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 OrgTheory.net'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.