Monday, June 30, 2008

Construction of Meaning (2)

In the previous post I was considering the construction of meaning as a conscious effort. And there is no question that we need to dedicate our efforts to constructing good meaning that is useful to our work. But it is worth recognizing that this construction of meaning is something that will occur: it is how we think.

The following quotation is taken from the Preface to Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language:
"The literary mind is the fundamental mind. Although cognitive science is associated with mechanical technologies like robots and computer instruments that seem unliterary, the central issues for cognitive science are in fact the issues of the literary mind.
"Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection--one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere,...
"Parable is the root of the human mind--of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking."
The italics are Turner's; the boldface is my emphasis. I happen to find the book convincing, but then it fits well within the rubric of philosophy that I adopted studying with George Lakoff and Eve Sweetser at Berkeley. Lakoff and Turner co-wrote a book (More Than Cool Reason), so it is not surprising that the views fit together.
Whether you accept the premise or not is a matter of your research and study. But if we do accept this premise, what does it mean in terms of creating meaning? On one level it means that when faced with a phenomenon, we will create a story to explain it. Whether that story relies on God, or some group of gods, or simple random mechanical fate, or some highly detailed chemical process, it is still a story. How do we explain wine? We could explain it as the hand of a god touching the juice, or we could explain it in terms of fermentation processes that can be explained in great detail in chemical terms. How do we explain human creativity? Is that being touched by a god, or muse, or is it having a certain set of genes and a certain history? Or is it the effect of some unnatural stimulant?

That's really what our knowledge is: a bunch of stories about how things used to work, and how we expect them to work in the future. What is quantum physics but an attempt to make stories that explain incredibly detailed phenomena? When Newton proposed his mechanics, we had a detailed story of how the world worked. Einstein's relativity changed that story, but matched it fairly well in many respects. Einstein's relativity and the development of atomic theory began to tell us stories about atoms. I still remember some of those stories from high school science: when the salt (NaCl) is put into the water, the Na and Cl separate into ions. That's high school chemistry. But it's nothing more than a story.

We will construct meaning automatically and unconsciously. But we should also seek to construct meaning consciously. It is a place for the imagination. One wants to consider even those things that seem unlikely, and then test them. Once upon a time it seemed unlikely to most people that the earth revolved around the sun. Sherlock Holmes declared it impossible that anyone had gone through the door, but obviously for H.G. Wells it would not be impossible for a person to walk down a passage unobserved, and any number of technological possibilities could explain a door being opened without a key. As academics, of course, we don't want to tell stories that are so far from the realm of the discourse that we wouldn't be accepted, but we do want to use our imaginations to think about the different stories that are consistent with the questions we asked and the results we received. And for that matter, we just want to be able to imagine different stories that could explain a phenomenon of interest, because that consideration of different possibilities is the place where we generate the hypotheses that we can test.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Construction of Meaning

The answer may just leap out at us from the tables and graphs of evidence. We may find it somewhere in the pages of transcripts.

But whether you believe that meaning is something that exists out there in the world, or whether you believe that meaning is something that only exists when there is a thinking being thinking about it, meaning is something that will only emerge through a constructive process.
If a pattern is not immediately apparent in a set of data, that doesn't mean that the pattern is not there. The pattern may only become visible through a process of rearranging and reviewing the data many different times and many different ways. And this process of rearranging and reviewing the data requires mental effort to create different possible explanations.

Sherlock Holmes said to Watson: "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth?" What is hidden here is that the construction of the improbable theory is no simple task. Holmes continues: "We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. Whence, then, did he come?" Whence the other alternatives? We must look at the world--look at the crime scene, if you will, and look for other possibilities. These do not simply jump out at us in an obvious fashion--we have to seek explanations--stories that explain the data that we see. That explanation may be partially generated through looking at other sources, but there is a large element of this that is the individual imagination--the attempt to construct a hypothesis that fits the data at hand.

To some extent we can maybe see how this is a sort of gestalt experience: when we see four dots arranged in a square, we can see the whole square--we see the dots as related. With our data, the gestalt image may not jump out until we have created the right framework to appear: we must do constructive work in our minds just to create situations in which gestalts can appear.

But we may also want to see this as a process of creating a fiction of sorts. We look at our work as a whole as telling a coherent story--or at least that's a common expectation for a dissertation. If we practice the creation of different fictions--of alternative explanations or alternate hypotheses--we may find that some of these fictions will serve us well when we find that our data works with the hypothesis and the hypothesis has useful suggestions for future research and theoretical development.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Broken Record

I know that I repeat myself a lot. I'm working through the same ideas again and again, trying to find the best way to approach those same idea. This blog, I think, tends to run through the same set of ideas again and again. Partly that's because I keep meeting new writers who have the same old problems.

I was thinking about broken records. When a 33.3rpm phonograph recording is broken, there's enough in one groove (about 1.8 seconds) to state an entire phrase that is then repeated over and over. With a compact disc (digital) the skips are usually for such a brief time period that only a sound or a syllable is repeated. So I guess the phrase "sounding like a broken record" will drop out of language--or at least will change its meaning. ("broken record" can also refer to a Guinness-book-of type record, I guess--maybe it will take some meaning like that.)

Well, that's a digression. Anyway, I think that as a writer, you can't be afraid to repeat yourself and you can't be afraid to try again. If you don't say it right the first time, you need to work at it to get it right the next time. I keep trying.

I suppose I have something of a hope that if I say the same thing enough times I'll get bored of saying and find something else to say (rather than just going silent).

Off the subject: as I wrote I was listening to a random mix of music and Townes Van Zandt's song "To Live is To Fly" came on with this line:
"It don't pay too much to think about the things you leave behind."
This is a piece of philosophical wisdom that I work on a lot. I believe in it; it's not so easy to practice, however.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Writing is a Choice (2)

You have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to put something out there that won't be loved by others. And you have to be willing to put something out there that you may not even like yourself. So much of writing is just the willingness to get it wrong--the willingness to get it wrong and to try again.

I didn't really plan my day today and suddenly I find that if I do want to post today, I need to squeeze in a quickie before I go out. To be able to do that, I have to choose to make the time--even if it is only a ten or fifteen minute stretch in which I can write just a few lines while I wait for my friend. It's really easy to say "I don't have enough time to write something good." The truth, though, is that you can write something good in a short time--and even more importantly, if you practice writing regularly, and you choose to risk mistake or rejection, and you choose to make the time, then you will make the best possible progress in your writing practice.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

201st post

I just noticed that last night's post was my 200th. That seems like a pretty big number to me. It reminds me of how things start to add up over the course of regular practice. I have never, I think, spent more than an hour working up a post. But at the end of the day I have a lot of writing to show for it. Yeah, some of it is lame. And yeah, it is generally not structured well. And yeah, it's a whole different thing writing blog posts than writing a dissertation. But still, as you work on it, the product and the project adds up.

I actually have been working on a book about writing projects--Dave's Directions for Inditing a Delightful Dissertation is the working title--...well, not really, or at least it had not been prior to this moment when I made that up. It actually has a slight absurdity that I enjoy. "A Delightful Dissertation." Perhaps a little over the top. It sounds like the name of some turn-of-the-20th century patent medicine or traveling show. And this regular blogging has mostly been helpful. Some days the blog seems to interfere, and others the book project interferes with the blog. But more the former than the latter because it's so much easier to work on the project for which you have low expectations. This is why it's a lot easier to send e-mail to a friend than it is to write your dissertation.

Anyway, however limited the product may be--however limited in volume or in quantity--there is a growing body of work. And with it a growing ease in writing. And these are both things that I can look at and celebrate, just to appreciate my own effort. I have a habit of discounting those things that I do accomplish and focusing on my weaknesses. This is a psychological pattern that makes it easy to despair and stop working. But it's a pattern of focus--it's not destiny. By focusing on the positive of what I have accomplished, I can step into my next effort with greater enthusiasm and less fear. And my assessment of what I can accomplish is based on the actual output that I have--so I have some evidence on which to reflect.

I suppose that if I write enough posts it will be less interesting to mark the landmarks, but that's still a way in the future. Post number 300 will still feel like a landmark.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Writing is a choice

I was talking with a blocked writer and I suggested the possibility of getting writerly flow by practicing writing--by writing a little everyday. This is basically the premise of Bolker's Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Just write--something, anything, abut your dissertation--even just write the problems you're having writing. Anything just so that you write a little. The idea is that by practicing your familiarity with the writing process improves, and thus your ease of writing improves. One is to write anything at all--even "I have nothing to write"--just to get into the habit of putting ideas on paper. There is no right or wrong in such a scheme--or at least no right and wrong with respect to what you've written. You can write anything.

When I suggested this to the writer I was working with she said "But what if I don't write anything?" Writing is a choice. It is hard to write specific things, but if you can write anything at all with no prejudice as to what is written and no judgment about what is written, then writing is a choice and nothing more.

You, the writer, must sit down to the project. And you must choose to write something. But if anything written is a success, then there is nothing but the choice as to whether you will put pen to paper.

Yes, you have to choose what to write, but if you're writing for the sake of writing and practicing writing then anything that you do write is right. If you can't think of anything else to write, you can always write "I can't think of anything to write." That's where it start--by writing anything at all, by recording your thoughts--whatever they are--on the page.

If you practice that and the process of writing becomes more familiar, you'll think of other things to write as you go. But you have to start by choosing to write.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beyond Reason

I was wondering what to write about tonight.
Lacking any particular subject, I decided to write about an old favorite of mine, an essay by Jorge Luis Borges titled "Avatars of the Tortoise." The whole essay is maybe six pages long. I have it in a collection titled Labyrinths, translated by James E. Irby.

Many writers get caught in a sort of perfectionist trap: "I don't know enough," they cry. And then they flee to the library, or to the safety of someone else's writing. It's easy to feel like we don't know enough. There will always be something new to learn. As writers and researchers we need to be able to acknowledge this, so that instead of looking for perfect, complete explanations, we can finish our work.

"There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others," opens the essay. "I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite." The famed paradox of Zeno of Elea of Achilles and the Tortoise provides the basis for the essay's name: Borges looks at various manifestations of paradoxes caused by the concept of infinity.

Of particular interest to academic writers is Borges's attention to Agrippa the skeptic, who "denies that anything can be proven, since every proof requires a previous proof," and "Sextus Empiricus [, who] argues in a parallel manner that definitions are in vain, since one will have to define each of the words used and then define the definition."
What does this say to the academic writer about wanting complete knowledge? It suggests that there is no utter certainty. We must start from something else. Bertrand Russell, recognizing this problem in his Philosophy of Logical Atomism says that we need to start our arguments from somewhere, and as we have no access to truth, we must start from something that is "undeniable." But, of course, in this day and age on what point of interest can we find no debate?

We must choose some place to start our argument. Ideally that is what we can use the literature review to do: we can position our fundamental premises in terms of the discourse of our field. What it means is that we make a choice of where to start rather than having some logical rule that determines where to start. And what this means is that if you, the author, face your blank page and say "I don't have enough knowledge to start," it is worth sitting back a moment and asking yourself "can the material I already have provide a strong foundation for my first draft?" If the answer is yes, start writing. The sooner you start writing, the sooner you will finish.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Strengths and weaknesses

One of my favorite little bits of philosophy I got from the fortune in a fortune cookie. "Your strengths are your weaknesses," it said. I have no doubt that there is some more noble source for this piece of wisdom, though I've not chosen to find a deeper source.

The nice thing about a simple aphorism like this is that it can resonate on deeper levels if you seek to find that deeper understanding. Like a zen koan, the exploration triggered by an aphorism can be more interesting than the first order level of meaning.

I didn't actually start this because I wanted to talk about that one aphorism, and so I won't explore it any further. I titled this post thinking about the habit of worry--a habit with which I certainly have a great deal of familiarity from my own personal experience. I also have a fair amount of experience talking about it with other writers.

One writer I've been working with recently always has a story about what cannot be done. The responses always focus on what cannot be done and what the weaknesses are. No matter how much is accomplished, or how much I ask to hear about what is working well, no strengths or successes are reported. If I throw a handful of suggestions out and say "use any that you find useful," the response I get back will almost always be about which ones cannot be handled.

In order to have any sense of optimism and any sense of progress, we need to realistically assess our progress and our abilities--which means acknowledging our strengths as well as our weaknesses. We cannot be blind to our abilities. Indeed, if one wishes to maintain that he or she has no ability whatsoever, then why is that person even attempting to work on a writing project of any sort--much less a dissertation.

I work less frequently with people who can see only their strengths and not their weaknesses. Such people are much less inclined to seek help. But that too can be problematic. We need some balance--ignoring our weaknesses will cause problems just as will ignoring our strengths.

I suppose to wrap this up by winding back to the aphorism: if we remember that our strengths and weaknesses are intimately intertwined, it's easier to remember that we have both.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Probability and Possibility

Logically, these two are worlds apart.

Their roles in argument are vastly different. Probability is the realm of statistics and quantitative studies. Probability is concerned with frequency of occurrence. Possibility is more the realm of the qualitative; it is concerned only with whether or not something has occurred.
While I know that quantitative studies are somewhat more prestigious, I think that a qualitative study which understands that the role of qualitative work is to explore possibility, can be equally profound and equally logically defensible.

But I think they also play an important role in our lives and in managing a large project. We cannot get lost thinking about probabilities; we must keep an eye on possibilities as well. Looking at probabilities leads to living a life of undue caution--to the point, possibly, of paralysis. Looking at possibilities without consideration of probabilities would lead to a naive view of the world. We need to balance the dream with prudent caution. For the writer this means that we have to balance the dream of our work being accepted with the likelihood of its being rejected. We have to chase the dream in the face of the danger--and in order to do that we must put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). In order to finish a big project we have to dream of the big project being completed, and then persevere when circumstances argue that the probability of completion is low. But we always want to be sensitive to all the choices that we can make that affect our chance of reaching our goals. (And in that context, a dissertation writer might do well to remember that completing the dissertation is one thing, and writing a book for publication is another, and no matter how wonderful you want your dissertation to be, you can choose to hold yourself to a lower standard than a dissertation that is publication ready.)

Imagine the possibility of finishing your writing project. And then write it!

Friday, June 20, 2008

No use crying over spilled milk

I lost my glasses yesterday. It was an inconvenience, but I got a new pair. It had been too long since I had a new, so it was no great loss. But it was a good opportunity to reflect on patterns of thought.

The last time I got new glasses, I worried about everything. I went to different stores. I dithered and vacillated about frames and costs. It took me an entire day to make a decision and who knows--perhaps I saved some money.

Yesterday I just went to the store that said they could give me glasses the same day. I probably spent more money, but I didn't fret. I enjoyed the day. I didn't fret about making the right decision and I didn't fret over the mistake that had put me in the position of needing new glasses right away. And that gave me the emotional energy to work and to focus on things much more productive than worrying about my glasses.

Some things are beyond our control. Once the milk has spilled, there's no putting it back into the bottle.

The question, then, is what we do once the milk has spilled. Or once the glasses have been lost. Or the draft rejected.

Working yourself into a tizzy over the bad outcome doesn't help. One might argue that we don't have control over our emotions. And there is no question that in the moment emotions can be overwhelming. But in the long run we can control our emotions. We all do--it is necessary to our socialization. And there are theories--like cognitive behavioral therapy--that argue that in the long run we can even change the emotional patterns that we may not be able to control in the moment.

I have been reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Start Worrying and Start Living." I know that it's basically no more than a pop-psychology self-help book--except, perhaps, that it doesn't really even use psychology--or at least not any psychological theory. But, as far as I can tell, the basic message of the book is that worrying is a matter of where you are focused, and if you train yourself to focus your attention on things that you can change, then you won't have time to worry about things (and vice versa--the more you stop paying attention to worry or regret, the more you can focus on taking action).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ultimately, it all depends on you

Writing a dissertation (or other long project) requires a concerted effort. And unless you are willing to commit to that effort it will not get done.

The world will present obstacles. The world will present distractions. The world may well present some terrible fate that prevents your completing your dissertation. There are many, many reasons for not finishing.

There is only one reason that people finish: they committed to doing the work. Ultimately it all depends on you. And that means making choices. If your life is full of other commitments, then you will need to find a way to make it happen. You must feel that the writing project is part of your purpose.

It is possible to write extended works by finding nooks and crannies of unoccupied time. But not if those nooks and crannies aren't regular and frequent. Writing is about working out our ideas. We can work on ideas when we're doing many other things. Sure, we may not have quite the same concentration, but if we are thinking about an idea, even in the back of our minds, we can gain insight in time. Of course this presumes that we can also find a moment to write down ideas after they come to us.

I have worked with writers who, week after week, always have a reason that they are not writing. "Spend fifteen minutes a day," I say. "I don't have time," they say. Fifteen minutes! If your dissertation is important to you--really important to what you want to accomplish in your life--isn't it necessary to make the commitment?

Of course, it's often the case that people might avoid that fifteen minutes because of doubts in their abilities. But this, too, depends on making a commitment to it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My Fair Lady

Polysemy and discourse.

If we observe the world, we will see that many if not most words are used in different ways. This can be easily observed by opening the dictionary and noticing that many words have multiple potential definitions.

One attitude about this can be seen in the great musical "My Fair Lady", which I happened to watch while I was eating dinner last night. In the opening scene Professor Henry Higgins says:
"Look at her a prisoner of the gutter
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue
Hear them down in Soho square
Dropping h's everywhere
Speaking English any way they like"

"Speaking any way they like," indeed. As if there were one precise correct definition for a given word. And only one correct way to speak.

This would not, I think, be a very productive view when engaging in academic discourse.
Obviously, if there is common agreement about a term, there is no real problem. But what if you want to use a term like "racism"? Wikipedia says "the term can ... have varying and hotly contested definitions." If you hold the Higgins view of language--that there is only one way to speak (or write)--then you are liable to get into some significant debate if you're using a term like "racism."
Instead one can look at a term for the way that different people use it, and compare that meaning with the way in which others have used it. You can place yourself within the discourse. You can recognize the different voices and align yourself with the meaning that is important to you. Of course this does not guarantee that no one will disagree with your usage, but at the least, even those who disagree will be forced to acknowledge that you are at least aware of the (empirically verifiable) debate on the usage of the term.

Because your writing is meant to express your own voice, there is no avoiding taking a position on issues. You must take positions unless your work is specifically designed to simply report observations (but even that is problematic, because you, the observer must have some idea of which data to observe--and that too requires taking a position concerning which data is important and which is not). By recognizing the different voices in the discourse that surrounds you, your work appears more sophisticated and better researched.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


It's easy to let it slip. I missed a day of the blog. And then another and then another, and suddenly three days had passed without posting anything.

Little things add up quickly. That's why it's important to keep up a consistent practice that will support your writing. Just as the empty days add up quickly, so, too do the days when we consistently work on a project.

Of course there are days and weeks where it may seem like the effort is not adding up--there are days where the efforts of previous days or weeks or months are scrapped for one reason or another. On such days it seems like the only progress is backwards. Progress can't always be measured in terms of pages added or pages deleted; it needs to be measured in terms of intellectual development. Eliminating pages because your argument has been clarified, and you can better see where you want to go is not necessarily time lost. Even on such days, continued work will help: continued work, will continue to build your most valuable possession and most valuable resource: your mind and your understanding of your project.

The idea of compounding, is, I think, important here because progress, like the growth of compounding, is not linear. As we move forward in our work, our ability to move forward also increases, so the more consistently we work, the more we have an opportunity to increase the progress we make. This is true, I think, on both the level of our intellectual understanding of a project, and in terms of our relationship with our work.

Friday, June 13, 2008

It's easy to forget (2)

When I was writing the other night about the importance of appreciating what we already have, I was thinking somewhat about the idea of being present in the moment. But I couldn't quite see how to work that idea in. this is a separate post, so it's not off topic.

When we're present in the moment, it is much easier to appreciate what we have. When we're stuck thinking about something outside the present moment, it is easy to be dragged away from the appreciation. This is especially true if we are busy harboring regrets for what we might have done wrong, or if we are worrying about something yet to happen, over which we may have little control.

With an academic idea, it may be a little more tricky: how do we appreciate the value of our simple statement of motivation, if that motivation is looking to the past or to the future? I would say that the importance in the present moment depends on having a sense that research actually matters. We may not have any immediate plans about how what we study should be transferred into actual policy, but that doesn't mean that we won't think of such a thing later.
On another level, we might note that significance in the moment can depend on past and future events, but understanding the temporal ties to significance does not mean that the significance is outside the moment. Just as hunger might motivate us to seek food, so too do our other desires for the future fit into the moment: their significance may only be realized at a later time, but what we need in the moment is that we feel that our work is significant to us in the moment.

I daresay that the idea of being in the moment is not entirely a novel one, but it's a good one to remember. There's a reason that the idea keeps showing up and keeps getting used.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Everyday and the Unusual

When I say that we can find, on an everyday basis, deep significance in our work--as I did yesterday--it would seem like the argument would be better built on a foundation of everyday experience rather than exceptional circumstance.

But the question is whether that moment was specially good. Yes, it is easier to ride a bike on a balmy night than a cold, windy night with the fog starting to roll in, but there is beauty there, too, if one is inclined to look for it. I think the difference is that it is easier to see the beauty when there are no problems clouding the view. When the night is warm, it is comfortable to sit and admire the night sky. When it's cold and windy, it's not comfortable. But in the right circumstances I think everyone has had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of a rain storm or a foggy night.

It's easier to appreciate the importance of your thesis when you are looking at the strongest points of the thesis, and everything is comfortable. But when the cold winds of doubt start to blow--whether from within yourself or from your professors or others--it's not so easy to sit and appreciate the beauty of your idea--you need, instead, to take action to support the idea, and to test it to make sure that it is really worthy of the effort you are investing in it.

It's easier, too, to appreciate beauty when it is new to us. We can become used to things. If we were forced to eat our favorite food for every meal, we would soon be sick of it. Our thesis might have seemed that much more exciting at first. Is that because, as we live with that thesis we come to see its blemishes more clearly? I think that's only part of it: we don't get sick of a food because the food has a problem, but only because we are forced to repeat the meal over and over. In a way, it may be the case that the only real difference between the everyday and the unusual, is just that: one is everyday, the other is unusual. And we respond differently to the everyday than we do to the unusual.

And if we can remember that, we can look again for the beauty that we saw before we had become jaded.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's so easy to forget

I have, perhaps, had too much to drink this night. It's 1:42am and I have a 9:15am appointment. That would be no problem, as I frequently sleep only about 6 hours, except that I have no desire to sleep.

The night is balmy. It is not the sort of night that is common in Berkeley. I was outside and comfortable wearing only a t-shirt and shorts at one in the morning. I rode my bike home--almost 4 miles in a straight line, about 7 miles by the crooked route I rode, according to Google maps. A yellow half moon was hanging low over over the Bay.

I didn't want to get home--which accounts for the extra three miles. The moment was beautiful; I can't imagine much better. During the night I had been asked how I had come to Berkeley and why I had stayed. "The weather is always perfect," I said. But not usually perfect in this way.

I actually have a purpose in writing this--not just to talk about my night. There was nothing particularly special about my night. I got to spend some time with friends; I had, as I said, too much to drink, but the moment is essentially simple. This is not the moment for which the phase "in vino veritas" is usually applied, but there is a truth here. There is a simple beauty in the world, and, if we take a moment to step back and appreciate it, it can be a rejuvenating experience. And it is not so much that there is anything particularly special, so much as it is that you have taken the moment to appreciate it.

I was thinking of this, in particular, with respect to academic work and the way that we can lose sight of a deep appreciation and love that might have once motivated us.

I was, for a time, in a graduate program in literature. I had a great time, and was happy with a great deal of the work that I did. But I didn't fit into the culture. Partially hat was because it wasn't really appropriate in that culture to say "I am studying this work because I love it." For my master's thesis I chose a literary work that explicitly addressed philosophical questions that interested me, but still I was largely driven by my enjoyment of the work. But, as I said, it's not appropriate to say simply "this work is worthy of note because I love it." In that sort of context, it can be easy to be driven to lose sight of one level of appreciation of work.

On another level, we can find that anything that we enjoy can become work, if it is positioned that way. I play music for enjoyment, and I know, from a brief period where I was trying to earn money playing music, that it takes on a different character when you have to do it because you need the money. I have a cousin who is a fabulous guitarist, but it is his work, which sometimes interferes with his love for the music. At what point does it become annoying to teach yet another kid how to play "Smoke on the Water"? I have a friend with a 10-year old son who just started guitar lessons (not with my cousin), and his first song: "Smoke on the Water." I don't know how my cousin feels about "Smoke on the Water" today, but I know that he loved it once.

It is easy to forget the simple significance of things and their profound importance, and often their beauty as well. We can get lost in the academic trappings of the situation, and lose sight of the issues that we really cared about in our search for scholarly ways of speaking.

I was talking about simple motivations on Monday; we often can look at a simple statement of purpose or hypothesis and see it is something overly simple or something too obvious or too insignificant. But simplicity is not in-and-of-itself a problem; often it masks a subtle complexity. When dealing with such simplicity, however, it is easy to forget the fabulous significance that is often implicated.

The simplest things are often incredibly significant--air, water, love--but how easy it is to lose sight of these beauties! The better that we can reconnect our work with simple issues, the better, perhaps, that we can keep in sight, or at least catch glimpses of, the great beauty and significance that lies behind the simple statements. Many scholars enter their field out of some sense of love or some sense of purpose; How often does that sense get forgotten?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I was thinking about how, when we do assert our own voice, and when we follow our own sense of purpose, it creates a place of vulnerability. Personally I was thinking about this when I recently directed someone to this blog. It's challenge enough to put this out there for whoever finds it, but it's more difficult to show it to someone I already know. Facing that challenge is part of why I try to write a blog everyday instead of just writing in a journal everyday.

The vulnerability that we risk, however, is balanced by reward: when we put ourselves forward, the chances of our gaining something improves. If we take the initiative and risk the vulnerability, we have the greatest chance of creating those things we're hoping for. And if we don't take the initiative, we still are not proof from danger. If we put forward our work and it is ridiculed, is that really worse than being ignored or ridiculed for producing no work?

The Bhagavad Gita says "If thou wilt not fight thy battle of life because in selfishness thou art afraid of the battle, thy resolution is in vain: nature will compel thee" (chapter 18, Trans. Mascaro). I read this as saying that it is useless to hold back out of fear of taking some risk, because the same or similar troubles will come to us anyway.

At least when we stick our neck out, we know where our vulnerability lies. If we sit paralyzed in fear of action, then fate can attack from any direction.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Simple Motivations

Simple motivations are effective, especially as answers to the question of purpose.

If you tell someone "10 million people are affected by this phenomenon/event/law/etc.", not too much more work needs to be done in terms of building credibility. And yet such simple foundations offer up such opportunity to expand at length: who are the people affected? What kinds of effects are (or were) expected? What kinds of effects have been reported?

If you can state a premise in terms like this, it often serves as a really good foundation.
We can look at this as having a general structure: you take a population (e.g., "10 million people," "doctoral candidates," "pet owners," "left-handed men who are deaf in one ear and drink two cups of coffee and one glass of wine each day"), and you look at something that has affected or is expected to affect the population in question (e.g., a new law, the passing of Halley's comet, climate change, use of a drug, etc.).

This is extremely general, but it can serve as the motivating factor in many sorts of studies. It can be a history: "A report on the impact of Operations Research on farm workers." Now your reader may know nothing of what "operations research" is, but even so the structure of the sentence makes the general parameters of the project clear to anyone who knows what "farm workers" are. Now, of course, you go on to develop in greater detail your description of what "operations research" is, and how you are defining the population of farm workers in your study, but the basic foundation is there--something that the reader can use to refer to throughout the reading of the paper. You could put anything in there in place of "operations research"--"Halley's Comet," "Led Zeppelin," "Shakespeare"--and the sentence still reads. We might not expect Shakespeare to have had much effect on farm workers, but it doesn't mean that the effect can't be studied, and we wouldn't study it unless we had some reason to believe that it had had an effect. Of course, just as we can replace "operations research", we can replace "farm workers". We could, for example, replace "farm workers" with "pet owners." We could study--to combine some of the possibilities above--"The impact of Shakespeare on pet owners," which might be most relevant to frustrated dog owners: "Out, damn'd Spot!" Or we could, making yet another replacement have "The impact of a pet's death on pet owners." And that could be a real study for a psychologist--if it hasn't been done already.

This general sentence structure: "The impact of ___X___ on ___Y___" can be cast in past present and future tenses. It can be question or assertion. It can support empirical research, meta-analysis, history, suggestions for policy development. Depending on X and Y, the results of the study can be usefully generalized (e.g., "farm workers" might inform us about "non-unionized labor"), or further specified (e.g., "pet owners" might inform us about "widowed adult pet owners").

Simple motivations like this can really help on a personal level. It's very important to believe in the importance of your project. If you don't, getting through the dissertation is much harder. If you can state the purpose of your work simply, that can help make it easier to weather the storms of personal doubt, and doubt from those around you. If you have a clear statement of your question, then you can deal with accusations of frivolity. Either you can look back at your simple thesis and decide it is worthwhile, or you can decide that it is indeed frivolous. When you can anchor your work to a real population, it help give the work the weight you're looking for.

If you can state your motivating idea in this simple form it's something that you can rely on. This is especially true if you pick a population that you care about.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Similarities and Differences

It can be useful to look at things, when comparing, as sets of similarities and differences. This is a sort of general proposition--into which I'm undoubtedly going to stick some things that are unlike.

Recently I struck up an acquaintance with a professor at Cal who happened to ask me an editorial question one day as we were working at adjacent tables in a cafe. We got to talking and he was discussing his attempts to teach his students to write. On the one hand, we both agreed that it was a great exercise to attempt to write a one-page synopsis of the entire work, on the other, his focus was more on the outward form of the writing, while mine was more on the inner motivation for the writing. Similarities can give rise to greater conviction: we both agree that a specific tool is useful. Differences can give rise to options: our differences in focus present us with different ways of looking at a project, which can give us a choice of options.

When we're working with other authors, it can be helpful to keep in mind that there will typically be areas of agreement and disagreement. When we're working with whole fields of study and their discourse, we're even more certain to see areas of agreement and disagreement. By being aware of both the similarities and differences, we can use comparisons with others (especially with those who are well-known) to help our readers see what our theoretical position is and where it fits into a larger discourse.

A good friend of mine ran into problems on his qualifying exam because he was unwilling (or unable) to choose between using similarities and not differences. My friend, who was philosophically a Pragmatist in the tradition of James, Pierce, and Dewey, did not like the work of Donald Schon. I cannot remember his precise objection--I think at one point Schon had written about use of rules, and my friend didn't like the idea of rules, and so would vehemently object to Schon in general. On his qualifying exam committee, however, sat a professor (or two) partial to Schon's work. The Schon issue became a point of contention, to the extent that he was passed on his exam only with the condition that he write an additional paper about Schon.
What surprised me about this was that Schon and the Pragmatists are not unlike. They both are writing from a point of rejecting the pure rationality suggested by a Bertrand Russell, for example, or by the supporters of Operations Research. To the Pragmatists, as I understand it, truth is "what works"--it is fluid, and dependent on the observer/experiencer. Schon, too, held that the vision of a problem was largely dependent on personal experience. Both rejected the notion of some external absolute and objective truth. To me, then, I see an opportunity in the comparison to note both similarities and differences. And a choice of which to focus on.

In the case of my friend, there were some other relevant similarities and differences. He, like the member of his committee who supported Schon, would have rejected standard rationalist paradigms of understanding as good models for behavior. That was a similarity. And unlike the committee member, he disliked the work of Schon. That was a difference. By choosing to focus on the point where Schon and the Pragmatists disagreed, he also choose to focus on the point where he and his committee member disagreed.

I'm not suggesting that one blindly say whatever your professor thinks is right. That's a lousy way to live, and not really a good way to impress a professor, either. But by using a comparison that looked at both similarities and differences, I postulate that my friend could have saved himself from the extra paper. If he had been able to highlight the similarities, and give them attention matching the attention he gave to the differences, I suspect his reception would have been different. Acknowledging the similarities would work on a personal level to build a bond of agreement; that would work in his favor when it was time to talk about the differences. Acknowledging the similarities would also show a theoretical sensitivity that might work in his favor: by failing to acknowledge an apparent similarity, it might lead a listener to believe that he was not fully aware of aspects of the theory, or that he did not understand the theory. By using both similarities and differences, we can appear perceptive and able to handle subtle nuances.

This matter of similarity and difference can also come up in our writing. As we write, we should have a general sense of where we want to go. Then, as a we work, we want to bring in the material we have that furthers our sense of direction. But evidence and ideas are varied and complex, and getting an argument that is without problem is more than we can hope for. Instead, we look to manage the material: we build a strong central core around those things that work best together and have the greatest similarities, and then around the edges of our argument we place all the problematic stuff--the places of difference--and manage those so that our argument, when constructed, works with a main body of evidence, and then acknowledges the problems, limitations and unanswered questions that our main argument has created.

We want to build around the places where our ideas and evidence best cohere, and then work with the places that they come apart. We don't want to let our attempt to build a coherent story out of similarities close our minds to the possibilities that our basic hypotheses are wrong: we don't want our sense of purpose to destroy the intention of objectivity and open-mindedness. But at the same time, we cannot let the fringe problems destroy the central argument. Arguments tend to be problematic--certainly there is good reason to believe that arguments will never attain the sort of logical purity that Descartes sought (and claimed to have found): from those who observe the presence of paradox in logic (e.g., Kurt Goedel and his proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic, or the many paradox described by Borges in his essay "Avatars of the Tortoise"), to those who argue that all logic, knowledge, etc., is ultimately founded on social issues (e.g., Whorf and the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, or Foucault), there are plenty of reasons to believe that our arguments will, at best, have some weaknesses to deal with.

By being open to focusing on the similarities and/or the differences, as suits our immediate purpose, we can, in the long run, develop an argument that coheres to the extent it will cohere, and acknowledges its weaknesses in an appropriate fashion--and in so doing, we will be following the best precepts of philosophy and research.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Set your own agenda

Yesterday I was writing about having a sense of purpose, and the "so what?" problem.

We want our readers to be able to see a sense of purpose. The reader has to be able to have some answer to the "so what" problem.

I think, though, that it's even more important for the writer to have a sense of purpose. You should be able to answer to yourself the "so what" question. Better, if you can answer it one at least two levels: 1. scholarly sources or hard data that suggest a question, and 2. an emotional connection to the significance of the work. For example, you can both show that a significant population is affected by some issue, and you feel that the issue is important enough to pursue.

When you are able to answer your own "so what" question, then you can make plans to bring your vision to reality. I was writing about the writer whose committee thought the work frivolous. First off, if you have a good answer to the "so what" question, you're going to know that your project is not frivolous. That in itself is valuable. But with the sense of purpose, you can also begin to make plans. Ok, so your committee thinks the work is frivolous--what can be done to change that? I know that there are conservative, hard-headed, close-minded people out there, but that doesn't mean that they all are. If you have a good sense of purpose, you can develop an argument that matches your sense. Or at least, you can make plans on how to overcome resistance.

Professors do try to exert their influence. Many may even try to set the parameters of the discussion. But--and perhaps I am just giving your average run-of-the-mill professor the benefit of a doubt--most professors who try to give direction do so from the sense that the student doesn't have direction. It's not that they need you to go in the direction they suggest, it's that they need you to go in some specific direction. If you can show them that you have direction, and that you have a justification for your work that can be founded on respectable literature in your field, then you get to set your own agenda, because your professors will see that you have direction.

Friday, June 6, 2008

What is the purpose?

I had a writer pass on an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled the "So What Problem."

It's a big problem. I find that I often read academic work that is just reporting--that is nothing but a collection of facts. While I recognize the value of compiling data, it's what we do with the data that matters.

We should be able to describe our work in a way that people don't ask "so what?" when we describe it to them. Obviously there are some people that you're not trying to reach, and some people who won't care. If, for example, you've been studying historical antecedents to Shakespeare, do you really care if some semi-literate person asks you why it's important?

And yet, there is a level at which the "so what" question can be answered that should reach anyone and everyone. Q: "So What?" A: "I'm interested in it." We might not always have a better reason for our interest in a project.

Now the "I'm interested" response may serve for many, it probably won't serve for a dissertation committee who wants a work that is a contribution to the literature. Of course, when describing something to your committee you don't have the same kind of "so what" problem as with a non-academic, or an academic from a distant field. Your committee probably has done work similar to the work you're doing--so the perspective of what is important is not the same.

But the most important person for whom we want to answer the "so what" question is ourself. We want to be able to say to ourselves, "It is important because of _reasonX_."

I was talking with a writer who said to me approximately "my committee is conservative and they think my topic is frivolous." The first level of response to this has to be to find your own understanding. do you think it is frivolous? If you do, it will be a hard project to sustain for the effort that a dissertation will take. But note well that someone telling you a project is frivolous does not mean that the project is worthless. As Ira Gershwin wrote:
"They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
They told Marconi wireless was a phony, it's the same old cry."

As an academic, it's not enough to have an emotional conviction that a work is important. But that's a damn good place to start. You want to be able to follow it up with good arguments, that support your conviction.

It's important to have a sense of the purpose, because that guides what to write, and when the purpose can shine out, the reader can gather the sense of what is important to you the writer. The reader may not agree, but at least the reader can respond. If your sense of purpose is clouded and your reader asks "so what?", then the reader won't bother to look closely or read further. By contrast, if your reader strongly disagrees, your reader may well read for the purpose of finding weaknesses in your argument. Now I'm not recommending writing something that your committee will strongly disagree with, but I think that's better than writing something that your committee can't see any reason behind.

Give the reader something to grab onto. Wear your purpose on your sleeve. If you can frame that purpose in good academic terms, that's great, but even without that academic framework, a sense of purpose can go a long way towards helping guide you in your writing, and can also help guide your reader in the reading.

I repeat myself. I think that I have written similar things about sense of purpose. But it's a recurring problem. I think that academics lose their sense of purpose when they get too deep into the details--or rather, when you get too deep in the details, then it is easy to develop a a sense that the purpose is to get all the relevant information, rather than that gathering the data was to serve some other purpose.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


there it is, seven minutes before midnight and I've not posted, and I have a project I'm trying to work on.

It's nice to be able to touch base with a project that we're trying to maintain over a long time, even if there are other important responsibilities calling.

We choose where our attention goes. If we really want to finish a dissertation or other large writing project, then we have to choose to give it sufficient priority that it continues to move forward.

Not every day will we be equally attentive, or equally brilliant. Nor will we be equally dull every day, so we need to get into it regularly, so that our practice can provide the opportunity for the days of brilliance that balance the days of dullness.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ethics and Expediency

Two days ago, I wrote about a hypothetical question of "bad research."
I argued that "bad research" was not necessarily an appropriate description of the specific situation described (writing a dissertation as if it had been aimed to find what was actually a post hoc discovery). I argued the point primarily from the perspective that research is essentially post hoc--that it must be if it is to have a truly open and exploratory character, and that research has no claim to purity, either from a historical analysis or a logical one (following Paul Feyerabend).

But on a related note, we also want to ask about the general question of expediency and ethics. What if it were "bad research" to present a post hoc analysis?

Each person must answer the ethical question individually, and for each of us, relativist, or absolutist, we make our decision to act according to some calculation when the situation is ambiguous. To take an extreme example, a person following an absolute moral code (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill") may still find a situation where something else is of higher moral valuation such that violating that code is morally acceptable.

Different acts have different values. In academia, plagiarism is a primary crime, as is inventing data or altering data to get desired results. Compared to such violations of academic ethics, even a position that holds that post hoc analysis is "bad", would not consider it a violation of research ethics on the same order of magnitude.

Balanced against these ethical issues, we need to ask also about expediency: we want to finish the project. Following the recommendations of our committee is almost always expedient (but most definitely not always), and it would be wise to follow suggestions whenever possible. One does not wish to compromise one's ethics for expediency, of course.

There's no clear answer. We each make our own answer. As a coach, I tend to lean towards expediency when matters are small. I would never recommend plagiarism or data faking as an expedient route: the potential backlash is too great; the potential for a real disaster (being kicked out of an academic program and destroying one's potential academic or professional career). But "bad research"? How highly must one balance "bad research" against expediency as an ethical issue?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bad research?

I got this question:
"One of my committee members was suggesting that I change the intro and lit review based on my findings. Specifically, since I found that independent_variable2 is a good predictor of dependent_variable and independent_variable1 really doesn't predict dependent_variable -- refashion the front end as if I never had the original hypothesis. I know this is bad research but I am not sure if I should just do it."

My general advice was to do whatever seemed to lead to the degree most quickly. That's what the dissertation is really about.

But what about the ethical question? OK, so the results didn't show what you expected to find, but you did find something significant. Is it "bad research" to do post hoc data analysis? It depends on what your standard of knowledge is. What theory of the creation of knowledge do you aspire to? And what level of stringency do you apply to a dissertation as a research project?

Firstly, the dissertation. What do you think the point of the dissertation is? To produce a great study that wows everyone? That would be nice. Or maybe it's a project to ensure that you know how to manage an entire research project responsibly? If the purpose is the dissertation is the second, is it a violation of this principle to do a post hoc analysis?

Secondly, standards of knowledge. How do we know and what constitutes good research? On one level we can say, as I blithely did to the questioner, that research is not about what you hope to find; it's about what you do find. Darwin didn't look for evolution. On another level, we can can argue that science and research are inherently flawed and don't live up to the high standards they often claim. I like Paul Feyerabend's Against Method, which argues: "Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives....This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes" (from the analytical index to Against Method). The emphasis is Feyerabend's and bears repeating: "anything goes." Feyerabend, then, would argue that using post hoc analysis when appropriate is merely following the best principles of research. I have never seen any convincing refutation of Feyerabend's objections to some of science's claims that it is a strictly rule-based enterprise (and one that labels post hoc analysis as "bad research"). Admittedly, I have not looked specifically for such refutations (beyond reading a little of the work of Imre Lakatos, whose opposing views motivated Feyerabend to write Against Method, and who then presented his own critique of the book). What I have seen is many convincing theories that suggest that Feyerabend's claims fit within a larger rubric of science as a social activity that is influenced by political and social interests (including Kuhn's use of the idea of paradigms in Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Foucault's Order of Things and Latour's Science in Action).

My take on it it this: yes, it is in some ways preferable to do only the analyses that you plan prior to running the study. But, in truth, the point of running a study is to see what you find. If you're looking for relationships among several variables as part of your planned analysis, and you don't find the ones you expected, then it is your responsibility to report that lack of finding. But if you find another relationship that is significant, is there any reason not to present it?

Beyond that, there is the somewhat awkward question of writing a study as if you intended to find a different result than the one you intended to find. I feel a little differently about this. I wouldn't necessarily want to rewrite without any hint of my earlier intentions. I might present the material a little differently--as if I had gone to study a general question, and as a result of looking at multiple variables of interest, I had found only one result of interest. In other words, if I was primarily interested in variable1, but had also studied variable2, I might not write "I wanted to study variable2"; I might, instead, write "I was interested in variable1 and variable2 to see if they were playing any role in dependent_variable."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

And sometimes your best may not be very much...

Following up on yesterday's thought.
I wanted to just drop a quick line to say that I don't really have time for an extended posting today, but even that little bit of work that keeps the project rolling is worthwhile.