Friday, February 29, 2008

When to change

I was thinking about a potential client who had told me basically "I don't have time to change my process or my relationship with my work."

I suppose that there are times when you just have to push through with what you know and what you can do, rather than trying to improve the way you go about things.
Obviously, if things are going well, there's little motivation to change. And if you need to finish something by tomorrow, or even by next week, you probably ought to continue striving within your current skill set. But the farther in the future your deadline, the better the opportunity to try to improve your process.

Maybe that's the almost the same as saying that we should be striving to improve ourselves as we go through life. After all, if your time frame for your project is six months or a year, that's a long time in which to insist that you can make no gains, especially if you're having trouble making gains at present.

Whatever difficulties we face, we always stand to make our life better if we can improve our abilities to deal with different situations.

This feels like obvious platitudes to me, I suppose. And yet, it's not really something you hear all that often.

Part of the issue at hand is how to evaluate the time in which it is possible to make changes. The more optimistic you are about your ability to change yourself, the more likely you are to try to make changes. I'm pretty optimistic about our ability to change.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What problems do people have with their dissertations?

Apparently, about half of the people who start dissertation programs don't finish. It's not new research, but I'm trying to compile my own list of problems--my own perspective--to guide my efforts.

Also, I just like classifying stuff.
Generally I would break the world of problems up as follows:
1. psychological -- mental habits or emotional issues that interfere with writing
2. physiological/medical
3. personal/non-academic--stuff like having to support yourself, care for family, etc.
4. interpersonal/academic --problems with the faculty committee
5. theoretical -- a poorly thought-out study can be very difficult to work on
6. practical/academic -- a well-thought out study can present practical limitations that prevent completion--being over-ambitious can be a problem here.

Off the top of my head that about covers it. I think it probable that most dissertation writers may have more than one of these problems.

Being able to understand the problems can be useful in making a plan to get done with the dissertation.

What problems are you having?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Knowing when not to talk

I've always appreciated silence. I've always appreciated people who know when to talk, and when not to. Conversation need not be simply a constant chatter.
Conversation could be about listening to each other and giving a level of information appropriate to what has been asked. Or what is desired.

Thinking about it now, I wonder whether that is not one of the crucial measures of what makes a conversation work: that the two interlocutors give each other a good amount of information and conversation. I know that my most frustrating conversations are those where I cannot get a good amount from the other person--whether too much or too little.

I had a professor once who said "If you're brilliant, dare to be brief."
I've also heard it suggested that silence can be mistaken for wisdom. At the least, if you don't talk much, you create fewer opportunities to say something stupid. Which is, of course, balanced by the reduction in opportunities to say something wise.

Sometimes it's important to be able to speak and speak well. And to speak with confidence. Feedback is important; communicating and creating connections is important.

In this, too, balance is crucial. We have to know when to talk and when not to talk.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Balance (I've been here before)

There's a fine line that we wish to walk--between persistence and adaptation, between the new and the old, between rigidity and flexibility.

It seems to me that one of the most difficult things to accomplish in life is finding that balance between the alternatives.

Life doesn't present us with black and white at all times. Sure, some decisions are clear; we know we want one and not the other.
But so many things are not: where is the clear line to draw in many of our day to day decisions? Caution vs. decision; due diligence vs. impulse Our interpersonal interactions are rarely clear cut.

Finding the balance point between the two alternatives is a trick that I'm still working on. If you have any insight, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

little did I think...

..when I posted on Friday that I had opened the flood gates by missing a day of blog posting. But obviously I had--perhaps because I had taken my time to recognize my failure I was more willing to let that failure compound. At least such as the failure was.

Well, we all have failures sometimes. Perfection is elusive.
One important question is what we do following a...well, I don't really want to call them "failures", because the word carries such negative connotations that it becomes its own weight. Such re-labeling bothers me a little, because I believe there is importance in calling a spade a spade: we have to call 'em the way we see 'em in order to be honest. And we have to be able to recognize that we may not have gotten the results that we wanted.

At the same time, there's no use crying over spilled milk. We have to be able to move past the results we didn't want in order to get the results we do want. If we let a failure stop us, then we are stuck with the results of a failure. If, instead, we look at that failure as a set of results that were not the results we wanted, then we can see that event--that failure, if you must use such language--as a step in the process of moving towards your goals.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Opening the flood gates

Once you have changed a pattern, change can come more quickly and easily.
I was thinking, as I opened this post, about how I had missed a day after blogging everyday for some forty days in a row, and how only two days later I missed posting again. When we're trying to create a habit that is challenging--for example writing something on our dissertation or other writing project everyday--and we fail to maintain a high standard we have kept for ourselves (or at least a standard that is strict, like to do something every day)--it then becomes easy to let it slip. Once the gates of "It's OK that I didn't do it" have been opened, they are hard to close again. Harder, perhaps, because the strict purity we had sought has been violated, and once violated, purity is hard to find recover.

It is, I think, a losing state of mind to let the lost purity keep you from the continued striving. Or maybe that's better stated that the focus on the lost purity itself is the cause of giving up the effort. It becomes the excuse for failure. It's easier, on some levels, to spend your time blaming yourself for the lost purity and lamenting it, than it is to get moving again.

But if you let the little failures keep you from pushing forward, then how difficult it is to find success! After all, is it not crucial for success that you press on? I wonder whether the difference between long-term success and long-term failure is nothing more than the response to the minor setbacks along the way.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's easier to do the work than to think about it

A friend of mine wrote me that yesterday in reference to some projects she had in hand. It's not always true, but there is a real nugget of truth in it.

It surely depends on the work, to some extent. But when the work has to be done, it seems like it's better to take care of business than to deal with the ramifications of not doing it.

Whatever the difficulty of a work project that you have already chosen to undertake, if you have chosen to do it and are not seeking some alternative course of action, then to sit down to it and persevere through it's difficulties seems like the only course of action that can hold off the negative self-criticism that often accompanies unfinished business.

One thing about this realization is that, if you're in the pattern of letting fear of work stop you from working, no matter how much you can see the truth of this claim, it's easy to forget it and procrastinate. Fear of work is so much more visceral than this realization that doing the work actually is the most effective way of reducing the fear.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ambition and Vision

A thought related to my constant search for meaning. If you feel that your work is ambitious, it is more likely to have meaning.

There's a huge emotional difference between writing something that is ambitious--a project difficult to achieve, but one which has an aim that seems noble in some way--and something that is just an attempt to satisfy a requirement or an attempt to jump through a hoop.

I'm not talking about ambition beyond the project--though that can be a valuable emotion--I'm talking about a vision of the project that is ambitious--for example a project that presents a novel perspective, a project that reveals something that has not been expressed in the literature before.

It can be deadening to think that your project is meaningless; it can reduce motivation. This is balanced against increased ease in managing the project.

By contrast, it can be enlivening and encouraging to think that your project may be meaningful. This is balanced against the project typically being more meaningful.

I say that the part of wisdom is to accept the challenge and to strive for the more meaningful and more ambitious result.. While the chances of failure may be higher, this is not certain. Meanwhile the chances of getting a rewarding outcome are significantly increased.

Consider this from the long run. You have taken your project as far as you were going to take it and moved on to another project. Ten years have passed.
Which outcome gives you the most satisfaction? To have strived at an ambitious project and failed? Or to have succeeded at a project that you think is trivial? There's not a lot of reward in having succeeded in a project that doesn't challenge you and that you feel bad about. Yes, there may be real rewards to having gotten a degree-it may have given you a job, etc.--but are there also not real rewards that may accrue from having attempted and failed a challenging project? Can not increased self-confidence come from having attempted and failed an ambitious project? Which project is going to do more to increase usable skills and self-confidence? The answer is, at best, uncertain. Certainly arguments could be forwarded to argue either position. Given that each person lives differently, there seems to be little chance of predicting such outcomes with certainty.
The flip side is that I have compared two unequal results. On the one side, I have compared the success of working on a simple project with the failure of working on a difficult one. But that is assuming that working on the hard project leads to failure and working on the easy project leads to success. This is far from certain. Firstly, it is possible that you will succeed on the ambitious project. Obviously, this would be the most rewarding outcome. It is not a possible outcome of working on a project you don't care about. Secondly, it is possible that you would fail at the easy project. This would be the worst possible outcome; it is not possible if you choose the ambitious project. There is no guarantee that a project that seems easy, prima facie, will actually turn out to be without problems. There is also no guarantee that if you take on the ambitious project that it will be difficult; it is uncertain what outside factors might come to your aid, and what perceived difficulties will have a simple solution when the time is right to resolve them.

We could also consider this from the short run: which project will be more rewarding to work on? The one that you don't care about or the one that you do?

I have argued for ambition. I know that ambition probably carries a greater burden of fear. I know that I have not been particularly ambitious in my own life. This is partly what motivates me to suggest that ambition is better. I can look back at my ambitionless youth and say with a certain degree of confidence that if I were to do it again, I would choose a path of ambition and failure. I know that as I move forward in my life, I am choosing to take on more ambition. We'll see how that works out when I finish the book proposal I'm working on now.


It occurred to, as I was writing my previous post about missing a day that, by simply staying up an hour or so longer, I could post for a second day in a row. I had written something for the blog when I was away from an internet connection, so I had something ready, but then I was thinking about how one can play with technicalities.

Last night, just after midnight, I remembered that I had forgotten to write a blog post. It was, perhaps, a technicality working against me, but tonight I was able to use a technicality for me, so that I didn't have to think about blogging tomorrow, too.

I suppose it's a strong puritan ethic that suggests to me that the right thing to do is to always let the technicality work against you--that it's somehow cheap to use a technicality in your favor. Certainly there's something to be said for not cheating the spirit of a regulation. But sometimes technicalities work against one, too. And in that case the spirit of the regulation shouldn't be cheated, either.
The leaves a certain ambivalence towards technicalities.

I suppose that inasmuch as this blog is aimed at writers, especially dissertation writers, there should be some connection to writers. But what point? I'm ambivalent about technicalities. One doesn't want to let them interfere with progress, so it makes sense to manage them as best possible.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Missed a day

Well, I spaced out on the blog yesterday--just thinking of other things.
So much for consistency. Or at least, so much for extreme consistency.

It's important to be able to recognize that the more restrictive your intentions are, the harder they are to fulfill and the more binding they become. There are times and places to be hardcore about sticking to a principle.

But if you fail to live up to that principle, it should be enough to deal with whatever consequences ensue from that failure. One need not punish oneself for the failure beyond any such consequences. What good does punishment do? The question ought to be what you're going to do in the future to make your situation (and the situation of any who rely on you) better.

So I missed a day. The first one in over a month. It's not an incredible feat of consistency, but what can I do about it now? I can only strive to surpass it. I can only strive to continue to regularly write.

The same is true for any writer. We set goals for ourselves as writers, and sometimes we make them and sometimes we don't. How we choose to respond when we don't make our goals has an immense influence on our long-term successes. We can cry over the spilled milk of our failure. Or we can strive to clean up the milk and refill the glass. It's our choice.

In his book "Pulling Your Own Strings," Dr. Wayne Dyer says "You can victimize yourself by wallowing around in your own past." Dyer talks about bigger things than missing a day of work that you had detailed for yourself, but the principle is the same. He points out the choice between dwelling--"wallowing" in his words--on the past, and trying to do something for the future.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Writing about your writing

Today I've been making good progress on a book project that I have been imagining. And these book projects, they're so much harder to bring to fruition than they are to imagine. I don't know yet if I'll be able to make this draft I'm working on into the thing that I was hoping--I'm still searching around for the right manner of presentation and the right voice--not to mention that I'm not even sure of the audience.

Anyway, because I've spent plenty of time sitting in front of the computer working on that project, I've not also gotten around to this blog. I was thinking of blowing it off, but what the heck...a little more writing practice won't hurt, and this is nothing more than a little journaling, now.

If you can write about your writing project, and about what you're trying to accomplish, that can help with the actual draft.

So stepping back from the draft can be quite useful. You can think about what you're doing and how it meshes. I'm doing a little of that now as I write, but actually I'm writing about writing about writing, I'm not writing about the writing that I'm doing.

I'm a firm believer about getting an idea of what you're doing, and then using that vision to help you move forward. When you write about your writing, you help develop your vision of the project you're trying to create. And by developing that vision, you can act with greater focus and efficiency in moving towards your desired outcome. I recently was interacting with someone who was telling me that they didn't have time for that kind of stuff. I think that's a mistake.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What will you do next?

This is always the right question to ask. Always, in whatever we are doing, where ever we are in life, whatever our circumstance, we can profit from asking this of ourselves: "What will I do next?". We can also ask it of others--when we want, need or hope they will do something. Mainly it's a good question to ask yourself.

When you're feeling down: well, what will you do next? It's a great question that helps you refocus on possibilities and the things you hope for in your life.

When you're stuck in your writing: well, what are you going to write about next? One can get lost or overwhelmed by thinking about how big a project may be, but if yu focus on what you're gong to do next (in an immediate sense), you can make some incremental progress.

We can ask "what will I do next" on the large scale or the small. We can make plans for the next decade, the next year, the next month, the next week, the next day, the next hour or the next minute. It's difficult to make plans for the next second unless you think really fast. If you're getting stuck because you answered what to do next on one level, you can always try answering on a different level--smaller, more immediate levels are usually easier to answer.

It's a good practice to ask this question repeatedly, because as we learn from our actions we may want to revise our plans. The ability to revise our plans can be crucial in learning to overcome obstacles and in learning o break out of negative repetitive patterns.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New perspectives of the process

Sometimes it can help to look at things in a new way.
I was talking with a friend of mine today and he always challenges me to look at things in a new way. It can be frustrating--I say the sky is blue and he'll say "no, it's green." Well, he's not quite that contrarian, but he does always push the buttons. The best time to call him, of course, is when things look bad because if you say things look bad he'll reflexively say "things are great." And what can be better than to be reminded of that at moments when we're focused on the difficulties in our lives? He can be frustrating as hell, but I learn a lot from him. He calls people who cause frustration "zen masters" because of the lesson that you can learn if you approach that person in the right way.

This mirrors an anecdote told by my yoga teacher--I don't remember the details really, but the gist of it involved an old man who had caused someone frustration and how they had realized, through the encounter, the importance of accepting others. After all, what really could we want to learn more than to deal with difficulty with equanimity?

New perspectives can be hard to assimilate; they can be frustrating because they don't match your own vision. They often seem unreasonable. But what a great value they have. Especially if you're stuck on a project. Often being stuck is a result of perspectives that are inhibiting progress; what better way to resolve the problem by working with a new perspective? And not all new perspectives are radically different; some significant changes can be subtle.

It might be argued that getting stuck is caused by a failed perspective. You say "this is the way to proceed." But that means of proceeding doesn't move you forward, and you end up in the same position you were the day before, or worse.

I believe in persistence. I believe that sticking to the effort, and trying to move forward even when there seems to be little progress, are necessary to complete a difficult process. But that doesn't mean that learning during the process is out of the question. We should try to learn as we go, to refine our understanding of what we do, and to refine our ability to do it. Edison said it was 99% perspiration. But that doesn't mean that from trial to trial he didn't try new things. Yes, he was working towards a single vision, perhaps. But he also was refining his process from attempt to attempt; each attempt necessarily suggested new ways to try and things to adapt and change in order to accomplish the desired end.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Force yourself to write, even when you don't have anything to say

Over the past few days I've been writing about how I have nothing to say in this blog. I do want to keep posting something consistently. But some days I have a lot more to say than others. Over the last few days, most of what I've been thinking about with respect to my clients has been along lines that I've already written about in the recent past. This makes me feel like I'm stagnating.

But even in this situation, it's is worth it to rewrite and to keep trying to write. It's always possible that I'll find some felicitous expression that is superior to ones I've used previously. Or perhaps I'll find a perspective that I had not previously noticed.

By forcing yourself to write--whatever you choose to write about--you develop your familiarity with the writing process and you get to practice quieting that internal censor who may be keeping you from writing.

Obviously, this is not a comment that is speaking to those of us who write constantly and copiously.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Knowing when to say you don't know.

Another day I didn't know what to write about.
And so, I thought I'd say a few words about knowing when to say you don't know. I did discuss this idea last week (Feb. 3, "Confidence and Ignorance"), but hopefully I'll say something different this time.

The fact of the matter is that we don't know everything. Being able to know when we don't know is itself valuable.

Honesty is a virtue that people appreciate. If you're willing to admit that you don't know, then at least people will accept your honesty. When you try to bullshit your way through a situation when you don't know, this can be detected. Which danger would you rather face: being thought ignorant, or being thought a liar? It ain't an easy choice.

But, for myself at least, knowing that I'm not ignorant, and that I'm not omniscient, I'd rather risk being thought ignorant.

And sometimes, when I don't know what to say, I'd rather risk being thought of a having nothing to say; that would be a belief that I could remedy. I'd rather it be thought that I know when not to talk.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Quality isn't cheap. To get a good result you have to pay with effort. But for some reason, people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars to receive a degree, or more, balk at the idea of spending another one or two thousand. I understand the difficulty in finding money to pay for services, but sometimes saving money doesn't end up saving money. My services are not particularly cheap. But they're not particularly expensive, either. My clients finish their degrees, usually quickly. How much is it worth to finish one semester sooner? Despite the cost of an additional term, and despite the fact that my services are usually less than one term's fees, I get responses, often, that are downright comic. I have a doctorate, great references and credentials, and some people think I'm going to work for $10 an hour. I find it amusing. I'd find it less amusing if there weren't also people who understand that a good editor can make a big difference.

What is a good editor worth, if that editor helps you file on time and save a semester, or more?
What is that editor worth if he (or she) strengthens your work?
It's a lot easier to calculate the first than the second.

We have to pay for value, whatever we do. This is the principle of opportunity cost that I've mentioned in previous posts (or at least in one post): whatever we choose to do, we surrender the opportunity to have done something different. If we want something of quality, such things regularly cost a lot of money to buy or take a lot of effort to make.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

So wrote Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance."

"With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do....speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon-balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day."

I was thinking of this because I had promised myself that I would write in this blog every day, but I had nothing to say today. At first this bothered me. I like to be consistent; at least I like to live up to my commitments--even if only to myself. Then I thought of Emerson's quote. That relieved me of the need to write in this blog. It also, however, gave me something I could write about.

I was thinking about how we make commitments to ourselves to do one thing or another, or we make a commitment to others. And then sometimes circumstances dictate that we do otherwise. Maybe writing in this blog everyday isn't necessary. At least, if there is some reason that I cannot write in it, then that commitment should not force me into a foolish consistency.

But Emerson's quote does not suggest that all consistency is useless. Only a "foolish consistency." I imagine that by this he means that we should be able to learn or to decide, for whatever reason that we were wrong. In my case, writing in this blog could become a foolish consistency. But I do not deem the attempt to be consistent foolish if the only obstacle is that I have nothing to say. As it happens, I usually have something to say if I put myself to find something. It is not a foolish consistency to commit oneself to working on a project consistently, even in the face of some obstacles to such work. But by the same token, it is a foolish consistency to force a writing project if a real conflict comes up.

As we learn, we may discover that we have committed to things that we should not have committed to. In such a case we must relinquish consistency in order to satisfy wisdom.

Emerson's full sentence is "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." I usually refrain from political commentary, but in this context, I will note something that amazed me: John Kerry, in the 2004 US presidential election, was vilified for "flip-flopping" and "waffling". It seems to me absurd to assume that all statesmen and all politicians hold to the position that they initially take and express publicly. One would hope that politicians are smart enough to learn. For example, one would hope that politicians, on learning that they had been relying on bad information (whether through failure to find the truth or intention to mislead), would be able to admit the mistake and plot a new path.

There is a difficult conundrum, however. To persist in any course of action that is obviously failing seems like a truly foolish consistency, but how do we know that a course of action is failing? As writers, or as politicians, or in any other role we may take, we are faced with complex situations and assessing whether the courses of action we have chosen are failing can be quite difficult. As writers we may write and write and write and feel that our product is not up to the standards we hold. Is that a sign that we will never get there and that our chosen course of action is not working? Or is it possible that the breakthrough that might be expected from putting in hard work is just around the corner? How many light bulbs did Edison test before he made one that worked? What if he had given up sooner? Persistence and consistency are both blessing and curse; they may lead to success or they may lead us to doom. It is not easy to know which. And that, I suppose, is where wisdom comes in: we wish for the wisdom to make the right choice and to know when consistency is serving us and when it is not. Paired with a foolish consistency is a foolish inconsistency: we are liable to both.

But perhaps the foolishness lies in attempting to adhere simply to a principle without being sensitive to different situations: we ought not be consistent just for the sake of being consistent, just as we should not change simply for the sake of changing. We should have reasons beyond such simplistic principles to guide and inform us.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Discovery and a sense of purpose

As a final (I think) follow up to my previous discussion, I think it worth noting that writing is often a process of discovery: Sometimes we don't have a clearly defined sense of purpose for our writing when we start.

Or, at the least, we don't have a clearly defined specific thesis for the work that we are attempting to create. And this is something slightly different than a sense of purpose.

A sense of purpose, as I'm thinking of it here, is a sense of something to be accomplished, a sense that there is something important going on that needs to be addressed. A clearly defined specific thesis on the other hand, is just that: clearly defined.

It is to be hoped that we can start with a sense of purpose and move towards a clearly defined thesis. This is, in a way, the ideal dynamic because it means that our writing is motivated, but it also means that we have not simply imposed our ideas on a project with no openness to discovery. And discovery is important--it is a crucial part of the academic process, and is, in fact, the very reason for the academic process.

But a sense of purpose need not be clearly defined: it can still usefully motivate coherent work. And the internal, personal truth of having a sense of purpose cannot be replaced. We benefit from having some idea that our work is important and that it is striving towards a goal. The fact that we will want to define that sense of purpose more clearly as we proceed does not eliminate its importance as a starting place.

A dissertation is not simply a repetition of the woks of others. It is intended to bring new ideas to the world--new information, new interpretations, new responses--something new. And that, in itself, is an abstract sense of purpose that can be defined in the process of writing--which is, as I've said above, a process of discovery.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Sense of Purpose (3)

Following on the thoughts of the last two days, there's still a little more to add (but only a little).
The sense of purpose starts in us. Whether we're talking about the meaning of a sentence, the meaning of a paragraph, the meaning of a paper (or dissertation) or the meaning of our life, it starts in us.

It starts with things that we care about, with things that move us emotionally.
Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" develops a school of psychotherapy based on the idea that if we find meaning in our life, then we will be able to maintain a positive emotional state.

If we look outside ourselves for that meaning, then we are at the mercy of outside forces. If we find it in ourselves, then we're able to find stability even when outside situations change.

For obvious reasons, this is crucial in writing a dissertation and in life, in general. If we write our dissertation on the premise that we will find meaning by finishing it, or because we hope to please our readers, there's little positive emotional force behind it. If, on the other hand, we write it because we care about what we are writing, the force drives us.

When writing my dissertation, I felt despair when I focused on the hurdles to pleasing others and the slim hopes of getting published. When I focused on my belief that I had something worth saying for its own sake, I was able to push forward. time and again with my clients, I have noted how their ability to work changes as they bring themselves back into touch with a sense of purpose for their work and a sense of having something to say that is not just an academic exercise, but that touches on the ideas and issues they find most important in life.

So, to wrap up, find your sense of purpose--for your sentences, for your paragraphs, for your dissertation and your life. Don't let others reduce these things to interpersonal games; hold tightly to your sense that you're doing something you care about--that way you won't feel like you're spending your time becoming emotionally impoverished.

Hopefully this isn't too repetitive of what I've written in the last two days.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Sense of Purpose (2)

Yesterday I got on the track of thinking about sense of purpose because of a book on academic writing I've been looking at (or "at which I've been looking" for you sticklers). I ended up writing about a large and personal sense of purpose--the sense of purpose that might have brought you into the academic world; a sense of purpose that might be considered a cause; something topically specific. But there are other senses of purpose.

The book, "Academic Writing" by Janet Giltrow, says things about writing that...well, they're insightful, in their own way, but I also think they're impoverished in other ways. The book has a strong bent along the lines of post-modern theory, where meaning, knowledge, etc. are social artifacts. I tend to agree with this idea, to an extent. Meaning, knowledge, ideas and the rest are not just social artifacts. There are intensely and internally personal aspects to ideas.

Giltrow opens her book arguing that "style is meaningful" (p.9), a claim I agree with. But meaningful in what way? It appears to me that Giltrow, like many who are concerned with post-modern theory, seems to put aside or ignore the possibility that there is something beneath the social conventions. I may be misrepresenting Giltrow here, but my point is not to critique her work, but rather to talk about a sense of purpose. At one point Giltrow writes "academic readers are familiar with...features of style...they use these features in their own writing; they expect to see them in other people's scholarly writing" (p.94). But is there a reason that we use features of style other than that people expect them? Of course, we do use style so that we can reach the audience we want, but at the same time is that the only reason that we use style? I would argue that it is not. I would argue, in fact, that the expectations of others are only secondary to very specific intentions behind scholarly activity.

Scholarly activity, I would argue, is ultimately aimed at improving the world around us. The search for knowledge is not just an abstract search for truth; indeed, if you believe that truth is a socio-political construct, as argued by many, then the search for knowledge must be motivated by something other than finding Truth (with a capital "T" as William James would write it when discussing pragmatist philosophy). We write scholarly works, I would argue, because we believe that scholarly knowledge is ultimately useful. Our scholarly writing styles are related to this aim. In particular they're developed so that scholarly readers can decide whether the argument presented is one that they want to accept and use in their own scholarly work, which, at some point down the line, can be applied in a productive manner.

In the passage I quoted, Giltrow is talking about reporting the speech (and ideas) of others. We don't just report the ideas of others because other scholars expect us to, but rather because those other scholars provide the foundation on which our own work is built, or they provide the starting point from which we take off, or they provide a foil to our own work. We don't just use the work of other scholars because that makes us sound scholarly; we use the work of other scholars because they shaped the way we think, and because we want to make our work believable and those other scholars help provide the foundation for why we accept the idea. Take Marxist theory. A Marxist can write things based on the premises that Marx used, such as the class dialectic, and we don't expect that particular theorist to prove that the class dialectic operates. Whether or not we believe Marx's theories, those theories certainly provide a responsible scholarly starting point. But more to the point: the Marxist doesn't rely on Marx's reasoning because of expectations, but because of a personal sense that Marx is right, a personal and internal belief that Marx's theories are important. You could replace Marx as the exemplar with any philosopher or other theoretical school and the content of that argument would remain the same.

As a dissertation writer you may have to write a literature review chapter (especially if you're writing a standard five-chapter empirical study). If you write the literature review because your chair and faculty committee expect you to, that's an impoverished sense of purpose. You should write the literature review because you have an idea of what you are doing and why you are doing it that is dependent on some sources. The literature review provides the intellectual framework in which you are doing your own work.

In order to set up a solid study that advances our understanding of the world, we want a foundation--a logical foundation that makes our ideas coherent within themselves. One way to do this is to do it on our own--to make specific assertions about the premises on which we work and to test and then demonstrate the validity and strength of these premises. Another way to do this is to start from premises defined by others and use them as a working point. And this is where using the ideas of others come in. As has been noted, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The use of the giants is not to satisfy some social expectation about how we talk/write; the use of the giants is for our own intellectual grounding.

If you believe that you're reporting on the work of others simply to please some reader, then you're working from an intellectually impoverished foundation--a random assortment of ideas wired together without rhyme or reason in hopes they might support us. Instead we should use ideas with purpose. We want to have an intellectually sound foundation because it helps us see better; the works we cite are the ones that shape that foundation. This is personal and internal; this is about developing a sense of purpose about what our intellectual and philosophical beliefs and questions are.

If you talk about the work of, for example, Michel Foucault, because you think others will expect that, that's one sense of purpose for your use of his ideas. But if you talk about Michel Foucault because his theories shape and guide the research you're doing, that's a very different sort of sense of purpose.

Yes, I agree that knowledge is socially constructed, but I also believe that we are all internally driven by a sense of our own truth (the "experiential truth" that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson speak of in "Philosophy in the Flesh"). If we can follow this internal sense of truth, then we have a sense of purpose. If we are merely following what we think are social norms, that's a very different thing.

This little essay turned out to be somewhat more than I wished and somewhat less. More, because I couldn't find a way to boil the ideas down into fewer words. Less because I think the logic of the argument isn't as well developed as it could be.

The problem here is that, on one level, the argument is about the very nature of knowledge. Giltrow's position is in alignment with a large body of scholarly thought. I don't agree with that body of thought (largely because of my reliance on a different body of thought--especially the influence of Lakoff and Johnson). To try to resolve the debate between these schools of thought is far outside the scope of this work. I have tremendous respect for thinkers whose work use such theories, and heavily relied on insights from my reading of philosophers like Foucault and Derrida.

But, if you're feeling lost in your own work, if you're feeling that your literature review is only there to satisfy the expectations of others, I urge you to reconsider this position. How is your literature review an expression of your sense of academic purpose? Look inside yourself to try to find a role for the ideas of others--did they inspire you? offend you? Do you agree? disagree? In what ways? If you have a sense of purpose, a sense of building a careful foundation for your ideas, that sense of purpose can help you as a writer because you write with direction provided by your own intellect rather than writing with direction provided by your attempt to please another person.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Sense of Purpose

Academic writers often lose their sense of purpose.
Many of us start an academic program with a real sense of purpose--not just to get a degree, not just to become a professor, but because we believe in something, and we believe that understanding things better, and sharing that understanding will help us effect change in the world. We may believe that the increase in knowledge is itself valuable.

Yes, there are those in professional programs who are only writing because they want the degree. I work with a lot of people who want to practice as clinical psychotherapists, and I understand that these people are not hoping to be researchers, but simply want the right to work with individuals. And there are others writing academic works in similar roles. This little essay is not for them, though I think that even such folks would benefit from being able to find a sense of purpose in what they write.

But for those who are interested in being researchers, for those who had a sense of purpose when they started, to lose that sense of purpose is a great shame. It happens often enough. The limits of academic practice make it difficult to achieve grand visions. And then we struggle with the demands of those involved in the process that we need to satisfy (our professors, especially). And not only is it a great shame to lose that sense of purpose, it is a great hindrance to our attempts to move forward.

A sense of purpose is crucial in finding motivation. If you have come to the point where you feel that you're writing only to satisfy your professors and only to get a degree, that is an emotionally draining situation. Work in that environment is a burden and only a burden; there is little sense of worth in pursuing the work.

A sense of purpose also helps in finding direction and coherence for your work. If you have a sense of purpose for your work, that helps keep all the pieces together. Instead of merely going through the motions of academic work and trying to piece together a set of paragraphs or pages or chapters that create a complete work, with a sense of purpose one writes towards a goal: the pieces are not just different discussions stuck together to create some formalism--an appropriate number of chapters, for example--instead they hold together in pursuit of the purpose. Each piece is motivated by something greater than simply the formalism. Each piece is motivated by the sense of purpose. This creates coherence. It also makes it easier to see what to write: you're not just writing to write, you're writing to create a whole that accomplishes something.

If you had a sense of purpose once, and you've lost it, this little essay is a call to put aside the cynicism, to rediscover that sense of purpose and to put it to work for you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Today is Mardi Gras.
One thing that can get lost in the focus on finishing a piece of work is the need to be able to put it aside for a time. Focus is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be a problem. Sometimes the right thing to do is to rest; it's good to take some time off from your work. Of course this is said in the context of assuming that you are actually working.

But there are a couple of levels to this: the practical level and the emotional level. On the practical level, one needs to make progress and get work done. If one hasn't been getting work done, then there is some value in sticking to the project with the intention of getting work done. But the emotional level is different. Even if you haven't been getting work done, the constant pressure we put on ourselves is work of a sort, and it's good to take a rest from it. By setting aside time to celebrate, we open emotional space in our lives. Ideally, of course, we're diligent and then when it's time to celebrate we can put aside our work with a clear mind and a sense of satisfaction. The ideal is difficult to reach, however: diligence is easier said than done.

Ideally, we find a balance between diligence and celebration that enhances our sense of self-worth and our enjoyment of the world. There is a real role for celebration in our lives: if nothing else, celebration is something to look forward to. Enter into celebration with enthusiasm and joy, and then, when the celebration is over, you can return to your work with both diligence and a fresh mind.

And a fresh mind is important to writers--it's good to be able to look back at what we've done most recently and assess how well it works in our larger vision of what we wish to accomplish.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Speaking of feedback...

...I'd love to get feedback from people who look at this blog. Are any of the people who read this actually involved in writing dissertations? In writing anything? Is the blog useful?

When I look at the traffic on the blog (and there's not much, I must admit), it seems to come from odd sources--usually search engines using search phrases that hit my article titles--which makes me wonder about the targeting, because my titles do not often say anything about writing or dissertations. I get a lot of hits on "act confident" and on "trade-offs and opportunity cost"--neither of which are limited to the world of writing.

So if you read this and find it interesting, I'd love to hear. Please e-mail or write a comment. Thanks!

Managing People

On the subject of gatekeepers...
So, you have a dissertation that you want to finish. You have professors that you want to please. And you have professors that may frighten you, or at least set you on edge. Professors are often supportive, but to often they're not.

I just got an e-mail from a client who had written to her professor with some new work she had just completed, about which she was excited, but which indicated work that she still had to do. The professor wrote back asking: "how much of this have you done?" Her initial response was negative: "Damn it, can't he appreciate what I did?" And wouldn't it be nice if we did get appreciated for what we have accomplished? But she was able to refocus on what she wanted to get out of the relationship (which, at this point, is to get her dissertation signed), and look at what the prof was asking, and she responded with the information the prof wanted and with a schedule for finishing what was not done. I think this is the right response: try to give your professors what they want. Try to set up a feedback loop where you and your professors are working to get on the same page to finish your project.

It's pretty certain that your professors want you to finish your degree--it looks good on their record when their students graduate. So, in a way, the idea here is similar to what I was talking about in my previous post about working with an editor: try to understand the professor's motivations, but don't take the comments personally. Just try to respond with good answers. You want to remain true to ourself, but to the extent that you're remaining true to yourself, you want to give your professors what they want, too. Create a win-win situation, if possible (and please excuse my use of that common buzz phrase).

When someone gives you a hard time, you have (in the abstract, at least) a choice between an emotional reaction and a reasoned response that helps you move towards the goals that you have set for yourself. You didn't get what you wanted from some person? What can you do in the future that will help you get what you want down the road?

If you let your relationship with your professor become adversarial, it will make your task harder, and will interfere with reaching the goals that you have set for yourself. If you can take your professor's difficult responses, even if they're insulting in some way, and respond to them in accordance with a plan that helps reach your goal, isn't that optimal? Why let the emotional response, and, perhaps, the petty angst of some professor standin in the way of the goals that you want to reach for yourself?

Set yourself free of emotional dependence on their support, and work to find a reasoned response that helps you achieve the goals that you have set for yourself.

Working with an editor

Editors often have positions in which they are the gatekeeper--the one who decides whether a piece will get published or not. But that's not the case for someone working on a dissertation. The dissertation process is not set up to include editors. The gatekeeper's role is taken by the faculty committee which has to sign off on the work.

So some dissertation writers hire an editor--indeed, some schools require hiring an editor (I think the University of Phoenix is one such, though I can't, on a cursory search, find a reference to that). Some dissertation writers hire me, others express an interest in hiring me.

I wish I'd hired an editor for my dissertation despite the cost--from the research I did when writing, I figured the cost would be two to four thousand dollars. I balked at the price then, but I would have profited from it in the long run. Although I write well enough--at least I edit well enough--it's hard to get your own documents as clean as would be best. When you're too close to a piece, it's hard to see it clearly enough to pick up the minor errors that would be easily found in someone else's work.

But the key, and what I really was thinking of when starting this, is to remember the nature of your relationship with your editor. Editors want good work. When they're a gatekeeper, that may cause rejection. But when you hire an editor to help you improve your work, the only thing they're interested in is getting your work to be accepted--that is the measure of an editor doing a good job. For professional reasons, a freelance editor wants your work accepted almost as much as you do.

Which brings me to a point I cover time and again with my clients: comments and suggestions are coming from a motivation of helping you get your work accepted. If an editor says that he or she has found a weakness, the point is not to complain or to make you feel bad; the point is to help you find a way to strengthen the work.

At the same time, the editor is not necessarily an expert: it is unlikely that the editor knows the subject as well as you, so comments from the editor ought to be viewed as suggestions to be tested against your own knowledge of the work.

It's also worth noting that editors are unlikely to be making personal critiques: it's not the point to tell the client they're wrong or that they're incompetent or whatever. The point is to help the client appear in the best light when their work is read by the people whose job it is to judge the work and decide whether it is good enough for a dissertation, or for publication.

It may help to think of the editor as a surrogate audience: if you have an editor who interprets your work in a way that you find problematic, it behooves you to address that the question, because someone other than the editor might also read the work in the same way.

Editors can be fearsome gatekeepers. But if you've hired an editor to help you finish your dissertation (or other project), that editor is there to help you. By trying to learn from the editor and by trying to understand why the editor comments as he or she did, you stand the best opportunity of profiting from you work with the editor.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Confidence and Ignorance

There's an interesting blend of confidence and ignorance that comes from a place of wisdom. It can be a useful position to take in oral exams and in writing.

I'm thinking about Socrates (or at least Plato's Socrates) who, in many of the dialogues, initiates his position by claiming that he is himself ignorant in some way. A very general position of Socrates is that he starts dialogues from the position of the questioner: he asks another to explain a thing that he does not understand (or claims not to understand). This sort of questioning does not come from a place of insecurity, but rather from a place of having his own strong and clear idea of what he believes, and yet recognizing that he does not know everything.

Academic situations beg for this sort of behavior. Certainly you, the student, have learned many things, but this does not mean that you're expected to know everything. An excellent position to take is the willingness to admit the gap in your knowledge, but then to supplement this with the insight that you can bring to the question.

In writing this may mean recognizing a gap in your scholarship, or a gap in your theory, but excusing that gap because of natural limitations of time: one cannot, after all, be expected to study everything, nor to discuss everything in a written work. One has to choose boundaries to limit any work, and these boundaries ought not be viewed as faults--though they can be viewed as such--rather they ought to be viewed as the natural limitations under which we all work. And yes, you can embrace the position that you ought to know more about the subject without actually knowing more or even promising to learn more in the immediate present.

In an oral exam this may mean admitting ignorance and then attempting to deconstruct the unanswerable question in terms of what you do know: "I don't know the precise answer to the question you're asking, but here's how I would handle the issues it raises."

Sometimes, of course, a questioner will expect you to have precise knowledge. Confident in your inevitable ignorance about some subject will not suffice to satisfy a questioner who insists that you know the precise answer. But for most cases, it is not the precise knowledge that will make the difference so much as it is the ability to use information and knowledge and questions in a meaningful way. The wise person, after all, is aware of the limits of knowledge--both personal and in the abstract. We cannot know everything.

The late Horst Rittel, a professor of Design Theories and Methods at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that there is a symmetry of ignorance: no one knows what information is necessary for the completion of a project. This applies to writing projects: when you start a writing project, you do not know exactly what information will need to be included (at least not if it is a big project) in the writing.

So, in short, be confident in yourself by accepting the limits of your knowledge. By acknowledging the limits, by being aware that we all are limited, you can enter the place of ignorance without fearing that ignorance is necessarily a failing. Sure, we all want to learn more, but no matter how hard we have studied, and no matter how long we have studied, we still will not know everything.

This should not be taken as a reason to stop trying to learn more or to get a better understanding of the scholarship in your field, but it is a reason that you need not fear gaps if you have been diligent in your efforts.

Beyond this question of the breadth of our knowledge is the question of what we do with it. My experience has been that some people have a far greater familiarity with a great body of scholarship than others, but that this familiarity does not guarantee using the material in a productive fashion.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Be Prolific...

...Then you can throw away everything that you don't like an you'll still have something left over. That's the advice a friend gave me today. We were talking about writing music, but it's a principle that surely holds for all creative endeavors. Not every attempt will turn out to be good.
How many bad light bulbs did Edison make before the one that worked? By going through the motions of creating, by making the honest effort, we learn something. We may not learn enough. But writing, as I've said before, is a process by which we learn, and so every time we make a serious effort to write something down, we learn something valuable. Very often, the valuable lesson is that we haven't got it right and that what we did try isn't going to work. But that doesn't mean it's not a valuable lesson. It may well be the most valuable lesson we can learn at that moment. Learning what won't work is not to be dismissed as negative learning: it is still an increase in our understanding of what we're doing.

Yesterday I was working with a client who was complaining that when he wrote things down they didn't work. He was just starting to refine a general topic idea into a more serious, and more carefully thought-out proposal draft. But he was getting so frustrated--we would talk about the ideas, and we'd start to get some semblance of a form, and he'd want to stop and write it down. But shortly thereafter we would also see that what he had just stopped to write down wasn't going to work in some way, too. The key, I kept emphasizing, was to work on clarifying the ideas in his head--to start to try to refine and tease out the structure of the argument that he was using, so that instead of just talking around a topic and instead of just talking around a research question, he had some sense of how that research question fit into a larger body of theory and how to turn that somewhat-general research question into an actual research project. It doesn't come easy. The different ideas surrounding a topic are myriad and their interplay is complex. Working out the ideas is a necessary first step, but even then, once you've gotten an idea of what the ideas are, you still have to try to get that down on paper and that's a whole different task. After all, the ideas in our head aren't matched in form with the ideas we put down in a paper--for one thing, the ideas in our head are present and interacting simultaneously and the ideas we put down on paper have to take a specific order. If you're dealing with, for example, three different ideas and their interaction who's to say what the right order to put them on paper is? In our heads the three may all follow from and lead to each other.

So what do we do? We try to find one specific expression of putting them on paper. And then we try another. And another, and so on. In the process we refine our ideas about the concepts, and also we refine our ideas about how to present those concepts in a written form. We can't do it without trying. Sure, maybe there are some people out there who can get it all to come out right on the first try, but what proportion of the population is that? Many who have been successful have tried, and tried, and tried, and thrown away one draft after another until the final moment when they found the one that works. Therefore, be prolific--it provides you with the opportunity to throw away what isn't working because you'll find something that is working.

Friday, February 1, 2008

For the literature review: Organize your thoughts first

Writing is a process through which you begin to understand your subject better. But that doesn't mean that you don't need to spend a little time trying to organize your thoughts first.

This is especially so when you're trying to figure out what to do with a literature review. Commonly I speak with people who can't get their literature review right because they're spending their time reading article after article, and always saying that they can't figure out what to write because they need to read another article. That's not how it works.

You have to start with trying to explain what your idea is--that's the point in writing anyway, to show what your ideas are--even in a literature review chapter.

If you take time to set your ideas down--write an outline, or an abstract, of the main ideas that you want to express--then when you write, you write with a purpose. As a result your writing has coherence, direction and focus.

If you do not set your main ideas down, but instead try to write some abstract general discussion of your general topic, then you lose focus and you lose direction. Instead of writing to your own purpose, you end up trying to sequentially report on one study after another. And every study that seems good needs to be included, and there's no clear boundary on what level of detail is necessary. Thereby you lose coherence, direction and focus.

If you have a plan for what is important to you, then relevance to your specific project is a very clear guide to which studies are discussed in detail and which can be passed over in a sentence.

Literature reviews are perhaps the worst trap if you haven't taken time to organize your thoughts and make a plan for what you think is important. In a literature review chapter you're supposed to be showing familiarity with the general literature on your subject--but in reading different studies, you can end up following the ideas of those studies if you don't already have your own set purpose. And that's a problem because usually each study has its own point of view, so if you're following, you flit from idea to idea. Only by trying to commit to your own understanding and explanation of the ideas, do you get to settle on the one view that gives coherence to you work. And then, the whole academic discourse takes a new shape in the context of your own personal perspective, and your personal perspective then takes shape as you test it against the other ideas in the literature.

So organize your thoughts first, then write about what other people have written.