Friday, March 30, 2012

Continuous Disappointment (part 2)

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was taking undergraduate pre-commerce courses (before deciding to become philosopher) there was a management movement afoot called Total Quality Management/Continuous Improvement. It was related to the Business Process Reengineering and Kaizen movements that (loosely) inspire my approach to the writing process. As the name suggests, it was actually two movements (and part of a more general trend), but most people talked about them as one thing. The idea was to implant an interest in the quality of the product at all points in the production process, not just at "quality control" checkpoints. I remember reading the introduction to a second edition of one of the books about the subject, in which the author lamented the tendency of companies to establish a TQM group in the organization, which was then given responsibility for implementing the idea. The idea, after all, was to implement it everywhere in the organization.

That's a long intro to the idea of "continuous disappointment" that I want to talk about this morning. Researchers are, by nature, not satisfied with the state of knowledge. They are constantly looking for ways of improving what we know about the world and how we are talk about it. They are disappointed by the way policy-makers, business-people, and ordinary citizens understand the world in which they live. They are disappointed in their students, in how much they know and how quickly they learn. They are disappointed, more generally, by the lack of curiosity other people seem to feel about the subject matter they are interested in.

Just as a scholar must avoid intellectual "crises" by adopting a continuously critical attitude, by seeing research as a series of "ordinary crises", so too must a scholar get used being disappointed with the state of knowledge, not just among members of the public but among the scholar's peers. Disappointment must be developed into an art. Scholars must learn to disappoint their peers' expectations of the objects they study in a natural, ongoing way. Being disappointed is just part of the job. It must be absorbed into the scholar's general demeanor. The writer is artful about disappointing the reader, and the reader is artful in being disappointed. It's everyone's responsibility.

* * *

I'm going to think about this some more over the Easter break next week. I won't be posting until Tuesday, April 10.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Continuous Disappointment (part 1)

On Tuesday, Jonathan asked what I mean by "artful disappointment". I'd like to say something about that this morning and again tomorrow, beginning with the relationship between the expectations of your object that your theory section evokes and the confidence in your approach that the methods section inspires. Once you've got a reader who expects you to reach a particular result and trusts your empirical judgment, you're ready to make your contribution to the conversation.

Now, you could just satisfy your reader's expectations. You might show that the object you have studied behaves exactly like the theory says it should. But this does not teach us anything new. You might also disappoint your reader radically by saying that the object is nothing like the theory says. But this is really just likely to draw your results into question; the reader has more invested in the theory than in your results, remember.

Suppose you're writing a paper in ethics. You will present the reader with your theory of justice, which the reader will presumably share. You will then present the results of an inquiry into a particular set of social practices. The theory of justice tells us what the "right" thing to do would be. Now, there are a number of possible interestingly disappointing results. You might show that the practitioners adhere to the principles in your theory (that their practices are "just" in that sense) but that their actions nonetheless have negative consequences. This would be disappointing because it means that being just does not mean doing good. You might, conversely, show that the practitioners do not adhere to the theory, but that this has perfectly "just" consequences in practice. Again, this would reveal that our theoretical expectations about the relationship between particular norms and particular social outcomes require some adjustment.

There are other ways to disappoint your reader, of course. You might get the reader to expect that the people you are studying are "good" (this would be done in the background section) and then show that they fail to follow the generally accepted norms (presented in the theory section). But in all cases the trick, the "art", is to make the disappointment instructive, not merely depressing. You don't want to argue that our ideas about justice are simply wrong or that real life is simply unjust. You want to the reveal the flaws in existence that we can do something about.

* * *

In Denmark, many of us are looking forward to the Easter break. If you're taking the whole week off, here's a little bit of advice. Make a clear plan for the first few days after you get back. In particular, decide already before you go away what you will do during your first writing session back. Be specific. Don't say you'll "get back into it". Decide exactly what section you start working on. Decide on the first paragraph you'll write when you get back.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Today, Tonight, Tomorrow

I've got a lot on my mind these days. Running my own business is not really "hard work" (I've been fortunate that way) but it is, for lack of a better word, "worrying". There are lots of things to think about, lots of small things that need to get done. So I've been making to-do lists of these little things recently, which has been an interesting experience.

My lists are not very sophisticated. I just jot things down on a piece of paper and look at that piece of paper when I begin the working day at 8:00 am. Then, when I'm not writing, or editing, or talking on the phone to my authors, I do things on the list, crossing items out as I go. I mark things that have to get done the same day, but most things can also be left for the next day. As the end of the working day approaches, "doing something" just means moving it to tomorrow's list.

One of the reasons I'm doing it this way is to let me relax in the evening. Why worry tonight about what you have put off till tomorrow? It's a nice slogan. (You haven't really "put it off", of course; you've just planned to do it later.) As with writing, it's important in all things to be freed from worrying about things you are not working on at the moment. But some people find that they can only stop thinking about one thing if they're doing another. And that can be a problem in the evening, when they're actually too tired to do anything.

The standard remedy, I expect, is to watch television. It is a way of "occupying" an otherwise worried mind. The problem, of course, is that as soon as the TV is off, the worries return. And now you can't sleep. Again, just as in writing, you need to learn to trust yourself to do tomorrow the things you're worried about tonight. Just as a writer cannot experience every moment of not writing as a lack progress on their text, so too should we not experience every moment that we're not sending or paying a bill, booking a flight, setting up our email accounts, as a lack of productive work. Every body needs simply to be able to rest.

So, at the end of the day, before I pick up my daughter to take her to the skating rink and go for my own daily swim, I make a quick list of things to do tomorrow. I resolve to try to get them done then, i.e., tomorrow, not tonight. I find the swim to be more enjoyable. I'm better company for my child. My dinner tastes better. And if I do find myself watching TV, well, even that's more enjoyable too. And, yes, I also sleep better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Puzzles, Riddles, Jokes, and other Disappointments

I've been arguing for some time that a good results section should "artfully disappoint the expectations of the reader". I like the way that sounds so much that I'm not likely to abandon the idea anytime soon. I'm more likely to subtly change its meaning as time goes on in order to defend its truth.

Last week at a seminar, one of the participants asked me why I was using the word "disappoint" instead of, say, "puzzle". The quick answer was that a results section should not leave the reader puzzled. A paper should start with what is sometimes called a "puzzle" in Kuhn's sense (the sciences are puzzle-solving traditions), but the paper should of course complete it, not leave it unsolved. But if that's so obvious, how can I argue that the reader should be left "disappointed". That's a good question.

The first part of my answer was to distinguish the feeling of being puzzled from the feeling of being disappointed by appeal to the specific expectations that must be in place in order to feel the latter. A new situation can be puzzling even in the absence of any expectations about the situation. Consider the less intellectual reaction of being surprised. Arriving at your own surprise party, it's not that you expect something other than a party to happen, it's that you don't expect anything very specific to happen. Then—suprise!—it's a party. In a similar way, a puzzle can be constructed without appeal to any prior expectations of the situation.

Next, consider jokes and riddles. It's rarely very much fun when someone tells a joke at a dinner party because it invariably leads everyone else to tell their own favorite joke. The original joke may have been motivated by something in the conversation, but as soon as the others recognize that the whole presentation is "potted", they all bring out their own pre-packaged contributions to the conversation. They are complete little universes of their own. To "get" the joke, you have to make a place in your mind for its premises, which are then immediately reset after the joke is told.

When a paper "artfully disappoints the expectations of the reader" it is effecting a transformation of those expectations for next time. (Perhaps a really good joke will do the same thing? I'll have to think about that.) The paper will not just have set up an artificial situation within which a "solution" (to the riddle) or "punchline" is possible. It will have evoked the deeply and broadly held dispositions of the reader towards particular outcomes involving particular objects. (Scientific "objects" are simply things approached in terms of their possibilities of arrangement into facts. More on that later.) The idea is not simply to arrange some pieces that leave a space to be filled in and then fill that space in. The idea is to get the reader to expect something and then to remain interesting even when something else is shown to have happened.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Do Things with Your Hands

My wife tells this great story from our time in Germany many years ago. She was attending the lectures of a prominent professor of rhetoric, Joachim Knape. When the course got to the work of J.L. Austin, he resorted to a wonderful bit of sarcasm. "Ooooh," he said, "you can do things with words!" He was, of course, alluding to Austin's famous title How to do Things with Words, and in order to appreciate the story I suppose you have to know a little about the arch-rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric. It must, indeed, be amusing to rhetoricians to note that the most important work of philosophy published in 1962, after more than 2000 years of Western "thought", was a book that challenged "the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ' statement' can only be to 'describe' some state of affairs, or to 'state some fact', which it must do either truly or falsely." The idea that you can "do things" with words was not news, to say the least, in the field of rhetoric.

James Randi, arch-skeptic, debunker of the paranormal, and an accomplished magician, has a great quip about Uri Geller, the world-famous spoon-bender. "If he's using his mind to bend those spoons," he says, "he's doing it the hard way." What he means, of course, is that it is possible to produce the illusion of bending a spoon "with your mind" through a variety of tricks, without actually doing it. Randi knows how he would do it, and that's of course how he presumes Geller is doing it too.

I've been finding myself using that line lately to push back against the idea that the hard part about writing is thinking of something to say. Many people explain why they are not writing by invoking the intellectual difficulties their paper is giving them. But how does that explain not writing? Writing is a physical activity. If you're using your mind to write your papers, I suggest, you're doing it the hard way. Use your hands. The ability to write is simply the ability to sit down at the machine and write down what you know. It is true that you need to use your mind to come to know those things, but don't try to use it to do the writing itself. That's as silly as using it to type, i.e., to try to move the keys on your keyboard with your thoughts. Of course, the "trick", then, is to make your text look like it came fully formed out of a live mind. But that ability, like the ability of a magician, is ultimately in your hands.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Science and the Sentence

Wittgenstein famously said that science consists of everything that can be said about the facts. He called the things that can be said about the facts "propositions", Sätze in German, which can also mean simply sentences. His precursor, Bernard Bolzano approached logic, which he called a "theory of science", as the art of writing these sentences and composing scientific "treatises". There is little doubt that I work in this tradition, which has the somewhat wounded name, logical positivism.

Though I grant that science has an "existential" aspect, a practical, everyday "hustle and bustle", I have never thought that this defines its essence. And I do, contrary to what is still, I think, the consensus view, believe that science has an essence. Science is, essentially, the attempt to uncover the facts, to discover the truth about them, and to write those truths down in sentences. We might also put it this way: it is the purpose of science to articulate the facts. And this is done in series of true sentences, or at least sentences that are proposed to be true, i.e., propositions, Sätze.

When writing, it can be useful to remember that this what you are doing. You are trying to arrange your sentences on the page in such a way that they make the "joints" ("articulation" comes from Latin, artus, which means "joint") between the facts, and within the facts, conspicuous. That's what sentences are for. Right now I am writing on my laptop. That's a fact. But the fact has many parts that are joined together in particular ways. (I am sitting on a chair, by the table, whereon the laptop lies. The screen is open. The keys are black.) Any sentence I might write about those parts and how they are related would articulate the fact that I am writing. And writing makes me more articulate about those facts.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


"The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!" (Jorge Luis Borges)

Lately, people have been asking me about books—how to write them. The truth is that I don't know. I've never written one, though I am working on one. In fact I'm working on three or four, which is a good sign that I don't know what I'm doing (I can't even count them!). When I say "working on", I mainly mean planning and dreaming about them, not actually writing them. So, I guess I'm only truly working on one of them. But whether I'm working effectively or not will not be clear until the book is done and, ultimately, published. That's when we'll know whether or not I can write a book, and only then will I truly know how it is done.

Still, I'm presuming that a book, like a journal article, is written one paragraph at a time. A short, 40,000-word book, will have about 200 paragraphs. And so, presumptuously, I expect it to take 100 hours to draft. But I'm not sure that the chapters of a books are so rigorously structured and I also have a sense that the "flow" of book-writing is different. A book comes out of a much more organic knowledge base than a paper, or, perhaps more precisely, a much deeper one. We might say that a book is the tip of a bigger iceberg. As a result, writing it might not be the same craft as writing a paper. The experience of a writing book has, for me anyway, already been a much less formal one than the experience of writing a journal article. While you still plan from week to week, I have not been able to plan from paragraph to paragraph. In truth, I haven't tried.

There are days when I agree with Borges. Books are an "impoverishing extravagance", I think then, and I am in fact very hesitant about bringing yet another book about "how to write a research paper" into the world. While in Leicester this week I stopped by the university bookstore and had that familiar, despairing feeling that too many books are being written. I looked specifically at the writing manuals. Do I really have something new to contribute, I thought? In a journal article, it's easy to decide. Just write that one true sentence that only you know is true and then think about whether it's important enough to tell your peers. But a book has to offer something more, I think. It has to offer real aesthetic pleasure in reading it, cover to cover. I am disappointed by many books and I don't want anyone to feel about me the way I feel about the authors of disappointing books.

I'm sure that is holding me back. I'm sure the best advice for book writers is just to put your ass in the chair and get the words down on the page. Then decide whether its "perfect oral exposition" was really possible in some other, shorter form. Like a blog post.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Equipmental Totality

When I first started jogging, a few years ago, a colleague gave me some good advice. He told me to get myself some good shoes. They might seem outrageously expensive, he said, but cheap shoes will make my legs hurt. And if my legs hurt I'm not likely to keep running. Good shoes, therefore, foster discipline.

This advice can be transferred to writing. Writers should make sure that they have a writing instrument that does not cause them discomfort every time they write. If you write at a computer, as most people do these days, make sure that it runs properly when you want it to. If it takes ten minutes to start up, as many computers do these days, don't wait until your writing session starts to turn it on. Turn it on well in advance so that the machine is ready for you when you want to start.

There is an expensive solution to this problem, of course. Get yourself a Mac. But often a little thought is all it will take. Clean up your disk space regularly, and organize your files in a way that makes sense to you. Don't accept the usual sources of irritation. Set up your word processor so that the all the tools you need are within each. Find out how to customize its layout. Keep it simple, so that it works for you. Even Mac users need to think a little bit about how to arrange their workspace.

The craftsman must keep the workshop in order. Heidegger tells us that our experience of "what there is" is implicated in an "equipmental contexture" (Zeugzusammenhang). Our proximal relationship to the world is established by a totality of equipment, i.e., things that can be used for specific purposes. In a perfect world, everything around you would be straightforwardly "useful", and you would immediately experience them as such. You would see their relation to your aims at a glance. You'd pick them up and they'd be exactly what you need.

"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seems to me all the uses of this world," says Hamlet. He has been alienated from his contexture, "a father killed, a mother stained, Aggravation of [his] reason and [his] blood." As he also puts it, "the time is out of joint". For most of us, the reasons for our alienation are less dramatic than Hamlet's, but the feeling is often comparable. What we need to do is find those moments when everything around us "works". This takes some discipline, to be sure, but it is possible to arrange a proper workshop to engage with, let us say, all the usage of the words.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Academic Reading

I'm holding a lecture this morning about reading. What I'm going to try to do is to apply the advice I give for writing to the act of reading. I'm going to argue that just as we should be writing on a schedule, we should be reading on one too. Of course, there will be plenty of times when we read for pleasure, and this will not be the focus of my concern. What I'm going to talk about is those moments (every day) when we join the intended audience of an academic text.

Academic writing communicates the ideas of knowledgeable people to other knowledgeable people. When you are reading academically, therefore, you are confronting a text with what you know (not what you don't know); and you are confronting your knowledge (not your ignorance) with a text. I often cite Wayne Booth's description of the Oxford seminars where the only questions that are put to a text are "What does the author mean?" and "How does the author know?" These are certainly useful guides. And they are useful because they identify the epistemic content of a text and get you to notice the way the text is (hopefully) structured into paragraphs, which is to say, sequences of claims and support for those claims. Each paragraph announces a meaning (a claim) and tells you how the writer knows (support).

As always, the lecture will include a great deal of practical advice about how to structure your time. My interest here is actually in defending the writing process from reading just as much as it is in providing a stable basis for the writing. It is true that you need to read in order to become a good writer. But it is not true that you need to read before you write. Your writing is just your way of keeping yourself articulate about what you know. In your reading, you confront that knowledge with the articulateness of someone else.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Questions Concerning Technology

In general, I agree with Fran Lebowitz. The answer to Heidegger's famous "question concerning technology" is, well, "no". So, until this weekend, while I did have both a microwave oven and a computer, I did not have a mobile phone. I believe, as Heidegger did, that our technologies shape our sense of self. Indeed, as I read him, he believed (rightly) that who we are emerges from the confrontation of our ongoing activities (Betrieb) with our technical apparatus (Gestell), or as he puts it in some translations, with how our "hustle" is "enframed". There is no question that the smart phone structures the way we do things, how we move through the world. And Lebowitz is no doubt right too: one of the things they allow us to do is not be where we are. In full awareness of "the danger", then, I got myself an iPhone.

The main reason for this is that I'm running my own business and have so far been using my landline at home to contact clients (and for them to contact me). I wanted a way to have an "office". It is interesting to me to notice how this existence as a "small businessman" is changing my sense of who I am. It changes the way you work, of course, and your choice of technologies, which further shape the way you work. Interestingly, I was beginning to feel somehow less present, not more, because of my lack of connectivity. I felt a little like life was happening just beyond the reach of my senses, like I was being left out. But I'm sure I have to choose my connections carefully from here on. If I connect to everything at once I'll go mad.

Certainly, I'm going to be learning something about how people have been experiencing life (and each other) this past decade. (To remind myself of the danger, I think of Hemingway's idea that "it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly.") I also bought myself a laptop, which I've been without ever since I left my old job. Last week, when I was in Constance, I had neither a phone nor a computer, so I was dependent on my host to keep in touch with the outside world. That meant that I could check my mail only when we were at his office. This week, I'm in Leicester (which explains my posting an hour later than usual the next few days) and I'm fully "connected". This will give me a good sense of the difference.

Finally, I have bought myself an internet domain. I'm working on the contents slowly but steadily and readers of this blog will of course be the first to know that the site is up. If I have my way, it's going to be very sharp. Very simple and clean. The most articulate place on the web.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Des Blossen Betriebs

Research does not, through its methodology, become dispersed into random investigations, so as to lose itself in them; for modern science is determined by a third fundamental event: ongoing activity." (Martin Heidegger, p. 123-4)

In Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture" there's a wonderfully prescient passage about the "institutional character" of modern science, which is rooted in the "ongoing activity" of science. This phrase translates the German word "Betrieb", which, William Lovitt tells us, can mean "the act of driving on [Trieb means drive], or industry, activity, as well as undertaking, pursuit, business. It can also mean management, or workshop or factory." In short, it captures the need to organize science in the manner of any other productive social activity and therefore to govern it through institutions.

Heidegger emphasizes that this activity implicates everything from the "the complex machinery that is necessary to physics in order to carry out the smashing of the atom" (p. 124) to the way the researcher "negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses [and] contracts with commissions with publishers" (p. 125). Much of what we today call Science and Technology Studies explores precisely this action-oriented image of science. (Think of Bruno Latour's Science in Action or Andrew Pickering's Science as Practice and Culture.) Heidegger points out that, unlike the "cultivation of erudition", all this activity "lend[s] to [the researcher's] work its atmosphere of incisiveness" (125). I think many researchers would recognize this, too, namely, that they feel active, vigorous, busy. It's often exciting work.

But Heidegger cautions us about the degeneration of this activity into "mere busyness".

Ongoing activity becomes mere busyness [des blossen Betriebs] whenever, in the pursuing of its methodology, it no longer keeps itself open on the basis of an ever-new accomplishing of its projection plan, but only leaves that plan behind itself as a given; never again confirms and verifies its own self-accumulating results and the calculation of them, but simply chases after such results and calculations. (p. 138)

We can add the just as familiar business of chasing after funding or publications. While these activities must be engaged in, they must not be pursued, as it were, "merely". "Mere busyness must at all times be combated precisely because research is, in its essence, ongoing activity." My approach to academic writing and managing the scholarly process is rooted in this "existential conception of science", i.e., the basic idea that writing is embedded in a form of life. A good writing plan is not just a way of keeping you busy (or a way of keeping you just busy). It's a way of keeping your research "open".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Concentration, Focus

It's not often that there's disagreement in the academic writing blogosphere. But I've got to take a moment to register my concerns about Tanya's approach to "clearing your mind", i.e., concentrating on your writing to the exclusion of other concerns. Actually, Jonathan's already beaten me to it: "concentration is similar to inspiration: neither has to exist before the work happens." Tanya, by contrast, leaves us with the impression that the "clear mind" (which is focused and able to concentrate) has to be established before the writing takes place. This advice strikes me as more likely to reinforce bad habit—or, rather, bad excuses—than foster good writing.

You write because your schedule tells you to write and because it allows you to do the other things you have to do later.

So, for example, her first solution to concentration problems, what she calls the "easy fix", gives you a reason to stop writing and start doing something else. Even emailing! "Do something about the situation instead of letting it bother you," Tanya says. Interestingly, the situation she imagines—an annoying student with an unreasonable demand—has a fix that is so easy one wonders why it would be hard to stop thinking about. (This is why part of her solution in her examples is also a solution to the problem. I.e., she's telling you to solve the problem rather than organize your time so that you have some time to deal with it.) But the whole point of writing discipline is to let the writing happen regardless of your other concerns, even when tricky problems remain unsolved. The "easy" problems are the best opportunity to train your discipline. Simply resolve to think about and deal with the student later, when your schedule doesn't say you're supposed to be writing.

Her second and third solutions aren't really about writing. They're general rules about facing your difficulties as practical problems and acknowledging your emotions. I'm not entirely sure what my position on them are, but they don't strike me as a related to writing. By relating these life skills to writing, I worry that we overcomplicate the problem of writing. It makes it seem like you have to get your emotional house in order in order to write. But that gets it backward. Writing every day, regardless of your practical irritations and emotional confusions, will help you compose yourself. It will contribute by putting your intellectual house in order. Or just keeping you in shape.

Finally, I would actually suggest that you do "hesitate to seek out professional help if you are having trouble dealing with your problems on your own", at least if you think this will solve your writing problem (or is a precondition for solving your writing problems.) This sounds to me like a way of making concentration way too big an issue. Exactly, like Jonathan says, it's like saying you need to be "inspired" to write. We're all just more or less sane and some may well need professional help to function in life. But if you immediately (unhesitatingly) seek professional help in order to concentrate in order to write then I suspect you're just coming up with an excuse. So, as I've argued before, do be hesitant about thinking about your writing difficulties as something "deeper" than an intellectual (having something to say) or moral (having the discipline to say it) problem.

I'm sure part of my disagreement with Tanya here is a misreading of her post. But I think it's a natural misreading (and one that her readers are also likely to indulge in) that I hope I've now offered a corrective to.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Personal and Cultural Conditions

A writing process can be hindered or fostered at many levels. Leaving aside natural factors, like weather, and technical ones, like plumbing (which might interfere with your writing separately or, as in a flash flood, in combination), we can consider personal and cultural factors. Importantly, these are things we can do something about, albeit not all of them as individuals.

Anyone can, at any time, resolve to write paragraphs on a regular schedule. Doing so will keep their prose in shape and this really means forming their minds to think in "academic" terms, namely, in terms of claims and their support. It is important not just to see this as an organization of the writing space. That is, it is not just the structure of a paper that is divided into paragraphs but the structure of the process. The task of writing is divided into the smaller tasks of writing particular paragraphs. Each of these can be given a particular amount of time to work on. I recommend 25-30 minutes per paragraph. Learning to work this way involves a personal transformation, but a very mild one. It is not a change in personality, but it will have affects on your sense of yourself as a scholar, certainly as a writer.

Now think about the change that a university department might undergo if the department head stopped asking "What have you published?" or "Why haven't you published anything?" and started asking "What paragraphs have you written this week?" and "Really? None? Why not?" What would happen if people respected and appreciated the simple craftsmanship that is expressed in the composition of paragraphs? What if it was normal behavior to withdraw for an hour or two to compose 2-4 paragraphs, to compose oneself, as it were, thirty minutes at a time? What if the questions "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?" were not considered cantankerous but ordinary expressions of curiosity--more precise ways of asking "What are you working on?" and answered simply and plainly by recounting two or three paragraphs, recently crafted.

I suppose it's somewhat utopian to propose it, but I think it is worth giving some thought to establishing (or finding) personal and cultural conditions that are suitable for the composition of paragraphs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wissenschaft als Betrieb

I'm in Constance (hence the late posting), and trying to think as much as possible in German. Yesterday's post has been on my mind and the subject has come up in conversation with an old friend from my days as a philosophy undergraduate. As we both get older we realize that so-called "existential" problems are perhaps not so much something we're supposed to suffer as something we're supposed to discipline. What is called "self-help" is also what Foucault called "care of the self". Indeed, many years ago another friend, another philosopher, proposed, very controversially at the time, that perhaps our problems are not really metaphysical. Maybe we just have to grow up. Like I say, that caused something of a stir among us as undergraduates. But I think he was onto something quite profound.

We also have to remember that academia is changing. And this requires people, as Heidegger puts it, "of a different stamp". Already back in 1939 he was writing things like:

The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity [Betrieb, hustle] also forms men of a different stamp. 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 along with him which books must be written. ("The Age of the World Picture")

This transition from "scholarship" to "research" is being felt in many different ways throughout the university system. We are even witnessing a counter-trend to embrace the humanities, which I'm following with great interest. Part of my expertise (and therefore the value proposition of my coaching and consulting activities) lies in negotiating this tension between the inquisitive attitude of the scholar and the "incisive atmosphere" of the researcher. It is not the case that one is right and one is wrong, that one is human and one is monstrous. But, as Heidegger, might say (quoting Hölderlin), here both a "danger" and a "saving power" grows ("Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst/Das Rettende auch").

Monday, March 12, 2012

Awaken the Genius Within?

Something has been bothering me lately. Let me begin by stressing that I strongly believe that what Jonathan, Tanya, and I (and many others besides) are doing to help scholars get the most out of their academic careers is largely for the good. Also, I can't think of a better way to approach research than as a craft skill that you master by training, and that this training gets you (and especially your prose) into "shape". But every now and then I look at myself in the mirror and see something slightly monstrous. The name of that monster is Tony Robbins.

When I was younger and more romantic about my philosophical pursuits, my distaste for self-help and motivational speaking was boundless. To this day, I cringe when I watch those videos, widely available on YouTube, that tell you how you can transform yourself for the better, change your life, etc. Recently, however, I've had to admit to myself that what I am suggesting looks very similar. Robbins, for example, will emphasize that you can't just decide to change, you have to give yourself some "rituals". You have to train your habits, of body and of mind, and the goal has to be a change of "physiological state". You also have to master the ability to "focus". (I'm no expert on this stuff, but I think I'm getting that roughly right.) I've cobbled a version of this advice together for myself, cultivating a strict regimen of mental and physical exercise (reading, writing, jogging, swimming). I used to think I'd write books of philosophy and poetry, and have begun to accept that I'll be penning writing manuals and self-improvement books instead (perhaps even under the same titles).

Some of my friends don't think that's so bad. And my problems with the aesthetics of motivational speaking are not an argument against their efficacy. Readers of this blog know I've had similar worries about whether RSL is a cult, or some kind of therapy like NLP. In that connection I did also admit that I wouldn't mind becoming the Barry Michels of academia. But would I want to become its Tony Robbins?

I'll tell you why I don't want to. I think that Robbins, quite understandably, speaks to the ambition of his audiences. People want to be more successful in an ordinary kind of way; they'd like a bigger house, a better car, a beautiful spouse, a lot of money. They'd like to "take control of their lives". And so Robbins' message has a certain legitimacy in a business context and perhaps also public life more generally. But a university should be a place where people who are less ambitious than curious can also succeed. As David Letterman quips, "There is no off position on the genius switch." By extension, it's also not something you just turn on. There's something not quite right about the idea of "awakening" some inner genius, training it. You can't serve the spirit, I sometimes think, by working hard at it.

T.S. Eliot was on to something when he talked about "the necessary receptivity and necessary laziness" of the poet. So perhaps this is just a call for moderation. You can't will academic success because there is a component of real insight that can't simply be shaped. To resort to a cliché, you have to keep your mind open. Keep your life orderly. But don't be wholly goal-oriented.

Friday, March 09, 2012

A New Form of Solitude

One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here. In conversation, one discusses what rises. (Tony Tost, Invisible Bride, p. 46)

This week's exercises have been intended to train your ability to converse. You have been practicing the basic movements that you need to make in your academic writing, which is to say, "the moves that matter" in your engagements with the scholarly conversation in your field. You have been writing sentences that everyone knows are true, sentences that only specialists know are true, and sentences that only you know are true. That is, you have been comporting your writing to various distributions of knowledge that it is likely to face in conversation.

I've been adorning these posts with the work of some of my favorite poets.* "The human brain," said Cyril Connolly, "once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow." Perhaps making a prose paragraph of academic writing is not as transcendental an act, but I think it is important to be able establish a kind of "magic circle" around one's writing: a half hour at a time, one for each paragraph, that is immune from the busyness of academic life, a moment in which all you are doing, and all you need to be doing, is situating a claim in the critical tension constituted by what others know or don't know. "Talking becomes a conscious stammering not in one's language, but in how one thinks," Tony Tost tells us; "a conversation represents not so much a break with solitude, but a newer form of solitude, a revision of the logic of solitude." Since you are an author, you are still alone here, still sitting there by yourself in front of the machine. But your brain, the center of the your prose, is functioning fully. It is enjoying its full range of motion.

*For symmetry, I've even added a poem to Monday's post. Check it out.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

What You Know

because as says Aristotle
philosophy is not for young men
their Katholou can not be sufficiently derived from
their hekasta
their generalities cannot be born from a sufficient phalanx
of particulars
lord of his work and master of utterance
who turneth his word in its season and shapes it (Ezra Pound)

Your knowledge as a scholar falls back on your knowledge of concrete particulars about which you are the authority. There are things that your peers know today only because one of them (perhaps you) first discovered them. In the social sciences, we are often talking about what you learn about a particular domain of fact from your data. Before you make your results available to your peers, only you know about these facts (the particular organization that you have studied, for example). Only you know what your interview subjects said. Only you know what was going on while you were observing them.

This kind of knowledge constitutes about half of a journal article, especially in the results section and the methods section. After all, just as you know best what you saw (i.e., your results), you know best what you did (i.e., your method). Before you tell the reader these things, the reader has no chance of knowing. So you speak here with a particular kind of authority.

The exercise, then, is to spend four minutes writing some sentences that only you (and nobody else) knows are true. Then pick one of these sentences and re-write it for four minutes. Then take a break. Again, let me stress that once you're comfortable with the basic motion of writing down facts about which you are the authority, you can do the exercise however you like. You can repeat it. Or you can go back to one of the other exercises. Or you can start writing a paragraph elaborating and supporting the sentence (for the remaining twenty minutes of the writing session).

What you are giving yourself here is simply an opportunity to "go through the motions" of writing factual prose without having to dig deep for the "strength" to support it. You pick something you know well, something you can write about comfortably, and then you simply write a sentence you know to be true. In this case, it's even a sentence that no one is going to be in a position to critique the content of (they haven't seen what you've seen, done what you've done). As with the other exercises, it's like moving your arm without lifting anything. Just concentrate on the motion of your prose.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Specialist Knowledge

...Ladies and gentlemen,
tonight's weather has been canceled. The Academy has condemned
the Blue Tit. The poor are stealing the saltlicks. Grenades luxuriate
in the garden of decommissioned adjectives. It is the Sabbath. I must invite you

to lay down your knowledge claims,
to lay them down slowly and with great sadness. (Ben Lerner)

The second exercise begins with the results of the first. Write a sentence about the same topic as the first exercise but one that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true? Again, since you are working on your style, your manner of writing true sentences, don't pick a really difficult truth, a really sophisticated theoretical insight. Pick something that everyone agrees about or a disagreement that is familiar to everyone in your field. (Just because someone usually disagrees with you does not mean that what you're saying is not true.)

As in the first exercise, spend about four minutes jotting down candidate sentences. Then pick one to rewrite for four minutes. Then take a two-minute break. As I was saying yesterday, these movements are available for you train in whatever way you like. You can repeat it. Or you can go on to the next exercise. Or you can start writing a paragraph elaborating and supporting the sentence.

Remember that part of the exercise here involves imagining the knowledge of your reader. For the first exercise you were imagining a "general reader", i.e., one with the knowledge that pretty much anyone will bring to the text. Obviously, we're talking about adult, educated, intelligent, etc., readers, perhaps even someone who has been educated in a way that resembles yours. That is, what "everyone knows" for a physicist will not be the same as for a sociologist. The important distinction is between the general reader and the specialist reader. When you are doing this exercise you are imagining a reader with training very similar to yours, someone who understands the same theories and has largely the same expectations of reality that you have.

And remember also that you are not to strain while doing this. Don't make the sentence carry any significant load. This does not mean that you're not going to make a big claim (most claims that your peers know are true are very sweeping ones) it just means that you're not going to have to carry all of it (they will too). State it as a simple, unqualified (or very straightforwardly qualified) sentence.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

What Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
Thats how it goes
Everybody knows (Leonard Cohen)

Just because everybody knows something does not mean it is not interesting. The first paragraph in a paper can usefully be a collection of such interesting commonplaces and it is precisely their commonplace nature that, perhaps, leads us to devalue them in our writing. You don't have be a Zen monk, however, to know the importance of precision in ordinary things. The exercise I want to talk about this morning is intended to develop this precision, this ability to articulate the commonplace. Remember that "articulate", really just means to join together.

The instructions for this exercise are simple: Write a sentence that everyone knows is true. But what does it really mean to "write a sentence"? And are there not way too many things to choose from (doesn't everybody know quite a lot)? Well, begin with the topic of a paper you're working on or, at least, some corner of your field that currently interests you. Now, what does everybody know about your subject, specialist and non-specialist alike? Remember that it has to be something that you—an expert on the subject—also believe. You're not writing down what everybody thinks. You're writing down what they know.

Since you're writing down an item of knowledge it will not do to simply jot down keywords. You'll need to assert something, i.e., you'll need to write a sentence. Let sentences come into your head and then write them down. Let them be very simple sentences. Spend about four minutes writing down a whole list of sentences, then pick one of them to rewrite.

This rewriting is important. Put the sentence at the top of a blank page. Now, write the sentence again exactly as you wrote it the first time. Is there anything in the way it is written that feels "wrong" or imprecise? Don't fix it by editing; instead, start a new line and write the sentence again. If you can write it less wrongly that's great, but if you can't think of a way of doing it differently just do it again and notice what happens when you get to the part that didn't seem to work. Keep doing it for four minutes. Then take a break. You can then do it again, do exercise number 2 (which I'll explain tomorrow), or move on to other things. You can also decide to spend 15 minutes elaborating the sentence in a paragraph.

Remember not to strain at this. Pick a claim that you (and everybody else) knows very well and use words that you know the full meaning of. You are training your sense of the sentence, your sensitivity for meaning, the ordinary motion of your prose.

Monday, March 05, 2012


My arm was itchy. I was starting to lose
feeling in my leg. The devil
is to be encountered.

You say amnesia
is different from bad memory.
Because it could dislodge the lie.

I think it helps if you're writing a book.
Here's the rain. Here's the rain
is a good title. (Kate Greenstreet, Case Sensitive, p. 106)

My physiotherapist told me something interesting recently. Ten years ago, I broke my arm and was not very disciplined about retraining it. I've always thought that a number of key muscles had atrophied or something, because over the years I've been leaving all the lifting to the other one. But it turns out that my arm is not worryingly weak. Rather, the "map" of my arm in my brain has been distorted. Accordingly, the exercises I've been given do not involve any weight, only concentration. I have to move my arms in particular circles in order to redraw my mental map of ordinary motion. It's very interesting to think about.

I suspect that bad writing habits also distort the maps that we have in our brains. If you don't sit down every day and write some true, declarative sentences, you get out of shape (lose strength) but might not suffer any intellectual damage. If, however, when you do write, you studiously avoid writing simple, declarative sentences that can be true or false, that is, if you are always constructing some kind of qualifying clause so that you don't actually have to know what you're saying, then you may really need to retrain your ability to speak your mind.

There really are people who seem to be always trying to "get around" writing a simple declarative sentence, to "work around" having to say something true. Some do it very intentionally (because they don't believe in Truth) and, in some cases, a distinctive and effective style does emerge from it. Note that this is because they really want a map of the motion of their language that does not pass through any veridical territory. But when I failed to retrain my arm it was not because I had anything in principle against using it to lift stuff. It just hurt to do so for a while, and I was too lazy to work back to a normal state of health. So my brain found a way around it. A new normalcy.

This week I'm going to be discussing some simple exercises that can help you retrain your style and keep it in shape. These exercises map onto my standard proposal for an introduction, i.e., the first three paragraphs of a paper. The idea here is to write three sentences (and subsequently three paragraphs) that you know to be true. But these sentences are to comport themselves differently towards your reader's knowledge. Since all three sentences are for the introduction of the paper, however, their truth is not going to very "heavy". That is, these exercises are only training the motion of your prose, not its strength. There is almost no load here.

Here are the three exercises, which I will say more about in the days to come.

1. Write a sentence everyone knows is true. That is, write a commonplace.

2. Write a sentence about the same thing that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true?

3. Finally, write a sentence that only you know is true. Before you exercise your reflex for false modesty, consider your data. Your peers may be very smart, but they do not have access to what your data tells you is true. Until you publish, only you know this stuff.

This exercise can obviously be completed within a single 30-minute writing session. Or you can work at only one of them for 30 minutes. You can use them as a ten-minute "warm up" exercise before you start your "real" writing. Or, finally, on one of those days when you "don't have time to write", just do one of them for five minutes.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Confucius said...

"First: get to the middle of the mind; then stick to your word" (Analects I.8). That's Ezra Pound's translation, and he appears to be reading something into it that isn't there. D.C. Lau renders it, "Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and to be trustworthy in what you say." Pound's version seems to be influenced by his own translation of the Great Digest, which is about how "the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one's own heart and acting on the results" (1), and there is wisdom in it. The idea of being "trustworthy in what you say" is more complicated than keeping your word. It is about saying what you mean as well.

We can transfer this insight to writing. Consider your daily writing routine not so much as the process by which you speak words that you'll have to keep (that happens only when you periodically publish), but the process by which you look into your own heart, or, less dramatically, the process by which you get to the center of the mind. Notice, by the way, that he does not say the center of your mind. I think that's an intentional attempt at capturing the "ancient Chinese wisdom" of "the illusion of self". Don't feel as though you are "finding yourself". Just get to the heart of the matter.

Perhaps this is what Hemingway was talking about when he suggested beginning with "one true sentence".

The middle of the mind is where you can make a series of stable claims in simple, unambiguous, declarative sentences. The claims can be supported with evidence and argument, or can be elaborated with detailed descriptions (that is, they can be supported with a paragraph). When you speak from this center (what Pound/Kung also calls "the unwobbling pivot") your studies carry a certain weight. "A gentleman with no weight," Pound translates (I.8), "will not be revered, his style of study lacks vigour." You will not be afraid to speak your mind here because it is not just your mind, it is the mind, it is intelligence as such.

But this chapter of the Analects concludes with with a very important qualification. "Don't hesitate to correct errors." Lau renders it, "When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways." You will be sticking by your word ("Yes, that is what I said") but you will also be open to correction, either from your own studies or those of others.