Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Ethos of Research

To begin with the ethos of research, as a way into research ethics, is to make the assumption that theorizing is itself a practice. This assumption is familiar to scholars in the field of science studies, but can be found already in Heidegger's Being and Time. It's probably not original even there. In any case, since research, like existence more generally, is something we're "thrown" into, we must suppose that our determination of what practices are "correct" and "incorrect" qua method and "right" and "wrong" qua ethics is rooted in a set of dispositions that are probably best called "character", which in turn is one of the root meanings of the word "ethos". When Foucault proposed to "envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history" he used that same word to explain himself. I mean something similar when I suggest we approach research methodology not as a set of rules but as way of doing things in order to see them in a particular way, a style of perception.

In the two passages I quoted yesterday, I emphasized that research "forms" people, that researchers are "subjected" to influences. I think it is important to speak plainly about these influences, these formative processes. After all, while it may be a relatively straightforward matter to condemn, say, plagiarism in general, it is far more subtle business to avoid it in one's own research and censure it in others. Both take a kind of "character", and we ask ourselves whether the research environment we work in is likely to form that kind of character. The practical ethics of a particular discipline is not made up only of a set of formal rules, dos and don'ts, that sanction and constrain, but a complicated array of incentives and moral hazards that make some courses of actions easy and others difficult. I have long complained that in my own field it seems far easier to commit plagiarism than to expose it. Since it is of course in clear violation of the ethics of the discipline, this is a good example of the difference between ethics and ethos.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Notes on the Ethos of Research

I'm putting together some thoughts on research ethics. This morning, I'd simply like to present to two longish quotations—one from Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture", and the other from Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge. I think Foucault acknowledged a profound debt to Heidegger late in life, and I hope you'll be able to recognize the affinity between these two passages almost immediately.

First, then, Heidegger:

What is taking place in this extending and consolidating of the institutional character of the sciences? Nothing less than the making secure of the precedence of methodology over whatever is (nature or history), which at any given time becomes objective in research. On the foundation of their character as ongoing activity, the sciences are creating for themselves the solidarity and unity appropriate to them. Therefore historiographical or archeological research that is carried forward in an institutional way is essentially closer to research in physics that is similarly organized than it is to a discipline belonging to its own faculty in the humanistic sciences that still remains mired in mere erudition. Hence the decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written. (QT, p. 125)

Next, Foucault:

The history of ideas usually credits the discourse that it analyses with coherence. If it happens to notice an irregularity in the use of words, several incompatible propositions, a set of meanings that do not adjust to one another, concepts that cannot be systematized together, then it regards as its duty to find, at a deeper level, a principle of cohesion that organizes the discourse and restores to it its hidden unity. This law of coherence is a heuristic rule, a procedural obligation, almost a moral constraint of research: not to multiply contradictions uselessly; not to be taken in by small differences; not to give too much weight to changes, disavowals, returns to the past, and polemics; not to suppose that men's discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of their desires, the influences they have been subjected to, or the conditions in which they live; but to admit that if they speak, and if they speak among themselves, it is rather to overcome these conditions, and to find the point from which they will be mastered.* (AK, p. 149)

Jonathan has been writing about his "formative" experiences on his blog lately. In thinking about research ethics, I want to begin with the way the institution and organization of modern research forms us, subjects us to certain influences. It is the way we deal with these conditions, I want to argue, that tells us what our ethics are, what our "procedural obligations" and "moral constraints" are. It is what gives modern research both its unity and its incisiveness.

*Update (03/05/2019): There's a deep connection between Heidegger and Foucault. I just noticed it here. Heidegger says that "a Dasein factically can, should and must master its mood with knowledge and will" but "that should not mislead us into denying mood as a primordial kind of being" (Heidegger, Being & Time, H. 136). Indeed: "Even the purest theory," he tells us, "has not left all moods behind." More on mood here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Manifestation and Representation

"If he's using his mind to bend those spoons, he's doing it the hard way." (James "The Amazing" Randi, on Uri Geller.)

We've been having a very instructive discussion in the comments to Rachael's post. In this final post on the subject, at least for a while, I don't propose to take the last word, and I apologize in advance for caricaturing the views I'm engaging with. As I've been saying throughout, I'm not against the moderate, sensible position that doing a lot of different kinds of writing in a variety of moods is a good idea. I'm against the insistent reliance on a particular kind of writing, deeply wedded to thought.

In any case, I was struck by the moment when Rachael felt we were straying beyond the bounds of the original conversation. (It was the very moment that I thought we had returned squarely to my original point of departure.) Suddenly, it seemed to her, I was talking about the "perfectibility" of our texts, which is, she suggests, an altogether different issue:

My dissertation could definitely be improved, in many ways! I can always imagine having written a better text because I’ve never done a perfect job explaining myself to the reader. My limitations as a writer and my own familiarity with what I’m trying to say are always going to get in the way. That doesn’t seem to speak to the question of whether it is better to write what we already know or to write what we hope to figure out.

What strikes me about this is the way she naturalizes her "limitations as a writer", and trivializes the possibility of doing better.* We "always imagine" doing better, she says, and her limitations will "always get in the way". It's reminiscent of what I've playfully been calling Patrick Dunleavy's "extremism", i.e., his view that writing is "almost always" constitutive for thought. This is exactly the sentiment I'm trying to bring to light and critique—it suggests that deliberate efforts towards becoming better writers, concerted attempts to develop a stronger authorial persona, are, well, somewhat quaint. All we can ever expect to do is struggle from day to day with the messy materials of our thoughts and make the best of what comes out.

Against this view, I have been suggesting a possibility that too many authors simply don't consider: try making up your mind about what you're going to say twelve hours before you say it. It's fine to use writing (i.e., another kind of writing) to help you make up your mind if you want; but the point is to sit down the next day at the machine with your mind made up and a straight writing task clearly before you. I offer this as a supplement to all the other things that I completely agree with Rachael and Patrick, and everyone else, is worth doing. Rachael, for example, wants to do a lot of thinking while writing, or a lot of writing while thinking, producing a first draft of some kind. Then,

Once I’ve figured out what I want to say, I’m going to revise as often as possible to be sure that I’m giving the best possible expression to those ideas; all I’m arguing is that writing is a key tool in that initial figuring out process.

There's not much to disagree with here, but there is something to add. Why could there not be some actual writing even after she's "figured out what she wants to say" by means of all that scribbling? If she's going to "revise as often as possible" anyway, then why not also try re-writing a whole paragraph from scratch, this time, however, already knowing what its central claim is, instead of discovering that claim as you go?

I promised that today I would say something about why this matters so much to me as a writing coach. In my experience, many people are prevented from writing as effectively or as happily as they would like precisely because they think that they have to derive their writing from their thought process. They think that if they are going to write they have to be in a mood to think. And so they wait for that mood to arrive, or they try to force it or prime it into existence. They are trying to get their thought process to produce a text that they can then, as Rachael suggests, revise into publishable shape. Now, since they've invested their hopes in their minds, not their hands, when they find, now and then, that they can't write, they naturally feel stupid. My approach gets around that impasse by suggesting that, rather than grounding your writing in an intellectual discovery that you may or may not make as you write, you can simply proceed on the basis of a decision. This puts you in control of your writing process by liberating you from the contingencies of your thinking.

In another comment, Rachael proposes a distinction between representation as "manifestation" and representation as "reflection". I'd prefer to distinguish simply between manifestation and representation as such, in this case manifestations and representations of our thoughts. An action, even a verbal action (like a diatribe, say, or jeremiad) is a manifestation of thought, and often feeling. Opening a window is certainly a manifestation of the thought of opening a window. Representation is something different; it is the deliberate construction of a "picture" of the thought. (Our mime is representing the act, and therefore the thought, of opening the window.) Our authority as academic writers, I want to say, depends, not on our ability to merely manifest our thinking in words, but in our ability to represent it. Our writing does not just perform, if you will, the difficulties we have had in thinking about something, it represents our successes in overcoming those difficulties.

*See Rachael's pushback against this reading of her remarks in the comments below.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thought and Writing: The Debate Continues

I was going to wait until tomorrow to write about this. But blog comments and tweets aren't really going to allow me to say what I want to say today. (And I've got lots on my mind.) I want here to simply defend my position again. Tomorrow I want to talk about why it's so important to me as a writing coach, i.e., as someone who is trying to help people become better and happier writers.

Patrick Dunleavy has billed this discussion as a "debate", and that certainly captures the spirit of the exchanges we've been having on Twitter and, thankfully, also in the more developed form of Rachael Cayley's blog post over at Explorations of Style. In a classic debate there are two positions, the debaters each adopt and defend one of them, and their rhetoric is intended to move the audience towards it. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for anyone listening to (and even participating in) the debate to suggest a compromise, adopting a position somewhere in the middle of what is then construed as two extreme views. I think even the debaters, at the end of the day, usually go home with a position that has moved towards the middle. But their contributions will necessarily be taken to represent something more permanently "out there", on one side or the other. That's the function of debate, and it's a valuable one. I'm happy to play my part in it.

But I think the well-intentioned and conciliatory gesture of saying "Isn't it a little bit of both?" is a bit misplaced here. As I've been saying throughout, I'm not against the moderate position on this issue, which is that sometimes writing should be used to clarify your thoughts, and sometimes it should be used simply to express them. I'm against the extreme view that writing is, as Patrick put it, "almost always constitutive for thinking" (my emphasis), and that you therefore can't normally set thinking on one side when sitting down to write. I'm defending the view, which I have developed on the background of years of experience as a writing instructor and coach, that you can actually sometimes, indeed, regularly, and, in fact, often (if six times a day counts), simply and straightforwardly write down what you know, one paragraph at a time, in a timely and dependable way. Your knowledge base should be a reasonably stable formation, but you can't predict where your thinking will take you from day to day, of course. And that's why it's so important to protect your writing process from this capricious, but of course entirely necessary, element of research.

As many have already noticed, a great deal depends on what I mean by "thinking". During the exchanges on Twitter, Patrick and I hit on what I think is a pretty good initial gesture at a definition: thinking makes our contradictions visible. And here writing is obviously an excellent tool. It's not for nothing that I trace my own philosophical tradition through Wittgenstein, who said that the problem of philosophy is "the civil status of a contradiction", and back to Frege, who proposed to use "the two-dimensional surface of the page" to render thought "perspicuous". But thinking is also a "mental" operation, perhaps best described in terms of the effect it has on our beliefs.

Thinking is a way of coming to know something independent of experience, i.e., working only with the beliefs we already possess. Thinking is the act of bringing our beliefs together in close proximity so that their consequences, taken together, can be assessed. I may believe A, B, and C, but not yet D, even though D is a logical consequences of A, B, and C. By thinking about it, I can deduce D, and add this to my beliefs. Now, if A, B, C are also all true, which is to say, things I actually "know", then I can add D to my knowledge. But I may think a little further on it, and discover that D actually implies not-E, though E, I realize, is something I also happen to believe. Here we have a contradiction, something I must think about, and until I realize that A, which was essential to my belief in D, is actually not as true as I thought, the contradiction is unresolved. I don't know what to think.

Now, my point is that there is value in simply writing down why you believe D (i.e., because A, B, C), in a 27-minute paragraph-writing session during which you have resolved not to think so hard that you might compare D to E. I'm not saying you should never get to the point where you realize that D contradicts E, and that D therefore has to go, which in turn forces you to discover the empirical falsity of A. I'm just saying that those 27 minutes are well spent, learning how to say A, B, C and D, and explaining how they go together, even if you ultimately (i.e., long after the 27 minutes are over) reject the paragraph that says D, i.e., for which D is the key sentence and A, B, C constitute the support. Writing that paragraph didn't just show you what you thought (though it did that too) it gave you an opportunity to be a better writer. More specifically, it made you a better academic writer, because academic writing is all about being able to represent things you believe to be true. And at the time of writing, before you began to think about how E figures into all of this, you did actually believe D.

What I'm saying, then, is that it is good for you as a writer to spend at least half an hour and at most three hours every day writing without revising your beliefs, i.e., without "thinking" in the sense I've just suggested. It's no more radical a proposal than suggesting that you refrain from doing field work, or conducting interviews, or analyzing survey questionnaires, or, of course, reading, while writing. All of those activities are likely to revise your beliefs and the author you are should be given a few moments' "peace of mind", let's say, just to try to craft an accurate representation of what you actually think. I say this knowing full well that there are people who will insist there is just as essential a connection between their reading and their writing, or their analysis and their writing. Don't get me started!

In any case, before you suggest a middle ground, please, please, please, remember that I am not advising you never to use a page of writing to bring your beliefs into contact with each other in a way that makes their contradictions visible, and, more generally, in the spirit of revising what you believe about a particular issue. Nor am I advising you to put off writing anything until everything you know is clearly and distinctly present to you in your mind. I am advising you to regularly take off your thinking cap and put your ass to the chair and just say something you think is true for 27-minutes, using at least six sentences and at most 200 words to explain why you think so. That's one of the things you want to be good at as a scholar. You will only become good at it by practicing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More on Thought and Writing

On Sunday, Patrick Dunleavy started a conversation on twitter in response to my suggestion that our authority as authors develops with the writing we do "deliberately". What I meant was that we become better writers when we use writing to express the knowledge we have already acquired, ideas we already hold—in short, when we write something we decided to write about the day before. Patrick expressed a familiar objection to this approach to writing: "Writing is almost always constitutive of thinking. You don't know what you think, until you try to write it."

It's important to stress that neither of us are absolutists. Patrick says "almost always", and I certainly don't object in principle to what people call "thought writing", i.e., using writing as a tool to discover what you think, and to clarify your thinking. My suggestion is that you should also sometimes write down thoughts you don't need the writing to show you you have. You should sometimes do some writing that is not "constitutive" for thought. "Sometimes" is putting it too mildly. You should write often—at least half an hour a day—in this non-thought-constitutive mode. When you are using your writing to think, you are not becoming a better writer.

During the twitter conversation, a number of people expressed agreement with Patrick and disagreement with me. They, too, have found (as many people find) that what they were thinking becomes clear to them in the act of writing. I know the feeling, and, like I say, I don't deny that writing is an important tool in the clarification of thoughts. I am trying to draw attention to another important function of writing: to clearly communicate the results of our thinking. In this regard we can all improve, and we can work on this problem only when we set aside the problem of thinking for a few minutes and consider the problem of writing explicitly.

One thing that I think people forget is that, sometimes, when we say we are using writing to clarify our thoughts, we are really using thinking to get our writing done. We are imagining that the difficulty we are having writing that paper (in time for the upcoming deadline) is really the difficulty we are having in thinking about its subject matter. We think that an intellectual discovery in the eleventh hour (before the midnight deadline) will get the whole thing to fall into place. But what is often, indeed, almost always needed, was not the constitution of a new thought, but a decision to write down something we already know.

(To be continued on Friday. I'll respond to Rachael Cayley's post then too. Go read it.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Thought, Language, and Writing

The philosophical problem of the relationship of thought to language is related to, but not identical with, the literary problem of the relationship of thought to writing. It is important that we don't conflate the two, for while an argument can be made against the "ontological illusion" that thoughts have some kind of existence independent of their articulation in language, we should not let this convince us that we don't know what we think until we see what we've written. This issue came up during a series of twitter exchanges yesterday, which allowed me to push back against what I think of as a prevalent and pernicious myth about the relationship between thought and writing, one that is especially mythological and pernicious in the case of scholarly writing.

As readers of this blog know, I suggest we think of our scholarly writing as the act of writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. The claim that each paragraph makes should always be decided upon the day before, leaving only the writing of the supporting sentences for the 27-minute writing session (which you can have up to six of each day). A common objection to this is some version of "I don't know what I think til I see what I say"; it is absurd, on this view, to ask anyone to decide the day before what they are going to write. How could they know? As Dyi put it on Twitter, do I imagine that people actually have "access to what [they] think", so that it can be simply "transferred onto the page"? Well, actually, yes, that is a presumption I make. I believe that you can know something in advance—say, twelve hours in advance—of the writing, and that you can make a conscious decision about which item of your knowledge you are going to commit to the page tomorrow.

Obviously, it is possible to think a thought without writing about it. To show this, all I need to do is ask you to imagine opening a window, and then to communicate this idea in mime to someone else. Surely, whatever you come up with, and however competent your miming is, the "thought"—the idea of opening a window—is available to you without the aid of, specifically, writing (even "in the head"). What this tells us is simply that there is a difference between having a thought and expressing it, whether in writing or otherwise. Obviously, I could also ask you to write a coherent prose paragraph of about 150 words describing, in detail, the act of opening a window. But that act (of writing) stands in no closer relationship to the thought (or act) of opening a window than the mime's actions. Now, you may be a great mime or less great mime. You may be a great writer or a not so good one. But you will only become better at either by imagining the relevant thought and then practicing the art of its presentation.

My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose. People who claim that they are not thinking about their area of expertise unless they are writing are saying something rather disturbing about their expertise. What are they doing when they are teaching? Or just conversing with peers? Or reading for that matter? What mental operations correspond to these things qua being knowledgable people about a particular subject matter? Most importantly, how do they decide whether or not they have written an idea down clearly, or otherwise effectively? If their only access to their thinking is the evidence provided by their writing, how can they decide whether a particular paragraph fails to capture their meaning?

I'm willing to commit to the strong version of this thesis, by the way. I'm not just saying it is possible to think without writing. I'm saying that, as a scholar, it is absolutely necessary to spend a good deal of time writing without thinking, i.e., writing down what are already "finished thoughts", rather than drawing on your writing skills to think those thoughts through for you. True: it is sometimes helpful to your thinking self to enlist the assistance of your authorial persona. But I'm not sure that's always the real motive behind the mixing of thinking and writing. The truth is often that you're trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise. You may as well be trying to open crates with a precision screwdriver, as Wittgenstein's sister once said.

After you've gotten the thought clear, in any case, whether with or without the aid of writing, do yourself and your writing self the favor of taking another 27 minutes to work on the problem of writing alone—detached from the problem of thinking. It is only when you decide on a thought and then undertake specifically to write that thought down (not: to think that thought in writing) that you can focus your efforts on improving your writing skills. You must not, at the end of the 27 minutes say, "Now what do we have here?" or "What was I thinking?" but "How did that go?" You have to be able to distinguish clearly between what you are trying to say and how well you are saying it.

I'd like to close with an interesting observation that Woody Allen once made about how he evaluates his own films. There is of course the question of the wether it's finally a good film or not but, as I understand it, he leaves that to audiences and critics. For him, the much more important question is whether the film as it appears on the screen resembles what he had imagined before he started making it. I suppose he and his critics would be within their rights to judge him as an artist based solely on the aesthetic effect of the final outcome, but as a film maker his pride is bound up in something different: his ability to represent "what he had in mind" on film.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Taking a week off...

…from almost everything. It is Sunday morning on the first day of this break, and, as often happens at such times, I feel pretty much exactly like this:

(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Taking Feedback

Before seeking someone else's opinion of your writing, make sure that your mind is prepared to learn. That is, do not go into the feedback loop with the attitude of Branford Marsalis' students, who only want to know how good they are, how right they are, and how talented they are. You are seeking feedback in order to discover new ways to improve.

All texts can be improved. When I do masterclass workshops on how to edit a text we work on one paragraph at a time. One exercise is to put the paragraph on the screen, read it out loud, and then ask simply "What's the best sentence? What's the worst sentence?" There is no question here of finding good and bad sentences. If the paragraph consists of nine sentences, there simply will be a best and a worst one, even if all of them are good, or all of them are bad. The exercise is just asking us to be discerning in an ordinary, practical way.

Always remember that your reader is in no position to judge your knowledge or your intelligence. And it is only if you have given everything (which is impossible) to the text that you can take their feedback as a final judgment on your abilities as a writer. In the old days I would ask people to submit work to my workshops that they had spent some time bringing up to their highest linguistic standard, a paragraph written "at the top of their game", but I've realized that this only makes things difficult. These days I tell them to bring a paragraph that they've spent exactly 27-minutes writing, so that we all know what we're dealing with, and imperfections are completely understandable.

When listening to feedback, remind yourself that you are a finite human being who has spent a finite amount of time accomplishing a finite result. Don't, however, keep reminding the person who is giving you feedback of that. If you keep saying that the imperfections in your text are understandable because, well, you're only human, then you'll give your reader the sense that they are wasting their time. Did you want to hear their opinion or not? Just listen with an open mind, eager to hear how the text can be improved.

And that's the most important thing. Always listen to your reader as someone who is suggesting, however implicitly, what you should do during the next five, ten, twenty hours of work on this text. The reader is not evaluating the text itself, but the work you have done to produce it. They are telling you how successful you have been in accomplishing your goals. So as you interpret their feedback, whether that be from a colleague, a reviewer, an editor, or even the reader of a text you have published, always do so in terms of the writing or editing tasks that the feedback implies.

A text is always the result of a series of rhetorical decisions, decisions about what to say and how to say it. If your reader says your sentences are too long, they are suggesting you spend some time shortening them. If your reader says your argument is too "compact", you should imagine making the same argument with more paragraphs. If your reader says you are contradicting yourself, they are suggesting that you say one thing or the other, not both, and probably that you have to delete a few paragraphs. In the end, you decide what you will actually do with the time you still want to spend on this text. You reader is trying to help you make those decisions. Your reader is not making them for you.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Giving Feedback

I've given a great deal of feedback on people's writing over the years, and I've come to a few conclusions about how it's best done. One of the most important things here is the basic attitude or posture of feedback. Just as a writer should always "think of the reader", the editor, when giving feedback, should always think of the writer. That is, you should always ask yourself what the writer wants in asking for (or subjecting themselves to) your opinion of their work. How will what you say help them?

You therefore also have to know your writer. Your feedback should in any case be sensitive to your state of knowledge about the reader's goals. If you don't know anything about the author of the text—what stage of their education they are at, what their aims and ambitions in writing are, why they have sought specifically your opinion about this text—then you are going to have to keep focused on the text itself and be very careful not, even implicitly, to provide feedback on the process or intelligence that produced it. Ideally, however, you will know both why the writer wants your feedback and how the writer produced the text you are reading.

While you'll always in a sense have to comment on the text itself, keep in mind that your feedback is going to serve as a guide for further work. Make sure that the weaknesses you identify in a text can be fixed by some imaginable editing or writing process, and that it will not require a miraculous increase in the intelligence or knowledgeability of the author. The fact that you could write a much better text on the same subject is not a fact about the text that the writer needs to know. The point is that the writer could produce a better text, based on your feedback.

More practically, try, when reading, to form a clear opinion about what the author is trying to say, and how the author knows. (This is an approach to reading that I ran into in the work of Wayne Booth many years ago.) For each paragraph, mark what you think is the key sentence, and ask yourself whether, and how well, the rest of the paragraph supports it. That way your feedback can be centered on the claims that are actually being made in the text, and the effectiveness with which they are being made. You can say either (a) this paragraph is saying something that should not be said, or (b) this paragraph is not saying this as well as it could be said. (You can also, of course, say that there seems to be a paragraph that says such-and-such missing here.) That is, your feedback will be structured by the unit of composition, the paragraph.

The magic of this approach to giving feedback is that you can now imagine your writer dealing with your comments one paragraph at a time. And this means you can imagine resolving the issues you raises by 27 minutes of deliberate effort, i.e., the time it takes to write a paragraph. If you're giving feedback that cannot be translated into a series of 27-minute writing tasks, you are probably not being as helpful as I know you're trying to be.

Monday, April 07, 2014


Giving feedback is an art in its own right, and so is taking it. But recently I was asked about this issue with a bit of a twist. Not, how do you give feedback, or how do you take feedback? But how do you get someone else to give you useful feedback?

Here are a few suggestions:

First, and most important, never come to someone with a text you've written and ask them to make whatever suggestions they can think of whenever they have time. Always contact your reader in advance, tell them when you will have the text to them, and when you would like to get their feedback. Ideally, you'll tell them you'll give them a text on a given morning and would like to hear from them that afternoon. If someone can't make time to read and comment on your work in their calendar, a few weeks ahead of time, then you don't want their feedback.

Second, ask them to comment on a specific section or aspect of your text. Do you want to know about the language, the structure of the argument, the quality of the data? Do you want feedback on the introduction, conclusion, methods section, etc.? Give your reader a focused task to spend a few scheduled hours carrying out. Don't just drop the overarching question of whether or not you're a good writer or knowledgeable person on their desk.

Third, be very clear with yourself and your reader about why you are getting feedback on this text. It may of course be because your supervisor (or research director) has demanded to see what you're working on. (This makes the problem of scheduling simple, since you'll then have been given a deadline.) But in most cases there's talk of a situation where you are asking for help to see how to improve your text. A really good approach here is to make sure that you and your reader know how much work you've put into this text so far, and how much work you intend to do on it in the near future. Your reader is really helping you to evaluate how well that work went, and decide what work there is to come.

Finally, be clear about what you are trying to say. Before asking someone else to read ten or twenty paragraphs of your prose, make a list of the ten or twenty key sentences that state the point of each paragraph. Do those sentences make sense to you? Are they what you are trying to say to the ultimate reader? There is no point in asking someone whether you are saying something well if you can't even yourself see what you're trying to say. In some cases, it can be very helpful to provide your reader with that list of key sentences. In other cases, it can be useful to ask your reader to make such a list based on their reading. Then you can see if you choose the same sentences, i.e., if you understand the text to be saying the same thing.

I'll devote this whole week's posts to giving and taking feedback. On Wednesday, I'll say something directly about how to give feedback. And on Friday, something about how to take it.

Friday, April 04, 2014


In a comment to Monday's post, Randall Westgren recalls a mentor who told him that "[he] was a poor (academic) writer because [he] hadn't found [his] voice". Is this—i.e., finding your voice—the same thing as "having presence" in your writing, he asks?

It's certainly worth thinking about. What is voice? What is it in our writing? Well, what is voice in speech? Voice is the sound of our speaking, as opposed to the mere sense. A voice can be light or dark, high-pitched or deep. It can have "fry", something which there was a great deal of commentary about not long ago.

Two people can speak the exact same words in the exact same situation and one can sound like they mean at, the other not so much. You can sound sincere, that is, or insincere. You can sound like you are lying or telling the truth. You can sound like you like what you're saying or you don't. It's the sound of your voice we're talking about here, of course. "There was something in his voice that worried me" we sometimes say. Here we usually mean something quite situational, not something durable about the person.

But we can also talk about somebody's voice in general. And this is where "finding" your voice comes in. I'm something of a mystic, or perhaps just a moralist, about this. I really do believe that your authentic voice, whether in speech or writing, is the way your words sound when you are speaking your mind, i.e., telling the truth. This is why I emphasize that when you do your academic writing you should remember that knowledge is justified, true belief. You should train yourself to write down the things you believe, not just things that are conveniently true.

In my answer to Randall, I said that I'm not sure that voice is essential in academic writing. I'm not sure that I would encourage people to "find their voice" in order to write their journal articles. Or maybe I just mean they should do it a very specialized way. In any case, rereading these loose remarks, I can see I'll have to think about this some more.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Space & Things

Space is to the thing what time is to the person. People unfold in time, we might say, while things occupy space. If, as Bergson says, time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once, then space is that which keeps everything from piling up in the same place. In the beginning, everything was, indeed, piled up in a single place. All matter was pressed into a single pin-head of a universe; there was no time and no space. Then, with the big bang, what Kant called the transcendental categories of experience, Time and Space, were created and what the Taoists call "the ten-thousand things" came into existence. Some time later, writing was invented.

I argued on Monday that your authorial persona is, to a large extent, shaped by the way you organize your writing time. If you sit down to write one deliberate paragraph after another, each expressing a single truth you know, one half hour at a time, according to a plan you always recommit yourself to the day before you write, then you will be one kind of "person" in your writing, one kind of author. You will have a particular style. If you write impulsively, "on inspiration", always seeing "what comes into your head", and put that down on the page, never knowing whether you will write today or tomorrow or the next day, always hoping that at some time in the future a "secret miracle" will happen and your text will be finished, then this, too, will show in your style. You'll be a different kind of author. Perhaps not, or just barely, an "academic" one.

The space of your writing consists both of the room in which you write and the page that the words end up on. The way you organize that space, like I say, has important implications for the things you are writing about. First of all, you should write about things that exist independently of the things you are reading. In your writing space, you should turn your back on the books and papers you've been reading, even on your data. You should bring only a set of notes specifically relevant to the paragraph you have decided to write into your writing space. The page you are writing on, meanwhile, should be situated in a particular part of the text you are working on (introduction, background, theory, method, analysis, implications, conclusion, or whatever headings you are working with), which means the individual paragraph is deliberately directed at a particular part of the reader's mind.

Under these conditions, you "construct" the things of your research, your objects, what your writing is "about". These things are not in your head, or in your reader's head, or in the books you've read, or in "the discourse". They are out there in the world. That's what the world is: it's where the things are. You should write about things in that spirit, i.e., as things that you've experienced and that your reader may well experience too. Things come together in facts and facts make your sentences true or false according to whether or not those sentences say that things are as they in fact are.

There are different kinds of facts, different kinds of things lying around in different parts of space. Some things are available in perfectly ordinary experience, and provide a general factual background for your research. Some facts are very big, pertaining to many or even all things; we call these "laws", and these are what are our theories are about it. Some facts are very subtle, made up of things are that are very difficult to observe. These are our "objects" proper, and we get access to them through our data. Some things make up the delicate instruments by which we make our observations, gather our data. These things pertain to method.

Just as our presence as authors in our texts depends on our organization of time, the presence of things in our writing depends on how we organize our space. We must be deliberately writing about the things that make our world.