Monday, August 12, 2013


(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)

I'm taking a "sabbatical" from blogging this semester. Actually, it's a sabbatical from pretty much all social media. I'll say something about it when I'm back in early 2014.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Utopian Epistemology

People sometimes tell me that my ideas about scholarly writing are great ... in an ideal world. In "the real world", by contrast, other conditions apply.

My first response is to point out that my ideas are entirely adjustable to whatever real, "on the ground", conditions you may be facing. So, in an ideal world, yes, you'd have three hours to write every day. But in the real world you can still write every day, if perhaps only for 30 minutes in some periods, where you're busy with other things. During truly brutal periods, you can write for as few as five minutes every day. That is, if my advice is to write every day for between five minutes and three hours, then surely I'm not insensitive to the limitations and messiness of real life?

On the other hand, I don't mind getting people to think about what an "ideal" research environment would look like. We can call this "utopian epistemology"*. If we organized a corner of society (call it "the university") for the purpose of providing ideal conditions for "the life of the mind", what would it look like? How would a day be structured? What would be demanded of researchers?

Now, my utopia would, of course, assign an important place to the practice of writing. And writing itself would be undertaken in a particular spirit. Simply put, researchers would understand that "knowing something" means being able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in half an hour. A significant portion of a researcher's day, therefore, would be spent writing paragraphs in 30-minute sessions (including a break of three or five minutes). Such a paragraph would state a claim and offer support for it.

In my utopia, then, all scholars are highly skilled crafters of prose. Their minds are trained to prose their world, if you will. The university would provide them with the time, peace and quiet, to keep themselves in shape as writers. And they would read each other's work as though it were a sincere attempt to communicate what they know to other knowledgeable people.

There is traditionally something "orderly" about utopia—something clean and well-lit, to use Hemingway's image. A utopian thinker doesn't like the "messiness" of real life, the way ordinary human foible, caprice, and even malice play into the conduct of social life. The utopian imagines a world in which everyone does their work in pursuit of commonly agreed upon goals. It is a world in which everyone has a purpose in life, and they pursue it openly, within the context of an institution that is set up to support them to that very end. In that sense, to be sure, a utopian epistemologist imagines an "ideal" university.

"Realists" and/or "cynics" take the view that people will always be driven by individual motives that are, often, at odds with the purpose of the institutions they work within. They see the institutions not, primarily, as ways to support the pursuit of common goals, but as ways of restricting individuals in their pursuit of private gain. The truth is, hopefully, somewhere in between, but I think the general societal trend these days has been to design (or "reform") or institutions not to help good people do good things but to prevent bad people from doing bad things. This also goes for the university. I think a little bit of utopian thinking would be a good thing at this time.

*I first came across the term "utopian epistemology" in Steve Fuller's first book, Social Epistemology (p. 283). He uses it to a somewhat different purpose there, but it's one that is connected to the sense I'm suggesting here. After all, if society had created the ideal university for the production and distribution of knowledge, the ordinary citizen would, presumably, feel somewhat differently than we do today about the authority of scientists.

Monday, July 29, 2013


". . . for we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told. . . " (Norman Mailer, The Deer Park, Ch. 24)

This past month I've run into the notion of "nihilism" three times, at least. The first was in that quote from David Foster Wallace's The Pale King about giving advice. His father[The father of one of his characters] saw self-pity at the root of nihilism. The second occasion was in trying to find a sentence I remembered from my reading of Camus' The Rebel. ("The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside out and treats it with affection and efficiency.") I finally found it in close proximity to his thoughts about how to move "beyond nihilism". The third was in a comment to Andrew Gelman's post about his recent piece in Slate about why we shouldn't always trust statistical studies with sensational headlines (like "Women Are More Likely to Wear Red or Pink at Peak Fertility"). Commenter "jb" took "the implicit take-home message [to be] rather nihilistic".

I get jb's point, and probably feel it more radically still. When I read (or write) critiques of particular studies in the social sciences that draw titillating conclusions from pretty flimsy datasets, I feel profound despair about the state of knowledge. Research, especially research about the human animal, seems to be driven by the headlines it can produce more often than the rigor it can achieve. (Making it into the mass media has become a kind of epistemological criterion. It confers additional credibility.) Fortunately, as Andrew pointed out soon after, there are stories where rigor trumped the quest for headlines too. But one is still left with the feeling that much of what we "know", i.e., think we know, about human beings is trumped up, i.e., has little or no evidence to support it.

That's the sense of "nihilism" I'm after here. That there is "nothing" behind the claims made by social scientists—at least often enough to undermine our trust in anything we hear from the social sciences until we check out the particulars ourselves. The "take home message" will be "nihilistic", in jb's sense, if we draw the conclusion that we can learn nothing about people except what we learn for ourselves. That is, even where social science provides a reliable method by which to approach an issue, it provides knowledge only to those who actually apply that method or have the competence (and access) to check whether others have applied it. In short, you can have "scientific" knowledge of society only if you, yourself, are a social scientist. The scientists cannot be trusted.

I'm not yet entirely ready to accept that conclusion. The personal and political consequences are simply too staggering to me. In a philosophical sense, however, I'm willing to consider the idea that the social sciences ultimately "have no object", that there is "nothing", no thing, there to refer to. People, whether alone or in groups, are not things. Society has no "objective reality". But it does have a no less important subjective ideality. Perhaps this is where nihilism can be transcended, albeit at the cost of becoming utopian. Much to think about.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Giving Advice

Earlier this month Jonathan Mayhew somewhat mysteriously withdrew from the "advice business". As someone whose livelihood depends on it, I'm looking forward to hearing what his reasons are. But this passage, which I just came across in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, offers a pretty good take on the issue.

This remains largely theory, but my best guess as to his never dispensing wisdom like other dads is that my father understood that advice—even wise advice—actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path. ... If you begin to get the idea that other people can actually live by the clear, simple principles of good advice, it can make you feel even worse about your own inabilities. It can cause self-pity, which I think my father recognized as the great enemy of life and contributor to nihilism. (208)

Wise words, to be sure. In defense of giving advice I can only say that this is really a criticism of the way people take it, not the way people give it.

In any case, I always tell my seminar participants that they will not learn what I have to teach them by believing what I say, but by doing as I say. While my advice (my approach to writing) is certainly reducible to a few simple principles, this does not mean that I deny "the totally muddled complication of [a writer's] situation and path". Clarity is possible, but only by repeated application of the advice (not repetitions of the advice itself) over weeks and weeks of actually writing. The advisee, perhaps, chooses to see a "wide gap" because he or she despairs over what is really a long road. It is by turning my advice into something you have to do, not just something you have to feel is true, that it becomes sensitive to the complexity of your situation. The advice is not supposed to change you. Your actions are.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Proper Activities

Steven Marcus: Have you ever written to merely improve your writing, practiced your writing as an athlete would work out?
Norman Mailer: No. I don't think it's a proper activity. That's too much like doing a setting-up exercise; any workout which does not involve a certain minimum of danger and responsibility does not improve the body—it just wears it out. ("Craft and Consciousness", reprinted in Pontifications, p. 18)

I have great admiration for Norman Mailer as a writer, even as a thinker. But what he says here seems poorly thought through. For one thing, he forgets the analogy to athletes that Marcus is suggesting. I'm entirely confident that Mailer would not say that Muhammad Ali was engaging in an "improper activity" when he was working out, taking a few rounds with a sparring partner, say, or even just going for a jog. To suggest that a writer's "responsibilities" when writing are somehow more serious than a boxer's when boxing is not just wrong, it's not what Mailer believes. So I'm quite sure he would retract this statement upon reflection.

Then there's the fact he's just plain wrong about working out. It is simply not true that an easy five kilometer run, or some light sparring in the ring, (or practicing your scales on the piano for twenty minutes,) wears the body out. The opposite is true. What wears the body out is to be always engaged in activities characterized by "danger and responsibility". Likewise, it is not good for your style to constantly (or even continuously) weigh it down with the duty or open it up to threats. You can do this for a few hours at most every day, when you struggle to "write for publication". During some periods, you should set this entirely aside and do, yes, some "setting-up exercises", entirely free of consequences.

People who are serious all of the time aren't really serious any of the time.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Errant, I

many pledge allegiance to the "blood god"
I pledge allegiance to the freaky horse
who watches over me as I sleep (K. Silem Mohammad)

My mind is ebbing low these days, at least when it turns to the question of the universities. Now, due to certain peculiarities of my personal history my hope for society as a whole, and my enjoyment of culture in general, passes unavoidably through my thoughts and feelings about the university, much as a priest, I would imagine, is constrained in his enjoyment of life by his attitudes about the church. In my case, of course, for the analogy to hold we'd have to imagine a somewhat rogue or at least errant priest. One who holds no office and is a member of no established order.

In any case, I just reread Adam Kirsch's "A Poet's Warning", about W.H. Auden's "Under Which Lyre" from 1946. He quotes a couple of important stanzas, and then comments:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

This advice is half-joking, but only half. For Auden is reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is extraneous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

I find myself increasingly unable to laugh. It seems to me that since WWII we have been half-jokingly compliant with too many initiatives that deserved, at the very least, our half-hearted recalcitrance. Lately, they aren't getting even that.

We have let the powers that be, or the forces of history, or whoever we've pledged our allegiance to, convince us that the cultivation of the freedom of inwardness (note the important role that privacy plays in this) is an outdated and somewhat quaint affectation, perhaps even a dangerous extravagance. Accordingly, we have slowly undermined the institution that was supposed to give dignity to what happens in the privacy of our own minds, and in the intimacy that can be established between any two of them. By converting education into essentially training in managing projects, passing tests, and holding tenable opinions about world affairs, we have, to use T.S. Eliot's similar formuation "confine[d] knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity." Only that which can be made public appears now to matter.

Monday, June 10, 2013


"...and the living is easy."

My stock advice goes as follows. Plan to work on your research writing in a calm and orderly way for four periods of eight weeks every year. Take about five weeks off from this routine at Christmas time, and about thirteen weeks off during the summer. This will let you fit two eight-week periods, plus a one-week break between them, into the fall and the spring semesters.

When I say you should "take time off" I don't mean that you should just be loafing. I mean take time off from the routine. The routine is simply this: every weekday for those eight weeks (and never on the weekends) write at least half an hour and at most three. Always decide the day before exactly when and what you will write. Never write something you didn't plan to write, and never write when you hadn't planned to. That means for 32 weeks of the year, and for somewhere between 80 and 480 hours in total, you will be in complete control of your writing.

During the remaining 20 weeks, you're free to be in less control. You can, of course, decide not to write at all. But that, too, is a form of control. I definitely recommend such a week of not writing over Christmas and that you take those two mid-semester breaks off completely too. Two or three weeks during summer are probably best spent resting your prose muscles as well. (I say "probably" because people are different and the important thing is to find your own way to write reliably.)

Altogether this leaves maybe 14 weeks to "experiment". Try writing impulsively. Try writing eight hours a day. Try not writing until you feel like it. Try writing whatever comes into your head. Try putting off the writing all day and then writing after dinner.

More moderately, if you've had a semester of "minimal planned writing", i.e., when you've written exactly one paragraph for exactly 27-minutes every day, eighty paragraphs in all, each of which you decided on (i.e., specified the content of) the day before, then you might try writing for two hours a day on a plan that specifies, say, all forty paragraphs of a single paper in advance. Re-writing the paper in this way over two weeks might teach you something important.

This blog is planned around the same calendar. That means that I start blogging regularly again on August 19. I haven't quite decided what the pattern will be, but I think I'll be posting every day at 7:00AM. Monday to Friday. I'll take a one-week break starting on October 14, and then break for Christmas on December 16.

Why think about this now? Well, the knowledge that you're going to be returning to a steady routine after the summer and that this routine will give you a certain amount of time to write a certain amount of prose (roughly: one paragraph every half hour) will help you relax and make you feel good about whatever experiments you decide to run. And that will make it more likely that you'll learn something from it. The goal is to discover the writer that you are.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (5)

She said, "You know, honey, it's such a shame
You'll never be any good at this game
You bruise too easily", so said Mary

-- Billy Bragg

A seemingly minor incident while I was a PhD student appears to have made a big impression on me. A friend of a friend had just completed his master's degree and was looking into opportunities to do a PhD. After he explained his project to me, I thought that one of the professors at my department might find it interesting so I arranged a meeting between them. The idea was to get some input on the shape of the project and, of course, to see if the professor might want to supervise the thesis.

It ended up being a very informal and very short meeting. The prospective student explained a bit about his background, the content of his master's thesis and what he wanted to do as a PhD student. The professor then said plainly that the only thing that mattered was finding some funding. Until that was in place (and he expected the student to solve this problem by some "external" means), there wasn't really anything to talk about. At the time, I was shocked and embarrassed on behalf of my institution, but in the months that followed I began to notice that this professor had decided that the university reforms that were going on back then (I guess about ten years ago) had changed what he called "the game" (shades of The Wire!). He had, apparently, decided to become an honest cynic. He would no longer play the part of the fool who actually takes ideas seriously. The sooner he could disabuse a budding scholar of the notion that his ideas mattered, the better he now felt he was doing his job. He was not going to pretend an interest in anything but money.

I suppose the air was thick with "incisiveness" that day. Instead of cultivating an air of erudition and a genuine interest in the developing intelligence of a young scholar, this professor was challenging the prospective academic to become a "man of a different stamp". Get used to hustling yourself into the social and material conditions under which your research might get done, he was in effect saying. The "game" of simply demonstrating your ability to make a contribution to a serious intellectual community that is driven by its own collective curiosity about how the world works no longer exists. First you must validate yourself externally. You do this by arriving at the department you want to work at (and in the office of the professor you want to work with) with, at the very least, a plan for how you will attract resources to pay your way.

Industrial PhDs in particular are expected to play this game. They create the conditions under which to do three years of research by negotiating with industry sponsors on the one hand and research institutions on the other. They become intermediaries that bring a bag of money to the department that gives them a position, and intellectual credibility to the company that funds them. The student gets a change of pace and an extra qualification at the end. Everybody wins.

The problem is just that an assessment of the mind of the PhD candidate is not really very relevant. Just as happened with that professor many years ago, other issues force themselves into the foreground. The ambitious, driven young go-getter who wants to add an intellectual edge to their profile (and do some interesting work) is much better suited for this kind of thing than the reflective, troubled intellectual who wants to get to the bottom of things. Indeed, for reasons that a writing coach like me can only find tragic, it's altogether likely that from the point of view of ensuring "completion", the go-getter is usually the safer bet. There's a broad range of quality that will ultimately yield a degree. Those who are likely to produce exceptional work are, perhaps, also more likely to be undermined by their perfectionism and somewhat, ahem, "intuitive", work habits. This is the problem that increasingly (if only metaphorically) keeps me up nights. The curious, deep-thinking type is in danger of being crowded out by the ambitious, hard-working type.

Both of these figures are of course caricatures. But we need to think seriously about what sorts of characters we are attracting to and repelling from the university on the new conditions. It's probably not yet impossible to get job if you are obviously a genius but just unable or unwilling to hustle; nor is it yet possible, I hope, to get yourself one if you lack all scholarly abilities but own a winning smile and have mastered one of the arts of influence. Still, we're getting there, I sometimes fear. And the tragedy is that both types are indisputably virtuous. This isn't about good people and bad people, nor about who deserves to be rewarded and who doesn't. It's about what types of minds are likely to dominate in our universities in the generations to come.

Academies and corporations both carry out valuable functions in society. But academic values and corporate values are simply not the same thing, even if they are of equal value. (If it is possible to not understand it too quickly, let's say that they are of "equal and opposite" value.) To assume that if two things are both of value then they are of value in the same way is, well, totalitarian. It would be no better if our corporations began to valorize academic attitudes.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (4)

One of the increasingly essential skills of today's researcher is the ability to secure funding. I'll deal with that tomorrow in greater detail. For now, suffice it to point out that there must be some very smart and curious people, people who are very much able to make important scientific contributions, who are not at all good at framing what they do in terms that will appeal to funding agencies. My point in these posts is, in part, that such people are going to be—are already being—replaced by people "of a different stamp".

Most of the arguments I've had about this issue have been derailed by a somewhat pitying, somewhat condescending attitude about the "geniuses" who are being marginalized by the current scientific order. These are the scholars who are, as Heidegger predicted, "disappearing". The system is defended by saying these people will just have to wake up to the new realities. "Life isn't fair," etc. Underlying this defense is an assumption that ultimately these people are just not willing to play the new game. Too bad for them.

I think this misses the point, or at least the point I would like to make. Even if we can accept the damage we do to the odd promising intellectual who, tragically, "just doesn't have the social skills", do we really want our research institutions to be populated by people who survive a selection process that focuses on those social skills? Do we want those skills to filter people out?

A good way of seeing the problem is by way of this lovely takedown of the BBC's New Generation Thinkers program by Rowan Pelling at the Telegraph. Her point is really important to make. What happens to research when virtues other than the intelligence and knowledge it takes to hold your own with the last generation of thinkers begin to determine your success as an academic? What happens when how well you come across on TV becomes a determinant of your success as a scholar?

Do we really want a system in which a conventional kind of beauty, or what E.E. Cummings called a "comfortable mind", defines what it means to be an intellectual? Knowledge as something that can be transmitted in a short TV interview.

Now, as Pelling points out, intellectual life is already less than fair, and success there is not wholly based on intelligence. (The intellectual has always cultivated a certain kind of "look".) The old generation, too, is populated by people who demonstrated a certain amount social savvy. But I like to believe that they at least charmed the hearts (rather than minds) of other intellectuals. While they may have corrupted them, they did not do an end run around them. Even if they drew on strengths other than their knowledge, the people they impressed were themselves actually knowledgeable.

What is happening now is that academics are making their careers by appealing much more directly to the instruments of power. They are not showing their employers that they can discover the truth. They are showing their employers that they can make the public believe that whatever they discover is the truth. And of course that their work is important. And their employers are impressed by the power that such abilities imply, not the knowledge that they are supposed to represent.

All this, it seems to me, is part of the new corporate culture of the university. Its employees are devoted to the goal of making their organization succeed, which is to say grow, which is to say, attract students and research funding. This new loyalty to the organization not the institution (an important distinction that I'll try to say something about next week), is exactly what corporatism is about.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (3)

" accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it..."

(From the announcement at the beginning of each of Ezra Pound's radio broadcasts from Rome during WWII.)

A free society requires not just freedom of speech but freedom of inquiry. Consider the enormous difficulty implicit in holding a qualified opinion on almost any subject today—whether in economics, politics, psychology, or even literature. Virtually every truth you can think of is beholden to one or another area of expertise. The opinions of private citizens working on their own to make sense of the world around them are merely quaint until they are supported by science.

Our universities are key sites in the construction of expertise. Almost all experts have been trained in a university setting, almost always through some form of graduate study. This study is what for all practical purposes qualifies them to hold the opinions they do (although their freedom to propagate their opinions in the media is rarely constrained by their particular expertise). Their qualifications, which are a combination of knowledge and authority, are then passed on to the coming generations through education.

The idea is to foster an "informed citizenry" whose opinions matter and whose judgements about who should govern and what their policies should be can be taken seriously. It is expected that citizens, both through education and media, are exposed to opinions that have been formed freely, which, as I like to say, means that they have been arrived at by people who have been intensely curious about the world in which they live and who have had ample opportunities to satisfy that curiosity. Our institutions of higher learning, our universities, our sites of research and teaching, are supposed to provide those opportunities.

Where they exist we can rest assured that truth will regularly be spoken to power. And we can have some respect for a power that is forced to hear the truth about itself, especially if it must listen to that truth in open, public forums. That's why free speech is so important. It is not enough that experts know the truth. The truth must be a public good, freely accessible and widely disseminated.

But what happens when the formation of expert opinion is itself subject to the exercise of power? That is, what happens if the conditions under which the qualifications to hold opinions (and the competences to express them convincingly) are controlled by the same powerful people who need the truth spoken to them? What happens when the very same power that needs to be counterbalanced by knowledge also has the power to determine who is qualified to speak—and even discover—the truth?

Today, as the university is integrated into the structures of an increasingly corporate society this power can be seen at work. The political apparatus conditions the scientific apparatus in myriad ways, and scientists are increasingly negotiating with private and public research foundations for the means to settle questions that are of interest not just to themselves but to "society at large". Those societal interests, of course, have to be "represented" before they can be served. And this means that, even in a democracy, the very same people who make policy also fund the science that both legitimizes those policies and makes the discoveries upon which their technical success depends.

We are approaching a situation in which "truths" (and scare quotes are, I'm afraid increasingly needed here) are assessed not according to their ability to satisfy our basic, human curiosity about how the world works, but according to their "convenience" (to turn Al Gore's evocative notion on its head) for one or another political project. (A truth that is inconvenient for one faction can, of course, be very convenient for another.)

I have to admit that I don't see how it could be otherwise. The university system is very, very costly, and someone has to make the decisions about where the resources should come from. Moreover, whether in physics or psychology, there's a sense in which a scientific discovery is always the discovery of a new source of "power". And those who fund research are not blind to opportunities this implies. But it is possible to fund an institution with an eye to maintaining certain basic conditions of free inquiry, rather than with an eye to how "useful" discoveries can most efficiently be made. Those possibilities, I'm afraid, are being lost as the university is reconstructed in the image of all the other corporations that increasingly determine what our bodies can do by turning science into technology.

Our technologies, as Norman Mailer warned, increase our power but reduce our pleasure. To truly satisfy our curiosity we must feel the pleasure of learning something new, not just something convenient. For someone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (2)

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

W.H. Auden

One of the most disturbing trends these days is the ease with which the university is getting "incorporated" into broader society, which is in turn fixated on "economic growth". It seems as though the only recognized limits to growth are environmental, whether in terms of resources or pollution. (If you really think they constrain corporate decision-making you might add political concerns like human rights.) The idea that "the truth" might also constrain human organization seems not to be considered. Indeed, the assumption seems to be that truth itself must be subordinated to the larger social project. This is what the rise of the corporate state means for the university. The pursuit of truth becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself.

"Whatever satisfies the soul is truth," said Walt Whitman many years ago. One way to institutionalize this insight is to ensure that there are places in society where individuals are free to satisfy their curiosity. That is what "higher learning" was supposed to be. If you want to know how life works, you have to provide a setting in which biologists can satisfy their own curiosity, not one in which they can find the cures that pharmaceutical companies can profit from selling. If you want to know what physical matter is made of, you need to let physicists satisfy their curiosity about it, not get them to make a you a bigger bomb than your enemy.

That's not to say we don't need cures and bombs. (I'm willing to discuss these things.) It's just that we also need to satisfy our curiosity. We need to make things work, yes, but we also need to know the truth, and the pursuit of truth is only that if its not subordinated to other ends. If it is organized on some other logic, it stops being what it is. Once we granted that policy makers and business leaders knew enough about knowledge to organize our universities, I fear, we gave up on one of the central projects of civilization.

Knowledge is in danger of no longer being a valued for what it is: a state of mind, a condition of the human spirit. And knowers are accordingly becoming merely another class of "professionals" whose dignity depends not on the clarity of their thinking, but the "incisiveness", as Heidegger put it, of their "ongoing activities".

T.S. Eliot once warned against a sense of tradition that demands at once too much and too little work on the part of poets.

While, however, we persist in believing that a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity.

In these entrepreneurial times, it is almost impossible to articulate the possibility that our society will be worse off if we do not have a place where sensitive, intelligent but not very effectual people can cultivate their interests, follow their inclinations. Clearly, the current trend is to conceive of knowledge as that which can be examined and finally published—something that can be "produced", manufactured. The universities are becoming just another place for ambitious, "highly motivated" people to succeed. The importance of not encroaching on that particular form of laziness that is also a kind of receptivity escapes us, it seems.

The state currently reserves the right to keep people busy. It really should consider the value of letting them think.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (1)

I'm changing the routine a bit here at RSL. The next few weeks I'll posting five days a week at around 9:00AM. I'm trying to get my thoughts organized for the first part of the book that I really must start taking more seriously. I thought about this again when reflecting on one of Jonathan's posts about how we conceive of "academic labor" these days. I agree with him that many of the stories we hear about the pressures people are under suggest that scholars are not being treated like professionals. Somewhat more controversially, I think they have stopped seeing themselves as professionals, and have come to understand what they do as no different from any other job.

But there's a small hitch here, which I think it is worth remarking on. Non-academics, including those who enter the so-called "professions", make a clear cut transition from the end of their schooling to the start of their careers. Scholars, however, never really leave school as they start their careers. So by the time they think they have to "grow up" and think of their work as "just like any other job", their image of such a job is based mainly on their experience with part-time temporary jobs and what they've heard from others. That is, they are operating with a caricature of what a "real job" is, and they too easily reduce their academic labor to that image.

[Update: read the Cold Hearted Scientist's related post about here. This one is worth reading too.]

This problem is exacerbated by the increasing tendency of non-academics to think they can tell academics how to do their jobs, even what the purpose of those jobs are. It can't be emphasized enough how foolish it is to demand that people who have been brought up in a tradition that emphasizes autonomous thought should suddenly begin to see their main responsibility as informing corporate decision making ("contributing to knowledge-based policy making," if you prefer) and and preparing students for the job market. Perhaps we do need an institution that prepares people for the realities of work in a modern society; but it is not at all obvious that the universities are the institution that should do it. Nor that their history should be interpreted as a failure to do so—a failure that has been allowed to go on for too long.

It was not their original mission.

The university is an institution in crisis because its organizations have been suddenly uprooted from the soil of their traditional purpose and transplanted into the artificial nutrients of a corporate economy. (I'll have to work on that metaphor a bit, I think.) Its members are not surprisingly feeling a bit disoriented.

I never tire of citing Heidegger on the "modern" transformation of science into research, which

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 Age of the World Picture", TQCTaoE, p. 125)

Maybe it's alarmist to point out that he wrote this four years after stepping down as Rektor of the University of Freiburg, having, I suspect, failed to "assert" the autonomy of the university in the face of the "total mobilization" required by National Socialism.

We live in a corporate state and corporatism is always in danger of turning fascist. One of the signs, in my opinion, is what Heidegger called "an atmosphere of incisiveness", i.e., the idea that we've got to "get out there" and "get our teeth into it" and "get the thing done". Something important is lost when this mood prevails in a university. And it is lost as people of a particular stamp, i.e., "scholars", are marginalized, and people of a different stamp, i.e., "researchers", take their place.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Life at the Periphery

I've been feeling a bit "existential" about what I do lately. My consulting and coaching activities engage with the work practices and life habits that constitute the social and practical "conditions of possibility" of modern research. My scholarship, meanwhile, operates "beneath method". I'm interested in the processes and practices that ensure the quality of our scholarship, i.e., the integrity of reading and writing practices. What is it that makes our writing "knowledgeable". In an important sense I'm always working at the boundary between "being" and "not being" a scholar.

Two papers that I published last year and a recent essay I wrote with Andrew Gelman might make it clear what I mean.

In "The Supplementary Clerk", my contribution to the 25th anniversary issue of Social Epistemology, I describe myself as a "practicing social epistemologist", comparing myself to Kierkegaard's pseudonymous Johannes de Silentio and Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. The latter, famously, "would prefer not to" do his job as copyist and the former emphatically declares that he is "not a philosopher". In much more radical senses than might apply to me, they have withdrawn to the outer edge of their professions, just barely practicing them if you will, but perhaps exactly thereby identifying its essential being. Their attitude reminds me of Socrates, who claimed only to know that he didn't know.

In "Legitimate Peripheral Irritations", published in the Journal of Organizational Change Management, I describe my attempt at a critical engagement with the area of organization theory that studies "sensemaking". Here, again, I construe my position as a "socratic" one, but this time in the sense of a "gadfly" that raises important but perhaps irritating questions. As I've discovered, while I would like to think that my work is in some sense "foundational", it is clearly not central to the relevant field of inquiry. I think, however, that we are increasingly in need of practical criticism in the social sciences in order to ensure that errors are discovered and corrected.

This leads to a third sense in which one can be on the outer edge of scholarship: science journalism. Andrew Gelman recently invited me to co-author an essay for The American Scientist about plagiarism. In "To Throw Away Data", we argue that plagiarism is wrong, not just because it passes off work that isn't yours as though it is, but because it disconnects your conclusions from the data that you are drawing it from. Research ethics are part of the epistemological foundations of scholarship in this sense.

At some level, what we know depends on who we are. Science is a social activity.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


"Three faults, which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom."

"Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation." (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, pp. 20, 30)

I went out hiking with a couple of friends yesterday. Trying to explain the point of a recent post on my other blog, I remarked in passing that I take vanity to be one of my vices. Like I say, I was hiking with friends, so this confession was not allowed to pass unchallenged. (I am fortunate to have good friends.) Vanity, I was told, is not one of my more conspicuous traits, at least not in any conventional sense. So we talked a bit about what I meant by it.

I think Connolly's way of putting it is very apt. The problem lies not in the ordinary worry about how good we are at what we do or how highly other people think of us. Everyone is entitled to think of themselves as competent and to enjoy the praise of others; they are even entitled to think they are a bit better and a bit better liked than they really are. The problem arises when this concern makes us unwilling to perform our talents publicly, i.e., unwilling to put ourselves in a situation to test the abilities we, and our peers, think we have. We can be "too vain to do something badly", unwilling to "[face] any fact that might teach us something." It is in this sense, I would argue, that I am vain, and it has (along with the other faults) so far prevented me from a successful career as a scholar, among other things.

I am too vain, of course, to consider the possibility that I am not smart enough. And while I don't approve of what is happening to our universities these days, I am not ready to blame my lack of success on these changes. They just provided me with new tasks that I was too vain to learn how to do well by first doing badly.

"Pull down thy vanity," Pound admonishes us. Hopefully it is never too late to do so, but I am, in any case, convinced that the sooner you do it the better. Put your ideas out there, let people tell you what they think of them. And listen to those thoughts. Don't think that all your ideas have to be brilliant, or even coherent. Sometimes, finally, the best thing to do is get away from your desk, out of the city; it can put things in perspective. "Learn of the green world," as Pound says, "what can be thy place."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetry and Prose

I did not intend to be "provocative" when I said that the paragraph is the smallest unit of scholarly composition. Though it's increasingly unfashionable (for good reason), I could cite Strunk and White's Elements of Style for support. Instead, however, I'm going to take up the challenge and show what I mean by comparing the poetry and prose of my favorite poet, Tony Tost.

Consider this paragraph (you can read it in context at The Rumpus), taken from his book Johnny Cash's American Recordings (Continuum, 2011):

If Cash’s violence was often excessive, it was never gratuitous. “Blessed with a profound imagination,” Dylan wrote of Cash, “he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” Cash took residence within songs in which sinners too were brought into conversation with the possibilities of grace and human dignity, songs in which even the wicked were invited to share their song. When he conjured moral authority expertly in his work, that authority was derived not from his ability to embody normative values but from his drive to sing powerfully from a location outside of a moralistic middle-range. Cash had a unique genius for bridging and containing these locations within the mythic version of himself: not as contradictions, but as a total vision.

Tony is obviously a capable writer of prose. In this paragraph it is clear what he is trying to get us to believe. He tells us in the first sentence. In order to support his claim he uses a standard rhetorical move, namely, the appeal to authority (here, one step short of an appeal to God, namely, an appeal to Bob). He then explains what Dylan might have meant by "lost causes of the human souls" by describing the place Cash granted to sinners. It is because Cash's work does not exclude "the wicked" that the violence we find in his songs is not gratuitous.

You don't have to agree with Tony to grant that he has here composed a perfectly good paragraph. And if you go back and read it in its context, it should become immediately clear how a paragraph supporting the claim that "Cash's violence was never gratuitous" fits into his larger argument. It is a unit of that argument that had to be composed to function in precisely that larger context. If Tony had just just left it at the first sentence, assuming we would take his word for it, rather than Dylan's, or just left it at a quotation of Dylan, without explaining what that quote is supposed to mean for his own purposes, he would have accomplished very little.

But compare his accomplishment in prose with the following excerpt from a project he called "1001 Sentences":

Every successful sentence lessens one’s reliance on memory.

What we do we do because of what we didn’t.

Erotic silence.

Unimportant themes are thrust forward to protect the more important ones.

The sun is also in the wrong.

I am assured that this poem is actually myself or at least that part of me which demands always to be before the camera.

Sometimes freedom is found in the teeth of the ladder.

My career is distinguished by how shamelessly I judge my enemy (the reader).

I see everything in you.

The center of all ignorance is found to pulsate a few miles behind your eyes.

This is the work of the same writer. And while it consists of sentences, and is certainly as accomplished in its way as the paragraph about Cash, it is clearly not prose. We could, perhaps, imagine this as a kind of "after the fact outline" of the key sentences of a ten-paragraph essay. The sort of thing that would happen if we extracted only the most pregnant phrases from the Cash piece:

It is grieving for the downtrodden while ignoring how one’s own boot heel leaves a mark on their throats.

His violence was often excessive, it was never gratuitous.

This is not a generalized desire to be free, but a very specific lust for freedom.

"I had a friend who was playing guitar with him at the time."


This is not quite poetry, but it's getting there. One of the most important differences between Tony's paragraphs and his sentences is that his paragraphs are clearly about something, they "represent" something, namely, the music of Johnny Cash. But a sentence by itself does not do this. In fact, in "1001" Tony is intentionally undermining the ability of each sentence to be about anything specific, by putting it in the context of the others. We can imagine writing a paragraph around each sentence that would make perfect sense of it. This is plausible precisely because we know how the "aboutness" of those sentences that were originally about Johnny Cash was lost. We'd just be doing that sort of thing in reverse.

There's a homework assignment here. First, turn Tony's prose about Johnny Cash into 10 sentences of poetry. Next, write a ten-paragraph essay that uses ten of Tony's "1001 Sentences" as key sentences. This will teach you something about what prose is (and isn't), perhaps even something mildly provocative.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Article and the Paragraph

It's not enough to be able to write a sentence. Scholars must be able to compose themselves in bigger textual situations, like paragraphs and articles.

The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition. If you're only writing sentences, then, you may be a perfectly good poet, but you're not writing scholarly prose. As a general rule—and there are, of course, exceptions—to write a paragraph you need to get at least six sentence to work together in stating a claim and supporting it. In scholarly writing we don't say things with the expectation that our readers will just believe us. We say things that the reader will believe after we give them reasons to do so, and those reasons are provided in the paragraph that supports each individual claim. The reader, then, will not be satisfied simply with six sentences that each assert something to be true. The sentences must be organized around a single claim (made by one of those sentences) and it must be clear how they all contribute to the believability of that claim.

An article is the result of joining paragraphs together, typically about forty of them. At least one of these will tell the reader what the article will show and support this claim with a description of the article itself, i.e., it will explain how the article will show it. An article has sections that group its forty compositional units (the paragraphs) according the kinds of claims they make and the effect they are to have on the reader. And these effects are again "composed" into a larger whole. In general, you are trying to transform the reader's expectations about how the world works. (You are contributing to the reader's ongoing intellectual development.) The theory section is devoted to establishing those expectations and the analysis is devoted to challenging them. In order for this work, of course, the reader must share your theory and find your analysis persuasive. The other sections are there to support this larger effect, to channel that rhetorical force, if you will.

"Article" means "little joint". (And "joint" is the hippest word in the English language.) In an article you join paragraphs together in order to join the conversation that is going on among scholars in your field.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Some Basics

A standard journal article in the social sciences comprises about forty paragraphs. Each paragraph is normally composed of at least six sentences and rarely more than two-hundred words in all. A good paragraph has a clearly defined "key sentence" that states the central claim of the paragraph; the rest of the sentences offer support or elaboration for that claim. If you read only the key sentences of a paper, you would know what the writer is trying to tell you, but not why you should believe it.

A paper consists of a number of stock moves. Normally, it will have to establish both the practical relevance of its conclusions and a theoretical framework around them. It will have to account for the method by which the data that is used to support the conclusions was collected, and it will have to present that data in a clear and surveyable manner. Finally, it will have to draw some implications from the conclusions.

Most of the tasks in a paper are descriptive. As a scholar you do well to learn how to write prose that describes what happens in ordinary, everyday practice. You also do well to learn how to re-describe that practice as the object of a theory, how practical activities look in theory. But a theoretical object can only be observed by following an acknowledged method. So learn to describe what you did to gather your data in a convincing, compelling way. Know what you readers expect you to have done before they'll believe you.

When writing your analysis, keep in mind that you are articulating a series of facts on the basis of the data. You are not just describing your data. You have to claim that the data indicates certain facts that exist independent of the data. You aren't just saying that people answered survey questions in a particular way, for example; you are saying that they believe certain things of their organization. It is your statements about those facts (about what people believe) that are true or false. The truths will have implications and some of them may be normative. So you do well, finally, learn how to write prescriptively, either for practitioners or for theorists.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Academic Writing

It may not seem so, but I've actually been trying to avoid the topic of academic writing these past few months. I'm afraid I've been cultivating a kind of mysticism about it, suggesting that as long as you sit down every day and try to write down something you know, style and structure will follow naturally. This is the "wax on, wax off" school of academic writing.

But a client of mine has recently persuaded me to return to explicit instruction in basic principles, including the elements of style. I'm going to be developing some workshops that are centered on the product (a journal article) rather than the process. To get started I thought I'd blog a little about what I take academic writing, or scholarly composition, to be.

Scholarly writing is, ideally, assertive and discursive. A journal article should make a series of well-defined, easily identifiable claims and provide support for them. And it should be written as part of a conversation in which those claims are discussed and evaluated. As the reader I should be able to quickly discover what the writer is trying to get me to believe—much more quickly than I should come to believe those things. I should just as easily be able to discern the reasons the writer is giving me to believe those things. Then I can make up my own mind.

All that is of course obvious in some sense. But it often seems to me that people forget these simple values when writing. They tend to forget especially that they should be writing down things they know, they should be stating claims they believe are true, and have some justification to believe are true. Their writing should mainly consist in statements of their beliefs and their justifications for them.

Scholarship is the process of forming beliefs in a critical and careful manner. And while writing certainly plays a role in that process, it is by no means a magical one. Perhaps the best way to see this is to think about what you assume will happen in the mind of the reader when they read your text. Hopefully, you assume the reader will come to believe what you believe about the topic you've studied. Hopefully you think the value of your research generalizes beyond satisfying our own curiosity or occupying your time. Rather, you are engaged in research in order to discover things that can be clearly and simply communicated to your peers, so that the true beliefs you've come to hold can also be held by others.

The fact that they are your peers should make it easier, not harder, to communicate with them. You know their language and have a good sense of the state of their knowledge when they begin reading your paper. The conventions of the journal article are a support too.

Once you realize that the background, theory, methods, analysis and implications sections constitute discrete rhetorical tasks, the task of planning and writing a whole paper becomes more manageable. The background offers an argument for the practical relevance of your study. The theory sets up expectations of your object that are shared by you and your reader. The methods section builds trust about the quality of your materials. The analysis adduces a series of facts to artfully disappoint the expectations you set up in the theory section. The implications deduces either a set of practical consequences (from the background and your analysis) or a set of theoretical consequences (from the theory and analysis) or both. The introduction and conclusion don't add anything substantial; these sections merely introduce and conclude.

The basic unit of composition is the paragraph. An article is composed of paragraphs. Each paragraph says one thing and supports it. That's my topic for Thursday.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Writing Process and the Learning Process

My last post has been getting quite a lot of traffic because of a tweet by Pat Thomson that described it as being about "not writing too soon". That's an entirely fair summary, but it makes me want to clarify something important. I don't want to leave the impression that writing should be put off until you, as it were, "know enough". My advice is that you should write what you know—but please don't forget that you always know something. That is, don't decide, on the basis of my advice, not to write for a few weeks while you're learning whatever it is you want to write about. Write about something else instead.

The misconception I'm trying to push back against is that we should always be writing on the project we're working on. Some people think that our writing should be collecting new discoveries for us, that if we don't write them down now we'll lose them. This idea is closely related to another widely held view: that knowledge is actually (and some say only) produced in the writing process. It's true that presenting your thoughts to yourself in writing can help clarify them, but real knowledge comes from your actual experience with the facts you are studying.

Your prose is a capacity to write your knowledge down, and you write in part to make a record of what you know that can enter a conversation with peers, and in part to keep your prose in shape. With that capacity in place you can go about the business of learning, i.e., becoming more knowledgeable, at a reasonable, comfortable pace.

This learning process should be separated from the writing process. You can never predict when you'll finally figure something out, i.e., when new knowledge will come to you. And you don't want to expose your writing process to that unpredictability. So at the end of every day, after having learned whatever it is you've learned, just take a moment (five or ten minutes) to choose between one and six things that you've known for a while to write down tomorrow, one half hour at a time.

For at least half an hour every day, you should be writing down things you learned weeks, months, even years ago. In addition to teaching and administration, you should then also spend some amount of time every day learning new things (by reading, thinking, analyzing, observing, etc.). You should not be learning those things as "preparation" for tomorrow's writing session. You should not be learning under the pressure to write. You should just be learning. And you should not be writing under the pressure to learn. You should just be writing what you know.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Means and Ends

It's a question that is sometimes put to novelists: Do you eat in order to write or write in order to eat? In academic settings, we can ask a similar question: Do you know in order to write or write in order to know? Both questions are supposed to indicate a paradox, or at least a dilemma. In this post I'm not going to pursue any profound solution, but use them as a jumping off point for some ideas about separating your research process from your writing process.

Do you engage in research in order to publish articles or publish articles in order to engage in research? Neither seems quite right. That's because, in addition to its role in making the other possible, each activity has an intrinsic value. You have to do some research in order to have something to say in your papers, and if you don't publish, you perish, i.e., you lose the academic position that gives you the time you need to conduct research, but neither explains why you do the other.

You conduct your research to satisfy your curiosity about a topic that interests you. And you publish the results of your research out of a genuine interest in discussing what you've discovered with your peers. But these intrinsic values have been challenged in recent times by the extrinsic values of research assessment. As a result, it sometimes seems to me, scholars too often envision their research projects with a far too narrow focus on generating publishable results. They are too worried about the "deliverable", namely, the papers that they hope to write on the basis of the research they're doing.

They are not writing down what they know but coming to know things they can write down. There are a great many political issues here that I will leave on the side for now. I want to point out that this approach is trying to solve the problem of writing by a very poorly suited means.

It assumes that there's a well-defined goal, namely, writing a research paper, and that a research project must be undertaken to provide materials for that paper. The transformation of your opinions on the subject of your inquiry falls entirely into the background. We have to find a way of recovering a place for this important experience. We have to have a place to change our minds. Since it is still April, let us call this place "the imagination".

My practical solution is to set up your writing process to be writing down things you know well, and have known for some time, rather than things you're just beginning to understand. I can't tell you how long it will take you to discover whether or how a particular management practice works or how it is transforming the nature of work itself. But once you have made your discovery, I have a pretty good way of writing it down so that after twenty hours of work you've got a first draft. And while you're doing this, I want to emphasize, you're discovering new things that you will be writing down in the same calm and orderly way weeks or months down the road. The problem of writing arises after you know something. But don't let that subordinate the problem of writing to the problem of knowing. They are two separate but equally important tasks.

I'll talk some more about all this in the weeks to come.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Norms and Models

The answer to Tuesday's yesterday's riddle (which was inspired by Thomas Presskorn's comment) is that models are to theories what norms are to practices. That is,

Models determine the meaning of a "mere" perception as an empirical fact.

That wasn't actually a very good sentence, but it was enough to suggest a solution to the puzzle.

The etymology of "norm" was helpful: '"standard, pattern, model," 1821, from French norme, from Latin norma "carpenter's square, rule, pattern".' When we turn to "model", things get even better: 'from Latin modulus "a small measure, standard," diminutive of modus "manner, measure"'. A norm is essentially an ethical standard, just as a model is an epistemic one.

It's interesting here to recall Kuhn's reflections in his post-script to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

...along the spectrum from heuristic to ontological models, all models have similar functions. Among other things they supply the group with preferred or permissible analogies and metaphors. By doing so they help determine what will be accepted as an explanation and as a puzzle-solution; conversely, they assist in the determination of the roster of unsolved puzzles and in the evaluation of the importance of each. (246)

Notice here the strong influence that models are said to have on what I've been talking about this month as imagination. By setting up "permissible analogies and metaphors", as well as defining relevant puzzles and acceptable solutions to them, they ultimately tell us what is to count as a "fact" in a particular area of research. [And facts are what the imagination makes us pictures of.] That's why Kuhn is right to talk about them as both "heuristic" and "metaphysical" components of paradigms. After all, what we find puzzling is the state of the facts, and only the discovery of new facts will dispel our puzzlement in a satisfying way. Models discipline the imagination.

Riffing on the etymology again, I think we can usefully think of norms as patterns in human action. It is those patterns that make our actions meaningful. And it's interesting to look at models precisely as "manners": they are are ways to experience things. Facts are really patterns in our data. And we notice some patterns and not others according the models we have been trained to use as guides ("carpenter's squares") in our analyses of our perceptions. Just as acts conform to, or push against, or even break with our norms, facts conform to, or push against, or break with our models. It's that relationship that makes them what they are.

(Notice the value of this kind of analogical reasoning. Thinking about the general features of norms, and tracing the etymology back to the Latin for a carpenter's square and pattern, we can apply these images to our understanding of models. Basically, we are noticing the "normative" aspect of models: how they influence our perceptions. We are also noticing the way norms constitute "model behavior", e.g., how the "normal" is constructed by appeal to "role models".)

The social sciences have to keep in mind that while they are, like all other sciences, primarily interested in the facts, which they derive from their perceptions according to their models, the relevance of their inquiries depends on the actions the facts bear upon. And those actions are meaningful, i.e., they become proper, socially sanctioned "acts", by virtue of the norms that are in force in a particular culture at a particular time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Our Theoretical Others

We are as likely to distinguish the theoretical moment of research from its empirical moment as we are to distinguish theory from practice. But note that these two ways of setting up an "other" for theory are very different. In the one case, we are considering theory according to its empirical adequacy; in the other, we are considering it according to its practical relevance. This distinction can help us to think about the contribution that we would like to make with our research, or its "force", if you will. And this, in turn, can help us to organize the paper we are writing.

Consider the outline of what I call a "standard social science article". It has the following parts:

1. Introduction
2. Background
3. Theory
4. Method
5. Analysis I
6. Analysis II
7. Analysis III
8. Implications
9. Conclusion

Let's consider the structure of the introduction. The first paragraph will describe "the world"; the second will describe "the science"; the third will describe "the paper". These paragraphs can also be understood as summaries of the practical, theoretical and empirical content of the paper respectively. The first describes the practice that your research studies. The second describes the theory that frames your research. The third states your empirical conclusion, summarizing also your method (which generates the data on which your empirical claims are based) and the implications you have drawn from your work.

The background section merely develops the description of practice you have provided in your introduction. The theory section of course develops the content of the second paragraph, and the methods, analysis and implications sections unpack the content of paragraph three.

Finally, the conclusion consists of two paragraphs. The first states your empirical conclusion in the simplest possible way (given at least six sentences and at most 200 words). The second tells us how things stand from point of view of one who has come to understand your conclusion and, in particular, your implications.

Now, your implications may be of a theoretical or a practical nature. Your research, we might also say, may carry mainly empirical or normative force. You are either going to let the practice, construed as an empirical object, "push back" against your theory, i.e., let the theory absorb the implications of your empirical conclusions as a number of modifications (which will, of course, be specified in your implications section), or you will let the theory "push forward" into the practice, using your empirical conclusions to suggest normative implications (which are again stated in the "implications" section).

What I find personally interesting in this way of thinking about your paper is the subtle "othering" that is going on—the way the various parts of the argument define themselves by distinguishing themselves from the other parts. First theory is introduced as an other to practice, then the empirical material as an other to the theoretical frame. Later, however, the empirical content itself may be distinguished from its normative force. And norms (ideals, if you will) are of course to practice what facts (realities) are to theory.

Where is all this brought together? In the imagination, of course—yours and that of your reader.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Discipline and Spontaneity

If I remember correctly there is a scene in the classic sitcom Cheers in which Diane Chambers, an "academic", "sophisticated", and "pretentious", college student, cocktail waitress, and aspiring writer, is accused by the rest of the gang at the bar of lacking spontaneity. She denies it: "I can be spontaneous." Then clarifies: "When it's appropriate." The joke of course is that this is hardly the kind of spontaneity that her friends are talking about, nor what is called for in the moment. (I can't remember what the episode was about. But it required her, I'm guessing, to go out and do something rash. Against her natural inclinations.)

Playing vaguely on Kant's use of the word, we can say that an act, whether mental or physical, is "spontaneous" when it is underdetermined by the current situation you are in. If you do something "spontaneously", there is nothing in the present moment that requires it of you. It is, in that sense, always "inappropriate". As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: "A cognitive faculty is spontaneous in that whenever it is externally stimulated by raw unstructured sensory data as inputs, it then automatically organizes or 'synthesizes' those data in an unprecedented way relative to those inputs, thereby yielding novel structured cognitions as outputs."

When you sit down to write according to a plan, at particular times, to work on particular paragraphs (which will make particular claims and provide support for them) you are not, of course, behaving in an outwardly very spontaneous way. On the contrary, you are behaving in a very disciplined way. But this is in many ways just an appearance. Because you are writing, what you have done is given yourself 27 minutes to be truly spontaneous. For 27 miunutes, your imagination is unconstrained by circumstance. It has no significant "stimuli", "input", or "data" to "synthesize". It can "yield" its "novel structures" out of thin air, based entirely on what you already know. Since you have decided in advance what to write about, you don't even have to "come up with something".

You just write. Your spontaneity is focused on the way you say things. You've given yourself an appropriate situation in which to be entirely spontaneous. Use your imagination.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Discipline and Process

A well-designed process produces something in a reliable way. Of course, the process has to be supplied with the appropriate materials. You can set up a process to produce sausages, but without the right ingredients the product will not be what you want. But given the raw materials, once the process is set in motion we can expect a product after it is done.

When I talk about the writing process I do basically mean "process" in this sense. Given a set of materials (your knowledge), you can set up a process to reliably produce a piece of writing, a text. The first draft of a journal article will take you 20 hours to write, one paragraph every thirty minutes. You can write between one and six paragraphs a day. Working two hours a day, it will take you ten days, two five-day weeks, to produce the draft. Another two weeks and you will have been able to re-write the whole thing one more time. The process, when it is running, is perfectly reliable.

An absolutely crucial assumption in my approach, however, is that you know something. I focus on the problem of writing things down, not on the problem of having something to say. But the great thing about your knowledge is that you don't use it up in writing. "Running out of things to say" is a bit like a jogger "not having someplace to go". You can always go to the same place you've been before. The materials for writing, like the materials for jogging, are always available to you, so long as you don't think you always have to get somewhere new.

That's where your process intersects with your discipline. There is the larger 20-hour process and the smaller 27-minute process. The smaller process produces a paragraph, the larger process produces an article. But whether or not that process runs is a matter of discipline. You have to sit down and actually write the paragraph and then move on to the next paragraph according to your plan.

Discipline is important because it gives your imagination a place to function. Writing is not, finally, an automatic process. It is an imaginative act. It's true of any process that if it set in motion without proper care for the materials being processed it will simply harm those materials (and the machinery). If, however, it is followed in a careful and disciplined way, a process will improve itself simply by running. With a little discipline, your process can function in the same way.

I'm going to say something more about the role of imagination in this process on Thursday.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Limit of Imagination

In my last post, I said that imagination constitutes a limit for discipline. We might also say that scholarship cannot be successfully accomplished by discipline alone. Work as hard as you might, you won't succeed as a scholar if the discipline is not energized (as Williams would put it) by imagination. Too much discipline (which is really not discipline at all, of course) will constrain and ultimately extinguish imagination.

This point falls under a general principle I've previously put as follows: As a worker in the "spirit" you have a moral obligation to avoid soul-destroying labor. Your discipline will not produce what you want to produce, it will only give your mind a series of occasions to express itself more precisely. (I recently put it another way in conversation with a writer: good writing is not about production but precision. It works better in Danish. "Det handler ikke om at producere, men at præcisere." There is a verb form of "precise", i.e., "to [make] precise", that works just like "to produce".)

The disciplined writer has a disciplined mind. But it's a discipline that knows its own limits. It only provides a time and space for the writing to get done. It supports the work of the imagination; it does not drive it ... like a slave. After all, the most important thing about the imagination is its freedom. Having a healthy imagination means being able to form images freely.

But discipline also marks a limit for imagination. Think of the writing process as a series of occasions to "prose" your experience. Without your imagination your experience would be highly impoverished, a mere series of responses to stimuli. But without prose your imagination would only ever play at thinking, never truly work. If you give yourself a definite amount of time (I suggest 27 minutes) to write a definite amount prose (I suggest one paragraph) you are establishing a humane constraint on your mental labor.

Williams says he "let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself" (Spring and All, p. 43). He doesn't say so explicitly, but I believe he discovered that it could not. The imagination is both embodied in an individual and embedded in a society. Opportunities for the precision of poetry, we might say, are always situated in the ongoing production of prose. By writing (and, for that matter, reading) in a disciplined way, you are letting the imagination live its own life. It can't keep itself alive.

One last point. I say "the imagination", not "yours", to emphasize a certain moral obligation. The imagination isn't yours to save. We are collectively responsible for its well-being.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Discipline and Image

Thinking about the imagination has given me a way of emphasizing something important about the work I do. I sometimes worry that I am simply part of the increasing pressure on academics to become more "productive". There is some truth in the charge because I do believe that scholars generally don't use their time and energy well enough, and I am certain that this means they are producing less than they could, and at greater effort than they should. It's not wrong to say I'm a "motivational speaker" for scholars and a "management consultant" for university administrators.

But I don't like this view of my work (nor really the underlying assumptions about the state of scholarly work) because it focuses on what is really a non-intellectual output, namely, what is sometimes (or was once) called "text production". I prefer to see the writing we do, not as an "output" of scholarly work, but as part of a larger process. First of all, of course, we write in order to be read, and both the reading and writing are ongoing processes. What then is the output of this larger endeavor?

Borges talked about the "dialogue [a book] establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." The real purpose of the writing we do is to enter into such a dialogue, to help shape the voice and memory of the reader. We write, not to impress our employers, but to "impose" ourselves on the minds of our peers. So "productivity" here cannot really be measured in terms of how many articles we publish.

Still, the authors I work with all have a sense that they are underperforming in some sense. Otherwise they wouldn't seek me out, after all. And I also immediately try get them to think in terms of quantity rather than quality. This is one of the things I get from Jonathan Mayhew: "quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality."

Someone who spends, say, 60 hours, every eight weeks, composing 120 paragraphs (about three articles worth of prose), 27-minutes at a time, will have subjected their "voice and memory" to a discipline that someone who does not do this has not. And what they are ultimately doing is, not just "writing for publication", but developing their ability to imagine facts. They will need imagination to pass from the facts they know to the prose they are writing, and from the prose they are reading to the facts they might learn there. A healthy imagination is better for the whole scholarly community.

So when writers think of themselves as in need of improvement, I'm now realizing, I need to address myself, not to their ability to "produce", but to their ability to imagine. Imagination provides an appropriate focus for the discipline I try to teach. But it also sets a limit. We must be disciplined, but not at the cost of our ability to form images of the facts.

I'll develop this idea a little further on Thursday.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Fact and Image

"To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination."

"The jump between fact and the imaginative reality" (William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, p. 3, 70)

It is the task of research to "determine the facts". It is the task of research writing to articulate those facts in coherent prose paragraphs. But there is no automatic way to get from the fact in the world to the paragraph in an article. The facts do not make themselves known, and they certainly don't write themselves down. Wittgenstein rightly said that "We make ourselves pictures of the facts." That is, we have to imagine them.

I worry that this "jump" is being forgotten in academic writing today, certainly within the social sciences. What C. Wright Mills called "the sociological imagination" has been gradually replaced (as Mills himself complained when he developed the notion) with a kind of unreflective sociological "confidence" or, better, arrogance. (And this of course leads to all kinds of feelings of insecurity in the individual scholar who is trying to write.) It is a faith in (and orthodoxy about) the ability of theory and method to establish an, if you will, "official" relationship between facts and our statements about them.

Although this point is not made explicit, it strikes me as an attempt to make do without imagination. It is an attempt to "address ourselves", not to the visceral imagination of the reader, but to his or her disembodied intelligence. We think (hope) that we can communicate the facts "as such" to the reader without having to evoke anything as a poetic as imagery in their minds. We forget that our research community is made up of living persons, that it's not just an impersonal institution that "knows".

I'm not opposed to facts. I'm as amused (when I'm not horrified) about the factless "truthiness" of pundits and futurists. But, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, a good teacher "puts cartilage between the bony facts". Elsewhere he declares: "I will not be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts. I refuse the universal alibi." Social inquiry invokes the universal alibi of "those are the facts" too often, I think. We have to address ourselves again to the living imagination of our peers.

* * *

I'm hoping that this is something we'll be discussing as part of's book forum about Richard Biernacki's Reinventing Evidence this month. The practice of "coding" texts, rather than actually reading them has long struck me as part of the project of replacing style and imagination with theory and methodology.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Academic Imagination

It is spring. And since 1923, when the American poet William Carlos Williams published Spring and All, this has been a time for celebrations of the imagination. This month I will be devoting both of my blogs to this task. On my other blog, I'll be writing about philosophical and poetic imagination (imagination "as such", if you will). But here at RSL I will be writing about how imagination is situated in our universities.

It's been dawning on me, too slowly I fear, that this is really what all of my efforts have been about. "Efforts" might be the wrong word. Williams talks about "a time when [he] was trying to remain firm at great cost", but "moved chaotically about refusing or rejecting most things" (SA, p. 43, 42). I hope I can one day, like him, declare that "Something very definite has come of it" (43).

Academic imagination is not a distinct "faculty" of the mind. It's just ordinary imagination put to a particular kind of use, guided by a particular set of social and material forces. (Imagination is itself a force.) Roughly speaking, imagination is that which allows us to "make pictures" of "the facts". But Williams is right to reject the idea that these pictures are somehow "copies" of the facts, or that such pictures is all the imagination makes (30). What the imagination actually does is to instantiate a "reality" that brings the facts into meaningful contact with each other (70).

In the university, the relevant reality arises in conversation, and much of the conversation takes place in writing. So academic imagination is very much a kind of textual imagination. It is, or at least should be, highly disciplined. It should be trained to be "assertive", which is to say, it should be able to make claims or state facts. While this may not at first pass seem very "imaginative", it is important to keep in mind that part of making a claim is defending it, and in order to do this one must be able to imagine alternatives. As an academic you are not channelling truth from some infallible source. You are saying that something happens to be one way even though we can quite well imagine it to be otherwise.

The particular dynamic of academic writing lies the social nature of this "otherwise". When you are writing for scholarly publication you are positing a reality as it can be imagined (and therefore critiqued) by your peers. You have easy access to the workings of this collectively imagined reality through the writing that those peers themselves publish. In your own writing, you are training yourself to imagine what they imagine. In your reading, you are learning, in part, how to write.

This sounds somewhat "conformist", I suppose. But surely the value of a social institution like a university is to foster a shared understanding of our world and of our history. This does not have to mean that the institution merely "indoctrinates" us. Rather, it means that the free development of our imaginations is undertaken in a social context. That is, we expose our own ability to imagine the facts to that of others and develop our ability to think "freely" within this constraint.

Williams, who was often very critical of the university, says he took "recourse to the expedient of letting life go completely in order to live in the world of [his] choice. [He] let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself" (43). That's the way of a poet. The scholar takes another approach. The scholar proposes to hold onto life throughout the process, to make a life (a career, even a family) alongside the work of imagining the reality we study. That's certainly the approach I recommend here at RSL.

Monday, March 25, 2013


Following my own advice, I'm taking a scheduled one-week break from blogging. This blog is updated on a regular schedule in eight week periods from February to March, April to May, mid-August to mid-October, and mid-October to mid-December. This discipline is part of my effort to let my ideas about scholarly writing form (perfect themselves) gradually in discourse. I'll be back on Tuesday, April 2, for another eight weeks of posts, twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00 AM.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


One reason to plan your writing is to focus your attention. If you give yourself, say, eight hours in a particular week to write, and you conceive of these eight hours as opportunities to write sixteen particular paragraphs, then you can shut out a lot of distractions and concern while writing each of them. Also, since you'll be making sixteen definite attempts to contribute to your writing projects, you can make each attempt in a careful, deliberate way. The trick is to remember that for the 27-minutes that you are working on it, that paragraph is all you need to accomplish.

It helps to choose the paragraph wisely. Always choose it the day before and always choose one that you are confident you know enough to write. (If you're writing for one hour, choose two paragraphs. If you're writing for two hours, choose four paragraphs.) Don't set yourself a task that you aren't ready for. Pick something you know rather well, and pick it in the spirit of "What's the next paragraph I both can and should write?" Once you've decided that you will write, you may as well choose, from among all the things you haven't yet written down, something that you know.

That is, don't set yourself a vague writing task that might require knowledge you don't yet have, or only just barely understand. Write clearly about ideas you are confident about. When the writing session begins remember that you will be working on this paragraph for only the next twenty-seven minutes. There's nothing else that you should be doing in that time. This will help you focus.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


It's very difficult to decide what counts as a reasonable amount of effort in scholarship. Physically, it's hard to take the effort of reading and writing seriously. And you can even find some scholars that think the idea of "intellectual" effort is a bit quaint. But academic life, like life in general, is actually quite difficult existentially. You are always managing a system of social relations, you are working to secure your place in a social network. Making a knowledge claim is always also a presentation of self: you are identifying yourself as someone who believes something in particular. Those who share your belief and those who oppose it will take notice.

That can be hard. But how hard should it be? How much work should it demand? I constantly struggle to convince the authors I work with that they should try not to think of this effort subjectively. They should not feel like they are working very hard. They should not work as "much as possible" on a paper up to the date it is due unless they have a very realistic sense of "the possible". As much as possible, we might say, while having a life.

They should do a limited, planned amount of work every day, somewhere between one half and three hours. They should decide in advance what work they are going to do, and then do it in a calm and collected way. The existential consequences (the alliances and conflicts that your knowledge claims imply) are deferred until your paper meets its readers. Think of the boxer. Training for a fight is "hard work", but not, importantly, in a way that wears the fighter out. It must build the boxer up.

The same is true if you're writing a conference paper or a journal article. Don't think of the writing as a performance but as training for a particular "confrontation" with your peers. You want to be strong when that confrontation happens. The conference paper is training for your conference presentation. The journal article is training for the revisions that your reviewers demand.

That last notion is important. Think of writing a journal article as a way of preparing your mind to receive criticism from other knowledgeable peers. Then, when the reviews come back, deal with them matter-of-factly and practically. Think of your daily writing mainly as a way of keeping yourself in shape to produce the selection of paragraphs that you will actually publish.

In the moments when you are struggling to understand and respond to a peer's questions and suggestions, you might sometimes, and rightly, feel that scholarly work is hard. But wearing yourself down, from day to day, week to week, on the actual writing will only make it harder. It's like a boxer who runs a marathon twice a week for six months before a fight. That's not a good strategy.