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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The University as a Machine Bureaucracy

Last week I was teaching Mintzberg's model of organizational structure and Taylor's principles of scientific management and I got to thinking about how the organization of universities is changing. The essential function of organizational structure, says Mintzberg, is to coordinate work processes, so the aptness of the organizational form will depend on the work that the organization does, i.e., the processes that must be coordinated. And these processes will differ greatly depending on the amount of authority we grant to those who carry them out. Do we assume that the "workers" know how best to do their jobs or not?

This is one of the main differences between what Mintzberg calls a "machine bureaucracy" and what he calls a "professional bureaucracy". In a machine bureaucracy like a car factory, for example, workers are not expected to know very much about how to build cars. So the work is organized for them, by people who know better. But in a university, a professional bureaucracy, he argues, the knowledge held by the faculty members gives them a great deal of autonomy (as a group) about how to carry out the tasks related to research and teaching (which is the "work" that is carried out in the "operative core" of a university). That means that coordination depends on the thorough indoctrination of the "workers", so that they all think more or less in the same way when they think for themselves. In a factory, by contrast, coordination depends on detailed instructions, which can be carried out without deeper indoctrination.

That's the essential contrast: are the workers presumed to know how best to do their jobs? (It is because this knowledge belongs to the professionals in the operative core that a professional bureaucracy has a relatively small technostructure.) And this was what got me thinking when reading Taylor. After all, Taylor's "revolution" was precisely to question the assumption that the worker who shoveled pig iron really understood how best to carry out even that simple task. Taylor undertook to determine, by "scientific" means, exactly how much pig iron there should be on each shovelful, and exactly how long the break between shovelings should be. That is, by applying "science" to the work processes, he actively shifted authority away from the worker and onto the manager (or management consultant). That is, he made the worker relatively less knowledgeable about the work.

It's important to keep in mind that scientific management arises (also in inchoate forms before Taylor made the "theory" explicit) at the beginning of the "managerial revolution" and the rise of the machine bureaucracy as the preferred organizational form for industrial production. (Even the divisionalized form is to be thought of as a loose affiliation of machine bureaucracies.) That is, a certain organizational form becomes more and more apt precisely because more and more knowledge is produced ("scientifically") about how the work processes themselves are best carried out. "Craftsmanship" is thereby increasingly replaced with "coordination".

This is where I had a moment of lucidity. Since the second world war, with the rise of Big Science, a great deal of "science" has been done to determine how scientists themselves do what they do. Naturally, this has informed both science policy and research management. At the same time, another "scientific" discipline, namely, pedagogy, has turned its attention to the work that scholars do as teachers, determining the best way to educate students.

Notice what this does to the authority of the scholar. Scholars were once presumed to know best how to teach students in their particular field (pedagogy was simply part of the background indoctrination of the field); now, teaching in all fields is being "evaluated" on principles that are defined by an overarching theory. The same goes for research methods, which are increasingly defined by generalized "handbooks" on the subject, not passed on through craft traditions in particular sciences. Moreover, the social organization of science (and its relation to other social institutions) is guided by research done in specialized disciplines, i.e., "science studies", which is essentially anthropology and sociology applied to the "problem of knowledge".

Obviously, Socrates is ultimately to blame. He has become the iconic "philosopher" who convinced professional knowers that they didn't really know what knowledge was. The irony, unfortunately, was lost both on the scientists themselves and subsequent generations of philosophers. (This is something, I think, that Steve Fuller taught me.)

The result is that, while technology (especially IT) has replaced a great deal of the "support staff" (secretaries, for example), the "technostructure" of the organization (i.e., the planners of how the work is carried out) has increased a great deal. That is, in so far as the faculty members themselves no longer know very much about either teaching or research, they are increasingly dependent on the scientifically informed ("technostructured", if you will) "management" of the middle line. In an oft-invoked "sign of the times", corporation executives are now being hired to "run" universities.

Like Socrates, unfortunately, I seem to be part of the problem. After all, what is a "writing consultant" but someone who claims to know more about an aspect of the work of scholarship, namely, writing, than the scholars themselves? On Thursday I'll try to think my way out of this tight spot by distinguishing between the "professional" and the "professorial" organization. More then.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Knowing & Writing

Jonathan's comment to Tuesday's post reminded that writing and knowing are not the same thing. On my pragmatic definition, your knowledge is the basis of your ability to write, and your writing therefore demonstrates that ability, but the text you write is not your knowledge. Your writing is an elaboration (a "working out") of what you know.

Consider the difference between the two words "writing" and "knowing". The first is most commonly used to name an activity (putting words together), while the second is just as commonly used to name a state of being (the state of having knowledge, "being in the know"). But "writing" is sometimes also a less active noun. "How's your writing going?" or "How do you like Simon's writing?" Interestingly, we don't talk about our "knowing" that way. In fact, we very rarely talk explicitly about the development of our body our knowledge, even at our universities. We talk about the work, namely, the writing. Or we talk about other actvities, like teaching. We might also talk about our research, and we might talk about our reading—mainly, that we just read something interesting.

But we don't talk about our knowledge as something we do. I can tell you (you can see) what I'm writing right now, but can we talk about what I'm knowing at the moment? Is this act of writing also an act of knowing? The act of knowing what I'm talking about, for example? Or does my writing merely demonstrate or manifest my knowledge?

There are similar verbs—owning, for example. Ownership is a state of being but we also own things, just like we know things. I can be an owner just as I can be a knower. I can hold ownership of something just as I can have knowledge of something. I can also acquire new ownership (come to own something), just as I can acquire new knowledge (come to know). Neither owning or knowing, though each is a gerund derived from a verb, are things we, properly speaking do. But it is not grammatically correct to say that they are things we are. Knowledge is something we are said to have.

Compare "dancing" and "writing". These are are certainly activities, things people do. They are also things you can well or not so well. They are abilities you develop with practice. Is there something like knowledge, understood as the basis of your ability to write, that lies beneath the dancer's ability to dance? Well, the dancer can rightly be said to "know how to dance". The dancing demonstrates mastery. But what kind of knowledge is that? What kind of mastery?

Dancing is often a very graceful activity. Dancers make graceful movements. Is it possible to be graceful in the same way that it is possible to be knowledgeable? Well, it's even possible "to grace" (as a verb), as in: "She graced us with her presence." But it is not common to say of someone that she entered the room and simply began to grace. Likewise, the teacher does not enter the classroom and proceed to "know" things. Rather, the lecture demonstrates (or fails to demonstrate) that the teacher knows something.

"What are you going to do this morning?" "Oh, I think I'll stay home and know that universities are going from being professional organizations to being machine organizations—in Mintzberg's sense." Well, you might just sit at home, but how are you going to go about "knowing" such a thing? There's the writing. The dancer does not just live in a "state of grace". She works on it. She becomes more precise in her movements by continual practice. Likewise, your writing is the outward and active manifestation of an underlying disposition, which we call knowledge. Scholars know many things; but writing is what they do.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Justified, True Belief

"What is knowledge?" asked Socrates. After much discussion, he and Theaetetus finally arrive at the classic formula: knowledge is justified, true belief. That is, knowledge is not merely believing something, nor merely believing something that happens to be true, but believing something you also have reason to believe is true (i.e., something you are "justified" in believing is true.) In order to know that you stole my money, it is not enough that you in fact stole my money. I must believe it too. Conversely, it is not enough that I believe it, you must actually have done it. But even if you did take my money, I must believe it on reasonable grounds before my belief can be counted as knowledge. If I think you took my money only because you have curly hair, and I happen to mistrust curly-haired people, then even my true belief cannot be counted as knowledge. In the twentieth century, philosophers realized that things are even more complicated than this, but this definition of knowledge remains influential and has the virtue of being clear.

When I've been talking to students this semester, I've been contrasting this classic definition of knowledge with a more pragmatic one. Instead of thinking of knowledge as particular state of mind (a particular kind of belief), I've been suggesting they think of it as an ability—the ability to hold one's own in a conversation. And I've been telling them that they know they have something knowledgeable to say in this conversation if they can write a good prose paragraph about it. That is, if they can make a claim in a single clear, declarative sentence, and if they can then support it with five or six further sentences, then, for all practical purposes, they "know" it. Or rather, we might say they know it for "academic" purposes.

This won't satisfy a philosopher, of course. You can obviously write a paragraph in support of a claim you don't believe, and you can write a paragraph in support of a claim that turns out to be false. Even the third condition of knowing—justification—is not necessarily satisfied by writing a paragraph. Prejudice, too, can be expresses in well-formed prose.

But a paragraph that has been written in a specifically academic environment, like a university program or research community, is written under particular, shall we say, "pressures". If it holds up under those pressures, it has a certain kind of strength, and in academia this strength is valorized as knowledge. A trained academic will subject his or her writing to those pressures soon after drafting the paragraph. It will become clear almost immediately whether the words can maintain their "composure" in the face of criticism. That is, it will become clear whether the scholar or student was "able to write" the paragraph only after the roughly six sentence, roughly 200 words, have been committed to the page.

It's a bit like putting nine pieces of wood together in an attempt to make a table. Whether or not it's a table will be immediately clear once you try to stand it on its own four legs. Whether or not it's a good table, of course, will require further stress testing, but much of this can be done by the carpenter himmerherself. Or, to take another example, the figure skater knows intuitively whether or not she can land a triple axel, the pianist knows wether or not he can play a particular fugue, just from the experience of doing it. They turn to their master, coach or teacher only to learn how to improve their performance. Likewise, the paragraph will or will not "hold up" in an sense that should be immediately clear to the writer. The teacher merely identifies places the text, joints, that could be more precisely articulated.

In a workshop yesterday, I asked the students whether there was some other point of writing than (a) expressing justified, true beliefs or (b) holding one's own in a scholarly conversation. One student rightly suggested "to persuade". But in the face of this ambition—to write persuasively—I always try to defend the higher virtue of writing knowledgeably. In academic writing you are not always trying to convince your reader that something is the case. You are merely providing the best argument you have for it. It may be true. You may believe it is true. And you may have good reason to think so. But your readers come to your writing with their own beliefs and their own reasons. It is more important that your writing facilitates a conversation than that it wins your reader over. This is also why academic writing isn't for everyone. You're not really playing to win. As Jonathan puts it, the academic writer wants to be tackled.

* * *

I started writing this post at 6:00. By 6:45, I had written 795 words in 6 paragraphs. As always, we must keep in mind that I'm "merely" blogging, not actually writing an "academic" text. But the quantities are still suggestive. In regards to academic writing, I know what I'm talking about, so it takes me about ten minutes to write a paragraph that contributes to the ongoing conversation about it. In more critical contexts, like a book or journal article, you can expect it to take a bit longer. But let your goal be to be able to compose a solid prose paragraph, one that "holds up", in under 30 minutes. It's a good sign that you know your subject.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Insist on Knowing

Last week I spoke at the release of Embedded, which is a student-run journal that has just been started here at the Copenhagen Business School. I began by quoting Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading: "Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (84) It is encouraging, I told them, in a time when too many students expect to be herded into their qualifications, and too many educators are willing to satisfy those expectations, to see students themselves asserting the value of knowledge. This is not a student magazine, after all, but an academic journal run by students. It is a manifestation of people who insist on knowing.

We aren't able to limit education in general to such people, but we might say that they are the only ones who are using their time at university to really get an education. Students who don't insist on knowing are not really learning. They are exposing themselves to the influence, not of knowledge, but of power. They are not building their understanding but shaping their obedience; they are being sheep-herded into a convenient set of truths, an ideology. I will grant that, for many of these students, this "truth" is, in a brute, materialistic kind of way, even a convenience to themselves.

Sometimes the production of this convenient truth travels under the banner of "engaged scholarship". This is the process by which scholars seek out ways of making their knowledge "relevant" to practitioners. If they insist too strongly on what they know, their perceived relevance will be at risk. That is why we need the relative luxury, the freedom from worry, of the university, or "academe". It gives us the means to entertain inconvenient notions.

Insistence is an interesting intellectual stance. It is something quite different than being curious or open-minded. And it takes a certain amount of strength. That strength should be manifest in your writing. In fact, insisting on knowing is precisely what academic writing is for. Popular writing does not give you, or your reader, an opportunity to insist on anything; it is intended to be believed in so far as it is understood. Academic writing, because it is written by knowledgeable people for other knowledgeable people, i.e., people who might challenge them about the truth of their claims, is a site of Pound's "real education". It is where learning takes place.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (Ernest Hemingway)

To know that tomorrow I will write is happiness. I don't mean that thinking, or hoping, or wishing to write tomorrow is happiness. I mean really knowing that I will write. And to know that you will write you must know both what you will write and when you will write. To vaguely intend to write something, sometime tomorrow is not to know that you will write tomorrow. Knowing means knowing when you will start writing, on which paper, in defense of which claims, and when you will stop writing.

It's a writer's happiness, of course. But, then again, your happiness as a writer is periodically the greatest happiness that is available to you. There are periods when your unhappiness as a writer is the foundation of your mood in all things. A writer is someone who needs to write; and a scholar is sometimes more acutely a writer, whether writing or not, than any other thing. There are also periods when your writing has little to do with your happiness, when you are happy or unhappy regardless of whether you are writing. But those periods are not what I'm talking about this morning.

I felt this writer's happiness last night. I had not yet decided what this morning's blog post would be about and I was acutely aware of having to make that decision. I was not happy. Being back on a schedule means that I am writing, that I'm a writer, that my happiness depends on whether or not I write. I knew when I would write, but not yet what I would write. So I was not yet happy. I got ready for bed and got under the covers with Book I, Part III, of Williams' Paterson. It begins: "How strange you are, idiot!" And ends: "Earth, the chatterer, father of all/speech . . . . ." And it has some sharp words along the way for "the university". A good tonic. And then I knew what I would write about.

I got up and sat at the table with my notebook, jotting down a long and clumsy version of what is now my opening sentence and a few loose thoughts. Then I went to bed and slept. From the moment I closed the notebook, to the moment I fell asleep, I was happy.

When do you feel this happiness? How often? For how long? Happiness is not writing but knowing that tomorrow you will write. You may know, while you are writing today, that you will also write tomorrow. Or you may know at the moment you stop writing that you'll write again tomorrow. Then you will be happy for the rest of the day. You, the writer. (And like I say, there are periods in your life when nothing can make you miserable if the writer in you is happy, and nothing can make you happy if the writer is miserable.) Sometimes, however, you will finish your writing for the day and you will have to wait until later in the day to know that you will write again tomorrow. Or you will know that you won't write tomorrow, because you have planned not to write tomorrow. Why did you rob yourself of this happiness?

On Friday afternoon, I should mention, "tomorrow" means Monday. Consider the implications: a little bit of planning, a little bit of determination can make you happy all day long for weeks. Every day, you make a decision about when and what you will write tomorrow. You make that decision merely by looking at your writing plan. And you always do what your plan tells you to do. Or you change the plan for tomorrow, at the latest today. That is, you know you will not change your mind tomorrow morning when you are supposed to write. The writer in you has learned to trust the rest of you. When the writing is finished for the day, the rest of you takes over, first making a promise to bring you back to the desk tomorrow.

And that, again, is happiness.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

We Now Return You to Regular Scheduled Posting

I ran into a long-time reader of this blog yesterday who expressed her disappointment that I'm no longer posting on a schedule. I had gotten her used to reading RSL every other day by posting, regular as a clockwork, at 7 AM, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. These days, since I'm posting whenever I feel like it, she doesn't know when to check in, and the result has been that she doesn't keep up with my posts like she used to. That's worth thinking about.

And doing something about. I've immediately decided to impose a regular blogging pattern again. Every other day, I'll devote an hour to saying something intelligent about academic writing, based on my experience as the resident writing consultant at a major European business school.

Such regularity, after all, is part of my "brand", and my brand is going to become increasingly important to me in the months come. I will be going into business for myself, trying to spread the idea of Writing Process Reengineering to other universities. It is my belief that the competitiveness of universities is increasingly going to depend on their discursive strength, i.e., their ability to have an impact in the journal literature. I think I have a distinct contribution to make in that area.

My experience tells me that there is a great deal of unrealized potential in the heads and desks of researchers. They know much more than they write; the discourse in their fields is dominated by a handful of major reputations rather than being driven by fresh empirical and theoretical insight. If scholars would write more regularly, and submit that writing more regularly to journals, I think the quality of the conversation in many fields would significantly improve.

I also think scholars would be happier. One of the rhetorical challenges I have is to make sure that I'm not taken to be proposing that scholars should work harder. I believe they could work more effectively and that this work could be better supported by university administrators.

In any case, I firmly believe that the current "crisis of the European sciences" (to borrow Husserl's phrase) is rooted, at least in part, in the attitude of scholars and in the leadership of the universities, especially in regard to writing. In both cases, "publish or perish" promotes a vague feeling of anxiety rather than resolute strategic action. Fortunately, there are some simple things that can be done for the immediate benefit of the individual scholar, the academic department, and the university as a whole. I'm ready to help.

The first order of business, then, as my reader reminded me, is to get my own act together again and begin to set a good example. So, until Christmas, you'll find me blogging twice week, posting at 7 AM, Tuesdays and Thursdays. (I may also introduce a weekend post, but let's wait and see.) In the New Year, I'll probably go back to the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

RSL: Table of Contents

If you've been reading along lately, you know that I've decided to gather the ideas on this blog into a book of essays. My working title is

Research as a Second Language:
Essays on Academic Writing and the Crisis of Representation

Here's a table of contents, which links to my overview of each section:


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: Existential Errands
7. The Crisis of Representation
8. Getting Your Facts Straight
9. Getting Your Act Together


The book will consist of nine 5000-word essays. This will be framed by a 3000-word introduction and a 2000-word conclusion. 50,000 words in all.

RSL, Conclusion

F. débaucher is, according to Littré and Hatzfeld, derived from n. bauche, of which the precise sense and origin are according to the latter unknown; according to the former it = ‘a place of work, workshop’, so that desbaucher would mean orig. ‘to draw away from the workshop, from one's work or duty’.

Oxford English Dictionary

I usually introduce my writing workshops by explaining the etymology of "debauchery". Today, the word means "a vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures", but it stems from "seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption." The modern sense of "debauch" apparently emerged in the 17th century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when we began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure. Today, of course, these pursuits are specialized, and localized in places like factories and brothels, office buildings and movie houses. We commute back and forth between drudgery and debauchery, meaningless toil and mindless fun.

The central message of this book is that we must learn to "get back to work", that in a "post-industrial" age that is becoming a little too comfortable with the idea of "knowledge production", we must insist on research as a craft. A workshop is a place to take craftsmanship seriously and derive pleasure from the first-hand manipulation of materials. Quality in any art, I believe, depends on integrating (and in our age this means reintegrating) productivity and sensuality, industry and creativity. It is the opposite of the vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures, the pursuit of false pleasure, we might say. Quality is a true pleasure; it is the sensuality of work. We are not just 'producers', we are makers.

It is precisely in the development of a craft, after all, that it is important to see yourself as someone who makes something, not a merely particular kind of being. It is true that becoming a scholar will change you as a person, but it is your activities that will change you, not some act of will, and certainly not some state of mind. I have found, for example, that many students, and even young faculty, need to become much more assertive, much more confident about what they have to say. Some of them think they are following the example of the self-deprecating scholar who always reminds you how little they know, how new this topic is to them, how difficult it is even for them to understand. The students who witness this performance forget that it is an exercise in irony. The pose of the searching, uncertain scholar is grounded in an underlying confidence in one's ability to speak intelligently on a range of subjects (those that define the field). Don't think that if a famous scholar admits to being uncertain then your uncertainty, and your willingness to admit it, is a sure sign that you've got a future in scholarship. Look at what scholars do, not what they say they are, and ask yourself whether you can do it too.

[Back to Table of Contents]

Sunday, September 04, 2011

RSL, Introduction

We must retract our offerings, burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.
We must flay the curiatoriat, invest our sackcloth,

and enter the academy single file.

Ben Lerner

For a long time I used to get up early.* Well, it seemed like a long time to me and I, in any case, felt it would have been more natural to hit the snooze button when the alarm went off at 5:47 am. By six, after shaking the sleep out of my body, going to the bathroom, and drinking a glass of water, I'd either be putting on my running shoes (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) or (on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) stirring a cup of instant coffee and sitting down in front of the computer to write. As a sometime Kantian, I don't quite raise the maxim of my actions to the level of a universal principle, but I do like to capture the things I do in a three-letter acronym or a catchy rhyme. I called this particular weekly regimen of exercise "Blogging and Jogging".

Three days a week, I'd spend a small hour composing a post for my blog, Research as a Second Language. In that time I'd usually manage to write seven or eight hundred words, neatly arranged in four or five paragraphs. The other two weekdays, I would run five kilometers, and I'd try to fit in a slightly longer run on Saturday afternoon. Whenever I was asked to speak to students about their writing, in order to emphasize the connection between physical and mental exercise (both require discipline) I'd ask whether they did any sports, and then I'd tell them that I, too, had recently started jogging. After a beat I'd add, "Because a body like this doesn't just happen, you know."** For some reason, it is especially first-year students who find that line amusing.

While my body still takes a sense of humour to love, after about three years of regular work on the blog, I like to think I've built up a more straightforwardly useful body of work about how to get the most out of your scholarly writing. This book brings together some of my best ideas, organized into nine little essays. There are plenty of writing manuals out there, many of which are perfectly good, and this book is not trying to replace any of them. I think that, as a philosopher who found himself in a position to hone his craft as a language editor under uncommonly luxurious conditions at a major European business school, I have a distinct perspective on the problem of writing as part of a life in research. It is that perspective that I hope to convey to readers of this book.

The first three essays take a historical view of the problem of what is commonly called "discourse", i.e., the conditions under which one becomes, or fails to become, an author. I try to show how academic work became the hustle and bustle it is—how science went from being a vocation to being almost a business and why some of us sometimes fall into despair. The next three essays go at the problem in an entirely practical way; they summarize my work as a writing consultant, your personal guide to what I call "writing process reengineering" (WPR). I offer you nothing less than a way of mastering time and space, at least in writing, a way to leverage the transcendental categories of experience, the underlying principles of the disposition and order of the universe, which keep everything, not least your words, from happening all at once and piling up in the same place. The last three essays reframe the problem in existential terms, reminding you to thine own self be true even as you hustle yourself down the tenure track. As I always say, intellectuals have a particular responsibility not to engage in soul-destroying labour. After all, it's our minds we're being paid to keep in shape, for the common good.

[Back to Table of Contents]

*After I came up with this clever allusion to Proust's famous opening sentence, I knew someone else must have beaten me to it. I imagined lots of people had done so, in fact, but I didn't expect such distinguished company: John Ashbery. It's the opening line of "Bird's Eye View of the Tool and Die Co", which you can hear him read here. This reminded me of the poem that I've used as an epigraph (click Lerner's name to see exactly what I mean).
**I've stolen this joke from Don Knott's character on Three's Company (1979-1984), which I watched after school as a kid. It's the same joke but with slightly different meaning as a result of our different body types. As I recall, Ralph Furley claimed that he often went to the gym, "Because a body like this ...", which is funny because he's a very small guy. [Update: I just found a transcript of that episode and it looks like I've misremembered it a bit: Furley is talking about his "powerhouse" diet.]

Saturday, September 03, 2011


In the comments to my last post, Jonathan raised a reasonable concern about my plan for this book, Research as a Second Language. Is it really one book, or two or three shorter, or even (gasp!) incomplete, books? My answer is that I hope there is some method in the apparent madness, and that when I do finally get the three parts to fit together, this fit will be what makes the book distinctive. Roughly speaking, each of the three parts will develop historical, practical, and existential images of academic writing respectively. It's going to be the "thinking person's guide to academic writing", or "stupid motivational tricks," if you will, "for smart people."

Outlines change as you work on them, and while developing my image of the other two parts I decided to rename Part III, which will now be called "Existential Errands", as a reference to Norman Mailer, who called one of his own collections of odds and ends that, and who will be quoted in the epigraph to each essay. (It was previously the working title of the first essay.) This section will engage in a kind of "motivational speaking" or "existential psychology" for academic writers—perhaps more precisely, "assertiveness training". It will try to help scholars compose themselves in the ongoing "crisis of representation", which will be the subject of the first essay.

7. The Crisis of Representation
"I want to know how power works," said Mailer to James Baldwin, "how it really works, in detail." This will be the epigraph for the first essay, which will gather together my thoughts on the so-called "postmodern condition", seen from the point of view of the developing scholar (the PhD student and the early-career researcher). I want to use the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the insecurities, both ontological and ethnological, that one faces as one's understanding of the world, and the world of scholarship, becomes increasingly sophisticated. "Who am I to speak?" we ask ourselves. As I never tire of pointing out, however, we must distinguish the problem of scientific representation from the problem of political representation. In both cases, the question is how we may "speak for" or "on behalf of", but the difference lies in whether we speak for things or speak for people. The first takes knowledge (what scholars have); the second takes power (what leaders have). Of course, you may want both. But I'm coming to realize that my real interest lies in knowledge. I want to know how knowledge works, I guess. I mean, how it really works. In detail.

8. Getting Your Facts Straight
This was the title of one the first posts I wrote here at RSL, and I stand by it to this day, more or less. No matter how "postmodern" or "poststructuralist" you think you are, you are going to have assert a great many things in your writing. You are going to have to claim that something is true, and that something else is false. And you are going to have to support those claims with your prose. So in this essay I'm going to bring together all my strongest arguments for a kind of methodological realism about facts, a presumption that some things are, however problematically, "the case", even if each of them is, each in its own way, "constructed". I will present my tripartite division of facts into "accomplished" ones, "contested" ones, and "irenic" ones, i.e., facts that are yours to assert, facts that constitute an important dispute, and facts you assume are true but which, "pace" the critics, you aren't going to get into. My reflections here are intended to build the reader's ontological confidence—to show them that there really are things worth knowing and that it is not absurd to imagine that, after years of studying them, you are among those who know enough to speak of such things.

9. Getting Your Act Together
Scholarship is ultimately a process of self-formation and requires a great deal of what is sometimes called "identity work". This essay surveys some of the most common issues. These include the tension between research and teaching and the tension between theory and practice. All of the issues have a fundamentally social constitution, i.e., they arise from the fact that scholarship is a collective endeavor. Since this book is about writing, I will continually bring the discussion around to Foucault's famous question, "What is an author?" In our own small ways, each of us is trying to become an author, i.e., a more or less stable point of subjectivity within a larger discourse, or set of discourses. We want a bit of "name recognition" out there, but we also want our work to be recognizable to ourselves. This is very much the fundamental "existential" question: Who am I? "It took eighteen centuries of Christendom," said Mailer, "before Kierkegaard could come back alive with the knowledge that ... the characteristic way modern man found knowledge of his soul [was] ... by the act of perceiving that he was most certainly losing it." We must get it together, people!

On that note, we come to the end of this overview of the three parts of my hopefully soon-to-be-written book, based on this blog. I'll write one more post about the introduction and conclusion, which will also deal more directly with Jonathan's question. In that post I'll update the table of contents, and provide links to these summaries. I'll also provide links with these summaries to places in the archives that unpack some of the ideas in early, rudimentary ways.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

RSL, Part II

The second part of the book will be the most practical, and the part that most approaches a "writing manual". Having described the workaday reality of research (in Part I), I now move on to the question of how we can manage that reality, both as individuals and in groups.

Part II is called "Writing Process Reengineering" as an allusion to my own practical circumstances, embedded in a department of a business school. Business Process Reengineering serves as a metaphorical model. It was developed as a way of rethinking and improving how businesses deliver goods and services to their customers. I have not tried to translate anything directly from the BPR approach (and don't really know very much about it, though that may change during the writing of these chapters); what I've tried to do is simply to present an image of the writing process as something that can be managed, and myself as the corresponding management consultant.

4. Finitude
The idea of managing the writing process is intended to provoke scholars of a more, let's say, "speculative" mindset. Indeed, one of the tutelary figures of this section of the book is Immanuel Kant, who urged us to restrain our speculative impulses by understanding the transcendental limits of our capacity to reason. For my purposes, this means getting scholars to realize that they do not have infinite resources at their disposal, nor are their projects infinite in scope. Their minds are not passive media for an absolute truth. There is, more importantly, no way to "transcend" the problem of writing by merely mental exertion. One must sit down for a limited amount of time and commit a limited amount of words to the page. Kant said that the fundamental categories of experience are time and space. Virginia Woolf helpfully pointed out that in, order to write, we need money and a room of our own, which is just a practical way of saying the same thing. The trick to mastering time and space is planning (cf. Kant's "schematism", i.e., scheming). And the key to planning is appreciating your own finitude.

5. Space
Where does your writing happen? If time is, as Henri Bergson said, what keeps everything from happening all at once, then space is what keeps it from piling up all in the same place. It is therefore important to define your space in two senses: first, where does your body go to write? What office or room do you go to when you write? What closed door can you sit behind without being disturbed? You have to make sure that this space is not also being occupied by things other than your writing. Second, where do the words go when you write? What text are you working on? What part of that text will you be working at a particular time? Here, the challenge is to keep your ideas from piling up in the same part of the paper. Questions about both senses of "space" should have clear and unambiguous answers each time you write. In this essay, therefore, I will talk about the space in which you write both as a room, i.e., a literal space, and as a page, i.e., a literary space. I will use these images to construct the space of the journal article and to suggest ways of gaining mastery over it, one paragraph at a time. The centerpiece of this essay is my all-purpose outline of a 40-paragraph journal article.

6. Time
When does your writing happen? Many academic writers make the mistake of thinking of time in terms of their deadlines. They will say they have 3 months to finish an article, or 2 years to write their dissertation. But most people write at their best in 2- or 3-hour sessions, preferably every day. So they do well to think about how many of those sessions they have until their deadline. They do well to think of each week as offering them only about 5 of these sessions, which occupy their attention for no more than half the working day. This essay will include my “16-Week Challenge” to train the writer's ability to leverage that useful property of an otherwise rather abstract notion. The reader is asked to think about how many of the ideally 240 hours in a given 16-week period they will spend writing. They will then think about how much they can expect to accomplish.

The central image of this section of the book is the central image of my workshops, namely, a rectangle carved into regular sections. It can represent the structure of a paper (divided into sections) or a weekly calendar (divided into sessions). My goal in writing these three short essays (15,000 words in all) is to leave the reader with a clear sense that the writing process is a real, concrete, manageable entity. That is can be imagined in some detail, and that the greater the level of detail, the more manageable it is. Though I have to admit that I'm providing a bunch of boxes into which to organize the process, it is also, I sometimes say, the box outside of which you think if you choose.

There you are. An overview of Part II of Research as a Second Language, the book. One more to go. Next week, I'm going to back to these posts and add links back into the archives. Then I'll really have my work cut out for me. But I'll also have a book proposal more or less ready to go.

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