Friday, February 27, 2009

Against Context (2)

"Contingency is a feature of knowledge claims that is not normally experienced by the knower." (Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn, p. 340)

On Wednesday, I said that the difference between content and context in organizational life is defined by strategy. This is of course related to the idea that strategy determines the difference between the organization and its environment. How can we transfer this insight to academic writing?

Your publishing strategy will define a context for your writing in a very basic sense. It should tell you where you will send your work for peer-review and, therefore, who will decide whether or not it is publishable. And this will begin to indicate a community in which certain assumptions are shared, certain theories are in general use, and certain principles are in force. You are defining an intellectual "domain" or "area of validity" (see Thomas Presskorn's comment to Wednesday's post.) Once this context has been defined as one you share with other writers, content again becomes a meaningful notion.

Having accomplished a context by means of strategy, you can plan the content of particular papers. This will require tactics, even tact, but the most important thing is that you can now largely take your context as given. Plan your paper as a series of claims—methodological, theoretical, and empirical—that engage with your chosen context. At this point, you must set aside your postmodern awareness of the contingency of your relation to your context. "The opposite of contingency is necessity," Fuller reminds us, "not universality" (338). What you are trying to do is arrange for yourself a region of local necessity in which it is meaningful to say to something particular.

Kasey Mohammad uses a quote from Barrett Watten as an epigraph for his book of poems Deer Head Nation. "How to write: go to your nation and strive." I suppose what I'm saying here is that as an academic writer you must go to your context and strive. That is, you must set yourself against your context. And that will require that you define very clearly what you want to say. Your content.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dump the Dump

Wise words from Jonathan Mayhew. A minor (but telling) example is "The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has argued..." If your reader needs to know the man was German, you're thinking of the wrong audience. Tell your students.

Against Context

I am regularly struck by how articulate people are about their resistance to planning their writing process. Indeed, it often seems like the burden of proof is on me to show the value of being clear about how you intend to get your research written down and sent off for publication. It is generally assumed that planning thwarts creativity, even intelligence, and that nothing, finally, is accomplished by its means.

It occured to me recently, in part while reading Weick, that management scholars may be to blame for this resistance to "the very idea" of planning. Basic management competences such as making decisions, setting up routines, developing long-term strategies and, of course, making plans, have been denigrated in the name of creativity, innovation, and, in general, openness for change. Here is a first stab at identifying one source of this rather dominant view, at least in academic circles.

During our weekly discussions of writing process here at the department, one of the participants suggested that it can be traced to thirty years of (noble) attempts to shift scholarly attention away from content and on to context. One way to define the postmodern transition is, indeed, as a "contextualist" turn. In Thomas Kuhn (p. 336ff), Steve Fuller has applied this insight to a critique of the writing style of Science and Technology Studies. It can easily be applied also in many areas of management studies.

On this view, context is everything. Content is merely the illusion fostered by the positivist trick of "decontextualization". In fact, in his postscript to the first edition of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge (1993), Fuller eloquently argued that in "the world of tomorrow" (our "today" we can safely say) the idea of "decontextualization" would have a ring of "dephlogistication" (378). Knowledge would always, he argued, have to situate itself in various contexts, not isolate itself from them. And he was of course both right at the time and prescient about ours.

But I think context needs to have its counter-point back. People seem to be keeping their writing so "open to context" (a term I associate with Weick's writing in many different ways) that they are forgetting content altogether. The boundary between content and context in organizational life was precisely constituted by strategies and plans, indeed, every decision would require the making of a distinction between content and context.

The difference is of course not given, and that is where postmodernism was right. But that does not mean that it can be eternally deferred. (That's where postmodernism is wrong.) The difference between content and context must be accomplished in each text. This accomplishment is a matter of preventing your context from overdetermining what you will say.

(I will say more about this on Friday.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pastiche, Plagiarism and Anxiety

"The careful scholar might worry about plagiarism."
Anne Huff

Andre Malraux argued that all artists begin with pastiche and only later develop a style of their own. Something similar is no doubt true of language in general. We learn a language by imitating how others use it. But we do not leave it at that. We develop our own distinct voice, which certainly betrays our "influences" but is nonetheless very much our own.

I came across Malraux's "formula" on the weekend while reading Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. In that book, Bloom argues that something important happened to poetic influence after the Enlightenment. He would later revise that view, but it is interesting to note his distinction between art that is grounded in anxiety and art that is not. "Ben Jonson," he tells us, "has no anxiety as to imitation, for to him (refreshingly) art is hard work" (27). After the Enlightenment, however, the romantic "passion for Genius and the Sublime" made finding a style a matter of self-realization. It's still about "work", in a sense, but the "labour" has been rather radically transformed. Bloom quotes Kierkegaard: "He who is willing to work gives birth to his own father" (26). We might also recall the words of Borges: "every writer creates his own precursors".

Ironically, Borges's formula has become something of a slogan for aspiring academics (read: PhD students) who are struggling with what Bloom would call their "belatedness". Instead of taking it in Kierkegaard's sense, i.e., as the anxiety-provoking task of giving birth to your own father (!), they take it as a sort of "anything goes" principle. Whatever you write, they imagine Borges has taught them, a tradition will magically emerge behind them. After years of trying to get their tradition right, Borges's suggestion, not Jonson's, appears "refreshing". It doesn't seem all that hard.

Unfortunately, it is a least a little harder than that. My advice is to forget Borges (on this point) and stick with Malraux. After all, what they mean amounts to the same thing, but we are less likely to misunderstand Malraux. Begin with the awareness that your writing (at the beginning of your studies) is a pastiche of the things you are reading and commit yourself to the goal of developing your own style. Do not imagine that your writing will willy-nilly generate a distinguished line of precursors to serve as your tradition, in light of which your work will have some immanent "originality".

By the time you are writing your PhD dissertation, you should have mastered the art of pastiche, but if you don't make a conscious effort to do so you may never get beyond it. You need to find a way to present what you know in your own words. Here it is best not to imagine yourself the poet struggling anxiously with influence, but rather the scholar faced with the hard work of distinguishing what you want to say from what others have said before you. Think of it less as the "anxiety of influence" and more as the "worry of plagiarism". Be a little worried, yes, but don't get anxious.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Plagiarism Policy

I'm thinking about what some essential elements of an effective plagiarism policy would be. In regard to defining what plagiarism is, I think it is important to emhasize that intention has nothing to do with it and that it can occur even if you reference the source you are plagiarizing. The question is always whether or not the referencing is adequate. So, if you accidentally leave out 'only' the quotation marks, you have still plagiarized.

In regard to punishment, I think it is important to provide a broad spectrum of options. If there is any automatic consequence of being caught plagiarizing, teachers will too often be reluctant to call it what it really is for fear of being forced to punish a student that really just needs become a better scholar. The essential thing is that plagiarism is a sign of poor scholarship, not bad morals. That said, honesty about one's use of sources is of course itself an aspect of good scholarship.

Finally, I think a plagiarism policy should encourage investigators to find out how a particular case of plagiarism came about. But one has to be careful here. Such an account will always be "causal" and causes are never reasons in this regard. There is no excuse for plagiarism. But teachers, supervisors, and colleagues who discover plagiarism in work they are reading should be sensitive to a variety of pressures that lead to poor scholarship. A lack of time is an obvious one, but this (as readers of this blog know) has to be restated as a lack of planning. An orderly writing process is the best policy.

In fact, whenever we discover plagiarism, we should think about the conditions under which the plagiarist is working. What is wrong with the plagiarist's scholarly practices? If you discover plagiarism in your own work, or if one of your peers draws attention to inadequacies in your referencing (they may be too polite to call it plagiarism), think very seriously about how it happened. Don't assume it's a freak accident. Your research practices are supposed to avoid precisely such accidents. The most likely cause is that you are not organized enough.

You may, of course, just be a nasty, lying, cheating piece of work. In which case, damn you. But since I don't know you, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Not only is the truth of a given idea measured by the degree and celerity wherewith it goes into action, but a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped by the non-participant in the action./ And this statement is at diametric remove from a gross pragmatism that cheapens ideas or accepts the "pragmatic pig of a world". (Ezra Pound, GK, p. 182)

So I am trying to say something that sounds like pragmatism./ Here I am being thwarted by a kind of Weltanschauung. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, OC§422)

I am an epistemologist at heart. My interest in academic writing is really an interest in scientific knowledge. Academic writers are bound by the injunction to "write what you know" in a very rigorous sense.

The pragmatists were no doubt right to say that knowledge is utlimately know-how. If we know something, we know how to do something, and if we do not know how to do it then we don't really know it. But academics are right to object that they are not practitioners of the knowledge they possess. They are not business people. And at a business school this difference is, of course, especially acute. Management researchers take a distinctly academic interest in business.

So what is it that academics know how to do in so far as they know anything at all? The short answer is that they know how to write about it—more generally, they know how to talk about it. They are able to discourse on their chosen subject.

Pound and Wittgenstein (see epigraphs) were obviously uneasy about pragmatism. Pound was writing around 1938; Wittgenstein in 1951 (in fact, we know that he wrote those words on March 21, 1951, or about a month before he died). Given the times (the Weltanschauung that threatened to "thwart" them) I think they were right to be concerned. It is easy to valourize "know-how" as a kind of tacit knowledge, a craft skill that one can be in possession of without being able to explain it. There are those kinds of knowledge, of course. And people who are able to do things with their hands (and their hearts and their minds) that we are unable to do are worthy of our respect.

But academics cannot claim to possess only tacit knowledge. They have to be able to "hold discourse". They must be conversant, articulate, about the things they know something about precisely because no one is going to ask them to succeed in practice. The economist does not have to predict the next bear or bull market (nor know where to invest your money), the entrepreneurship theorist need never have started a business (let alone successfully). Putting it in the strongest possible terms, "a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped" by the academic. It corresponds to the component of truth that remains ungrasped by the student until the student gets that first job and "finds out what life's about". The academic's distinct contribution is to know without grasping that component.

Practitioners who "return" to academia, i.e., who leave business and get a PhD in order to teach at business schools, can of course use their practical grasp of business to their advantage. But they must also learn how to be academics, and that means learning how to discourse without drawing on their experience. It means respecting a fundamental kind of ignorance, despite which one can nonetheless know a great many things.

Academics are "non-participants in the action" essentially by definition. Their epistemic authority derives from theory, not from practice. When they say something, what they say is "right" or "wrong" (i.e., true or false) in accordance with a particular way of seeing things, not a particular way of doing things. Where business people are able to convert talk into action (and vice versa), academics are able to convert perception into talk (and vice versa). Both abilities can be expressed in writing, but they are very different kinds of writing. Each leaves "distinct components of truth" ungrasped.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Notebook

I have been too easily distracted lately. To deal with this problem, I have bought myself a notebook. My attempts to use a notebook in the past failed, and I think this is because I overemphasized its aesthetic elements. This morning I want to distinguish between the unavoidable aesthetic of a notebook and the discipline a notebook should also stand for.

"A notebook," said Jørgen Leth, "is an improvement on the art of living." This is a telling way of putting it. On his new album, he explains that his notebook compensates for an unreliable memory. If he doesn't write them down, his ideas are lost forever.

But there is more. "The notes become interesting in themselves," he says; the notebook comes to serve his writing "as a form". "It becomes an aesthetic strategy," he tells us, that makes use of "the looseness of the notes". Ideally, he will reread something he has written in his notebook and exclaim, "But this is a great text, damn it! It's a text." Sometimes, in fact, "the poem ... can be lifted directly from the notebook".

"I like that discipline," says Leth. But is what he describes really discipline? As he says, it is an approach to the notebook as an aesthetic, as an autonomous literary form. It is not an aid to a better life but "an improvement on the art of living" itself. The notebook becomes "a text". An end in itself, not a means to one.

I want to explore the alternative in the weeks to come. Treating a notebook as a discipline means using it only as a means to a greater end. The loose notes are written down so that the ideas that inspired them can rest, secure in the knowledge that they will be given a chance to express themselves in an upcoming writing session. The painter Michael Andrews put it like this:

Making notes was a way of forestalling deliberations about distractions which presented themselves as substitute responsibility for what I was doing (for which I really felt responsibility). ... If I had not made notes of them they would have stuck in my mind and would have compelled an interminable familiarisation and analysis and I should have lost my presence of mind in a preoccupation. ("Notes and Preoccupations", X 1, no. 2, 1960, p. 137)

So one should have (as ever) a regularly scheduled working practice (a writing schedule) in which to develop one's ideas in prose (on the one hand) and a notebook (in the other) in which to merely jot stray thoughts down. Those jottings should only contain enough detail to appease the idea that presents itself as a distraction, as substitute responsibility. My hope is that, with training, it will be a simple matter of writing the notes until my "presence of mind" returns.

As with any other discipline, your mind and body need to learn to trust your routine. So, if you write things down in your notebook but never return to your notes to develop the ideas you have noted down there, your creative self (mind) will not regain its "presence" by the act of making the jottings. It will not trust the operation. Perhaps that is the "discipline" Leth has perfected; he is able to note down very precisely the ideas his distractions indicate—in a sense, perfectly. Perhaps he has found the perfect unity of inspiration and distraction.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Busy? Moi?

Well, much as I hate to admit it, I find myself behind this week. So there is nothing to do but catch up and there is no post this morning. Maybe I'll make it up to you tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Academic Blogosphere

You don't become a competent speaker of a language if you never have occasion to use it. Academic English is no different, so you do well to find contexts in which to use your English on a daily basis.

One possibility is the blogosphere, i.e., the community that exists among bloggers and their readers. I read every day and Organizations and Markets almost as often. If I have something to add, I contribute comments. It is a good way of experiencing the sense in which organization theory really is a "living language", not just something that happens in books and journals. You will of course have to find your own virtual community.

I cut my teeth on blogging in the poetry and poetics area after discovering that my favourite living poet, Tony Tost, had a blog. That was back in the summer of 2004, and I owe much of my sense of what is happening to American poetry today to the blogosphere. (Ben Lerner, K. Silem Mohammad, Lara Glenum, Kate Greenstreet, Drew Gardner, Gary Sullivan, Katie Degentesh, and Sharon Mesmer—to name just a few things that are happening to American poetry today.) I'm certainly much hipper than I would have been just reading Poetry and the New Yorker. In the same sense, academic blogs take us beyond the sometimes too composed (though no less admirable) prose of the Administrative Science Quarterly and the Harvard Business Review. They give you a sense that someone is actually TALKING about organizations.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Key Sentences

Tara Gray's Publish and Flourish performs one of its essential ideas in its table of contents. If we restate the subtitle as a question, the section headings, taken together, constitute the answer, and the chapter titles constitute its elaboration.

Q: How does one become a prolific scholar?

A: You become a prolific scholar by managing your time and then writing often, revising often, getting help from others often, and letting go of your work (to let it be reviewed) often.

That's what Tara would call her "thesis", and which she no doubt had posted on her wall as she wrote the book. Notice what happens if we just put her chapter titles together in a single paragraph, using elements from this "key sentence" to frame it:

You become a prolific scholar by managing your time and then writing often. Differentiate the the “urgent” from the important. Write daily for 15–30 minutes. Record time spent writing daily–share records weekly. Write from the first day of your research project. But writing often is not enough. Becoming prolific requires that you revise often, get help from others, and learn how to let go of your work. Post your thesis on the wall and write to it. Organize your text around key sentences. Use them as an after-the-fact outline. Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts. Learn how to listen. Respond to each specific comment. Read your prose out loud. Then kick it out the door and make them say "No".

I've tried to keep the editing to a minimum to emphasize the point that when you use key sentences as an outline, stringing them together should make immediate sense. It should provide an overview of your argument.

This idea was first suggested to me at a seminar by Walter Friedman of the Business History Review. After accepting an article for publication, he said, he would work with authors on the basis of what Tara calls an "after-the-fact" outline. That is, he would send them a document containing one sentence from each paragraph (that he had selected as "key") and then they would have a conversation about how those sentences could be sharpened and arranged for optimal effect. I've always wanted to use that method in my own dialogue with authors, and I take Tara's book as a reminder to follow up on that.

The idea should not be altogether new to readers of this blog. No matter how long it may be, you should be able to summarize your text in a single clear sentence. This goes for each chapter and each section as well. And it goes for each paragraph, too. Knowing what those one-sentence summaries are—indeed, ensuring that they actually appear in your text, will make a world of difference in your writing. It's a simple but effective method. Though it may appear insurmountably time-consuming, Tara is undoubtably right to suggest that "the work [will] pay off handsomely for you—and your readers" (48). Very true.

Friday, February 06, 2009

How to Stop Worrying and Flourish

Tara Gray was kind enough to send me a copy of her book Publish and Flourish, which I mentioned in a post recently. I read most of it last night and have, once again, found a like-minded approach to writing.

It starts off with a bang. She cites research by Robert Boice to make a very instructive point. If you ask researchers how much time they spend working, they'll say about 60 hours per week, and they'll tell you about half of that is spent on research. But if you get them to keep records of how they actually spend their time, you find that they spend on average 29 hours per week working, of which about an hour and a half is devoted to research. "So these faculty members were working 30 hours per week," she concludes, "and worrying another 30." That nails it.

According to Boice, of the 1.5 hours spent on research, a half hour on average is spent writing. I think this is the researcher that Tara and I are trying to reach with our writing process suggestions. Hers differ a bit from mine, and they are certainly worth trying. She suggests you begin by finding 15 minutes every day to write. That's a good exercise because if you succeed you immediately end up with 75 minutes of writing time (Monday to Friday). That's over 100% better than average. It may not seem like much, but neither is an average of 30 minutes per week. So you're going in the right direction.

Once you are in a position to protect fifteen minutes of writing time a day, you can expand the operation—fifteen minutes at a time, for example. The upper limit is three hours, Tara says. That may differ from person to person, I would argue, but the problem to be avoided is a "binge", which is a notion we also find in Paul Silvia's How to Write a Lot. A binge is a writing session that exhausts your intellectual energies, in part because you've got all your hopes invested in it.

People who write on average 30 minutes per week are probably not writing every week. They are binging once or twice a semester. As Tara notes, they then spend 30 hours every actual week worrying about their writing and looking forward to that "big block of time" they've got planned.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stacking Up the Bucks

TPM's commentary on this presentation just made me laugh. Thanks Josh (and JD). I want to add that Thune's imagery was used (what seems so) long ago by the architect of Tony Blair's "third way", namely, Anthony Giddens, in a not at all unrelated context.

The volume of world financial transactions is usually measured in US dollars. A million dollars is a lot of money for most people. Measured as a stack of hundred-dollar notes, it would be eight inches high. A billion dollars—in other words, a thousand million—would stand higher than ST Paul's Cathedral. A trillion dollars—would be over 120 miles high, 20 times higher than Mount Everest. (Runaway World, Profile Books, 1999, p. 9-10)

Wow! Thune probably learned this trick of producing nice concrete images "to put things very simply into perspective" from a public speaking manual. Do note that Giddens and Thune differ greatly in their calculations (I wonder who is right)*. One day we may find the writing handbook that helped Tony G. write his Reith lecture, but for now here's my take-home message: some things really are abstract. It is okay to keep them that way.

[PS: Do notice the signs of the growing influence of Google Book Search. Pretty nice touch to be able to click right to the page cited, isn't it? Yet another reason that we will one day read our journals in html format, not PDF. In fact, it may yet make blogging of academic writing. Just as journalism has become blogging by another name.]

*[PPS: My quick calculation gives it to Thune over Giddens. Thune may have used slightly different values. But I get 678.7 miles using the dimensions I found here.]

[PPPS: In a similar critique of different way of keeping things a bit too simple, here's another TPM reader's reflections on the "if you spent a million since the day Jesus was born" idea.

Long Term Planning

I have been asked about long term plans. They are, of course, a good idea in general, but they ultimately depend on specifics related to your own project and life situation. So what I say here will perhaps be a bit abstract. One element in a long term plan to develop your academic English, for example, would be an extended stay at an English-speaking institution. But not everyone is free to just pick up and go overseas for a year. With that sort of thing in mind, then, let me see if I can say some useful things about the longer term.

I think it is important to ensure that your long term plans extend beyond the terms of your current contract. In fact, that may be how we should define "long term". If you are a PhD student, your planning should not end with the submission of your thesis. You should be expecting to go on to a postdoc position, an assistant professorship, or a career in industry. And that means that you should be planning to apply for those jobs well before you finish.

In most funding systems, there will be an annual or semi-annual deadline for research grant applications. You want to make sure that you have set aside time to think about your next project and apply for the resources to carry it out during the period when you are probably thinking mainly about finishing your thesis. Do not let yourself believe that you should only be thinking about your thesis. Your thesis is a step on a longer road. A big step, yes. But just a step nonetheless.

Remember that you are not inventing a project with the aim of convincing a specific research foundation to pay you a salary. You are looking for a foundation that will fund your research agenda. That means that you are ultimately just sending them a description of yourself along with an excerpt from your long term plan.

As with publishing, you should expect rejection. So have an up-to-date curriculum vitae on file to send out to whatever jobs/grants seem relevant. Apply often and as a matter of course. While there will be some fine adjustments to make in each case, most of the work of writing each application is already done because, like I say, you are just telling those who might fund or employ you what you (already) plan to do with your time. Don't take it personally if they tell you they had someone else in mind. Don't let a single rejection cause you to "rethink" your long term research objectives.

I know that the career-side of academia often constitutes some rather challenging "identity work". One reason for this, however, may be that you are trying to sell who you are right now to whoever will employ you immediately. If you start early, by contrast, and always keep your long term goals in mind, your career trajectory may offer a much smoother curve. A paid position will then be exactly what it should be: not an end in itself but merely the means to achieve a greater purpose. Your job simply provides the conditions under which you satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Point

To give writing the most important thing of all—namely, a point—a writer needs to indicate clearly not only his or her thesis, but also what larger conversation that thesis is responding to. (Graff and Birkenstein, p. 18)

I have mentioned Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's They Say/I Say before. Their basic argument is that academic writing is part of a conversation and that you are therefore always writing in response to others. Here is one especially good piece of advice that follows from this general view:

As soon as possible you [should] state your own position and the one it's responding to together, and you [should] think of the two as a unit. (19, emphasis modified)

The "as soon as possible" is directed both at your research and your writing. If you are going to spend a lot of time doing an ethnographic study of a particular organization, for example, or if you are going to send out survey questionaires to a hundred companies in a particular industry, then make sure that the questions you are putting yourself in a position to answer are also of interest to others. Think of the research you are doing and the research that others are doing "as a unit". What you have just done is situated yourself in an academic discipline.

Graff and Birkenstein offer a selection of "templates" for how to unify your response with what others are saying. The simplest way forward is to write a good clear sentence that states your thesis and then another one that states what others are saying on the same topic. You then look at those two sentences very closely. Make sure that there is an interesting tension between them. That tension is actually the unity you are trying to present clearly. Your main thesis may be the substance of what you are saying, but your point is the unity of what you are saying with what has already been said.