Monday, December 20, 2010

Theory, Method, Style

Google must love how we all immediately jump on their new toy and blog about it. (I got it from Brayden at OrgTheory.) Well, it is a cool app.

theory,method gives a not very surprising, but still intriguing, result. Theres's an interesting “event” from about 1860 to 1875, where method seems to reverse its declining fortunes by hitching itself to the rise of theory. Method drops off around 1960 (after rising much faster than theory and holding steady since the 1920s) and, very predictably, theory overtakes method in mid-1960s.

I agree with Andrei (in the comments at Orgtheory) about the recent trends. It just looks like the corpus is smaller in the database. That's confirmed by this chart, too:

It also shows that while "theory" and "method" are subject to the caprice of fashion, style is a rock, a stable foundation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Early Christmas Break

I broke my wrist on the weekend. So this blog is going to be resting for at least two weeks. The cast comes off in four. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all who observe such things! And happy holidays to those who observe other traditions.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The End of Work

Jonathan has found an excellent post from 2008 at 37 Signals called "Fire the Workaholics". It is a response to this post by Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo, who originally advised start-ups to "fire people who are not workaholics" and told those people to "go work at the post office or Starbucks if you want balance in your life." An appropriately caustic response from TechCrunch, which interpreted the message to be "fire people who have a life", forced Calacanis to rethink his position somewhat, though not nearly enough. He now says you should "fire people who don't love their work". This morning, I want to address the system of values that seems to inform Calacanis's advice.

"Judge people by how much they get done," Jonathan reminds us, "not by how over-worked they seem to be." I would add that you should judge yourself by the same standard, and that you should judge a workplace (in our case, the department you work at, or the PhD program you're in) not by how hard it works you but by how much it lets you get done. If you are working under the impression that your workaholism is part of your job qualification, quit. Indeed, if you are a workaholic, just as if you are an alcoholic, your first problem is precisely quitting. You must stop engaging with the forces that are taking over your life.

If you "love your job" you have, I'm sorry to say it, a twisted sense of love. Not a few commenters in the discussion offered some version of "Mahalo is a joke", i.e, it does not necessarily deserve anybody's love. (I don't know anything about it, but it's in any case just a product.) What's the gold standard of love? How you feel about your family. And it is telling that Calacanis (at least at the time of writing) didn't seem to have much of one:

I DON’T expect folks to check their family at the door. In fact, some of the most productive folks on staff have families, spend tons of time with them, and ARE workaholics. It seems to me that folks with families somehow get much more focused and do more in less time, or find strange hours to work. I can’t explain it (anyone with kids want to check in?!).

Truth be told, I’ve never asked anyone to work harder than I do, and I work seven days a week. I never stop thinking about whatever project I’m working on, and I don’t consider what I do work–never have. Sure, I’ll go on vacation, but that’s when I get my inspiration and when I do a ton of thinking about solving problems. In fact, the entire post was around how to make folks lives BETTER by bringing in food, getting them great equipment, providing resources, and buying the good coffee.

Notice the complete lack of any logic in what's he's saying. "I’ve never asked anyone to work harder than I do," he says. But he works seven days a week, he says; and he never stops thinking about a current project. You can't work harder than Calacanis! He then says that people with families "do more in less time" and therefore find lots of time for their kids. But because he won't admit that he's wrong, he nonetheless describes them as "workaholics". Either they are workaholics and their families are suffering for it, or they're not. They sound like they're not, so if he's seeing them as such, it's probably because they think he'll fire them if they don't pretend to be all stressed out. He doesn't sound like someone I'd like to work for. (I wonder if Bob Sutton has studied this guy's style of "bossing".)

Good work is done by people who can stop working. These are people who understand that the purpose of work is to get something done. That is, work must by definition be completed not merely performed. The end of work is the end of work. Get the thing done and stop thinking about it. Go home. Relax. Every once in a while, take a vacation. You don't need to think about your "problems" while on vacation because, precisely, your work is done. All this goes for scholars too, and especially for PhD students. Don't try to prove that no one has ever cared more deeply about your subject than you. Don't try to prove (to your peers or your supervisor) that you "love" it. Don't be a workaholic. It's a stupid waste of your time; and everybody else's.

Important note to department heads, deans, and PhD supervisors: Do not give the impression that you'll fire people who aren't workaholics. Do not valorize mindless commitment to the job. Valorize thoughtful work completed.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Clear and Present Grammar

May may be Mary. Mary may be at stake. Mary may Mabel Mabel may be fairly May Mary.
Grammar returned for instance.
Account for it.
Grammar. Spindles audacious a reading desk copies an obstacle to interesting him here.
Leaving a sentence.

Gertrude Stein
How to Write

Well, clearly, if everyone wrote like Gertrude Stein, deconstruction would not be necessary. Grammatology would never have been invented. There would be no logocentrism (logos would live at the periphery). The metaphysics of presence would hold no sway.

Writing would not make a différance.

Grammatology, as Derrida conceived it, is the science of writing, the study of significance through traces of différance and supplément. Grammatology is a reading, for instance. It may be Mary, however. Reading is at stake. It accounts for it. Grammatology, we might say, presumes a text and that a text has already been read and that the reading has already given the text a meaning, a more unitary meaning than necessary. It presumes a presumption of meaning. Reading reveals a supplement. It tells us that there is more to the text, but not outside it. It shows us what writing does.

Writing ordinarily represents. Ordinary writing represents. Representation writes order. Then there is deconstruction. Be open to it, but do not let Gertrude tell you "how to write". (She was being ironic.) Let others deconstruct what you have written. Let others expose your "dangerous supplements". Get in there and make the difference. Go.

Too many grammatologists fail precisely to acknowledge the danger of what they are doing. They are, in fact, a clear and present danger to "academic writing", writing that attempts to represent. They are utopians who would (they mistakenly think) prefer to live in an always already deconstructed world (they have made too much of Rilke's lament over an "interpreted world"). They would prefer to live without clarity and presence. Without metaphysics, if you will. So they think.

Someone has to write in the ordinary way. Someone has to say that this is the case, damn you, and this. Then others can come along and say that there is so much more to it than we think. I hope it is clear that I respect their work too. I think deconstruction is necessary—or almost necessary. Perhaps it is precisely never quite necessary but always already happening anyway. I am not against grammatology; I am for grammar. I am for writing.

I presume the botanist is not against plant life. The geologist has no objection to stones. Nor does the gardner fear the botanist, nor the quarrier the geologist. Plants grow. Stones lie there. In any case. Indifferent. We write. How Mary.

* * *

"Isn't it rather the case that différance is more exhibited in Gertrude Stein?" Thomas Presskorn asks me. "Isn't différance, as you say, always already happening anyway? (And yes, I know it's ironic that I'm hereby, as it were, guarding Derrida's concept of "Différance" in a 'non-differential' manner.)"

Stein's writing, I answer, exhibits (or rather "plays on") différance only by contrast to other, logocentric, forms of writing. Without logocentrism, no différance (because no supplément), I would argue. But you are right that another way of saying it is that there would be "pure" différance (because no supplément to the logos, "the account", as it were). For all its charm, if everyone wrote like Stein we would ultimately be doing away with writing. (And then surely with différance!) This is partly a critique of Stein (and Joyce), of course. Wyndham Lewis described her writing as "faux-naif prattle", "baby talk", and in an important sense it is. Someone has to write like an adult.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Academic English

I have been invited to participate in a workshop about the role of the English language in organization studies next week. The general theme of the workshop seems to be "critical"; it questions the wisdom of using English as the default language for international conferences and international publication. My approach (my wisdom, if you will) has always been "practical" in this area. So, before answering the question of why we should work largely in English (even in Denmark), which I will write a blog post about next week as I prepare for the workshop, this morning I want to write something about how to write in English.

Many people whose first language is not English feel a "language barrier" in their struggle to write for publication. For obvious reasons, they have an easier time expressing themselves in their native language and so they imagine that the difficulty lies in their lack of mastery of English. What they forget, in my opinion, is that the difficulty of writing for international publication cannot be felt in, say, Danish. Exaggerating a little, we can say that they are experiencing what a hockey player might call a "skating barrier". "This business with the stick and puck would be so much easier if I didn't have to wear these skates!" Of course, they forget that the ice is a given. What they really said was: "If only I didn't have to play on ice, I could use my native talent for walking and running to play this game."

There is only one way to break through a competence barrier like this: practice. People sometimes ask me whether I give courses in "How to improve your academic English" or whether I can recommend a good book of English grammar. I try not to. Instead, I tell people to read published work in their field (in English, of course) every day and to write for at least half an hour in English every day as well. I presume that the person who is asking knows enough English to read and understand what is being written in the field. After all, if the problem is learning English in the first place then I would give the same advice, but on a different level: listen to English every day and speak it every day for at least half an hour.

Also, expose yourself to criticism of your language on a regular basis. It doesn't have to be every day, but as often as every week can be quite useful. To this end, I offer our PhD students "piano lessons". They work on a paragraph once a day for half an hour; which is to say, they write a paragraph of prose to support a key sentence we have decided upon in advance. They write that paragraph five times over the course of a week and then bring their best version to me. I then read it out loud for them and critique the language. Depending on the progress they've made, we either assign the same sentence for the coming week or pick a new one. It is always about something they know, something related to their research project.

The reason I don't offer courses and books is that I don't want to do anything to foster the illusion that language skills are a kind of knowledge. Rather, language is a way of knowing—not a form of knowledge, if you will, but the form of knowledge. You don't acquire language skills, you get yourself into linguistic shape. You shape your self linguistically. Those who reject English as their working language (those who lament the fact that English is the default language for academic work) are rejecting this project of self-fashioning (a term Jonathan Mayhew taught me in his comment to this post earlier this year). Some try to present their resistance in this regard as a "political" stance, a critical posture. I try to get them to see that it is a practical issue. What they are rejecting is not a particular regime of subjugation (or, more technically, subjectification) but a particular kind of a labour. Mastering a language is hard work.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Critique and Scandal

There is an aspect of the Frank Fischer plagiarism case that intrigues and disturbs me. It has to do with the role that journal editors played in turning it into the Fischer-Petkovic affair—though I hasten to add that both Fischer and Petkovic had hands in that as well. As background, keep in mind that Fischer’s “sloppy” scholarship existed prior to Petkovic’s discovery of it; also, it turned out to be serious enough to warrant being brought to the attention of the public. (It will be interesting to see what actions Fischer’s university and publishers take after their investigations are completed. But, as I said after looking into it myself, ignorance of these errors is in any case not to be preferred to knowledge of them.) But instead of merely correcting the (many) errors that seem to characterize Fischer’s work, as critical scholarship should, the publication of Petkovic and Sokal’s report has caused a minor scandal.

It seems to me that the correspondence that Petkovic and Sokal published in their report (a longish PDF file) identifies the exact moment when a critical engagement turned into an academic affaire. The crucial decision was made by neither Fischer nor Petkovic but by the editors of Policy Studies Journal, Peter deLeon and Chris Weible. Petkovic sent them his paper on May 18, 2010, and received a mail from Frank Fischer on May 20, 2010, warning him that if he did not drop the issue then his journal’s publisher, Routledge/Taylor & Francis (which publishes Fischer’s journal Critical Policy Studies), would take legal action against him. As a quick aside, I want to note that if this is true it does not reflect well on Routledge, though the threat seems to have been empty. My issue here, in any case, is with the actions of deLeon and Weible at PSJ, who apparently sent both Petkovic's paper and the identifying information about the author to Fischer.

When I asked him about it by email, Peter deLeon explained that after they had decided to desk reject the paper (quite understandably, I would add) they contacted Fischer “to alert him of the emerging possible confrontation, in hopes that [Petkovic] and Dr. Fischer could reach an amiable resolution.” According to the published correspondence, however, they seem to have informed Petkovic that they would not publish his paper wholly eight days after alerting Fischer. Indeed, they appear never to have informed Petkovic themselves that they would pass (or had passed) his submitted manuscript along to Fischer. I'm not sure how common that is, but it seems very irregular for a journal to circulate a rejected manuscript without permission of the author.

Moreover, Fischer quotes deLeon and Weible’s description of his paper as a "jeremiad" in an email that he cc's to Petkovic on May 26, 2010, which also states PSJ’s intention not to publish. But this is still two days before any reply has been made to Petkovic even confirming his submission, let alone the rejection of his paper. Moreover, this very critical assessment of Petkovic’s paper is not mentioned in their rejection letter. "While your paper is interesting and potentially of value to the public policy community," they say instead, "it is beyond the scope of PSJ." PSJ seems to have been rather more direct with Fischer about why the paper wouldn't be published than with Petkovic.

Also, it should be noted that Petkovic had been quite open about his motives when he submitted the paper to PSJ, and had even asked for some "initial editorial thoughts", or advice about how to proceed with this sort of critique:

What I am submitting to you as an attachment to this letter is not an orthodox academic paper, although it contains a part which might be labeled more or less as such. It is simply a bad experience I had with the new public policy journal called Critical Policy Studies. I want to share that experience with the community of scholars devoted to policy analysis and public policy research. I have read in your short web mission statement that you “welcome initial exchanges if a potential contributor has an idea and would like some initial editorial thoughts.”

If you would be so kind, I would like some of initial thoughts on this experience of mine, or at least on my interpretation of that experience. I really want this story to get out in public. (Page 65 of Petkovic and Sokal's report)

Petkovic is a (presumably) young and (demonstrably) cantankerous PhD student and, it seems to me, obviously in need of a great deal of advice about how to develop (or, some would argue, abandon) his position. This "advice" was of course offered anyway—by Fischer—in the form of the thinly veiled legal threat I mentioned, which was perhaps the least constructive way to tackle the issue we can imagine, especially since Petkovic had not yet made his critique public. He was at this point still looking for a journal that would publish it.

I have written two similar papers, one of which was rejected a number of times by a number of journals before finally being published. I have found the rejections I got much more constructive than what Petkovic has experienced. At no point did the subject of the critique contact me directly, and I assume this is because he had not seen the manuscript until the decision was finally made to publish. When he did see it (to be given an opportunity to respond in the same issue), I was fully informed that that is how the editors had chosen to proceed. I would be quite troubled (and somewhat angry) if I discovered that the journals that had rejected my work had also "alerted" the author I was critiquing and, especially, if they had in any way passed around the unpublishable "jeremiad" I had composed.

I normally encourage the authors I work with to send papers to journals even against their better vanities. That is, they are sometimes worried that if their paper is not extremely brilliant, journal editors will begin to develop an opinion of them as mediocrities instead of offering them ways of improving their work and leaving it at that. It has never seriously occurred to me that another possible risk of submitting work for publication is that it will be passed around and mocked by peers without our consent or knowledge.

It is true that the anonymity of peer review is intended mainly to encourage the frankness of the reviewers. But I have always believed that part of the reason for concealing the identity of the author is to encourage submissions. We imagine that even if our manuscript is deemed highly defective in some way our public reputations will not be tarnished. It is only if the paper is deemed good enough to be published that we must also face the public criticism of peers. (Edward Johnson rightly says that authors want to be "protected from criticism", i.e., irrelevant criticism that needlessly interferes with the message.) To have our reputations depend on what happens to our papers after they are rejected, i.e., in private, not public, circulating essentially as rumours about our ideas, rather than our own public statements about them, and without any way of engaging with the "critique", is a troubling prospect.

In my view, a paper is either worth talking about or not. If not, then it should be rejected and forgotten. But if it is worth "alerting" anyone about then it is also worth at least some serious "initial editorial thought". It may even warrant some suggestions for revision, and even ultimately publication (depending on how those revisions go). If this simple procedural principle is not observed, you get the situation we in fact got: a now very disgruntled, very minor scholar seeks (and finds) the support of sufficiently major one to go up against a "clique" that unfortunately seems to be not wholly a figment of the minor scholar's imagination. It is important, after all, to keep in mind that if Petkovic’s critique had been treated with greater respect by the policy studies community (represented by its editors, including Frank Fischer) then he would probably not have sought out Alan Sokal for support. And if Fischer hadn't (unwisely, to my mind) chosen to threaten Petkovic directly, but simply kept the information about Petkovic's discovery to himself, Fischer would have gained a distinct advantage over Petkovic in future confrontations. Indeed, he would probably be in a position to affect Petkovic's career trajectory without his knowledge. Again, it is troubling that an academic journal would facilitate this possibility.

Peter deLeon assures me that it was the hope of the editors of PSJ that “Dr. Fischer and Mr. Petkovic could resolve their dispute in an amiable manner” and that they “regret that their ‘resolution’ has turned so sour.” I wonder if they also regret the act of alerting Fischer without Petkovic’s consent.* PSJ here had an opportunity to mediate a dispute within the policy studies community that now risks becoming a serious embarrassment for it. It did not seize that opportunity, to say the least.

*I gave the editors of PSJ the opportunity to comment on this post. They politely declined.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

More Dreams from Papa

(See also this post.)

Ernest Hemingway is the archetypical modern writer. He famously spoke of his art as "work"; he described himself as a "professional". "How does he write?" asked Robert Harling in 1954 (CWH, page 83) and got this answer:

In the early morning. Much of my life has been lived in the early mornings. You get going early for hunting or fishing and get into the habit. In any case, my eyelids are thin, I'm told, and it's better for them in the morning. I get up around six, six-thirty, and start work—or to try to—by eight. I work until ten-thirty, perhaps even midday. Then the day's my own. I can forget work.

As an aside, Hemingway clearly inspired Mordecai Richler's approach, even down to this idea that one works, or rather, that one tries to work. Does Hemingway also forget his characters after his work is done for the day? asks Harling. Yes:

Put 'em right out of my mind. I must—if they're to come alive again the next day. Every writer has his own way of working. That's mine. I take a drink before dinner. Afterwards I try not to. That can spoil things. Then, through the night, through sleep, the subconscious works with the characters. They're alive again in the morning. You understand? Ready for work.

Maybe it's true that there are other ways to work. I doubt it. Certainly, everyone should try Hemingway's approach for a few months. (16 weeks is a good test period.) Obviously, as a researcher, you can't put your subject matter out of your mind after lunch every day. But you can forget the particular argument that you are working on, its particular claims and concepts, its particular empirical materials, its particular theoretical themes. (Hemingway might have been writing a story about marlin fishing or the patrons of a bodega, for example; that did not prevent him from going on a fishing trip or from going to the café.) Or you can try to forget them, anyway. Then try to work the next day. Let them come alive.

What Hemingway understood is that writing takes energy ("juice", he sometimes called it). And as his policy of not drinking after dinner suggests, he understood also that mental energy is connected to other forms of energy. You need to manage your energies intelligently if you hope to write well and with reasonable ease. Finally, Hemingway understood that good writing is not based wholly (or even mostly) on conscious mental activity. Most of the "work" gets done by the subconscious.

I have noticed this in my children's increasing mastery of sports. My son plays hockey; my daughter figure skates. It is always remarkable to see the improvement that seems to take place between practices, i.e., when they are not on the ice. Clearly they skate—try to skate—one day, and then their subconscious "works with" the moves they have been practicing, also through the night. Two days later, they make the same moves easily that they could barely execute at the last practice.

I think all competence develops in this way. And progress can be hindered by working yourself too hard, by not taking breaks, by not letting your subconscious catch up. In fact, competence can be destroyed by not shifting between the effort to work and the effort to forget the work. I'm not here just talking about your ability as a writer, by the way. I mean that your knowledge of your subject matter will develop in a more robust and healthy way if you write consciously about for a few hours every day, and then stop thinking about it (what you're writing about) and turn your mind to other things (like reading about related but different matters, or going back into the field, or teaching). The whole trick is to engage with very complex materials every day after having made a serious effort, for a few hours in the morning, to find what Ezra Pound called "the simplest possible statement" of your understanding of a small portion of those materials.