Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Schools & Scholars

When we talk about "academic writing", we're often talking about the sort of writing that students are expected to do. But we're really talking about something students are expected to learn how to do while at school, and which they'll presumably continue to do throughout their lives. That is, "writing for academic purposes" is not writing for the purpose of passing an examination, and it is not writing to an audience of one, i.e., the teacher. Nor are the "conventions" that govern the writing tanatamount to the demands of the "assignment". The artificiality of a school assignment is intended to simulate the conditions under which students might develop the art of scholarship.

When I went looking for standard guidelines for writing in the humanities just now, the result was, not suprisingly, the guidelines that teachers make available to their students. I really liked Celia Easton's guidelines because of her focus on the reader. "The first thought any writer should give to a paper is not 'What am I going to say?' but 'Who is my audience?'" And she then points out that the audience should consist of a like-minded readers (such as fellow students). Even when the reader is the course instructor, he or she is "not a bored or sneering reader looking for a single interpretation. The professor is interested in the same work that you are writing about, probably knows a good deal about it, and wants to be persuaded by a claim that you make about your topic." This shift of attention from the teacher or examinor to an "interested reader" is very important. Today, too many working scholars have installed a "bored and sneering" reviewer between themselves as writers and their real readers. Some have entirely lost sight of the reader (as, sadly, have some reviewers and editors).

I want to emphasize the knowledge of the reader here. "To know whom to write for," said Virginia Woolf, "is to know how to write." That's the very basic principle of all academic writing, and in the humanities it has an interesting twist:

When writing about a treatise, a satire, a novel, a document, etc., remember that your reader already knows the plot or substance of the text. Concentrate on how the author expresses what happens. You can refer to events and ideas without describing them as though they were completely new to your reader. E.g., rather than telling your reader, "Jefferson argues for the American colonies to break away from the domination of Britain," you can say, "Jefferson's argument that the American colonies break away from the domination of Britain combines inductive reasoning with an emotional rhetorical appeal." From there you would provide textual examples, and comment upon each one you select. (Easton, my emphasis)

I think this is the most important thing that social science writers need to learn if they want to make the move towards "liberal learning". Unlike the results of field work, interviews, or surveys, the materials being analyzed in the humanities should be presumed to be known to the reader. That is, in the humanities, we're talking to people who already know.

* * *

RSL will now be taking a break. There will be some changes, but I'll explain all that when I get back to it in 2012. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch's 20-minute Prose Form

Christopher Hitchens will be missed here at RSL too for his "facility with words". You don't have to like his ideas, or even his style, to admire the strength of his prose. The shape of his form. This interview on 60-minutes underscores the point. Though I don't recommend begging off for a moment to write after dinner, having the power to do so is entirely part of that "power of facing unpleasant facts" that Hitchens himself praised Orwell for. Your writing must have a certain strength to be deployed effectively in a short burst at short notice. You do well to develop that strength. Hitchens, it would seem, was setting a good example until the end.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Form in the Humanities (2)

Where social science seeks knowledge, the humanities seek understanding. While the social sciences stake their credibility on their theories and methods, the humanities stake their credibility on their style. Pure forms are hard to find, of course. Many social scientists have humanistic ambitions—roughly speaking, literary ambitions—while many humanists have grown envious of, especially, the theoretical sophistication of their peers in the sciences. For the past fifty years, the language of the social sciences (the appeal to theory and method) has been actively supported by a network of opinion leaders and funding bodies. This year, a central institution in that network, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proposed a reorientation in a more humanistic direction. My concern, as always, is with the effect of such reorientations on the way we write the results of our research down.

(An aside: Fabio Rojas recently posted a link to Clifford Geertz's interesting first-hand account of an academic career as it develops its initial literary ambition into a pursuit of a "common language for the social sciences" [PDF].)

If the central conceit of the social sciences is that they have a shared "program of perception" (a theory) and a proven set of procedures (a method), it is the central conceit of the humanities that a good style makes such things unnecessary. The humanistic conceit is sometimes promoted within the social sciences; John Van Maanen's "Style as Theory" is probably the best example. But it's important to keep in mind that the style is here proposed precisely as a theory, and Barbara Czarniawska has, rightly, taken this proposal to have important "methodological" implications*. Here the boundaries between the social sciences and liberal arts are certainly blurred, but I think it is safe to say that this kind of rhetoric is intended to allow (Czarniawska uses the word "permit") us to use a notion of "style" to underpin both our methodological and theoretical discussions. That is, we are still dealing in theory and method, we're just using style to sell them.

The more radical proposal is to do away with theory and method, replacing both, simultaneously, with style. This, I want to suggest, means writing not as one knower to another (one social scientist to another) but as one thinker to another (one humanist to another). What is presented in the writing is not knowledge but understanding. The presentation will still consist of a series of claims, and many of these claims will be expressions of "justified, true belief" in coherent paragraphs. So, yes, there will be lots of knowledge in the text, and a humanist remains a very a knowledgeable person. But the style of the writing, not formed by theory and method, is very different. The reader is not expected to believe, but to think.

What I am making explicit here is in many ways the standard defense of a now-familiar kind of work in the social sciences. When I challenge the epistemic foundations of sensemaking research for example, I am often told that it was never meant to be "true". But it must be stressed that sensemaking research—like the kind of journalism that Malcolm Gladwell practices—depends on a reader who will will take the style of the writing as a sign of its credibility (to use James March's word), i.e., as an implicit theory and method, and who will then essentially believe, or "trust" (Czarniawska's word)*, the text. It presents the results of reading as though it were the results of data-collection, i.e., as though the reader does not have access to the sources. If the reader were being addressed not as a social scientist but as a humanist, a more careful kind of scholarship would be required. Sensemaking research is written in the voice of a humanist addressing a social scientist, the voice of someone who claims to understand something reaching out to someone who knows something (else).

I think that if we're truly going to take a turn towards "liberal learning" in business scholarship, we need to begin to write as humanists to one another. What would that mean? Well, it would mean discussing what happens in the books we read as though our readers read those books too. We would not read a novel or a work of popular non-fiction on behalf of our peers in the social sciences; we would read along with our peers in the humanities. We might say that we should address the reader as someone who has the time to read; the social scientist, by contrast, is presumably too busy (engaged in "empirical research") to read books. I can see that I'm going to have to write another post to make good on my promise to offer some practical advice for writers. More on Tuesday.

*See "Karl Weick: Concepts, style, and reflection", published in the Sociological Review.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Form in the Humanities (1)

My posts about introduction, conclusion and body of a paper provide an outline for a standard social science paper. But what about the humanities? To answer this question I want to explore the possibility of writing a publishable paper without an explicit statement of your "theory" and your "method". I'm doing this both because I want to be of use also to scholars working the humanities and because of the growing interest in a "liberal arts" approach to business studies.

Papers in the humanities will still need an introduction, a conclusion and a substantial analysis. They also do well to have a section devoted to the implications of their results. And there is no immediate reason that these sections cannot be written according to my ideal form. Also, it is often legitimate to provide some background information about, e.g., the author(s) that the paper is about. But instead of telling the reader explicitly how the writer sees the world (theory) and what the writer has done to get a better look at it (method), the paper will try to give the reader an indication of the writer's style. In fact, the possibility I would like to explore here is that the humanities differ from the social sciences precisely in their reliance on style over theory and method to build rapport with the reader. (I'm sure a historian of the social sciences can tell us the importance of the late nineteenth century for the rising fortunes of theory and method against the baseline of style.)

When writing about your theory and method what you are doing is activating the reader's expectations and standards. You're describing the reader's mind and getting the reader to trust you long enough to let you try to change it. A style, meanwhile, is a way of talking about the world and also a way of looking at it; it is the perfect immanence of theory and method, their seamless integration. The fifteen paragraphs that are devoted to background, theory and method in a social science paper must work up to the twenty paragraphs of its analysis and implications. In a humanities paper, you do well to think in similar terms. After the introduction you're going to have to prepare the reader's mind to be changed.

"Form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of desires," said Kenneth Burke. I often say that in scholarship it is the art of disappointing our peers' expectations—a paper artfully evokes and then artfully disappoints the reader's expectations. So you can see the arc of a piece of scholarship in the humanities as follows:


And we can further divide the tasks of "arousal" and "fulfillment" into sub-tasks. There's a kind of general, underlying, "human" arousal and a more specialized, scholarly arousal. That is, we can talk about the broad cultural assumptions about, say, Shakespeare, that no piece of scholarship, no matter how well researched, can proceed without taking stock of, and we can talk about the more focused expectations that a community of specialists have of a reading of any one of its members.

When evoking the expectations of scholars, a writer does well also to give some indication of the sort of reading he or she has done, both its extent and its intensity. A popular audience, or "general reader", will generally be impressed with the scholar's ability simply to summarize the basic plot points of Hamlet and Othello, and saying something half-way interesting about the sixteenth century. But a fellow scholar will want to see an understanding of the issues of interpretation that arise around these works and that period. So the writer must carefully drop names and problems into the first fifteen paragraphs of the paper in order to give the reader a recognizable frame of reference. Also, the reader does well to demonstrate familiarity with the works of Shakespeare, especially those under scrutiny. The writer is here always reminding, not telling, the reader what is going on on the page.

I'll continue this theme on Thursday, getting into greater detail about the passage from "arousal" to "fulfillment" of scholarly desire.

(Read part 2 here.)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Professional Human

It's probably a perennial topic. Lately, however, I've been seeing increasing concern among scholars and administrators about the status of the "humanities" in the university and in social life. A new Carnegie Foundation report argues that undergraduate business education should move towards a "liberal learning" model. On Monday, Jonathan posted his objections to MLA President Russell Berman's "vile editorial", which argues for more efficient (cost-effective) graduate studies in the humanities. The two proposals share the belief that education should produce "professionals". Indeed, on the Harvard Business Review blog last year, Bill Sullivan, one of the authors of the Carnegie report, talked about "the cause of professionalism".

It is instructive to read Sullivan's call for a "liberalized" business curriculum alongside Berman's call for a "professionalized" humanities doctoral program. In many ways the Carnegie Foundation's and the Modern Language Association's take on the future of the humanities pull in opposite directions. Sullivan wants the currently social-science-based business curriculum to look to the humanities as a model for business education. This is in part a reaction to the criticism of the business school's role in forming the minds of the people who, simplifying a little, gave us the financial crisis. The economics-based business curriculum, Sullivan says, is "too narrow". Programs

frequently fail to promote intellectual curiosity, they underemphasize flexibility of mind, and they provide too little understanding of the real business challenges their students will face. The result is that business students often take the conceptual tools they are taught not as instruments but as simple descriptions of reality. The efficient market hypothesis, it's been said, rarely gets taught as a hypothesis.

Teaching students about business the way we traditionally teach them about history, philosophy and literature, he proposes, will give students "the ability to grasp the pluralism in ways of thinking and acting that is so salient a characteristic of the contemporary world". Such professionals are just what we need.

Berman, to my mind unwisely, looks to the social sciences for a model. That is, just as business educators are learning to look to the humanities for inspiration, the humanities are trying to adapt to the way things have been done in business schools. Berman wants a three-year course-based doctoral program, rounded off with an article-based thesis, not a monograph. This, as Jonathan notes, will simply reduce the amount of reading and writing that is required to get a PhD. Note that this is at odds with the results of Arum and Roksa's widely discussed study of critical thinking and analytical reasoning among undergraduates. They found that traditional humanities programs, with strong reading and writing requirements, were virtually unique in their ability to make students, well, smarter. Social science (especially as a basis for business education), again simplifying a little, rots the brain.

Berman and Sullivan agree on one major thing. Whether as bachelor, master, or doctor, graduates should be, to use a phrase that was coined by a group of students here in Denmark, "suitable for business", that is, able to go to work, even after getting a liberal arts degree. As Berman puts it:

we must recognize that the literature PhD is already a gateway to many different careers. These varied professional directions—which deserve our validation—include opportunities as teachers throughout the educational system as well as nonfaculty positions in higher education. In addition, the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.

This has not traditionally been an issue in business education, which presumably prepared people for a career first and foremost, and that's why the Carnegie Foundation pulls towards a more traditional set of humanistic values. It continues to presume that business majors will find gainful employment, and hopes to ensure that the people who go into business or government might also become slightly, for lack of better phrase, "better people" than those who got us into the current mess. The MLA, meanwhile, presumes that a formative immersion in the humanities will give you all those qualities of critical thinking and analytical reasoning, but will not suit you for a life in business or government.

Like Jonathan, I'm a bit saddened when the high church of liberal learning, the MLA, begins to envy the "efficiency" of the social sciences. I'm not saying the humanities are perfect. But if they want to be a formative basis for a new class of "professionals" they should not look for ways of becoming more like some other intellectual pursuit. They should search for better ways of being themselves. And that, of course, is exactly what being "human" is all about.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


My recent posts about the introduction, conclusion and body of a paper were an attempt to provide a kind of "a priori" sketch of the outline a standard social science paper. The idea was to rough out a space for your writing. By a similar logic, a schedule provides a time for your writing. To be present in your writing process is to coordinate the here and the now of your writing by coordinating an outline with your schedule.

If the basic trick to outlining was to conceive of your paper as 40 paragraphs, distributed across roughly 8 sections, the basic trick to scheduling is to work in 30 minute sessions, no more than six a day. You can work as little as five minutes a day (for the purpose of writing every day), but you'll be most effective if you're working at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours on your writing every working day. I encourage you to take your weekends off, but some people do find it useful to take ten or fifteen minutes even on their days off to keep the process "primed".

Like outlines, schedules should be both rational and conventional. An outline should satisfy the inner logic of your argument, but also the expectations of your reader. Similarly, your writing schedule should be coordinated with the thinking, reading, and observing you are doing to build your knowledge of its contents, but it should also be convenient for yourself and others. You are a social being before you are a writer and you should find time for you writing in social life, not outside it or in opposition to it.

If you get yourself into shape to write a paragraph in under 30 minutes you have a good unit of time to coordinate with the fundamental unit of scholarly space (the paragraph). You can begin to plan the first 20 hours of drafting, one paragraph at a time. Each week will have at most 15 hours of work. And to rewrite a paper three times (which is roughly what it will take to get the paper into shape for a first submission) you'll need at least four weeks, i.e., sixty hours. And that's if you've got an ideal amount of time for your writing.

So you do well to map your 40-paragraph outline onto a writing schedule that spans 8 or 16 weeks. This will give to time work on a paper, lay it aside (to work on another), think about it, read background materials, do more fieldwork, etc., and then return to it again in an orderly fashion. The process that will produce your paper should be visible to you, stretching before you into the future.

Your schedule helps you keep everything from happening all at once just as your outline keeps it from piling up all in the same place. That is, your outline makes a space for your writing. Your schedule gives you time.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Body

Not long ago, I wrote about the introduction and conclusion of a standard journal article. These sections are important because they contain the essence of the whole and therefore frame your writing problem. If you can write a good introduction and conclusion, you're well on your way to writing a good a article. This morning I want to show you why that is the case by connecting specific elements of the introduction to the individual sections of the body of your paper. As always, I'm here assuming you're writing a generic social-science paper. Next week I'll say some things about how to adjust this form to the context that is specific to your field. I will even try to say something about how to write a paper in the humanities.

A journal article normally has a recognizable structure:

I. Introduction
II. Background
III. Theory
IV. Method
V. Analysis
VI. Implications
VII. Conclusion

I always suggest counting the introduction and conclusion as one part of the paper, and the analysis as three. That gives us eight parts altogether, which are usefully imagined as a being roughly five paragraphs long each. That is, the paper consists of 8 x 5 paragraphs.

The background section provides the reader with information that is publicly available but presumably not in his or her possession at the time of reading. The authors I work with will often have to provide information about the country, region, industry, or company that their study is situated in. This section might also recount developments in a particular policy area or cultural field. (If you're writing about the management of coffee shops in Amsterdam, you might write something about drug policy in Holland; if you're writing about innovation management at Pixar, you could write about the company's role in the history of computer animation.) It serves the dual purpose of establishing you as a knowledgeable expert on this subject and providing background knowledge to the reader that will make the empirical analysis easier to follow. There should be a natural connection between this section and the first paragraph of your introduction. If the first paragraph describes the world that needs your paper, this section describes an area within that world in greater detail.

The theory section sets up the reader's expectations of your empirical analysis. It should be an elaboration of the consensus or controversy that you have clearly marked in the second paragraph of your introduction. "A theory," Bourdieu tells us, "is a program of perception." It is because your reader perceives the world in this particular way that s/he expects your results to come out in a particular way. The theory section articulates our presumptions about a particular empirical object or event, i.e., it tells us what we think or imagine will be true of it prior to taking a close look at it. In some fields, of course, this section is the basis for deducing hypotheses to be tested. But a softer and more general way of saying this, which is of use to you even if your field does not engage in classical hypothesis testing, is to say that your theory section evokes expectations to be satisfied or disappointed.*

The key claims of the next three sections should all be presented in the third paragraph of your introduction, which says something like "This paper shows that..." and therefore describes how you know (method), why it is true (analysis), and what follows (implications).

The methods section tells the reader what you did in terms that will make your results more compelling. Keep that dual purpose in mind. You should truthfully describe your research practices, i.e., the things you did to give you the knowledge you are now presenting to the reader. But you should describe these practices in such a way that they make your results more convincing, more credible. You should not, then, say, "I only did three rather unstructured interviews with peripheral members of the organization." Nor should you lie and say, "I did twenty-five in-depth interviews with key members of the organization." Nor should you mislead the reader by saying, "Several interviews were conducted to bring knowledge of the key processes involved in the organization." Rather, you should describe the interviews in sufficient detail to make them a plausible source of precisely the results you will present. There is no absolute standard of how many interviews you must conduct or documents you must read or newspaper articles you must analyze. It depends on what you are studying and what you claim to have learned. I have once sung the praises of Bernie Madoff's confession in this regard.

The analysis section presents the results of your empirical investigation in a way that artfully disappoints your readers (theoretical) expectations. I'll write a separate post on this section soon. It is important to keep in mind that your reader has to trust you here because you are working with data that you have privileged access to. The previous sections are all subject to criticism from a reader that either is or could be as well-informed as you. Here you are on your home turf.

The implications section draws out the consequences of the disappointment implicit in your analysis. These implications may be either theoretical or practical, scientific or political, of interest to researchers or of interest to managers. The important thing is to respect your reader's intelligence (logical faculties) when drawing them out. There are presumably many different logical implications of your work. You are here identifying the four or five implications that you think are most important.

Like I say, I've already written about how the introduction and conclusion frame these sections. Notice that for anything that you know as the result of careful, detailed study, a presentation that follows this form is possible. You can always situate your results in an area of the world; you can always present the "program of perception" that shapes our expectations of your results; you can always tell us what you did to get your results; you can always present the results themselves; and you can always tell us what the logical consequences of your results are. This is the important sense in which "knowing" something, at least for academic purposes, means being able to write a journal article about it. I've here tried to show what the body of such a paper should look like.

* * *

[Process note: as always, I started writing this post at 6:00 AM. By 6:50 I had written 1020 words, which I then copy-edited before posting at 6:59. Naturally, I'm writing about something that I've spoken about many times, i.e., something I know very well. My knowledge of the structure and content of a standard journal article just is my ability to write 20 words/minute about it to form a series of coherent prose paragraphs. In your area of expertise, you should have the same facility with words. For academic prose (as opposed to merely blogging), I usually recommend training your ability to write a 200-word or 6-sentence (whatever comes first) paragraph in 30 minutes, including language editing and reading it out loud.]

*This paragraph was edited slightly on October 30, 2012 to avoid conflating "the theory" that programs our perceptions with "the theory section" that articulates it. Thanks to Poul Poder for pointing it out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Totality of Prose

There's always Hegel. Thomas Presskorn tracked down the source of the phrase "the prose of the world" for me in his comment to a post three weeks ago. It's given me something to think about.

It turns out that the phrase appears in Hegel's Lectures on Fine Arts. I can't say I've fully digested the passage, and I haven't looked at the rest of the text, but it looks as though he is using the concept of prose to indicate the quotidian—that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace”, as Don DeLillo put it (Underworld, p. 542). In short, prose is the ordinary. He ties this idea of a "world of prose" to the "deficiency of natural beauty" and contrasts it to the pursuit of "Ideal beauty", as in the fine arts. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted "the prose of the world" with "a poetry of human relations". Well, beauty is difficult, said Aubrey Beardsley to Ezra Pound. In a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.

In writing, I want to argue, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, but when we write in prose we are implicitly admitting that we're only getting some of the experience down on the page. But we are also, as academic writers, trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, "prose" comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with "the entire finitude of appearance .... the totality which is not actual within [us]" (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, the hustle and bustle (as Heidegger might say) of everyday living.

Even in our pursuit of "spiritual interests"—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our "physical vital aims". Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. "[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else" (149). Maybe this is where DeLillo got his views on "the quotidian". Hegel says: "Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence" (148).

Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling to keep our footing in a world of everyday "actions and events," as Hegel puts it. (In my book, I'm going to have to tie this to Heidegger's views on research as Betrieb.) It is precisely because the scholar expresses her views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. That is, in prose you write about things that you might be wrong about. And you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not "active out of the entirety of [your] own self". What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.

"This is the prose of the world ... —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw" (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within "the entire finitude of appearance". A finite finitude, if you will. (I'm always harping about how the academic writer must appreciate her finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your "entanglement in the relative", a way of relieving "the pressure of necessity". This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage precisely with the ordinary totality.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Elasticity of Prose

In Tuesday's post I pointed out that Dexter Kimball appeared to be familiar with the basic principles of what we today call "stress". He talks about how hard work of any kind, including intellectual work, "results in the breaking down of tissues" and releases toxins into the blood (Kimball 1939: 244). And he points out that rest is the means by which these toxins are "cleansed" out of the system. He could, perhaps, also have noted that rest also allows our tissues to rebuild, and, typically, that this rebuilding makes them stronger. When we exercise, our muscle fibres are torn apart. They repair themselves with extra fibres, which strengthens them.

"Fatigue within the 'elastic limit'," Kimball tells us, "is wholesome for anyone and good health cannot be maintained without some bodily effort." This idea of an "elastic limit" can also be applied to your prose. Remember that I think of your prose not as something that happens on the page but as the ability of your mind and body to make something happen on the page. Your "prose" is your ability to write coherent paragraphs on subjects you know something about. You can keep your prose healthy or you can let it degenerate. And the relevant "effort" here—the activity that keeps your prose healthy—is, of course, writing.

But you must write within your limit. Don't write for a whole day until you reach the point of exhaustion—and don't write "on your nerve" for days at a time. How often do we meet scholars who tell us that they are "tired" of the text they're working on? They "can't look at it" anymore. They need us to tell us what it means. These are writers who have exhausted their prose. They can't "bear it" any more.

Usually, these writers have overloaded their text with what they know. It's not that their text actually express a lot of knowledge now; normally these texts are not well-written enough for that. It's that their authors have unloaded everything they know on the subject in their work with a single text, straining it beyond its elastic limit. And in so doing (without knowing it) they've more than just overloaded their text. They've overloaded their prose. That's why they can't even read the text any longer.

We can provisionally distinguish the elasticity of prose from its plasticity. Elasticity is the propensity of a material to return to its original shape after being subjected to a particular strain. (The classic example, of course, is the elastic band. You stretch it and when you let go it returns to its original shape.) Plasticity is the tendency of a material to stay in the shape you bend it to (that's why manufactures like to make so many things out of "plastic"). We sometimes think of our prose as a highly plastic material precisely because it is so easy to move words around on the page. What we forget is that our minds are always trying to keep up. And this means that if you move too many words around, for too long, you are really "stretching" the elastic bonds between your words, pulling them in too many directions. Eventually they snap. Or, which is perhaps sadder, they lose their elasticity.

Materials don't just stretch elastically but absord pressures elastically too. When you put a load on a beam, it deforms a little. But when you take the load off, it returns to its original shape. Your prose is supposed to be able to carry something (the weight of your knowledge). It is not merely supposed to contort itself into whatever shape the reader wants or expects from you. If you try to make it do this, you will stress your prose by forcing it to be too long at the limit of its elasticity. This means there'll be no "give" in it when readers begin to critique your text, i.e., to expose it to the weight of the their knowledge.

To avoid fatigue (of the kind that reduces elasticity by exceeding its limits), Kimball offers a good piece of advice, which ought to resonate especially with scholars. "It should be remembered also that change of work is relative rest and under the old methods, where the worker performed several tasks daily, recovery from one task took place to a certain extent while performing another...Under modern conditions, however, where men are compelled to work at one machine or, worse still, where the work is of a repetitive nature..." (1939: 244) Do not work at "one machine" all day. I.e., do not spend a whole day writing. Write for a few hours and then shift to another machine. A book is a great machine for resting some of the muscles of your prose while exerting others.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fatigue, ca. 1939

Writing Process Reengineering is inspired by Business Process Reengineering, which emerges from the long tradition of scientific management, going back to the work of F.W. Taylor. One sometimes-forgotten member of that tradition is Dexter Kimball, whose work I expect will experience a bit of a revival if the "liberal turn" in management studies is fully executed. He was dean of engineering at Cornell and wrote the sorts of detailed books on industrial organization (how to organize a factory) that you rarely see these days. He was also a great champion of the humanities in business education, i.e., what the Carnegie foundation calls liberal learning. “The man interested in industry,” he said in 1925, “will find many things made plainer and his horizon greatly broadened by studying the recorded experience of those that have preceded him.” But he also noted that “the humanities are not matters that belong to a distant past. They flow in an unbroken stream from our experience with life.” This morning, I'd like to draw your attention to his work on fatigue or, as I think you'll recognize, what we today call "stress".

My interest in Kimball arises out of my interest in the great American poet Ezra Pound. Pound quotes Kimball in his Canto 38, from 1934—a characteristic incorporation of material that is not normally seen in a poem (notice the use of what today also looks like an author-date citation):

(…cigar makers whose work is highly repetitive
can perform the necessary operations almost automatically
and at the same time listen to readers who are hired
for the purpose of providing mental entertainment while they
work; Dexter Kimball 1929.)

While Pound cites Kimball's 1929 book Industrial Economics, the idea also appears in a comprehensive textbook called Principles of Industrial Organization, which came out in several editions starting in 1913. I've got the fifth edition, from 1939, beside me. The "readers" are mentioned (on page 245) in the section devoted fatigue, where he says a number of things that writers could learn from as well.

He sorts the problem of fatigue under the need, in the organization of work, for "personal allowances", here the allowance that managers must make for periodic rest periods, i.e., breaks. Whenever I discuss this passage, I always draw attention to something that really ought to be an an embarrassing fact about twentieth-century industrial organization:

Under the old and still much-used methods, the common idea was to keep a man as busy as possible during the entire working period for which he had engaged. It now appears that he will do more and better work if given periodic rests. (Kimball 1939: 244, my emphasis)

"It now appears"??? How could we ever have thought that work without periodic rest could be a good idea? After all, as Kimball himself notes, fatigue is something that everyone has direct experience with, and the solution has never been a mystery waiting to be illuminated by scientific discovery.

All are familiar with the phenomenon of fatigue. In beginning work there is a period during which effort is not only easy but agreeable, and the rate of production increases. Then follows a period during which conditions are uniform, succceeded in turn by a decline in interest and pleasure in production, straining begins to be felt, and finally, if the effort is continued, pain appears. During this last period the worker must put forth his will power to continue at the task, "working on his nerve," as is said; and at last, if the effort is continued, it becomes unbearable and complete exhaustion takes place. (244)

I balk at the need to discover these facts. (Kimball makes it appear as though modern science has made us aware of the importance of rest.) But maybe I shouldn't. After all, how many writers approach their work as though this description doesn't apply to them? How many writers strain at the work long after it stops being "agreeable", stops giving them pleasure? Kimball, for his part, emphasizes that the principle of periodic rest (and, in fact, variation of work tasks) also applies to mental labour:

[Fatigue is not] a function of bodily exertion alone. Jobs that require little or no bodily effort but very close attention and concentration may be even more fatiguing than others that involve considerable muscular effort. Mental work is often as fatiguing as bodily effort. (245)

Interestingly (and, in my ignorance, surprisingly) Kimball appears to be aware of the basic principles of what we today call "stress", urging work to be carried out within the "elastic limit", where it is "wholesome" and conducive to "good health". Indeed, he notes,

Physical or mental effort of any kind results in the breaking down of tissue, which creates certain toxic poisons in the blood giving rise thereby to the phenomena described [i.e., those of fatigue]. (244)

All this just to say that already before the second world war, the basic principles of the organization of work, including the work of writing, were well-understood. Make sure you work at your writing within the elastic limit of your prose (a notion I'll take up on Thursday). Get some rest. Keep the work agreeable.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Just this week, during one of my undergraduate workshops, I had something of an epiphany about the rhetoric of an academic article. I've long argued that the only difference between the introduction and conclusion is a rhetorical one. The two sections say the same thing, which is to say, the conclusion does not contain information that the introduction has not already presented; but they say it differently or, more precisely, they address different audiences. And the difference is a very small and precise one: the reader of your conclusion is the same reader as the reader of your introduction except that the reader of your introduction has not yet read your paper and the reader of your conclusion has just read it. Beyond that, I used to say, you're free to write the conclusion as you choose ... oh yes, except that you only have two paragraphs to accomplish what you did with three in your introduction.

But look what I discovered while workshopping a conclusion this week. We began by sharpening the introduction to give us the ideal form. The first paragraph provided a description of the world in which the paper is needed. "We live in an age of..." it might (too) typically begin. The second paragraph introduces the relevant science: "Scholars agree that..." (or, conversely, "Current scholarship is divided about...") It is only the third paragraph that introduces your thesis: "In this paper, I show that..." Notice that until the third paragraph, no mention is made of you or your thesis; you are positioning your thesis in a world of shared concern and a body of current scholarship.

And notice also that even in that third paragraph you don't actually state your thesis. The key sentence of that paragraph is not a claim about your object; it is a claim about your paper. This means that the relevant kind of support is provided by a description of your paper ("After recalling the recent history of efforts to ..., I will outline my theoretical framework. The analysis uses the method of ..., which gives access to ... On this basis, I conclude that ... and emphasize the importance of ... in rethinking best practices in this area.") It is not actually an argument for the truth of your thesis. It is a description or outline of such an argument.

I have said before that the first paragraph of your conclusion and the last paragraph of your introduction should mirror each other. In the introduction there should be a paragraph about what you will say, while in the conclusion the same paragraph should tell us what you have said. But this can be quite boring ("In this paper, I have shown that..." etc.) We now arrive at the epiphany.

 "In this paper, I show that..." will continue with some proposition. "In this paper, I show that organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." That proposition, of course, states the major thesis of the paper. Now, what your paper should be putting you in a position to do is precisely to state that thesis, plainly and straightforwardly. After reading your paper, the reader should be in a position to understand a simple, efficient, 6-sentence, 150-word argument for your thesis. Let, the penultimate paragraph of your paper, i.e., the first paragraph of your conclusion be that argument.

Its key sentence will be your thesis. "Organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." Leave out explicit mentions of method and instead state the major empirical claims that your method allowed you to discover. Also leave out any explicit mentions of theory, but use theoretical terms as though they are part of the vocabulary shared by you and your reader (if your paper is any good, by this point they are.) Three of the sentences will normally simply state the sub-theses that your analysis arrives at. However, you choose to do it, keep it simple. This is the moment when you show the reader that s/he's understood what you've been trying to say. Here's the simplest possible statement of your argument for the most informed possible reader.

There's one paragraph left. To write it, think about your "implications" section. What change (whether in theory or practice) in the mind of your reader does your paper suggest? How should the reader see or do things differently after granting the rightness of your conclusions? In a word, how have you changed the reader's world? Write the last paragraph as a description of this new world. The first and last paragraph, set side by side, should describe the "before" and "after" images of the world that your research pertains to—the world that needs your research. It is the world that needs to change in the way suggested by these images.

When I explained this to a group a faculty members recently something truly profound hit me: that last paragraph is also the first paragraph of your next paper.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Great Learning

Confucius's classic text The Great Learning begins like this:

The great learning takes root in clarifying the way wherein the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results; it is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow; it is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease in perfect equity.

This is Ezra Pound's translation—he calls it The Great Digest or Adult Study. Reading the passage last night, I realized that this really does express my philosophy, and especially what I try to accomplish when helping people to improve their writing. Writing is very much part of the process of adult study.

I agree with Pound/Kung that intelligence can be increased through a disciplined process. "Looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results," is of course a way of improving your whole intelligence. An important step is to develop "precise verbal definitions of [your] inarticulate thoughts"; Pound simply calls this "sincerity", i.e., to be able to say plainly and straightforwardly what you think. When you think about it, it is easy to see how such frankness can improve your intelligence and, I hope, just as easy to see how insincerity might hinder or even counter such development.

Universities ought to be places where the frank expression of thought is encouraged and protected. (There is, unfortunately, reason to think that they are becoming less and less so.) They should also be places where "the way people grow" is "watched with affection". I have had the pleasure of watching people grow over the past five years. But I have mainly been working with early-career researchers and PhD students. Or rather, it is mainly when working with them that I have the privilege of watching people grow. As undergraduate programs grow and are made more cost-effective, the contact between student and teacher offers little opportunity for such careful observation. I think this is a loss to the teacher as well as the student.

Notice that, according to Kung, your learning is rooted in watching how others grow. One of the functions of students on a university campus is to provide teachers with this important experience. Interestingly, some translations of Kung reduce Pound's (perhaps overly interpretative) phrase to the claim that the aim of the Great Learning is "to renovate the people". This top-down attitude seems to be more common today. Certainly, programs are organized in ways that leave little room for teachers to appreciate how their students' minds are growing more articulate. This is due in part to a number of unproductive misconceptions about the role of writing in education. I'll say more about this next week; for now I just want to emphasize that writing should have a much more prominent place in higher education than it does today. Less talk. More text, I say.

Lately, I have also noticed my need to come to rest, to achieve a balance. Intelligence grows naturally if we think about things (and articulate our thoughts) in an orderly way. The process can't be forced but it can be supported. It can also be interrupted, confounded, and sabotaged. Scholars have an interest in finding ways "to rest in the highest excellence," as other translations put it. It is their job, in a sense, to "grasp the azure".

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Prose of the World

The Prose of the World is the title of a posthumously published book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the title of the second chapter of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things. It appears to be something Hegel said about the Roman state. "Prosaic writing," said Merleau-Ponty, "limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture." He seems to distinguish both "great prose" and poetry from such ordinary prose writing, which occurs "when a writer is no longer capable of ... founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating". Well, I would argue that academic prose is also incapable of "founding a new universality", and this is really for the better. Academic writing is very much an attempt to use the language within the limits of accepted usage. There is a whole world of prose: the universe of which it is always already possible to speak.

It is possible to read Foucault as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. "Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world," he tells us; "writing has ceased to be the prose of the world." And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty's "new universalities" do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. For him, poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred. Again, I want to emphasize the virtues of prose, of ordinary usage, of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the "alliance" of "resemblances and signs". It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims. Somebody has got to do it.

And not nearly enough of us do, I think. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who "wanders off on his own," as Foucault put it. We "no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text", in terms of their similitude. But why not? Why don't we acknowledge the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose? Why have we become so skeptical of this basic function of writing? My answer is simply that we are out of practice, and therefore a bit out of shape. We're in poor form.

Students and, too often, scholars do not make writing a regular part of their studies, of their life of inquiry. In relative terms, they do "read a lot", but they read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, "without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness ... no longer the marks of things ... sleeping ... covered in dust" (Foucault, op. cit.). Maybe we will never recover of our form. All it would take, of course, is a bit of regular work. We would need to sit down, for an hour or two every day and record what we know as claims that have support. And when we read the work of others, we would read them as making claims and offering support in turn.

Instead, it often seems, we have, like Foucault, come to see such activities as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other's writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly "taking issue" with what is said—on the assumption that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., "read against", the world of facts that make our utterances true or false. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills?

Thursday, November 03, 2011


“The essential business of language,” said Bertrand Russell, “is to assert and deny facts.” He was clearly thinking of scientific language, not language in general; as Deleuze and Guattari point out somewhere, language is just as often meant to be obeyed as to be understood. But academic writers, in my view, nonetheless do well to think of themselves primarily as asserters and deniers of facts. I sometimes say that what they need is a little bit of “assertiveness training” or, as I’ve also put it, they need to develop a “propositional attitude”. Their essential business, we might say, is very much as Russell conceived it.

An assertion, in the sense I’m after here, is really just a claim that something is the case. As a rough approximation, we think of a journal article as making forty such claims of various kinds. The introduction makes three claims: the first is about the world of practice, the second is about the theory of that practice, and the third is about the paper itself (a claim about what the paper will show). There are then five claims that elaborate on the world of practice (providing essential background information), five claims that elaborate the theory, and five claims that present your method. This is followed by fifteen claims that constitute your analysis, presenting the results of your inquiry, and five claims about the implications of your analysis, whether for theory or practice. Finally, your conclusion makes two claims that remind the reader of what you have just argued and emphasize its importance.

You are asserting that importance, of course. By starting in a particular part of the world and claiming particular things to be true about it, you are setting yourself up to make a particular contribution to our understanding. Keep in mind that in doing this you are likely to engage with your readers’ beliefs in a quite aggressive way. Your knowledge will often conflict with what others think on the same subject. But you are not doing yourself or your readers any favors by mumbling or otherwise obscuring your views. By stating clearly, assertively, what you think is true, you allow your readers to formulate their own views just as clearly, just as assertively. This will foster a precise confrontation of views, rather than a merely vague sense of disagreement. Your reader will know which facts to marshal against your position—if your reader intends to disagree with you. A good paper is written to occasion such a confrontation, not to avoid it.

Academic writers, that is, need to “get their facts straight”, and then assert them in the literature. This, like I say, is necessary for the conversation among scholars to remain precise and constructive, but it is also, in my view, necessary to maintain the true function of scholarship in society. Academic writing ought to foster high-quality discourse about subjects of importance to the surrounding society, and this discourse ought to have effects on the quality of discourse in general in that society. It is not that everyone needs to think like an academic, or go around asserting and denying facts (as if that were their essential business). But there must be a place somewhere in society for a conversation that is assertive in precisely that way. By training your ability as an academic writer, you are training your ability to make that contribution social life. I do sometimes worry that academics lack the confidence—grounded in a particular kind of strength and a particular kind of poise—to assert themselves even among their peers. This would go a long way towards explaining the marginal status of what they know in social life more generally. My aim is to help them assert the facts they know to be true.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Shape of Form

This week I'm going to the University of the West of England in Bristol to hold my one-day workshop in Writing Process Reengineering. I've promised the participants (hello everyone!) that this morning I'd outline my basic approach, so that they know what to expect when we meet. They already have a program for the day (which I've summarized in this post). In this post, therefore, I'm going to say a few basic things about what one workshop participant of mine was kind enough to call my "philosophy of writing".

My view is that academic writers need to make a concerted effort to keep their prose in shape. What I do, therefore, is to offer a number of exercises that will help them develop mastery of form. Writers of course also need a number of purely "cognitive" or "intellectual" capacities, and very definitely some mastery of content, but these are specific to the field in which they work and, largely, a personal matter. You don't have to be a genius to be a successful academic writer, but you might of course want to be such a thing. Regardless of your level of intellectual ambition, you do well to keep the part of you that writes in shape. For convenience, I just call that part your prose.

What I call Writing Process Reengineering (WPR) is an attempt to get writers to appreciate the finitude of the problem. Today, your prose is in a particular kind of shape and you will not improve it noticably overnight. But you can make real strides if you subject your development to a program that resembles the sort of training people undertake to get into physical shape: start out with short sessions every other day. From there, develop a regular habit of writing. That is, mastery of the prose form is, in one sense, mastery of time and space. When and where will you write?

My workshops are really a long argument for the plausibility of two forms, one spatial and one temporal. The first is the 40-Paragraph Article (40PA). While actual articles will of course deviate from this ideal form, it is always possible to imagine an idea expressed in 40, roughly 6-sentence or 200-word paragraphs. Each paragraph makes exactly one claim and offers support for it. The key implication is the—for some people startling—insight that you have to know exactly 40 things in order to write an academic article. The forty paragraphs themselves are distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections: the introduction and conclusion count as one section, and then there's the background, theory, methods, three sections of analysis, and implications. Whenever you are "writing" (in the specific sense I'm after), then, you are writing (or revising) a paragraph in a paper of roughly this form. You are keeping your ability to write such a paragraph in shape.

Temporally, I offer participants what I call the 16-Week Challenge (16WC). You should never write for more than three hours a day, so a given 16-week period (of 5-day working weeks) has a maximum of 240 writing hours. That's a good ball-park figure to start with, but most people will have to find the 60 or 120 or 180 hours that constitute a more realistic estimate of their resources. These hours-available-for-writing should then be booked into the writers' calendars and they should decide which writing sessions will be devoted to which parts of the ideal 40PA form I just outlined. Here it can be useful to think of your prose as your ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something you know in 20-30 minutes (you will discover the limits of you own form in this regard). Taken together, then the 16WC and the 40PA give academic writers who want to embark on a program of personal development a complete frame, in time and in space, in which to train their prose.

The workshop provides you with a rhetorically robust concept of "knowledge" that corresponds to these formal exercises. It argues that your knowledge is your ability to hold your own in a conversation among knowledgeable peers—which makes it the basis of your strength and poise, i.e., grace, in writing. Gaining this formal mastery is a matter of getting prose into shape. Prose, that is, is "the shape of form".

Note: I like to lead by example. This post of just over 700 words took exactly one hour to write. I did of course start out knowing what I wanted to talk about. See you soon, Bristol!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Build for It

Jonathan has raised two related issues this week: one about the idea of a "natural talent" for writing and one about your image of yourself as a writer. The first post, especially, reminded me of a passage in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. It's the scene where Holden Caulfield's roommate, Stradlater, asks him to write his English composition for him. He'd be free to write anything he wanted, "just as a long as it's descriptive as hell", and just as long as he doesn't put commas all in the right places because that would be a dead giveaway that Stradlater hadn't done the assignment himself.

That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place. He was a little bit like Ackley, that way. I once sat next to Ackley at this basketball game. We had a terrific guy on the team, Howie Coyle, that could sink them from the middle of the floor, without even touching the backboard or anything. Ackley kept saying, the whole goddam game, that Coyle had a perfect build for basketball. God, how I hate that stuff.

Stradlater doesn't know what it takes to be a good writer, just as a Ackley doesn't know what makes a good basketball player. It's not, of course, that your build or where you put the commas is completely unimportant, it's just that by reducing the question to these things, we miss the essential thing: practice. Writers gain mastery of the craft by continuous practice. They may start with some natural disposition to become writers, but they have to develop that talent in the usual way.

Caulfield hates the way Stradlater and Ackley talk about the talent of others because it's a way of trivializing it. It is a way of not really being impressed. (It's also represented by Stradlater's yawn while he asks Caulfield for this favor. Stradlater is saying that Caulfield should do it for him because, for reasons entirely beyond their combined control, Caulfield can write and Stradlater cannot. From each according to his ability, we might say, to each according to their need.) And if you're not really impressed by people who can write—if you don't appreciate their efforts to develop their talent—then you're not going to make an effort to emulate them in your own writing. You won't look to them as models.

When I teach writing, I try not to introduce rules and criteria. Instead, I introduce forms. That is, I try to show writers what the different parts of a paper are for, and then I tell them to practice getting their sentences to work together to accomplish those goals. (I give them the that/which distinction not as a rule of grammar but as a way of deciding whether you are restricting the meaning of a term or not.) I also normally always give students something that they'll learn (only) by doing for twenty minutes or half an hour. One of the problems with an image of a oneself as a non-writer grounded in the belief that one "doesn't know where the commas go" is that it suggests that your writing is held back by a lack of knowledge about writing. It's usually not. It's held back by a lack of writing. The relevant "build" emerges from your training.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Prose Experience

Last week was very busy for me. I had been invited to Barcelona and Budapest to talk about various aspects of the writing process. In between, I spent two days here in Copenhagen talking about the new Carnegie Foundation report about "liberal learning" in business education. Bill Sullivan, one of the report's authors, made an interesting comment at the end of the first day. He cited the widely discussed study of critical thinking and analytical reasoning among undergraduates by Arum and Roksa. That study found that students develop these abilities only in programs that demand a significant amount of reading and writing. That is, our ability to think depends on our degree of engagement with prose.

Well, in my talks at ESADE and Corvinus I was telling researchers and PhD students how to keep their prose "in shape". In fact, the difficulty that researchers have finding time to read and write is distressing in the light of Arum and Roksa's study. If students need to read and write in order to improve their intellectual capacities, then it is highly likely that the rest of us must read and write in order to maintain them. If students must make reading and writing part of their learning, then scholars must make it part of their knowing. Like musicians and athletes (a comparison I never tire of making), scholars cannot expect to perform well if they don't work at their talent every day. In an important sense, scholars who haven't been writing for a few months simply don't know what they are talking about.

I should admit, at this point, that I've been neglecting my own prose for some time. My reasons are the usual ones: I've had other things to think about. But I'm going to have to get back to writing every day (not just blogging twice a week) if I'm to keep my wits about me. Lately, I really have been feeling distracted, and that feeling is nothing other than a lack of prose in my life. A mind that is continuously informing itself by reading well-formed paragraphs and expressing itself in likewise well-formed paragraphs is maintaining a kind of "rigor". That's what Arum and Roksa call it, but I like to think of it as "grace", i.e., the precision that comes from strength—from being much stronger than a given task requires, from not always working at the outer limits of your abilities.

I tell researchers to master the time and space of their writing. I tell them to think of the text they are writing as an object with 40 parts distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections. This is the space in which they work, and it is, importantly, an orderly space in which 40 discrete claims can be supported. Likewise, I ask them to think of their time in 16-week periods of structured work, writing every day, but for no more than 3 hours. The rest of the day can be spent engaged in other activities, including, of course, reading.

Kant was probably right that without time and space we wouldn't experience anything at all. Bergson was right to say that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once, and space, I like to add, is what keeps everything from piling up in the same place. A continuous engagement with prose, then, is a particular way of ordering experience. It is, in many ways, what university is all about (as the Arum and Roksa study shows). Unfortunately, scholars increasingly find themselves with "no time" to read and write—and no place to do it. I worry a great deal about this situation, I must say. We have forgotten the value of maintaining a group of people in society, namely, scholars, whose primary activity is to read and write prose. We need some people to keep their prose strong.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hope, an epigram

Here's another sentence that google gives me reason to think I just coined:

If there's any hope, it lies in the prose.

It's a variation on Orwell's (Winston Smith's) famous remark about the proles, of course. And I really have a hard time believing that no one out there has punned it before.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weekend Clip

I've been wanting to post something on weekends as well. Here's the sort of thing I'm thinking about. I'd like to just post this sort of thing without comment. Watch it with the implicit question: What does this have to do with academic writing? (This one's kind of a no brainer.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

RSL on Tour

Next week, I won't be blogging on the regular schedule because I'm travelling. On Sunday, I leave for Barcelona to run a couple of workshops for PhD students at the ESADE Business School. I return Wednesday, and will be spending the following two days here in Copenhagen at a round table on the recently proposed "liberal learning" model of business of education. Then I fly to Budapest to do a one-day seminar and workshop on Writing Process Reengineering at Corvinus University on Saturday. I'll be back at the regular blogging on Tuesday, October 25. But the following week, November 3, I'll be in Bristol at the University of the West of England. It feels a bit like a European tour.

I'm looking to forward to meeting a lot of new people and to testing my "product". In the new year, I'll begin my freelance career as a writing consultant, and I hope that the majority of the work will consist of doing seminars and workshops like these, as well as advising administrators (including department heads) on how to organize productive writing environments. I will also, no doubt, continue to offer individual coaching and editorial assistance here in Copenhagen. A number of my current authors have expressed interest in continuing the relationship, and that is still something that gives me a great deal of satisfation to do (though it's relatively time consuming). But I'm also very interested in building a network of institutions, especially in Europe, around the concepts of Research as a Second Language and Writing Process Reengineering. I think "discursive impact", for example, ought to be an explicit part of any research strategy, whether at the individual, departmental, university or national level. Even the EU, to my mind, should be thinking about it.

I'm willing to help in whatever way I can.

One simple thing I can do is to share my experiences as a resident writing consultant, presented in the form of a proposal for how to reengineer your writing process, individually and collectively. The one-day workshop I'll be doing in Budapest and Bristol deals with the problem of managing the writing process and developing the written product. It is a workshop in four parts:

1. Research as a Second Language. Even researchers who have English as their native language find themselves struggling with the idiom of their chosen field. In this introductory lecture, I define academic writing both in terms of the knowledge it communicates and the conversation that it informs. I argue that your prose style is a crucial part of your skill set as a scholar. The challenge is simply to become an articulate member of your scholarly community.

2. Discursive Impact. Your ability to speak and write knowledgeably is conditioned by the "discursive formation" or "disciplinary matrix" in which you participate. I talk to participants about how the exemplary work that has already been done in their traditions can be used to inform their own efforts to write more effectively. I show participants how to use our growing knowledge of citation networks to give their writing the impact it deserves.

3. Time Management. One of the most common explanations scholars give for not writing is that there is no time to do so. I try to dismantle some common myths about the time that is required to write effectively and provide a number of simple tools to help participants secure the time they need to work. These tools can be used by individuals, but can benefit greatly from a supportive collegial environment.

4. Space Management. The "space" for writing must be thought of both physically and conceptually. It is important to structure both the environment in which writing goes on (i.e., that it be sequestered enough from everything else that is going on at the same time) and the manuscript that is being developed. If you begin with a blank page in an open space you are not likely to work effectively. I show participants how to get organized to avoid this problem.

This is familiar stuff to readers of this blog. (New readers who want to get a sense of what I'm about might read my sketch of the book I'm working on.) If you want to experience me live, then, you now have a simple way of making it happen. My standard fee is 1000€ per day, plus expenses, to hold the workshop. Participants are expected to do a little bit of work in advance to prepare (I have a form for them to fill out). Contact me by email at tbasboll at gmail dot com.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teacher or Coach?

Reading Atul Gawande's recent in piece in The New Yorker got me thinking about whether I'm primarily a teacher of writing or a coach. And it got me thinking about which of these labels I prefer. I've been aware of the distinction for some time—ever since I noticed the difference between how my children learn at school and how they learn at sports. The difference is getting muddled, however, as teachers are increasingly expected to function as coaches.

There's a video of Gawande's talk at the New Yorker Festival at Fora TV. Here he talks about the passage from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence through the stages of concious incompetence and conscious competence. Now, in my view, both teachers and coaches facilitate this passage, but they begin and end their involvement at different points.

Part of the teacher's job is to make you conscious of your incompetence.* This is much more necessary than it might sound, and in two senses. It is necessary in the sense that you can't really get around it given the way the classroom situation is set up: attendance is mandatory; the class itself is simply part of a curriculum. The student often shows up without any awareness of their incompetence and often only a vague interest in the subject matter. It is also necessary in the other sense that there are many things we must learn that we will not learn if we are not made aware of our ignorance. These are competences that our culture requires of us, but which we do not immediately possess and don't naturally feel we need. Teachers give us those competences.

But because of the structure of education into courses, the teacher's final task is often the exam, which is to say, a highly conscious moment. The students end their involvement with their teacher acutely aware of what they learned (hopefully not just what they don't know) mainly because they have just been graded. That is, teachers start with the unconscious incompetence of students and try to bring them to the stage of conscious competence.

Coaches, meanwhile, start with (let's call them) aspirants who are normally very conscious of their incompetence. Gawande himself, for example, sought out a coach after eight years of practice as a surgeon because he noticed he was no longer improving. These are people who not only want to get better, they know what they want to get better at. But the coach works with them continuously, so that the skills they learn pass into the unconscious on a running basis. The coach does not subject the aspirant to an exam. That is, coaches start with conscious incompetence and stays with it until it is unconscious.

Another important difference between coaching and teaching, to my mind, is that coaches deal directly with the relevant competence in its performance. Teachers assign homework and check whether or not its been done. The teachers themselves "perform" in front the students with the aim of transfering something to them. But the coach simply watches and suggests alternative and exercises.

I would much prefer to be a writing coach than a writing teacher. Sometimes, however, my job really is to teach writing. That is, I show up in the classroom with the task of showing students what competences they lack. And I leave the students after I've given and graded an exam. Fortunately, there are many writers I work with in a manner that better resembles coaching. I give them things to do. I observe the results and suggests ways of doing it better. And I only get a sense of their competence by watching (or hearing about) their performance. (PhD students for example tell me what their committee thought about their writing. Scholars show me the reviews they got back from the journal.)

I have a feeling that under the many complicated reasons that lay behind my decision not to return to academia (a suitable position recently opened up, which I didn't apply for) this difference between being a teacher and a coach is important. Teachers are bound to teach even students who don't want to learn; one of the most noble things a teacher can do is to "awaken" the interest of a student in a subject that the culture values. Coaches have the luxury of being sought out by people who aspire to a competence, i.e., who are already interested in the relevant art. I respect what teachers do, of course, but I'm not sure it's my thing. Teachers are authorities in one way, coaches in another. Socrates, like all the other sophists, I might argue, was not so much a teacher as a coach. His student, Plato, founded the Academy.

*I mean this in a somewhat different sense than Gawande, I should note. He constructs the contrast between the "teaching model" and the "coaching model" differently. More later, perhaps.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Professorial Writers

"A writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does," said Hemingway (Conversations, p. 46). His solution, as I noted in my last post, was to put some physical distance between himself and his potential visitors. The ultimate "threat" from which the writer needs to be "protected" is, of course, not friendship, but distraction. Hemingway welcomed distractions (and accordingly had to "enforce" his discipline) precisely because they came in the form of his friends. Academic writers, however, sometimes seem to welcome distractions for their own sake. That is, they gladly let their work be interrupted, or certainly allow it as a matter of course.

In a sense, professors need to protect their writing process from precisely the "office organization" that Hemingway said litarary writers don't have. Academics are not just professional writers, they are also professional researchers, teachers and administrators. Hemingway only had to live and write. Professors have to organize their work into smaller compartments and then also, of course, find time to live. And that life, in turn, is not what they write about. Here it is important to keep in mind that they do in fact have an office, and an organization around it.

First, there is the familiar concept of "office hours". Professors can limit their time with students to the classroom and a few hours a week, during which they are available to answer questions and offer advice. Similarly, the administrative work they do can be given a particular amount of time each week, usually centred around preparations for meetings with colleagues and university officials. Their research, too, whether it consists of reading books or conducting field work, can be confined to particular times of the day, though they may dominate the schedule more in some periods than others.

And then, like Hemingway, professors must find time to write. Here they can also use their office, or even their larger "office organization". Consider that people who wanted to talk to Hemingway sought him out in his home (where he also worked). But when people want to speak to a professor, they normally wait until she turns up in the office. And they do largely respect her closed door. The university institution really does offer "protection" from distractions.

Another difference between Hemingway's "professional writer" and this professorial counterpart has to do with the peer relationship. "Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful," said Hemingway. "Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public" (Conversations, p. 52). Well, professors do have such an obligation, precisely because they are not writing for public consumption but for their fellow scholars. A professional writer works for (i.e., writes for) a non-professional reader. A professorial writer is working with her readers to understand the subject. And this means that they often have to point out the errors that their peers have made while, of course, also acknowledging their contributions. The writing of scholar is instrinsically much more social than the writing of a novelist.

The work of our professors is constitutively tied to, not severed from, the "life" that the writing is about. It is the luxury of the professional (literary) writer to write, as Hemingway put it, "one true sentence that you know" after another, without worrying too much about what your friends or other writers are up to. But the professor must constantly write with peers and students in mind. There is no abstract "reading public" for whom to keep up "professional" appearances. The reader and the "critic" are one. This difference in the social organization of academic and literary life, which, I would argue, is much more complex in the case of the academic, is, perhaps, what accounts for the famous persona of "the distracted professor".

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Professional Writers

Ernest Hemingway was famously "professional" about his writing. He cultivated a certain seriousness about "the work" of writing, which could be seen in his discipline, his unsentimentality about his own genius, and his principled respect for his fellow writers. Beyond his infectuous (and some would say insidious) prose style, Hemingway's professionalism was arguably his greatest influence on the literature of his age. This morning, I want to describe this professionalism, and how it was taken up by Norman Mailer in shaping his own writing process. I'll do this with an eye to another post on Thursday about what "professorial" writing might look like by comparison. Let's begin with discipline. Here's a typical statement of his famous method as it appeared in a 1946 newspaper article.

Not as fast a writer as you might think from his easy style, Mr. Hemingway works on a strict schedule that produces an average of 500 to 1,000 words a day. "I start in at seven in the morning," he says, "and I always quit when I'm going good, so that I'll be able to pick right up again the next day." (Conversations, p. 46)

Notice both the early start and the moderate quantity of writing he gets done. (This blog post, written from 6:00 to 7:00 AM will break 900.) He goes on to note that "a writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does", which is why he needs "enforced discipline". He accomplished this by living in a physically inaccessible house on Cuba, with signs reminding visitors they'd better have an appointment. In a 1937 speech, he described "the writer's problem" simply as "writing truly". "There is nothing more difficult to do," he says (a professional's pride, of course, is that he's good at something difficult), and the good writer is therefore justly rewarded. Even if these rewards only come posthumously, he says, "a really good writer is sure of eventual recognition. Only romantics think there are such things as unkonwn masters." (Conversations, p. 193) That is: the professional writer is someone who sets out to do good work and expects to rewarded appropriately. I.e., he expects to be paid. He does not complain that people (or whole ages) who won't reward him don't understand his genius. Ten years after that speech, Time magazine asked Hemingway to identify "once-prominent writers that have slipped or failed to measure up to early promise." He declined to answer the question on the grounds that "A writer has no more right to inform the public of the weaknesses and strengths of his fellow professionals than a doctor or a lawyer has." (Conversations, p. 50) Two years later, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, he put the point forcefully:

Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful. Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public. If te other writer is read the public must find the good in him. I see no reason to try to put him out of business by disillusioning anyone that he may mystify." (Conversations, p. 52)
I'll return to this point in the next post, but do notice that we do (morally) expect doctors and lawyers to put the known frauds among them "out of business" (though we don't hold our breath, to be sure). Norman Mailer is one of Hemingway's greatest legacies, and he certainly claimed to practice what Papa preached. "To be a professional," he famously said, "is to do good work on a bad day", i.e., to write even when you don't 'feel like it'. (I need to find the reference for this.) He was as disciplined as (and, at times, harder working than) Hemingway. And he adopted the master's faith in the unconscious:

Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. ((The Spooky Art)
This is something I practice too, not least when writing these regularly scheduled blog posts. The theme of Hemingway's professionalism has been with me half-consciously since Thursday. Another idea I've taken from Mailer, and Mailer has taken from Hemingway, is the idea that one keeps oneself "in shape" by writing, and that one is always working to improve one's style. Mailer sometimes compared himself to Muhammad Ali, and once, as in the following passage, to a professional football player.

In the absence of a greater faith, a professional keeps himself in shape by remaining true to his professionalism. Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed., and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers that his ribs are broken. (Preface to Deaths for the Ladies, reprinted in Existential Errands, p. 200)

Mailer, of course, learned this the hard way, as do many writers. And some never learn it. But no writer who takes himmerherself seriously as a professional can say they have not been warned. The "professional writer" has a long and proud tradition to draw on—and to live up to.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Professorial Bureaucracy

The word "professional" has different meanings depending on what you choose to contrast it with. In one sense, it simply means getting paid for what you do, and is then contrasted with "amateur". In another sense, however, it points to a subclass of all those who get paid for the work they do and is to be contrasted with a word like "labourer". The professional, we might say, is not just in it for the money but is not quite doing it for love either.

Then there is professionalism, a sort of work ethic, a particular kind of seriousness about what one does. Here "professional" is best contrasted with "personal". Professionals don't take sucess or failure personally, and they don't serve people they like any differently than people they don't like. (Doctors and lawyers are committed to this code for natural reasons.) Some people take a hard line on this, refusing to do anything job-related for their friends. They simply won't mix business and pleasure. They're professionals.

Professionals are always specialized. Their professionalism applies to their use of a particular subset of their skills, not to everything they know how to do. And these skills are always "knowledge intensive", i.e., the product of a long period of education and (often) apprenticeship (or internship). Professionalism is very much about the authority that this knowledge gives them in the exercise of their competences. Mintzberg makes the interesting point that the education of professionals also includes a great deal of "indoctrination". A concerted effort is made to make sure that the professionals in our society use their skills in the service of "the good". That is, professionalism implies both epistemic and ethical formation.

It has seemed to me for some time that scholars are becoming increasingly "professional" about their work. This was once a paradox, but Heidegger was probably on to something when he said that the scholar is simply disappearing from the "modern" scene. The "professional" scholar is really not a scholar at all but a "researcher", and this is indeed the more commonly used word for the employees in the "operative core" of a university. Professional researchers are more likely to separate business and pleasure, work and play. Also, they maintain a certain formality about their authority, which also, like most professionals, allows them to be quite informal about who they are when they are not directly engaged in research and teaching. They have a keen sense of their obligations.

I want to make another important contrast to the "professional" stance, namely, the "professorial", i.e., the traditional stance of the scholar. The professional holds knowledge for the sake of some practical end while the professor, traditionally, holds knowledge "for its own sake". The professional must be able to do particular things, while the professor must believe certain truths (and, of course, have an understanding of them). It is the job of the professor precisely to "profess" these beliefs.

It is the social function of professing that is being lost in the modern university. In an important sense, even seeing the university as a "professional bureaucracy" is inappropriate (at least on strictly philosophical grounds), and doing so may have been part of its undoing, its devolution into a machine bureaucracy. Knowledge is justified, true belief, and the professional is not actually obligated to believe anything personally. So our conception of knowledge (our epistemology) is changing because the social function of our knowers is changing.

Next week, I'll try to clarify these thoughts a bit more by distinguishing professional and professorial writing. As always, I think the culprit is social science, which has been reshaping the way we "know" about each other—and ourselves—for about a hundred years now.