Friday, August 31, 2012

Theoretical and Methodological Papers

My advice, whether here on the blog or in my seminars, is focused mainly on what I call "the standard social science article". The core of such a paper is composed of a theory section, a methods section and a substantial empirical analysis. But people often ask me for advice about writing whole papers, not sections, devoted to theory or method. I'll say some quick things this morning and then take up the subject in greater detail next week.

First, the basic approach doesn't change. You'll still have to sit down and write about 40 paragraphs, so you'll have to organize your time to make that possible. Also, you'll have to reach an understanding of what your reader believes before reading your paper, and you'll have to devote some of the paper to presenting this current state of the art. You'll have to situate the paper in a "world" of shared concern with this reader as well. All this means that the introduction will have a similar form as an empirical paper.

Recall that the ideal introduction begins in the world, proceeds to the science, and ends in your paper. In one sense, theoretical or empirical papers begin with the science not "the world"; in another sense, however, it is simply the world of the scientists that you begin with. So you want to start with some claim about the state of research that is more general than the state of the specific theory or method you want to discuss. You might, for example, start with trends in the underlying epistemology of the field, or with some broader theoretical orthodoxy—one you don't intend to challenge or question.

Then narrow the focus, in the second paragraph, to the part of the theory (or method) that your paper wants to make a contribution to. And then, in the third paragraph, introduce the concepts or techniques that you have invented. As in a standard paper, this will either challenge the consensus you've outlined in paragraph two or weigh in on a controversy. Importantly, it will not directly affect the underlying situation you've sketched in paragraph one. That remains the world of concern you share with your reader. Paragraph two has presented that part of your reader's mind you hope to influence.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Writing Skills

"...nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language." (Geoffrey Pullum, hat tip: Jonathan Mayhew)

Many people think that their writing problems stem from their ignorance of the rules of writing. Whether they think it's their understanding of the grammar of an English sentence or the rhetoric of a journal article that is inadequate, they believe that there is something important about writing that they don't know, and if they were only let in on the secret they would write more effectively. I never miss an opportunity to push back on this idea when I talk to writers.

If you're not writing as well as you'd like, it's because you don't write often enough (or haven't been doing it long enough). The only thing that will really make you a better writer is time spent writing. Don't let someone else's list of grammatical "pet peeves" cow you into not writing a sentence you think clearly expresses your views. (And please don't try to bond with me about how much you "hate it when...") Do, of course, listen to what other people say about your writing and, if you already respect their opinion, follow their suggestions to see if it improves your text. But you are the final authority on whether an improvement has been made. You are the author.

Andrew Gelman has some good advice about writing on his blog. The good thing about this advice is that it emerges from a reading of actual work done. He's not just cherry picking examples of bad writing from the newspaper and elevating his disgust into a universal rule that only the bad people who can't write would break. He's not trying to scare people away from writing badly, he's showing them how to write better.

Finally, in honor of the coming Zombie apocalypse of pompous-poppycock grammar rules let me take you back to my youth in Canada with this catchy little song by the Odds: "Eat My Brain.".

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Comparative Hackery, Part 2

"Paul Krugman's … reputation as an economist has declined precipitously since he began writing [his NYT column]." (Niall Ferguson)

"Niall Ferguson devoted a column in the Financial Times to defending himself against something I said in a panel discussion. I can't imagine doing that!" (Paul Krugman)

I often tell that story about Paul Krugman's lecture in my writing seminars. My explanation for Krugman's intellectual composure, which, unassisted by slides or a script, is able to produce a coherent, articulate 45-minute lecture on the financial crisis, is that he must write often. In fact, we know he writes a weekly column for the New York Times, which isn't quite enough to explain it, but certainly evidence of a regular writing habit. For my part, I compose one of these blog posts every morning. This, I would argue, goes a long way towards explaining how I can deliver anything from a ten-minute contribution to a faculty meeting to a three hour seminar about how to improve your scholarly writing essentially at will. (I like to have a bit of warning, of course, but mainly to help me enjoy it and develop the presentation a little each time.) And there's a reciprocal relationship at work: I write about things that I talk about often and then write about and talk about.

Ferguson must, of course, also write often. So what is the difference? Well, based on my limited knowledge of how either man works, I can only guess. But it is my impression that Krugman uses his opportunities for public speaking (and probably also his academic opportunities, whether in the literature or in the classroom) to state his views. When, in my seminars again, I define "knowledge" in the classical way as "justified, true belief", I always emphasize that last word. You should not only write true and justified claims. You should write down what you believe. If you don't really believe what you are saying, you don't know what you are talking about. This, I suspect, is harmful to your style.

The working theory among Ferguson's critics these days is that he writes and speaks in public not to express his actually held views but to impress his highly influential audience. (In the case of the Newsweek piece this was suggested as his main goal. The fact that he also seemed to be writing to mislead the broader public was merely a means to an end. He was showing the powerful how useful he could be to them in their attempts to manipulate the powerless.) The charge here is intellectual dishonesty. (Eric Garland makes this charge explicitly. Krugman, for his part, says what Ferguson did was "unethical".) He is saying something he does not believe in order to produce a particular effect in his audience. (Given the way he distorts his sources, it is hard to imagine he doesn't understand himself that they don't support his argument.) This also, to my mind, explains why Ferguson's public speaking (and writing, actually) seems much more "affected" than Krugman's. Ferguson is obviously acting, performing. Krugman is just speaking his mind. He has something to say and, although it's something he's said before, he is saying it off the top of his head. Ferguson appears to be delivering little "bits" prepared for the occasion.

I'll drop this subject now. Truthfully, I don't have much of a horse in this race. I'm neither an economist nor a historian. I only envy the lively and detailed discussion that this case has been witness to. I wish we could have a similar discussion about intellectual honesty in organization studies. This is not just because it would improve our knowledge of the subject but because it would make the conversation interesting.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Comparative Hackery

In early December of 2008, on his way to Stockholm, Paul Krugman held a lecture at the Copenhagen Business School. The tickets had been quite pricey, as I recall, and they didn't sell out. I got one free on the day as an employee of CBS. He was introduced with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation, which situated his talk in a series of lectures by various people about the various crises the world faces today. But when he took the podium he merely pulled out a single piece of paper (I remember it, perhaps incorrectly, as yellow, lined note paper) unfolded it and, after thanking his hosts, began to talk. He now held forth coherently, intelligently, comfortably about the financial crisis, how it happened and what we should do about it, for about an hour and fifteen minutes, then answered questions for about forty-five more. He even offered some investment advice (buy munis, as I recall). One got the distinct impression that he was a man who had his mind all the way around his subject matter. He was lucid and informative throughout. He may not (I won't claim to know either way) have been right about everything, but he certainly knew what he was talking about. He was going to Stockholm, of course, to pick up his Nobel Prize in economics.

Andrew Gelman has asked me to compare Ferguson's brand of public intellectualism to Krugman's. As a place to begin, consider the two videos below.

The first is Niall Ferguson delivering a speech on July 3, 2012, on the occasion of Milton Friedman's 100th birthday at the Center for Policy Studies. The second is Paul Krugman on May 2, 2012, at the Economic Policy Institute, talking about his new book. They both appear to be among friends at their respective, like-minded think tanks. They both hold a short talk (Ferguson about 12 minutes, Krugman about 20 followed by questions). It's not a perfectly "fair" comparison because Ferguson had been asked to celebrate the memory of Friedman and Krugman is just supposed to present his own ideas (which is arguably a more comfortable position to be in as a speaker), but one does get a sense of the difference of intellectual persona between the two men. Perhaps even an indication of a difference in intelligence.

It's also convenient that both men begin by saying a few words about being a public intellectual. What they say, and especially the way they say it, is tellingly different. Ferguson begins by saying that he shares with Friedman "an enthusiasm for the low pursuit of journalism" (0:55), speaking admiringly of his appearances on PBS and his regular column at none other than Newsweek. "I have lapsed into writing for Newsweek myself of late," he then admits (this is before the recent "Hit the Road, Barack" blowup). All this then qualifies him to speak about "Milton Friedman, the public intellectual", which he then ironically translates into British English as "Milton Friedman, the hack". The rest of his remarks, then, are situated squarely in "the world of hackery", with which he is intimately, he assures us, familiar.

Krugman's remarks about the same theme begin by noting that "we have better economic discourse than we've ever had" because of the vibrant blogosphere. But he's not unreserved in his praise. The reason that he felt a need to write a book (about things his columns had already discussed) was that blogging, it sometimes seems to him, is too often like playing "whack-a-mole" (6:20). When you've defeated an argument it simply pops up in a new form somewhere else. But the point I want to emphasize this morning is one of tone. I think Krugman has a genuine love for public intellectualism. He really thinks it matters. Ferguson's irony (about "low pursuits", "lapses", and of course "hackery"), it seems to me, simply fails to conceal his underlying contempt for the discourse he so profitably participates in.

That's just my initial impression, of course. I'll say a bit more about it tomorrow.

Monday, August 27, 2012

An Atmosphere of Incisiveness

Inspired by a recent post of mine (which was inspired by a post of his), Ian Bogost laments "the fact that the professoriate—once [the university's] wacky, creative assets—are being processed into middle managers". As I say in my comment to his post, I think it's important to keep in mind that this has been going on for a long time. In 1938, Martin Heidegger held a lecture that was later published as "The Age of the World Picture". This passage has played a central role in my thinking about scholarly work for some time.

The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity, 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 with him which books must be written. (The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 125)

The phrase "ongoing activity" translates the German Betrieb, which can also mean "business" or "hustle" or, "busy-ness" as in "mere busyness", des blossen Betriebs. This image jibes nicely with the kinds of things people have been saying about Niall Ferguson. He's "hustling" his ideas. This gives his work an air of "incisiveness", but it undermines his more traditional air of erudition, learnéd-ness. (The German word for "scholar" is Gelehrte, i.e., learnéd one.) So, in his response to Pankaj Mishra's suggestion that he has come to write "whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour", he claims to have "consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment". Notice that this actually grants the central point: that Ferguson is more interested in what people think happened in history than what really happened. These are simply different ways (negative and positive) of spinning his engagement with received views, which replaces a curiosity framed by "the totality of what is known and said" among scholars. Indeed, Justin Fox rightly points out that the backlash against Ferguson right now expresses "a groundswell of resentment for and frustration with the 'thought leaders' who craft our conventional wisdom" (my emphasis).

I used to take Heidegger's remark as an expression of an unavoidable shift in the "conditions of possibility" of modern research. I'm now thinking that this "atmosphere of incisiveness" is beginning to stink. It's thick with the smell of money.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Totality of What Is Known and Said

A scholar has to believe on some level that things are known or understood only after being investigated, tested, read, interpreted, that there’s something unseemly about robbing the graves and morgues for cast-off “facts” in order to assemble them into a shambling, monstrous conclusion built from a hackish blueprint. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts. Being an expert means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation. (Timothy Burke)

Brad DeLong has a very pointed critique of Niall Ferguson up on his blog. He refers to the errors in his critique of Obama as "lies", calls for his firing from Newsweek and for (unspecified) "sanctions" from Harvard. "There is a limit, somewhere," he says. "And Ferguson has gone beyond it." Burke (above) agrees, though he does not call for any punishment. "I don’t have to regard Ferguson as a professional by the standards of any of my worlds, as a person entitled to say that he’s inside any of those sets."

I think this is an important discussion. Ferguson has lost the respect of (at least some of) his peers in the academic community. This is not because they disagree with him, or even because he is wrong, but because he seems to be willfully misleading his readers. Most importantly, as Burke puts it, he does not respect "the totality" of "what is known and said about" his subject. That respect is what scholarship is based on.

Also worth reading: Justin Fox at HBR and Daniel Drezner at FP. [Added Sept. 15, 2014: And John Cassidy at The New Yorker.]

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scholarly Writing vs. Public Speaking

Stephen Marche's post on Esquire's Culture Blog about Niall Ferguson is worth reading. It's a nice continuation of Eric Garland's thoughts about "our thirst for non-threatening answers" and Felix Salmon's critique of the "dark arts" of the TED conferences and their role in the Jonah Lehrer affair. Here's the part that troubles me most in Marche's piece:

Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

What is disturbing about this is that making a billboard is not only something other than scholarship, it undermines scholarship. Ferguson and Lehrer are both accused of shoddy work, and the explanation that is here being offered is that such work sells better than careful scholarship. Moreover, the writing itself isn't the "product". The writing is just a way of getting the speaking gig, which, in Ferguson's case appears to earn him fifty-thousand dollars per speech.

Meanwhile, academic life is becoming an increasingly ordinary affair, a job in which you hurry from task to task in an attempt to satisfy the demands of your bosses. There was a time when a tenured professorship meant you could think whatever thoughts you like, and reaching this state of intellectual freedom was the goal. Now, it seems, smart people have another goal. They develop "ideas worth spreading", meaning by "worth" that they can make a great deal of money off it, enough to buy their freedom I guess. "Thought," as Ian Bogost put it, "is just nature's way of banking." (Hat tip to Evgeny Morozov via Steve Fuller for the tweet.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


A collaborator of mine recently made a very astute observation. "You are trying to do for scholarly writing," he said, "what Billy Beane did for baseball." Writing Process Reengineering, he said, is the "moneyball" of writing. There are two senses in which this comparison is apt.

First, Michael Lewis's Moneyball tells the story of how the Oakland Athletics put together a competitive team while spending only one third what the New York Yankees spent on salaries. That means they had to make do essentially without "stars". Beane understood that stars are overpaid from the point of view of actual on-field performance. (They may of course do their job in terms of selling tickets and merchandise.)

Second, the basic idea was to find players who didn't have obviously spectacular stats that were directly related to runs, but who produced other results consistently. These players were simply undervalued by the recruiting system, and therefore less expensive. Simplifying somewhat, the idea was to shift the focus from hitting the ball out of the park to getting players on base.

In today's university culture, there are wealthy departments who can spend a great deal of money on hiring "star" faculty. And they compete with much less wealthy departments in the same system of rankings. A star is usually someone who has produced a significant number of influential journal articles. But maybe the way to a successful department is not to hire people who will "win games" for you. You have to put together a team that will consistently get men on base.

Ideally, the effect of my work will be to reorient hiring practices so that departments that can't afford stars will start looking for other qualities in their prospective hires. What is needed, for example, is not someone who publishes consistently in "quality journals", but someone who consistently submits work for review. At a deeper level, though there's no official statistic for this, hiring committees need to find people who write paragraphs every day. A "team" that has writers like this will "get men on base", and then the rest will follow.

As Brad Pitt says to one of the players in the movie version, trying to get him not to swing at every ball he's pitched out of concern for his batting average, "it's a process".

Finally, I like the comparison because it gives me such a great range of role models. Am I really the Billy Beane of academic writing? Or am I perhaps its Bill James? Or, if I manage to write a book about it, maybe I'm Michael Lewis. I could even be the endearing, if fictional, Peter Brand. Each in their own way, these are nice options. This morning, I'm going to settle on the humble proposition that I am, of course, the Brad Pitt of academic writing. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Paragraph Time

If you know something, I always say, you should be able to compose a prose paragraph about it in 27 minutes. A paragraph consists of about six sentences and no more than 200 words. So you should be able to write 3-400 words an hour about something you know, taking a three-minute break between each paragraph. Try it, and you will see that it's quite a lot of time.

Fans of The Matrix will remember "bullet time", the hyper-slow motion camera effect that allowed us to see objects and situations from all sides as action sequences unfolded. It was intended to simulate the way the characters were able to stay ahead of "reality" when dealing with it. They would slow the world down in their minds and therefore be able to take actions in an almost leisurely way that would otherwise require split-second reflexes.

I like to think that scholars can become adept at dealing with their textual environment in the same way. The idea is simply to establish a "long moment" (27 minutes) in which your only problem is to compose a single paragraph. You should know in advance (before you go to bed the night before) what the paragraph will say, i.e., what the "key sentence" is. Then, when you begin writing, everything slows down and you can manipulate the words you need in a calm and collected manner. If you learn to use 27 minutes effectively to compose a paragraph you will never regret having this skill.

"To write," said Virginia Woolf, "a woman needs money and a room of her own." A room is a region of space and time is money, as everyone knows. So all you have to do is become a Master of Time of Space. Just take it 27 minutes and one paragraph at a time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Do You Like Paragraphs?

Stanley Fish begins his How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (read the chapter here) with a story first told by Annie Dillard. Here's how she tells it:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?"
"Well," the writer said, "I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?"
The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint." (From The Writer's Life, reprinted in Three by Annie Dillard, p. 591, excerpted in the New York Times Book Review)

It's important to keep in mind that Fish and Dillard are thinking about "writing" in literary terms. The student wanted to be a writer of "belles lettres", fine writing. If a student was to ask me,"Do you think I could be a scholar?" I would answer differently: Do you like paragraphs?

Like Fish, I would say it's about how to write and read them. If you don't like expressing yourself in paragraphs, or if reading them bores you, then you will probably not enjoy the work. You have to have, as Fish puts it, "a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium". And, in the case of scholarly writing, that material is composed, in an essential way, into paragraphs.

The novelist or short-story writer or essayist can concentrate, I'm sure, on sentences. The reader is moved along by their rhythm and experiences the break between paragraphs mainly as a part of this rhythm. The poet's material is perhaps even more finely grained: composed of the turn of phrase. ("Strophe" means "turn".) But scholars must compose themselves roughly six sentences and 150-200 words at a time. They must always say something, some one thing that can be stated in a simple declarative sentence, and then support it with about five sentences more. As I've said before, the paragraph is the unit of scholarly composition.

It's important to find your métier. If you are drawn to beautiful sounding phrases, you may be a poet. If you like sentences, perhaps you are a novelist. Scholarly writing can benefit from good phrases and good sentences, of course, but it cannot rely on them, and it must not get hung up on them. To enjoy the scholarly literature you must be able to appreciate paragraphs, the composition of ideas into groups of sentences that clearly state and support identifiable ideas. You are not just evoking images or telling a story. You are communicating what you know.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back from Vacation

I'm back from my vacation and will be posting regularly again starting Monday next week. While I was away I followed the Jonah Leher story with interest. In addition to Michael Moynihan's original piece exposing Lehrer's fabrications, I especially liked Eric Garland's piece about "our thirst for non-threatening answers" and Felix Salmon's piece making the (to my mind wholly correct) connection to the "dark arts" of the TED conferences. See also this post by Edward Champion about Lehrer's self-plagiarism and his plagiarism of Gladwell, though Gladwell himself defends Lehrer. Lehrer's resignation from the New Yorker also appears to have broken Gladwell's heart. I think this underscores the point the Daily Beast is making in this slideshow.