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.