Monday, March 30, 2015

Error and Blame, part 3

[Part 1 here]
[Part 2 here]

Sensemaking scholars are quite open about their standards. In her contribution on Karl Weick for a special issue of the Sociological Review on contemporary organization theory, Barbara Czarniawska suggests that "the many impressive stylists" in organization studies are likely "the result of [the field's] much bemoaned lack of clear standards." While I'm less impressed, I think she's right to suggest that the style of thinking in organization studies reflects such a lack. And I think she's right to focus on Weick as an example of what John Van Maanen has called "style as theory".

One of the most important consequences of approaching social science through its style, rather than its theories and methods in a more classical sense, is that the crucial question becomes not, "What makes our studies true?" but "What makes our studies plausible?" As I pointed out at the time, Jim March took this to (what I think is) excess, when he suggested that "The stories of novelists and social scientists are judged, in part, on whether they are credible, and it seems unlikely that the assessment of credibility is enormously different in the two cases" (March 2010, p. 69, my emphasis). It should be noted that March acknowledges in his foreword that Czarniawska has had a strong influence on his understanding of storytelling, and that he, too, selects Weick as an example to be followed. Like I say, he puts it in a somewhat over-the-top way: "How do we assess the credibility of stories told by Chekhov? Is it different from the way we assess the credibility of stories told by Weick?"

I've done a side-by-side comparison of Chekhov and Weick before to show that that's a pretty ridiculous argument, however half-serious it may be. Today I only want to deal with the specific sort of "credibility" sensemaking scholars seem to be striving for.

Czarniawska concludes her chapter on Weick by suggesting that sensemaking scholarship does not offer certainty, only plausibility. (Less charitably, we might say it offers not truth, but truthiness.) As if to anticipate the discussion we've been having here at RSL about emotional ambivalence, she quotes Weick approvingly when he explains what he is trying to accomplish:

Ambivalence, hypocrisy, inconsistency, and equivocality may be pejorative labels in times of stability, but they are markers of heightened awareness in times of transition. In times of transition people are especially sensitive to the fact that they talk reality into existence and need plausible stories to retain their successes in doing so. We all want stories that work, which is all that the managers are asking for. (Weick 2003: 381)

Like I say, sensemaking scholars are pretty open about their standards, even when there's much to "moan" about. (I'm sure they find me ridiculously pedantic.) Notice what Weick is saying here. Scholars, he tells us, are really only obligated to provide what "managers are asking for". Czarniawska puts it this way: "[Weick] turned the attention of organization scholars ... from the relevance of academia to the relevance of the field", presumably meaning the field of practice. Organisation theorists are at the service of practitioners, they are beholden to administrative standards, not academic ones. It is distressing to me to hear academics completely abandon their own autonomy like this, but it is also all too common. Even academics now use the word "academic" pejoratively.

But notice that the argument doesn't even work on its own terms. It presumes that all managers are asking for the same thing, namely, merely "plausible stories" that work in some unspecified sense. But what "works" for one manager may not work for another; and while some managers aren't asking for more than a good stories, others have an interest in knowing what actually happened. The Mann Gulch case that I've been talking about last week offers a perfect example. Weick has told us a story about what happened there and why the thirteen young men died. He claims that some firefighters (i.e., some who work "in the field") found his analysis to be more insightful than their own. But much of Weick's analysis focuses on what when wrong on the ground (with a few passing remarks about how the men were organized and trained) and he concludes (incorrectly) that the men were poorly led and finally panicked. (Maclean, who is Weick's only source, says they did not panic and that their leader performed admirably.) This is sometimes called "situated sensemaking" and studies of it have a very interesting effect on our understanding of events. We end up discovering what went wrong on the slopes of a mountain gulch, in the cockpit of a jumbo jet, or in the control room of a chemical refinery. That is, we locate the problems at the operational not political level. This is not at all trivial.

In his 1995 text book on sensemaking, Weick makes the provocative claim that the best organizational design would be to "do away with top management" altogether. Martin Kilduff has glossed this idea as an example of Weick's independence from "corporate interests and education regimes", i.e., of how irreverent he can let himself be about the "sacred cows" of higher-ups. But we're talking about the same person who, when telling the story of the death of thirteen brave young men in the line of duty, construes the policy that put them in harm's way as a "stubborn belief" they foolishly held on to for too long. Worse, he leaves out the part of the story when they in fact gave up the policy objective in question after wisely assessing the danger they were in. His analysis does, indeed, altogether "do away with top management", but only in the sense of completely ignoring all the clues Maclean leaves in his account as to the role it may have played in the death of the young men. I guess that may be "all that managers were asking for", at least some top officials in the US Forest Service in any case.

There's that quip in the Brad Pitt movie Troy, a line the Internet attributes to Franklin Roosevelt: "War is when young men die and old men talk." The least those older gents could do, I would think, is to accurately tell the story of how the young men died, and to include in their talk the policies that decided where they would be when they did.

[Continues here]

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Error and Blame, part 2

[Part 1 here]

In his 1993 ASQ piece on the Mann Gulch disaster, Karl Weick attributed the deaths of thirteen young men to "multiple failures of leadership", specifically, a lacking "attitude of wisdom" that manifested itself in the "stubborn belief" that they would have the fire out by morning. In his 1996 EAQ application of this analysis to the problems of educational administrators, he said that "Better leadership, mindful that small events conceal the potential for interactive complexity, would have encouraged the jumpers to adopt the attitude of wisdom and simultaneously believe and doubt that they were facing a 10:00 fire." In both cases, that is, a scholar is criticising the work of a leader. And the criticism here is, of course, quite serious: he is blaming the leader for thirteen deaths. He is saying that better leadership could have saved them.

On Monday, I argued that, in making this case, Weick gets the basic facts wrong. It is simply not true that the firefighters held on to their belief that the fire would be out by morning. In a certain sense, it wasn't even a belief; it was simply their job to do everything they could to have it under control by morning. And one of the first decisions that was made in the Gulch that day was to give up the idea that this goal could be accomplished, precisely because they did not "ignore clues" (as Weick claims) about the impending danger.

So what?

That's a question I seriously hear quite often from sensemaking scholars. On this view, it doesn't matter that Weick got the story wrong because he never meant it as an empirical, factual account of the events in the Gulch; he meant it as an "allegory" for business leaders and public administrators. Never mind that Weick presents the story as true. Never mind that he spends two and a half pages describing "the methodology" used by Norman Maclean to construct his account (resulting in the book Young Men and Fire), concluding by urging us to "take these data seriously". Never mind that he later brags that his paper "was read by a forest ranger, who passed the article to firefighting friends, who asked me how I had come up with my analysis, which they thought was better than their own investigations.” (Weick 2007: 15). For some scholars the important question is whether their analyses generate advice that leaders find useful, not whether the events described actually happened.

What these scholars forget is something that Maclean was very conscious of when writing his book. At one point he reflects upon everything he has learned about the disaster, and how long it took to get it right. (Let's remember that even at the time of his death he was not satisfied. The book was published posthumously.)

It's different with me now from when I first started climbing Mann Gulch. Now I carry inside me part of the purgation of its tragedy. It is the part of me and the tragedy that knows more about forests and fires because of this forest fire. If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life, How did it happen? (Maclean 1992, page 87)

At the end of the book he says that to write it he had to "enlarge [his] knowledge and spirit so [he] could accompany young men whose lives [he] might have lived on their way to death" (page 300). He tells us that, after he rose from the ashes of his escape fire, Wagner Dodge, their leader, "had his own brief tragedy to live, which in some ways must be considered a part of this tragedy."

Weick, by contrast, had spent no time in the Gulch at all. His analysis "flowed from a single book [he] consumed while acting as an armchair ethnographer." Indeed, the time Weick spent on his analysis can be plotted quite precisely. Maclean's book was published in 1992, but Weick's analysis was spurred by an approaching lecture he had agreed to do in April 1993. "The normally smooth trajectory of developing a lecture," Weick cheerfully explains, "was interrupted by the basic fact that I had nothing to talk about." But at around this time, it seems, he was discussing the book in a book club. That was enough to let him write his lecture "in a preliminary fashion", which he was then invited, by Bob Sutton, to publish in ASQ. From the time of the lecture to the time of publication, in December 1993, only eight months passed. On this basis, then, Weick gives us an account of a panicked crew under incompetent leadership.

I wonder. Would he be nervous if the dead of that fire should stop him by a cross and ask him what he thinks happened to them—why they died? What, I wonder, would he say to Wagner Dodge?

[Continues here]

Monday, March 23, 2015

Error and Blame, part 1

[For those who want the background, it begins with this post back in December.
I've linked all the relevant posts together in a chain.]

Karl Weick's work on wildland firefighters—the Mann Gulch disaster in particular—has had an enormous influence on sensemaking scholarship. Sensemaking scholarship, in turn, has had an enormous influence on both organisation theory and organisational practice. One of the things I worry about, therefore, is whether Weick's empirical analyses are right, i.e., whether our theorising about sensemaking and our recommendations for practice have a reliable basis. While it is sometimes suggested that Weick isn't really making empirical claims, that he is only trying to "get people to think", it is important to keep in mind that his ability to get people thinking is grounded in their believing his stories, at least for the sake of argument. As Barbara Czarniawska has suggested, we must "suspend disbelief" when reading him—we have to "trust" him. And many people do "think differently" after reading Weick. My question is whether that's a good thing.

Here's one reason I don't trust Weick's work on Mann Gulch. Weick has always argued that one of the reasons that the thirteen men died in that disaster was that they held a "stubborn belief" that they would have the fire out by the next morning. In his 1996 EAQ piece he puts it as follows:

The person responsible for spotting landing zones remarked that the jumpers would have the fire under control by 10:00 the next morning, which led the firefighters to call this a 10:00 fire. Later in the day, clues, such as increasing flame size, more erratic swirling of flames, and louder noise, were ignored because they did not fit the expectation that the fire would be out within hours. (569)

This simply doesn't square with the facts we find in Weick's source. (Keep in mind that at the time of writing, Weick only knew as much about the Mann Gulch disaster as he had learned from Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, which we can read for ourselves.) Maclean tells us that at the time of the Mann Gulch fire, "Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred to all fires they jumped on as 'ten o'clock fires'" (page 19, my emphasis); that is, this was not an erroneous assessment of an actual fire, but the underlying attitude of the firefighters. Indeed, it turns out that this wasn't just a question of inexperience; in the 1930s the US Forest Service instituted what is known as "the 10:00 a.m. policy" (see Donovan, Rideout and Omi 1999, page 99). I haven't been able to find a place in Maclean's account where the firefighters "ignore clues" about the fire, and it's pretty much agreed that the fire "turned to murder", tragically, at the very moment when the firefighters couldn't see it. It wasn't the stubbornness of their beliefs that got in the way but the topography of the land. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reading Maclean, we find out that the firefighters had abandoned their belief that they would have the fire out by morning after an hour in the Gulch*, as a reaction to the conditions they found there, which their leader (as Weick actually notes) described as a "death trap". To say, as Weick does, that they were not "mindful that small events conceal the potential for interactive complexity" (page 569) is simply false.

On Wednesday, I want to take this critique a step further. Both in this 1996 EAQ piece and his original 1993 ASQ piece, Weick blames the loss of thirteen lives on a "failure of leadership", specifically the lack of an "attitude of wisdom" in the crew's foreman, Wag Dodge. But Maclean explicitly tells us that "the disgraced officer's plot", while it makes for entertaining movies, does not give us any insight into what actually happened in the Gulch. It merely combines "small broken pieces of truth" with a "worn-out literary convention" (Maclean 1992, page 155). One of the reasons I worry about the reliability of our scholarship is that empirical error can lead us to blame the wrong people, or simply to blame people who could have done nothing differently. In my view, that's what Weick did in the Mann Gulch case.

[Continues here]

*"They were not in that high state of bliss they had been in when they expected to have the fire out by tomorrow morning ... attacking the fire from the rear would make the job last longer ..." (Maclean 1992, page 66).

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Very Rich Topic

(I keep underestimating the task in my discussion with Tim Vogus. Indeed, it's a bit worrying to notice the analogy to the firefighters in Mann Gulch, who, Weick tells us, believed that they'd have the fire out by morning, a belief that contributed to their demise. Fortunately, I don't agree with Weick on that point, but I do keep thinking I'll have things wrapped up in my next post. It now looks like I'll be continuing the topic well into next week. This post is just preliminaries.)

In his "Fighting Fires in Educational Administration" (EAQ, vol. 32, no 4, 1996), Karl Weick proposes to apply what he knows about wildland firefighting to the work of educational administrators. Making what he calls a "simple and shameless generalisation", he says that "the way in which wildland firefighters preclude failure when they fight fires in forests has direct relevance to the way in which educational [administrators] can preclude failure when they [deal with problems] in schools" (566). The idea of "precluding failure" establishes the link to high-reliablity organisations; reliability is simply the systematic preclusion of failure. When I talk about organising writing processes like HROs, I'm simply saying that authors do well to be reliable.

But there are many pitfalls in such an analogy. In order for Weick's argument for the "direct relevance" of firefighters to administrators to hold, he has to do a number of difficult things well. First, he has to get the work of the firefighters themselves right. Second, he has to understand the work of educational administrators. Third, he has to establish the right connections; he has to correctly identify which parts of the firefighting are like which parts of administration. Moreover, on both sides of the analogy, he has to both understand the concrete particulars of the work and adduce appropriate abstract generalisations. In his case, the particulars are drawn from his work on the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, in which thirteen firefighters lost their lives.

It is important to keep in mind that, in a certain sense, we all have the same authority to interpret the Mann Gulch disaster that Weick has, since his analysis (in his famous 1993 ASQ paper) is based solely on his reading of Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire. I have read that book alongside his analysis and found several critical issues. I suppose that those of us who work at a university also have the same experiential access to educational administration that Weick does; in any case, he does not suggest in his EAQ paper that his thoughts about the topic are grounded in a particular empirical study. This is an ideal critical situation: we're going to be engaging with Weick's interpretation of a book that we have as much access to as he does, from the perspective of similar life experiences, i.e., experiences with university administration. It's a bit like the conversation one imagines firefighters could have about Maclean's book. It can happen at a very high level.

Now, it just so happens that I think Weick's analysis of Mann Gulch is wrong. Also, as I've pointed out before, Weick himself seems somewhat ambivalent about his own analysis, and therefore draws contradictory lessons. This equivocation is, interestingly, itself part of the recommendation he makes in the paper he wrote with Tim, where they argue that we do well to foster "emotional ambivalence" through "complex and contradictory" job design. Next week I'm going to try to explain what I think academics can really learn from Mann Gulch, both as leaders and as scholars. It really is a very rich topic.

[Continues here]

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ambivalence and Contradiction

In his response to my critique, Tim Vogus advises us not to dismiss "the idea of complex and contradictory jobs as one possible mechanism for eliciting emotional ambivalence and, in turn, sustaining ... mindful organising". He says that this is an empirical question, and suggests that there are, in fact,

actual highly reliable organizations that design work in precisely this way. For example, in wildland firefighting there is the so-called LCES structure (e.g., Weick, 1996) that balances the faith in capabilities to detect weak signals of changing conditions and respond swiftly to them via lookouts and communication links. That embeds hope in the system. At the same time escape routes and safety zones are also in place. These simultaneously instill doubt in the system in the form of a recognition that things can fall apart rapidly and unexpectedly.

Part of me doesn't want to grant that this is really an "empirical" dispute. After all, even if we take Weick's account at face value, I just don't see the "emotional ambivalence" in having both lookouts and escape routes, which is to say, I don't see how these aspects of the job design of firefighters might be contradictory. Consider, by comparison, the design of writing processes. I generally recommend that people choose to write about something they are quite confident they know and to keep their inner critic at a distance while writing. This could be interpreted as a kind of "faith" in your ability as a writer. But then I also suggest planning to let your inner critic read the text at a later time in search of grammatical mistakes and logical errors. This could be interpreted as "instilling doubt". But is there really any contradiction here? Am I really recommending that writers be ambivalent about their work? Surely, not. I am recommending that they do both things resolutely, namely, writing and then reading their text. That is, even if I accept Weick's empirical description of the LCES structure, it does not force me to accept his logical conclusions.

Now, Tim is quick to point out that universities, where the writing processes I help to design go on, are hardly "high-reliability organisations". But is the comparison really as specious as he suggests? I mean, the very article he cites to show that HROs do actually organise their work in "complex and contradictory" ways—namely, Weick's 1996 paper in the Educational Administration Quarterly—proposes to apply the lessons of firefighters to the work of educational administrators. Weick's paper, in fact, encourages us to take those administrators' language about "putting out fires" much more literally than they probably do themselves. If they're going to talk that way, he says, they should organise their work like firefighters.

On Wednesday, I'm going to conclude this engagement with the notion of emotional ambivalence by looking at Weick's work on firefighters. I have some differences of opinion there too.

[Continues here]

Friday, March 13, 2015

Practical, Theoretical, Empirical, Normative

Last week, Randall Westgren reminded me of old idea of mine with his comment on my post about "empirical questions". While it's going to come off a bit "philosophical" (I don't know why I keep apologising for this quirk about my ideas) it begins with a very common-sense observation: though it may be true, as Heidegger suggested, that "science is the theory of the real", social science is also a "theory of practice". That is, "the real" of social science is our entirely practical, workaday reality, i.e., the place where social life goes on. Social science "theorises" this practical reality, which is to say, it turns it into an "object", indeed, an empirical object.

What Randy reminded me of is that this is really two different ways of "othering" the notion of theory. We can distinguish "theoretical" concerns either from "practical" ones or from "empirical" ones. Being a science depends on enforcing both distinctions. And we can then ask how we establish them in our writing. My standard outline of a social science paper offers a neat way of doing this.

The background section (and the first paragraph of the introduction) should present the practical context that the object of your research figures in. (Yes, I'm using the word "figure" advisedly here; the back-ground is the foil for your object.) It is an entirely "factual", but not quite "empirical", description of the world (or the age) in which we live. It is not empirical precisely in the sense in which your results section is empirical. It, too, makes claims about "the facts of the matter", but instead of basing them on publicly available authoritative sources (that can be cited), it bases them on your data, i.e., information that is, in an important sense, only directly available ("given") to you, the author of the paper.

Between the background and the analysis, we have the theory section and the methods section, which in an important sense construct your sense of the "empirical". The theory shapes our expectations of the object; the method makes it visible (so that it can disappoint our expectations, i.e., so that we can learn). But there's another "other" to your empiricism, namely, your normativity. And that's what the implications section is for. This is where you tell us what we should do in the light of the truth of what you are saying. In many cases, you are telling us how society should change. That is, you are proposing new norms for the practices you have theorised and then studied empirically.

Keeping your practical, theoretical, empirical and normative concerns distinct can be very helpful to your writing. Use your outline to define a space for writing and remember: space is what keeps everything from piling up in the same place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Freedom and Telepathy

"The idea of the intangibility of a mental state ... is of the greatest importance? Why is it intangible? Isn't it because we refuse to count what is tangible about our state as part of the specific state which we are postulating?" (Wittgenstein)

Once you've given yourself the time and the space you need to write—once you've coordinated the here and now of your writing moment—writing is, in a certain sense, "easy". You have your entire vocabulary to draw on, and since you are, for the moment, alone and no one is watching, you can say whatever you want. The words won't even refuse to be combined in ungrammatical ways. Consider, by contrast, the mason or the carpenter, whose work is forever governed by the laws of physics. Sure, your pen or computer has to obey the laws of physics, but your words are free. It is no more difficult to write them down than to think them.

Perhaps this is why Roland Barthes thinks of writing as a sublime kind of freedom. And why Stephen King calls it, almost without metaphor or irony, a kind of telepathy. Because the materials of writing exert so little resistance against our choices, because words are almost made of nothing, are weightless and colourless (in the sense that their colour does not, normally, affect their meaning), we forget that they—the words—are what we are making our writing out of. Indeed, we forget that we are actually making something—sentences, paragraphs—not just doing something—writing. We think that writing is just the act of meaning, an entirely abstract activity. We think it is intangible.

Against this, let's remember James Randi's remark about Uri Geller. "If he's using his mind to bend those spoons," said Randi, "he's doing it the hard way." Geller also claimed to be telepathic. Now, in both cases, Geller was probably very intentionally concealing "what is tangible" about his act from the audience, namely, the important work that his hands were doing in bending the spoons. It was, in short, a trick. (I'm told he's now openly performing the trick as such; he has stopped calling himself a mystic.) To think of writing as some remarkable species of freedom, or a kind of telepathy, is, really, to think of it as a kind of magic. It is a refusal to count "what is tangible" about the activity as part of the specific activity we are doing. In reality, writing is just another thing we do with our hands. In really good writing, of course, like that of Barthes and King, that trick just happens to be concealed.

Monday, March 09, 2015


Rotterdam, Netherlands, 17:25, March 9, 2015

On Writing, Degree Zero

Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero and Stephen King's On Writing are very different books, admirable and infuriating in different ways. Which one you prefer is probably not so much a matter of taste as a matter of mood. There are days when you are open to the idea that writing is "an ambiguous reality ... aris[ing] from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time [while] refer[ring him] back ... to the instruments of creation", and there are days when you think it's better to approach it simply as "a meeting of minds", an activity that is in any case more "serious", "damn it", than washing the car. There are days when you think of writing as the only Freedom (with a capital F) you've got; and there are days when it appears as impossible as a telepathy ("No myth-mountain shit; real telepathy").

I'm confining these remarks to Barthes' "What is Writing?", the first chapter of the book, and King's "What Writing Is", about a third of the way through. This morning, let me try to focus on what is admirable about them. On Wednesday, I'll tell what infuriates me (hint: writing is neither freedom nor telepathy; it's just another thing you do with your hands.)

King announces that he's sitting in his best "transmitting place", at his desk "under the eave", and that he's imagining you, dear reader (he addresses you directly), in your "far-seeing place", like a "couch on a sunporch". He has a way of putting his daily cares and joys "up top" and work "in a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images". You, at the very least, he imagines, are looking for an escape. He knows there's not just space but time between you. Even if you read him immediately upon publication, his words will be three years old. Still, the two of you are going to pull off a little "mentalist routine". He's going to work his magic:

Look — here's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Now it's hard to dispute that the trick works, right? Anyone who knows how to read will see the rabbit in the cage, right? Well, King reminds us that there's "a lot of room for interpretation", "necessary variations": "some will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that's scarlet ..." And yet an image is communicated ... to anyone who reads English, that is.

This is where Barthes comes in.

We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habit common to all the writers of a period. Which means that a language is a kind of natural ambience wholly pervading the writer's expression, yet without endowing it with form or content...[but] under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the authors's personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place ... Failing the power to supply [the writer] with a freely consumed language, History suggests to him the demand for one freely produced.

There's more, of course. But we'll leave it there. (Here in my transmitting place, I'm running out of time. And you've probably got things to see to as well.) I'll take a critical look at these ideas about writing on Wednesday.

Friday, March 06, 2015

What Is Writing? and What Writing Is

Spinoza writes:
The intellectual love of a thing consists in the understanding of their perfections.
Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads. (Ezra Pound)

For the past half year or so, I've been on a bit of a Roland Barthes kick. (He's good company in weariness.) I'll probably have something serious to report from my reading soon, but as a follow up to yesterday's impulsive post on writing instruction, I'd like to point out a curious fact that would make a good undergraduate essay, or perhaps simply a reading assignment. This means I'll be postponing my continued engagement with Tim Vogus until next week.

The first chapter of Barthes' Writing Degree Zero, from 1953, is called "What Is Writing?" In Stephen Kings's On Writing, from 2000, there is a chapter called "What Writing Is". Both are only a few pages long. The question is, are they about the same thing? Does Stephen King answer Roland Barthes' question?

Barthes says stuff like:

Any written trace precipitates, as inside a chemical at first transparent, innocent and neutral, mere duration gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram.

Writing as Freedom is therefore a mere moment.

Stephen King says,

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. ... Come to it any way but lightly.

Barthes says that writing is a kind of freedom: "the entirely free relationship between language and its fleshy double". King says that writing is a kind of telepathy: "Look—here's a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage ..."

I do think they are ultimately talking about the same thing. But Barthes (though also a writer) is approaching it as a theorist and King is approaching it as a practitioner. Barthes, perhaps more importantly, is a addressing the theorist, while King is addressing the would-be writer.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Beyond Infinity

[I was saving this post for a later time, but Jonathan's recent post about dumb & smart postmodernism makes it somehow timely.]

Georg Cantor, it is said, showed that there are numbers greater than infinity. Specifically, he proved that there are more real numbers than natural numbers, though there are of course infinitely many of both. I have my doubts. Following Wittgenstein, I'm more inclined to think that Cantor invented a game to play with numbers than that he discovered a fact about them. Today, that makes me a crank, I'm told. (On some days, I also don't think pi is a number—a view I apparently share with the late Buckminster Fuller, who was strange enough, but perhaps a little too famous, to be called a crank.) Fortunately, for the purposes of this post I can assume that Cantor was right, at least for the sake of argument.

So, suppose it is true that there are numbers greater than infinity. Let's agree that this does not affect the truths of arithmetic. Though there may be more real numbers than natural ones, two plus two is still four. Now, suppose a movement among math teachers arose to teach Cantor's theory to students at an early age. After all, the theory is true, and it tells us something interesting, perhaps even fundamental, about what numbers are. Up to a certain point we could allow it. But now suppose, further, that after a few years of this heady pedagogy (grounded in Cantor's altogether true theory about numbers, remember), we find that while some of the students are holding forth impressively about the many "orders of infinity" a substantial number of them are regularly making basic errors of arithmetic. On closer investigation, we find that they don't know their multiplication tables and don't master long division. They "get through" by using their pocket calculators whenever they can. Ask them about infinities and imaginary numbers, they'll come up with an answer. But part of you is beginning to suspect they're just bullshitting you. These are students who can't confidently add 1017 to 479, you remind yourself. What can they possibly know of infinity?

This, unfortunately, is what I think has happened in writing instruction. Impressed by sophisticated theories of authorship, language and discourse, we have neglected the basic skill of describing a fact. We ask students to write after both "the death of the author" and the "elision of the subject", which is to say after Barthes and after Foucault, but we don't teach them how to write down what they know, how to say what they think. We have abandoned assertion and rejected mastery; we have allowed the students to "perform" for us rather than be their "authentic" selves. We have become as tolerant of their "patchwriting" (which we don't call out as plagiarism) as a math teacher who does not ban the use of calculators for assignments. Something has to change.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

An Empirical Question

About fifteen years ago, when I was doing my PhD, we used to say "That's an empirical question!" with a somewhat subversive intent. I think it was Bruno Latour's work that inspired us. Basically, instead of accepting traditional norms of behaviour, whether in science or politics, as the "right" way of doing things, or instead of merely dismissing them as a "wrong", we would propose (often for mostly rhetorical purposes) to study "what actually happens" in the contexts where those norms apply. The implicit point was that they probably had little consequence for actual behaviour or very different consequences than we might expect. The true meaning of the norm would thereby be revealed.

Tim Vogus has suggested doing something similar with the notion of emotional ambivalence. My immediate (and admittedly conservative) view is that emotional ambivalence is sometimes unavoidable but, in almost all cases, undesirable. It certainly seems a strange thing to actively introduce into an otherwise healthy organisational culture. And things get even stranger when we consider the means by which Tim thinks it should be introduced: by designing tasks in "complex and contradictory" ways. Tim's response goes as follows:

The section you excerpt is from our discussion of directions for future research. It is fundamentally an empirical question. We were posing the idea of complex and contradictory jobs as one possible mechanism for eliciting emotional ambivalence and, in turn, sustaining (not creating) mindful organizing. But I think you are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Specifically, because there are actual highly reliable organizations that design work in precisely this way.

Notice that he here says it's both an empirical question and one that he has at least part of the answer to already. On Friday, I'm going to look at one of the examples he mentions, namely, the wildland firefighters that Weick has explicitly suggested as a model for educational administrators. This is a actually a very interesting example, because the suggestion came about twenty years ago. That means that we can see the present situation as, possibly, a consequence of following Weick's advice. It's a good example of "what actually happens" in the practices that I'm interested in.

[Continues here.]

Monday, March 02, 2015

Are Universities High-Reliability Organizations?

In his response to my critique of his paper (with Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick) about emotional ambivalence, Tim Vogus raises an important point. Is it correct to think of universities as "high-reliability organizations" (HROs)? In answering it, it is important to keep in mind that the definition of an HRO includes, essentially, the fact that it has successfully avoided disaster though constantly exposed to hazards. With this in mind, Tim's response has some initial plausibility. It is debatable whether academics engage in hazardous work; and it is also debatable how successfully universities manage what hazards there are. "I don’t think," says Tim, "any HRO scholar would agree with your assessment of universities as well-designed high-reliability organizations." Indeed, let me sharpen his point before addressing it. While there are plenty of firefighters who would describe their departments as "well-designed high-reliability organizations", I imagine there are substantially fewer academics who would describe their universities in those terms. In short, both theorists and practitioners are likely to balk at the idea.

I have two responses to this, one literal and one metaphorical. Let me take the metaphorical one first, since it's something I point out in my original posts and is the "easy" answer. The idea of comparing academics to firefighters is not one that I've invented. Karl Weick has drawn lessons from his studies of wildland firefighers for both scholars and university administrators. (In 1996 he wrote one piece for the Administrative Science Quarterly and another for the Educational Administration Quarterly to make these two points respectively.) Now, in both cases he's clearly suggesting only that we can use HROs as models for academic organizations, not that universities literally are HROs, and if pressed, I'm willing retreat to this position too. Nothing depends on my making the strong claim that universities fit the textbook definition of an HRO, and I was a bit surprised to find Tim reading my remarks as an "assessment" of them to that effect.

Still, I'm willing to entertain the idea. After all, universities have a long track record of conserving knowledge in often very critical times. The discovery of falsehood in research is a "normal accident", if you will, since science is highly self-corrective, and sometimes aggressively critical. The institution of "free inquiry" constitutes a standing challenge for received views, a source of disruption for the status quo. In the face of these hazards, we rely on universities to remain orderly places of research and teaching, maintainers of a modicum of orthodoxy—despite the occasional revolutionary change of paradigm, to use the familiar Kuhnian idiom. If catastrophic ignorance (epistemic chaos) is the looming danger implicit in intellectual environments, it could be argued that the universities have done an excellent job, for hundreds of years, of maintaining an orderly base of knowledge. Some disciplines more successfully than others to be sure, but let's remember that procedures also change in hospitals, armies, airports, and fire stations.

Maybe we should leave the final assessment as an open question. One thing I would suggest, however, and in line with Weick's 1987 paper "Organizational Culture as a Source of High-Reliability", is that, whether we ultimately conclude that they are successful or not, "what is interesting about" universities is that they are organized around "issues of reliablity, not the conventional organizational issues of efficiency" (cf. Weick 1987: 112). What's actually more interesting is the critical wedge this gives us into current debates about the course of higher education. After all, it can be argued (I think I'm going to try to make this argument) that universities have grown less reliable over the past ten or twenty years in pursuit of greater efficiency. That is, they have abandoned their traditional mission for a more "conventional" one.

[Continues here.]


Weick, K. E. 1987. Organizational Culture as a Source of High-Reliability. California Management Review, 29(2): 112-127.

Weick, K. E. 1996. Fighting Fires in Educational Administration. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32(4): 565-578.

Weick, K. E. 1996. Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (2): 301-313.