I'm taking a few days off from posting. I'll be back soon.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Within any field there has to be some basic agreement about etiquette, but not just in an interpersonal sense. When making claims, researchers have to know how to present them to each other for consideration. These presentations must follow recognizable forms because it has to be possible to gauge the consequence of one scholar's claims for the validity of another's. This is why the logical positivists wanted scientific knowledge to be traced back to simple "protocol sentences", which were supposed to be (under particular circumstances) unambiguously true or false.
Today, we're much more accepting of ambiguity, and even in social life there's a great deal of uncertainty about "protocols", i.e., the set of rules that govern our interactions. But I think it is important to try to learn how to speak in a way that is appropriate in your community. In diplomacy, the idea was to make it possible to discuss important matters of state among people who, as it were, "knew their place" in the conversation. This was not just a way of keeping them in the place, but of securing them a place, regardless of language or rhetorical skill. In research, too, there must be a way of letting claims be made, letting someone "state the facts", in order that they can be discussed seriously.
Friday, February 24, 2012
"...I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us." (Jorge Luis Borges)
In your scholarly writing, there is no way around forming an opinion. I know the temptation to think of our opinions as "trivial" and the desire to write a text that is not "distorted" by them. (Such a text is a poem, which is "the work" that Borges is talking about.) I know academics who find opinions tiresome, and who would like their writing to be about something else. But I think they have somehow gotten into the wrong line of work. Opinions (claims, propositions) are absolutely central to the scholarly enterprise.
Scholars should deal in more than "mere" opinion of course. They should be able to defend their opinions, to engage in "discourse" about them. Their confidence is not mere arrogance, their resolve is not mere stubbornness. When they make claims they are expressing opinions that are well founded in reasons to hold those views. When you talk to them, when you push back against the claims they make, you encounter the resistance that those reasons provide. The art of writing a prose paragraph, the art of academic writing more generally, is the art of making those reasons explicit. When scholars communicate in writing, they are telling each other what they believe and providing each other with reasons for those beliefs.
As a young scholar, or even a student, you therefore do well to examine your opinions in a systematic way. The "spiritual exercises" that I've been talking about his week offer such a system. In fact, you might recall that not long ago I presented a utopian vision in which undergraduates give themselves 640 occasions during the course of their studies to examine their opinions. Such students will develop disciplined minds and they'll become more articulate people.
Over at OrgTheory, Fabio Rojas recently posted a TEDx Talk about irrationality in politics by Michael Huemer. He rightly reminds us that it's somewhat inconvenient to be rational because it means that you can't believe anything you want. If you're rational you have to have reasons to believe. It's not about merely being "opinionated", its about being able to make explicit the reasons you have for holding your beliefs.
I suppose it's the difference, also, between being a "moralist" and actually being a moral person. Those who engage in orderly self-examination on a regular basis will have a number of moral attitudes that guide their behavior. They will also be less able to denounce the actions of others in a superficial way. They know that their opinions about behavior apply only in particular circumstances and that we really only know in our own case whether those circumstances obtain in any given situation.
Academic writing is the orderly formation of opinions in prose. A process of making claims and supporting them with arguments. That's why academic discourse is the way it is. Like I always say, it's not for everyone. But it does serve a particular social function.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
In the first place, in order that by exercises of this kind, as well he who gives as he who receives them may be profited, it must be presupposed that every pious Christian ought with a more ready mind to put a good sense upon an obscure opinion or proposition of another than to condemn it; but if he can in no way defend it, let him inquire the meaning of the speaker, and if he think or mean wrongly, correct him kindly ; if this suffice not, try all suitable means by which he may render him sound in meaning and safe from error. (St. Ignatius of Loyola)
In the evening, you briefly consider the truth of a claim (or several claims). In the morning, you write a paragraph (or several paragraphs) supporting that claim (or those claims). This exercise will foster a "propositional attitude" in your thinking. It will be good for your style.
But what does it mean to write a paragraph? For the purpose of this exercise, I encourage you to start with a confidently (but not stubbornly) held opinion. It should be expressed in a proposition you know to be true and the truth of which you can defend. Your ability to defend it is, as a first approximation, your ability to write five or six supporting sentences, and a paragraph is simply those sentences arranged as support for the claim. We call the sentence that expresses the central claim of the paragraph the "key sentence".
Let's consider an example. In the evening, you might write down the following sentence:
Sensemaking is the formation images that rationalize what people are doing.
In the morning, you get up and proceed to support it. Now, one of the reasons that you are confident about this claim is that it is orthodox. It is not just your opinion but a widely held one. Indeed, it is a classic definition of sensemaking. In fact, it turns out to be an almost verbatim transcription of Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld's definition. And (if you click on that link) you can see that the claim has already been used to anchor a paragraph that supports it.
We might want either to mark the quotation—Sensemaking is the formation of "images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld 2005: 409)—or rewrite the sentence as a paraphrase of their point—Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld (2005: 409) have defined sensemaking in terms of the images that rationalize our activities. Either way, we can imagine a paragraph like the following (from this post) to support it:
Sensemaking is the formation of "images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld 2005: 409). At the start of each day, for example, members of a given organization may show up at the same places (their offices) and begin, say, to make sense of their emails. They may answer some with great care and delete others without even reading them. They will file some for later, or, if they answer them right away, mentally note that they are engaging in "personal business" on "company time". This may be worth only a fleeting thought or a record in a logbook of some kind. Or it may simply be an occasion for a mildly guilty conscience. It all depends on the "images that rationalize what they are doing". These images are particular to particular organizations, and we therefore do well to study them when making sense of organizations, i.e., studying them as organization theorists.
Having written such a paragraph, your peers are in a position to inquire your meaning, and if they think you are wrong, to correct you kindly.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
"I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are "What does he mean?" and "How does he know?" I doubt the report—no university could be that good..." (Wayne Booth)
As an academic writer, your aim should be to provide support for claims. The relevant unit of composition is the prose paragraph, in which a key sentence states the claim and roughly five further sentences support it. The key sentence tells us what you mean, the rest tell us how you know.
At any given time your mind will be occupied by one or more research projects. Such projects will either be at the back of your mind or at the forefront of your attention, but in all cases they consist of a series of more or less inchoate claims that you are more or less able to support. My first suggestion for a "spiritual exercise" is to articulate those claims, to make them explicit. Remember, as always, that a research project in the social sciences can be represented by a standard 40-paragraph paper, which will cover familiar kids of ground: introduction, background, theory, method, results, implications, conclusion.
The core of a project lies in its theory, method and results. Every night, before you go to bed, pick one these sections in one of your projects. List three major claims in this section, i.e., write three possible key sentences of a theoretical, methodological or empirical kind (i.e., how you see the world, what you did, or what your data shows). If you are doing these exercises regularly, you will probably have this list already made and you'll only have to choose three sentences to look at. In any case, read the three sentences out loud. Now, pick the one you know best. Put an "x" beside it. This is the claim you will support in the morning. All in all this exercise shouldn't take more than five minutes. Don't struggle with it. Pick a claim that you are very familiar with from among three claims you are also familiar with.
The next exercise, to be carried out in 30 minutes, first thing in the morning, is to write the supporting paragraph.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
"The first time is in the morning..."
St. Ignatius of Loyola
I'm no saint. But it occurs to me that I do have a system for "for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul". In particular, I believe that writing allows us to see what we think. It articulates what we know, makes our minds visible to us. A disciplined academic writer has better access to the part of hisserher soul that knows about hisserher area of expertise. This greater articulateness also provides a natural corrigibility, i.e., the ability to discard erroneous beliefs and to replace them with accurate ones.
How can you develop this articulateness? Well, in general, by forming your thoughts into coherent prose paragraphs. Write a sentence that you know to be true. Then write five or six sentences that support the claim that this sentence makes. A paragraph should be written within 30 minutes. For the purpose of the "exercises", it should be written in exactly 30 minutes, including some light revision, reading out loud, and a break (stand up, stretch, walk around a bit).
But what should you write about?
The general rule is to write what you know. You know a great deal, of course, and when doing the exercises you should not be trying to push the boundaries of your knowledge. You are building your core strength. Use the writing as a way to improve your manner of speaking, your style, not your awareness of what is true or false. If you are a PhD student, of course, you have a great deal to learn. The exercises will help you chart your progress.
This week I'm going to be suggesting a number of different exercises to construct, first, a key sentence (an expression of the claim of a particular paragraph) and, second, the rest of the paragraph (which provides support for the claim). Both the claim and in its support can always be articulated in different ways and the combinations can be suggested in simple terms. Also, all claims to know, at least in the social sciences, are shaped by theory and grounded in method. This means that particular exercises can be suggested to articulate the context and basis of your claim, the source of its meaning and its truth.
The serious student, and the serious scholar, observes these exercises in one way or another, sometimes more explicitly than others. If you are worried about "the state of your soul", it can be a good idea to practice them very consciously.
Monday, February 20, 2012
"I have not lingered in European monasteries."
I often worry whether universities are sufficiently "orderly" to fulfill their social mission. Students are said to be "adrift", their teachers are as busy as stockbrokers. Many scholars rush around chaotically, between meetings and conferences, finding time to write only if they practice what their colleagues are likely to call an "extreme" discipline (namely, writing for something as simple as an hour every day). Stress has come to replace (the at least more serene condition of) melancholia as the characteristic pathology of the researcher. I'm no longer certain whether universities are good places to conserve and transmit what we have learned as a species. I don't know whether they are, to use Steve Fuller's phrase, "safe for intellectual life".
Here at RSL, I sometimes express what Wallace Stevens called the "blessed rage for order" (or at least what I use his words to call it). I don't think we'll understand what, say, Heidegger was trying to teach us about, say, human organization, if we don't have a certain measure of serenity. I don't think we'll be able to push back against the excesses of scientific confidence if we don't practice a degree of rigor. ("You know the way to stop me," sings Cohen, "but you don't have the discipline.") I often hear people express perfectly sound, or perfectly brilliant, "ideas" but then doubt whether they will find the time to form them effectively in prose so that these ideas can have the impact they deserve in the literature. That's why I talk so much about discipline and training. And too little, perhaps, about what makes a good sentence or a good paragraph.
But I worry that my ideas about order are likely to be misunderstood in a fundamental way. Given the pressures, its easy to think of order as a means to particular ends. Students should keep their lives orderly, we might think, so that they can get good grades. Scholars should organize their work so that they can reach their career goals, i.e., so that they can publish, not perish. I talk a great deal about time management and about managing the space of the page. Even the name of my system, Writing Process Reengineering, evokes images of productivity and efficiency, which is to say, the image of a process that is designed, as a means, to reach a particular set of ends. But I don't think that's really why we should strive for order.
Order, I think, should be an end in itself. Its "goal" should be something wholly abstract and transcendent, like cultivating a "love of God", if you are inclined towards such things. The orderly lives of monks are not intended to make them more efficient or productive (though they no doubt get their chores done). If they read, write, pray and exercise every day it is because order as such is valuable to them. Their submission to God is simply realized in their submission to the disciplined life of a monastery. It is this order itself that they seek.
Leonard Cohen closes the poem whose opening line I've used as my epigraph as follows:
I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.
Let me begin the week by wishing you such simple order in your intellectual pursuits. And happiness.
*Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)
Friday, February 17, 2012
If yesterday was any indication, Thursdays are going to be something special for me as a writer. It turns out that I will be "building not writing" the book more literally than I thought. Contrary to my plan, it will consist of a substantial amount of cutting and pasting from this blog. There was some original writing to be done too (and I am very happy with what I came up, I must say), but it looks like I really have said already most of what I want to say in the book.
First, I wrote a 2000-word conclusion starting only with the 600-word sketch from this post. But as I began to write the introduction I could remember having covered particular topics before. Once I found the post and inserted it into the manuscript, I realized that another post could almost seamlessly continue the passage. And on it went. Working in this way I quickly put together a 5000-word chapter, which is perhaps a bit long for an introduction. Fortunately, since it is, precisely, an introduction, I should be able to shorten it by moving material into the main chapters of the book.
The short of it is that from 8 to 11 yesterday morning I added 7000 words to my book. As planned, I then went for run, resolving to celebrate by running a full 7.5 kilometers (one and a half circuits around the local park). As you can imagine, when I sat down to lunch, I felt great.
By spending a little bit of time reading and marking posts in the evenings until next Thursday, I should put myself into position to repeat the performance. That is, my writing for this blog seems to be paying off. Not only am I in great shape as a writer, I have a great deal of material for the book almost ready-made for the purpose. The book Research as a Second Language really will reflect my experience as the blogger who maintained Research as a Second Language.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I'm now starting the work of writing my first real book. In order to keep it realistic I've conceived of it as a collection of 9 5000-word essays, framed by an introduction (3000 words) and a conclusion (2000 words). That's 50,000 words altogether in ten parts (I always think of the introduction and conclusion together as one "part").
My plan is to work on the book for three hours every Thursday. Since I can quite easily write 400 words in 30 minutes, I can expect to write 2400 words each session, or about half of each of the parts. In the spirit of Kafka's "The Great Wall of China", I'm going to work on each part in sequence without finishing it, going back to fill in the holes after the whole thing has been worked through. After 10 weeks, then, almost half the book (24,000 words) will have been written (importantly, however, it will not be the first half, but half the words along its whole "length"). This will give me a good sense of the shape of the book and will, hopefully, confirm that it's going to be a good book. At this point, I will increase the intensity, working two hours every day to fill in what is missing for another two or three weeks. Then I will take a break.
Maybe I'm being a bit optimistic (especially about the amount of words I'm going to write). But keep in mind that the content of this book is not at all a mystery to me. I've probably already said everything I'm going to say in the book on this blog. It is much more like I'm building something, putting something together, than "writing" it. (Though I will not, I've decided, be cutting and pasting from my posts.) I'm really just "packaging" my ideas for a particular kind of consumption.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
A full-page ad for Capella University in the New Yorker (Feb. 13 & 20, p. 33) has gotten stuck in my craw. It's a picture of messy file-room full of medical files, and two hand-written notes-to-self. (1) "I wish the health care system would heal itself". (2) "I will drink cold, stale coffee at 2 a.m. to get through 78 pages of a textbook, I will take on hours of research, and I will learn to help fix what is broken". These thoughts were presumably jotted down by a student at Capella University. The ad goes on to explain: "Good intentions alone can't fix a broken system. Hard work and the right education can. Creating real change is a daunting task, but a Capella degree gives you the knowledge to turn the impossible into merely challenging. Are you ready to make a difference? To matter?"
University web-pages are full of romantic, idealized images of what "college life" is like. They are very often misleading or disturbing (i.e., either college life isn't really like that, or the fact that it is disturbs me). One gets the impression that most of the time is spent walking in cheerful groups from one class to another through grassy grounds. Or huddled around a computer in a group talking seriously about what's on the screen. (Even though group work has been shown to make people stupider.) There are, it is true, sometimes also pictures of students "studying" alone in a library or even in a dorm room. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone doing something that might count as writing in one of these idyls.
In the Capella ad we have the glamorization of late-night reading and, for an inexplicable reason, bad coffee. Instead of complaining, let me just offer a corrective. We should read with a clear head, in the afternoon or early evening. We should read and take notes and think about what we're reading, not how many pages we've been assigned. Most importantly: we should make ourselves fresh cups of hot coffee to consume at 6 a.m. while we write some coherent prose paragraphs about the subjects that are dealt with in our textbooks. We can get up at 6 a.m., mind you, because we were sleeping at 2 a.m., and we could sleep, probably, because we drank our last cup of (perfectly good) coffee around 8 p.m. (or whenever it will let us sleep at a decent hour).
It is not hard work that will fix our broken systems, but intelligently managed work. Chris Argyris famously proposed to "teach smart people how to to learn". My aim, these days, is to teach smart people how to work. Capella's ad agency doesn't seem to understand what university life ought to be (though, true, true, all too often what it is).
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
There are about sixteen weeks in a semester. That's about 80 working days, twice a year. 160 days. That leaves 205 days for other things*. There are four years in a typical bachelor program. That 640 days (128 weeks) of being in session, 820 days for others things. In this post I want to point something out about those 128 weeks of "school" that gives you your first university degree: you could be writing a prose paragraph a day.
Imagine the physical analogy. You could probably run about 5 kilometers (3 miles) every day. It would take you 30 minutes. For variation you could swim every other day for thirty minutes, or work out in the gym (most college campuses have facilities of some kind). If nothing else, you'd come out of your college days in great shape. (Barack Obama, as I recall, tells the story of how he got academically serious in simple terms: he stopped smoking weed and started running every day. You, too, could be president!)
My point wasn't that you should take up jogging. There are 640 school days from commencement to graduation. Just as you might do a bit of exercise every day, you might write a prose paragraph every day. All you need is thirty minutes: write a sentence you know to be true. Then write five sentences that support the truth of that claim. Work on it for style and grammar until you've spent 25 minutes altogether. Then read it out loud. Then read it silently. Get on with your day.
By the end of the semester you will have written 80 prose paragraphs or about two full academic articles worth of prose, probably between 12,000 and 16,000 words. I don't know how that compares to the amount of writing you have to do for your assignments. But it's probably more than you are required to write. In any case, a 20-page term paper will probably consist of about 30 paragraphs. It will take you about 15 hours to draft. If you're in shape, the work will go easily and straightforwardly.
Not only will you have written a lot of prose. You will have supported 80 claims every semester. 640 claims throughout your undergraduate studies. This will make you a more articulate person. You will come out of college in great mental "shape". There will still be plenty of time for class, for reading, and for social life. You will just also have become a capable, confident writer.
I don't know exactly how it would change the world if everyone got into the habit of composing themselves in prose paragraphs for thirty minutes every day. But I think it would be for the better. And college, it seems to me, is a great place to develop this habit. I've even given you 820 days* to develop other habits.
*64 days a year are in-session weekends. This means that 256 days of those 820 days that you're not working on your discipline can be spent "unwinding" in the usual way. The rest can be devoted to vacationing and summer jobs. Also, there may be some "cramming" in there if your exams are held outside the semester calendar. But, but, but: if you've been working in a regular, disciplined way, you shouldn't really need to cram.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Hemingway once said, "I always live a hell of a healthy life for the first three hours of every day." At the time, he wasn't talking about his regular writing habits, but I've always misunderstood to him to mean about five hours, which would include three or four hours of writing and some exercise—then the "unhealthy" part, i.e., good food and lots of drink. These days, in any case, I'm living a hell of a healthy life for the first and last half hour of the working day.
I get up every weekday morning at 6:10AM and putter around making coffee and waking up. At 6:30AM I begin to write these blog posts, which I post at 7:00AM. That's means I've put in 30 minutes of writing. I find I can dependably write between 350 and 700 words, which is to say, about three or four paragraphs worth of words. (Not always quite so well-composed.) One morning I broke 1000 words. Naturally, I always know what I'm going to write about before I go bed at night. In the morning, I get up and just write it.
Most afternoons, I go swimming at the pool by my daughter's figure-skating rink. While she trains, I swim about a kilometer (that's on a really good day, I think I'm usually a bit under) in 30 minutes. Then I sit in the sauna for ten or fifteen minutes and, finally, jump under the cold shower. Thursdays are different because my daughter doesn't skate on Thursdays. So my exercise for that day consists in what will eventually be a 10 km jog (I'm at about 6.5 now) before lunch. I'll still write a 30-minute blog posts in the morning.
Between breakfast and the jog on Thursdays I'll be working on my book of this blog. In a sense, my blogging in the morning is just training/drafting for those three-hour sessions on Thursday, where I'll really be writing. So the program consists of 30 minutes of writing before breakfast and 30 minutes of exercise before dinner, except Thursdays, where I will do three hours of writing and one hour of exercise before lunch.
Friday, February 10, 2012
There is arguably nothing more standard in a social science paper than the theory section. Most journals will demand not only a theory but some "theoretical contribution". Like PhD dissertations, however, papers are sometimes written with a theory separately in mind. The author will announce two objectives: first, to make that contribution to theory development, normally by producing a "literature review", and, second, to make an empirical contribution, i.e., to present a set of results. While such papers do sometimes get published too, I don't recommend this approach. Your empirical results ought to have theoretical implications. You should not "develop" your theory independently or in advance of your results.
As Pierre Bourdieu said, a theory is a "program of perception". In your theory section you are telling the reader how you see the world. In the social sciences, this means announcing which of the available theories of a particular, say, social practice you are letting inform your vision of that practice. It is how you are construing (or even outright constructing) your object. It is very important that, as a program of perception, you let your theory assign a series of descriptive tasks, marked by your concepts. Your theory tells you how you have to describe the world in your analysis (or "results" section). And for this reason it is important make an inventory of the concepts (the theoretical terms) you will use in your paper. While your analysis will use these concepts, your theory section will account for them.
A theory is built out of concepts. Concepts inform our vision; they make us see a set of facts, actions or events as something, i.e., as being of a particular kind. When we see something as, say, a "technology of self" or a "sensemaking process" or an "abstract machine" we have subsumed some part of the social world under a concept. Indeed, there will usually be more concrete objects and therefore more particular concepts: conduct, action, affects. This is why some people also call concepts "categories of observation". They simply make it possible to see particular things. More precisely, they make us construe the flux of experience as made up of empirical objects of a particular kinds. And objects in turn are simply limits on the possible. An object's "properties", i.e., the specific truths you can state about an object, are ultimately limits on the way they can be combined with other objects (defined by the theory).
These possibilities are precisely what you want to remind the reader of. They are the expectations that your results will artfully disappoint. A good research paper in the social sciences shows that the objects that constitute the social world are capable of being combined in ways we did not expect. And it was our theory that conditioned us to hold those expectations in the first place.
Thursday, February 09, 2012
These posts about the standard-issue social science paper (or standard issues in social science papers) are intended to get you thinking about the separate components of your knowledge base that put you in a position to write such a paper. You need not just "empirical results" but also an everyday "factual background", for example. It is not enough that you have seen something in your data; the result has to stand out in the everyday world of practice. I'll write about the theory section tomorrow to complete this series; this morning I want to talk about how important it is that your results have a specifiable set of "implications". Before you can expect to publish your paper, after all, you must be aware of how your reader's mind should be changed by reading. What does your work imply?
I have already said that the results section should artfully disappoint your reader's expectations. And the reader's expectations, in an academic paper, are shaped by the theory that the reader and writer share. But disappointments come in many shapes and sizes. Roughly speaking, a paper may highlight two kinds of implication, theoretical and practical. The results may evoke a disappointment in the theory, implying that the theory should be modified to accommodate the new facts brought to light by the study. Theories are always "underdetermined" by observation, i.e., our knowledge of particular facts, so we are getting used to having to modify our theories as new work brings new facts to light. You want to make sure that the implications of your study are precisely a modification of your theory, not its outright rejection. There are rare moments in the history of a discipline when a paper that argues for the replacement of one theory with another can be published (these moments are what Kuhn called "crises", which precede his "scientific revolutions"). But normally you want to imply only that a theory, which should remain in place (and dominant) after you have published your work, needs to rethink certain assumptions.
The other kind of implication is practical. Here we suggest that we are really disappointed in the world, the behavior of practitioners. If only they understood the theory (which is right about these matters), and lived up to our expectations of them, their practices would be much more successful. That is, we are making recommendations to practitioners in light of empirical study of their practices, framed by a particular theory. Bob Sutton's "no asshole rule" is such a recommendation. He is telling practitioners that "research shows" that hiring assholes (or keeping them around if you have accidentally already hired one) is a bad idea. He uses a variety of theories to show that assholes undermine your ability to bring about what he calls a "civilized" workplace. He is adjusting our view of who contributes to the value of an organization.
The implications section is best imagined as consisting of five paragraphs or one-eighth of the 40-paragraph paper. That will mean you are drawing between 3 and 5 specific implications (depending on how you write the section). And you are perfectly entitled to draw both kinds of implication: recommendations for practice and contributions to theory. Just keep it simple. The main critical standard here is a logical one: your recommendations have to "follow" from your background (description of practice), your theory, and your results in a logical way.
Wednesday, February 08, 2012
It is commonplace to begin a paper with a few commonplaces about the world in which we live. This world will be described in a way that emphasizes the social practices that the paper will offer a scientific analysis of. But the description will not itself be scientific. It will, of course, be "knowledgeable", but the knowledge it contains will not be dependent on either the theory or the method that supports the analysis. Instead, it will be based on sources that are also available to the reader, that is, published work.
That first paragraph of the paper, which establishes a common place where the reader and writer can share their interest in a particular corner of social life, will sometimes require elaboration. That is what the background section is for. The reader may know something about lean management practices, for example, but nothing about the manufacture and distribution of cardboard boxes in Sweden. Or the reader may need to know some general, historical facts about the company or companies that the writer has studied. The information that the writer provides here will, again, be available to the reader (and the writer does well to cite some good sources of the information along the way) but the writer is providing it anyway, for the reader's convenience. It is information that the reader could be aware of but presumably isn't. The reader will not find it presumptuous of the writer to assume that reader is ignorant about it.
The first paragraph of the introduction and the (roughly) five paragraphs of the background section really state the same claim. The introductory paragraph is the top of the iceberg (the summit), the background section is the tip of the iceberg (the part that is above water), and the dignity of the movement of this iceberg comes from everything the writer knows but does not say about the company, country or industry that the paper discusses. This is important to keep in mind as part of your growing base of knowledge. If you are doing a case study in a particular industry you will have a great deal of specialized knowledge about a particular company or, even more specifically, a particular team in a particular company. But you are not an expert on what that team does if you do not learn something about the factual world that it is embedded in. A scholar who has spent a lot of time within a company should be an interesting conversationalist about both that company and the industry it works in. That scholar should also be a reliable "go to person" for ordinary facts related to it.
The content of the background section can be easily distinguished from that of the "analysis" or "results" section by being "factual" but not, properly speaking, "empirical". The facts that are adduced here are not drawn from the experience of the writer, but from hearsay and reading (in the case of the former, preferably confirmed by the latter). By contrast, the facts that are presented in the results section are supported by "data" that have been gathered by way of a "method". This has an important consequence: the writer has a special authority to speak about his or her results. Because a valid method has been applied, we are entitled to trust the author's presentation. Moreover, we have no easy way of validating the results themselves. To do so, we'd have to requisition the writer's data. Even then, we'd have to trust that it wasn't just made up. So, to be really sure, we'd have repeat the study, i.e., carry out our own observations of the same phenomena, i.e., have the same experiences. It is only in extreme cases that we'd go through that kind of trouble.
But the background section can be "fact checked" in a more workaday sense. The reader can simply read the sources that the writer uses to support his or her claims. We can even find some better sources, where these are available. That is, because the background consists of commonplace claims, the writer has no special authority to make them. The text is also open to critique in a quite different way here than the results section is.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
The methods section is perhaps the most conventional part of a standard research paper in the social sciences. There is a certain amount of room for creative syntheses of theory, and often a great deal of freedom in how the results themselves are presented. But the methods you use, and they way you talk about them, have to make your reader trust you. After all, you are setting the reader up for an artful disappointment. It is the methods section that ensures that the reader will actually feel that disappointment rather than merely doubt your results.
The most important thing, however, is that you tell the reader the truth about what you did. This section must accurately describe how you gathered the data on which you base your conclusions. How many interviews did you do? Over how long a period did you do onsite observation? How many surveys did you send out? How did you select your subjects and informants? How big was the data set you drew from industry databases?
But you must also show an awareness of the standard methodologies in your field. Though the distinction is sometimes blurred, method is what you did, methodology is the account of why it is the right thing to do. The standards here are often expressed by others in classic papers or handbooks. In the fields I normally work with, for example, if you're doing a case study you are likely to cite Kathleen Eisenhardt's paper "Building Theories from Case Study Research" (AMR, 1989) and, just as likely, Robert Yin's widely read handbook, Case Study Research (Sage, 2009). You do not have to agree with everything they say, and both approaches themselves have a history of reception, i.e., their views have been adapted and modified in particular studies that may look more like your own. The point is merely that in order to be taken seriously as a "case study", your paper must acknowledge precisely the tradition of case-study research that is informed and guided by such "standard" statements (accounts) of method.
The good news is that once you have shown that you are an intelligent reader of the methodologies that are available in your field, your reader is likely to trust even your intelligent breaches of those methods. In one sense, it is true what Paul Feyerabend said many years ago in Against Method: "The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes" (p. 7). But once you've done "whatever" it takes to reach your conclusions, you must make a compelling case for what you've done. And here it is always a good idea to gesture respectfully at the conventional wisdom that constitutes your field of research.
Monday, February 06, 2012
In a standard-issue academic paper, the analysis of your results occupies about 37.5% of the text, or fifteen out of forty paragraphs. This morning I'd like to say something about how those fifteen paragraphs should be written. Keep in mind that this is the section in which you are the epistemic authority. Unlike the theory and method sections, your reader is not presumed to understand in advance what you are saying. Unlike the background section, your reader is not presumed to have access to sources that might contradict you. In the results section, you have the data. Your readers are, on the whole, going to trust you when you tell them what your data says.
I suggest you divide the section into two to four main parts, perhaps framed by an opening paragraph or two and a concluding summary. (It possible to do away with this frame by letting your methods section outline the structure of your results section and opening the implications section with a summary of the results.) The results section will be making an overall claim, which will have been summarized in the third paragraph of your introduction ("This paper shows that..."). But this claim will find support in a number of sub-claims. I suggest coming up with two to four claims mainly to give us that much-needed sense of finitude, each claim can then be given three to four paragraphs of support. In some cases, however, you'll have ten or more claims, each of which will have its own paragraph. The point of these proportions is not impose a set form on the presentation of your results but to get you to think about how the space of your results section will be structured.
The structure of the space will make it easier to organize your time. You goal, as always, is to get your prose into good enough shape to let you write a coherent paragraph (six sentences of prose that support a single, well-defined claim) in thirty minutes. Since you'll be writing fifteen paragraphs, you'll need seven and a half hours to do it, or three two-and-a-half-hour sessions. So when you are looking over your data, try to analyze it into claims that your are able to support in this way. This is the key to "prosing your world", to putting what you have seen into writing.
A good results section is an account of your observations. It's not an account of everything you've seen or heard in the field, nor an exhaustive presentation of your data set. It is a summary of the data in support of empirical claims, i.e., claims about "what is the case". Your background section also makes claims about what is the case, but let's call these claims merely "factual" and not "empirical". Like your empirical claims (your results), you must strive for the truth, but unlike them they are not based on observation. It is in your results section that your claims are based on your own first-hand research experience (that's what "empirical" means). This is where you come to represent the world of practice. It is where you make it available for theorizing.
Friday, February 03, 2012
"The world exists to end up in a book," said Stéphane Mallarmé. For today's scholars, it might seem as though it exists to end up in a journal article. But it would be more accurate to say that their objects of inquiry are constructed precisely in order to end up in such an article. It is the standard unit of knowledge-production. Yesterday, one of my readers reminded me that I had promised to say something about the individual parts a journal article in upcoming posts. I'll get to that next week (I promise). This morning I want to say something more generally about the importance of the journal article for the life of inquiry.
Poets produce poems. Scholars produce articles. They convert experience into a particular kind of expression with a particular kind of form, one that is recognizable to their readers. A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case. And it will provide an argument not just for the truth of that claim but for its relevance for a particular line of inquiry. It will also situate both the claim and the line of inquiry in a world of shared concern that goes beyond the narrow, scholarly interests of both the writer and the reader. Within those narrow limits, however, it will respect the field's theoretical and methodological commitments. Before it is over, it will offer a simple one-paragraph statement of the argument for the central claim (thesis) of the paper that assumes that the very knowledgeable and highly intelligent reader has understood the rest of the paper.
The article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but "knowing" something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions.
The scholarly conversation depends on respecting these proportions. That is: scholars expect to be talked to in a particular way, they do not expect a unique, transformative literary experience. Jonathan Mayhew has rightly described literature as the kind of writing that "kicks your ass with its transformative power". Academic writing serenely disdains to kick your ass like this. Rather, as I'm fond of saying, it is the purpose of a journal article to artfully disappoint our expectations of a particular object of inquiry. If you want to be a scholar, it is a good idea to learn that art.
Thursday, February 02, 2012
The purpose of a coach is to help you train. But you can train on your own as well. So under what circumstances should you find yourself a coach? Consider an analogy. I play the piano every day, mostly for fun, training my ability to improvise. I enjoy it, and I get better. There was a time when I took piano lessons once a week, however, and I'm considering going back to it because I'd like to learn how to a play a few Bach pieces. I do try to play those pieces when I practice, but nothing really comes of it. I can play a few bars with one hand. That's about it. A weekly session with a teacher would probably help me make progress. But I would need to find the time, both to get to the session every week and to practice in a more disciplined way. There's no point in engaging a teacher if I'm not going to practice. Of course: there is a good chance that if I do engage a teacher I will practice more, simply to impress her. Commonsense stuff.
Writers can also benefit from the guidance and encouragement of a coach. But it's not for everyone, and today is not always the right time. When people contact me because they would like some coaching, therefore, I always begin by giving them some free advice. First I have them describe their current writing practices and the projects they are working on. Take a couple of weeks, I then tell them, and find one or two hours every day in which to work on those projects. Find 10 hours altogether and book them into your calendar. Now divide these writing sessions into 30-minute sections and spend each of them on a single, well-defined prose paragraph. Spend about 20 minutes writing it, one minute reading it out loud, and another five or six minutes editing it for clarity. Take a three minute break, then move on to the next paragraph. After ten hours of work, you've written 20 paragraphs, or about half a paper's worth of prose. (It's relatively easy to decide what 20 paragraphs of a current project will have to say in advance. Just think of your paper according my standard outline.)
The purpose of this exercise is to gauge your strength and ability as a writer. If you send me the results of these ten hours of work, I know what your prose is capable of "on command", as it were. You will have spent ten hours writing about something you know (which means something you're supposed to be able to write about.) You will have given each paragraph a reasonable amount of time. The paragraphs will not be perfect, but I will know what constraints they were written under. Most importantly, if you can't write this way for ten hours in a two week period, or if you think that's a stupid idea, you don't want me as a coach. It's the basic form of the discipline I train.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
"Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn't matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p. 32)
Good academic writers contribute to the efficiency of language, and they do so in a very specific way. One thing that we need to be able to use language for is to state facts and support them with arguments; the universities should serve society by maintaing precisely that function. From undergraduates to full professors, academics ought to be keeping the language in shape to "assert and deny facts," as Bertrand Russell put it. They do this by keeping themselves (their minds) in shape. And they do this (or should be doing this) by writing regularly. A university should be a place where students meet teachers who care about language and where this passion is passed on in the natural way. People who are able to write clearly and accurately, and who want to write that way for a living, should find themselves drawn to the universities. They should feel that it is a natural environment for them. That is, they should get the sense that what is being required of them is also something they are good at. Maintaining the prose of the world is a labour of love.