Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Writing

This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. (Stephen King)

Lately, people at my seminars and workshops have been asking whether I've read Stephen King's On Writing. Well, I'm reading it now and it's a perfectly good book about writing. But I want to emphasize that it is about writing fiction. This gives me an opportunity to say a couple of things about the difference between academic writing and literary writing.

Stephen King is a professional writer. He earns his money by writing books, full time. Academics are often only part-time writers; they also have to teach. In fact, writers like King often paid the rent by working as a teachers until they published their first major book. But even a very successful academic writer will, in most cases, not have been "freed by the pen" from teaching. In fact, many academic writers see teaching as an important part of their lives as researchers and will continue to do so no matter how much they publish. So that's one important difference.

The second is more substantial, I think. King writes works of fiction, and as he describes it himself he doesn't even outline his plots in advance. He just sits down in the same place at the same time every day and makes things up, and his readers want mainly to be delighted by the stories he comes up with. Readers of academic writing make very different demands; they want to be persuaded. But they are a very hard bunch to move. While novelists are writing for readers who willingly open their minds to the imagined worlds the writer is trying to conjure up, academic writers are writing for more closed-minded people. That's just a fact of academic life. Critics are a necessary evil for novelists; they are the primary audience for academic writers.

That said, King's basic practical advice of course holds. If you want to be a good academic writer you need to write regularly, i.e., according to a repeating pattern. Give your muse a chance to find you. But, as King also notes, "Don't wait for the muse." Keep your appointment with your writing self as you would keep your appointment with your students whether you feel like it or not. Don't count on inspiration. Just do the work.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Submit, Submit, Submit, Submit, Submit

"Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality." (Jonathan Mayhew)

I'm holding a writing process reengineering seminar today. My theme is going to be the importance of submitting work to the relevant journals in your field. A writing process does not just result in words on the page. But it also cannot be evaluated in terms of publication. Your research in general can be evaluated by counting your publications—or that's what your adminstrators believe, anyway. But your writing process as such is a success or not depending on how regularly you submit work to journals.

Obviously, if you're publishing two articles a year, with plenty of time left over to enjoy your teaching, your research, your family and your friends, I don't have much to contribute. But if you are not publishing as much as you'd like, let me ask you: How often do you submit your work for publication in the major journals in your field?

Everyone needs to find their own benchmarks. But I would suggest submitting work five or six times a year. If that sounds like a lot, you are not considering the possibility that the same paper may be submitted to different journals (after intelligent attempts at revision, of course). Consider the rejection letter I got earlier this year: We don't publish that kind of paper, it said, but we "strongly encourage" you to submit it to a journal that does. The letter included suggestions. Well, if you do that, that counts as two submissions. That wasn't so hard, was it?

The important thing is to have a writing process that is constantly bringing packages of prose up to a particular journal's standards. Or trying to, anyway. If you are submitting six times a year, you are very definitely learning something about the standards that operate in your field, and the degree of fit between those standards and your work as a writer.

The quantitative focus of your writing process should be "number of submissions". That's the number you are trying to improve. The quality of your writing will improve as you react to your editors and reviewers. A good writing process will include time to react to them. And I really do mean re-act. I don't mean have an emotional or intellectual "response" to rejection. I mean looking at what the editor/reviewer said and planning a discrete series of actions that engage with those comments. I mean something very practical.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Publish and Flourish

Publication is too often approached in terms of the consequences of non-publication. Hence the slogan "publish or perish". It is of course true that if you never publish your ideas you may "become destroyed or ruined"; as a researcher you will, in fact, "cease to exist". But why not look at the upside? If you do publish, your ideas may "grow luxuriantly", they may "reach a height of development and influence". They may flourish.

Indeed, publication is simply the public side of the Life of the Mind, and your attempts to publish are just part of your general "state of industry or production". That's why I normally tell people to worry less about whether or not their work gets accepted and more about wether or not they get their work submitted to journals. Even the limited readership offered by the editors and reviewers who reject your work is soil in which your ideas can grow.

And look at that third sense offered by Merriam-Webster: "to wield with dramatic gestures". Yes, take your ideas out and brandish them for all to see. "Make bold and sweeping gestures"! Publish and flourish!

(NOTE: You don't come up a with phrase like "publish and flourish" this late in the game and expect to be original. Google lets you find your kindred spirits, and one of them appears to be Tara Gray.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Must You Mean What You Say?

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote a paper called "Must We Mean What We Say?" In it, he defended the methods of what today call ordinary language philosophers, i.e., those who assume that "what we ordinarily say and mean may have a direct and deep control over what we can philosophically say and mean". He begins the paper by noting that some find this notion "oppressive".

"What do you mean?" is sometimes interpreted as a polemical way of saying, "You're not making any sense! Do you have anything to say?" While, "How do you know?" is interpreted to mean "You don't know, do you?" There is something vaguely embarrassing about the questions. To avoid them, it is sometimes argued that we have no way of knowing anything, nor do we have any control over what our words mean. Questions like "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?" are dismissed as simple minded at best, oppressive at worst.

(That's as far as I'm going to get on this post this morning. Perhaps more later.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Knowing What You Mean

This morning I want to propagate a rumour that Wayne Booth mentions in the preface to his Rhetoric of Irony (U of Chicago Press, 1974). Here's his version:

I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are "What does he mean?" and "How does he know?" I doubt the report—no university could be that good—but I take the questions as the best summary of how what I attempt here contrasts with much that is said about irony. (x)

I'm thinking about starting a PhD colloquium in this spirit. The idea would be to read seminal journal articles with these two questions in mind. Our university could be that good!

There is an important connection between the two questions. If you don't know how an author knows, how do you know what she means? In making that connection, I am aware of the influence of positivism: we know what a sentence means (only) if we know what would be the case the if it were true. In an equal and opposite way, Popper's falsificationism also expresses this spirit of criticism: we know what a sentence means (only) if we know what would be the case if it were false.

However you interpret them, I encourage you to write as though somewhere in the world, whether at Oxford or elsewhere, a tutor is asking a student, "What does this author mean?" and then following it up with, "How does s/he know?" Critical readers are always asking these questions, and good writing is written for critical readers. On Wednesday, I want to respond to the somewhat too familiar, and allegedly "postmodern", suggestion that these are not good questions to ask of a text—that there are no interesting answers to them and that they therefore can guide neither your reading nor your writing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Timothy Noah Rocks

That's really all this post is here to say. To see why I think so, just read this piece in Slate, which links to this discussion on PBS's NewsHour. I may say something more detailed at another time.

[Update: just to keep it all in one place. Noah rocks here too. And especially here, where it becomes a question of community standards. When I one day write a novel about academic sleuthing I'm going to call my protagonist Noah Kearns Slate (the search terms I just used).]

My Workshops

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

Oxford English Dictionary

I usually introduce my writing workshops by explaining the etymology of "debauchery". Today, the words means "a vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures", but it stems from "seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption." The modern sense of "debauch" apparently emerged in the 17th century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when we began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure.

Workshopping is the attempt to "get back to work". In a workshop, we try to take craftsmanship seriously and derive pleasure from the first-hand manipulation of materials. Quality in any art, I believe, depends on integrating (and in our age this means reintegrating) productivity and sensuality, industry and creativity. It is the opposite of the vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures, the pursuit of false pleasure, we might say. Quality is a true pleasure; it is the sensuality of work.

My workshops try to establish the microcosm of a writer's bauche, a place of (pleasurable) literary work. This semester, we will meet on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as often as possible for two-hours (sixteen meetings in all). We work on a one-page (14 point, Times New Roman, double-spaced) sample of text that has been submitted by one of the participants, editing it together in Word using an overhead beam projector.

Only the materials, our interests and time constrain what we do. While it is sometimes hard work, it is an enjoyable way of improving a text. I think one of the reasons it is so much fun, both for the participants and for me, is that we do not try to reduce improvements to rules of style or grammar. I will, of course, sometimes mention a stylistic virtue, or correct a grammatical error, but the aim is not to teach "good English". The aim is to develop a sensitivity for good prose. We try to learn what works in a text and what does not work. And we learn this by doing. It is a workshop, not a classroom.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cold Missouri Waters

"So what?" I've heard this response to my critique of Karl Weick's scholarship twice in the space of a week. The first came from a reviewer of a paper of mine that, in part, expands on my objection to Weick's appropriation of Miroslav Holub's "Brief Thoughts on Maps". The second came during the question period after a presentation of my critique of Weick's reading of Norman Maclean's account of the Mann Gulch disaster (PDF) at the Second Conference of Practical Criticism in the Managerial Sciences (see the new site and blog!). I think I've found a way of responding, but it requires all the resources of this multimedia paradise of a blog I'm running.

Try listening to the Fiddlin' Forresters beautiful version of James Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters", while reading the text I've "written" below.

"Positive illusions can kill people," argued Weick (1993: 636), illustrating this point with a story about an incident that happened to a crew of smokejumpers in Montana 60 years ago. The firefighters, he said, stubbornly held onto a belief that they were fighting a small fire until it was too late and it blew up into a very big one. Their tragic story was vividly recounted by Norman Maclean in his book Young Men and Fire and preserved in a song by James Keelaghan.


August 5, 1949, was the hottest day on record in northern Montana and the forest tinder was dry. When lightning struck in the mountains, Wagner Dodge, the crew chief at the jump base in Missoula, prepared the boys to fly. He picked out the drop zone and, when the C-47 came in low, he saw the circle of the fire down below. Feeling the tap on their leg that told them to go, fifteen smokejumpers dropped above the cold waters of the Missouri River.


Dodge gauged the fire, and knew he had seen bigger ones. He ordered the crew to sidehill so they could fight it from below. They would then have their backs to the river and, he thought, have it “licked by morning” even if they took it slow. But the fire crowned and jumped the valley just ahead of them. There was now no way down and they headed for the ridge. The fire was too big to fight so they would have to fight the slope instead with the flames one step behind them.


The sky turned red and the smoke was boiling. Dodge estimated that there were two-hundred yards to safety, but that death was just fifty yards behind. Not knowing why, he struck a match to some waist-high grass. They were running out of time and he tried to tell his crew to step into his fire. "We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get," he shouted; but they cursed him and ran for the rocks above. Dodge lay face down and prayed.


When he rose, like the phoenix in a world reduced to ashes, only two had survived. He stayed that night and one day after, carrying bodies to the river and wondering how he stayed alive above those cold Missouri waters.

To confirm your suspicions, you can read Keelaghan's lyrics here. To confirm further suspicions about that first paragraph, try page 54 of Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations (Sage, 1995).

Now, there are two things to notice. First, I haven't really written this passage; I've copied the text from the web and edited it slightly. The result is a distinctly "literary", even "poetic", prose style and, not surprisingly, since I stole it from a folk song, a compelling narrative. (No, I have not edited it enough to count as paraphrase. I would have had to rewrite the story in my own words to do that. If you are just moving other people's words around and adding a few of your own, you a very probably plagiarizing, not paraphasing. And, no, the fact that I mention Keelaghan is not enough either. I am using his words, and his composition of them into a particular story, without telling the reader that that is what I am doing.)*

The second thing to notice is that my introductory paragraph makes two not at all trivial claims: (1) that this incident really happened and (2) that it happened the way I'm telling it. In fact, Keelaghan has taken some liberties with Maclean's account (which is where I assume he got it). Dodge did order the crew to sidehill out of the gulch so they could fight it with their backs to the river. But that was after he (and the crew) gave up the idea that they would have it under control by morning, now fully aware that they were standing in a "death trap" (see Maclean 1992: 66). For Keelaghan, who is telling this story as the tragedy it is, this is just a convenient way of condensing the required emotions into the space of a verse. He is invoking poetic license (and songs, in any case, do not make claims to truth, just beauty).

 But the same story, when deployed as support for Weick's thesis (1993: 636) that the crew stubbornly held on to the belief that they would have it "licked" by morning and therefore behaved foolishly (without "wisdom"), constitutes a failure of scholarship. It amounts to fudging the data. The fact that Weick fudged his reading of Maclean is no excuse for me to do so as well, especially since I'm at the same time plagiarizing Keelaghan. Imagine a student submitting the text I have constructed here as part of a paper on the Mann Gulch disaster. So what?


*Just so there is no misunderstanding: I am not here accusing Weick of plagiarizing any part his Mann Gulch paper. I have simply constructed an example that looks like Weick's use of Holub's poem about the Hungarian soldiers in the Alps using Keelaghan's song about the firefighters in Mann Gulch.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Practical Criticism

I was at the Second Conference of Practical Criticism in the Managerial Sciences in Leicester last week. I think Peter and Simon are really on to something here. We had some great discussions about what actually happens on the page of published work in management studies. Have a look at the new site. There is also a blog.

The conference is motivated by the perception that management studies increasingly suffers from "an imprecision of terminology, an inability to produce or criticise a logical argument, and an absence of recourse to evidence". (I would add basic problems of scholarship to the list: an inability to accurately reproduce the claims made by a source one is using and/or to correctly represent the work of others without resorting to plagiarism.) More importantly, it is born of a sense that there is no place in the literature for the direct criticism of such problems when they occur. One often sees "appreciative" readings of existing work, but rarely pointed criticism, and almost never criticism that "merely" corrects a mistake. Such work is rejected on the grounds that it doesn't "make a contribution to theory development" and/or that it constitutes an "attack" on one or another author. The result is both obvious and disturbing: it is much easier to promote a claim than it is to correct an error. The likelyhood that false claims come to circulate as established fact is therefore all too high.

I obviously engage in a form of "practical criticism" as a matter of course in my work as an editor. The great thing about that function is that it gets a chance to do something about the problem before a paper gets published. But I am very much in favour of a movement that encourages the criticism of already published work. At the very least it will sharpen our critical sensibilities.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dreams from Papa

Last year I followed a discipline I called "Jogging and Blogging". This year I'm going to try something different because I want to devote some time to my own writing.

There is a difference between writing a blog post that is published immediately every other day and working on a developing text just as often but to be published at some later time. Publication gets the text out of your system. (Even submission to a publisher, like an academic journal, has this effect.) This spring I'm going to be exploring that difference in some detail.

So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I will be getting up a 6:00 AM to write a blog post for an hour. But on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I will be working, also during that hour in the morning, on a book that I have been thinking about for some time. I still need to get some jogging in but, since it is dark in the morning this time of year anyway, I've decided to run during my lunch break.

The book is an attempt to work through my ideas about knowledge and power, science and politics, and, ultimately, philosophy and poetry (as literary disciplines). It is an attempt to clarify "my philosophy", you might say, by revisiting the themes of my PhD dissertation. I want to get as close to the core of what I think about how representation works, and what its limits are. Ultimately, it is an attempt to write down what I think I know about language and writing.

As part of my discipline, I am reading a chapter of Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon every night before going to bed. It is an amazing book, even if you don't (as I don't) have particular interest in bullfighting. Consider the following sentence:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. (10)

As the book proceeds, you find yourself in the company of someone who is trying to write truly "what I know about [bullfights] now" (11). Each sentence is supported directly by a surplus of knowledge and experience. (It is no wonder that this is the book that the iceberg metaphor is normally quoted from.)

So, I go to bed at night with Hemingway's prose about bullfighting in my head, and I wake up in the morning to write, sometimes for my book, sometimes for my blog. One is trying to give one's mind a discipline within which to sort itself out, to find out truly what one really thinks and what perceptions invoke the concepts one experiences. Hemingway believed that such discipline allowed his subconscious to do most of the work.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Don't Do Your Best?

Jonathan's recent post about deadlines is worth reading. As I say in my comment to it, my sense is that people like to work close to (external) deadlines because it gives them a sense of doing their best under the circumstances. If they finish a book review or paper well in advance of the deadline they feel like they haven't given it "their all".

My response to this is that "under the circumstances" needs to be redefined as "according to your writing schedule". That is, circumstances can impinge in a more planned way, over a longer span of time. It is possible to run out of time for a text weeks before the deadline—you might simply have better things to do. In any case, we should not always be doing our best. Just like athletes, who should not be running their best time or lifting their maximum weight every day, we need to maintain a continuous "training intensity" in our studies.

In fact, occasions for "performance" are not really there in academic writing. (It's a bit different with teaching, where it makes more sense to speak of training, preparing, and performing.) You should ideally always be working on your texts at a medium intensity. You should be playing from the center of your strength, not the edge.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hang On to Your Tools?

On Thursday, I'm going to Leicester to take part in the Practical Criticism Conference. I will be presenting my critique of Karl Weick's analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster, which turns out to be based on a rather imaginative (and not very disciplined) reading of his only source, i.e., Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire.

While my talk will focus on his 1993 paper, there is an obvious connection to his own "allegorical" application of it in his 1996 ASQ paper celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Administrative Science Quarterly (41, 2, pp. 301-313). In that paper he urges us to "drop our tools" in anticipation of a firestorm of changes that are about to overhwelm organization studies. Our "heavy tools" might prevent us from getting out of the way, he says.

He makes the connection back to the 1993 paper by saying that the firefighters were "overrun by exploding fires when their retreat was slowed because they failed to drop the heavy tools they were carrying" (Weick 1996: 301). This is a puzzling way of putting it, because in his 1993 paper he said they failed to heed their foreman's orders because they had dropped their tools and therefore lost their identity as obedient members of a "crew". Those tools, he argued, were "their reason for being there in the first place" and when they dropped them they lost a clear sense of who they were. It became "every man for himself" and the crew didn't listen to their foreman when he ordered them to do the one thing that might save them. "[The foreman's] command lost its basis of legitimacy when the smokejumpers threw away their organization along with their tools" (Weick 1993: 637). In the 1996 article Weick describes "tool dropping in Mann Gulch" by quoting a passage from Maclean that tells us that "some of [the firefighters] had already dropped their tools" (304). Indeed, in Maclean's original account, most of the firefighters very clearly dropped their tools and still had no chance of outrunning the fire.

All in all, "tool dropping" seems to have had no bearing on events in Mann Gulch. Weick cites Ted Putnam's analysis of its greater relevance in the case of the South Canyon fire, but Putnam himself does not (as far as I can tell) make the connection back to Mann Gulch (here's a PDF of his analysis). Indeed, Weick seems not to have noticed the (interesting) tension between the conclusion he drew from Mann Gulch and the conclusion Putnam drew from South Canyon. While dropping your tools may increase your speed, this comes at at the cost of your ability to deal with "the reason for being there in the first place", i.e., in an academic context, your ability to know something in a serious scholarly way. Dropping your tools and travelling light can sometimes get you out of an acute crisis—like not having anything to talk about for a lecture you've already committed yourself to (see Weick's 2007 piece in AMJ, volume 50, number 1)—but it can also cause you not to respect the basis of your discipline's scholarly authority—like rules against "fudging the data too much" (see Weick 1996: 311, where he quotes Richard Rorty).

Not incidentally, the substance of my critique of the 1993 Mann Gulch paper is that he has effectively fudged his "data", i.e., Maclean's account, which he distorts to suit his own conclusions. Dropping your tools permanently is tantamount to shedding your legitimacy. If it is "lightness" (Weick 1996: 312) you want, perhaps academia is not for you.

Friday, January 02, 2009

On Feeling Bad and Badly

"Clearly I'm interrupting; I feel badly. Let me ... what are you drinking? I'll buy y..."
"Bad? Sorry, I feel...?"
"You feel bad. Badly is an adverb, so to say you feel badly is to say that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken."

(From the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

Thomas Presskorn draws attention to the difference between adjectives and adverbs in his comment to my post on vanity and doing things badly. (We owe him the link to the scene. Our thanks.) When Connolly says that people are sometimes "too vain to do something badly" does he really mean they are to vain to do something bad?

I don't think so. He means they are too vain to do it badly, that is, less than perfectly. "Badly" modifies the doing, not the thing done. When we "feel bad", "bad" serves as the direct object of the verb to feel (bad is here what we feel). When we do something bad, "bad" is an adjective; it modifies the thing we are doing. When we feel badly, however, as the lady points out it, we are carrying out the act of feeling but we are doing a poor job of it. "Poor" is an adjective, of course; we can say the same thing with an adverb: "We are doing it poorly".

(An aside for my other blog: Poetry should make us feel better. I.e., it should make us better able to feel specific emotions, not filled with better feelings about particular subjects.)

Thomas wonders whether we should learn our grammar from Michelle Monaghan. Well, on this specific point she is right. But the careful reader/viewer will notice that she hasn't mastered the that/which distinction.