Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Books and Articles Anyway?

Inspired by the intersection of Patrick Dunleavy's post on academic blogging, and Andrew Sullivan's farewell to the blogosphere a month later, as well as my own tortured struggle with the long form, I've decided to consider the possibility of a research environment with no requirement of writing books or even journal articles. I don't mean a world without these things, nor even that books and articles be banned from academia, only that they stop being a necessary part of the job. Some academics would write books on occasion; a few more would pen an "original article" or essay under some form of editorial oversight, perhaps even peer-review. But most academics would no longer communicate this way. Instead, in addition to their research and teaching, an academic career would make essential use of a blog and a Wikipedia editing account.

First, then, academics would basically take it upon themselves to keep "the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit" as informative as absolutely possible on whatever subject they happen to be knowledgeable. They would edit in their own names, and their contributions would be visible to anyone, including prospective students and hiring committees. Also, their peers would get a good sense of their intellectual character by negotiating with them directly about what belongs in any given Wikipedia article or sub-article. Keep in mind that there's basically no limit to the granularity that Wikipedia affords. There can be an article on every planet in the known universe, every country on each of them, and every book written on its soil. We just have to let scholars organise them into, among other things, the relevant national literatures. (Or however else they want to organise it.) If academics took this responsibility upon themselves they'd quickly dominate the editing on many subjects, though they'd have to deal with the suggestions of laymen and journalists, too. I think it would be healthy.

But every scholar should also have a platform for free expression of their own ideas, unconstrained by the demands of "consensus" among (like I say, increasingly academic) Wikipedians. To this end, they should each have a blog. Anyone who's worth anything intellectually should be able to maintain a blog, posting something interesting and cogent at least once a week. This would amount to putting their ideas out there for criticism by interested peers. Since we're talking about specialists, here, the readerships would be manageable, I think, as would the pace of the conversation. I sympathise with Sullivan about needing to get off-line, but his audience is also huge compared to mine. Most academic blogs would have only dozens of readers, but they'd be really, really good ones. They'd be peers. As is already the case in academia, some blogs would be widely read by many people, others would be largely unknown. Presumably, this would correspond to the relative status of the blogging scholar.

Under this system, which (as Patrick Dunleavy has emphasised) would be entirely free (though one wonders if Blogger, Typepad, Wordpress and the WikiMedia Foundation might not think to charge the universities for the bandwidth and storage space at some point), it would not be at all difficult to determine who should be hired and promoted and receive tenure. Everyone's scholarship would be an, if you'll allow it, "open book", that they could begin to work on already in grad school. (I'm not ready to do away with the dissertation, however.) When looking for a job, you'd just write a letter pointing to your best work, which the committee would then simply verify online. There'd be an interview, of course. You'd still have to hold a lecture, etc. But no one would have to care about how many "peer-reviewed, top-tier publications" you've produced. The quality of your mind would be much easier to assess by looking at your online contributions and behaviour.

For highly competitive positions at top universities one might also look at stats. Blogs have easily quantifiable and comparable traffic, and Wikipedia provides some quite detailed user stats in addition, of course, to logging every single edit you make (even the one's that don't stay in the article). The system could probably be gamed, but remember that the decision-makers could just resolve to let a great deal hinge on the actual writing of the applicant, only using stats in a few extreme cases, where all the applicants are known to be real people, with real networks.

Obviously, a PhD student looking for their first tenure-track position would not need a substantial online profile. But after ten years as an associate professor, you should probably have at least 300 blog posts, created a dozen or so Wikipedia pages, and have a demonstrable presence in discussions, if you're looking for a raise. (Those are off the cuff benchmarks. Different standards would develop in different fields in practice.) Basically, we'd be talking about a system that rewards academics for making their knowledge available to everyone all the time, who are willing to discuss their ideas, and who have a proven track-record of admitting when they're wrong.

Yes, like I say, every now and then you want someone to write "the book" on the subject to recenter the discussion or move it forward. And more often you want someone who really masters the form to write a good paper about something. But for the most part, a scholar's contribution can be made more efficiently. Okay, this is very much a blog post: written quickly and off the top of my head. I'm sure I'm missing something here, but I thought I'd put the idea out there. Have at it.

My Next Book

"Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned." (Jorge Luis Borges)

An old mentor of mine recently suggested a topic for my "next book" to me. He was being exceedingly polite. Like a number of other people, he's still waiting for my first book. Tellingly, many of them are waiting for different books. Readers of this blog are probably waiting, if they ever were and if they haven't given up hope, for RSL: The Book, which I've been "working on" for years. Readers of my other blog, might be wondering what's happening with Composure. I've also been promising to write a book about the scholarly foundations of organizational sensemaking. I have some ideas about why I can't write these books, but ideas don't cut it any longer. Books are made of words.

"To know whom to write for," said Virginia Woolf, "is to know how to write." If I don't know how to write my books it is because I don't know who will read them, or I don't know them well enough. Writers sometimes feel presumptuous when writing a book (I certainly do) and part of that presumption is that it will have readers. But more crippling is the presumption that the writer knows what the readers need to hear. Every book constructs an image of the reader, a reader who needs to be told these things. That is, a book always constructs an image of the reader's ignorance. The writer holds that image up in front of the reader and pretends it is a mirror. Like I say, that's a very presumptuous thing to do. There are plenty of books I've stopped reading because it is clear from the beginning that it wasn't written for me. I didn't see myself in the purported mirror.

I always associate this set of problems with Wayne Booth, mainly because of the great title of his book on the "ethics of fiction": The Company We Keep. A blog, it seems to me, is a very open space, one that invites people to come and go as they please. I don't feel like my readers are deeply implicated in my work or life, and I don't feel that I'm deeply implicated in theirs. (I've become complicit in a variety of projects with some of my readers, to be sure, but I hope they don't feel like they implicitly endorse the work I do here.) I'm just trying help. And if people find a post useful, that's great. But if I were to publish a book I'd be implicating myself in a community and I've lately been doing a lot of work to learn something about the varied company I might keep there.

I guess what I'm worrying about here is the age-old conundrum of "becoming an author". Doing so, I imagine, will establish a much more obvious distinction between my public and private persona. After all, if I am constructing an image of the reader, I am also constructing an image of the writer. The three books that I'm imagining so far suggest quite different personae, quite different companies. And I suppose this is what's bothering me, and what's holding me back. I have a distinct impression that this is an ethical question. Answering it will require me to sit down for an hour or three every day, for a hundred days or more, and address myself to my imagined readers. It's going to take a lot of work.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

How to Do Things with Your Hands

One of my favorite musicians, Bob Wiseman, put out an album many years ago called Accidentally Acquired Beliefs. Scholars, of course, pride themselves of arriving at their opinions by more intentional, methodical routes. But it's important to put the value of that actual belief—the "cognitive state"—in perspective, which I was reminded of during a Twitter exchange I just had with Steve Fuller.

Steve has had a great influence on my understanding of the way the knowledge "enterprise" is just that, i.e., embedded in a vast and sometimes overwhelming social process. These days, it is no stretch to say it's been outright "incorporated". Indeed, Steve also helped me to understand that knowledge is essentially "embodied", which is the material complement of social embeddedness. The general tendency in epistemology and philosophy of science over the past, say, fifty years has been to re-situate our sciences in their social and material contexts. To break through the illusion that knowledge is merely some exalted state of belief ("justified" and "true").

So I've been growing increasingly uneasy about Steve's "trans-humanism", which seems to me to deny especially the inexorable embodiment of our minds. One kind of trans-humanism, after all, is founded on the idea that one day, more or less inevitably, we'll be able to "upload" our minds to a sufficiently advanced computer. In our Twitter exchange, I was reminded of why I think that's very unlikely.

A few years ago I wrote a post called "How to Build a Scholar" in which I argued that the ability to "build a person", if it's anything like the "carpentry" John Pollock implies it is, can be developed, if at all, only through practice. My point was that it takes a lot of discipline. And I ultimately decided that you can't build a person but only become one, through the persistent self-discipline of the flesh. I left a more disturbing consideration unsaid: the apprentice carpenter will build a lot of wobbly (miserable, unhappy) tables (persons) before achieving anything like mastery. This is something that Georg Theiner emphasized to me in conversation at last summer Social Epistemology symposium. Our early forays into artificial intelligence, if they happen at all, should be expected to produce "minds" that live short and very painful lives. These ethical considerations should, perhaps, be enough to abandon the project.

But that's not the main point of this post. I'm trying to develop an idea that I've been thinking about for a while. (I'll be reusing parts of this post, for example.) Do we have any purely "cognitive" abilities? And, even if we do, how much of our "selves" do they contain (note I don't say "embody", since it is we, our bodies, that embody the capcities, not the other way around)? To get at these questions, let me first tell you about four things I've been getting better at doing with my hands these past few years. First, I'm becoming a reasonably good writer. It comes easily to me. I enjoy it and I'm pretty effective, if I do say so myself. Second, I've been learning how to play the piano. I'm much less confident in that area, but quite proud of what I've accomplished. Third, I've been learning how to draw. Finally, I've been working on my breast stroke and crawl. I've been swimming.

Do notice that the last one requires much more than my hands. That's important because so do all the others. To use your hands you need your arms at least at some level (more for the piano than the computer, but still). All this has to be coordinated with your eyes (and ears). Even where your legs aren't very needed, you need to, well, keep your ass in the chair. Your mind is certainly involved. And so is your "heart". Learning how to draw is learning how to see. Learning how to play music demands that you learn how to listen to it. Writing implies the ability to read. All of it forces a coordination of thinking and feeling. Differently in each case. But there is simply no such thing as a purely physical or pure mental skill. We are inexorably embodied and embedded.

James Randi, arch-skeptic, debunker of the paranormal, and an accomplished magician, has a great quip about Uri Geller. "If he's using his mind to bend those spoons," he says, "he's doing it the hard way." What he means, of course, is that it is possible to produce the illusion of bending a spoon "with your mind" through a variety of tricks, without actually doing it. Randi knows how he would do it, and that's of course how he presumes Geller is doing it too. Indeed, I recently learned that Geller has decided to become an entertainer. Being a mystic was apparently too hard, or just not enough fun.

I use Randi's line often to push back against the idea that the hard part about writing is thinking of something to say. Many people explain why they are not writing by invoking the intellectual difficulties their paper is giving them. But how does that explain not writing? Writing is a physical activity. If you're using your mind to write your papers, I suggest, you're doing it the hard way. Use your hands. The ability to write is simply the ability to sit down at the machine and write down what you know. It is true that you need to use your mind to come to know those things, but don't try to use it to do the writing itself. That's as silly as using it to type, i.e., to try to move the keys on your keyboard with your thoughts. Of course, the "trick", then, is to make your text look like it came fully formed out of a live mind. But that ability, like the ability of a magician, is ultimately in your hands. It's an intentional process.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Taking a Break

I'm working through my ideas about writing and research at a more fundamental level these days and I'm finding it difficult to come up with blog-sized ideas. I've decided to give myself a break for a while. (Image credit: Nivaagaard.)