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-review, 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.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Showing Up for Practice

I've never really been involved in school sports but I imagine that if you don't show up for practice you risk losing your place on the team. You are expected to say no to things that are also perfectly valuable because you have prioritized the sport. At practice, meanwhile, you do more or less as you're told. Much of it is just physical conditioning (running). Some of it is more technical (making a shot). Some of it teaches you broader strategic competences (how to move on the court). While I'm sure there'll always be some grumbling and belly-aching, and while some coaches are wiser than others in what they put their athletes through, the basic rule is that you show up and do the work. If you don't like it, there are other teams, other sports, even altogether different pursuits.

I think we could vastly improve higher education by insisting that students show up for daily writing practice. For an hour a day, first thing in the morning, students would show up and complete a series of mandatory writing tasks under the "exam conditions" I described yesterday. Many of them would consist simply in writing the best possible paragraph they can in 27 minutes, perhaps given a key sentence by the teacher/coach. Sometimes they'd be given less time to rewrite a paragraph. Sometimes they'd be asked to write a paragraph reflecting on a quotations, perhaps specifically requiring them to quote it or, alternatively, to paraphrase it. They would show up, complete the tasks, submit them, and their work would be quickly checked by a teaching assistant. The teacher would spot-check (perhaps sometimes guided by a concerned TA) and intervene in the writing development of especially weak or especially strong writers, just as a coach on a sports team corrects people who are making mistakes, pushes people who are capable of more, and lets (I'm assuming again) most of the team, most of the time, just go through the motions, which are valuable precisely because they are "exercises". The motion itself develops your talent.

I imagine this idea can be criticized as either an infantilization or a militarization of higher education. In whatever sense this criticism might hit its mark, consider my suggestion a "modest proposal", i.e., a satire of the massification and corporatization of our universities. It's a way of taking the idea that universities should "train" citizens for service to society seriously. I don't deny that at a certain point (and a very extreme one that my proposal doesn't directly imply, I will insist) such training is merely indoctrination, a preparation for a life in servitude. The same critique can be made of sports teams and scout troops at all levels. Ideally, university students would cultivate their own exquisite solitude, requiring merely a gentle, mentoring hand from their teachers and a context for ongoing conversation (a classroom). They would not need to be forced to sit down and struggle with their writing. A university education would be reserved for people with an intrinsic desire for knowledge, and it would be of no use to people who lack the curiosity and drive required. But that is not the reality; universities have become an obligatory passage point for the pursuit of a wide variety of professions, not all of which actually demand "academic" skills, but all which, for some reason, would prefer to employ people who have demonstrated a modicum of such competence.

So I'm not actually being ironic at all. In the early days of the universities students would sit in lecture halls and be read to by, yes, "readers" (lecturers) and their main job was to write down what was said. This is how books were made before the printing press. But it is also how a particular kind of mind, and a particular kind of mentality, was formed. It may, indeed, be how the peculiar inwardness of literary pleasure was originally invented. Maybe it's not for everyone. But surely there is nothing wrong with maintaining an institution that cultivates it? My proposal is just a way of introducing a bit of realism into the way we approach writing at universities. Surely, your performance as a student must demonstrate "academic" ability even if you have no desire to be a professor, just as your performance on the varsity basketball team must be "athletic" even if you have no long-term professional ambitions. Just as in sports, you'll have people coming out of this with a "merely" solid set of skills and their prose in "merely" good shape. But you are also providing a place for people of exceptional talent to excel, again just as in sports, eventually to pursue careers as professional writers, scholars, intellectuals.

P.S. I didn't do sports in school, but I was in the band for a while. Not only did we have band practice, we were also expected to practice at home. It's just so obvious in the case of music and sports! Why is it so hard to approach writing the same way?

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Some Thoughts on Examination

If someone is learning how to play an instrument or how to draw, there is a straightforward way of testing them. You give them an object (some sheet music or a model) and ask them to represent it (to play it or draw it). The result may not be the most artistically interesting performance, but it will demonstrate a level of skill under the circumstances. You put something in front of them that you expect them to be able to represent (through a performance of the ability you've been trying to teach them) and then you watch them do it. Sending them home, and then letting them return with a finished drawing or a recording after, say, a week, would sort of miss the point. We now have to trust that it was in fact the student who produced the representation. And we wouldn't know under exactly what conditions it was produced in any case. There are too many ways of cheating if the process is kept out of sight.

I've been thinking about how this model might be applied in more bookish subjects. Wouldn't it be possible to examine the students' mastery of a sociological theory, or a historical period, or a literary corpus, by sitting them down in front of a computer for four hours with the task of writing, say, 8 individual paragraphs 27 minutes at a time? Or perhaps give them only 5 paragraphs to write. The first half hour is spent planning out their essay. They then submit one paragraph every half hour. Finally, they are given an hour to revise all five. They can be graded on both the individual paragraphs and the full composition, each of which shows something in particular.

By limiting the resources they can bring with them to the exam (a small set of paper books for example) it would be very easy to detect patchwriting and plagiarism. Their essays could be automatically run through a plagiarism checker comparing them against exactly the books they were allowed to bring with them. This would allow us to make an important concession to proponents of patchwriting: it would now be possible to stop treating it as a "crime". Even plagiarism could be treated simply as a poor scholarship. If you submit five paragraphs that are simply transcribed from the books you were allowed to bring with you, you don't get kicked out of school but you do get an F. Just as a pianist would if she didn't play the piece she had been assigned but openly played a CD of Glenn Gould's performance instead.

If this set-up were implemented, there would be absolutely no ambiguity about what they had learned to do during the semester. And it would be obvious to the students what they have to become good at. Now, you can give them all kinds of more "interesting" assignments throughout the year, and you can give them as much feedback on them as you like, including an indication of the sort grade they might receive ... if it counted. But this will work best if you don't let course work during the term contribute to the grade. It's just practice, training. You tell them how well they're doing, but you only, finally, judge their performance at the end.

Let's construct an easy example. Imagine a one-semester course on three of Shakespeare's tragedies: Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. The students are to bring the text of each play, and the collection of essays (perhaps a casebook) that was assigned in the course. At the start of the exam they are given a recognisable question, perhaps not quite as familiar (from the lectures) as "Why didn't Hamlet kill Claudius immediately?" but something like that—a question that reveals ignorance if its relevance is not immediately apparent to them. It's the sort of question that after a semester of Shakespearean tragedy they should have a good answer to. Not something they're supposed to be able to come up with an answer to, but actually have one for going into the examination. For each play, in the context of its particular set of interpretations (in the casebook), there will many different possible questions. The trick is that they don't know exactly what will be asked of them, nor of which play. All they can do to prepare is to understand the play and its interpretations. And

they can get their prose in shape. They know they will need to quickly and efficiently (in thirty minutes) plan out a five-paragraph essay. They will then have to compose five paragraphs in a row, a half hour at a time. (I've discussed the technical issues with the IT department at my university and it would be a simple matter to set up a computerised exam like this.) Then they'd have an hour to polish it. Students who are capable of a such a performance have acquired not just valuable knowledge about Shakespeare's tragedies, but also a set of writing skills that will serve them (if they keep them in shape) for the rest of their lives.

And such assignments would be easy to grade. You would be able to determine at a glance what the students are capable of, and how well they understand the play. As, Bs, Cs, and Ds would be very easy to assign. Fs would result from radically incomplete or ignorant attempts, or, like I say, plagiarism. In four hours a student would have been able to provide a completely unambiguous demonstration of their understanding of the course material. And given only a few minutes per assignment (time could be saved by grading one of out of the five paragraphs at random + the whole composition), a teacher would not only be able to painlessly complete the grading, but also get a good sense of how effective they are as teachers.

I'd love to hear what readers of this blog think of this idea. I really think this is how we should do things.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Writing for Publication vs. Writing as Inquiry

A recent comment to an older post asks a question I get very often and I think the answer is worth a post of its own. In "What to Do", I suggest a series of activities to keep you busy for 27-minutes, working on a single paragraph that says one well-defined thing (offering support for it or an elaboration of it). In the comments, Fides writes:

There's a big assumption in this - that you already know *exactly* what you know and what you want to say. Maybe in scientific disciplines that is the case... but that's not generalisable to *all* academic disciplines, in my experience. See for example Daniel Doherty's "writing as inquiry" - writing can also be a process of clarification. Your guidelines seem to assume that that process has already taken place - correct me if I'm wrong.

What Fides says is both entirely correct and a misunderstanding (a very common one, like I say) of what I'm suggesting. There is, of course, a kind of writing that constitutes inquiry. Scholars often find out what they really think about a subject by sitting down to write about it. Sometimes scholars conduct such inquiry very intentionally; they sit down with only a vague idea of what they're going to say and start "free writing" whatever comes into their head.

In addition to that kind of writing, however, there is a kind of writing that consists simply in writing down what you know. To practice (in both senses)* this kind of writing, you don't need to know exactly what you know, nor even exactly what you want to say, you just have to decide what you want to try for twenty-seven minutes to say in a single paragraph. I'm not saying there aren't any other kinds of writing. I'm drawing attention to a kind of writing that is, all too often, neglected, and which many writers would do well to work at a bit more deliberately. It is true that this kind of writing depends on the truth of the (second) assumption Fides asks about: that a "process [of clarification] has already taken place". But please grant that most of the knowledge you have has already passed through this process. Please grant that you are in possession of a great many justified, true beliefs in your area of expertise that are clear enough to you to write a single deliberate paragraph about if given twenty-seven minutes. It's the the ability to write those paragraphs, not the inquiry that provides their content, that I'm talking about.

Now, sometimes the line between "writing for publication" and "writing as inquiry" is blurred. Notice, however, that it can be blurred either intentionally or in the act. Sometimes, we sit down to free write and are surprised by how easily we end up producing perfectly publishable prose. Here, I would argue that we merely become aware that the "process of clarification" has already happened, even if we somehow missed it. (It may have happened while we slept, or during a conversation the importance of which we hadn't noticed until now.) Sometimes, we sit down to work on an article and are frustrated by how difficult it is to say what we thought we had already understood. Here the process of clarification had been assumed, but mistakenly so, and we will have to go back and do some more thinking, reading, talking, etc. In both cases, however, we have a definite intention that defines what kind of writing we're trying to do. And we simply find ourselves doing a different kind of writing, by accident. The trick is to minimise the frequency of this sort of event. Don't valorise it as what all writing is all about.

Writing shouldn't always be an unpredictable adventure into the unknown. It will, unpredictably, be this some of the time; but [to the extent that this happens] your writing process and research process [become] just that: unpredictable. By conflating "writing as inquiry" with "writing for publication" you are likely to undermine both processes. You are trying to accomplish with a file what should be done with a saw, or vice versa. This is true in all areas of inquiry. There is no academic discipline in which all writing is always also inquiry, though there are many scholars who have been made unhappy by thinking so.

*I.e., in the both in sense of doing it in a regular, orderly fashion, and in the sense of doing it for sake of improving your ability to do it.