Wednesday, August 31, 2011

RSL, Part I

Part I will be called "Science as Hustle and Bustle", which plays on the title of a seminal work in the STS tradition, namely, Science as Practice and Culture, edited by Andrew Pickering, and published by Chicago University Press in 1992. The idea of science as "hustle and bustle" is an allusion to Heidegger's description of modern science as an "ongoing activity", which he calls Betrieb in German. That word is translated as "hustle" in Being and Time and indicates the danger of letting activity degenerate into "mere busy-ness". Indeed, Betrieb could also be translated as "business" or "enterprise". I unpack this theme in three 5000-word essays.

1. The Scholar Disappears
Here the title is a direct reference to Heidegger's famous essay "The Age of the World Picture", in which he describes what might be called "the modern condition". He uses the phrase to mark the shift away from "scholarship" and towards "research":

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

I think that, today, we all recognize ourselves at least partly in this description. Interestingly, it was written in 1938, and already in 1927 (in Being and Time) Heidegger was talking about an "existential conception" of science as a contrast to the logical or positivist conception. It is that (i.e., the existential) conception that this essay will develop.

2. The Archives of Babel
The 1960s were a pivotal time for our understanding of scientific research and its relation to writing. Most notably, Heidegger's existentialism found a new expression in Foucault's "archaeology", or what is often referred to as his theory of "discourse". At the heart of this theory is something he called "the archive", which resonates nicely with the passage I just quoted from Heidegger above:

[The archive situates] a practice that causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated. It does not have the weight of tradition; and it does not constitute the library of all libraries, outside time and place; nor is it the welcoming oblivion that opens up to all new speech the operational field of its freedom: between traditions and oblivion, it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.(AK, p. 130)

I normally read Foucault's Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge as detailed empirical and theoretical elaborations of Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture". Both thinkers were trying to show how "modern" or "classical" representation was contingent on historical processes, and that history appeared to be moving on. In this essay, I will try to show that the "postmodern condition" is precisely expressed in this image of an "Archive", somewhere between Bolzano's book of "the totality of all human knowledge" and Borges's famous "Library of Babel".

3. A Supplementary Clerk
"It was now a great time for scriveners," writes Melville in his famous story about Bartleby. This essay brings him together with a colleague and near-contemporary, Kierkegaard's Johannes de Silentio. Both were writers who renounced the "system" of writing that gave their work meaning. "Extra-writers" as Kierkegaard puts it. I use these two characters to explore the ennui and ressentiment that too often subtends academic work (note Bartleby's laconic refrain, "I would prefer not to," and Silentio's evocative name). My own experience as a "consultant", always on the margin of the hustle and bustle academic enterprise, has often given me occasion to reflect upon what Derrida called "the dangerous supplement", and Bartleby and Silentio, each in their own way, served as "supplementary clerks" to a world, as Kierkegaard described it, "confused by too much knowledge". His solution has a long tradition: "Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! What the world needs, absorbed as it is in so much learning, is a new Socrates!"

That's it. An overview of part I of Research as a Second Language, the book.

[Back to Table of Contents]

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Handmaid of the Sciences

I've been trying to get this to work for years. Just now, with the help of two of our PhD students everything suddenly fell into place. Thanks to Anja for the use of her iPhone. And special thanks to Nikolaj and Justine, who, when I think about it, represent the most important "subjects" of all. I hope the point (i.e., the critique of Foucault's reading of the painting) is obvious. And I hope that the sense in which this is a "self-portrait" is obvious too. Foucault claimed that "the subject is elided". Well, I'm absolutely elated about how well this finally worked!

I want to thank everyone who has ever stopped by my office while I was puzzling with this and stood in various positions to help me work out the angles. A very special debt of gratitude to Lena, who recently pointed out that I had half of the setup the wrong way round. (It's hard to work with mirrors.)

For those who want this effect spelled out in my somewhat belaboured prose of five years ago, see my "Reflexivity in Perspective" in the Journal of Economic Methodology.

RSL: The Book

I've decided to start reworking the ideas that I've been presenting on this blog in fits and starts as a coherent book. I don't want to write a "manual", mainly on aesthetic grounds, so I'm think of framing it as a collection of essays, some of which, I suppose, might be published independently. My working title is:

Research as a Second Language: Essays on Academic Writing

(I haven't decided on whether to foreground the postmodern condition by adding "...and the Crisis of Representation" to that. I have a feeling it will do more to repell readers than attract them.)

Here's my working outline:


Part I: Science as Hustle and Bustle

1. The Scholar Disappears
2. The Archives of Babel
3. A Supplementary Clerk

Part II: Writing Process Reengineering

4. Finitude
5. Space
6. Time

Part III: Research as a Second Language

7. Existential Errands*
8. Getting Your Facts Straight
9. Getting Your Act Together


The idea is to produce nine 5000-word essays, mainly drawn from the stuff I've already published here, sometimes elaborating on ideas I've only gestured at, always grounding my assertions in my experience as a writing consultant. This will be framed by a 3000-word introduction and a 2000-word conclusion. 50,000 words in all.

In the days and weeks to come, I'll think out loud about the different parts of this outline, working out the ideas to be presented in each essay. Since each essay will be 5000 words long, I'm going to need about 25 ideas for each of them (to be presented in neat 200-word paragraphs). And about 250 ideas altogether. I've written 527 posts since I started this blog, so I'm hopeful.

*I've stolen this title from Norman Mailer's essay collection of the same name. But it is also a reference to Mailer. Each essay in this section will use a quote from him as its epigraph.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Constructivism, An Epigram

If Google is to be trusted, I just coined a phrase. (It's got one hit, but context gives it a different meaning.) "Facts do not make themselves known," I suddenly thought to myself. It's a rather well-turned phrase, if you ask me, almost epigrammatic. What does it mean?

Well, it captures the reason we need science, i.e., organized, critical inquiry. The fact (that something is true) does not ensure that we will know it. Facts do not make themselves known. Someone must discover them. Indeed, most facts are discovered hidden under a false belief. The centrality of the sun in the solar system was discovered under a belief in geocentrism (i.e., not under plain ignorance but under the belief in the opposite). Not only do facts not make themselves known, we often believe that something which is not the case (an "unfact") is the case (a fact).

The next thought is a bit more disturbing, but nonetheless unavoidably true. Just because you discover a fact, i.e., know something to be true, does not yet mean that the fact "is known". The fact did not make itself known to you, and will not make itself known to others just because you have exposed its secret. You've got to convince people that it's true, and these people also believe that something else is true (about the same thing). That is, you've got to change people's minds. Just telling them about the fact will not suffice. You've got to make an argument.

It's a long process. There's a lot of work to be done between the facts and our knowledge of them. We sometimes call that work "the social construction of reality". As with any other kind of labour, not everyone is willing to do it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Getting Your Act Together

I began then to make those first painful efforts to acquire the most elusive habit of all, the mind of a writer, and though I could hardly judge from my early pages whether I were a talent or a fool, I continued, I went on for a little while, until I ended with an idea that many men have had, and many will have again—and indeed I started with that idea—but I knew that finally one must do, simply do, for we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told. . .

Norman Mailer, The Deer Park, Ch. 24

[This post is the much-delayed follow-up to one of the first posts I published here at RSL. It was called "Getting Your Facts Straight". I wrote this follow-up the same day, March 9, 2005, but for some reason (bashfulness?) I never posted it. I'll write another post soon to consider the fearful symmetry I'm trying to suggest.]

Texts can be difficult. Neither writing nor reading are always easy, but over time it is something we get better at. We come to understand texts, how they work, what they do to us, and what we are supposed to do to them. And we come to understand how they are implicated in a great many other activities that both extend beyond our research and infiltrate its core.

It is the presence of this activity, which is in fact a kind of absence, or abyss, or opening in our texts, when compared to the tangible presence facts, that deconstructivists make so much of. If facts are articulated by the copula, i.e., the "is" of "The door is open," and "The fridge is empty", not the "is" of identity, as in, "George Bush is the president" or "I am Thomas Basbøll", then acts are articulated by the différance, i.e., the "becomes" of "The seed becomes the flower," not "The dress becomes the queen," the movement or process that produces difference, differentiating terms by deferring their meaning for later (it does not say what the seed is in the meantime), keeping things moving, keeping people talking.

For research is not, finally, just a collection of facts that somehow "come to light" before a panel of official witnesses. Research is an ongoing activity, as Heidegger noted, using the German word "Betrieb", which can also mean "business" or "hustle". Academic research cannot be understood if we confine our attention to the statements it makes and the facts they state. We must also have an understanding of the hustle and bustle of research, what Foucault described as its "fragile, pulsating history" or the way it relates to an experience that would otherwise be a "bloomin', buzzin' confusion," as Kuhn proposes, quoting William James. Indeed, as the ordinary ambiguity of the word "writing", which can be used as both a verb and noun, shows, academic writings (texts) must be understood not just in their manifest facticity as words that are set into a more or less orderly arrangement on a page, but in their palpable activity, i.e., as phenomena that are always experienced through acts of reading and writing.

Indeed, if facts in their various forms constitute the knowledge base of academic research and are the concern of epistemology, acts indicate that research also needs (and very definitely has) a power base that is the proper concern of an ethics of research, and therefore an ethics of academic writing. Much of the moral fervor of deconstruction has to do precisely with showing which sorts of power our knowledge depends on, and which sorts of acts (of differentiation) our facts depend upon in order to be articulated (identified). It has to do with who is speaking and who is being spoken to, i.e., the community that the research is conducted in. A good deal of the work of defining this community is done by those brackets, containing names, dates and page numbers, that we pepper our texts with.

There is a struggle within every text between the act of reading it and the act of writing it, one that we have already located in the way that we contest some facts and leave others in peace. Recall that this had everything to do with the interest we took in the arrangement of things into more or less determinate facts. Research objectifies things by implicating them in facts, but research also subjectifies (sometimes even subjugates) people by implicating them in acts. The ethics of this process are, again, the perfectly legitimate concern of deconstructive texts. Indeed, writing that deconstructs the political activity at work in experience is just as legitimate as writing that reconstructs its scientific facticity.

This is the existential moment of research. Writing makes you who you are. But only in a limited sense: it makes you who you are when you are doing research. You might say that writing the research text involves establishing a suitable "persona" (a mask) for making the sorts of statements you are interested in making. This persona will implicate you in a whole series of activities, from doing literature reviews to conducting interviews, that all establish the position from which you say what you are saying. This position also goes a long way towards defining who your reader is, i.e., it implicates also the reader in a series of activities that some people are competent at, and some people are not. Your peers are those who are good at doing the sorts of things you are good at.

"It is the acts of men, not their sentiments, that make history," wrote Norman Mailer in his Advertisements for Myself. And history, in turn, produces subjects, i.e., positions from which things can be said. An important part of the research you do, then, involves implicating yourself in a hustle and bustle of activities that your writing then emerges from. You must, that is, get your act into line with a lot of other acts that are already going on as you begin. You must get that act together. And then you must advertise it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Faith, Knowledge and Storytelling

I'm reading Michael Lewis's The Big Short these days and enjoying it immensely. It is about the Wall Street outsiders and oddballs who "shorted" (i.e., bet against) the subprime mortgage market and made a killing when it finally collapsed. One interesting thing I'm learning is that, after they had decided that the market was going to collapse, it was not, actually, a straightforward matter to bet against it. Had they thought that a company was going to go bust, there'd be standard way of making money on that belief: they could borrow stock in the company, sell it, and then wait for its shareprice to crash. At that point, they buy back the shares (cheap) and pay off their debt. But, as Lewis points out, things were very different with mortgage bonds:

To sell a stock or bond short you need to borrow it, and [the bonds they were interested in] were tiny and impossible to find. You could buy them or not buy them but you couldn't bet explicitly against them; the market for subprime mortages simply had no place for people in it who took a dim view of them. You might know with certainty that the entire mortgage bond market was doomed, but you could do nothing about it. (p. 29)

I had a shock of recognition when I read that. I've been trying to "bet against" a number of stories that have been told in the organization studies literature for years now, and the thing I'm learning is that there's no place in the literature for people who take a dim view of them. There isn't really a genre (in the area of management studies) of papers that only points out errors in other people's work. You have to make a "contribution" too. In a sense, you can buy the stories people are telling you or not buy them but you can't criticize them.

This got me thinking about the difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge, it seems to me, is a belief held in a critical environment. Faith, we might say, is a belief held in an "evangelical" environment. The mortgage bond market was an evangelical environment in which to hold beliefs about housing prices, default rates, and credit ratings on CDOs. There was no simple way to critique the "good news". So it took some dedicated outsiders to see what was really going on. These were people who insisted on looking at the basis of the mortgage bonds that were being pooled and traded on Wall Street in increasingly exotic ways.

One of these guys was Steve Eisman, who was a notoriously cantankerous personality. He recalls meeting Ken Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America. "[The CEO's on Wall Street] didn't know their own balance sheet ... I was sitting there listening to [Ken Lewis]. I had an epiphany. I said to myself, 'Oh my God, he's dumb!' A lightbulb went off. The guy running one of the biggest banks in the world is dumb" (TBS, p. 174). Yes, or perhaps he was just working an in an envangelical rather than critical environment. Here, "any old balance sheet" will do ... as long as you think it's bringing good news.

I think, sadly, the same thing can be said about various corners of organization studies that pursue what is called "storytelling". We've been talking about my favourite example recently. (See also this post of Jonathan's, and the comments.) I've been trying for some time, and with great difficulty, to publish straightforward critiques of some very influential stories that circulate in the literature. Given that these people are quite influential in today's business school, it's not surprising that an uncritical mindset pervades Wall Street.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Planning and Bullshit

I suppose that one of the aims of my 16 Week Challenge is to make writers aware of the effect that the combination of poor planning and bullshit excuses has on their writing processes. Those who submit to the discipline of the Challenge, especially those who make the weekly reports, are in most cases forced to admit that their planning is inadequate or their excuses are implausible. Sometimes both.

In fact, the reason I defend the dignity of planning is that it is all too easy to say that all plans are illusory, that they presume an "ideal" world. What this forgets is that plans can be more or less realistic, and that a good plan will correctly anticipate the conditions under which the work will have to be done. A good plan will also allow you to get down to the business of writing, confident that other tasks will be taken care of later.

Too often, the excuse only seems plausible if we politely avoid assigning you responsibility for planning your work. That is not to say that you won't sometimes have a good excuse for not writing. But where planning has been completely abandoned, or where "any old plan" has been assumed to "do", the writing process is likely to be abandoned too. Any old reason not to write will be found to be adequate.

Once you've resolved to do a particular amount of work in a particular allotment of time, the real reasons you are not writing enough will become obvious.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Any old plan will do?

Jonathan must mean this piece in the CHE. It's a complicated issue for me because I do actually believe in strategy and, especially, planning. What I object to, and what I think Jonathan also objects to, is pseudo-planning and empty strategies.

That also seems to be the point of Ginbserg's critique. He does not say that planning is always pointless, he says that many planning processes are not intended to actually guide behaviour. Rather, they are intended to promote the image of the leader, a university president, for example, who wants to leave his mark on the institution, or just appear to be doing something important, before moving on to another one, where he can repeat the process. The end of the article struck particular chord with me:

The documents promulgated by most colleges and universities ... lack a number of ... fundamental elements of planning. Their goals tend to be vague and their means undefined. Often there is no budget based on actual or projected resources. Instead the plan sets out a number of fund-raising goals. These plans are, for the most part, simply expanded "vision statements." One college president said at the culmination of a yearlong planning process that engaged the energies of faculty, administrators, and staffers that the plan was not a specific blueprint, but a set of goals the college hoped to meet.

Obviously what was important was not the plan but the process. The president, a new appointee, asserted his leadership, involved the campus community, and created an impression of feverish activity and forward movement. The ultimate plan itself was indistinguishable from dozens of others and could have been scribbled on the back of an envelope or copied from some other college's planning document. As I noticed while reading dozens of strategic plans, plagiarism in planning is not uncommon. Similar phrases and paragraphs can be found in many plans. In 2006, the chancellor of Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus was forced to resign after it was discovered that much of its new strategic plan, "Southern at 150," had been copied from Texas A&M University's strategic plan, "Vision 2020." The chancellor had previously served as vice chancellor at Texas A&M, where he had coordinated work on the strategic plan. In a similar vein, the president of Edward Waters College was forced to resign when it was noticed that his new "Quality Enhancement Plan" seemed to have been copied from Alabama A&M University's strategic plan.

This interchangeability of visions for the future underscores the fact that the precise content of most colleges' strategic plans is pretty much irrelevant. Plans are usually forgotten soon after they are promulgated. My university has presented two systemwide strategic plans and one arts-and-sciences strategic plan in the past 15 years. No one can remember much about any of those plans, but another one is in the works. The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America's colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the continuing growth of administrative power.

Regular readers of this blog perhaps already know why this resonated with me. I blame a particular school of organization theory, namely, sensemaking, for the proliferation of meaningless strategic plans. Keep in mind that these theories are taught in business schools, and the graduates of these schools are increasingly running our universities.

Organizational sensemaking is closely tied to a school of strategy research called "strategy as practice", which focuses precisely on the process of strategizing and its immediate organizational effects rather than the long-term effects of planning (and action that follows the plan). Caricaturing somewhat, the basic insight here is that "any old plan will do". What is important is not the plan but the actions that are coordinated around it, even if those actions have almost nothing to do with the letter of the plan.

Karl Weick, who was the at the time the editor of the most prestigious journal in organization theory, the Administrative Science Quarterly, made what is perhaps the most famous statement of this insight back in 1983 in an article called "Misconceptions about Managerial Productivity" in a widely read journal called Business Horizons:

Planning isn't nearly as crucial for productive action as people think it is. I can illustrate this point most clearly by recounting an incident that happened to a small Hungarian detachment on military maneuvers in the Alps. Their young lieutenant sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness just as it began to snow. It snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant feared that he had dispatched his people to their deaths, but the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end, but then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we found our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant took a good look at this map and discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees.

Apparently, when you're lost, any old map will give you the confidence to go on. By extension, when you're confused about productivity, any old plan will do.

Plans are like maps. They animate people. And this is the most crucial thing they do. When people actually do things, they generate concrete outcomes that help them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next. Plans, even when they are wrong, are useful because they serve as a pretext to start acting. What managers keep forgetting is that it is the action, not the plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing—the plan—and, having made this error, spend more time planning so that they'll have more good outcomes. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing. (Pp. 48-9)

I hope it is easy to see how this kind of statement, which passes for wisdom in management and organization theory, as well as the study of corporate strategy, might underwrite the production of the sort of strategy documents that Ginsberg is worried about. It should also be easy to see how the processes that produce those documents might be justified by it. Weick here offers an argument for not taking the details of planning very seriously. But, and this is important, he does not say that you should not have a plan. On the contrary, it is crucial to have a plan that doesn't mean anything (in the sense that a map of the Pyrenees is meaningless in the Alps). Action will take it from there.

I'm not sure I want to call it "irony"—perhaps tragedy would be a better word—but another likeness between the passage I quoted from Ginsberg and the passage I quoted from Weick needs to be emphasized. That story about the soldiers in the Alps who use a map of the Pyrenees to get back to camp? First of all, it is very unlikely to have ever happened. Weick certainly has no documentation for it (though he has told it again and again in the literature). Worse, like "Southern at 150", Weick simply plagiarized it from a poem that was published in the TLS in 1977. In 1998, addressing the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in San Diego, citing the same story, Weick boldly declared that in managament research, indeed, in any attempt to "find your way out of the puzzle of the human condition", "any old story will do".*

In that sense, I guess, Weick really was giving us a "blueprint of the future". We certainly seem to be following any old map any which way.

*This remark is reported by Barbara Czarniawska in her study of Weick's work, "Karl Weick: Concepts, style, and reflection", published in the Sociological Review.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The 16-Week Challenge

When people hear my ideas about Writing Process Reengineering, they often ask how best to get started. In response, I normally recommend some version of the 16-Week Challenge, which I issue every semester to the faculty and PhD students of my department and then try to help them meet. For those who aren't tired of hearing about it, then, here, once again, is how it works.

(The following is written with the Danish academic calendar in mind. Adjust as necessary.)

There are 8 working weeks from August 22 to October 14 (when the fall break begins), and then another 8 from October 24 to December 16. If we consider three hours a day to be an "ideal" writing intensity, that gives us 3 hours x 5 days x (8 weeks x 2) = 240 hours of "ideal" writing time. I do of course wish for everyone that the coming semester offers ideal conditions for their writing, but most people will have to make do with less time. Most people who imagine they have more time, however, perhaps because they have a sabatical this semester, are being "idealistic" in the pejorative sense: "unrealistic". In my experience, the best you can hope for in a given 17-week period (two 8-week periods with a one-week break between them) is to use 240 hours effectively towards your writing. You may be able to do a bit better than that, but I'm often sceptical about the efficiency of the extra hours you might devote to your writing. The challenge, therefore, goes to how you are going to spend the first 240 hours you can set aside.

The most important thing is to pass from an entirely vague image of "wanting to get some writing done" this semester, to that much more precise ideal image of your resources, and then on to an equally precise but also realistic image of your time in the weeks to come. Look at your calendar and begin to block in your writing time. For most people, it is easiest to protect writing time when it is put in early in the day, starting as early as 7 o'clock for some, and stopping, in any case, before lunchtime. Take this planning excercise seriously: don't plan to write at times when you know that something is likely to "come up". But do plan a little bit of time where you can, preferrably every day. As little as 30 minutes a day can do a great deal for your writing projects if you stick to it for 16 weeks.

Now, having secured yourself some time to write, decide what you want to get done in those hours. Here, again, be realistic. Choose some projects on which to make a particular amount of progress. Then decide what sorts of writing tasks this requires.

At this point, many people ask me what I mean by writing tasks, and I always begin by emphasizing the importance of appreciating your finitide. I'm interested in (and trying to get you interested in) the time you can spend sitting down at the computer (or a pad of paper, if you prefer) and actually producing or editing the prose that you hope, one day, to publish. I don't mean the time you spend reading, or making stray notes, or even "thought writing" to find out what you mean. I don't mean the time you spend transcribing field notes or interview tapes. I certainly don't mean the time you spend in the archives or in the field collecting data, or online sifting through databases, or searching the literature.

Suppose you discover that, realistically, you have 82 hours to devote to your writing this semester, spread over those 17 weeks from August 22 to December 16. Those 82 hours, then, should be devoted to writing down what you know. And this means you can only plan to use them to express opinions you already know you have. You are free to set aside other time to activities that are intended to help you discover what you think, just as you matter-of-factly set aside time to discover the facts and understand the theories that constitute your field of expertise. My point is only that you need to set aside a particular quantity of hours to tell your peers what you think. And that time is the "writing time" that my challenge is about.

The 16-Week Challenge, then, is an occasion to get the things you already know and have already understood written down and submitted to review by your peers.

In order to make sure you get it done, I encourage you to form groups (of 4-6 people) who meet once a week, on a Friday afternoon, for example, to answer three simple questions honestly and simply:

What/when did you plan to write this week?
What/when did you actually write this week?
What/when do you plan to write next week?

The disciplining effect of these questions, answered in a social context, should not be difficult to imagine. The meeting can be as short as 30 minutes, and should never run longer than an hour. Part of the challenge is to meet 16 times and answer those questions.

So, to summarize: First, get a clear view of the time you have available to write this semester. Second, define a set of realistic goals, focused on producing publishable prose. Third, commit a group of your colleagues to meeting once a week to remind each other what you hoped to accomplish.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

A Teachable Moment

A former colleague of mine is planning a module in a graduate program on academic writing at another university. He asked for my advice and we talked for an hour, after which he sent me his ideas about what he was going to do. I had, of course, said that the most important thing is to get the students writing, every day if possible. So I was struck by this part of his mail:

My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline to write every day for several weeks. So I will orient the course towards the more ‘teachable’ aspects, including such matters as planning, structure of articles, getting published, etc., rather than towards writing as such.

Here is the substance of my response:

You learn how to write by writing. It’s the only way. So I don’t have much hope for a writing program that begins, as you seem to, by giving up on the students’ discipline. If you don’t expect them to write, you can't expect them to learn how to write, no matter how much you teach them. But if you can get them to write every day they will get better at writing, almost regardless of what you teach them. That’s my philosophy of writing instruction in a nutshell. I guess I’m saying I don’t believe writing has any distinctly "teachable aspects".

Students have to learn that an academic text has recognizable parts and you can certainly teach them various all-purpose outlines (I do this). But they also have to learn that those parts must be "built" and then "assembled" into a coherent whole, and that, in order to do this well, you have to plan, not just the content of the paper, but the structure of the weeks, days, and hours that will be spent writing. You have to work on your introduction at some point, for example, then stop, and then return to it. The same goes for every other part of the paper. And the only way to get this across is to get the students to feel it in their brains and in their hands.

The students must experience the joy of composing a good prose paragraph and the (sometimes transcendent) bliss of putting several paragraphs together persuasively. If you only teach them what an academic text is, and don’t bring them into contact with the process by which a text comes into being, your chances of success are (in my humble opinion) not very high.

"My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline," you say. I have the same experience, of course. But my experience also says that some students will acquire that discipline if you provide an occasion for them to do so. More importantly, those that don’t acquire this discipline won’t learn how to write (any better than they already do) anyway. Those that do, however, are learning how to write as well as they can. By turning this into a straight "teaching" module, you might think you’re making do with what’s achievable. But I fear you are settling for achieving very little.

An engagement with the student's self-discipline is fundamentally an engagement with their "authorial" persona, their literary authority as scholars, what I sometimes call their "writing selves". If you do not attempt to engage with that core strength (their self-discipline) you are not likely to improve the part of them that writes. That is, you won’t make them into better writers, no matter how “true” the things you will tell them may be.

I think that last point is worth emphasizing. Scholarship is difficult in many ways. It takes a lot of thought, knowledge, and sometimes courage. But the writing itself is easy; you just have to do it. It requires no heavy lifting or special skills (you already know the language). What you are developing when you are developing your writing skills (as distinct from the other skills that make you a scholar) is a competence that is, let's say, "right next to" your basic self-discipline. Writing gets done almost exclusively by, well, doing it. The most important to muscle to train when you write is your will. Writing perhaps, just is an act of will.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Can I Write Something Else?

As an alternative—or antidote, if you will—to Jonathan Franzen's "lame" depiction of his struggle to write, here's a video essay by Kate Greenstreet, which was just published in Evening Will Come.

Cloth from Kate Greenstreet on Vimeo.

Of course, it's not a fair comparison. Kate is telling us how she writes poems. Franzen was talking about the novel, which is a different beast. And their problems, I would emphasize, are, in both cases, importantly different from those of academic writing. But perhaps you were moved, as I was, by part 5 (starting at 3:03). It is a very precise image of the struggle with a thought we're trying to put into words.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Being There

After spending a week largely at home, largely alone, immersed in my intellectual projects, trying to prioritize among them, it's good to be back in the office, among people (though it's still quiet around here). My attention is now turning to all the work I'll be doing with people this coming semester, a sizable part of which will be teaching a course.

It was with this in mind, perhaps, that I paused over my morning coffee while reading about Jaron Lanier in the New Yorker. I generally share his views about social media and what they are doing to our sense of ourselves, at a deeper level, what they are doing to "existence", and I thought he provided a very good, very everyday sort of example that I will take with me into my reflections on teaching:

At the South by Southwest interactive conference, in Austin, in March of 2010, Lanier gave a talk, before which he asked his audience not to blog, text, or tweet while he was speaking. He later wrote that his message to the crowd had been: "If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?"

Last year, I once suggested to my class that they all put away their laptops and mobile phones for an hour and just draw on their memories (of what they had read for class) and their available intelligence, in short, their brains. Some of them said they enjoyed the experience, but we only tried it once. This year, I might insist on it for three hours at a time, and all ten lectures. "Try really to be here," I'll tell them.

Lanier's remark looks a bit like something Fran Lebowitz once said. I'm fond of saying she has answered Heidegger's "question concerning technology" simply "No". In Martin Scorcese's documentary, Public Speaking, she offers the following bit of wisdom:

I have none of these machines which allow people to not be wherever they are. Since I don't have them I'm forced to be where I am all the time, which is why I'm noticing what people are doing.

Heidegger's word for human existence is "Dasein", which literally means there-being or here-being, or being there, and is intimately related to presence. It's the opposite, we might say, of "being neither here nor there". What Lanier and Lebowitz are trying to tell us (Lanier from his vast experience with technology, Lebowitz from her vast inexperience) is that technology prevents existence—it prevents you from being there.

When I saw Cake play in London earlier this year, John McCrea implored us to put away our phones. "You don't have to prove to everyone else that you are here right now," he said. "Can't we just all be together here tonight." My teaching will, of course, be just like a Cake concert in so many other ways too.