Sunday, August 24, 2014

Academic Virtues

On the way back from the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Philadelphia, I fell into conversation with the woman in the seat next to me who was also returning from the meeting. She told me about a plenary session she had attended in which a large panel had extolled the virtues of social media in getting their research "out of the ivory tower" and into places where it "really matters". They were dissatisfied with the prospect of merely making another "contribution to theory"; their aim was to transform the practice of management. And they were full of helpful advice about how to get this done.

The most memorable part of the session, my seatmate told me, was when a member of the audience stepped up to the microphone and made an impassioned plea for staying in the ivory tower. The panel, after all, had been almost unanimous about the pointlessness of publishing still more boring, unreadable (and therefore unread) journal articles. And their enthusiasm for social media extended even into the classroom where they were increasingly using social media to better engage with their students.

The speaker pointed out that the panel seemed to have given up on the idea that academic knowledge has its own particular ethos. It takes years of research to make an interesting discovery, and takes much more than a tweet to communicate that discovery to people who are qualified to assess the validity of the discovery and determine the significance of its contribution. More importantly, there was a time when everyone understood that our knowledge was not the sort of thing that could be disseminated by op-ed or blogpost but required the long term mutual commitment of students and teachers in the classroom to be properly understood. What the panel was really doing was redefining what it means to know something. By abandoning "old school" lecturing and classroom discussion, and traditional academic prose, they were simply giving up on the sort of care and attention that makes it possible for us, as a culture, to understand complicated facts. As an academic writing coach, he said, choking up a little, it was breaking his heart.

At this point in my seatmate's account I was, of course, able to introduce myself as the very speaker she had been so moved by, and if this had been a movie I would now have been more charming and she less married and the whole thing would have become a beautiful romance. But this was not to be. Instead, which is almost as good, I found another like-minded scholar, someone who is worried about what is happening to academia today, and until we were hushed by the people around us who wanted to sleep on the flight across the Atlantic, we discussed this sorry state of affairs.

In my speech from the floor, I had suggested that our admiration for people like Malcolm Gladwell (with whom many of the members of the panel were of course impressed) shows that we are now trying to get people to believe things they can't possibly understand. We are telling them what we think the truth is but without allowing them to engage critically with it. That's precisely what our classrooms and journals are for. They are situations in which ideas can be presented along with their justifications, and where those justifications can be questioned before the proposed belief is adopted.

Academics who have stopped believing in academic virtues and are turning to social media to "get the word out" have an exaggerated sense of their own authority. They think the world will change for the better if busy managers, inspired by a tweet that links to a blogpost, adopt their views about one thing or another. (This, I pointed out, is a bit like thinking that if Harry Styles* would only tell his twitter followers to read Plato...) But the world will only change for the better if they devote their time to carefully explaining to their peers what they have discovered, and then still more carefully and patiently explaining themselves to their students, year in and year out, so that the next generation of managers will be better informed than the last.

Perhaps the greatest academic virtue, that is, is patience. Too many academics today think of themselves as public intellectuals whose job it is to "spread ideas" through the most efficient media available to them. Such academics are, literally, ideologues; they think universities produce and distribute ideas. What universities really "produce", friends, is more articulate and knowledgeable students. People who are less likely to be immediately impressed by a TED talk, in fact, because they have a higher standard of belief.

*I'm embarrassed to admit that during the plenary I retold this anecdote as being about Justin Bieber. My apologies to Harry Styles.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Practice of Writing

This semester, RSL is going to be a more explorative blog than it's been, at least at times, over the past seven years. Perhaps also a more personal one. So far, I've been trying to cultivate a kind of "professionalism" here about writing, both because I actually am a professional writing coach and because I've wanted to set a good example for professional writers. But a number of conversations, both online and off, have returned me to a number of fundamental doubts about my approach to scholarly writing. This should not indicate a "crisis" except in the ordinary sense that all "foundational" issues are "critical". The important thing to remember is that this, i.e., doubt, is an entirely normal part of serious, academic inquiry. We have to be able to question what we are doing, how we are doing it, and not least why we are doing it.

These questions will affect my blogging in both the form and the content of my blog posts. First of all, I'm not going to publish on a schedule (I will, of course, follow my own advice an write on a schedule, however) but when I feel I have something to say. I don't expect to post more than once a week, and not at any particular time. Second, I'm going to be much less categorical about advice and suggestions. My clients will of course continue to benefit from straight talk about how to improve their own processes. I still feel entirely comfortable giving specific advice in specific situations. What I'm no longer so sure about is whether my general advice is leaving the right impression in the minds of my readers and audiences.

Mainly, I worry that I am implying or presuming some kind of "theory" of writing that might have (undue) normative force in the regard to the evaluation of a given piece of research writing. In my coaching, I'm always able to draw a strict line between my observations about the process and the product that is being produced. The evaluation of the product must always fall to the author's peers, not to me. I may have all kinds of opinions about it, but, as Borges once said, "opinions are the most trivial things about us." Certainly, given the fact that you have actual peers who have a real interest in what you come up with, my opinion about your writing is the most trivial thing about our relationship. The questions is: am I helping you to work in a better, healthier, happier way?

I have a feeling—one that is quickly becoming a thought—that our desire for professionalism in the academy is a misunderstanding and almost a perversion of our natural "professorialism", which has an important component of amateurism. An academic discipline is not quite a profession, though it may be part of a profession (as in law, medicine, engineering, journalism, etc.). The "freedom" of academic inquiry is, in a sense, a freedom from the professional standards that are in force in the application of scientific knowledge, where a certain amount of caution should be observed. Since academics confine their experiments to "controlled" situations and confine their actions to, well, writing, they are harmless enough to be allowed a little leeway in regard to their conduct. I think we've allowed the spirit of the age to undermine our sense of play in the world of ideas. We've been too concerned with our "relevance", our "impact". We've taken ourselves too seriously in a way.

I'll say more about this in the weeks to come. But there is one thing that I will remain serious about. I can best put this by way of a story. Imagine that you are a teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. One day, walking the halls, you hear two students talking and one of them is telling an old joke, or what you originally recognise as an old joke. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" asks one. "Theory, man, theory," answers the other. And they both break out laughing over this twist, which was invented, I'm told, by the poet Charles Bernstein. The original answer is, of course, "Practice, man, practice." Unfortunately, you, too, get the joke. You realise that your colleagues and your students have, for years now, been cultivating a largely "theoretical" interest in music, and that this has even been valorised in the rest of society, so that practical mastery of the instrument has become secondary to one's conceptual cleverness. Your students are not as good as they once were at actually playing their instruments. They may be more knowledgeable about music (though you have your doubts there too) but they are demonstrably less, let's say, articulate. We are losing our "chops", you realise with horror.

I don't know if that's how it actually is in the world of music, of course. And I don't want to make blanket statements of gloom and despair about academia either. But it's something I sincerely worry about. In our obsession with "theory" (and "method" for that matter) we are becoming less articulate in our writing. And the reason for this is simply that we are not practicing nearly enough. (Interestingly, this does not imply that we aren't writing as much as we ever were. It's just that we're "on stage" too often. Sort of like how much of my writing is immediately published to the blog, rather than remaining a private rehearsal of my views.) And we're letting each other get away with it, too. My goal, in the months and years to come, is to see if I can't bring us back to the fundamental practice of writing, the means by which we may become more articulate, which is, to my mind, much more important than "producing knowledge" and making "theoretical contributions". It's not that we don't know enough these days. It's that we aren't able to talk about it carefully enough. We know too much, perhaps.