking about here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Spoken Words

Presentation, as the word suggests, is the act of making something present. It is the art of giving presence to a theme, and in research this normally means bringing something you know to the attention of someone else. Presentation is therefore not just something that happens to the thing, the object of knowledge; it is something that happens between people, the subjects of knowledge. While a presentation does impart knowledge, that is not all it does. It also leaves an impression of the speaker in the mind of the listener.

To see what I mean, consider the difference between Chris Taylor's presentation of basic investment concepts...

Stock Markets:
Creating A Portfolio

...and Scott Leonard's.

Stock Markets:
Investing Basics

The best way to notice the "impression of the speaker" that these two presentations make on the listener is to ask yourself who seems to better know what he is talking about. I hope we can agree that Leonard leaves a stronger impression than Taylor, even though they are probably equally knowledgeable about the subject.

The simple reason for this is that Leonard is speaking off-the-cuff, apparently extempore, while Taylor is (I'm going to assume) reading his words off a tele-prompter. Watching Taylor, the thought occurs to us that we could make better sense of what he is saying by simply reading his text for ourselves. His own persona is not making a contribution to our understanding. Leonard's manner, by contrast, is so "natural" that we may not give his personality a second thought. His ease and confidence on the subject of investing merely allows his knowledge to get a across. This difference between Taylor and Leonard is important to understand when developing your style of presentation.

On Friday, I want to apply this difference to the written text, which may also differ greatly in "presence".

Monday, September 07, 2009


I discovered Videojug on the weekend. It offers an interesting context for an imaginary "gloss" of your knowledge (see this post and this one for my earlier ideas about "glossing" your work). How would you use the four or five minutes of a Videojug contribution?

Not all the videos are stellar, but one expert in particular, Dr. Julie Holland, has caught my eye. She's a psychiatrist who seems to be making a name for herself on the subject of psychedelic drugs. Check out her video about ecstasy, for example. Here is someone who is obviously in command of her subject. She answers the questions straightforwardly and with an easy, confident manner. We know that it is her opinion, but also that it is well-grounded in the available research. It's not just her "personal" opinion; she is stating her professional opinion. She doesn't just know what the right answer is, we might say: she also believes it.

I don't know about you, but I trust her. I happen to be a parent, but I would take Holland seriously also if I were a potential ecstasy user. Or if I were a politician interested in drug legislation. This trustworthiness is essential to expertise. You know the history of the subject and you know your own place in that history. You have an understanding of the basic causal mechanisms. You also have a good-natured understanding of any controversies that your subject is involved in. Your audience becomes more informed and better able to make decisions after listening to you talk.

So just as you can usefully think about what your research would look like in ASQ, or HBR, or the New Yorker, or the Economist, think about how a Videojug video on your subject should look. You may be developing expertise about lean management, or open innovation, or work-life balance. What kinds of questions can you answer in this confident, trustworthy way? What kinds of questions should you be able to answer?

[Update: On Wednesday I'm going to look at the difference in presentation between Chris Taylor and Scott Leonard. Can you spot the basic difference? How does it affect the trust you place in these experts?]

Friday, September 04, 2009

Correcting the Literature

Peter Klein over at Organizations and Markets recently drew attention to Rick Trebino's account of his difficulties getting a "comment" published in a physics journal. It reminded me of the difficulties I face in my attempts to draw attention to elementary scholarly errors in the management literature. I don't want to jinx my efforts, and in some cases I haven't decided exactly how I want to proceed, so I thought I would follow Trebino's example and tell a story without using the real names of the people involved.

A few months ago I discovered that an article in a major journal had plagiarized an article in another journal. It was a pretty straightforward case. In 1992, Exeter had written a detailed book about a particular incident. In 1993, Wyman published a paper that reanalyzed Exeter's account, framing it in an organization-theoretical context. Then, in 2007, Zeeler used the incident as an example in another context. Her account of the incident condensed two pages of Wyman's paraphrase of Exeter into a single paragraph; though some of the details are left out, Wyman's sentences are used verbatim and in the same order. Zeeler cites Exeter, not Wyman, and even uses the page references to Exeter's book that are found in Wyman's paper. That is, Zeeler has probably not read Exeter (1992); she is relying on Wyman's (1993) account but gives no credit to Wyman, claiming the paraphrase as her own reading of Exeter. Wyman 1993 is not cited at all in Zeeler 2007; it does not even appear in the reference list.

I wrote to the journal that had published Zeeler 2007, attaching a brief comparison of the two texts. The journal's editor thanked me and said that Zeeler would be asked to write an erratum for an upcoming issue of the journal. I thought that would be the end of it. The error had probably been the result of poor note-taking and it would be sufficient to admit to the inadvertent plagiarism, explaining that the account had in fact been taken from Wyman 1993.

The erratum appeared in 2008. But it did not admit to plagiarism. In fact, it did not make clear that the paragraph in question had been produced by lifting selected sentences from Wyman (1993). It did not even provide a proper reference to Wyman's paper, nor to the pages from which the sentences had been taken. It was so poorly written, in fact, that it was hard to tell what error it was correcting. It did say that some quotation marks should perhaps have been used to "avoid confusion", but only around a "part" of the paragraph (all of which had been plagiarized). Exactly which part was not indicated. Moreover, she framed the problem as one of not citing a relevant treatment of the incident (i.e., leaving out an obligatory reference), not of failing to cite the real source of her prose.

So I wrote back to the journal, explaining my puzzlement. The editor essentially said that he did not understand even my original objection (he restated the issue as something other than plagiarism) and, strangely, suggested that Zeeler could write another erratum if I could convince her to do so. They would publish it as well. Though I found this very weird, I decided to write to Zeeler. I received no response. I queried her again a few months later but have still not heard from her. That's not surprising, of course.

As in the case described by Trebino, what should have been a simple matter of correcting a basic error in a journal article has become something much more complicated. Something needs to be done to change the editorial practices of journals to make it much easier to publish such simple corrections.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Craft of Theorizing

Every Monday afternoon, I moderate an informal colloquium about the craft of research. This week we talked about about how to do a literature review (see this post for some thoughts on that subject). One of the participants suggested that we talk about theorizing next week, so I thought I would some spend some time this morning thinking about the practical side of that often rather abstract activity.

Theorizing is the art of developing a general position on a specific topic. Your theory should establish a connection between the empirical setting you are interested in and other settings of the same kind; it should therefore also establish a connection between your research and the research of your peers. Theorizing and reviewing the literature are therefore quite related activities.

Theory is not concerned with what actually happens in the field of practice we study; it is concerned with what we expect to happen. As our knowledge of what actually happens in specific organizations grows, our expectations of what generally happens in organizations change. Theorizing is the reflective process by which that change is made explicit and by which it is raised as a theme for discussion.

My favourite definition of theory is Pierre Bourdieu's: a theory is a "programme of perception". Theorizing, then, is the act of re-programming your perceptual apparatus. When you theorize, you are consciously transforming your way of looking at the world. Just as planning is not just a matter of intending to do something in the future, merely thinking about your subject does not constitute theorizing. You are theorizing when you are developing (sometimes just tweaking) your programme of perception.

Theorizing is a craft to the extent that your expectations are available to you to handle and manipulate. Your expectations are the material that you shape (craftily) when theorizing. Working with theory therefore has a distinct feel and what you feel when you theorize is a change in your expectations. You feel that the next time you look at your empirical data, you will see it differently. You will notice something new.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Composing Clean Sentences

I had promised to say something about the implications of political correctness this morning. I'm only barely going to keep that promise.

Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets alerts us to a thoughtful post by Stanley Fish in the New York Times.

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart.

He quickly traces the problem to the undergraduate composition courses (in which his students are instructors). Very few of these courses, he discovered,

emphasized training in the craft of writing. ... Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.

I have noticed similar things about instruction outside of the composition classroom. It is too often assumed that the problem is "getting the students to express themselves" or even "getting the students to think". At the extremes, teachers fear that criticism, and especially the sort of formal criticism that points out grammatical mistakes and vague language, will stifle the student's desire to write. I think it is high time we begin to push back against this trend.

Even at the PhD level, "clean sentences" are at times far and few between. As in the undergraduate classroom, PhD students are too often encouraged to struggle with ideas rather than words. Indeed, I sometimes think they've been told that worrying about clarity of language reveals that they aren't really interested in the ideas. (I had a philosophy professor once who left us with the distinct impression that he was suspicious of students who spent too much time proof-reading their papers.) One of my missions here in life is to foster a greater interest in the quality of academic writing among young researchers so that they may pass that interest on to their students.

I don't actually think that composition courses are the solution, though I agree with Fish that if you are going to teach composition you should teach it as such. I think criticism of language is the solution. Teachers and supervisors must point out when a sentence fails to convey anything other than unfocused enthusiasm for the subject matter—or worse, an obsequious enthusiasm for the writing assignment. [Update: students also sometimes confine themselves to expressing an impetuous contempt for the writing assignment, sometimes imagining that this displays their "independence of mind". Spare me. Spend your energy writing clear sentences on the assigned topic in the assigned manner. I'm trying to teach you something.] Academic writing must divide into paragraphs with clearly defined points, and these paragraphs must divide into sentences with easily discerned content. It is not enough to feel the importance of a subject. One must use the occasion of writing to think some portion of the subject through.

Edmund Burke said that clarity is the enemy of enthusiasm. But this should not get us to valorize obscurity. Rather, we should valorize the intellectual enthusiasm that survives the expression of an idea in clear, clean sentences.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Avoiding Gendered Pronouns

Here's a good example of the problem of the gendered pronoun. The back cover of Helen Gardner's The Business of Criticism announces her main idea as follows.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he does not wield a sceptre.

Presumably, "Miss" Gardner is a good critic; presumably, then, "he" does not wield a sceptre. The Business was published in 1959 and today I can't imagine a copy-editor letting this problem pass uncorrected, certainly not unqueried. Interestingly, the solution is not at all straightforward.

Certainly, "he or she" would ruin the effect.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he or she does not wield a sceptre.

Indeed, most style guides insist on avoiding gendered pronouns (he, she, his, her), not simply neutralizing them by using both genders. The standard suggestion would be to render it in the plural, making it refer to "critics" in general rather than an arbitrary "critic". But this, too, becomes very clumsy because of the several items the several critics must then handle or refrain from handling.

Good critics, Miss Gardner believes, carry torches: they do not wield sceptres.

You'll agree it lacks the crispness of the original. So what do you do if you want to get the reader to imagine an individual but unspecified person ("the good critic", "the ideal employee", "the modern manager", "the busy CEO")? E.g.,

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: he carries a torch.

You may find yourself insisting that there is no other way of achieving the effect you are after. One solution is to repeat the original subject of the sentence:

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre; the ideal manager carries a torch.

If you're absolutely adamant about refering to an individual, you should probably use a convention that analytic philosophers were very fond of in the 1980s: just use "she" instead of "he" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: she carries a torch.

But if Miss Gardner had been a "Mr." we'd have had the same problem as above. So before you go that route (which may not please your copy-editor anyway), try dropping the pronoun altogether:

The ideal manager carries a torch, not a sceptre.

Unfortunately, it forces you to give up the difference between "carrying" and "wielding" because introducing a new verb requires a new subject (and since it is the same person, the personal pronoun is a natural choice). There may be no perfect solutions in this area. Sometimes the simplest sentence is not politically correct.

Implications on Monday.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Paper Needs a Process

A good writing process does not just make you a more efficient writer; it can also also make you a more effective one. Your writing process determines the quality, not just he quantity, of your writing. Planning your work, after all, forces you to do specific things with your text in a predetermined order. If you don't have a plan, important tasks can remain undone.

One thing that I've become sensitive to lately is the question of whether a text has been subjected to the discipline of the "after-the-fact outline". If I were teaching undergraduate composition, I would spend a lot of time on this step in the writing process. It would be a fixed assignment, and one that the students would be graded on separately.

I'm beginning to suggest the after-the-fact outline instead of trying to line-edit a text. And I think that in the future I'm going to suggest that the author send me the outline instead of the first draft of the paper for general comments. I also think colleagues should exchange such outlines, rather than full drafts, for comment more often.

An after-the-fact outline is simply a series of sentences, each of which represents a paragraph in the current draft. You make the outline by reading each paragraph in the draft and summarizing it in a single sentence. It should be possible to do this simply by choosing the paragraph's key sentence. You end up with 25 or 30 sentences that mark the progress of the argument of your paper.

It should be obvious that such an outline gives you an overview of your argument. But is also gives you a simple way to reorganize it. You can move the sentences around and rewrite them to fit into new sequences. You can write new sentences to mark place where you need to fill holes in your argument. You can remove sentences that aren't needed. When you have completed this step, i.e., when your after-the-fact outline is done to your satisfaction, all you have to do is "flesh out" the skeleton, bringing each whole paragraph back where it now belongs.

You then need spend some time with each separate paragraph to get it to support the claim in its key sentence. If you spend 20 or 30 minutes with each paragraph, you will need about 10 hours (roughly three writing sessions) to get through the whole paper. It is my sense that those hours are often just what the paper needs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Begging the Question

Here are two examples, both from articles in Organization Studies, of what some linguists call the new meaning of the phrase "this begs the question". Others call it the wrong meaning.

If, as Adler argues, paleo-Marxism has been ‘eclipsed by neo-Marxism, of which LPT is an exemplar’, this begs the question: which labour process theorists have taken this retrograde step resulting in the inadequate acknowledgement of socialization?

In the former conception, ‘even the question of “internal”organization and administration now becomes related to an outside network of relative prices and costs’ (Robbins 1984: 71), which really begs the question of how much organization is left in this conception of ‘internal’ organization.

Originally, one would say "this begs the question" only to indicate a petitio principii, i.e., the act of assuming an answer to the very question you are addressing. Using it in this way, one would not follow "this begs the question" with a specific question (as in the two examples here). Instead, one would account for the sense in which an argument assumes precisely what it is supposed to prove. Today, however, many writers use it to mean simply "this raises the question".

Whenever that is the intended sense in a text I am editing, I normally change it accordingly, replacing "begs" with "raises". I do this for two reasons. First, it captures the intended meaning just as well; second, it avoids the unnecessary criticism of the reader who insists on the technical sense of "begs of the question".

Friday, August 21, 2009

Music Lessons

A few weeks back, Fabio Rojas posted some examples of guitar playing he had found on YouTube. That post was an inspiration. I had already been toying with the idea of using the process by which we learn how to play a musical instrument as a model for teaching academic writing. One of the most important features, sometimes avoided in writing instruction, is the direct evaluation of a performance of the relevant competence. Another is the essential role of practice.

I am embarrassed to admit that Fabio's post was my first conscious encounter with the work of Andrés Segovia. Here are some excerpts from a famous masterclass he held in 1965.

If I am not mistaken, what he says at the end is that the good artist displays a "delicate lack of respect for the rhythm" (my emphasis); this, he says, is the source of the "nuances" of the playing. It is the sort of thing that only a master is allowed to say, because only a master will know when the apprentice will understand what it means.

I play guitar myself, albeit at a very recreational level. After reading Jonathan Mayhew's new book about Lorca, I got curious about the Spanish style of playing. So I did what anyone would do; I searched YouTube for instructional videos. When I play, I normally just practice various vamps, some of which I've been taught by others, some of which I've cribbed off pop songs, and some of which I've made up myself (if that's possible). So I was happy to find the following video.

At 2:35, after running through the relevant scale, he points out that there's "a lot of music to be found" there. I thought that was a very good way of putting it. In fact, I've been finding the music in that scale ever since, slowly expanding my range of expression on the guitar.

I think there are equivalent lessons in writing academic prose. The teacher can demonstrate forms of argument and figures of speech, sprinkling in some occasionally cryptic remarks about what produces the "nuances" of a truly great style, and the student can be left to discover the knowledge that is "to be found" there. The communication of that knowledge is, the student will discover, supported by forms of expression that were shaped by a long craft tradition of "prosing the world". That craft can be developed only by practice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight?

I a big fan of Josh Marshall's news blog, TPM, but journalism does not always produce the best sentences. Here's an example:

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car after the Secret Service found him at Portsmouth High School hours before Obama arrived carrying a pocketknife.
Does Obama carry a pocket knife to his town hall meetings? This sentence leaves the strange impression that the issue is the mismatching of weaponry: the unnamed man's crime is to bring a gun to a knife fight. There is also something strange about the unqualified use of the word "hours". While the journalist is no doubt just trying to inform us that the arrest happened well before the president was in the building (and that he was therefore in no danger), writing it this way has the effect of trivializing the whole episode. ("Oh, but that happened hours ago!") That is probably not what was intended.

What this sentence needs is a bit of editing. In fact, the ambiguities in the sentence arise from wanting to do too much in the space of a single sentence. We can fix the problems as we break it into two shorter sentences.

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car. The Secret Service had found him carrying a pocketknife at Portsmouth High School in the hours before Obama arrived.

That's all this morning. Next week, I'll be drawing my example from the organization studies literature.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reading and Writing

One of my readers writes to ask me about how to organize the process of writing a literature review:

In a writing literature review, one cannot necessarily read one book and write, read another book/article and write, and so on. Because the literature review needs to be both expansive and inclusive, because it needs to be coherent and to connect all the dots, it would be almost impossible to start writing without having read most of the books on the topic in advance.

But, it seems that I take this step to the extreme by not writing anything at all before finishing all the readings. By the time I finish all the reading, I would have forgotten most of what I have read earlier. And so I would likely be faced with the same situation as before: the blank pages and the list of the books to read.

Could you tell us, then, how we can start writing and reading at the same time and build on each instance of writing for our final product?

I'm grateful for the question, which raises a very a general issue. One of the barriers to writing is the assumption that all the legwork has to get done before you can commit anything to the page. Whether we are talking about a literature review, a theory section, or the presentation of results, authors sometimes imagine that they have to do all the reading, thinking, or observing first.

Sometimes I think people should turn this problem entirely on its head: write the whole literature review before you've done any of the reading. That is, write a literature a review about what you expect to find in the literature before you go and read. Then use your readings to correct your preconceptions, seeing the actual writing of the review as a (somewhat radical) act of editing. The point of this exercise (which you are free to take as merely a thought experiment) is to draw attention to the knowledge that is implicit in already having the list of readings. If you know what you have to read, you already have a great deal to write about.

A literature review is not just a survey of everything that has been published on your topic. It is an argument for the need for your study. A literature review is not so much about what has already been done as it is about what remains to be done. There is a sense in which it does "need to be both expansive and inclusive, coherent, and connect all the dots", but it is much more important that it have a focus. And the work of establishing that focus, of defining your perspective, offers a fitting writing task in the early stages of writing the review.

One thing that should strike us about this reader's question is the assumption that it is somehow more "possible" to go ahead and "read the most of the books on the topic in advance" than to write the review. It assumes that "the list of the books to read" is somehow given. But making the list itself offers a specific research problem, one that can be described in advance of knowing what you find.

Also, the list needs to be prioritized, and your reading needs to be put into a schedule. You only have a finite amount of time to complete your reading, and you need to decide when that part of the work has to be done. So you need a much more specific strategy than "read everything on the subject in advance". Again, since this implies that you have a bunch of reasons for reading and rereading specific texts in a specific order, you also have an argument to present to your reader. Once you know why you are reading, you have plenty of things to write about. Spend your writing time (which should also be scheduled, of course) describing those reasons, working through the problem that guides your reading.

All good readers are really re-readers, said Nabokov. And a literature review is not a summary of all the studies on your subject that have been done so far; it is an argument for the relevance of your study. At the very beginning of your research you probably did some unfocused searches through the literature and got a sense of the contribution you wanted to make. A literature review is a systematic re-reading of the literature that gives you a basis to make the case for your own relevance.

PS: Ezra Zuckerman's radical formulation of the basic idea in this post is worth noting: "Never write a literature review" (PDF here).

Friday, August 14, 2009

About This Blog

I was thrilled to discover that Olivier Chatain has suggested this blog as one of (so far) three resources for PhD students under the heading "Scholarly Writing". I am flattered by (but wholly in agreement with) the implication that budding management scholars should (1) get a grounding in Booth, Colomb, and Williams' classic The Craft of Research, (2) let Paul Silvia's invigorating How to Write a Lot motivate their writing process, and (3) read this blog every other day to help keep their eye on the ball. I thought I'd use the occasion to say a few things about what I'm trying to do here.

The main purpose of this blog is to serve as both an argument and resource for publishing in what we call "international journals" here on the continent. Whether you are a native or non-native speaker of English, learning to write in your research idiom is a bit like learning a new language, hence the name of the blog. I have a broad range of interests and Olivier is right that I try to keep things practical. That goes also for my management of this blog, which I update according to a regular schedule: three posts a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. This semester, I want to write three kinds of post.

First, and most importantly, I want to write about style and grammar. Learning how to write academic prose means learning how to construct sentences and paragraphs of a particular kind. Once you have mastered the basic grammar, however, there is still the question of "finding your voice", i.e., developing your style. Working from examples in the published literature, both good and bad, I will try to identify useful figures of speech and rules of grammar to help you in the day-to-day business of putting words together for optimal effect.

Next, I am very interested in the scholarship and epistemology of the managerial sciences, especially organization theory. What standards are in force in the literature? What counts as high-quality research? What does it mean to "know" something about management and organization? Here, I write from the perspective of a social epistemologist; that is, I assume that knowledge is a social achievement and that the most interesting question is not what knowledge is as such (or even whether or not something is known) but how knowledge circulates (and where it can be found). I also try to defend traditional values of scholarship (that's where Booth, Colomb and Williams come in). As in the case of style and grammar, I ground my reflections and sermons on examples drawn from the literature.

Finally, my work as the department's resident writing consultant has gotten me increasingly interested in the writing process. How do you organize your writing projects to ensure you make continuous progress and meet your deadlines? How do you ensure timely and relevant response from peers and colleagues? And how do you organize your working days and weeks to "protect" (as I like to put it) your writing time from the many other pressures of an academic career. Here Paul Silvia's book has been great inspiration.

Welcome to Research as a Second Language. Do drop me a line, either by email or in the comments, and let me know what you think and what you'd like me to think out loud about. Happy writing!