Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Figure-ground reversal

This by way of a promissory note to responding to Sarah's comment yesterday. I actually had two separate responses of ideas. I forgot one. The other is about flipping and the general phenomenon of figure-ground reversals. I hadn't really thought about this phenomenon in the context of graduate studies, but I actually had one experience with it on the phone yesterday with a writer who--in the same phone call--told me about how her work was good and done for a purpose that she saw that was entirely unrelated to her professors, and she also told me how her work was done only to please her professors (she doesn't get a lot of support).

Anyway figure-ground reversals: seeing the same image in two different ways. I'll try to remember the other comment, too.

Happy New Years!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taking Action

I was thinking about Sarah's situation, which I described in the previous post. And about her response. And what I wanted to highlight the most is that the effective thing to do is to choose to take action and to focus on that action. By taking action and focusing on the activity we do the most to alleviate any pressures for two reasons: 1. we are acting to remove some of the source of pressure (presumably we will choose to act effectively), and 2. by focusing on the specific action, we focus on what we can do, thus getting away from the negative emotional states created in the sense of being overwhelmed.

The thing that struck me a lot about Sarah's comment was that she said that I ahd given her good ideas for what to do, but that she had forgotten them. On the one hand, this is evidence that the emotional state is improving, which is a good thing. On the other, having a sense of specific actions that can be taken to alleviate the stress is also a good thing to do, so it worries me that the specific ideas were lost. And on yet another hand (for those of us who have more than two), there's also a sense that what I really wanted to communicate was an approach to problems: it was not the specific suggestions themselves that mattered, so much as the idea that when feeling overwhelmed, the appropriate response is to make a plan of specific actions and to focus on them.

And what we're looking for is to improve the situation: we want to move in the positive direction--we want to make our situation better. It's not so much that I'm hoping to entirely banish any feeling of being overwhelmed--it's not like I can make the problems themselves go away, and having an injury--for example--will naturally contribute to difficulties in keeping up with the demands of a busy schedule. What I'm hoping for--and what I suggest seeking is more the sense that we can do something to respond, then to banish the pressure put on us by the situation. Or, to rephrase (redundantly, I suppose): it's not about eliminating the pressures that come from having problems to resolve; it's about creating better and more effective response patterns so that even if we feel the pressure of many competing demands that we may not be able to successfully fulfill completely, we feel like we're making some progress in the battle, rather than feeling helpless. It's not a problem to feel swamped, if we also feel like we're able to swim.

It's hard to look back at our past and say "I did this thing poorly" without also getting stuck in some sort of negative cycle--because when we see the thing that we don't like in our past, as long as we remain at that level of analysis, we're creating more negative emotion. Only if we ask "how can I change that old result?" and "how can I create the future I want, instead of repeating old results?" are we switching our focus to the positive possibilities for the future. By practicing looking forward, we reduce the negative emotional impact of studying the past patterns of behavior that created results we didn't like.

Monday, December 29, 2008


I was talking to a writer who was feeling overwhelmed.

"I'm starting a new chapter, and have a lot of material to manage; I also have issues managing my work space; I also have a trip to take; and, oh yeah, I also have an injury."

Well, that's a classic description of being overwhelmed: to be drowned beneath a mass.

Combinations of problems are made more difficult because each problem demands attention, and each has negative impact on emotions. The fact that all the problems demand attention also tend to take us away from the most efficient way of dealing with the problems: one at a time. We can't do everything at once; no matter how good we are at multi-tasking, the truth of the matter is that we work more efficiently if we can concentrate on one thing for an extended period. Partly we will work more efficiently because we will spend a smaller proportion of time switching between tasks, and partly we will work more efficiently because our attention being focused on one task, and being able to deal with that one task will give us better emotional stability to assist us as we try to deal with all tasks.

Feeling overwhelmed by problems that are not life threatening is something different than literally being overwhelmed by e.g., a tidal wave or a horde of hostile soldiers. Although, perhaps even in such situations the best strategy to keep from being literally overwhelmed is to act as efficiently as possible to stem the onrushing flood.

Problems in our personal lives ought to be dealt with as a doctor in an emergency room does triage: which problems demand the most immediate attention?

So, here was my general plan for trying to manage feeling overwhelmed: first you take an overview of the situation: what problems do you have in the moment? Then you prioritize: how are you going to schedule and allocate time to each problem? And then, only once you have gotten an overview of the situation, and made a plan for how you will address the situation, only then will you take action on any specific problem.
I recommend this course of action as a general schema for dealing with large problems or complex problems. It is useful in that, when feeling overwhelmed, it gives one specific general steps to follow, and having a plan of action can help focus attention and calm one, rather than letting the negative emotional impact of the competing problems drag you down. And though it suggests specific steps to take (1. take an inventory of problems; 2. prioritize; 3. schedule; 4. act), it is not highly restrictive and is generalizable to all situations, with the possible exception of split-second decisions. We can adjust the effort we invest in each step to the situation at hand. If the issues that we face have to be handled in a matter of minutes (e.g., a quiz in class, or even a difficult question in an interview), we simply allocate less time to each task: in the quiz we might allocate one minute to looking at the questions and getting an idea of which ones will be hard and which easy, as well as which ones will be most valuable; in the interview we might take a few seconds to think through the different parts of the question and try to assess which are of greatest concern to the interviewer. If our time is short, then we keep our initial overview short, but we can still benefit from it.

By breaking down the combination of problems into a set of discrete steps, we most effectively respond to situations. And the same breaking down of the situation into separate parts and separate steps, and focusing on one step at a time, we can most effectively counter our emotional sense of being overwhelmed.

This is hardly news, right? The idea of planning first and acting second is hardly a surprise. But we have to remind ourselves of its value when we're feeling overwhelmed. And we have to remember that it is a behavior that can be carried out at different time scales.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Framing effects, reason and planning

Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, along with his primary collaborator Amos Tversky, and many colleagues showed that we do not always reason "logically".

For example, a patient faced with a life and death decision is more likely to choose a treatment that has a 90% survival rate than to choose one that has a 10% fatality rate. But, of course, a treatment plan with a 90% survival rate has a 10% fatality rate: the two are identical. The only difference is in the framing: one is framed in terms of life (which is positive and desirable) the other in terms of death (undesirable).

In terms of motivating ourselves, and in terms of doing good work, I think that results of this sort emphasize the importance of choosing positive framings for how we see our project. The same project can be both boring (during much of the work) and exciting (at the moments when the work comes together and progress is made), etc. How we choose to frame it can affect our plans with respect to the work, and can affect our mood, and therefore our ability to work (at least to the extent that I believe that we work better when we're in a good mood).

We want to work on building a positive framing for how we see the project and for framing the project outcome, and let that serve as the primary focus. We want to be able to plan for the worst cases, and we want to have the ability to respond to unexpected obstacles--we don't, in short, want to be naive, imprudent or impetuous--but generally we want to focus our attention on what we are trying to create and how we are going to bring that into existence. We want to frame our analysis of our past behavior and results in terms of how we can learn to do better in the future. Such framings are more likely to contribute to active plans and less likely to create negative emotional drag.

There isn't just one way to look at the world. The same thing can be seen in different ways: the glass is half full and half empty. What the results of Kahneman, Tversky and their colleagues show is that the two different framings have an effect on plans (and on emotions, too, I speculate, though I don't know if that is a reported result). That is to say that if someone tells you "the glass is half full" you are likely to make a different decision than if someone tells you "the glass is half empty;" the fact that you make a different decision is indicative of a potential emotional effect of the framing.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why Do We Cite Papers?

A writer sent me a link to a page written by a professor of software engineering, Jeff Offut, at George Mason University. I know nothing about this person beyond a very brief perusal of his website. He's actually got a number of articles related to writing a Ph.D.; I've only read this one that I include in this post.
I don't necessarily endorse or agree with his positions; but that doesn't mean there's nothing valuable.

OK, so here's what he says:

Why Do We Cite Papers?

Excerpts from a conversation with a PhD student in 2005.

First, definitions.

A reference is the publication information about a paper. It should have enough information for a reader to find the paper.

A citation appears in the paper and points to the reference, which is usually at the end of the paper.

When a paper does not cite a key reference (or several), there is a concern. There are actually several possibilities:

1. The references should be there just as a matter of record.
2. The references tell the reader that the author knows the field.
3. If the author does not know the key papers, he or she may well be making mistakes in the work. There are at least four categories of mistakes:
1. Repeating work that was already done
2. Finding solutions to problems that are not as good as already published solutions
3. Finding solutions that are less complete than previously published solutions
4. Going in the wrong direction

If the author is lucky, then the only issue is number (1). Issue (2) will make it harder to get the paper accepted, for example, if the reviewer doubts that the author is sufficiently prepared to work in the area. If the problem is (3), the paper should not be published, and if it is published, it makes the author look dumb and the conference or journal irresponsible. If references are missing but the work is still sound, the paper should be accepted and the author should be told of the missing references. That is, a lack of references in and of itself should not be a reason for rejecting a paper.

Of course, I have omitted an all too common issue: The author omitted one of the reviewer's papers and missed the chance to stroke the reviweer's ego. Judging a paper on whether it makes our egos happy is unscientific and unprofessional. The fact that software engineering authors have to worry about it is an unfortunate comment on the lack of maturity of our field.

Except for the last point, which I would only consider in a sticky political situation, there is basically no overlap between his reasons and mine. Which is not to say that his reasons aren't important...
Why I cite:
1. to give credit where credit is due, and
2. to use the work of other researchers to explain my position.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Defining personal space

Just some random musing--I don't, at least as I start writing, have a conclusion.

A writer told me that I had been helping her set boundaries, especially with her committee, and that it was helping. Which seemed odd to me, because I couldn't remember ever talking about setting boundaries with her. I do remember talking a lot about having a sense of purpose, about believing in herself and her bringing out her own voice and about tapping in to the things that she felt most strongly about, and then to use that to tell her committee what it was that she wanted, and to use what they gave back as much as it was useful to her and not to get stressed about the parts that weren't useful, but just to stay focused on her own sense of purpose.

I understand, in retrospect, how these things can be seen as boundary setting issues.

But I guess I was thinking of them in a different way. We can define spaces--actual or conceptual--in two ways: in terms of distance from some central point(s), or in terms of boundaries. These can accomplish the same thing, but they don't act quite the same way.
Sometimes we have clearly delimited boundaries--between nations, we find rivers often are used to determine boundaries; a vegetarian sets a clear boundary between what will be eaten (everything but meat) and what will not (meat); religious fundamentalists tend to set strict boundaries.
Sometimes boundaries are not so clear: where is the clear line between music that is too loud and music that is not? Where the line between a photograph that is over-exposed and one that is not?

I like to think in terms of centers--in terms of principles--more than I like to think in terms of boundaries (though, as I say above, both are useful). Boundaries limit our ability to adapt and negotiate. I feel like when I'm focused on the central issue that I'm concerned with, then I can allow various changes in the periphery without sacrificing the central principle that is important to me. When I have a boundary set, it's harder to give it up in a compromise, even if that compromise allows me to attain a central goal.

To choose a stark example, we might look at the biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill." This is defined in terms of a boundary: there is a clear line marked--the line between killing and not killing. The guidance derived from this boundary is clear. But that clarity can be problematic: what if you are faced with the option of killing one person to save the lives of hundreds (or thousands or millions...)? The boundary definition creates a dilemma: death will ensue, and to some extent one will be responsible, but the boundary rule pushes one towards allowing the individual to live. We can recast the same idea as a principle: strive to preserve life. This principle sets no boundary, and in the case described above, it clearly guides the user: one life is taken to save others. Perhaps this is a bad example, because the question is very tricky and loaded. Obviously this is the sort of justification that the Bush administration used to justify torture: "well, we don't want to do it, but our higher principle excuses it."
Nonetheless, I still find it powerful (without being reprehensible) to work from principles. In the case of the writer I was talking about at the beginning of the post, all the things that she saw as being a matter of setting boundaries, I saw as a matter of her developing a good understand of her core principles and her trying to apply them. She's thinking about it in terms of setting boundaries that keep her from accommodating her committee when it serves her ill; I'm thinking about it in terms of her clearly identifying what she wants and then clearly asking for what she wants to get from the committee. I guess I like being able to see it both ways and to think about it both ways.

I guess, also, I'm a little disturbed when I see how the use of reasoning from principles, instead of boundaries, can allow terrible justifications. But the flip side is that boundaries are also used to terrible ends--such as the boundaries set by certain cultures that allow the exploitation or destruction or oppression of another culture (e.g., the clear boundary that defined Jews in Nazi Germany, or the clear legal boundaries that defined who was "colored" and where "colored people" were allowed to go in the Jim Crow laws of the US).

Well, both ways of looking at things can cause problems, I guess, so it's best to understand how we can define spaces--in our lives and in our discourse--in two different ways, and having those two ways helps greatly.

Another thought: it had been kicking around in my mind, but hadn't popped out. How are categories defined? What makes a category? How is membership in a category determined? The classic, rationalist view is that categories are defined by a boundary, but cognitive science research (esp. by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues) shows that conceptual categories are often structured around a central prototype (a model, paradigm or exemplar) and not defined by boundaries. Studies of semantics show that the usage of words is typically defined in terms of central models that are then extended to new meanings (cf. Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). So, in terms of how we think about the world (and in terms of how we might want to set up an argument about the world), we need to understand the difference between defining concepts in terms of boundaries or in terms of centers/prototypes.

I'm not going to try to draw this together into any meaningful conclusion.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dissertation writing books and related stuff

A friend pointed out to me an article that looks at dissertation-writing self-help books:

The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing
Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson
Educational Researcher, Vol. 37, No. 8, 507-514 (2008)

The research is basically looking at the genre as a genre, so, not surprisingly, they make sweeping generalizations, but that's necessary for research anyway: even when we study a singular case (i.e., a case study), we have an eye to what that case can teach us about other cases. Freud's case studies, of course, provided the foundation that produced claims like "men face the oedipal complex; women have penis envy." I don't like careless use of generalizations, but I also recognize the necessity of being able to generalize (In his story "Funes the Memorious," Borges writes "To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.")

They make four main complaints against the genre as a whole; the books:
1. support/create an expert–novice relationship with readers,
2. reduce dissertation writing to a series of linear steps,
3. reveal hidden rules, and
4. assert a mix of certainty and fear to position readers "correctly."

I think the article was interesting, and if you're out shopping for a book on dissertation writing, it's worth the read, just for thinking points on what to look for.

Personally, I find it hard to avoid three of the four points in expository writing.
1. It is presumed that the author knows something that the reader doesn't. The point of expository writing is to reveal something important that may not have been seen before, e.g., the results of research, or an insight from introspection/theoretical development (in, for example, mathematics or philosophy).
3. It is presumed, as above, that something hidden will be revealed, and inasmuch as that which is revealed is presumed to be "true" or at least supported by good research, we are presumed to take it into account in future behavior--of course often the knowledge won't have an impact on future behavior but it may, in the right circumstances (e.g., research that classifies widgets in some manner will implicitly set up a structure that other research on widgets should use).
4. Assert a mix of certainty and fear: well, maybe expository writing doesn't explicitly play with this as much as the self-help genre does, but following the premise that an expository work is arguing for a specific description of how the world works, it necessarily carries with it some threat of bad things following from not following the author's view (e.g., to follow up the previous example, the widget-researcher who fails to use a "true" classification scheme will ultimately create useless research).

To a lesser extent we can find something like #2 in much expository writing, too. #2 is too specific--but if we replace "dissertation writing" with "operation of systems (whether prescriptive or descriptive)" for the sake of generalizing--we find that this claim is basically that we are attempting to explain how things work or how to accomplish things: we reduce the complexity to a set of instructions that the reader can (hopefully) follow.

So, without meaning to impugn the authors, who are writing expository work and therefore cannot avoid three of the four things they decry, here are examples from the article:
1. They position themselves as experts by virtue of both their theoretical apparatus and their described methodology.
2. (this one doesn't easily fit)
3. They assert hidden rules (which are, in this case, the inverse of the points they decry), and
4. They assert that there is a possibility that dissertation-writing books that do not follow their rules may do harm, and they contrast this to their authority as researchers (fear and certainty).

That being said, I think I agree with their basic points, especially point 2. One of the main theoretical premises of Horst Rittel about the design process was that it cannot be reduced to a series of steps. In my work as a writing coach, that is one principle that I believe in strongly.

As for the other points:
1. It is important--fundamental, in my view, that the researcher understand that the dissertation is about developing their own voice (as my many posts labeled "your voice" will attest). Therefore, the researcher has to learn that to make the dissertation work, they have to start asserting their own voice and following their internal guidance, rather than looking for an outside guide. After all, the dissertation is partly about being able to guide yourself through a major research project--that's supposedly what makes you eligible to be a researcher yourself.
2. We don't want to reduce processes to a simple set of steps for many reasons that I'm not going to discuss here.
3. Aspiring researchers and writers don't want to simply follow someone else's guidance--they want to test the ideas and see whether they work--it's not about following someone else's rules (as discussed in point 1), it's about learning to make your own.
4. All people should balance caution with boldness. We neither want to be so cautious that we are paralyzed, nor do we want to be so bold that we are rash or reckless. I'm not sure that any writer who wants to convince the reader of something is free from the implicit "if you don't believe me, your life will be worse." A self-help writer whose aim was to help people be fearless might write a book that never mentioned fear, that only looked at the results of studies that looked at how to improve courage and talked about techniques to promote courage, and still have hanging, unspoken in the background the fear-inducing "if you don't do as I say, you will be fearful."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Controlled Experiments and Discoveries

Knowledge advances in two ways: intentionally and by accident (and these are, by definition, mutually exclusive: that which is not intentional is an accident, and vice versa).

It's worthwhile to understand what it is that constitutes knowledge and research, because having that fundamental understanding gives us the greatest opportunity to learn from the data we have.

I had considered titling this post "Found Art" because some of research is largely "found art": that which was discovered serendipitously, but was, perhaps, thought refuse.

But the motivation for this post was talking with a writer who had attempted to run an experiment, and the experiment failed. "I should try something else," he suggested. But I'm wondering what could be found in the wealth of data generated by what he did do. It may not be that the failed experiment will provide a gem of information, but it might provide valuable insights that will guide future research.

Controlled experiments are one of the paradigms of research--it is intentional research in its most extreme form: possible outcomes are limited as much as possible to that which can be accurately measured.

In the laboratory a great deal of control can be exerted to limit different kinds of variability. That kind of control cannot be exerted in the field. And so controlled experiments may break down for various reasons beyond the control of the researcher, eliminating the possibility of getting the results that had been desired and intended.

In the field, however, if you are documenting the process extensively, even a failed experiment will generate masses of data that can be processed and analyzed for insights that were missing when the experiment was set up.

The first place to look is the failures. Your experiment failed because of record-keeping lapses by the participants? What does this teach you about setting up an experiment that will work in similar conditions? Does this suggest a failure to engage in the experimental activities? Why? What can the failures of the experiment teach about setting up an experiment to study the issue that motivated the original study? The failures, in some cases, may tell you about the very thing that you're testing, too. Do they indicate any results that would indicate that there are problems with the general premises under which you are operating?

Careful examination of a "failed" study can be quite valuable because of all the data generated--it simply requires one to look at the data in a different way--to see it through different eyes--to see the urinal as art.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Boiling water and the complexity of our actions

Once I was a TA in a basic computer course (back in 1995); one exam question (or quiz or homework) asked students to write "pseudo-code" for boiling water ("pseudo-code" being a sort of plain-English description of an algorithm).

The expected answer was something like
Get a Pot
Fill it With Water
Put it on the Stove
Turn On the Stove

And that is a basic level description of what we do. But there's far more complexity there. The reason I write this is as a follow up to the previous post about research questions: we have basic ideas about the world, but when we examine them, we find that they open up into great complexity.

This sort of thing happens with computer programming, too, and that was the problem a lot of the students had with moving from five lines of pseudo-code to a working program--they just didn't recognize all the little details that are worthy of attention. Similarly, when we're looking at an assertion, we need to recognize all the details that are worthy of attention and examination.

Let's take a brief look at the pseudo-code. The first step: "Get a Pot."
Easy? Yes, it's easy if you have a pot, or know where to get one. Let's say you have a pot that you intend to use and it's in your kitchen. Then "get a pot" requires first going to your kitchen, which itself may not be trivial, if, for example, you're out running errands. You have to go home, then once home you have to go to the kitchen. Once you have gotten to the kitchen, you have to find the pot. This may be easy if your kitchen is well-kept. But maybe the pot is already in use--then you have to find an alternate pot. Or maybe the pot is dirty, and you have to wash it. Or maybe the pot isn't where you would expect it because the friend you had over for dinner the previous evening put away the dishes. Once you've gotten the pot and it's clean and ready for use, then you have to fill it with water. Again, we can find complexity here if we look for it. We need to have running water, we need to keep the pot oriented in the right direction, we need to keep it still, we need to support its weight, etc.

We want to look at our assertions at this level of detail, and then the research questions will start popping out at us.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Research and Research Questions

Some research--or at least some important discoveries--are not made as the result of a specific research question. We might imagine Newton under the apple tree: the discovery of an idea that appears through the data. Similarly we might imagine that Darwin had no interest in evolution, but was only cataloguing the creatures he observed in his travels.

Such research need not be driven by a question; it comes about serendipitously. And that is somewhat problematic when there is an expectation to publish, to complete research projects and write them up. Can we just wait for a discovery to come to use as we peruse ever more data? That depends on what you want your life to be.

However, if your goal is to finish a research project so as to get a degree or to get published, then it helps to have a research question.

Research questions shape a work and guide it. They provide the focus. Any question could be a research question, but some are better suited to study than others.

A research question comes from a way of looking at the world. It starts with a basic perspective. We each have a fundamental, mostly unconscious set of ideas about how the world works. This then shapes the way we interact with the world and the questions we will ask of it.

We might, for example, believe the Christian creation myth, and set off on a journey to discover and document the many different species that survived the flood on Noah's ark. This would all be consistent with a desire to know all of God's creation that it might be celebrated. Our research question in such a case might be "are there any creatures that have not been documented yet?" or "how many undocumented creature can I find and document to the greater glory of the Lord?" These research questions are unlike the questions that are asked in most universities in America, but they are consistent within a certain world view. In much the same way that the questions asked at a secular university are consistent with their own world view.

Whatever your world view, it is the place from where you start: "I believe the world operates this way," you assert. Usually we have a number of assertions about how things work: "the sun will rise tomorrow; water will run when I turn the tap; e=mc^2; the sperm fertilizes the egg; drinking too much alcohol will make me sick; etc." We have a whole world of assertions; each of us has slightly different ones. Some of them we accept without question, and some of them we're curious about.

We might believe "Process X will improve the quality of my work." It's of obvious value if it's true. As a researcher, it is appropriate to be skeptical. Is this assertion true? And that becomes the research question that you test. The first place to look for answers, of course, is in the literature. Has anyone else asked this question? If so, what was their answer? If not, has anyone asked similar questions? Perhaps no one has asked "will Process X improve work in my field (let's call it 'field A')?" but someone has asked "will process X work in field B (which is related to field A)?"

By starting with what you believe, and testing what you believe, you can move into the logic of your area of interest in search of a question for which you want an answer but which there is no answer to be found.

Maybe you found someone, Dr.Q, who said "Process X will improve work in field A," but their argument was only theoretical, and they had never tested it. This then becomes an assertion that is in need of an empirical test, so you can set up a study to see if it will work in your field.

Maybe you also found someone who said "Process X works in field B if you make adjustments 1, 2 and 3." One thing you could do is to say, "I want to test process X in field A, as Dr. Q suggests, but I want to make adjustments 1 and 2 because of the similarity of fields A and B." Or you could say "I wonder whether the conditions that require adjustment 1 in field B also hold in field A, and if so will adjustment 1 suffice in field A?"

The examples should be viewed as examples of ways of thinking and asking questions. The premises and assertions used as examples could be replaced by any assertion or premise. Once we have a premise, we can start to look at whether it is true, and what reasons we have to believe it, and we can then go from there.

What is Research?

Research can be construed in many different ways, but one way to look at it is the exploration of hypotheses: we believe the world works in a certain way, but we don't know for sure, and we want to test that hypothesis.

So we might, to choose a culinary analogy that may not hold up, for example, have a hypothesis that tofu and pomegranate would go well together in a raw salad.

We may have reasons to believe this--we may, for example, have read a review of restaurant that served such a dish, or we may have read a cookbook that suggested that the flavors would work well together, or we may have read some chemistry/biology textbook that leads us to believe that some chemicals in the two would combine well. We have reasons that we believe the hypothesis. To the extent that such reasons are supported in published literature, and that our idea came from reading the literature, we can add such elements to our literature review. But presumably there is not such a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the exact thing that we're studying is certain (e.g., there are no reports of a tofu-pomegranate salad craze in major metropolitan restaurants, or other indication that our hypothesis has been extensively tested).

In order for us to be doing research, we have to be testing something that is at least in question. As far as empirical science is concerned (whether social science or hard science), a hypothesis, no matter its logical antecedents, is worthy of empirical testing if the given empirical test (or one substantially similar to it) has not been executed. The fact that theory suggests that something will happen is no guarantee that it will.

Things are complex. It's simple to say something about preparing tofu and pomegranate, but that hides a great deal of potential complexity, and potential difficulties. To make up an example, it might be the case that tofu and pomegranate go well only with a third ingredient, but that ingredient is rare, or expensive, or hard to work with in some way, making practical execution of a dish infeasible, even if the theory suggests that it should work.

The scientist looks for this complexity within the simpler statement.
"Tofu and pomegranate will go well together" is a simple hypothesis but it suggests more detailed hypotheses and issues: will they go well together when fried? when raw? when boiled? when mixed with vinegar? Will any problems crop up? What will be done to find out? The scientist looks at the simple hypothesis and asks detailed questions about how that can be true. And the starting place for that exploration is intellectual: what do you know about the situation? what are the important ideas that define the situation? what kinds of theories shape your understanding of the situation? what kinds of questions can you ask about the situation? What details are pertinent? Where do theory and practice diverge? And what is the impact of that divergence? If you're attempting to import a theory or practice from one type of endeavor to another, what differences are there going to be? For example, maybe one heard that pomegranate and chicken was really good, but was vegetarian, so thought of pomegranate and tofu instead. What reasons do you have to believe that the translation will work? What reasons do you have to believe that the translation won't work?

Looking at hypothesis with a critical eye looking for detail, many different questions and ideas and possibilities arise. Practically speaking, each needs to be tested individually. So if you start with a general question, you're looking to find a specific aspect of that question that you can test. If you think pomegranate and tofu will work well together, but that they'll need to have some sort of seasoning, then you'll try preparing some with one set of spices/flavors, and you'll see if that works, and then you'll test with a different set of spices/flavors, and see if that works. You won't throw all the spices in at once, because then all you get is confusion. So with a question that can be fragmented and broken down, you want to seek the different questions that could contribute to answering the main question, and look to answer one of those more detailed questions.

But whatever you're going to do, it starts with your looking at the world and putting forth a hypothesis: "I believe the world works this way," you say to yourself. For example "I believe pomegranate and tofu would taste good together," or "I believe that method X, used in field A, will also be useful in field B, despite some differences between those fields."

You start with having an understanding of how the world works, and an idea that it will work in a certain way. Then you look to see what evidence you have to support that view. If you think the evidence is overwhelming that the view is true, then it's not an interesting research question--but if there is doubt--perhaps there are people who believe that it isn't true, perhaps you doubt yourself; it doesn't matter where the doubt arises--then there is a viable research question: you believe the world will work in a certain way, and then you want to test that idea, and you try to find a way to test that idea. It all starts with how you understand the world and your exploration of the places where you are uncertain and curious.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Setting Priorities

It's important to get priorities right. And it's important to know when to shift priorities. I haven't been blogging mostly as a conscious choice to put my effort into other things--some other writing that I'm struggling with. In a way blogging has become a little too easy to be a challenge. Given the standards I demand from myself in blogging, and the general scope of the work, it's a lot easier to blog than to engage in more serious written endeavors--especially those that are longer than an average blog post.

If we don't set our priorities well, and then choose to act on the things we believe are important, and if we cannot see that priorities shift over time--as the Bible says: to everything there is a season--then we get ourselves caught in a difficult spot. If we don't prioritize our work early enough in the life of the project, then we get caught at the end with a crisis as we attempt to make up for the lost time. At the same time, it is also necessary to make sure that we do not prioritize our work too highly, especially in the early and middle stages of a project, because we don't want to drive ourselves to burnout that causes us to lose traction at the precise moment that we need a burst of energy to finish off a project.

It is a delicate balancing act, and an unstable one--because work and rest/play are mutually exclusive (to some extent), the priorities have to shift back and forth. To the extent that we love our work and think that it is important, that allows a closer connection between work and play: when we really love our work, it can be deeply enjoyable and rewarding. But still, the careful balance must be maintained: variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and if we do one thing to the exclusion of all other things, then we increase the chance of burning out.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Losing its Luster

When we have something that we're working on for a long time, it can begin to lose its luster. What seemed interesting when it was new, becomes less interesting as its familiarity increases.
I've been facing that with this blog recently; I just haven't felt like I had something new to say that I really wanted to say. and I haven't felt like I had anything that I really wanted to say that I wanted to try saying again in a new way...or at least not in a new way in this blog.

But what to do when it's your dissertation project?
The key, it seems, is to keep the project seeming new by learning constantly. That may not seem to be likely or possible with something that you have been working on consistently for a long time, but realistically, we can learn something new, even about the familiar if we are seeking new insight and new wisdom.

When you're an academic and a writer, there are any new things to learn. The do not always lie in the plane that one expects: when writing a large project, for example, one can learn about the subject itself (as expected), but one can also learn about managing projects and about writing, not to mention the possibility that we can learn about ourselves and learn to better control our emotions and our thoughts so that we can be more productive, and so that we can gain the greatest value from those abilities that we have.

None of these things are easy to learn. Indeed, learning is usually associated with some level of difficulty--without difficulty are we really learning, or are we just storing a little bit of new information? But it is in the learning that we can see the project in a new way, and through that new vision, we can find a new spark of interest--or even we can begin to find some of the luster that was lost as the project became familiar.

In a way the academic writer should have an easy time learning new things--that is, in fact, the purpose of research--to learn. What a shame, then, that so many academic writers have lost sight of the reasons that they began their projects.

I got a card from a writer recently that said "we've been working together for a year now; thank you!" There was a part of me that was a little embarrassed, because I thought when we started working together that she had a good chance of finishing within a year, and she thought that there was no way that she could bear to work on the project for more than six months longer. But that's an incomplete story, too. Her aim is now finishing in the spring, and she's confident that she will. Because the project has regained the luster that she had once seen. Instead of facing the project with resentment for the work that needs to be done, as she did when we began working together, now she is excited about the project, and almost every time we speak she tells me about some additional work that she wants to integrate into the project. To grossly simplify, I attribute this to the fact that she has come to find a deeper appreciation for the value of her own work--not just for what she hoped to accomplish with it, but also she sees the depth of her analysis and how that analysis fits into a larger academic discourse that connects her with other writers. One key during the process was that she found (at least) two writers whose work helped her see a new value in her own work--a value that was new to her.

Projects lose their luster; that's natural. As the saying goes: variety is the spice of life. And where there is little variety, there is bland boredom. With a large project like a dissertation, we cannot introduce variety into the project by changing the project itself, so we have to seek a finer-grain of variety--we can see the change of our own ideas as we develop in our sophistication of both thought and expression (the two are not unrelated).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Vision of the Future

I didn't write that title thinking about visualization, but it came to mind as I thought about how to open the blog entry.

It's important to have a vision of what you're trying to accomplish. With a vision, you can make a plan, and with a plan, you can move most efficiently towards achieving what you want to achieve. Without a vision of what you want to accomplish, you're waiting at the whim of fate. This may work out well, but it's not something you have a lot of control over.

The idea of visualization is related to the need for a vision. Athletes often improve their performance through visualization exercises--visualizing their performance in the optimal form helps them bring that optimal character to the real performance. This can be seen as being much the same basic process by which a vision of the future can help all of us: the vision is a model on which we can work, which allows us to guide and refine our efforts to their best effect in our search for our goal.

Swiss philosopher Ferdinand Gonseth wrote a fable that my former dissertation chair, Prof. Jean-Pierre Protzen, of U.C. Berkeley, wrote an article about. In that fable, whose purpose is to question decision-making processes, one character asks another "would you let the dice decide"? This seems like the crucial question with respect to the desire for a vision: are you going strive for something that you want, or are you going to allow yourself to accept whatever the dice serve up? As Protzen points out, we think (we hope) that we can do better than simply letting the dice decide.

Having a vision for the future that you wish to achieve is not necessarily a loss of freedom: having a vision for the future that you want does not mean that you can't change your vision whenever you wish, it just means that you will more effectively pursue whatever vision you have chosen to pursue.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stuckness and Persistence

I preach persistence a lot. It's important to be able to push through difficulties to get beyond them. But that doesn't mean that one wants to be blindly persistent at all times.

I was talking recently with a writer who was stuck, and not writing. In our meeting, I was stressing the importance of trying to write, and of starting to write. He wanted a method by which he could organize his collection of articles. "There are many different ways to organize materials," I said, "but none is definitive. What's important is to start writing." This answer was unsatisfactory to him, and he insisted on talking about how to organize his articles. I told him that had never seen a book on writing dissertations that talked about how to organize the research materials, and that every book on writing dissertations that I have seen talks about how important it is to start writing, and how starting writing begins a learning process that allows you to organize your thoughts and your ideas about material. This too was unsatisfactory. "I want a simple solution to organizing my material," he insisted.

A week later he wrote to me. "I'm still stuck. I haven't been able to organize my material, so I haven't written." I suggested again trying to start writing--however imperfect that writing might be. Again that suggestion was dismissed.

I know that everyone has a different way of working, and I recognize that having well-organized research at your fingertips can be helpful. But I also recognize that if you're stuck, trying something new can be very effective and very useful to helping move forward.

Albert Einstein reputedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you keep working on a project and you keep getting stuck on a specific task, isn't it worth trying to approach that project from a different perspective? Doesn't it make sense to try a new angle from which to look at the project?

Persistence need not manifest as blind repetition of the same attempt. That may be simply stubbornness. We need to be able to learn and adapt--which are, in fact, some of the primary characteristics of basic intelligence--to be able to learn and adapt.

Edison was persistent, but he also knew that he had to try something new each time. Each failed lightbulb was a way not to do things. Maybe the tasks and methods of writing that lead you into stuckness are ways not to write.

When you're learning to play a musical instrument, or when you're trying to master an athletic skill, blind repetition is often necessary, and the repetition will lead to different results: you just get better and better at the skill you're trying to develop, if you're practicing diligently and your muscles and brain start to wire together new skills. The body learns to perform an action more smoothly and easily. I was giving a friend a guitar lesson yesterday, and I was stressing the importance of playing a given chord change over and over until the motions became smooth and even. With practicing a guitar, this works: playing the chords over and over, leads to different results over time; the practice leads our playing to become smoother and more facile. If repetition is leading to different results and you can feel those differences, then it hardly fits Einstein's definition of insanity, because the change comes, and so it is reasonable to expect--at least for a while--that doing the same thing over and over again will lead to different results.

But then again, those learning curves have their terminus as well. One does not infinitely improve as a musician or athlete, and the practices and exercises that get one to a given level of skill will not necessarily take one beyond that level.

A summary of my thoughts: persistence is important, but one needs to differentiate between persistence that is building skill and ability--useful practice and repetition--and persistence that is stubbornness--an unproductive practice in which one is stuck and not developing. One needs to be persistent, but one also needs to be able to change the angle by which a given project is approached, so that one is learning and adapting, rather than simply trying the same thing again and again, expecting different results.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Three hundred posts

This is actually my 301st post on this blog. That strikes me as a big number. And for the most part, all of it has been done in easy, convenient moments when I didn't have to sacrifice anything except a few minutes of sleep to write.

It's a worthy testament to how volume naturally results from a regular practice. I grant, of course, that the 301 pieces that I've written don't cohere like a good single large work should, but the principle is similar. Over the course of 10.5 months, I've probably written something on the order of 300 pages in my blog, and I imagine that I could take those pieces and fit them together into some sort of larger work, just because they were all part of my general desire to think about writing.

If you want to write--if you have a writing project that you want to complete--then writing regularly will get you there in good time. If you keep at it day after day, the pages start to add up, and you suddenly have good volume. If you're working each day to contribute to a coherent piece, you might not write as much as if your efforts were unconstrained, but then a dissertation (or book) has no need to be 300 pages--some dissertations, maybe, have such a need, but many do not.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Learning to estimate how long projects take is a useful skill. It's difficult, too. But it can help a lot (and there is also an associated skill of finishing a task in the amount of time provided).

I was talking with my friend Eve, who had been asked to edit something for a friend/acquaintance. The proposed budget: $200; the project: 400 pages. The friend was asking Eve to edit each page for $0.50. Which may seem generous; I agree that $200 is a lot of money. Except how fast do you read? Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you can read a page of text in a minute. That's sixty pages an hour, or $30/hr. Which isn't a bad little wage. I don't read 60pages/hr. At my fastest--easy reads--I read maybe 50 pages an hour. That's just reading. When I'm editing I go slower still: it's necessary to read closely, and to figure out how to fix sentences whose meaning is unclear, and to fix any minor errors. At my fastest, when proofreading a well-written document with few errors, I might edit about 12 pages an hour. Proofreading is painstaking work--in the sense that one should take pains to get it right: the point of proofreading is to eliminate errors; it cannot, therefore, be done in a lackadaisical manner. Twelve pages an hour--that's $6/hr at $0.50 per page. Now Eve may be willing to take the project as a labor of love, but that's not a very generous offer to your friend to offer them $6/hr for a project that takes skill, care, and would take over 30 hours of work. I'm not suggesting that the friend is uncaring, but just that they weren't making a very good estimate of what the project would take.

Another example. I had a sobering exchange with a writer recently. He approached me with a week before his deadline, and there simply wasn't enough that I could do in a short time. The biggest issue was a concern with some of the content. With only a week there was no time for any give and take between the two of us. Especially (even if one were to assume that I worked instantaneously) if I had any questions that he needed to answer. There were--both matters of content and idea, and of execution--for example, there were many reference citations in the text that were not made in the reference list. He had estimated that a week would be enough for an editor to work; I can do a lot in a week, but he had not made any estimate for any work that he might have to do in response to what I saw (like the need to fix missing citations).

A related issue is that of getting feedback from professors--a notoriously difficult task. If we have a big draft and if we want detailed feedback, we have to realize the effort that we are asking from our professors. A short dissertation might be 100 pages. To read it closely might take four hours. To write comments and feedback could take another hour. That is not a request to make lightly of your committee, even if they do owe it to you to give you good, clear feedback on your work. It is important to correctly assess what you are asking of them in order to have reasonable expectations of what you can get back. And what if your draft is 200 pages? Or, like my final drafts, over 300? I respect tremendously the work of my dissertation committee--Professors Jean-Pierre Protzen, Eve Sweetser and Greig Crysler--who all read three drafts, and commented copiously during the last six months I was writing. I appreciated and marveled at it then, but now, having worked as an editor, I respect the effort even more. If they were working twice as fast as I do, they were spending six to ten hours on each draft. Adding in the other help they gave me in the final semester, I would estimate now that each gave me almost 40 hours of time in the course of twenty weeks.

It's important to estimate the effort that goes into tasks, not only to help us manage how we work with others, but also to help us manage our own work. If we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves, that can be as harmful as having unrealistic expectations of others. Writing is a difficult process, and one during which you learn a lot about what you're trying to write about. Usually you learn so much that at the end you'll look askance at what you wrote in the beginning. That's not a problem--that's an opportunity to grow. But if you haven't given yourself time for that, then you're going to get into trouble.

I had an inquiry once from a writer: "I can only work with an immediate deadline; I have to write my entire dissertation in six months." Is that a realistic estimate? Can that plan of action work? It seems to me that estimating that you can finish the whole dissertation in six months, when you can only write on immediate deadlines is a naive plan. Wouldn't it be better to estimate accurately: "If I don't change how I work, so that I can work regularly without an immediate deadline, I won't be able to finish in the six months I hope?"

Good estimating plays a key role in making good plans. Whether estimating the needs you will face, or estimating the help that you can get from others, if you can realistically assess what needs to be done and how long it will take to do it, you will be far more likely to get your project done and far less likely to suffer the emotional strain of unpleasant surprises and frantic attempts to make the final deadline.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Start Writing; Stop researching

One of the classic procrastination patterns is the "I haven't gotten my research done" ploy.

It's a trap; it's deceptive, comforting, perhaps--"If I just read this book and those articles, then I'll be ready to write; If I can just organize my research materials, then I'll be ready"--ah, that bright and shining future, where you know enough to start writing!
It's a trap. It's a painful, unproductive pattern.

The hard part about writing--which is also the valuable part about writing--is the part that's not like reading. The hard part about writing is in making something that works. It is in organizing your thought. The hard part about reading is in trying to observe what is there. It's completely different.

Writing is like speaking: it comes from inside your head.
And that means that you have to expend energy to organize your thoughts. And to find words to represent those thoughts to share with another person. We struggle with this all the time; there are a whole slew of stock phrases that relate to this precise struggle--"I'm speechless; I couldn't find the words; there aren't words to describe..." and so on. The battle with writing is to find your own words. It won't happen while you're looking at other people's writing.

In the dead of night, you're woken by strangers who pull a hood over your head, bind you hand and foot, and take you away.
When they take the hood off your head and the bindings off your wrists, you're seated at a desk with a pen and a pad of paper.
"Describe your dissertation project in 350 words (give or take 50), or you'll never see your family again," they say.
What do you do? It's obvious what you do, and realistically it takes you a couple of hours at most because it just doesn't take that long to write if you focus on it.

The knowledge is already inside your head. You studied for years to get to the point where you're being permitted to propose a dissertation. Use that knowledge. Trust yourself. Put away the freakin' books an articles and trust that you learned something from all that reading you've been doing.

You're home for Thanksgiving and a subject related to your topic comes up. Maybe you're writing about something--anything really: history, physics, engineering, designing musical instruments, raising pets, making crepes; it doesn't really matter what--and something related comes up in conversation. Don't you know relatively a lot about your subject? At least compared to the non-specialist?

You've got to write. Writing is like teaching: it forces you to learn again and in greater depth, the subject you have been studying. When you read, and when you learn, you can rely on intuition and ideas for which you have found no expression yet. When you write, you have to struggle to make explicit the intuitions that have previously guided you.

If you do some writing, that doesn't preclude doing more reading later. But if you say "I can't write until I'm done reading," then writing is precluded until you're "done."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Feedback request

I happened to be looking at statistics for traffic on my blog, and I noticed that yesterday one single visitor read 23 pages of my blog. If you were that reader, I would love to hear from you. Thanks!

It's nice to think that someone finds what I write interesting. Reading 23 pages is more than just a passing interest. It would be great to hear what you liked, and what didn't work as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Costumes

It's a little early for this post, perhaps. Having been invited to a party Halloween, it is necessary to consider a costume, and I was thinking of what I might do when it occurred to me that this is something to consider as a writer.

Not what I should wear for Halloween, but the whole concept of wearing a costume. What if you were to think of your dissertation as something of a costume? It is not you and yet it is. On Halloween you go out and your friends recognize you, and yet you're also someone else. It is easier to act the fool.

The Halloween costume is a celebration, and one on which many invest a great deal of energy. But because it is a celebration it does not seem onerous. So we might wonder whether, by looking at our writing as a sort of costume, we might be able to enjoy the exploration and even enjoy making a fool of ourselves.

It's crucial for the writer to be able to try on a costume and then just as quickly throw on another if the first didn't work. If you can write and rewrite, then you will be able to produce good work.

It's also crucial to be able to see the writing as separate from you. The costume hides the identity, and in so doing turns the criticism into an attack on something that is not you. Borges writes a little parable "Borges and I" in which he discusses the distance between himself and the figure that manifests on the paper.

We need not be too tied to our writing. We can it hold it in a gap between us and the world, and this gap--this distance between us and the work allows us to see what others think of the work without worrying that it is a reflection on us.

A final note: it seems to me that the costume and the writing are both a chance to celebrate your own voice and to celebrate your own imagination. Explore the possibilities; take chances. Being repressed doesn't make a better costume or a better piece of writing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Feedback and Flow

I've been slowly making my way through Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

He talks about how important it is to have immediate feedback to get into the flow state (the flow state is the state of deep concentration that Csikzentmihalyi identifies as the common element in different reports of optimal experience). He talks about how the tennis player knows immediately (almost) whether the shot is in.

But does the dissertation writer have any such immediate feedback? Obviously, at one level, no: the dissertation writer depends on the professors who will ultimately sign off on the dissertation.

On another level, every writer has feedback: is there anything on the page? how much is on the page? is there anything useful on the page? Writers also have the experience of writing--are we engaged? are we focused or wandering? Those experiences themselves can tell us how we are doing.

Often I write something, or rather, I start to write something when I don't really know what I want to say and I'm just saying something for the sake of writing. Often, at such times, I am not focused and my attention is wandering; often my topic is something that I think might be interesting but don't know how to discuss. But as I expend effort to continue to engage with the writing, I begin to find greater concentration, and often I begin to find a greater sense of what I could say, and this helps me focus more: the actual process of writing helps me gain focus. Each word that I put on the page is something to reflect on, and I try to add to it, to refine it. In this way I have continual feedback that helps me focus my attention and move closer to both a coherent written form and to a sense of flow. But, though I strive for such coherence, and find it a nice challenge to see if I can manage to bring coherence into a single, completely unrevised draft, I have no expectation that I will get such coherence on the first draft. Or the second, for that matter. By the third, maybe, but...The more easily that you can write the first draft, the more time you have to revise, and the less intimidating it seems to have a revision ahead of you. If you have a day where you write very productively--you write a good ten pages, perhaps, or more,--then it's much easier to believe that you can have other such days, and so writing becomes that much less intimidating (and therefore that much easier).

In order to get your writing to generate immediate feedback, you need to write something. Let's, for a moment, just think in simple terms. If you're writing and you're struggling to write, and you write a sentence, isn't that a decent feeling? At least for a moment you can say to yourself "ah, I've written that sentence." And if you can write a whole paragraph, you can say "yes, I've written a whole paragraph," and so forth. So it's a good idea, if you're having trouble writing something, to just write anything. See how it looks on the page. See what could follow it; see how it could be built up. Put words on the page.

Sometimes I wipe away what I've written, but if you're struggling to write, you want to get words on the page. I have no trouble filling a page or three (in a blog, certainly, where it's a one-shot deal, and I won't usually even go back to clean up the typos and errors that come from changing my idea in mid-sentence), so if I wipe away a sentence or paragraph, or even page, it's no big deal. But if you're struggling, put words on the page. Give it a try. If you write a first sentence and say "that doesn't work", instead of erasing it, ask yourself, what would have to go with that sentence to remedy the error, and write that. Put words down on paper (or computer).

We have our best experiences when we're working hard, or so at least Csikzentmihalyi reports from his studies of people reporting on their optimal experiences. So how can we create a situation where we're working hard and that work becomes an optimal experience?
Csikzentmihalyi may give suggestions on how to achieve flow--I haven't finished the book--but, if flow states are characterized by concentration and by feedback, we can see that writing is a situation where those conditions apply, and it certainly takes effort. If we want to find flow in writing, the implication seems to be that we want to actually put words on the paper, because these will help us focus and will give us feedback.

Make mistakes. They give you feedback. If you make lots of mistakes, you can write several sentences in a minute. If you try to write a perfec sentence, you can wait hours with no result. Make mistakes, get feedback. Look at the words on the page and say "how do these help me write the next sentence?"

Friday, October 24, 2008

Conceptual Change

"Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them." This quotation is typically attributed to Albert Einstein. Wikiquote has no attribution for it.
A similar thought, also attributed to Einstein is
"Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different result."
Wikiquote attributes this to Rita Mae Brown, from Sudden Death, Bantam Books, New York, 1983, p. 68.

I've been struggling with changing my patterns of thinking. I was working on a project recently and kept running up against blocks that I have run up against time and time again. My challenge has been to rethink my response to the blocks and to re-imagine the very nature of my work. If I don't change how I respond, I'll end up with similar results to those I've had in the past.

This is the coach's challenge: how does a coach get a performer to perform more effectively? The answer: get them to do things differently. For me, what I typically work with is trying to envision the project in different ways, and to see the different spaces in the project that can be effectively approached with useful tools.

This is, I suppose, partly a left-over of what I learned in my Ph.D. program, which had been set up by Horst Rittel, a design theorist--that is to say, a philosopher who studied the process of design. Rittel argued that there were basically no simple, easily defined steps in design processes, and that there were no grand schemes to follow to guide the designer to his/her goal. Instead the designer had to work towards an uncertain goal, one that shifted as the designer came to see new aspects of the problem, and the best one can do in terms of applying methodologies, or specific techniques, was to find places where those techniques could be used to forward the project without assuming that they would lead to an answer.

Because I don't think that we can prescribe methodologies very well, and less so, the larger the task, I tend to try to look for ways to re-envision the task at hand so that it can be seen as a series of smaller related tasks.

At the same time, because there is no over-arching methodological framework to guide the designer/writer, it is important for the writer to seek an overarching vision of the project's goals, to provide the framework to guide efforts.

I had a writer once tell me: "I'm stuck, but I only have six months to finish my project, so I don't have time to learn to work any differently." But I think that kind of thinking eliminates the chance that I can really help: I can't force someone to work with a whip. I can't even entice them to work with kindness and positive support. What I can do is help the writer see the project differently; I can help a writer see positive opportunities to develop his or her interests and abilities.

Having said these things, I now have to go back to the paper I'm writing, lest I let the momentum slack (thus falling into one of the traps that I fall into). And I want to jump into the revision (the third complete rewrite of the 8 pages since Wednesday) before I start to think how hard it is to revise.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


A writer wrote to me:
"well, I have to say, this is the first time I've been excited about this damn intro ever. "

The first thing I did in writing back was to emphasize this. But I want to emphasize it more, because we can use this kind of thing as a tool to help us.

What I think is important here is that this writer's excitement was coming from a place of struggling with the work, from having someone (me) challenging the presentation and demanding (suggesting), and from putting in a lot of effort rewriting: "I decided to take a risk, and reorganize a few things."

As I noted, a few days ago, when talking about the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, if we can get through the difficulty of getting started, we can have what are the most exhilarating experiences of our lives.

When we do have such experiences, it's worthwhile to remember them. Not that we won't, but if they're fresh and we set them in our minds as examples of what happens when we're willing to work through the difficult spots, then we have more positive motivation to help pull us through the difficult spots.

I was talking with another writer today and she was telling me about all that she had to do, but her spirits were high, so all that she had to do was viewed largely with excitement and positive anticipation. She's finding that she's accomplishing more and it feels easier because she is able to connect with the excitement that comes with her growing understanding of all the different aspects of her project.

So, when we have one of those moments of elation, it's worth taking a moment to remember the effort that brought us to that moment--to inscribe more deeply in our brains the connection between the effort and the payoff.

Most of us have a pretty strong inscription in our brains that work is hard and onerous. And most of us can remember some of the non-emotional rewards that come from work (money, recognition, signatures on the dissertation signature page, etc.), but do we remember the very real sense of elation that comes from engaging to the limit of our ability?

If we feel one of those moments of real excitement, it's worth taking a moment to look back and see what got us to that point.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Structural Thinking

I met a young woman, an undergraduate at Cal, and asked her what she was studying. "Rhetoric," she said, sighing, "a completely worthless degree." I was obliged to disagree.

What is rhetoric? "The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing," says one dictionary; "the study of the elements used in literature and public speaking, such as content, structure, cadence and style," says another. In short, it is the study of how to effectively present ideas, distinct from the question of whether the idea is good or not. This has led to rhetoric getting a bad rap--"language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content," says the first dictionary; "affectation or exaggeration...unsupported or inflated discourse," says the second.

Bad rap or not, we have to learn how to think in these terms. the five paragraph essay that they used to teach in elementary school or junior high--that gets a bad rap now, too. But it is an elegant example of basic rhetorical principles. You have an opening paragraph that introduces the idea to the reader, you have three examples, and you have a conclusion that ties everything up. This is, in simple form, the basic structure of a lot of really effective speaking and writing. Yes, there are those who wish to create emotional effects of surprise or blind enthusiasm who might not wish to present material this way, but as academic writers we want to follow the basic paradigm: introduce the ideas, give details/examples that develop the ideas presented in the introduction, and then wrap up the discussion by summarizing the main points and talking about what the point of the whole exercise was--what you take moving forward.

Whether talking about a paragraph, a section, a chapter, or the whole work, we can always use the same basic paradigm for thinking about how we are presenting our ideas to an audience. We can always rely on the template:
First I introduce the ideas I discuss in this [paragraph|section|chapter|dissertation]
Second I present materials that develop the ideas of the [paragraph|section|etc.]
Finally, I draw conclusions from the material I presented in the [paragraph|etc.].

At the level of the academic writer, with the scope of the dissertation, there are certainly structural liberties one can take, if one is a confident writer. But if one is struggling to write, using a worthy template can help simplify the problem--by simplifying the rhetorical aspect of the argument, one can focus on the logic, theory and analysis and use of data.

Thinking about the rhetorical aspect--how do I present this to an audience? how do I draw the audience in? how do I ensure that they will follow me where I want to go?--can provide an extra angle by which to help organize material. Sometimes ideas don't organize themselves in linear forms--for example some ideas face chicken-and-egg problems: you can't understand one without understanding the other, so which do you present first? A template can help somewhat, if you think of it as a way of imposing order on the ideas--an additional order that doesn't exist in the ideas themselves, but that serves your rhetorical purposes.

For example, when presenting material that has the aforementioned chicken-and-egg problem, you can think in terms of roles. Suppose you have four parts to the main idea. you can impose roles on the ideas: one part is presented first an an introduction: it defines ideas and sets up the rest of the discussion. The second part will still do some defining of ideas, but it will also start to go into greater depth; it presumes familiarity with the basics (provided by the first part), so it can look more at complexities; the third part then begins the process of closing up the argument: it brings out the details and the full depth of the argument, so that all the main detail and complexity of the has been brought out before the final section. The final part (of this hypothetical four-part idea) is used to summarize and conclude; what details you discuss of the fourth part of the idea can be used to bring together the details from the other parts to highlight the points that you want to make.

Ok, I've obviously simplified this example. There may not be four parts, and they may not want to work the way I've described, but whatever you write can follow the simple elegant template of introducing, giving details, and concluding. This template provides a way to think about how to communicate with your audience. If you can see a way to use it, it could make writing easier.

You may be saying something like "oh no, something else to think about; this just makes it more complicated. I don't have time for this." On one level that's like saying "I don't have time to look in the rearview mirror when driving": the consequences may not be as dire, but it's something you have to think about to write well. On another level, even though it may seem like it makes it more complicated at first, I believe that it helps simplify the project: by looking at the work from the additional perspective, by adding additional conditions to satisfy, you limit what the final piece will look like, thus giving you better direction and reducing the number of possibilities that you need to consider.

In order to effectively communicate our ideas--which is our goal in writing--it helps to think of the rhetorical aspects: how is the work going to be presented? By thinking about the role structure will play in communicating our ideas to an audience, we can give ourselves valuable guidance that will help organize our writing.

Quantitative and Qualitative (2)

Quantitative studies are studies that rely on counting and measurement...they rely on numbers. So if you want to do a quantitative study, you have to have some idea of what you are going to count or what you're going to measure.

Qualitative studies could be seen as any study that is not about counting, and not about applying numbers to things. It makes sense to look at this as an examination of the qualities of things, but qualitative studies can also operate in the same logical context as quantitative studies, if the qualitative study is viewed as an opportunity to examine possibilities (see my previous post on this).

The questions asked by quantitative studies and by qualitative studies are different.

Here are some quantitative questions.
"How many are there?"
"How often does this occur?"
"Are these measurements correlated?"
"Which occurs more frequently?"
"Is the rate of occurrence stable or changing?"
"How do these groups differ for a given measurement?"
"What are the likely results of an action, and what are the likelihoods/probabilities?"

Qualitative questions:
"What is it like to do X?"
"What are the experiences of group Y?"
"What are the perceptions of group Y?"
"What are the characteristics of group Y?"
"What has occurred?"
"What are possible consequences of that action?"
"What are different ways that Z can be interpreted?"

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Share the wealth; share the love

Dear Reader,

I put a fair amount of effort into writing this blog, and every now and then someone writes to tell me that they find it helpful.

Firstly, I'd love to hear from you. Let me know what is useful. Let me know what could be improved. If you've got a critique, I may not agree, but it's helpful to know what you're thinking.

Secondly, If you find this blog helpful, tell a friend. The value of what I have to say isn't lessened by being shared among more people. To me, it's gratifying to know that people are reading this, and the more the merrier. If the effort I have put in is helping you, then maybe it could help more people, too.

Also, I just started another blog. When I mentioned it the other day, inviting people to read it, I had unwittingly set it up so that no one could read it. I have fixed that, I believe, so check it out.

Thanks for your time and your interest.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Do you have to force yourself to work?

I was talking with a writer this morning and he said to me something like "I have to force myself to work on this." This seemed to me problematic in some ways, though correct in others.

He brought up the analogy of working out: "When you're working out regularly, you don't need to force yourself because you almost have to work out; it doesn't feel right if you don't; but if you've had a lay-off and have to get back into it, it can be hard, and you do have to force yourself." This I liked much better, because it contains an important element that the first statement didn't. In this statement there is the recognition of and focus on the good that comes along with the investment of effort. And this is the key.

My yoga teacher told the class something to the effect of: "At the moment of greatest difficulty, something beautiful is waiting to be born." The idea being, I think, that it is through the difficulty that we grow into new appreciations.

I just started reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it he says

we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like....
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times--although such experiences can also be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen....
Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur.

The emphasis on "make" is his. But this is the kind of forcing that is positive: when we recognize that in the reaching and in the stretching to our limits, there we are going to be the most satisfied. So yes, we need to put in effort, and to push our comfort zone, but if that effort is motivated by our sense that this is a route to feeling good.
Yes, he notes that there may be some sort of discomfort, but that discomfort is not certain--and once in "flow" easily put aside (at least in my experience).

So, if you're thinking you have to force yourself to work, remember the optimal experiences in your past. What are the moments in your memory that stand out as the most pleasurable? Are any of them flow moments? Are they memories of things that required effort? Can remembering how good those moments felt help you engage with the project at hand?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quantitative and Qualitative

I started talking about the vast unconscious because I wanted to talk about quantitative and qualitative studies. Yesterday I asked "what is the point of research?" To some extent the point of the research depends on the type of research you're doing.

The point of quantitative research is different from the point of qualitative research (no kidding!). But knowing that they have different points is not the same as understanding what the point of each type of research is.

Here's my take on it:
Qualitative work is a study of what is possible; it looks at the world and describes it in different ways and explores the possibilities suggested by it. Qualitative research looks at what happened, at the quality of how it happens, and at possible causal paths.
Quantitative work is a study of frequencies and probabilities and magnitudes: how often does this occur? how likely is it to happen? how large is the effect?

That's the super-condensed version. I know I'm leaving out huge swaths of detail. I like to explain it this way because there is a prejudice against qualitative data: many people take qualitative data to be "soft" or not the product of "rigorous scientific thinking." But if we look at the logic underlying Qualitative research, it is no less sound than the logic underlying quantitative research, it is simply the case that a different kind of thing is being shown. The two types of research do different things. To dismiss qualitative research is to dismiss a whole segment of logical development.

Let's put it this way: empirical research--that is research based on observation of the world--is fundamentally inductive: it takes a number of specific observations, and reasons from those to a more general conclusion: some sort of rule explaining the observations, and presumably similar observations.

So, for example, we might be observing taxi cabs in NYC. We see several, and they're all yellow. Induction leads us to propose a rule: "all taxi cabs in NYC are yellow." Induction is problematic, however, because you never know for certain: just because you observed 100 yellow cabs, or a thousand, doesn't mean that there isn't one that isn't yellow (in fact there are, or at least used to be, "gypsy cabs" in NYC--not licensed by whoever licensed the yellow cabs, but cabs nonetheless. They weren't yellow, though). We never know with certainty that the future will resemble the past: the cab we see in the future may not be like the one we saw in the past. This problem is sometimes know as "Hume's Problem."

Karl Popper's response to this problem is to suggest that instead of proving the truth of hypotheses, we focus on proving their falsity. So we take the proposition "all cabs are yellow" and we test it. If we observe a cab that is not yellow, then we know that the proposition is false. This is the basis of the null hypothesis that forms the heart of many statistical tests: we propose that there is no causal relationship, and then we reject that null hypothesis, and instead seek an alternative hypothesis--that there is some causal relationship.
Quantitative methods are typically going to focus on how likely something is to be true--so with hypothesis tests, the level of significance is the probability that the result was caused at random. If the probability is very low, then that indicates that there might be some non-random effect. A regression, too, is looking for a probabilistic assessment of causality and of the magnitude of the causal effect.

Qualitative research can be looked at, on a preliminary level, as providing both the case that disproves a rule, and the case that suggests other rules. By observing, for example, a guinea pig, we can learn that all sorts of assertions are false: for example, guinea pigs aren't always fierce. Ok that's a silly example, but take for example a slightly more realistic question--someone might assert "all murderers had a bad family life", then studying a single murderer might be sufficient to dispel that assertion. (I did say "slightly more realistic".) Where there are stereotypes, qualitative studies are ways to work against the stereotype and to show where they fail.
On the other side, qualitative work can be used to generate suggestions. Do you want to understand why people become {axe muderers/haridressers/professional golfers/whatever}? Well, a good place to start is with a qualitative study, where close work with a single individual might suggest that people become hairdressers because they were frightened by their grandfather's comb-over or something. If you have even one person who says "I became a hairdresser for reason X" then you know that at least some people become hairdressers for reason X. From there you could do a quantitative study to see how often reason X plays a role in becoming a hairdresser.
Qualitative studies can give other valuable stuff, too, but I don't want to get into it now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's the point of research?

Yesterday I was writing about the vast unconscious and how it is important to try to bring the premises we reason on into our conscious, reflective mind.

One point which is not often considered consciously is the basic point of research. What is research, and why are we doing it? What is the value in it?

The answer is not simple.
We often think in terms of a correspondence theory of truth--I had a friend tell me that science was to "discover facts"; the fact that he had (and still has) a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley reveals how this theory of truth is accepted by even those with a great deal of education and intelligence. As a natural scientist there is great value in seeing the research project as one depending on a correspondence theory of truth, but as science deals with the quantum world, and many different aspects of physics, correspondence theories become more and more problematic.

If you are working in the social sciences, in literature, history, the arts and many other fields, the idea of a correspondence theory of truth will serve you less well.
The very idea of a correspondence theory of truth--indeed, the very idea of truth--has been challenged by many philosophers of reknown over the past century. Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are two famed exemplars of this general debate. It would be considered naive, I think, at this point to attempt to work with such a vision in some fields, unless one were well-prepared to acknowledge and rebut the arguments of those opposed to correspondence theories. In the absence of a correspondence theory, one must seek some other theory on which to base research--undersanding other theories of research, e.g., hermenutics or phenomenology, can help bring focus to the purpose of research.

By bringing into conscious discussion the premises on which you base your research, and on which you write it up, ou being to develop a basis on which your whole work can be structured in a coherent fashion. By understanding what the purpose of your research is, and by understanding what you are trying to show, and how you hope to show it, you build a framework for presenting the work, and for working in the different pieces necessary to make the research proejct work as a whole.

I can't answer the question of what research is for you, because I think that different kinds of research will have different purposes. If you can give a clear purpose for the work, it can often help stay away from questions of epistemology--for example, if you assert that your research is intended to help clinicians work with a certain population, you don't need to worry about theories of truth. Or if you are going to develop an algorithm, or some technological device; or if you're doing any of a number of things, you can focus directly on your immediate purpose.

On the other hand some projects have a much more difficult time stating a purpose. For example a history. What is the purpose of a history? Especially we might ask what is the purpose of a history, when we know that histories inevitably reflect the historian's concerns? Having an understanding of what the purposes of other writers in history can help--how are these other writers grounding their work and giving it a sense of purpose? We can always present a history as a cautionary tale, or an educational study that helps us understand situations that we want to ameliorate. Or we could take a history as a story that educates us about a population: what are these people like and why? In that context, we might look at a piece of evidence as suggestive of ideas and attitudes that we have no direct evidence of--thus we might look at a bureaucracy and its policies as indicating or suggesting certain motives. We might not be able to substantiate the existence of the motive, but we can still infer it and indicate how the evidence is suggestive. Such techniques might please some and infuriate others. But my main point returns: as we make ourselves consciously address the question "what's the point of research?," we begin to have answers that can help us structure our research and writing efforts. To the extent that we develop a scholarly understanding that generates a theory of research, we can save ourselves from losing time wondering what it is that we're trying to do, ad we can also give ourselves an understanding that helps us explain our intentions to others--and sometimes a good verbal explanation can really change how your professor reads your work.

What I really care about (confessional 2)

What do I really care about? There's a lengthy answer to that question. And I'm not clear on the details. That's why I decided to start another blog.

This blog is about writing and about academic work. And these are things that I really do care about, especially the parts that are about learning to interact in new ways with your writing, because I have struggled with writer's block myself. This blog has been an integral part of my working on my relationship with writing. Especially important has been learning to be willing to release a piece of work that is imperfect. In the context of blogging, I have allowed myself a great deal of lenience in presenting to the public work that has basically not been edited in any way, and has been often left incomplete.

The result has happily been that I feel much more comfortable writing. For all the mastery I had before, the constant, regular practice has only served to give me greater ease. I'm having so much fun, in fact, that I have been feeling like writing more.

The focus on writing in this blog doesn't address larger issues that I see in the world around me. Its focus guides me away from philosophical speculation and the development of random ideas; it discourages flights of fancy; it discourages questions of morals, and values; it has no place for questions of most everything in the world around. I believe in focus. I believe it's important to keep focus, so this blog is going to stay focused, but there are a lot of things other than writing that I care about.

I invite you to take a look.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The vast unconscious

I was thinking about writing a little about the difference between quantitative and qualitative studies, but then I regressed thinking about where to start. How do you talk about different types of research without having a good foundation on what research is about? And then I thought: how can I talk about research without setting a foundation of what knowledge is? And then I thought, how can I talk about knowledge without talking about the human cognitive system. I figured that would be a good starting place, though I could have regressed further. Logically speaking there is no clear point at which to stop regression, but that's beside the point. Here I am, considering the vast unconscious.

What is unconscious, are the basic ideas that bind how we see our world. We all adhere to some philosophy; most of us, however, simply accept a basic philosophy without examining it. For example, it is common to believe in a "real world". This is a basic ontological position that has been disputed by philosophers throughout the ages, but the person on the street most likely has a simpler view of this: they accept unconsciously the existence of a real world. Similarly, most people who have not studied issues of epistemology probably believe that knowledge is basically governed by what is called a "correspondence theory of truth": they believe that the truth of a statement or concept depends on whether it accurately reflects the real world.

We reason in terms of such deep understandings of the world. But philosophy, and academe (in which the traditional doctorate in many fields is the doctor of philosophy), the goal is to make such presumptions explicit and then to test them. Now, of course, at some point we choose not to question further, and we accept an understanding--a presumption that we accept as axiomatic. I accept the presumption that there is a real world--though I have consciously examined the idea and recognized weaknesses in the ability to prove the existence of a real world, it does not seem to me sensible or practical to reject the presumption that there is a real world.

Relying on such unconscious principles can cause problems when working in academia. In particular, understanding research and research principles is greatly facilitated if we can bring unconscious beliefs, like that of a correspondence theory of truth, into our conscious reasoning. Having a conscious understanding of these beliefs provides a good foundation from which to reason. If we reason from a conscious understanding of what the general project of research is about, it is easier to design a sound research project and to find a project that suits your interests.

Sadly, we often don't have a good understanding of these deep ideas. Research is often conducted on the basis of models: we imitate the research ideas of others. While this is a very effective technique in some ways--there is definitely value in modeling the behavior of others--it is also a technique that can hinder the writing up of a work, and can hinder your explanation of why you have arrived at a specific research method: "I copied someone else's research" isn't the strongest of arguments (it's not the weakest, either, but that's beside the point).

Of course, it takes time to make these things conscious, and to understand the issues at hand. But it seems to me that a researcher will facilitate his or her efforts by having a clear idea of the philosophical premises that they are trying to realize: what makes an argument strong and what doesn't?