Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Plans for the Summer

I thought my international readers might be interested to know that I'll be in the US at the end of July and beginning of August attending two conferences. Here's my agenda:

Friday, July 25

I will be presenting my Writing Process Reengineering Seminar as a pre-conference workshop at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. If you are in the area and would like to attend, let me know. The conference itself (see below) requires no registration.

Monday, July 28 to Friday, August 1

I'll then be participating in the "Future Fundamentals of Social Epistemology" conference. If you are interested, as I am, in how the knowledge enterprise intersects with, is supported by, and often undermined by broader social and cultural processes, then you should consider attending this conference. It is, of course, itself a social process! And lots of enterprising knowers will be there, too.

Friday, August 1 to Tuesday, August 5

I'll be attending the Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. I have a feeling that at least some readers of this blog will be in attendance.

Please drop me a line at thomas [at] basboell [dot] com if you want to meet up while I'm in Blacksburg or Philadelphia. It's always nice to put faces to one's readers. I'm told, but don't always believe it, that it's a reasonably pleasant experience, also, to face this blogger in real life.

In any case, here's wishing all of you a good summer!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How to Know Things

Most undergraduates today enter university on the understanding that it will have a profound impact on their ability to realize their dreams. In a straightforward sense, they expect that going to college will influence how much money they will be able to make and how much power they will be able hold. They may, of course, be entirely humble about the first, and entirely noble about the second. So, if you ask them what they mean by "money" they may say that being wealthy means knowing when you have enough, and if you ask them what they mean by "power" they may tell you it is the ability the make the world a better place. Their university education, in any case, is expected to put them in control of their future. They are practical people, our students.

But universities do not, of course, first and foremost distribute money and power, wealth and status. If they do distribute these things, they distribute them indirectly, through something called "knowledge". And if you ask students what they mean by that word you are not likely to get as clear an answer as you would in the case of the other two. If they do have an answer, it is likely to be altogether more "theoretical" than their take on money and power.

I try to approach knowledge as something you acquire through practice. After all, we don't just come to know things in school, we learn how to know things. We become, if you'll permit the pun, knowledge-able, "able to know".

My definition of this notion has three parts. First, being knowledgeable is the ability to form justified, true beliefs. After going to school you should be able to efficiently "make up your mind" about what is true or false, without having to resort to some quick and easy prejudice. But being knowledgeable is not just a state of mind. It doesn't just happen in your head. The second part of my definition insists that being knowledgeable is also always the ability to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. It's a social affair that involves both speaking and listening.

But not even that is enough.

Being knowledgeable is not just the ability to make up your mind and then to speak it to others. You also have to be able to write it down. Knowing something, finally, is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in—wait for it—27 minutes. That's a minimum of six sentences and maximum of two-hundred words that make a single, well-defined claim (to know) and supports it (with knowledge) at a rate of two an hour. And this sets up my entirely practical piece of take-home wisdom: you are no more likely to become a good writer (nor a good talker, nor a good thinker) than you might become a good pianist without practice.

Approach your studies as a training regimen for your mind. You are trying to get into shape.

Life, however you define it, is all about acquiring love and money and power and knowledge, however you prioritize them. Your time at school will not provide you with even a small part of all the knowledge you will ever possess. As in the case of money and power, the real achievements come after graduation. But school can very definitely make you knowledge-able if you let it. If you do, you will never regret the effort.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Epistemological Toxicology

"The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets literature decay than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts." (Ezra Pound)

I want to be the Jeremy Freese of storytelling! I can't be the Andrew Gelman of storytelling because Andrew already is the Andrew Gelman of storytelling, but when I read Freese's posts about those "himmicanes" I realized that I would like to be able to critique the use of narrative in social science with exactly that kind of detail and precision, teasing out the full range of issues from minor errors, to honest incompetence, to outright misconduct. Fortunately, there is a craft community that preserves the relevant critical competence in the statistical social sciences. I'm not sure we have anyone as formally qualified to critique a narrative. In any case, I want to be that guy.

This post is inspired by Freese's coinage "statistical chemotherapy", by which (if I understand the idea right) a set of results is "poisoned" enough to kill a "diseased" result, i.e., render it insignificant, without killing the rest. There's got to be an analogy for this sort of thing in the use of stories, in which the "fictionality" of a story is adjusted in the light of criticism in order to deal with implausible plot elements instead of rethinking the basis of the story itself (its documentation, for example). As in the case of PSA screening (I'd also like to be the Gilbert Welch of storytelling) such treatments are often over-prescribed. Obviously, the critic will also be on the look-out for non-therapeutic poisons as well, such as plagiarism and fabrication. But the important work lies simply in ensuring the actual, if you will, "robustness" of the stories we tell in the social sciences.

The hurricane study offers a good sense of the stakes. In fact, something interesting struck me when reading Jane Hu's coverage of the affair in Slate. "Too many writers love stories with a familiar narrative, even if that narrative is based on shoddy science," she says. Then, a little later on she points out that "[t]hese stories are more than just annoying—they have real-world effects. By reinforcing gender stereotypes and roles, the media affects people’s perception of women." Notice how much this looks like PSA screening. The original hurricane study was itself worried about gender perceptions, i.e., something we all agree is a social problem. But its approach to problem ends up poisoning the conversation about gender in an attempt to "cure" an abnormality that is (almost certainly) too insignificant to worry about. Remember, the criticism of PSA screening is that millions of men were treated on the basis of those screens for prostrate cancers they would have never suffered any ill effects from in their lifetime.

The point applies also at a higher level. Notice the difference between the "poison" that the hurricane people were worried about and the toxin that Freese is addressing. Surely we need a lot more work like that done by Freese and Gelman—i.e., criticism and replication of purported results in the social sciences—and much less "headline-grabbing" "click-bait" about hurricanes and clothing color. Right? Maybe we're suffering from a crisis of sociological overdiagnosis. Like Welch on medical screening of healthy people, I worry that we are trying to find and treat small insignificant social problems that will not have serious consequences for society before something much less exotic kills the body politic first.

Monday, June 16, 2014


"…and the living is easy."

I recommend that you write in a structured and predictable way during four eight-week periods every year, thirty-two weeks in all. Each of those periods should give you between 20 and 120 hours of writing time (between half an hour and three hours a day), in which to write paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. That's between 40 and 240 paragraphs (between one and six journal articles worth of prose) that are written deliberately, always having known the day before exactly what and when you would write. In addition to a one-week spring break and another one-week break in the fall, that gives you about a month and a half around Christmas and about twelve weeks during the summer to unwind, i.e., to write when and how you feel like.

I follow roughly the same routine here at RSL, and I'm now going into full summer mode. During my thirty-two weeks of planned blogging I always know the night before what I will write the next morning. I always know exactly when I will be writing (as does my family, so they can leave me alone). The results are there for you to browse in the archives.

But now, like I say, it is summer. I will be blogging "freely", posting whenever I feel like it. Writing at odd hours … on impulse, if you will. Even responding to inspiration! I'm not against those things, you see. I'm not an enemy of freedom. I merely suggest that for thirty-two weeks of the year a serious scholar should subject their freedom to discipline, should spend a determined amount of hours writing down what they know so that their peers can learn from them and correct them.

For those of my readers who have gotten used to a new post on Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, I apologize for the interruption of regular service. There'll probably be at least one or two posts per week, and I'll tweet them when I put them up. In mid-August I'll become my regular old dependable self again.

Have a great summer!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Crisis of Criticism

The words "crisis" and "critic" are both derived from the Greek root "krinein", meaning, "to separate, decide, judge". In his Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger puts this notion at the root of his famous "ontological difference".

—the differentiation between being and beings. Only by making this distinction—krinein in Greek—not between one being and another being but between being and beings do we first enter the field of philosophical research. Only by taking this critical stance do we keep our own standing inside the field of philosophy.

It is in precisely this sense that Beckett thought that Heidegger was "too philosophical":

What is more true than anything else? To swim is true, and to sink is true. One is not more true than the other. One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess. When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher. One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess. (In conversation with Tom Driver, quoted in Marjorie Perloff's Wittgenstein's Ladder, p. 135)

Those who want to know what Beckett might have meant by "mess" should read, I think, his fascinating novel How It Is, which describes, precisely, how and not what it is. It is a book that operates with no ontological difference at all, or at least a very minimal one. In that sense, however, it is also an argument for making such a distinction, for being critical. How It Is really is a mess. The form of life it describes, the "existence" it implies, is a groping around in the dark; as literature it is barely articulate, a "murmur[ing] in the mud".

To be critical is to distinguish among things in a way that transcends their particular thinghood. It is an attempt to situate any particular thing in a larger category of things, not just to register that this thing is here, but to determine its kind. The ultimate version of this is criticism is what Heidegger calls philosophy: the moment when we distinguish this thing that is clearly from everything that is not.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Students as Such

I'm always glad to serve as a foil for Pat Thomson's stimulating "patter" about academic writing. In this case, the occasion is a post from February that she tweeted in response to Nick Hopwood's provocative "There is no such thing as a doctoral student." As Nick rightly points out in his response to Pat, doctoral students themselves often take offense at the label. Pat even shows the courtesy of referring to it as the s-word, acknowledging its almost slur-like status in these circles.

The reasons for dropping the s-word when referring to researchers at the doctoral level are well put by both Nick and Pat, and I'm not going to try to refute them. Instead, I'm going to offer a positive defense of the idea of treating doctoral students as exactly that. Perhaps, this will really only offer a foil for their remarks, a background against which they can shine. But hopefully also a context in which to think about the wisdom of promoting PhD students to status of peers before getting their degrees.

First, to take offense at being called a student is, of course, a slur against students. What's wrong with being a student? Should a BA or MA student feel somehow inadequate? How does getting an MA, or being enrolled in a doctoral program, get around the fact that this is a program that, like any other teaching program, is directed at inculcating necessary skills for a future career in research? At the end, you graduate. You earn a degree. And the dissertation and defense really is a final exam. There is absolutely nothing shameful about seeing your time in a doctoral program as an "education" in the formal sense of that term.

And this brings us to my second point. The label "student" is also a good way of putting the (very real) possibility of failure in perspective. Like any exam, you can fail your dissertation. But, like any course, failing an exam does not mean failing at life. It is just a way of finding out that you were not, after all, suited for the job. (On this, consider also Jonathan's ideas about alt-ac.) Since you are "only" a student, discovering that research isn't for you is just part of the process. By not insisting on calling PhD students students we are actually committing them too early to an identity as researchers. If they don't succeed, the resulting crisis becomes needlessly existential.

Finally, the role of the student stands in a reciprocal relationship to the role of the teacher. If there are no students in doctoral programs then there are no teachers either. But the idea of learning from people who already know the things that you want to learn remains entirely relevant at the doctoral level. You will want to seek out people who understand the theories you hope to use. You will want to learn methods from the relevant master craftsmen. Indeed, what is being lost by disparaging the very idea of a PhD "student" is the master-apprentice relationship, and by this means a great deal of the (often tacit) craft knowledge that constitutes every academic field.

In Denmark, this problem is quite advanced, and steps are in fact these day being taken to reverse the trend, creating more explicitly school-like environments for doctoral training. Most PhD students (myself included when I got mine) have long seen their entry into a doctoral program not so much the final phase of their formal training as their first research position. This has not had uniformly positive effects on the quality of the training they get before graduating, where they are too often left on their own, or, just as often, prefer to be by themselves, almost looking down on the very people they should be looking up to. Since they think of themselves as being at the beginning of their careers, they have the attitude of having gotten an "entry level" position in the university, and this makes them less choosy about their "teachers". The scare quotes often entirely obscuring the idea that they have something to learn from these people. Ultimately, less choosy means less respectful.

Universities have to re-assert themselves as institutions of higher learning. And one way to do this is to insist on the respect that the word "student" implies. They can't, to be sure, just demand that respect. But they must find a way to command it again. Otherwise we will no longer have a university that conserves knowledge. We will just have a place where smart people can be told how talented they are. They really are talented, of course. It's just that they also really do have a lot to learn.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Things Themselves

I'm not here invoking Kant's Ding an sich but Husserl's Sachen selbst. Or at least that's what I think I mean. (I'll let more serious phenomenologists correct me on this.) It seems to me that in the social sciences, obsessed as we are with questions of theory and method (and, more often, the politics of the university), we sometimes forget what is right under our noses, the primary experience from which we derive our insights about society. I'm not here talking about the nature of our data, which comes in so many different forms. The data is supposed to give us access to our object. But this object must be "given" to us in experience; the data must be derived from our encounter with "the things themselves". Where are the things of social life? Where do they appear in their original, unspoiled form? What is their natural habitat?

Where, in ordinary life, in short, do we encounter "society"? What is the experience that sociology improves our understanding of? And is it, importantly, different from the experience that poets and novelists and television writers deal with? Does sociology tell us about the same "social life", or is it interested in something altogether different? Surely, sociologists are not driven primarily by curiosity about how people will answer a survey questionnaire or what they will say in an interview or what they have reported in the latest census. They are curious about this, to be sure, but it's a secondary kind of curiosity, derived from the first. Their first interest is in people. This they share with other writers. But are they looking at the same thing? Are they facing in the same direction?

I sometimes doubt that sociologists (or at least particular sociologists) reach an understanding of anything but the artifacts they have themselves produced as data. Like Richard Biernacki, I'm suspicious of the ritual invocation of the methods that turn "meanings" into "facts". And it is within that suspicion that I find the answer to my question. Society is made of meaning; it is the Sache selbst, the matter at hand. It is available to us to in experience, somewhere "behind" which we assume there are people "an sich", just as we try to imagine—what cannot be imagined—the Ding.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Cante Jondo

for Jonathan Mayhew

"The true struggle is with the duende."
(Federico García Lorca)

Cante jondo, "deep song", is also called the "great style" of flamenco singing. I am well out of my depth here (as my sources reveal), but there is a sense in which we all are. Wikipedia tells us that cante jondo "deals with themes of death, anguish, despair, or religious sentiments", and I think it serves as a fitting way to close out a week that started in a "funk" and passed through "the blues". I'm not, of course, the first to make this connection between the roots of American and Spanish popular music.

It's interesting that Wikipedia describes the style as an "unspoiled form of Andalusian folk music" (my emphasis). Lorca, citing Falla, tells us that the siguiriya, which is one kind of cante jondo, "is the only song on our continent that has been conserved in its pure form, ... the primitive songs of the oriental people." That is, the mythology of cante jondo involves an appeal to purity, originality, authenticity. The word for this kind of "unspoiled" genuineness in Andalusian song is, of course, "duende", something that most commentators have the good sense to admit they don't really know what is. Wikipedia cites Caballero:

The singer who sings seguiriyas leaves in each line of the copla (verse of cante) a piece of his soul; and, if not, he is deceiving the listener, perhaps even himself. If there is one style to which the singer has to give everything, has to give every bit of himself, it is the siguiriya. I have seen José Menese completely overcome, broken, a literal wreck after doing this song and I believe that if the singer sometimes reaches the kind of state of grace that the Gypsies call duende - and I don't know yet what that is - it is in these unique and unrepeatable moments.

Lorca provides a detailed description of the problem in his account of one of Pastora Pavón's performances. She up like a madwoman, trembling like a medieval mourner, and drank, in one gulp, a huge glass of fiery spirits, and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, breath, colour, but…with duende. She managed to tear down the scaffolding of the song, but allow through a furious, burning duende, friend to those winds heavy with sand, that make listeners tear at their clothes with the same rhythm as the Negroes of the Antilles in their rite, huddled before the statue of Santa Bárbara.

La Niña de Los Peines had to tear apart her voice, because she knew experts were listening, who demanded not form but the marrow of form, pure music with a body lean enough to float on air. She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters.

What does this have to with academic writing, you might ask? This morning I will not be so glib as to say, as I sometimes do, precisely nothing, i.e., don't deceive yourself into thinking that scholarly writing is an "art" in this profound sense (jondo means simply deep, after all), but a craft that you perfect through practice. Lorca tells us that "seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline," and as such I guess I, who always recommends planning and discipline to scholars who want to improve and control their writing process, am advising you not to imagine that your academic writing depends on finding yours. "It's not so deep," I can hear myself saying. "Don't think you have to leave a piece of your soul in each paragraph."

And yet, and yet…

Is there not all too often a desperate lack of duende in the writings of scholars? Is that not implicitly the complaint we have about it: that it is all "form" and no "marrow"? That we seek safety in the skill of writing a "standard issue" journal article, satisfying a set of conventions, but never really finding our voice? Is there perhaps a place for authenticity in academic writing after all?

More next week.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Blues

I clearly remember one of my high school English assignments. We were asked to pick a song we liked and find a poem to compare it to. (I think it was like that actually. I think the assumption was that we knew and liked a great many songs and that we would have to go out and find a poem. In my case, I don't think that assumption was too far off.) I chose Duke Ellington's "The Blues" from Black, Brown and Beige and Longfellow's "The Rainy Day". We had to make a poster, and I drew a picture of a film noir detective (to illustrate jazz, I guess) standing by a "mouldering wall" in the rain. I remember my teacher remarking on the wall.

There were some really obvious similarities, which made the assignment easy. "The Blues" opens with the line "The blues ain't nothing but a cold grey day"; Longfellow's poem begins "The day is cold, and dark, and dreary." They provided an obvious way of comparing the blues to romantic melancholy. But there is also an important difference. The romantic poet accepts his melancholy, while the blues singer renounces it. Longfellow says

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The victim of "The Blues" takes it altogether more personally:

'Tain't nothin' I want to call my own
'Tain't sump'n' with sense enough to get up and go.
'Tain't nothin' like nothin' I know.

If I were to do the assignment today, I think this is what I would focus on. Should we dwell upon our melancholy, knowing that it is "the common fate of all" and that it inevitably passes? Or should we see it, while it befalls us, simply as a "one-way ticket from your love to nowhere"? Ellington tells us the blues "ain't nothing but a dark cloud marking time". Longfellow says, "Behind the clouds is the sun still shining". What image is the more precise presentation of the emotion?

Monday, June 02, 2014


"Not funk but funk conquered is what is worthy of admiration and makes life worth having been lived." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 38.)

I used to think that the meaning of the word "funk" was similar to that of "the blues". That is, I thought that the musical style was named after a particular mood that the music was to help you deal with. After all, "funk" like "blues" has long meant "depression, ill-humor", "low spirits". Now, granted, there is something about a traditional blues number that more directly reflects the sadness it is about than a corresponding funk number, which seems altogether happier. But isn't this, I thought, precisely because the music is not supposed to express sadness but transform it into something else. Not so much reflect it, perhaps, as deflect it—send it off in a new and more useful direction. Funk, then, may just have been more emotionally successful, somehow shedding its etymology altogether, the Mothership reaching escape velocity, as it were. Indeed, the phrase "funk conquered" today reminds us more of George Clinton than Ludwig Wittgenstein, right? Similarly, early blues music was not intended, I imagined, to dwell morosely on the feeling but to banish it.

In the end, however, it turns out I was wrong. The word "funky" today leverages an older meaning of the word, namely, "musty", i.e., a thick odor, to indicate something "earthy, strong, deeply felt." ("My breath is earthy strong," says the dead mistress from the "Unquiet Grave".) To make something funky, today, is not to sink into a mire of despair. It's a question of putting "some stank on it".