Monday, February 28, 2011

Everything that Is the Case

One way to focus your mind on the problem of writing a particular paragraph is to ask yourself what its central claim is. What fact are you claiming is the case? At the end of the day, what state of affairs in world makes it true? The paragraph is ultimately trying to persuade the reader on exactly that point.

A couple of weeks ago, I used Wittgenstein's Tractatus as an example. "The world is everything that is the case," he wrote, and left it at that. But he could have written a whole paragraph to establish this point in a more prosaic way. (I'm not going to say that this would have been more "effective". It's hard to criticize the effectiveness of what is arguably the most influential book of philosophy in the twentieth century.) What, then, would support for this claim look like? Well, why would it need support?

The answer here comes from thinking about the reader. What are we expecting the reader to do with the claim that the world is everything that is the case? Some claims are hard to believe, and we would have to provide solid evidence. Other claims are hard to understand, and we would have to help the reader to do so by unpacking it. I think this claim is a special case of the second kind. It's not hard to believe because it is essentially a truism. The rhetorical problem is showing the reader why it is important to say it. Why do we have to be reminded of this elementary truth? Because philosophy is always trying to draw it into question. This is called skepticism.

Wittgenstein eventually rejected his own rhetoric here, taking it to be an example of metaphysical magic—a kind of trick. "When I began [the Tractatus] to talk about the 'world' (and not about this tree or table)," he said, "was I trying to do anything except conjure up something of a higher order by my words?" But conjuring up higher orders (of abstraction or generality) is a perfectly respectable task in writing. The whole idea is to get the arrangement of particulars to suggest something of a higher order.

A paragraph is a great place to arrange particulars in support of universals, specificities in support of generalities, the concrete in support of the abstract. Something like this, for example:

There is a tree outside my window. It is swaying gently in the breeze and casting a shadow along the ground. Yesterday, I walked past the tree and saw a squirrel scurrying up its trunk, scaring off a bird that had been sitting in its branches. Today, it seems to be abandoned in the parking lot, growing out of its little island of earth and cobblestones. But there is more: there are buildings all around, a hundred windows that look out on the tree. The tree is outside each of those windows. There is a tree outside each of those windows. The world is everything that is the case.

As with any literary experiment, there's some editing to be done here. I'll return to it on Friday (I have something else in mind for Wednesday). The effect I'm trying to achieve is the passage from an isolated (lonely) fact to a hundred views of that fact to the objectivity of the fact-in-the-world. It is a fact that the tree is outside my window, but not just my window. There are a hundred facts of this kind (one for each window). This suggests that the tree out there is a fact "in itself". And this suggests a "real" world.

Each paragraph in your paper states something that is the case. Together they position what you know to be the case in the larger of whole of everything that is case. They find a place in the world for your knowledge.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Composure of the Paragraph

There are two senses in which the paragraph is the "unit" of composition. We can look at what distinguishes paragraphs from each other and what gives each paragraph its internal coherence. That is, we can look at the paragraph as that which divides a paper into (roughly) 40 (roughly) equal units or we can look at paragraph as something that has its own particular kind of unity.

On the page, a paragraph is a group of sentences between two hard line returns. Each new paragraph usually begins with a tab indent. When we are editing our texts (or someone else's) we can ask whether those line returns and tab indents are in the right place. That is, do the physical divisions of the text express its intellectual structure? Sometimes, we will find that what looks like a single paragraph on the page really makes two distinct points, and these two points should be given separate paragraphs. Sometimes we will find that two physically separated paragraphs are really supporting the same claim. They should be combined into one.

This week, when writing about my research agenda, I have had to say something about related but distinct objects. My scholarship is about an individual theorist and about sensemaking research and about organization studies and about administrative science and about social science. So it has been natural to write paragraphs about each of these objects or, rather, paragraphs about how my research approaches each of these objects. I have found that a paragraph that I first think will say that, e.g., sensemaking is a research topic for organization studies ends up being about how organization studies is a subfield of the administrative sciences. I then need to go back and remove the references to sensemaking, moving them into another paragraph. What is happening in those situations is that an externally imposed division of the text conflicts with the internal unity of the paragraph. The paragraph wants to be itself.

But this compositional desire of the individual paragraph must, of course, be disciplined by the compositional needs of the whole text. Sometimes a paragraph must give up a bit of its unity in order to serve its function in a series of paragraphs that develop a single theme. Here the need for a soft division (a smooth transition) between paragraphs overrides the desire for internal coherence.

I want to call the expression of a paragraph's "compositional desire" its composure. The paragraph is pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions by the rest of the paper; but it stands its ground and sometimes pushes back. It holds its own. Each paragraph re-centers the formation of meaning in the reader's mind; meaning does not simply flow through the pages unchecked. As a writer, too, you find your composure by identifying the center of significance of each paragraph, refocusing your efforts on it, giving some thought to the internal coherence of five to ten sentences at a time. The reader should experience the result of this process as a sense of calm in each paragraph, a kind of serenity.

"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water," said Hemingway. The composure of the paragraph is grounded in this dignity of movement. Each paragraph is centered on the "tip" of what you know about its subject matter. You know much more than what the paragraph says, so you have a great deal of excess strength in your attempt to say it. This gives you your particular grace as a writer. We can put it this way: a paper isn't an expression of your state of mind in a single gesture. Rather, it is series of poses (about forty in all), each of which is grounded in the depth and breadth of what you know.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Dissertation

The other day, Jonathan noted that your research agenda is an answer to at least one important question in your job interview. Another important question asks you to summarize your dissertation. There is, finally, supposed to be some connection between these two answers. My own reflections about my agenda are indeed related to career issues; I'm trying to move back into a research position, which means I am essentially applying for a new job. So how do I answer this question about the relationship between my doctoral dissertation and my research agenda?

In general, I worry about the effect of my dissertation on my ability to get a job. I wrote it with what I would today call a bad attitude—with an image of myself as a romantic genius. As I recall, I was using it to figure the (academic) world out, to figure my life out. It was that lame. But, in preparation for this post, I sat down with it last night and began to read it from the beginning, and I was struck more by its virtues than its faults. Since handing it in, back in 2003, I've reread it a number of times, sometimes thinking that it is a sham, sometimes that it is brilliant. This morning I am willing to defend the second of these two opinions.

My dissertation shows how knowledge is like power. I was trying to overcome what Steve Fuller calls the "profound ambivalence of Western philosophers toward the equation of knowledge and power". I ultimately defend the somewhat grandiose claim (which I stand by to this day) that knowledge is like power in our suffering and this suffering is the arch-likeness, the most elemental way in which experiences are alike. Things are like each other, and people are like each other, in so far as we are, first of all, able to see the likeness of our perceptions to our actions. Or to put it another way: we must be able to compare our beliefs and our desires. We must suffer the difference between them, precisely because they have something in common.

I was trying to show that philosophers could do more than just talk about other philosophers or comment on the conduct of science and politics. I wanted to show that they could do something specifically philosophical, namely, that they could write concepts down. This ability, I argued, is the basis of their professional dignity. But because I wanted to show what philosophy (philosophizing) is, not just talk about it in the context of what other philosophers have said, and not just report on my "empirical" attempts to "apply" philosophy, I struggled a great deal with how I should present my results. It turned out to consist of 193 short paragraphs, "philosophical remarks" in a vaguely (but not quite successfully) Wittgensteinian sense, framed by an introduction and a postscript. The text is 67 short pages long. I'm sure I passed only by the skin of my teeth and because I managed to look surprisingly human at my defense. (In fact, one of the external examiners expressed such surprise; I think he was expecting someone much less, well, charming.)

By the time I finished my dissertation, I was exhausted. This is in part because I had terrible work habits, and in part because I (therefore) discovered way too late what I was trying to do (until then, I had been pretending I was doing various other more traditional things). I decided to follow the example of my philosophical hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who quit philosophy after writing his first book (which would eventually be submitted as a dissertation) and became a country school teacher. Somewhat less radically, after a short stint as an assisstant professor, I decided to become a writing consultant (at the department that had granted my PhD), which is a decision I've never regretted. I can safely say that I've been practicing what I preached at my thesis defense seven years ago. Editing is a very precise kind of suffering.

If I had pursued an academic career at that time, I think I would have cut a poor figure. But in addition to living out the ideas in my thesis in practice, I've also, in fact, managed to do some writing that continues that work, establishing some continuity. So, for example, about a year after my defense I was invited to contribute an argument for what would become resident writing consultancy in a very good journal, namely, Philosophy and Rhetoric, with a response from Jim Collier, and Steve Fuller himself. A year later, I was able to write a more literary restatement of what I think philosophy is for the first issue of Absent Magazine. If I am proud of the article in P&R because Fuller called my hermeneutic "surly", I am proud of the Absent piece because I share the issue with the truly wonderful poet Kate Greenstreet (unfortunately, her poems don't display well in Explorer; it works fine in Safari). So I can safely claim that my current work, both in theory and practice, follows from the self-fashioning that took place in my dissertation work. There is continuity. And I'm not ashamed of myself.

Wittgenstein "[made] his [Philosophical Investigations] public with doubtful feelings". (In fact, he died before he made them public.) I have doubtful feelings about my dissertation because of its strange form and its somewhat pained expression—its vain struggle against its own intellectual context. It is marked by the pathos of a young man who is trying to sound like a much older one. But there is something very satisfying about reading it today. It is tight. It doesn't waste words.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Research Agenda

I am interested in the epistemology of organizational sensemaking. So far, I have pursued this interest largely through practical criticism of the work of Karl Weick and its reception in the field of organization studies. You might say I want to know what it means to say we know something about sensemaking in organizations—what qualifies a claim as "knowledge" in this area?

Pursuing this agenda has taught me a great deal about the history of social science in the twentieth century, specifically its role in business education. And this, in turn, is building my understanding of the "performativity" of sensemaking theory, i.e., the sense in which what scholars (and teachers) say about sensemaking in organizations affects or shapes how people actually make sense of their organizations.

My research projects generally consist in tracing the reception of specific ideas that Weick has introduced into organization theory and then recovering their "obliterated history" (this term is used by William Bottom in a broader context). That is, I locate the sources of the concepts he uses and the stories he tells in an attempt to understand their theoretical and factual foundations. It is especially in cases where those ideas are poorly founded that I am interested in how the organization studies community has received them. The most interesting cases arise where unfounded ideas have been highly influential; they show the extent to which sensemaking scholarship takes Weick's contribution on trust. In many cases, my work shows that we must revise our understanding of sensemaking where we have uncritically adopted the ideas of its founder.

So part of my agenda is to improve the state of our knowledge about sensemaking. My work suggests specific revisions of the theory of organizational sensemaking that will make future scholars and leaders better informed about this important process. To that end, I make a concerted effort to get my work published in the major organization studies journals.

But I am also beginning to think of my project in the context of the History and Philosophy of Science, or what is often called Science and Technology Studies. Part of the reason for this is that this is really my home discipline; I was trained as a philosopher of science and social epistemologist (in the sense promoted by Steve Fuller). It is also a way of validating my research in a more objective setting, i.e., one where sensemaking scholarship [as distinct from the sensemaking process itself] can be seen clearly as an object of study.

All in all, I want to learn as much about sensemaking and sensemaking research as I can and, more generally, to contribute to our understanding of what social science is.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Jonathan has been trying to get us to think about our research agendas (first post here, most recent here), and he's been having some success (see Matt's post here). He traces the meaning of the word "agenda" to agire, explaining that it is really a plan for "what must be done". We might also say that an agenda guides your agency. It gives you a sense of purpose beyond your current task, but not so far "beyond" that this purpose suggests no tasks at all.

This can be especially important as you finish your dissertation. Finishing it requires the completion of a series of tasks, but when they are completed you are left only with something to submit. You then wait for it to be assessed. During that time you should already have other things to do. Indeed, you will probably have applied for a number of jobs before you submitted the dissertation. In Denmark, this often involves applying for funding for a postdoc project of some kind. Not only will such applications require you to state your agenda in some way, your decision to apply for some jobs and not others will be based on your agenda. Your agenda tells you where you are going in terms of what you should be doing.

Some people lose sight of their larger purpose when finishing their dissertation. They imagine that nothing else matters because if they don't finish it they won't get their degree and if they don't get their degree...etc. But they should follow that logic in the other direction too: they won't finish the dissertation if they don't finish the individual chapters of the dissertation, and they won't finish the chapters if they don't write the paragraphs...etc. So the tasks are much smaller than "finish the dissertation", and once we get down to that level of tasks, it becomes possible to compare them to other tasks on the agenda, like writing a job application, tweaking your CV, and writing a research proposal. Even modifying the agenda itself can, within limits, be given priority for an hour or two over writing two or four or six paragraphs of prose for the dissertation. You start to realize that the things you actually do, one half hour at a time, are not all directly about your dissertation. Completing your dissertation is a set of tasks on your agenda, among other tasks.

People who don't have a clear agenda become very vulnerable at decisive stages of their career. They have an imprecise sense of their options and are dependent on the (interpretive) charity of people who know them personally. And these people have a hard time speaking for them because they don't really know where the research is headed. In my field, where business studies and the liberal arts intersect, many people seem to have a dual agenda (suggesting the "ulterior motive" sense of "agenda"). What they need is to articulate a single agenda to get them through the next few years without closing off too many options. Your local peers, your references and champions, may know you are smart and knowledgeable and dedicated to your field, but lack a good enough sense of where you are going to be of much help to you. You need to know what your next task is, what the next thing is that "must be done". You have to have a sense of your own agency.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Trying to figure the world out, trying to figure my life out ... It's that lame."

It would be hard to find a better occasion to emphasize the difference between academic writing and literary writing than this Meet the Writers segment from Barnes and Noble. I'm not questioning Franzen's sincerity. In fact, I think that he cuts a somewhat admirable figure as a novelist, both serious and self-deprecating about that seriousness.

He spent ten years writing his recent novel, which, by the look of things, was a good investment of his time. (I still haven't read the Corrections and won't read Freedom until I have, so I'm just talking about the reception of his book here.) But academic writers don't have ten years to spend the way he did. They can't wait until the very end to decide whether they "have something"; they can't see the whole process as an "adventure for the writer".

Also, they can't let their work emerge from the intersection of their dreams and what they read in the newspapers. It may be a novelist's job to do so, but an academic writer is not trying to reach back behind the distraction of our "gadgets", into some fundamental human "loneliness", and give us 20 hours of solitude in the company of a book. The academic writer starts with a shared body of knowledge that is already very stable—growing, but slowly enough to keep track of. The academic writer does not "start not knowing anything". It is our job to make a contribution to what is already known. Sometimes, indeed, a correction.

This distinction between an academic and literary ethos in writing is important. If you watch this clip and identify strongly with Franzen, you are not a bad person, but you may not be suited for academic work. "Yes, yes," you might exclaim, "that's how I feel! When I'm writing a paper I always begin by trying to figure the world out, and trying to figure my life out." A novelist can say that sort of thing with dignity, and chide himself for it with irony, but in academia it really just is lame.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Post-submission Blues

Last week I submitted two papers to journals, one on Wednesday afternoon, the other on Friday afternoon. I had scheduled time to work one last time on them in the morning, and then scheduled an hour in the afternoon to deal with the submission formalities (both papers had to be submitted online). I have been working steadily on both papers for some time and presented each of them at conferences at the end of last year. One of them has already been desk-rejected by the top journal in the field, whose editor found it insufficiently theoretical but otherwise "excellent" and recommended I try another journal. That's obviously where I just sent it. The other has been well received by those who've read it or seen my presentation. All in all, I'm optimistic about this round, but there are still many other journals to try if these two fail.

Knowing I would be submitting, I felt great all week, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment on Friday afternoon when I was two-for-two. On the weekend I felt somewhat glum, however, perhaps blah is a better word. I imagine the feeling is a bit like that of the actor after closing night of the run of a successful play (I've tried that as an amateur). Or perhaps like that of a novelist after submitting the manuscript to the publisher. There's a lot of ego in the composition of a paper. You have spent a great deal of time constructing an authorial persona, a mask, a version of yourself for public display. Then, suddenly, you take the mask off. You're just yourself again. Now what you going to do? Or, rather, now who are you going to be?

I do of course have other papers in the works. This week I'm going to be spending five hours (one a day) preparing a 1000-word abstract for the proceedings of a conference I'm going to at the end of next month. That will also give me the core of the full paper, which will hopefully be submitted to a journal in April—i.e., after I get back from the conference. It's important that I use that paper as a way of working my way out of the post-submission blues of this weekend, rather than setting aside all writing projects, romanticizing the emptiness. (If I had nothing underway at all, it may not have been wise to submit both of the papers last week.) I then have a number of other projects that need to get started, some of them requiring a substantial amount of reading, and I think I'm going to give them a week of five-one hour sessions each to give them a bit of shape, then pick one to develop further, which will then include some underlying scholarship.

Much of the heaviness of starting new writing projects, and especially of choosing among them, lies in how much there is still to write and how little time I actually have, from week to week. It seems like I'll never get these ideas down on paper and, more importantly, into to print. Here, it is important to keep in mind that if you work on them steadily, your papers and chapters also grow in your mind, so they become easier and easier to write. They become real presences as you give them more and more of your attention. Your mental apparatus becomes attuned to the problems of the text you are working on; your whole disposition tends in their direction; you are "in readiness", as Shakespeare put it. And this is no doubt also why there is a certain emptiness when you submit.

The problem you have been working on disappears. There is, of course, still the larger theoretical and empirical problem that your research will continue to be about. Your paper, after all, will be reviewed, and you may have to resubmit it. Even if it is published, you will continue to work on similar problems. But for a few weeks or months your problem had been very concrete; it had been the problem of writing a text, the problem of composition. And that problem is now behind you. Another one stands before you. It's best just to get back to work.

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Look at that. I started this post at 6:00 am exactly. It's now 6:54 and I've written 706 words in five paragraphs. This week, like I say, I have to write a 1000-word extended abstract. I'm going to go at it in a formal way: five 200-word paragraphs. A major claim with 3 supporting claims. Introduction, body, conclusion. A five-paragraph essay.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mind the Gap

I often read papers that begin with a "gap" in a literature. These papers try to render their research question "interesting" by focusing on phenomena that have not yet been studied, or have not been studied closely enough, even though they are clearly relevant to existing bodies of theory. The approach, then, has a certain intuitive plausibility: interesting phenomena that have not been studied closely should, we would think, be studied closely. But what the authors of these papers forget is that it is not the research question that is publishable or not but the research result. In fact, I find that papers that begin with a gap in the literature often fail to articulate a clear thesis in the introduction (or elsewhere, for that matter). Instead of "showing that" something is the case, these papers tell us that they will "explore how" something happens. They construct the "interest" of their paper independently of their result. They make it seem as though any description of the hitherto under-examined object will count as a "contribution". They imagine the gap is simply "empty" and ready to be filled any which way.

In their recent critique of the "gap-spotting" approach, Jörgen Sandberg and Mats Alveson suggested that researchers should instead use their results to challenge assumptions in the literature. This is the right approach, and it can in fact easily be combined with our eye for gaps in the literature. All you have to do is realize that if there is some object that is already relevant to a theory, and that object has not been seriously studied by researchers, then the object is already 'covered' by the assumptions of the theory. That is, even in the absence of detailed study, the theory makes assumptions about your object (a particular kind of organization, say, or a particular aspect of organizational life). Since the object has not been studied, however, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the theory's assumptions about it are not wholly accurate. That's really the question your research should be addressing: how do our assumptions about objects in the gap hold up when we actually look at them?

The mistake that gap-spotters make is not considering that an object we have not yet examined closely may turn out to be completely uninteresting once we do. So you have to ask yourself in advance (as part of articulating your research question) what does the theory expect you to find out about the object you have chosen to study. If you find that those expectations are wholly warranted then you don't have much in the way of a publishable result, and do notice why that's entirely reasonable: a theory covers all cases of a particular kind—a potentially infinite number of cases; but it is based on research into particular cases—a finite number. The theory makes a number of assumptions and then claims that "all things being equal" (ceteris paribus) the as-yet-un-examined cases will illustrate the same theoretical truths as the already examined ones. You want to show that those assumptions need to be modified; if you can't, you have simply legitimized the lack of detailed study of the object in the gap. Past scholarship was simply right not to take an interest.

The gap is not just a source of fresh material that is somehow pre-approved for publication because it has not yet been studied. In an important sense, there is no gap. If the object is interesting at all, the theory has already implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) filled in the gap with its assumptions. Your theory of organization already claims to understand the organization you are studying, even if no researcher has yet looked at it. The "gap in the literature" is full of ideas that have been produced by generalizing the results of previous studies. So you have to think the gap through on your field's behalf. You have to make the implicit assumptions about your object explicit; you have to acknowledge that your peers already know a great deal about what you may have thought of as your personal object. You have to mind the gap, not just mine it for raw data.

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[Update at 7:03 am] This post took 49 minutes to write. It consists of 692 words composed into four paragraphs. This confirms some basic quantities quite nicely. I normally say that a trained writer who is at the top of his form (as I arguably am) should be able to produce a prose paragraph of about 200 words in under 30 minutes. My paragraphs aren't quite that long, but they have been written in under 15 minutes each. They are also a bit chattier than really publishable prose would be (though not altogether sloppy, I hope you'll grant.) As regular readers know, my training regimen consists in sitting down every other morning (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) between six and seven to write a post on a topic I've decided on before going to bed. There's no secret, no trick. You just have to practice.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Sentences, Paragraphs and Prose

William Strunk suggested that the paragraph is the unit of prose composition. It is true that it only takes a sentence to express a thought, but if you want to introduce an idea into an academic discourse, to enter a conversation between specialized knowers, you will need to embed that thought in a paragraph. It is only in the context of a paragraph that a sentence carries the weight of knowledge. To know something is not just the ability to formulate a single true sentence about it; it is the capacity to converse about it. The paragraph expresses a thought and indicates the conversation you are willing to have about it. You know you are writing prose when you are expressing yourself in well-formed paragraphs.

Tony Tost's 1001 Sentences is a good demonstration of the idea that sentences ain't necessarily prose. You can read part of it here, and watch him read a sequel here. Here sentences are clearly being used to make poetry, not prose.

Outside of poetry, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus may be the most famous example of a distinctly non-prose work. It opens like this:

1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.2 The world divides into facts.

Wittgenstein calls these numbered units "propositions"—Sätze in German, which can also mean simply "sentences". They are, in any case, not prose paragraphs. In a way, Wittgenstein contented himself with presenting an "after-the-fact outline" of his book. Wittgenstein is presenting only the core of his thinking; he is not offering any elaboration. One does not get the sense that he is interested in having a conversation about the idea that the world is everything that is the case, does one?

One of my back-burner literary projects is to write a prose version of the Tractatus, a book that simply expands each "key sentence" into a full paragraph of academic prose. In fact, Wittgenstein famously loosened up a little in his later years. His writing (in the Philosophical Investigations) does not quite become "academic", but it does become more recognizably prosaic. One clue to why this happened is found in his drafts of his Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough, which Rush Rhees cites in his introduction. "When I began [the Tractatus] to talk about the 'world' (and not about this tree or table), was I trying to do anything except conjure up something of a higher order by my words?" (vi). Prose does not appeal to higher orders. It does not conjure. Prose is ordinary. It is straightforward. That's what the word means.

So we can begin to imagine what a prose version of the Tractatus might look like:

The world is everything that is the case. There is a tree outside my window, for example, and its branches are swaying gently in the breeze. I am sitting at my table. On it, there are two books and this notebook, where I am writing these words. The tree is outside my window; that is the case. The notebook is on the table; that, too, is the case. The world is just everything that is the case in that way.

We can think of many variations on this way of writing. But clearly beginning a book with this paragraph, even though it begins with the same sentence as Wittgenstein's "conjuring" act, is not trying to pull off a trick of abstraction. It is explicating "everything that is the case" with examples of particular cases. It is trying to bring "the world" down to earth. It is beginning a conversation.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Orality and Clarity

I often have to make oral presentations. Recently I was asked how I have developed my presentation skills—why I don't seem to be nervous, etc. Well, I am of course nervous before I make a presentation. I must also sometimes seem nervous, but I think what my band teacher, Mr. Orr, told us back in grade seven holds true. Before a concert, you don't just have butterflies in your stomach, you have 747s there. Now, the trick is not to get rid of them; the trick is to get them to fly in formation. The nerves we have before performing are an important source of energy.

What does that have to do with writing? Well, one of the things I say about making an effective presentation is that, in the end, it's all about knowing what you will say. I don't think it is helpful to imagine that our "rhetoric" can be distinguished from our "message". Organize your presentation around the message you want to communicate. Make sure that what you are saying can be understood by your audience. With that in place, your rhetorical problems are at least possible to solve. So, when asked how I have developed my oral presentation skills, I say that I write a lot. In particular, I believe that my training with this blog, where I write for an hour every other morning and then immediately make the results public, have taught me how to shape my ideas in a confident way. It has taught me how to get my butterflies to fly in formation.

Now, many writers have trouble speaking in public. Writing big books does not necessarily make you a good speaker. You have to write in a clear, plain style if you hope to use your writing to train to your oral style. You have to write in a way that resembles speech. You don't want there to be a big disconnect between how you say things on paper and how you say them in person. Fortunately, such writing is also much easier to read, and much more likely to get published. So you are really just learning how to write well, and this is giving you the added benefit of speaking clearly.

I try not to acknowledge self-criticism that doesn't get to the heart of a problem. So, when someone says they have great ideas but are unable to express them, whether in writing or otherwise, I try to get them to question the premise that their ideas are great. Truly great ideas are easy to communicate. Am I saying that you should work on your ideas and the words will follow? No, work on your words as a way of working on your ideas. Then your words will always be up to the task of expressing your ideas. And—which amounts to the same thing—your ideas will always be articulate enough to be expressed in a variety of media. The poorly written really is the poorly thought.

At a practical level, use paragraphs as a way to shape your thinking. To see what this means, consider this post. It consists of five paragraphs, including this one, which is supposed to round things off, summarize, reach a conclusion, bring it all together. Each of the previous paragraphs had a single message, which developed as I wrote, but which I will now go back and identify, probably editing each paragraph a little as I go to bring out that point more clearly. The points are the following: The trick to doing oral presentations is to get the butterflies to fly in formation. Use writing to train your butterflies to this end. This will have the added benefit of clarifying your writing. The poorly said or written is the poorly thought. Finally, this paragraph says that paragraphs can help you organize your thinking around individual claims, and it supports this point by identifying those claims in the post. It supports by exemplifying. Notice that although I talk a lot about myself in the post, none of the key points are about me. The narrative frame about how I learned to do presentations from grade seven onwards is just a conceit. It gives me a way of supporting the point of each paragraph with prose.

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In other news, you don't get a more unambiguous recommendation than this. Thanks, Matt! It's great to know this blogging is helping people out there.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Cordon Sanitaire

Jonathan Mayhew has been talking about what he calls the "Cordon Sanitaire" between teaching and research in a series of posts at Bemsha Swing (here, here, here). I completely agree with him about the importance of integrating teaching and research, especially in the mind of the teacher/researcher. The subject we study should also be the subject we teach.

But I'm still using that "we" without sufficient authority. I'm an internal writing consultant at a business school, not a professor of organization studies. I do occasionally teach undergraduates, however, and I do do a bit of scholarship on the side. Because I talk to them every day about their work, I also have a good sense of how scholars divide their time, and their minds, between teaching and research.

One of the ironic things about the "cordon sanitaire", which Jonathan defines as the attitude that research is "esoteric" and of no interest to students, is that you overcome it by clearly distinguishing between your daily activities. It is mainly people who give themselves no focused time to actually do research that find themselves distinguishing it sharply in their minds from what they teach students. If, by contrast, they did some research every day in a focused, unhurried way, and then turned their minds, just as calmly and just as attentively to preparing for class, they would immediately see the connections. Research would inform their teaching, and teaching would demystify their research.

I'm speaking of "research" as though it is one thing. In fact, many scholars have, again as a result of not distinguishing between their tasks in practice, established yet another "cordon sanitaire", this time between "research" and "writing" (which I put in scare quotes because they should not really be distinguished at all). Such researchers read a lot of books, think a lot, and even go into the field to conduct interviews and carry out on-site observations, but they give themselves no time to write. (They may jot down some notes, or frantically produce an abstract or a conference paper in the middle of the night, of course. But they don't, precisely, give themselves time to do these things.) For these people, absurdly, their research is "esoteric" and "of no interest" to their peers! The problem of knowing something has been completely isolated from the problem of conversing about it with other knowledgeable people.

It should be easy to see the parallel to teaching. Both teaching and writing bring what we know into contact with audiences that ought to know it. Our peers know much of what we know and we have to respect that knowledge in presenting something new to them. Our students want to know precisely the sorts of things we know (that's why they have chosen us as their teachers) and we have to, as it were, respect that ignorance—which is also a desire to learn. In both cases, we are bringing our knowledge into a conversation. There should be no theoretical "quarantine line" between what we know, what our readers know, and what our students know.

But there must be a practical distinction between when we study, when we write, and when we teach. If we don't distinguish between these activities in our working day, we will desperately try to keep them separate in our minds in order to compensate. If we divide our days and weeks into working tasks, however, we will be able to keep our minds whole. The tasks, in each case, will simply come into contact with the coherent web of beliefs that is our knowledge.

It occurs to me that I've been experiencing this recently as I try to find a path back to a life of scholarship. Whenever I let my "identity crisis" (am I a consultant or an academic?) interrupt my work, i.e., the planned schedule of my activities (which includes both scholarship and consultancy), I feel the conflict between my identities more strongly. That is, when I mix up my activities (which normally simply means neglecting some of them for a time), my mind compensates by distinguishing sharply between my roles. Suddenly, copy-editing another writer's paper becomes something completely different from working on my own papers. I forget that in both cases I'm bringing a manifold of skills and knowledge to bear on a text. Different texts, yes, but it is, or should be, the same mind that goes to work on them.

Carve up your day, not your mind. That's my motto.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Five at a Time

I emphasize that a journal article consists of 40 paragraphs in order to get authors to appreciate the finitude of their task and to give it some immediate structure. The problem of supporting 40 claims is more structured and more limited than the problem of writing 8000 words. In fact, we can use our 40 paragraphs to carve those 8000 words up into smaller tasks of 200 words each. Next, we can group those tasks together in eight five-paragraph, 1000-word sections. Let your introduction and conclusion together count as one section. Here, then, is a possible outline for a paper:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Theory
  4. Method
  5. Results (1)
  6. Results (2)
  7. Results (3)
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion

You can now conceive of each of these sections, except the introduction and conclusion, as a "five paragraph essay"; that is, think of it as a stand-alone text that establishes three claims about a single thing (namely, the background of your paper, your theory, your method, etc.). Obviously these sections may turn into four-paragraph or seven-paragraph essays as needed, and they may in the end not need to be as formal as an independent essay. I'll say something more about these sections in future posts.

The introduction and conclusion of the paper constitute a special problem. This morning, I would like to offer my all-purpose solution to writing these two sections, which you do well to write first and then return to as the text develops. First, divide the task into a three-paragraph introduction (roughly 600 words) and a two-paragraph conclusion (roughly 400 words).

The last paragraph of the introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion should mirror each other: one announces what you are going to say in your paper, the other summarizes what you have just said. There should be a tight fit between these two paragraphs.

The introduction can take the following form. In the first paragraph, you describe the practical reality that your paper is about. In management studies, you will here describe the sort of organization that you are interested in or the management practices that your work discusses. (In literary studies, you might begin with information about the author or genre your paper is about.) The second paragraph now introduces the body of scholarship that has taken a relevant interest in the practical reality described in your first paragraph. Here you should cite the most important pieces of scholarship that shape your approach. The first two paragraphs combined should provide a good indication of the the problem you are interested in. Finally, in the third paragraph, you announce your thesis and outline the paper.

The opening sentences might look like this, then:

  • As tasks become increasingly specialized, many of today's businesses are turning to self-management to organize work processes.
  • A growing body of research into self-management has established three main challenges for managers and their employees.
  • In this paper, I show that successful self-management depends on strong shared narratives across all levels of the organization.

Each of these claims requires support. In the first paragraph you will need to provide evidence (with references) for the general trend toward self-management. In the second, you will need to cite the studies that have identified the challenges and suggest a consensus around them (i.e., there aren't really four or just two challenges). In the third paragraph, you will simply outline the paper, stating the major claim—historical, theoretical, methodological, analytical—of each section.

I have already talked about the first paragraph of the conclusion. The last paragraph of the conclusion should neatly fuse the challenges of the second paragraph with the narratives of the third and bring them to bear on the trends implicit in the first. That is, it should bring it all together. Wrap things up.