Sunday, November 19, 2017

New Review of My Book on Amazon UK

It's always pleasing to get a new review for my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (at least so far--I'll see how I feel about that after I get slammed in a review for the first time).  This one is on Amazon UK, and I don't know if it will ever migrate to the regular US Amazon.

A very sensible and readable book, packed with good advice for doctoral students
I purchased the Kindle book because I wanted to review Dr Harris's ideas before speaking with him, and found it so useful that I have put in an order for the paperback as well. I'm based in the UK, and the book's advice is slanted towards the US system, but not overly so, and most of the discussion of topic selection, etc. is equally applicable over here. The fundamental rationale behind doctoral level study is pretty much universal, and that is what this book addresses.

If you want to know how to "survive" the "ordeal" of a doctoral degree, then this is probably not the book for you, but if you want sensible advice and an explanation of "what" you are being asked to do, "why" you are being asked to do it (dissertation tasks are not - only - the sadistic tendencies of your professors, they do serve a purpose), and most importantly "how" to do the various elements of a PhD, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Part of getting the best out of your dissertation is the enjoyment to be found in the process of studying, and Dr Harris emphasises this factor. He doesn't hide the facts about the hard work required, but demonstrates how a change of attitude about this aspect can help you to work more effectively, faster, and to produce a better piece at the end.

The book covers questions over all aspects of study, from getting onto a programme to finishing your dissertation, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Words and Things

Writing is a process that involves a lot of learning…so much that what one wants to say can get sidetracked.
I picked the title of this post because I wanted to talk about the gap between things in the world and the words that are used to refer to them.  But there seemed a familiarity to that title, and a quick search showed that, in fact, there is a famous book titled Words and Things, by a philosopher named Ernest Gellner.  A brief perusal of Wikipedia suggests that my concern is not the same as Gellner’s but there is a relationship between them. But I don’t want to talk about Gellner’s ideas.

What I want to talk about is the gap between things in the world and the words that we use to describe them.  I have been thinking of this both with respect to a common issue that causes trouble for academics: the question of genres and how to write about genre issues, and also the question of race, which is getting a lot of attention in the U.S. press, for obvious reasons.

My main concern is that the words are not the things, and I think that dangerous effects come from assuming identity between the words and things.  This is especially a concern for the damage of over-generalization, especially the use of stereotypes.
Genre and race are, social constructions: they’re lenses through which people can see the world, but close examination of the ideas will reveal that drawing the boundaries on categories like these is more a matter of choice than a matter of reality: the words get used  as people see fit, but those usages do not necessarily adhere to any objective standard that is beyond dispute. Yes, of course, if we look at individual examples (whether people or artifacts), we can easily see gross differences: yes, this man has dark skin and this man has light skin; this piece of writing has rhymes/verses, while that has prose narrative. And yes, these gross differences can be used to characterize large groups for whom those gross differences hold true.  Sometimes it can be very useful to hold on to such generalizations.
But sometimes those generalizations can become burdens.  I suppose that these burdens depend on the context, but in general, the issue at hand is what any term means is not objectively definable, nor is the meaning of any term the same for all people.

My concern for genre is prompted by a paper draft I was reading recently that spent a lot of effort on defining a genre and discussing the different theoretical concerns for the genre. The problem for the academic writer trying to use genre is that it is very easy to slip into genre debates, and little clear way to end genre debates.  The alternative for the academic writer is to aid relying on genre terms (and other sweeping generalizations), and to focus on specific things: for example a specific work, or a specific characteristic of certain works. By focusing on the specific issues in the world—the things to be described, rather than the words chosen to describe them—there is no ground for debates that grow out of different ideas of what a word means.
This question of avoiding genre in academic debate is often a real danger to graduate students, in the sense that it can really delay development of good research, but this is a relatively insignificant concern compared to concerns about race.

My concern for race was sparked by a number of different articles I was reading recently, all of which made gross generalizations about race, despite the clear intention of the articles to reveal and disrupt the systemic patterns of racial discrimination present in the US. One article ( quoted Tim Wise: “Whites have ALWAYS felt that we were being discriminated against every time there was evidence of black or brown progress.” With all due respect to Mr. Wise, I think he should speak for himself. He has no idea what all white people think. I feel absolutely safe to say that in any large group of people, there will be a variety of opinions and ideas. Personally, I don’t feel that black or brown progress means that I am being discriminated against, even if black or brown progress erode my white privilege. Personally, I feel that black and brown progress shows a move towards the kind of society that I would like to live in, one in which all people have real opportunities, and where success is more dependent on personal traits than on parentage.
In this society that is characterized by such great divisiveness, I think that generalizations about groups tend to expand the divisions in society. Assuming that someone has a certain thinks or feels a certain thing on the basis of some gross generalization (e.g., “white vs. black”), dehumanizes the individual.  If the hope is to eliminate racism or other divisive patterns of thought, then there is benefit in trying to avoid such gross generalizations: reducing people to nothing more than avatars of some category that you have constructed in your understanding of the world, reduces your chance of cooperating with actual people.  
Whether someone gets counted as white or black depends on context—and that means that categories like white and black can be fluid. In the movie The Commitments the protagonist says “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.”  But Irish, in the context of the US in the 21st century, are most definitely not black. 
Such things can be much more personal—one can imagine, for example, the Commitments character being “black” while in Dublin, and then traveling to the US and immediately becoming white.  Do we then assume that that person will feel the same way about discrimination against blacks that a white person born and raised in a Southern family with roots tracing back to the  Confederacy and further?

Using words to focus on one thing can also obscure focus on others: I recently read an article that argued that all white people are racist, because all white people have experienced the privileges of being white. (This does make the kind of over-generalization of which I was speaking—does a Dubliner experience “white privilege” if he or she lives in a context where he or she is at the bottom of the social order?)  In the case of this article, the word “racism” was used to describe a certain thing: the experience of white privilege.  But this use of the word “racism” obscures another use of the word racism—the meaning that “racism” is an attitude of racial superiority. And that attitude is a crucial one. Yes, whites all experience white privilege, but do all whites share racist attitudes?  Using “racism” to talk about people who have benefitted from white privilege obscures the fact the some white people think that black people are inferior, while other white people do not. A white child of 3 years of age had benefitted from white privilege, but I think it unlikely that a 3-year-old can have any meaningful sense of racial superiority. More personally, since I believe that race is a social construction, I don’t think it’s meaningful to speak of racial superiority because “race” isn’t inherent in people: how can one race be superior to another if races don’t exist?

My concern here is for the use of words and for the danger of using common simple words to describe complex things in the world. If we reduce a work of art to a genre—a “novel”, classical music, etc.—then we can miss important details. Reducing people to a concept—“black,” “white,” “racist,” “woke”—obscures the complexity of people and limits chances to work together.  Trying to focus on the thing in the world may require more words—it’s more complicated to say “people who have benefitted from structural in equalities that are often based on visual cues like the light color of their skin” than it is to say “whites”—but such careful definitions avoid making simplistic assumptions about people and their attitudes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unscrupulous man admits to lack of morals

Yesterday, in a tweet about trade relations with China, Donald Trump said:

"How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would've done same!" (

That's right. He admits to "taking advantage of people" and seems to think it's a good idea. In some situations it is ok to take advantage of people: I don't blame sports teams for trying to exploit opponents' weaknesses or mistakes. But the president of the United States? That's a lousy way to govern within the nation. And, unfortunately, his policy choices certainly suggest his willingness to take advantage of the people who voted for him, by cutting services that help his voters, and giving massive tax breaks that help himself and his family.

It's a lousy way to conduct international diplomacy, too. How can any government deal with his administration and think that there's any cooperative spirit in the negotiations? Trump has made it clear that he will try to take advantage of people.

It's one thing to resist being taken advantage of. And it's completely another to go out and try to take advantage of people--especially those who are lacking knowledge (i.e., "have no clue" to use Trump's words). Saying "I take advantage of those lacking the knowledge I have," is hardly taking the moral high ground. Unless morality is measured in money.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Seeing the Other Side

In previous posts I have been talking about cooperation, referencing both academic and political issues. I will continue that here because, although, I want the blog to focus on research issues, I think the political division in the U.S. needs attention.  My voice is a very quiet one in this loud political debate, but debate and the variety of voices is crucial to the idea of democracy: democracy ideally is able to capture and respond to the best ideas provided by the many members. In this sense, the ideal democracy seems to operate on the same basic principle as the ideal competitive market: many different ideas/products get introduced, and the wisdom of the majority leads to choosing the best of them. Therefore, even quiet people like me have a civic responsibility to speak their minds.

As with previous posts, I will talk about a general principle that ought not be partisan.  If basic concepts like cooperation and compromise are partisan principles, then the political division in the U.S. is even worse than I thought.  This blog post is about something central to cooperation and compromise: the ability to understand and respect the perspective of others. Such understanding of others—empathy—is a significant part of social interaction, and when it is missing social interactions become much more difficult.  Empathy is, I think, closely relates to the Christian golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—for the golden rule you must imagine that the other feels the same things that you do.  That is, I think, part of empathy—the willingness to respect and honor the other and the other’s opinions and feelings. But the other part of empathy is to actually understand the position of the the other, to understand their ideas and feelings from a place of respect.

In politics this understanding is crucial: if you try to understand what someone unlike you feels, if you respect their feelings and their human complexity, you are more likely to be able to cooperate and compromise.

But this is also true in academia, especially as a student dealing with difficult professors.  Indeed, one reason professors can be difficult is because they don’t see the student’s side of the story. It is, of course, part of the student’s responsibility to make their side of the story clear, but part of being able to make a story clear depends on understanding what will make sense to the audience. 

It can be very difficult to understand why a person thinks in a certain way, but sometimes even basic understandings can be useful guides to attempts to communicate. For example:

1. A professor with a strong dislike of Freud, might be best approached with a discussion that mentions Freud as little as possible, even if the basic argument depends on some idea(s) of Freud. 

2. A professor who thinks in objectivist terms might best be approached using language that leans towards objectivism, even if the student is following postmodern premises. Back in the 60s, Derrida wrote:
There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is alien to this history [of metaphysics]; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. (Derrida, 1989/1966, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Trans. R. Macksey and E. Donato. In The Critical Tradition, 959-971. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.)
The implication, as I read this, is that someone who has certain beliefs about the nature of knowledge will structure their language—their syntax and lexicon—on the basis of those beliefs, and that implies that writing to reach that person requires speaking their language, even though that language may not fit the writer’s ways of thinking. In a way the article from which this quotation is taken exemplifies Derrida’s attempt to put his non-objectivist thinking into the language of objectivism, which ruled academia at the time (and still is influential today). Later works of Derrida (e.g., The Post Card, 1980) don’t make the attempt to be scholarly in the same way. But such works only do well with those who are already willing a predisposed to less formal logic.

Sometimes all that is really needed, is to echo back the opinion of the other: to make them certain that you heard them and respect their argument in some way. By clearly stating the position of the other, the other feels heard (hopefully), and this in itself is enough.

You may want to argue that the sky is yellow and sun is blue—it’s ok to argue for unconventional ideas (indeed, it is expected at a certain level)—but your argument ought to at least acknowledge that most people believe that the sun is yellow and the sky blue. 

If you’re working with a professor who is opposed to the foundational ideas that you use, then you may have no option but to write in a way that acknowledges their ways of thinking. If they expect you to prove things, you need to figure out how to “prove” your ideas, even if they are not “provable.”

If you can’t see the other side, you’re going to struggle to get your ideas a hearing.  This is especially true if you treat your interlocutor with disrespect.  If you can’t respect the ideas of your interlocutor, you’re more likely to show exasperation at them, which only makes future communication more difficult. And, on the flip side, it’s also true that if your professor shows exasperation with your work, it’s hard to avoid a negative emotional response, which makes future communication and cooperation more difficult.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cooperation and compromise

My previous post was talking about the need to respect other people as part of the process of cooperation.  This post is concerned with the related issue of compromise in the process of cooperation. 
Compromise can be difficult. Compromise always requires giving up something that you want. If you got everything that you wanted, it wouldn’t be a compromise.
Sometimes compromise is inevitable: if you want to buy a cheap car, you give up power or luxury; if you want a really fast car, you can’t get the cheapest car.  There’s a tradeoff which requires some compromise.  Tradeoffs exist in real-world decision making.  Costs get balanced against benefits. The more expensive cut of meat may be tastier, but it’s more expensive. The organic produce may be more healthful, but it costs more. Not all tradeoffs involve monetary costs. If you want to see natural beauty, you can go to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but they are crowded. If you want to be alone in nature, you’re forced to go somewhere less famous, and perhaps less spectacular, or less accessible. For a writer, one common tradeoff is whether to produce a bad letter on time or a good letter late — increasing the quality of a written piece takes additional time. For a researcher, one related tradeoff is whether to do more preparatory reading or to begin a project—“I need to do more reading before I start my project” is a common cry. Such compromises are frustrating, but at least they’re not really personal debates or depend on compromise with a collaborator.
Trying to make a compromise with another person while working together presents a different level of concern because there is the interpersonal emotional element that doesn’t exist in making a personal decision of whether to buy the more expensive, more luxurious item, or the lower-cost, lower quality item.
When the personal emotional element gets involved, it’s harder to make clear-minded decisions.  In my post, I mentioned the idea of “reactive devaluation”—the devaluation of something because it is associated with someone who is an enemy, e.g., the example of U.S. residents being more likely to accept a nuclear reduction plan if told it was proposed by Ronald Reagan, than if told it was offered by Mikhail Gorbachev—and this is a crucial element.
Sometimes cooperation involves compromising certain principles. In academia, the writer is often forced to compromise in different ways.  This is perhaps most stark for students, but it’s not as if professors don’t face compromise in their work. Students may be forced to work with material that they don’t want to use. They may be forced to deal with ideas that their professors want to deal with, even if they don’t want to do those things, and even if they those are in conflicts with their beliefs.  
One of my go-to anecdotes on this kind of point is a story about a friend who earned himself an extra paper because, during his oral examination, he could not put aside a specific disagreement with one of his professors. The point on which the two disagreed was related to the work of the philosopher Donald Schon, who was important to the professor and disliked by the student. But the student’s work didn’t use Schon, so all that was really needed was for my friend to focus on the few parts of Schon’s work that generally agreed with his own work (there were some agreements, which explains why my friend was working with the professor in the first place). But my friend focused on what he disliked about Schon—which my friend did again with me in discussing his examination. The disagreement led to his writing extra paper. Writing an extra paper is hardly a disaster, but I think it was unnecessary, because I think my friend could have cherry-picked a few ideas that Schon expressed that agreed with his own work, and stayed silent about his causes of disagreement. The causes of his disagreement had led him away from Schon, but he could have certainly said “Schon shares some assumptions with the people I’m using” (who were generally in the school of American Pragmatism).
To cooperate, it is important to focus on what you’re going to get from the cooperation—the positive angle of it. You don’t want to be blind to the costs, of course, but you have to view those costs in terms of what you hope to get. If you complain excessively about the cost, it will scuttle the cooperative effort. If you focus on the benefits, then you can decide if the benefits are worth the cost. 
Sometimes that cooperation might be repugnant—a politically liberal individual in the U.S. might be so disgusted with Sen. Bob Corker that they find it impossible to work with him against Donald Trump, even though Corker has shown his opposition to Trump—but that cooperation might be able to deliver something of great value. Even if that does require working with someone who holds radically different views.
For an academic, these compromises are often less difficult: compromising by discussing a disliked philosopher is rather easier, in my opinion, than trying to actually cooperate with a disliked person.
An academic does benefit from “compromising” a work by shaping the presentation of ideas to suit an audience, even if that audience wants something the author doesn’t like. A scholar may not want to limit their work in the same way the a publisher does. A scholar may not want to shape their work to sell, but may be forced to make such compromises.

It’s important to know what you want and what you need, but the ability to compromise about those desires increases the chances of reaching a cooperative outcome.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cooperation requires respect for others

Partisan politics in the United States are extremely hostile right now. My voice is very quiet, no doubt, but part of mass action includes small actors taking their small actions.  I don’t particularly care for either of the two major US parties, as both are far too beholden to large corporations and the wealthy, in my opinion.  But I want to talk about the question of divisive ideas in the context of political debate, and also, so as not to stray too far from the putative academic focus of this blog, on the question of divisive ideas in academic discourse.

Recently, I saw and was struck by an image that expresses the nature of the division in the US.  The first version I saw was a map of the US with states colored red and blue according to their partisan voting.  Beneath the map was a key that defined the red states as “United States of America” and the blue states as “Dumbfuckistan”. In this age of Trump, the GOP is responsible for far more divisive language than ever in my lifetime, and this image seemed part and parcel of that. But it didn’t take much looking to find that the earliest versions of the image have the opposite key; the blue states are labeled “United States of America” and the red states are labeled “Dumbfuckistan.”

That kind of idea—that American citizens are not really American—does no good for the body politic.  How does one have a conversation with a “dumb fuck”? 

As soon as you label the other side of a debate a “dumb fuck,” you vastly reduce any possibility for compromise, and you vastly increase the kind of emotional response that leads people away from the best modes of reasoning.  It would, of course, be great if everyone used optimal logic and rationality in making decisions, but let’s not fool ourselves: people don’t.  People tend to devalue ideas offered by people they dislike or distrust, even if they would accept the same idea when offered by someone they like or trust or identify with.  This psychological phenomenon is known as ”reactive devaluation.” One might imagine that this effect is greater when the emotional connection is more powerful. Calling someone a “dumb fuck” is not going to reduce that emotional impact, and certainly will distract from considering value in the proposals.

Some theories of negotiation (Getting to Yes, Non-Violent Conversation[NVC]) place a strong emphasis on the idea of empathy—on understanding the person with whom one is negotiating/debating. On a practical level, these negotiating guides emphasize the importance of understanding the position of the person sitting across the table, with specific emphasis on being able to echo back the idea that the other has expressed.  Such a practice could lead to two effects: (1) the speaker whose ideas are echoed back would feel understood, (2) the listener who echoes the ideas might better understand those ideas. Both of those effects, I imagine, would contribute to reducing the kind of reactive devaluation in the same way that thinking of the other as a “dumb fuck” might increase that reactive devaluation.

Recently I was reading an article about a ball-bearing company that was closing a U.S. factory in Indiana and moving a lot of the jobs to Mexico. In the article, a plant employee said that she what she wanted was a job and to be able to work, and she disliked the Democrats for talking about a social security net rather than talking about getting people jobs.  If I recall correctly, she was a non-voter who leaned Trump. Whether her view of the Democrats is correct in terms of policies that Democrats would put in place is not so relevant as what this shows about how some people understand both Democrats and Republicans.  To think of this woman as “dumb” for not supporting Democrats eliminates the chance of creating a positive dialogue that might reveal either that Democrats don’t worry about jobs enough, or that Republicans are doing a good job of setting the terms of the public discourse.

Speaking more generally—to bring this around to the academic realm—in debate, no matter the realm, if you assume that your interlocutor is “dumb,” you’re not likely to have much discursive success, unless you’re speaking to an audience that is already sympathetic.  Dealing with a suggestion from a professor or an academic/bureaucratic requirement as “dumb,” will not make it easier to communicate with those who made the suggestion/requirement.

Looking to understand the other, and to find points of agreement with the other can bring people together, even if they disagree on some ideas. Looking to find fault in the other—to find that they are stupid or out of touch or some other judgement that suggests your own knowledge is superior—only creates division (it’s also arrogant). You may be smarter than the other, but you may just be fooling yourself: another psychological distortion that is common in humans is to believe that we are more powerful/smarter/better than the average. Regardless of whether you are smarter than the other or not, if you want to cooperate with the other, thinking that you’re smarter doesn’t help matters.

Working together requires respecting the other. You don't work well with someone if you think of them as a "dumb fuck."  If a political party really wanted to bring people together, it should be very careful to respect the ideas of others.  (This is not to suggest that one should accept the patently false just to acknowledge the ideas of others, but it does suggest trying to understand where those ideas came from, not just writing them off as the product of stupidity. Even a smart person can be given the wrong information which can lead to the wrong conclusions.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

New review of my book (2)

Another new review of my book (Getting the Best of Your Dissertationwas posted today (October 20), and it, too, is glowing:

A holistic approach to dissertation guidance  
I found this book at a time when I was feeling so anxious about writing my dissertation that I would sit down to write only to immediately stand up again and walk away. I have read and referred to other books on graduate school and writing, but found this one particularly useful because of its practical advice and attention to the psychological and emotional work of writing a dissertation. Since I had already gone through the planning and research phases of my dissertation, I got the most out of the sections of the book that addressed living with dissertation work and writing. Chapter 3 began with a simple but powerful reminder that the dissertation is meant to support my life and goals, and that I should not assume that it is acceptable (or wise!) to sacrifice my life for the dissertation. The advice in these chapters helped me to see the dissertation as a means to receiving a degree, rather than a monumental test of my overall intelligence and worth as a person. I also found the advice on writing practical and useful - I felt like the author was anticipating many of the excuses or mental traps I was falling into ("I just need to do a bit more reading" is an obvious one, but there were many), and helping me to avoid them or to move past them quickly. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with their dissertation or daunted by the prospect of beginning your research. Not only will it give you practical tools for finishing the project, it will teach you to be kind to yourself in the process.

For me, there's a special added bonus in that I don't know who posted this review--a bonus because someone I don't know is writing on the basis of the book itself, and (unlike the other new review, which was posted by someone with whom I've worked) therefore the review is really based on the book itself, and not influenced by any personal connection or factors outside of the book itself.