Friday, May 30, 2014


When I say that scholars should enjoy writing I don't mean that it should be a source of pleasure every time. Our capacity for pleasure, after all, is no doubt related to our capacity for pain. Indeed, it may be one capacity: our "sensitivity". Many people who normally, or at least occasionally, find writing to be a pleasurable experience, also know that it can, at times, be a painful one. We are sometimes in the wrong mood, or must struggle to recall our knowledge. Sometimes, for whatever reason, our writing faculties are just not working. We feel stiff and sore in our prose. The results of such writing, however, do not always deserve to be discarded. Sometimes what was painful to write is a joy to read, just as something that may have been very enjoyable to write can offer surprisingly painful reading.

As in the case of physical activity, pain is a useful indicator, but it does not always mean you should stop doing what you are doing. There is good pain and bad pain. I wish I could say something more useful this morning about how to distinguish between them. Just remember that writing should have a certain degree of precision. Too much pleasure or too much pain is not conducive to this aim.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


"Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed." (George Orwell, "Why I Write")

As a scholar, writing should give you pleasure. It is a big enough part of the job that it should factor into your assessment of the pros and cons of choosing academia as a career. You should enjoy reading and writing good prose; if you don't, you should really consider another line of work. It doesn't have to be "better than sex" to put words in "their right arrangement", but it should give you a little tingle at least.

Unfortunately, even those who are disposed to delight in writing, may lose the spark after a few years of academia. The dissertation, especially, has a tendency to transform our attitudes about writing, not always for the better. One force that undermines the pleasure of writing is the influence of what social psychologists call "extrinsic motivation". It was demonstrated many years ago (I hope I'm not now perpetuating one of the many myths of social psychology!) that if you reward children for doing something they would normally do just for fun, they lose their natural, intrinsic impulse to engage in it. "Publish or perish" and the strictly quantitative interest of university administrators in our writing no doubt has a similar effect. But too many scholars these days also simply don't give themselves the time they need to enjoy the act of writing. In some cases, we might say that they don't have the time, and somewhere in between this give and that have we might encourage them to make time.

I have a small eclectic collection of how-to books, ranging from How to Draw Hands to Rational Grazing. One of them is a sex manual called Total Loving. The author encourages couples to organize their lives in a way that makes ample room for sexual pleasure. She suggests creating a "love environment" that provides the space, privacy, mood and time that is required for enjoyable love-making. Most of us recognize the problem. The pleasure of even the most naturally pleasurable activities is sometimes unavailable to us simply because we don't take control of the environment in which they are supposed to happen. Or because we do it for the wrong reason.

(See also my other blog.)

Monday, May 26, 2014


There is no optimal length for a paragraph, not in sentences or in words, nor is there an optimal amount of time in which to write it. How long a paragraph should be, and how long it should ultimately take to write it, depends entirely on the claim it supports. My maximum and minimum recommendations are just rules of thumb, and the 27-minute "exactum" is a process guideline, not a product standard. That is, if you're not satisfied with the results of your 27-minute writing session then you are free to rewrite the paragraph as many times as you like. When writing, you should always be looking for the simplest possible statement of what you are trying say, where the "limits of the possible" are defined by the ideas you are expressing. If it is not possible to use at least six sentences, or two-hundred words, or to make a meaningful attempt in 27 minutes, then there is something wrong with the idea you've selected. It may be too big or too small or too difficult or too easy. Again, there is a minimum: I don't recommend publishing scholarship that consists of ideas that are easily expressed in paragraphs that take less than 27 minutes in total to express well in prose. But there's no optimum here. It takes all kinds of ideas to make a paper.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Care and Comfort

For many people, writing is a difficult and exhausting activity. As with so many other aspects of modern academic life, the normality of this sense of difficulty disturbs me. Everyone seems to accept that writing should be a struggle, and that it should be a struggle on the frontier of their knowledge, the extreme limits of their intellectual abilities, where they only barely understand what they are saying. The act of writing, and even the prospect of writing, therefore quite understandably makes them uncomfortable. Indeed, people don't often enough even try to write about what they know comfortably, the subjects that they've gotten their minds all the way around, the knowledge claims they have mastered. Let's remember that the root of comfort (-fort) is strength (fortis, i.e., "strong"), while the prefix (com-) suggests a bringing together. Our writing should, at least sometimes—scratch that—it should often be a gathering of our intelligence. We should be able to write comfortably, that is. We should write from the center of our strength.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


"Teach us to care and not to care," prayed T.S. Eliot. "Teach us to sit still." Long before that, Pascal had said that "all men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." For my part, I pray for a university staffed by scholars who are regularly able to sit still for twenty-seven minutes and care about their writing. In fact, speaking strictly as a member of the public that the university serves, I find it distressing to read about the harried lives of scholars. They seem to find no quiet moment to compose themselves. They don't, finally, have the time, the freedom from worry, to care about what they are saying in their articles and books. All bad writing, perhaps, derives from the inability to sit still.

I know that there are many scholars who care too much. This, they say, is why it is so difficult to sit down, or to get up and take a break after twenty-seven minutes. I would remind them of the double force of Eliot's prayer: to care and not to care. We can only learn how to sit still if we resolve to sit still for a while, and for a specific reason. While we are sitting there, there are a great many things we must not care about: our teaching, our research, our administrative responsibilities, and all the other paragraphs in the same paper. The trick is to free ourselves from those worries and focus on a particular paragraph for a determined amount of time. We must learn to care about our writing one truth at a time.

Monday, May 19, 2014


I've been noticing a distressing amount of small errors in my writing lately. Rereading my blog posts and my emails, I too often find that I've left out words or endings, lost track of my parentheses and appositions, or written "you're" instead of "your", or "their" instead of "they're". Not to mention the spelling mistakes and typos—too many of them. Obviously I'm not proofreading carefully enough, but I also feel like I'm writing with less care than usual. Truth be told, I'm not writing proper, disciplined paragraphs often enough and this is having a predictable effect on my prose. I'm getting out of shape. The standard (minimum six-sentence, maximum two-hundred-word) paragraph, written in 27-minutes, trains your ability to "care" about your writing. Writing blog posts all (what Kurt Vonnegut called) "higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum,", by contrast, and often more than 500 words, straining at the half-hour time limit, adding words until I run out of time, has left my sentences undisciplined and imprecise. This paragraph, as you may have already guessed, is the beginning of a new regimen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Minimum, Maximum, Exactum

Try to write paragraphs, I always say, of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in exactly twenty-seven minutes. Please don't feel this immediately as a constraint. Think of it like walking into a room that is just the right size for you to do a particular thing. It should feel safe and at the same time liberating. Some people, after all, set minimums only. They resolve to write at least 500 words a day, or to work for at least an hour. Others work to a "maximum" in the sense of trying merely to reach a goal. So they'll write 1000 words or keep at it for two hours, sometimes using both goals and stopping when they reach the first. To my mind, this is a terribly imprecise way of organizing your work. My approach may seem more rigid, but is in fact very flexible. Crucially, it provides you with an ordinary, workaday sense of success and failure.

You decide in advance what you are going to say, i.e., what the key sentence of the paragraph is, and when you are going to say it, i.e., when the 27 minutes are going to start. Now, since the minimum is six sentences, your first problem is to find five things to say that support the claim in your key sentence. Once you've written six sentences your writing problem changes. You are now thinking more in terms of the quality of your argument than the mere quantity of your sentences. Improving the argument from here on might involve writing more sentences, but does not, formally speaking, require it. When (if) you reach 200 words the problem changes again. You now know your paragraph is probably getting too long and you have to ask yourself why. Did you subtly introduce a new topic? Are you repeating yourself? Are you just needlessly verbose?

Now, it is of course possible that you fail to keep within the minimum and maximum bounds. (Academic writing is not like one of those ridiculous businesses where, at least in the fictional universe of their advertising campaigns, "failure is not an option".) But you only know you have failed because you have run out of time. Obviously, having written four sentences after five minutes is not failure. Nor is a 220 word chunk of prose at 15-minute mark. And by similar logic, you haven't succeeded when you've written 9 sentences using 176 words after 22 minutes. Anything could still happen! You could impulsively delete 5 sentences in the twenty-fifth minute. You could certainly find yourself writing another fifty words. You do have the option to sit still for five minutes, neither adding nor deleting, just reading the paragraph. But you have to keep at it.

The 27-minute "exactum", which is a word I apparently have had to coin for this purpose, keeps the process centered, grounded, anchored. Pick your metaphor. It gives the experience of writing a small sense of its Sisyphean fate. It prevents you from "just getting it over with". You start "in the middle" with a resolve to write for exactly 27 minutes. At the lower limit you have to write six sentences. At the upper limit you must stay within 200 words. That's the nature of the problem. Defined in its finitude.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Writing Down Things You Know

Because it is so easy to follow, it seems, my advice is also easy to caricature and dismiss. When I propose that you train yourself to write prose paragraphs of at least 6 sentences and at most 200 words in exactly 27 minutes about claims you have chosen the day before, it may seem like I'm imposing completely arbitrary constraints on your writing, stifling your creativity. But I would emphasize that it it only seems that way. You won't know what this will do for your creativity until you try it. And this (trying it), like I say, is exceedingly easy.

We all know a great many things. But we normally think of "knowing" as a state we're in, not as an activity we can carry out. All I am suggesting is that you spend a few minutes or hours each day actively engaged in knowing. And I am describing an activity in which that could happen.

You will, in an important sense, not be learning during this activity. The "content" of the paragraph you will be writing will be something you have learned, preferably, long ago—weeks, even months, earlier. Of course, you will be developing your skill as a writer, and in this sense you'll be learning something. (We always learn something when we do something carefully.) Indeed, it will be a particular kind of writing skill you'll be learning, one that is too often neglected. You will be practicing how to write down something you know.

We can't learn how to write down what we know if we don't practice. We must carry out the action of writing down what we know. The only way to do that is to choose the item of knowledge to be written down in advance. And by "in advance" I mean, simply, the day before.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Ethics of Writing (2)

It is disappointing, to say the least, to discover that an author we like has plagiarized a passage or fabricated their data. On learning the truth about the source of their knowledge, our initial admiration for the way one author tells a story or the way another designs a study is dealt a serious blow. Our admiration for the particular story or study is immediately affected of course. But something also happens to the esteem that we hold the scholar in in general, their ethos in the rhetorical sense—their reputation as an author. Any other story or study that we run into, ostensibly authored by them, will be approached with greater suspicion. We're no longer going to be, first and foremost, impressed. In fact, we may simply ignore the paper altogether. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental ethical consequence of plagiarism and fabrication. It affects our relationship with the author, it undermines their authority.

Now, consider a situation in which the author, confronted with the transgression, says "Really? That bothers you?" That is, they do not reject your claim that the passage in question was plagiarized, or the data at issue was fabricated, they just sort of shrug it off as no big deal. Let's say that they are here squandering an opportunity to rebuild their ethos; they are in fact denying that they are in a ethical situation. They may of course be in a kind of denial, and they may even be in the right, but by trivializing the issue they tell you something about their character. Now, let's, for good measure, imagine that all this happens in public, in the blogosphere or in the journal literature, or both, and that the general reaction to the "scandal" suggests that this also doesn't really bother your peers either. (This will often happen when an author has a great deal of initial ethos, i.e., a strong reputation that precedes them going into the controversy, and people are unwilling or afraid to challenge it.) Well, now, the entire ethical habitus of your field has been undermined, as it becomes clear that there is no ethical risk in plagiarism or fabrication. This is called "moral hazard".

These are relatively clear cases. The question I raised on Wednesday is an attempt to find similar clarity about a much murkier situation, namely, the one in which you an author says something—something that may even be true, and something you may even agree with—that, on closer inspection—either by reading the text more carefully or by engaging them in conversation—you must conclude the author doesn't really understand. It may be that the passage in question is one that you found very difficult to understand too and, when talking to the author, they just admit that they don't understand it either. They can recover their ethos here simply by admitting that it was a mistake. But many authors have a "So what?" attitude about this sort of thing. Yes, they say, "I don't understand it myself, and never have, but it's the sort of thing we have to say, right?"

Perhaps it was something that a reviewer suggested they put in the paper, so they did, even though they didn't understand why it was necessary. I sometimes get this suspicion in the second round when I review papers. The author is clearly trying to satisfy me by reacting to a criticism I've made, but they have not understood that criticism, and can't possibly understand the paragraph they've written to please me (because it's clearly nonsense.) It really lowers my opinion of the paper, and, indeed, gets me forming an opinion about the (fortunately anonymous) author.

This sort of thing happens in more or less formal ways, of course. When I was a grad student, I once talked to a philosopher who was a major figure in an area that often appealed to arguments articulated in formal, logical notation. Indeed, the paper we were discussing (neither mine nor his, but cited in both) was an exercise in mathematical logic that I had struggled for months to understand and finally believed I'd spotted an important error in. His response was not to set me straight about why the error was not really an error (the argument had been very influential, so surely I could not have been the first to see that it was flawed if it really was); rather, he simply admitted that he wasn't good enough at formal logic to know whether or not I was right. (This said something quite disturbing about how the argument may have become influential in the first place, of course.)

If you ask me, it is like admitting you don't have a working understanding of statistics in a field driven by statistical arguments. Or it's like being an anthropologist who never really learned how to do ethnographical research—and yet entering discussions that require such competence. We have an ethical obligation, in my opinion, not to weigh in on topics that we don't understand well enough to make a useful contribution to. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like I'm in the minority.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Ethics of Writing (1)

Everyone will agree that it's unethical to knowingly write a falsehood. But is it also wrong to write without knowing what you're talking about? I think this question is related in interesting ways to the discussion we've been having recently (and which is now continuing at Pat Thomson's blog) about the possibility of knowing what you think in advance of writing. I guess the question I'm asking is whether people who are not quite sure what they're trying to say, i.e., people who don't know what they think until they see what they say, are at risk of publishing what I've been calling "unfinished thoughts" and therefore of saying things that they don't understand well enough to know.

Consider the simple case of writing something you know should be credited to someone else. If you don't put in the citation you are obviously committing plagiarism, which is unethical. But what about a situation in which you're just not sure where you got the idea, and perhaps merely suspect that you've taken it from something you've read somewhere? Well, here you clearly risk plagiarizing. If your suspicions turn out to be correct, you may be accused of passing off someone else's ideas as your own. Although intention doesn't really matter, in this case we'd even have to say that you ran that risk intentionally.

Okay, now what about a claim like, "This study is based on 27 semi-structured interviews." Obviously, there's nothing wrong with writing this if you really did do 27 semi-structured interviews. If you only did 12, you are lying and making your data set sound larger than it really is. So that would be unethical. But what if you're not sure that the 27 interviews you did were actually "semi-structured"? After all, it's a term of art in interview methodology, so it may be true or false even if you talked to 27 people. You are claiming, then, not only to have done 27 of something, you are claiming to know what a semi-structured interview is and how to carry it out. And, again, what if you're just unsure of yourself here? Is it unethical for you to claim that you did something you're not sure what is?

Consider, finally, a claim like, "Skepticism has universally substituted appearance for Being." Well, first of all, you'd better cite Hegel. But even if you're going to agree with him, you have to have an understanding of the difference between, say, Being and appearance. If you only know that this claim is rightly attributed to Hegel, and like the sound of it, but don't really know how to make sense of it, you shouldn't pass yourself off as someone who believes it.

There is a great line in Shadowlands, the bio-pic about C.S. Lewis: "We read to know we are not alone." Suppose you believe that skepticism has universally substituted appearance for Being, and suppose you feel a bit lonely about this since no one else seems to know what you're talking about or why it's so important. Then you read a paper by someone who does claim to believe it. Excited, you make sure you attend a conference where she's keynoting and seek her out to talk to her. You now discover that she doesn't really know what the claim means, and only put it in the paper because it sounded smart. The issue I'm trying to write about revolves around the disappointment you would feel.

I'll continue this on Friday.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Ethics of Reading

The narrow issue of plagiarism is embedded in a broad range of concerns about our reading practices. Borrowing Wayne Booth's evocative title for his book on the ethics of fiction, we can say that our reading shows us "the company we keep". And who we associate with, of course, isn't just a sign of character, it has a deep effect on who we are. More importantly, how we associate with them, and how they associate with us, develops into a habit, and becomes formative for the style with which we relate to our peers. In an important sense, that just is the style of our writing.

The obligation to cite others accurately for the ideas we get from them is, of course, in part an obligation to those others. In some cases there is an obligation to read them in the first place, however. Some scholarship is so important for work in our field that ignorance of it is shameful, and undermines our own credibility as scholars (our "ethos" in the rhetorical sense). Interestingly, the more obligated we are to be familiar with a text, the less obligated we are to cite it precisely or even to represent it accurately. After all, the reader is bound by the same obligations, and we can presume a familiarity that others also presume of us. The more obligated we are to read something, the more entitled we are to make of it what we will. If we are not free to ignore it, we are at least free to interpret it.

In most cases, it should be noted, our obligation is not to other writers, but to our readers. We owe it to those who take the time to read our texts to write it at a level of knowledge that they will find useful. The way we construct the presumptive knowledge of our reader in our own writing is a basic ethical gesture. It assigns the reader an initial amount of dignity.

When our own reading strays outside the familiar domain of our reader's reading, we have to respect the reader's unfamiliarity. That means we now have to be very careful to get the ideas we are getting from our reading right in our writing, and we have to make sure that we provide the reader with enough information to find our source and check it against our claims. We may have few or no obligations to the writer of the source, by the way. The writer may be long dead or far outside of our research community. Our primary duty is to our reader: to be upfront about relationship between our own text and the texts on which it is based; to be upfront about the company we have kept.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Data of Ethics

A hundred years ago, in an essay called "The Serious Artist", Ezra Pound declared that "the arts provide data for ethics" (LE, p. 46). The seriousness of the artist, said Pound, was rooted in the honesty with which he presented his data, which in turn would allow us to determine "what sort of creature man is".

The serious artist is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference. The more precise his record the more lasting and unassailable his work of art.

For my purposes, I will sidestep the invocation of both "science" and "art". I believe that Pound uses "science" in vague, and perhaps even ironic, deference to the temperament of his age, and I'm certain that if I were to call my own ethical project "artistic", I'd be speaking metaphorically, at least by Pound's "serious" lights. But this notion of "data for ethics" intrigues me. On what basis, on the basis of what experience, can we develop an ethics? In this case, of course, I'm talking about a research ethics.

It is my view, as I've said before, that we can only develop a research ethics by speaking plainly about our own, personally experienced, research practices. Ethics cannot be developed on the basis of survey questionnaires or even in-depth interviews. The "data" must consist of honest accounts of our own experiences, indeed, our desires, our hates and our indifference. We must tell each other how we feel about research, about the research community in which we work. We must talk about what we think this is doing to our character. We must face the possibility that our "discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of [our] desires, the influences [we are] subjected to, [and] the conditions in which [we] live," as Foucault put it (AK, p. 149). In this sphere, Pound argues, "falsification of data" is as reprehensible as it is in science. "If the artist falsifies his reports ... in order that he may conform to the taste of his time, to the proprieties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies" (LE; p. 44). In the case of research ethics, the sources of the pressures to conform can be as easily enumerated: orthodoxy, funding bodies, professional codes of conduct, and university policies.

As Foucault suggests, there has been a tendency in "modern" research to pretend that science is a coherent, rational, unified affair, that is not subtended by desire, hate, or indifference. We appeal to our methodology, as Heidegger said, to describe the "practice" of research, as though our methods alone can account for the formation of wholly dispassionate beliefs. Ethical issues are identified only as "violations", not in the ongoing formation of the character of researches, i.e., by all the things we, in a certain sense, do "right", i.e., "by the book". If I can muster the courage over the next few weeks, this is what I hope to write a little bit about. Let's see how it turns out; let's see what sort of creature a researcher is.