Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Schools & Scholars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch's 20-minute Prose Form

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Form in the Humanities (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Form in the Humanities (1)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(Read part 2 here.)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Professional Human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Body

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

A journal article normally has a recognizable structure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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