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.