Friday, October 31, 2008

Feedback request

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Costumes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Feedback and Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2008

Conceptual Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Structural Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantitative and Qualitative (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Share the wealth; share the love

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your time and your interest.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Do you have to force yourself to work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quantitative and Qualitative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's the point of research?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I really care about (confessional 2)

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

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

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

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

I invite you to take a look.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The vast unconscious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2008


I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher in my junior year of high school. I had not plagiarized; I had not read the book I was accused of plagiarizing, nor any articles by the author. I had simply turned a phrase similar to that of the author, I guess. But the thing I never understood, quite, was what the point of plagiarizing was. If all you're supposed to do is report what some other writer said, can't you do that easily enough by paraphrasing? Directly copying a large piece of writing always seems so tedious. Writing, to me, seemed hardly more difficult.

To me how one uses a piece of writing is always individual--unless one is simply repeating what the work says without thinking about it or challenging it. I guess I would say that one ought to be thinking about the things you read, but that's not always what the educational system calls for--it is often enough to simply repeat without understanding.

If the way that you use a work is interesting or original, then there's no need to plagiarize: you can give credit where credit is due and still take credit for your own addition.

If you're pursuing your own voice or your own sense of purpose, then you benefit more by trying to understand the things that you read and by challenging those ideas. The process of critical thinking and checking your positions against the ideas of others is the foundation of clear thinking and clear communication.

I didn't really have much to say today about writing; at least nothing I'd like to say in this blog. I thought about writing about plagiarism because this blog has had a spurt of activity viewing a blog entry that I wrote about Emerson's quotation "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Part of the traffic was driven by searches for "writing an essay on Emerson's foolish consistency...". And that made me wonder whether I am being plagiarized by some college or high school students looking for an easy cut-and-paste essay (I suppose cutting and pasting is much easier than copying by hand).

Generate your own ideas. Make up your own thoughts and theories. Challenge accepted wisdom. Rely on logic and evidence rather than on what you are told by others or by what you have read. These things are all the classic hallmarks of great science. Which is of greatest use to you? To repeat what others say? Or to pursue new ideas? There are pros and cons on each side.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

George Lakoff's suggestions for finishing a dissertation

I take a lot of notes and write a lot in many different files that get put aside for one reason or another. I was going through old files recently, looking to see what had been forgotten. Among other things I found some notes that I made to a dissertation writer about four years ago. The notes reported a conversation I had had with George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at Berkeley.

Lakoff makes six points. Following the six points are the notes that I wrote to the writer, who had written a complete draft that had been deemed unsatisfactory by her committee.

(Aug. 2004) Yesterday afternoon I ran into a professor I used to work with.
He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was helping people who were trying to finish their dissertations.
He offered me his advice of what he tells his students: and here it is in a nutshell--three main points and three lesser points. I may have forgotten something, but most of what he said agreed with beliefs I held anyway (I was his student, after all).

Here are his recommendations:

1) It’s not you. It’s just a piece of work.
2) It’s just the first step.
3) Tell a story

Additional suggestions:
1) make it so it can be your book
2) make it 200 – 250 pages
3) avoid jargon

For a moment, I want to just focus on point 1 in the first list: It's not you. The dissertation is just a project you're working with. You've worked with it longer than any other project in your life, but it's just a project. If you wrote a five page paper and thought it needed to be rewritten, you'd rewrite it. But with the dissertation there's the thought "I spent four months writing that draft/section/chapter." The dissertation is still only a project. Suggestions about the dissertation are not a reflection on you, but rather on how to change your project, so that you can get it done.

You have grown and learned during the process of writing. The efforts that went into writing that draft have shaped you, have helped you grow. If all the copies of your dissertation were destroyed and you had to write it from the blank page, you still would not be working from scratch but from a wealth of knowledge gained through the project. And that wealth of knowledge would help you write a new version better.

Well, thankfully, you don't have to write from scratch, but still, don't let attachment to the products of your past labors stand in the way of taking advantage of what you learned from those labors.
That note only really addressed the first of the six points. But points two and three deserve equal discussion. The last three points--the lesser points--are mostly self-explanatory.

I don't want to get into too much writing here, since I want to go back to seeing what the excavation of the depths of my disk drive has to offer.

Briefly, then. Point 2: The dissertation is just a first step on a career. Whether you are writing to become an academic (as Lakoff assumed), or writing to gain a credential, the dissertation is only a step in a career path. Take the step quickly. Point 3: I don't know quite how to interpret this, or to paraphrase it quickly. This is probably a gross injustice, but: Give the work a sense of direction and flow; guide the reader through the discussion in a way that helps the reader see the scope of the work (just as in a story, we can follow the whole of the work).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Limiting Complexity to suit the scope of your efforts

What level of specificity is appropriate to the task at hand? What level of detail is it necessary to present for your argument to work? The answers are dependent on the situation in which you are working. But the questions need to be asked repeatedly. It's necessary to get a good fit--and in particular this is important in not allowing the writing to be dragged away from the story that you wish to tell.

What is your writing about? If it is academic writing, it is not about lyrical beauty of the words, nor about the ability to touch the emotions of the reader. Academic writing is about the expression of ideas, of theories, of discoveries, and interpretations; it is about new understandings and new knowledge.

Therefore, writing can be valued by its ability to succinctly express and defend the important ideas, and its ability to efficiently and cleanly develop the argument.

The well-known principle of Occam's Razor suggests that in choosing between theories, the one that is simpler is to be preferred.

But this same principle can usefully be applied to academic writing: writing that is simpler is to be preferred. Occam's Razor can be translated "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." Necessary complexity is not to be eliminated. But detail should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

But how, I hear you ask, do you determine what is necessary? Sadly it's a matter of judgment. Writing is about communicating with people, and communicating well and clearly is difficult and a matter of art rather than logic. But the principle can still guide you: "is this detail necessary to the argument?" If you can answer no, then you can cut something. And simply knowing that the principle suggests the importance of eliminating detail can itself do wonders in helping keep the work focused.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Wouldn't it be great if...? (2)

There are, of course, so many things that would be great. Some of them don't work out the way we hope. We try to write an idea out, or we show our written work to someone, or whatever. We don't get the result we were hoping for. And not only that, but we do get a clear indication that the thing we thought would be great, isn't going to work out.

It's great to have dreams. It's also important to be able to let go of the dreams that have failed. Not to let go of dreams generally--life would be rather awful if we had no hopes for the future--but to recognize that some dream won't work out: maybe that experiment you tried didn't give useful results, or the argument you presented turned out to have a flaw, or the structure you chose didn't please your professor, or whatever. What do you do then?

Wouldn't it be great if we could always look on those efforts as learning opportunities instead of as failures or referenda on our personal character?

We have to try new things if we are to grow and keep from avoiding the problems of the past. Wouldn't it be great if we could remember that? It's hard to let go of a dream that has failed, but better to let go of it and pursue another dream. Which is one good reason to exercise our "wouldn't it be great if..."

I'm thinking of this subject of keeping focused on the positive future outcomes partly because I have not been getting outcomes that I want in some of my efforts, but more because I was talking with a writer who was concerned about some of the outcomes she was getting in her work process.

On one level, I had looked at her outcomes and tried to see the positive in them. On another level I had looked at the outcomes as indications of new perspectives to examine and new practices to experiment with.

I wonder, actually, whether this might be the interface between two imaginative exercises: on the one hand there is the speculative "wouldn't it be great if", and on the other the retrospective spin of "isn't it great that..." where we take the presumed bad outcome (e.g., "I was rejected") and spin it into "isn't great that I was rejected." Now that's an imaginative exercise that takes some skill. It's said that Edison, faced with the failure of another experimental light bulb, would say that he had learned another way not to make a light bulb. That is positive spin: not "I failed in my goal" but "I learned something that will forward me toward my goal."

Wouldn't it be great if we could exercise our ability to re-imagine our past in terms of "isn't it great if."

I realize that I have reached a high degree of uncritical optimism here. While I do believe in the value of what I have said above, I recognize that the "wouldn't it be great if" exercise can't be all we use to think about the world.

In the spirit of the post, I include the lyrics to a classic Monty Python song.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad,
Other things just make you swear and curse,
When you're chewing life's gristle,
Don't grumble,
Give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best.

Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the light side of life.

If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps,
Don't be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle.
That's the thing.

Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the right side of life,

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin.
Give the audience a grin.
Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow.

Always look on the bright side of death,
Just before you draw your terminal breath.

Life's a piece of shit,
When you look at it.
Life's a laugh and death's a joke it's true.
You'll see it's all a show.
Keep 'em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the right side of life.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Craftwork and art

I was running today at the Albany Bulb--a former landfill, now a park.
For many years after the landfill closed to dumping but before it became an official park, it was an art colony, and much of the spirit of that still remains in the space: many people--homeless, anarchists, young punks--still use the space for artistic expression of some sort.

On my run I passed a small area where someone had laid out brick fragments and concrete fragments, creating a small area of pavement. My first thought was about the amount of effort that had likely gone into laying out those bricks and concrete. The area was small--maybe it took someone an hour or two, I estimate, to gather the bricks and concrete and place them and attempt to get them even and steady. It was a small area, which made me wonder what it would take to pave the larger area in that way.

And that made me think about the process of craftsmanship, or craftwork, to use a gender-neutral term.
Undertaking a task with which we are not familiar, we start by learning how to do it. This may proceed under the guidance of a teacher or simply by trial and error, but as a matter of practice we would begin with the rudiments of simply making the object.
As mastery of the fundamentals develops, and as the task is repeated, the basic mastery develops, and, one would imagine, so too would monotony, which would likely inspire the worker to embellish the work. Which we might view as one possible motivation for the development of decoration: a way to add interest for the craftworker.
Of course things aren't that simple: we don't learn in a vacuum and the novice wants to try to do fancy work even before learning to do simple work well. Which may, in fact, help explain one source of problems we may have in our own work.

Our society is one that demands measurable results. And it demands them quickly. We are used to achieving our goals quickly. Writing is not a skill mastered easily; it takes patience. And when we want it to be artistic, that adds a level of complexity. And yet we may have little time to practice--if, for example, we have to work to support ourselves.

This is a rambling post--no real direction. I started it thinking about the process of growing and learning a skill, and how as the skill matures we want to test it further and further. But I don't that I was convinced by where that argument was going--it was an idea I explored that didn't seem to provide much. Then I was thinking about whether there was anything in that line of thought that might be of use to the writer. And I guess, maybe there are two lessons that I would suggest--1. That it takes practice to engage in the process of writing well; 2. that we are likely to master the simple structures and forms more easily, and therefore if we stick to using the fundamentals, we're more likely to create a solid piece of work.

In terms of sticking to fundamentals and avoiding decoration, I'll note that in some fine books the author starts with a vivid example or anecdote before announcing the basic subject matter. This technique is often used by student writers (I've tried it myself sometimes), but rarely with great success. And my explanation for that is that when we are less practiced/skilled as writers, it is more difficult to get our point down in words. When we hide that point behind an anecdote, it is more easily obscured than when we just state it straight out.

If I were to turn this into a recommendation for writers who are struggling to get their ideas down, I would say: be a craftworker, not an artist. Write down the fundamental ideas; write what is important to you in the simplest form that you can. Avoid embellishment.

Final note: learn to let go of work that is imperfect. I don't like this post much, but I worked on it and now, having written it, I can either throw it away and post nothing (unless I write something else), or I can post it (I could still write something else, too). There may be a time to throw things away and share nothing--say if you have a grumpy professor, or if you have someone special that you need to impress--but sharing prolifically, even if the quality is ragged, appears to me to be the better path.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wouldn't it be great if...?

I was looking at the book Peak Performance: Mental Training of the World's Greatest Athletes by Charles Garfield. Garfield quotes an athlete he worked with as saying, "Excellence is never limited to the playing field. Of necessity, it becomes a way of life." With the behavior of many of the successful professional athletes in this country making constant headlines, I'm not sure that I believe the generality of this statement. But I like the attitude. Or even better, I like the idea that if one makes a way of life of excellence, it will translate into success in any arena.

As I write this, I realize that I'm heading for a potential trap. What is excellence? And, importantly, how does the search for excellence relate to perfectionism--which, as we all know, can cause problems in finishing work? And I don't want to go down this path of reasoning now, however. For the moment I would like to leave the dangers of pursuing excellence aside, while giving a nod to their deserving attention at some point.

I was talking with a writer who was having trouble getting started on his project, and I was talking with him about just looking at the possibilities. Wouldn't it be great if...? Wouldn't it be great if he got his thesis done? Wouldn't it be great if felt good about the project? Wouldn't it be great if...?

It seems to me that a living a life of excellence depends heavily on having a strong sense of "wouldn't it be great if...?". If you have a vision of what it would be great to accomplish--to win recognition, fortune, fame--that is the first step toward achieving results that might be considered excellence. If you're in the habit of having such a vision in your life, it will pervade all aspects of your life, and thus you will manifest the same quality of excellence in all dimensions of your life.

The ability to imagine what you would like--the ability to day dream, basically--is of fundamental value. Charles Garfield talks about an experience in his own life of using visualization exercises to assist him to perform beyond his athletic expectations--there may have been more structure to Garfield's visualization exercises than in loose day-dreaming, but the basic process is the same.

We want to be able to go beyond "wouldn't it be great if...?" to ask what we can do to bring it about, but still, everything depends on the vision--the sense that something is what we want. But bringing the vision into reality is another thing altogether.

There is yet another benefit of the "wouldn't it be great if...?" exercise: it focuses attention on the positive possible outcomes. I talk to lots of writers who are stuck because they are thinking about the negative reaction that they might receive. The fear of rejection is great in most of us (I'd say all of us, but every now and then one meets a person who appears utterly without such fear). When we start worrying about the negative feedback, it makes it harder to do more work--it drains our energy to battle the negative visions and to move in despite of them. It may be difficult focus on the positive outcomes (for example, getting our writing accepted), but when we are focused on them, it is much easier to maintain energy and motivation.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Take what you need, and leave the rest

I was reading a book on writing dissertations. I do this from time to time, in hopes that I might learn something new that will be helpful. This particular book had sections that I thought were poorly written, but it also had sections that I thought had good material (though mostly I thought it was good because it agreed with things I already believed; I was hoping for new ideas).

I was talking with a writer about feedback I had given, and about getting feedback from her professors, and emphasizing the importance of working on the feedback that makes the most sense, and carefully testing the things that seem wrong.

In both cases, of course, the main principle is that you take what you need and leave the rest. You don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And you don't have to keep the bathwater. Whether you are working with sources, or working with feedback, or working with an old draft, it's worthwhile to keep in mind that things are not monolithic. Ideas, especially, are not monolithic. People and their opinions are most definitely not monolithic.

We can exercise selectivity in our work. We can look at the material we are working with and examine which aspects will work and which will not.

This seems to me a good exercise in learning both to find value in what is difficult, and to be able to look critically at that which is easy.

I was thinking in terms of selectively using ideas or pieces from a book when I wrote the title, but it is part of a line from a song by The Band. My initial thought about it as I started writing was that it was about not being greedy, and I twisted it, initially into my thoughts about not feeling it necessary to take things as a whole. But if we focus on the word need, then we have what is essentially a profound personal lesson: we should be striving to take those things that serve us in the most direct and necessary way, and leave other things.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


It's so easy to give advice; it's not as easy to live a practice as it is to preach it.
That is, I think, why the Catholic church has confession: we all have sins for which to be absolved, both the high and low; the Pope has a confessor.

Here's my confession: I feel unworthy. Please note: this is not about logic; it's about emotion. When I sit down to write my efforts are hindered by my feeling that I have nothing to say.
Left to itself, my intellectual mind is quite sure that I do have something worth saying. But bring emotions into the picture and things come to a quick halt.

Just a couple of days ago I wrote about not apologizing for your writing. But I have been struggling with a piece of writing that keeps coming out as an apology. It's easier to say "just write a draft and let it go," than it is to actually do it.

That being said, I am constantly working to improve my ability to manage this problem, and to work on my ability to move to a new place where I am working more effectively, and really living more effectively, because the same demon that hinders me in writing hinders me in other realms of my life.

What does this involve? A practice. A willingness to be wrong. A willingness to be seen being wrong. A willingness to recognize that a problem with work that I have done is not a problem with me, but rather indicates something I can learn. In a way it requires a completely new mindset--one that is not focused on perceived failings, but is instead focused on what can be created for the future.

The point of confession is that one no longer bears the burden of the sins; one is absolved. For the writer wouldn't it be nice to be absolved of the sins of sloth, of accidie, of not having done enough reading, so that we could move forward without carrying those burdens? Imagine confessing your sins and being free of them. Wouldn't it be wonderful to let go of the burden of having been lazy last week? Of having not finished that paper?

Bearing the burden of the sins you committed last week, last month, last year, doesn't help you move into the future. What good to spend three seconds lamenting the time you wasted yesterday? The cost of those three seconds of lamenting might be that you start to feel yourself unworthy. And does that help get started? Does that help get the project done?

We need to confess our writing sins. And then forgive ourselves for them. And then write some more. If we are going to move past them, we must recognize them and acknowledge them for what they are. If we take them to be signs of a deep internal character flaw, then we set up a situation in which we feel ourselves flawed--a classic set-up for writer's block.

So, what are your writing sins?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Articulation (2)

The bulk of this post is taken from Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (published in 1742):

Of Divisions in Authors.

There are certain mysteries or secrets in all trades, from the highest
to the lowest, from that of prime-ministering to this of authoring,
which are seldom discovered unless to members of the same calling. Among
those used by us gentlemen of the latter occupation, I take this of
dividing our works into books and chapters to be none of the least
considerable. Now, for want of being truly acquainted with this secret,
common readers imagine, that by this art of dividing we mean only to
swell our works to a much larger bulk than they would otherwise be
extended to. These several places therefore in our paper, which are
filled with our books and chapters, are understood as so much buckram,
stays, and stay-tape in a taylor's bill, serving only to make up the sum
total, commonly found at the bottom of our first page and of his last.

But in reality the case is otherwise, and in this as well as all other
instances we consult the advantage of our reader, not our own; and
indeed, many notable uses arise to him from this method; for, first,
those little spaces between our chapters may be looked upon as an inn or
resting-place where he may stop and take a glass or any other
refreshment as it pleases him. Nay, our fine readers will, perhaps, be
scarce able to travel farther than through one of them in a day. As to
those vacant pages which are placed between our books, they are to be
regarded as those stages where in long journies the traveller stays some
time to repose himself, and consider of what he hath seen in the parts
he hath already passed through; a consideration which I take the liberty
to recommend a little to the reader; for, however swift his capacity may
be, I would not advise him to travel through these pages too fast; for
if he doth, he may probably miss the seeing some curious productions of
nature, which will be observed by the slower and more accurate reader. A
volume without any such places of rest resembles the opening of wilds or
seas, which tires the eye and fatigues the spirit when entered upon.

Secondly, what are the contents prefixed to every chapter but so many
inscriptions over the gates of inns (to continue the same metaphor),
informing the reader what entertainment he is to expect, which if he
likes not, he may travel on to the next; for, in biography, as we are
not tied down to an exact concatenation equally with other historians,
so a chapter or two (for instance, this I am now writing) may be often
passed over without any injury to the whole. And in these inscriptions I
have been as faithful as possible, not imitating the celebrated
Montaigne, who promises you one thing and gives you another; nor some
title-page authors, who promise a great deal and produce nothing at all.

...[Four paragraphs elided]...

I will dismiss this chapter with the following observation: that it
becomes an author generally to divide a book, as it does a butcher to
joint his meat, for such assistance is of great help to both the reader
and the carver. And now, having indulged myself a little, I will
endeavour to indulge the curiosity of my reader, who is no doubt
impatient to know what he will find in the subsequent chapters of
this book.

It is to be hoped that you, kind reader, will be able to see how Fielding's discussion relates to your endeavor, for all that Fielding was writing comic fiction, and you are hoping that your work would not be similarly labeled.

Fielding says that the chapter headings might be considered signs above the doors of the inns visited by the reader, but I suggest thinking about those chapter (and section) headings as road signs: they help the reader orient him or herself within the work.