Monday, January 25, 2016

Taking a Rest from the Internet until Easter

This painting by Martinus Rørbye, which depicts a monastery near Sorrento, and which I first saw at the Nivaagaard Collection, where it remains (as far as I know), is one of my favorite paintings. It has an affinity to two other paintings, and it is illuminating to arrange them together. If I were a billionaire (or an art thief), I would make serious efforts to acquire it. I'm no expert, but I think it is an excellent composition. Beyond its objective beauty, I'm happy to let it say something about me, or at least about how I sometimes feel. I wish to emphasize that, its melancholy notwithstanding, it is an essentially good feeling.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

An Irrepressible Mess

"I came of age intellectually during the apogee of Derrida in the American academy, so I know this theory better than you. If you try this argument with me I will crush you." (Jonathan Mayhew)

John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" begins with an empirical example that he admits is neither "coherent" nor "consistent". In fact, he openly wonders whether he and his collaborator were "up to scratch" when they did the work that informs his reflections. Perhaps they were even "shoddy researchers", he feared for a time. On the other hand, he suggests, maybe it's not his fault, maybe the sociology of alcoholic liver disease is always going to be vague because its object is "dancing like a flame". Next, he announces that, though he has "neither the time nor the patience, nor indeed the expertise" to do the subject philosophical justice, he's going to undertake a "pragmatic" critique of realism in social science. And when he's done with that he takes us on an "obligatory" "detour" (that turns out not to be a detour after all, because, it seems, "a post-structuralist detour is not a detour") through the subject of "the metaphysics of presence", or at least the "so-called" metaphysics of presence, which was famously critiqued by Derrida, of course, who he is "not going to follow to closely" because, he tells us, he doesn't need to. What he needs, instead, is an "embarrassingly" simple argument, which, he promises, will have likewise embarrassingly simple consequences for social science.

I hope my annoyance with this rhetoric is coming through. It says something about my state of mind while reading him. One gets the sense that the author is actually much smarter than this, but that he is here just playing around, striking a pose, being glib. It doesn't feel like he's making much of an effort, and it's like he thinks it doesn't really matter. There's a weird sanguine sort of nihilism in this way of talking about method. It's like the people who don't bother to read Feyerabend but use him as an authority when they tell us that "anything goes" in science. (This is actually more annoying than the people who dismiss Feyerabend because, they say, he said "anything goes".) That, indeed, is an embarrassingly simple argument, and Feyerabend never made it. Likewise, Derrida's critique of metaphysics is not best imagined "simply" as a "coach-and-horses" driven through common-sense realism shouting "Presence implies absence! Presence implies absence!"

My view is that, if you are not going to do the work, if you're not going to master the craft of deconstruction, then, I'm sorry to say, you are going to have to be a "common-sense realist" about society and learn some solid empirical methods by means of which you can know the knowable and represent the representable. You can't just make hand-waving gestures at "post-structuralism" and then finally throw up your hands (in celebration?) at how messy the world is, declaring that your messy understanding of it is therefore all we can ask for. Maybe in your living room that's true, but not in the scholarly literature.

In fact, have you noticed the irony of Law's paper? It was, in a sense, suggested already by Julia when she said that Law's paper is trying to be as "as true to its signified as is possible". He wants to drive a horse-and-carriage through the orderly world of common-sense realism. But what is his argument? It is that "reality" is "really" messy, so our knowledge of it will need to be messy too. Who other than a desperate (i.e., despairing) realist would conclude such a thing? Law is not acknowledging absence as the "Other" of presence. He is so completely horrified by the vacuum of everything he is forced to leave out of his representation of social reality that he represses it completely and presents (!) himself as always already absent, incapable, inexpert, shoddy, ignorant, anxious ... and, it seems, utterly irrepressible. He's making an altogether real mess of things.

I best leave it there for today and take this up again on Friday.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Introducing the Mess

In her comment to Wednesday's post, Julia Molinari offered John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" as an example of a kind of academic writing that is "as true to its signified as is possible". It's important to keep in mind that she takes "the signified" of the academic signifier to be, not the real world of objective facts, but the complex reality of the research that studies it. Both of these options, of course, run afoul of the strict semiotic definition of "the signfied" as the concept not the object, "not a thing but the notion of a thing". In fact, I would argue that the academic "sign" includes a reference to both the research process and the objective reality it studies, in both cases by way of the concepts of academic discourse, which can be used to say true things both about what you have done (method) and what you have seen (analysis). In other words, perhaps the "messiness" that Julia experiences in research, and which she wants to represent in writing, results from not distinguishing her research from her results, her own subjectivity from the objectivity of what she studies.

But let's leave that for a moment. We'll get back to that sort of issue as we proceed through Law's text and try to make sense of it. (He makes a similar argument.) What I want to do today is to edit his 827 word introduction to bring it into line with my guidelines. Since they allow for a maximum of 600 words, I'm going to have to cut it down a little to fit onto the Procrustean bed of my writing advice, and I of course apologize to John Law in advance. This may hurt a bit.

I said yesterday, that his version is not as far from my ideal as Julia suggests. Here, for example, are the first two paragraphs:

The presenting symptom is easily shown. Look at the picture. And then reflect on the caption: ‘If this is an awful mess … then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ This is a leading question. I’m looking for your agreement. Simplicity, I’m asking you to say, won’t help us to understand mess.

So my topic is mess. Messy worlds. I’m interested in the politics of mess. I’m interested in the process of knowing mess. I’m interested, in particular, in methodologies for knowing mess. My intuition, to say it quickly, is that the world is largely messy. It is also that contemporary social science methods are hopelessly bad at knowing that mess. Indeed it is that dominant approaches to method work with some success to repress the very possibility of mess. They cannot know mess, except in their aporias, as they try to make the world clean and neat. So it is my concern to broaden method. To imagine it more imaginatively. To imagine what method – and its politics – might be if it were not caught in an obsession with clarity, with specificity, and with the definite.

That's only 190 words, which isn't too much for a single paragraph. According to my guidelines, however, the first paragraph should make no mention of the author or the argument the paper is going to make. Rather, it should situate us in a world of shared concern. In the case of a methods paper, it should describe aspects of the world that pose an interesting problem for methodologists. And Law clearly does that here. The social world, he tells us, is a messy place. Suppose that were all he told us, how would this pararaph look? If we move some of his concrete description up from the body into the introduction, we get something like this:

The social world is largely messy. Consider the treatment of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) in a modern hospital. It is connected to other phenomena that have something to do with ALD but aren’t the same. It is connected to liver disease in general (without the alcohol), for example, but also to alcoholic cirrhosis. It is related alcohol abuse, of course, and to alcoholism, but these are not necessarily the same thing either. And it is sometimes related to the overall quality of life in relation to substances including, but not limited alcohol. The hospital brings all of these phenomena, and countless others, together around what appears to be a simple thing, ALD, which it then purports to “treat”. Perhaps this appearance is the result of our image of hospital hygiene, everything neat and orderly and clean. Everything in its proper place. We forget, sometimes, that there are also people involved.

From there we can go on to write another two paragraphs: one about the current state of method in our discipline, the other about what we want to accomplish in this paper.

In sociology we also practice a form of hygiene. Do your methods properly. Eat your epistemological greens. Wash your hands after mixing with the real world. Your data will be clean, your findings warrantable. There are lots of books about intellectual hygiene, all of which preach the virtue of methodological cleanliness. No doubt there is much that is good in these texts. No doubt it is useful, indeed, to know about statistical significance, or how to avoid interviewer bias. Tips for research are always handy. But they seem to ignore the need to be messy and heterogeneous; contemporary social science methods are hopelessly bad at knowing the mess. The dominant approaches to method work with some success to repress the very possibility of mess. As a result, they cannot know mess, except in their aporias, as they try to make the world clean and neat.

In this paper I want to broaden our understanding of method to include the mess. I want to imagine what method – and its politics – might be if it were not caught in an obsession specificity, and with the definite. In practice research needs to be messy and heterogeneous, not hygienic. It needs to be messy and heterogeneous, because that is the way research is and more importantly, the way the largest part of the world is. I’ll start with a real research example of mess, namely, the treatment of ALD. I will then show that realism, at least in its conventional versions, has a highly prescriptive version of the nature of the real, one that rules that reality cannot be a mess. Next, I will make a post-structuralist case for understanding method as the simultaneous enactment of presence and absence. Traditional methods, I will argue, “Others” the possibility of mess. The nice clear research findings which fill the journals rise from an Othered bed of confusion, paradox and imprecision. I want to find ways of living with and knowing confusion. I want to lie in the bed we’ve made.

I've had a bit of fun with this, and I hope John Law will forgive me. My point, of course, is that it is possible to summarize his introduction (and therefore his paper) in three simple declarative sentences: (1) The world is messy. (2) The methods of social science demand neatness. (3) This paper shows that our methods need to be messier. Now we know what we're dealing with. We have an argument we can assess, and we therefore also have a framework in which to decide whether the paper accomplishes its aims.

This week, that's what I'll do. I'll assess the argument. Let me declare at the outset that my view is that sociology should try to make orderly sense of what Thomas Kuhn, citing William James, called the "bloomin', buzzin' confusion" of reality. I guess I'm on the side of the hygiene that Law wants me to abandon. But that's fine. I recognize and acknowledge his statement of the status quo and I'm going to listen to his arguments and engage with them.



Thursday, January 14, 2016

Against the Mess

"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." (Samuel Beckett, quoted in Marjorie Perloff's Wittgenstein's Ladder, p. 135)

Academic writing is a mess. On this point I largely agree with Julia Molinari (in the comments to my last post). Today's social scientists are struggling to establish both their objectivity (as observers of social reality) and their subjectivity (as authorities on social problems). Sometimes they feel like they don't know what they're talking about. Sometimes don't even know who they are. As Julia says, it's a mess. But, perhaps, she says, it's only as messy as the reality itself. Perhaps it's okay, then, that our texts are messy too. It's this point that I disagree with her about.

Life is, indeed, messy. And I have enormous respect for Beckett's ability to describe that mess. I'm happy to let Beckett tell me he has his "life where [he] had it where [he]'ll have it vast tracts of time part three and last in the mud [his] life murmur it bits and scraps" (How It Is, part 2, p. 51). But, as I have said before, it is the task of a scholar, a researcher, a scientist to establish a critical distance to that mess and therefore go from merely describing "how it is" and "who we are" to understanding "why it is" and even "what it is". They must, precisely, distinguish between being and beings, as Heidgger puts it. They must maintain an ontological difference, or at least have the decency to maintain the appearance of one. They can't let Gertrude Stein tell them how to write!

Julia recommends that we read John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" as an example of a kind of academic writing that does not conform to my norms. As I said in my reply to her, this reminded me of Bill Evans' words of caution. It is always tempting to imitate the most successful scholars in your field, what he calls the "top flight" people. But this, he rightly points out, leads to vagueness and confusion. It's like venturing into abstract expressionism before learning how to draw real objects. Since you are not developing the skill to neatly represent the parts of reality that can actually be represented, you are left, precisely, with the mess in front of your eyes.

But I'm going to take Julia up on her challenge and read Law's paper carefully. I should be honest and say I'm not immediately impressed with it, either in form or content, and I'm not sure it should be taken as exemplary academic writing. I'm actually not sure that Law would say we should take it that way either. But I don't think Julia is fair to Law (or to me) when she says that "His introduction bears little resemblance to the introduction [I] prescribe." It's true that I suggest three paragraphs and he gives us five, the last of which he splinters into bullet points (I also don't approve of bullets.) But please notice that, in a sense, he begins by declaring the world a mess (in the first two paragraphs) by way of announcing his "topic", i.e., his "common place" with his reader. And then (in the next two paragraphs) he makes some specific gestures at the scientific literature that he will challenge. Finally, he announces what he intends to do in the paper.

Sure, he doesn't colour inside the lines. (He talks about himself throughout, for example.) But to say it "bears little resemblance" is going too far. It resembles it enough, let's say, that I would be able to edit it into a shape fit for my form. And that, of course, is what I intend to do tomorrow. Join me, won't you? It might be fun.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Against Exploration?

I have some very specific advice about how to write an introduction to a standard social science paper. People often tell me that it's not how things are done in their field, and this doesn't bother me too much, except in the sense that we all have our own pet gripes about academic writing, even very successful academic writing. I like to think that writing an introduction my way at least has the effect of clarifying your ideas and bringing your paper, and therefore your writing problem, into sharper focus. How you choose to realize that vision in the final draft is a matter I leave to you and your reviewers and editors.

One of my most useful pieces of advice is to propose a paragraph with a key sentence that begins "This paper shows that..." (Indeed, I usually propose you make this the first sentence of the third paragraph.) It is a very good sentence to be able to write, making it as clear and declarative as you can. Find a way of saying it without too many qualifying clauses and without long lists. Remember that it should be supported by your data—i.e., that the paper will show your reader what your data showed you was the case—but that it will be about the real world—i.e., you've collected your data to be representative of the facts as they are. "This paper," in other words, "shows that" something is true. You've discovered this thing to be true and you're going to tell your reader about it.

Like I said yesterday, and as Hemingway said a long time ago, this is a very difficult thing to do. After all, you are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and use it to represent actual people accomplishing actual things in their actual lives. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object, like an apple, with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meager means, then, and accomplish some rather exalted ends. If you succeed, you'll make your truth part of the reader's experience.

In one of my favorite books, How to Draw Hands, Oliver Senior makes an important observation that goes for writing as much as for drawing:

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

In social science, the problem of representing the facts as they actually are often leaves writers feeling themselves similarly "constrained". And this may well explain why so much academic writing stands in the same relation to social reality as a bunch of bananas or a bent fork stands to the human hand. They "adopt or invent a convention or a symbol" to stand for things that they are unable to describe.

I want to go into this general problem a bit more in subsequent posts. But today I just want to point out the one general "workaround" that people use to avoid the problem of representation in their writing. They simply don't claim to show anything. Instead, they announce that they will "explore" or "discuss" or "shed light" on something. Against this, I urge writers not to substitute "This paper shows that" with the unfortunately conventional "This paper explores how..." because it says more about "the peculiar nature and limitations of [their] tools and materials" than (what I'm sure they think) it says about the openness of their minds and the humility of their disposition.

Yes, as a scientist you should explore reality. But as a scientist who addresses him or herself to other scientists in writing you should have something to show them. Your explorations should have, let's say, discovered something. My advice, therefore, is to practice telling your peers "This is what I've found!" not just "This is where I looked."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Now Comes the Hard Part

"A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard." (Ernest Hemingway)

Yesterday I made the perhaps provocative suggestion that it should be easy for you to say what you think your peers think about your research. That is, once you have told them what sort of study you have undertaken, and what sort of object you've chosen, you should have a good sense of what your immediate peers (i.e., people working in the same area) expect your results to show. Even if you think they'll draw a complete blank, that's something you should be able to confidently and easily say. (Although this implies that you've taken a "gap spotting" approach to literature reviewing, which I don't actually recommend.) By the time you know what your result actually is, moreover, you should also have a good sense of how it will affect them. Will they be surprised? Shocked? Bored? Feel vindicated? These should not be difficult questions.

Now comes the hard part. How do you best deliver your news to your peers? What they believed—and, in principle, what you also believed—before you did the study is the shared background on which you now present your novel figures. In your introduction you would write "This paper shows that..." and complete it with a strong thesis statement summarizing your empirical results. For the purpose of this exercise, however, which is a bit more general than actually writing a research paper, let me suggest the sentence "My research shows that..." and set yourself the task of composing a paragraph to support that claim. We'll call this the key sentence.

If you're a graduate student just starting out, I'll let you get away with "My research will try to show..." or even (though I'll urge caution tomorrow) "My research explores..." It's just important that you make a sincere, simple declaration of what you are doing or trying to do with your research.

Notice what your writing task is when making a claim about what your research shows (or will show). The reader's immediate question is: how do you propose to show me that? And the intensity of this question will be proportionate to the novelty of your result. This novelty (or degree of "surprise", if you will) is measured against the background expectations (the "null" or "prior") that you were so "easily" able to present on the basis of your review of the literature. If you're challenging deeply held views in your discipline, you better have conducted a very serious study.

A good third of the paragraph, perhaps two or three sentences, therefore should be devoted to your methods. If you're doing quantitative work, how big is your sample and how did you determine its size? How carefully was the sample selected? What techniques did you use to avoid biases? How did you limit your degrees of freedom? If you're doing qualitative work, how did you choose the observational site or body of material to study? How did you gain access to it? Here, too, you can show some awareness of sources of bias (often in yourself) that you've controlled for. Either way, you are trying to say something that a peer would want to know in order to trust your analysis.

Another third of the paragraph should be devoted to detailing your result into sub-theses. You've got some overarching claim (expressed in the key sentence) and it is supported by, let's say, three smaller claims that add up to it. Write a good clear sentence for each of these. Remember that you are delivering "news" to your reader, good or bad, but in any case novel. These are claims based on data that the reader has not seen before. As Hemingway might put it, this is your experience and you are trying to convey it in such a way that it becomes part of the reader's experience. The good thing about writing for peers (in contrast to writing a popular novel) is that you know a great deal about how your reader experiences the world, or, at least, how they experience the empirical world that you construct out of your data. You are of like mind.

Finally, you can fittingly devote about third of this paragraph to gauging the importance or significance or your result. What consequences should your result have for either theory or practice? Do we now have to rethink the conceptual framework that we approach our object within as scientists? Or should politicians reconsider the regulatory frameworks that govern us as subjects? Or does your study merely suggest some tricks that managers can use to be more successful in their work? Again, remember that this is your study, so you have the opportunity to be the first to suggest its implications. Step into that role confidently.

Like I say, this isn't easy. It's probably (and properly) the hardest part of writing, and it corresponds with the true difficulty of research, namely, making discoveries that constitute real contributions to our knowledge. It's likewise also the most satisfying thing to do well. That's why I'm suggesting this exercise to practice it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Something You Should Almost Be Able to Do in Your Sleep

Like you, I'm suspicious of the phrase "studies show". All too often we read a newspaper story about a study that shows something apparently interesting and then a few months later we read on Andrew Gelman's blog that its methodology is about as bad as "us[ing] a bathroom scale to weigh a feather—and the feather is resting loosely in the pouch of a kangaroo that is vigorously jumping up and down." These studies aren't showing anything at all, but they sometimes make a lot of noise in the "tabloids". An unfortunate amount of resources in the social sciences these days seems to be devoted to the production of disposable significance for use by the popular press.

Still, it is important to remember that, as a scholar, you are responsible for knowing what the current state of your field is. "Being an expert," as Timothy Burke once pointed out to Niall Ferguson, "means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation." That is, if your study seems to "show" something, it is your responsibility to know how that result fits into the larger body of results that constitutes your research tradition. If your N=40 study shows something that might help us to rid the world of racism and sexism in our sleep, you need to tell us what other work (and please not just your own previous work) either supports or counters yours. You need to show us that you know what, exactly, was believed by your peers about this effect (if anything) before you set out to measure it yourself.

Ezra Zuckerman has a good way of putting this: you need to construct a "compelling null". (Andrew would probably talk in terms of an "informative prior".) This is very important, you'll note, when we think of the "newsworthiness" of a result. If ten N=1000 studies have failed to find an effect of some kind in the data, your single N=40 study isn't going to immediately rock the scientific establishment on its heels. Or, at least, it shouldn't. Unfortunately, it will sometimes make the front page of a newspaper.

I'm saying all this as a sort of long-winded preamble to a simple exercise. Suppose that "everyone knows" that unconscious gender bias can be corrected through conscious "sensitivity training". This means both that (a) people generally believe this and (b) that it is largely true. Suppose you know enough about this subject to complete that first exercise I talked about. This means you can tell us exactly how prevalent unconscious bias about gender is in society and how much can be done about it through explicit training. Presumably, the problem isn't total (whatever that would mean) and things are getting better. Presumably, conscious efforts are part of the reason for the improvement. Presumably, the situation is also improving just because human societies are making general progress "towards the light", etc. Presumably, unconscious gender bias is a serious social problem that needs to be corrected. All this, merely to say that this is presumably a subject that is worthy of study and you, as an expert in the area, are capable of explaining this worthiness clearly and articulately, even to people who are already "on board".

Now, suppose you've conducted a study to see if the effect of conscious training can be reinforced by playing particular sounds to people while they sleep. The exercise I want to suggest is simply that of explaining, in a single paragraph, what you think your peer reader expects such a study to show. That reader will already know how big and lasting the effect of conscious training is. And they will also have some notion of what unconscious training can accomplish. Presumably, the effect of playing all kinds of sounds to people while sleeping has been tested in the interest of helping people lose weight, quit smoking, or cure stress? The effect here would be similar, and you, as an expert, should be able to write intelligently about it.

I'm being very specific about this because I've just read Nick Brown's "pinball" post, but I'm sure you can come up with an exercise that asks you to do the same thing of an effect you're studying. As an expert, it should be easy to do this. (The hard part of research is doing the study, making the discovery.) Remember to stay focused and specific, and anchored in the literature of your field, of course. Talk about the effect in a way that your peers (and therefore any potential reviewer) would recognize. Write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words (in exactly 27 minutes) every now and then to make clear what you think your peer's think about what you think.

Tomorrow, I'll suggest an exercise to train your articulateness on that last point, i.e., your ability to speak your mind. I will not be suggesting you do very much in your sleep, except that I do recommend that you get some.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Everybody Knows

If you're reading this blog you are probably already an academic, which is to say, a specialist. (This is true even if you're an undergraduate. You've enrolled in a particular program of study and that is an act of specialization.) You are participating in a particular community that maintains a particular body of knowledge. It may be finance or organization, criminology or psychiatry, literature or history. These words are too imprecise to indicate a formal "discourse" or "paradigm" but they certainly distinguish one species of curiosity from another and, therefore, albeit in very broad strokes, one group of readers from another.

Interestingly, however, most people, also outside academia, know a little about all of these areas. There's something called "general knowledge". All reasonably educated adults, lets say, know what a mortgage and a corporation are, how thieves and madmen live, what poems are and what wars do. They know it in such a general way that they are not usually entrusted with teaching the subject, nor are they given grants to study it further. But that does not mean that they don't know that a mortgage puts up a property as collateral for a loan, that a corporation's directors are beholden to their shareholders, that to steal is a crime punishable by jail, that there are states of mind so "abnormal" that they require clinical treatment, that Shakespeare wrote some exemplary love sonnets, and that the second world war was fought mainly in Europe and the Pacific between 1939 and 1945. When you think about it, that's actually pretty impressive for "everyone".

Now, consider the relationship of the scholar in business, social science or the humanities to any of these pieces of general knowledge. What does their competence as a scholar do for them in relation to the "everyday" knowledge that "everyone" has. Well, my suggestion is that they should be a little better at talking about it and, of course, writing about it. Even if it is not something they are concentrating their research on at the moment, they should be better able to state the simple, well-known facts than the "average" person.

Note that there is nothing automatic about being good at stating a well-known fact. Just as a fact does not make itself known, merely "knowing" something in this general way does not make you a good communicator of it. This is what the first of the three exercises I suggested yesterday is about.

Make a list of facts that you are an expert about and that "everyone knows". This is not something you know and others don't but something you know better than everyone else. You can talk about it clearly and easily, with greater confidence than most people. You will, of course, be aware of details that others either never knew or have forgotten (or could recall but only at great effort.) You can answer questions that they can't. But when you talk about it you are saying things that ordinary people will find familiar. Believing you will not force them to revise their views on the topic, or rethink their place in the world. In that sense, they already knew what you are saying. You're just more articulate about it.

Spending 27 minutes writing at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words about such facts is excellent exercise for your style. Here knowing is not the problem, so writing can be. Enjoy it.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Basic Exercises

Many years ago, I broke my arm and was not very disciplined about retraining it. For a long time, increasingly aware that I was leaving the lifting to my other arm, I thought that some of my muscles had atrophied from disuse. I sought the advice of a physiotherapist, but it turned out that my arm was not worryingly weak. Rather, the "map" that my brain used to guide my arm had been distorted by (if I may overdramatize a little) my cowardice and my laziness. The exercises I was given to retrain it, therefore, did not involve any weight, only discipline. I had to learn to use my arm in a way that didn't avoid that little twinge of pain. I was told to move my arms in particular circles in order to redraw my mental map of ordinary motion. It was not painful, but slightly uncomfortable; it was not difficult, but a bit boring. It had to be done.

At the time, it occurred to me that there was a lesson for writers in this story. Perhaps bad writing habits also distort the maps that we have in our brains. If you don't sit down every day and write some true, declarative sentences, you get out of shape (lose strength) but might not suffer any intellectual damage. If, however, when you do write, you studiously avoid writing simple, declarative sentences that can be true or false, that is, if you are always constructing some kind of qualifying clause so that you don't actually have to know what you're saying, then you may really need to retrain your ability to speak your mind.

There really are people who seem to be always trying to "get around" writing a simple declarative sentence, to "work around" having to say something true. Some do it very intentionally because they don't believe in Truth and, in some cases, a distinctive and effective style does emerge from it. Note that this is because they really want a map of the motion of their language that does not pass through any simple, declarative territory. But when I failed to retrain my arm it was not because I had anything in principle against using it to lift stuff. It just hurt to do so for a while, and I avoided the the work of bringing it back to a normal state of health. So my brain found a way around it. A new normalcy.

With this in mind, I came up with some exercises that can help you either retrain your style or keep it in shape. I just watched Bill Evans talk about the danger of teaching jazz as a "style" rather than a set of "principles", so I want to emphasize that these exercises do not depend on conforming to any particular style of writing, though they do assume that you are trying to find your own voice as scholar, i.e., an "academic" writer. These exercises are intended to make you better at writing down what you know for other knowledgeable people to read. The effectiveness of the actual style that results will always depend on those other people. And remember that I don't know who they are.

The exercises I want to suggest map onto my standard proposal for an introduction, i.e., the first three paragraphs of a paper. The idea here is to write three sentences (and subsequently three paragraphs) that you know to be true. But these sentences are to comport themselves differently towards your reader's knowledge. Since all three sentences are for the introduction of the paper, however, their truth is not going to be very "heavy". That is, these exercises are only training the motion of your prose, not its strength. There is almost no load here.

Here are the three exercises, which I will say more about in the days to come.

1. Write a sentence everyone knows is true. That is, write a commonplace. Write a paragraph (at least six sentences and at most 200 words) that elaborates on it.

2. Write a sentence about the same thing that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true? Write a paragraph that elaborates on it. (Note that this may involve noting the disagreements that inevitably characterize discussions among knowledgeable people on any subject.)

3. Finally, write a paragraph (again around a key sentence) that only you know is true. Before you exercise your reflex for false modesty, please consider your data. Your peers may be very smart, but they do not have access to what your data tells you is true. Until you publish, only you know this stuff. There's an art of telling people who are able to understand you, and even prepared to believe you, something they don't already know to be the case.

I would recommend doing these exercises in well-defined "writing moments" of 13, 18 or 27 minutes, followed by a break of 2 or 3 minutes before you do another, or go on with your day.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Simple and Real

"It's better to do something simple which is real ... It's something you can build on because you know what you're doing." (Bill Evans)

Back at the end of 2014, Jonathan Mayhew drew my attention to The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. Here's one of the things Evans said about developing a talent:

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

When I say you should take a specific moment to write down a particular thing you know, I'm suggesting something similar. When writing, don't try to "approximate the entire problem"; instead, "take a small part of it and be real and true about it". A paper consists of roughly 40 paragraphs, of, roughly, eight different kinds. Each of these forty parts can be "attacked" at an "elementary level". If you keep in mind that you are, ultimately, saying something that is true, you can set yourself the problem of representing that truth in prose.

Appreciate the finitude of the problem. You have to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words in exactly 27 minutes. Together they should support or elaborate one thing you know. That's what you want to become good at. And if you write each of these paragraphs as simply and truly as you can, then you will have something to build on, both in terms of finishing a paper and in terms of the developing your writing skills.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

This makes an important point that struck me forcefully last year. Too many people don't realize that they have to approach the problem of writing in a way that lets them enjoy it. My goal for this year is to help people enjoy their writing, not just "get it done".

Monday, January 04, 2016

A New Year's Challenge

I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions (you can decide to make a change at any time), but I imagine that many of my readers will have thought about how to improve their relationship to their writing process in 2016. Here is what I suggest.

From January 25, there are eight weeks until Easter. Why not take my 8-Week Challenge? It requires you to commit between 20 and 120 hours to a series of deliberate "writing moments", usually between 40 and 240 of them. Instead of resolving to reach some particular goal this year, why not begin by resolving to have a particular number of well-defined writing experiences before Easter? Get yourself into shape in preparation for the creative euphoria of spring. (I apologize to my readers in the southern hemisphere who may find my seasonal moods a bit badly timed.) Then keep the same discipline through the eight weeks up to the summer. Work on it one paragraph at a time.