Thursday, April 29, 2010

Interest and Expertise

The post I was writing this morning degenerated into autobiography. I may be able to salvage some of it later, but let me just post the general idea as a kind of "thought for the day": You have to distinguish between the subjects you are merely interested in and the subjects you are an expert in.

The best way to define your expertise is to think about who your peers are. This, in turn, will define what discipline you are working in. It will condition your choice of department to work in, and the places you seek funding to support that work. It will also determine what classes you teach. In short, there are many good reasons to make sure that the way you construct your expertise does not stray too far from the subjects you are actually interested in. But it is also important to pursue some of your interests in a non-expert way, i.e., to allow yourself the pleasures an amateur's interest in topic. My current problem is sorting out what I am an expert in and what I merely find interesting.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Science and the English Language

Rachel Toor and Brayden King have encouraged us to read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". It's a classic piece of writing "on writing", and it is of course also a masterpiece of "the plain style" itself. (Hugh Kenner has written a very good critique of Orwell called "The Politics of the Plain Style", which I recommend as well.) But, like all lists of rules of good writing, it can be easily rejected (not least as hypocrisy, which Orwell is the first to admit—"Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.") The purpose of an essay like this is to get you thinking, not to tell what to think. So let me tell you what I think.

One interesting thing to notice is that, although this is not the first time it has been used to bolster a critique of academic writing, Orwell's essay, as the title suggests, is actually about political writing. "In our time," he says, "it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing." As I have noted before, it is quite common to hear this said of published research. In our time, Gail Hornstein seemed to say, it is broadly true that scientific writing is bad writing. Her solution was to write for a popular audience.

It is here that the illusion of the plain style has some bite. "Prose like a window pane" really works when the reader is supposed to believe what the writer says. Yesterday, Rob Austin drew my attention to this critique of Clay Shirky, which confirms what Orwell already knew, namely, not so much that you can follow all his rules and still write badly (Whimsley is not saying Shirkey writes badly), but that what you write can still be, well, bollocks.

I think too often, when we invoke Orwell's essay, we focus on his rules. We should remember that his last rule (which ought to be his first rule) is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous". And sometimes we forget to read the rest of the essay. Brayden, for example, says,

Toor and Orwell lay out some simple rules to follow. I can’t argue with them, although I think one of the most important rules of academic writing is left out: remember your audience.

But Orwell says (my emphasis):

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.

And then he brings out his "rules". That is, the basic rule is "think of your reader". The basic rule, actually, is first to think. And then think about how you want to express your thoughts to an audience.

Bad writing, we might say, comes from putting the writing first. That is, from thinking that we, first and foremost, have to write. First and foremost, I would remind us, we have to have something to say, something worth writing about. And for that to happen, there must be someone to say it to.

In his essay, Orwell is interested in "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought". Kierkegaard quips somewhere that people use language not to hide their thoughts, but to hide the fact that they don't have any thoughts. I think the sort of writing Orwell complains about really comes from there. And such writers will not be helped by rules that impose a plain style on them. It may be true that if you write plainly "when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself." But then again, the charm of Orwell's essay is that the examples of bad writing he cites are plainly bad. Their poverty should have been just as obvious, even to the writers themselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ongoing Activities

In 1938, Martin Heidegger held a lecture in Freiburg about metaphysics and modernity. It was later published as "The Age of the World Picture" and can be found in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (Harper, 1977). It is one of his best pieces of writing (I'm not the only one who thinks so), and one passage in particular sticks in my mind:

...the decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (125)

Management science is largely done by researchers of this "new stamp". Certainly, many of the authors I work with are engaged in this sort of "ongoing activity" (Betrieb, hustle, business) and their writing is very much part of it. It is especially true that what they write, and how they write about it, is determined by meetings, conferences, and publishing contracts. The alternative is to form one's opinions in the privacy of one's study and then communicate them to one's closest scholarly peers. It is right to say that there is something more "incisive" about this new way of doing it.

I'm feeling it now as I plan my return to research. Part of the planning is to map up out some writing projects to complete over the next half-year, year, and three years. The map will normally take me through one or two conferences before the paper is submitted for publication in a journal. (I am supposed to be in Leicester at the Practical Criticism conference right now, but the cloud of ash over Europe kept me on the ground.) The map will also include some book projects, and the standard advice here is to make sure that I have a book contract before I actually write the thing. That is, a publisher should be brought in to help "determine what must be written".

The most ominous sentence in that passage is, of course, "The scholar disappears." One would think Heidegger is lamenting this development. But, earlier in the same paragraph, he talks about how the humanities are "still mired in mere erudition". Lots to think about here.

Update: this Kierkegaard quote offers a nice complement.

Of all the ridiculous things it seems to me the most ridiculous is to be a busy man of affairs, prompt to meals and to work… Who could not help laughing at these hustlers? What do they accomplish? Are they not like the housewife, when her house was on fire, who in her excitement saved the fire-extinguisher? What more do they save from the great fire of life?” (Either/Or)

Thanks, Shahar.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


This is one of those words I (almost) remember learning the meaning of. When I was getting my PhD, I noticed that everyone was using it to describe the postmodern condition. There was talk of the "experience of contingency", often related to the great intellectual sea change of the 1960s. One got the sense that before 1968 everyone experienced the events of history and the facts of nature as necessary. Then, suddenly, in, say, 1968, people realized that things could be different.

But I think I was already using (or had at least already heard) the word in the context of "contingency planning". Also, I can't imagine we didn't deal with "contingent truths" vs. "necessary truths" in my undergraduate days. (I got my BA and MA in philosophy.) Necessary truths are true no matter what happens. Contingent truths depend on something.

Last night I learned a new use for the concept: contingent faculty. These are academic positions that do not offer the security of tenure, and they therefore occasion a completely different research and teaching experience. This YouTube interview with Cary Nelson introduces the problem: one teaches in a state of constant anxiety. Indeed, so-called "existential angst" is also technically related to contingency, i.e., is grounded in the fact that we have been "thrown" into the world and may, of course, be thrown out at any time.

The issue of academic freedom is essentially the question of whether a particular part of our mental life, that part devoted to the study of our area of specialization, for example, should be protected from "the experience of contingency", from anxiety and worry. (Should what you think condition your ability to think at all?) Nelson, rightly, notes the tension between the anxiety of contingency and the pressure to be "frank", i.e., the decidedly intellectual virtue of speaking your mind. An interesting question emerges: should academics need courage in order to be frank? Should their livelihoods (their lives are not, let us agree, at stake these days) be contingent on what they happen to say (whether in the classroom or in print)?

And that question has got me thinking about academic style. It will be granted that the style of academia in general, and its writing in particular, changed in 1960s. How much of that change, I wonder, is related to the increasing "contingency" of the faculty—the growing use of part-time and temporary faculty in university teaching and, indeed, the growing use of temporary research contracts. Has academic writing become less frank and more anxious? I think a case can be made that it has.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Academia and the Law

Last night, I read about the strange case of Karin Calvo-Goller and Joseph Weiler. Calvo-Goller has filed a charge of "criminal libel" against Weiler for publishing a negative review of her book in the journal he edits. The case itself seems to be completely without merit and, as many others have pointed out, her legal action does much more to damage her reputation as an academic than any book review could. (The original review is available online, Weiler has written a detailed account (PDF), and the Times Higher Education Supplement has covered the story.) The story got me thinking about the relationship between legal and intellectual disputes.

As Weiler points out, the threat of legal action, if it is taken seriously, is likely to put a "chill" on academic criticism. The threat can be real (serious) either if academics are regularly successful in suing their peers over criticism of their work or because they are regularly able to inconvenience their peers with legal action (forcing them to argue the "case" in legal terms and even showing up in court.) Suppose I discover what I take to be an error in the published work of a peer and I note that error in a piece of my own writing. Suppose I am wrong about it. Can my peer sue me for defamation? After all, if others believed me, that would have a "negative" effect on the reputation of the scholar, wouldn't it?

If the court allowed that argument, critical discourse would probably disappear from the academy. As Steve Fuller has pointed out, free inquiry is essentially "the right to be wrong". And there is a good reason that the charge of defamation should not be applied to academic discourse: academic readers (i.e., the people who read reviews of academic books) can be expected to be highly critical. That means that they will not form an opinion on the basis of a quick reading of a book review. Even if they do, their opinion will about the work in question, not its author.

I'm only just starting to think about this. (I don't have time to work through all the details this morning, but I think I'll continue this on Tuesday after looking into it some more.) The story immediately reminded me of the little twist in the Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarism case a few years ago. It turned out that one reason that the problem had not been made public earlier is that the author of the plagiarized source had simply agreed to keep silent about it in exchange for a cash settlement. Timothy Noah (whose very sharp analysis of McTaggart's role in the affair is worth reading) used the occasion to propose a radical, but brilliant, solution to this problem: get academics to give up their right to sue other academics for copyright violation. I think a similar rule should apply to charges of libel: as an academic, you expose yourself to the criticism of your peers, at least when they express themselves in the academic journals. There is plenty of space in those pages to answer charges and settle matters of fact. But once you go to the courts in an attempt to settle a dispute with one of your academic peers, you have left the academic community. You have given up your academic credibility—which, sadly, is what I think Calvo-Goller has done in this case.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


An academic text has a doubly representational function. On one level, it represents the facts in the world that the article is about. On another, it represents the ideas in the head of the text's author. That is, the article puts the reader in a position to talk not only about a particular topic but also about what a particular scholar thinks on that topic. The text informs us about the world; but it also informs us about the writer's opinions.

Lately, I've begun to worry that certain configurations of theory and method are intended to avoid that second representational function. The writer believes that given a sufficently formal theory, and a sufficiently rigorous method, there is no need for the writer to believe the results of the investigation. The results speak, as it were, for themselves. The text speaks for the facts directly. The authority of the text is grounded entirely in the orthodoxy of the theory and the method applied.

The falacy here lies in imagining that theory and method govern the writing process. In reality theory and method govern how we think about and see the world, they structure our attempts to understand it. The art of writing—the problem of style—is a different game. It is all about presenting our understanding to others. In order to write, then, we must have an understanding to work with. That understanding is also what we try to represent in our teaching and in our conversations with peers. It exists independently of any particular attempt to express it.

An (unfortunately) familiar experience might help to emphasize what I mean. Sometimes a writer has been been struggling with a text for weeks or even months and then loses the manuscript because of a hardware malfunction, or virus, or whatever. There's usually some sort of backup, but it's an older version, and let's for the sake of argument imagine the (fortunately) rare case where the whole text is lost. The writer is despondent because those weeks or months of work have now been "lost". Right?

But why despair? Those weeks and months were spent articulating what you know, what you understand. When you've done it once you don't need weeks or months to do it again. You just sit down and represent what's in your head again, and this process is now easier because you already know what's there.

My point is that being a scholar is not just having the ability to write a particular kind of text. Those texts are not just physical objects built by hand (though they are also physical objects built by hand). The scholar knows what the text says. The scholar is able to converse intelligently about the content of the text. It is out of that ability, out of that intelligence, that the text is writen. The text does not emerge from some impersonal application of theory to methodically generated data. It takes thought.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Pretending to Know

Just before Easter, I talked to a group of master's students who are working on their theses. I realized too late that the routine I've developed for PhD students and faculty doesn't work too well at lower levels. Mainly, I am less justified in presuming that the writers know something—or, rather, that they feel like they know something. This means that my attempts to get them to think practically about the work of writing comes off a bit hollow, a bit cynical even.

Consider the epigraph for this blog, taken from Don DeLillo's Underworld. Here's a longer quote:

I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions. Did I do this myself? You maintain a shifting distance between yourself and your job. There's a self-conscious space, a sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic, and maybe you show it in a forced gesture or a ritual clearing of the throat. Something out of childhood whistles through this space, a sense of games and half-made selves, but it's not that you're pretending to be someone else. You're pretending to be exactly who you are. That's the curious thing. (103)

I told the students that academics are just like executives in this regard: they both are scholars and pretend to be scholars. They are pretending to be exactly what they are. Likewise, they really do know something and also pretend to know it. That pretense is simply part of the academic style. It's a kind of "conceit".

Well, master's students may be excused for finding it a bit strange to be told (by an instructor) that they are supposed to "pretend to know" something when they are writing. The same can be said of my invocation of Mallarmé: a text is not made of ideas but words. Don't think too much, I seem to be saying, don't worry too much about your ideas. Just write. When working with very ambitious, very knowledgeable PhD students, that sort of advice is intended as a corrective. Their awe of the forest blinds them to the trees, we might say. But students who are not yet sure that they know anything need to be given the opposite advice.

They must be told how to get their words to mean something, and that means that they must actually know something, not merely pretend to know it. PhD students, like I say, must be told not merely to know something, but also to pretend to know it. Like DeLillo's executives, in fact, they must learn to let their readers pretend as well. An academic reader, like an academic writer, is always a "half-made self" playing at knowing something.

Jonathan Mayhew put this point forcefully in the context of reading works of literature. "To really love literature is to love how it rewrites your subjectivity," he said, "how it kicks your ass with its transformative power." Really good academic writing can also, sometimes, knock you off your feet. But most often it rewrites your subjectivity in a much more subtle way by offering you a role in a "game" (one that is at the same time wholly "real"). As a reader, you pretend that the writer is an "author", i.e., an authority of the subject. And the writer, of course, obliges by appearing to be someone who "knows what she's talking about". Both are pretending to be exactly who they are, which is a curious thing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Write What You Know

Writers of fiction are often told to "write what you know". I just googled that piece of advice to see where it came from (no clue) and found that it is rarely taken (or offered) straight. It is presented as advice you can safely ignore or, perhaps more charitably, advice you have to "outgrow". It's one of those classic rules of writing: everyone knows it but no one follows it. Or rather, they claim they don't need it.

I suppose that in the context of fiction it is sufficiently counter-intuitive to grab a writer's attention, at least for a while. Isn't a novelist, for example, precisely supposed to "make things up"? The injunction to write what you know is here an attempt to get writers to respect their imaginative freedom. Whatever they come up with must be compelling, and telling them that, even if they are writing about something that is supposed to have happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, it must be based on what they know, is a way of reminding them that the reader must be able to more than just understand the story—the reader must believe it. Writing fiction is a matter of constructing a convincing illusion.

This is sometimes talked about as the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief". It is fostered by the sense that the writer "knows what he's talking about", even when what is being talked about almost certainly never happened.

Academic writing, by contrast, is not supposed to activate the writer's willingness to suspend her disbelief. On the contrary, academic writers must write what they know in a completely non-ironic way, for a reader that is likely to skeptical, i.e., unwilling to suspend doubt. For this reason (in fear of this reader) academic writers sometimes write not what they know but what "is known", impersonally, universally, independent of the beliefs of the writer and the reader. The writer imagines that no one will question him if he sticks to the orthodoxy. We might call this the writer's illusion, rather than the reader's. A good academic style, I want to suggest, is found by making what everyone knows your own. If everyone knows it, you should know it too. Then write what you know.