Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cooperation and compromise

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cooperation requires respect for others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

New review of my book (2)

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

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

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

New review of my book (1)

Recently, two people have posted new reviews of my book Getting the Best of Your Dissertation.
The first (posted on October 9) was posted by a former client of mine, so definitely biased, but also glowing:

From Dissertation Nightmare to Dissertation Success with Dissertation Dave - The Best Dissertation Coach in the World 
One of my favorite sections in this book is 7.2 Managing People, Especially Your Professors. I started working with Dave after making essentially zero progress on my dissertation after more than a year. I was doing a literature review and reading a lot of stuff, but not really making measurable progress. After working with Dave, I started to race through writing my dissertation. He is not someone who added dissertation students to his other schedule of activities, he is a full-time dissertation coach and dissertation expert. With his Ph.D. from Berkeley and his work with hundreds of students, no matter what dissertation disaster you are facing, I'm sure he can help you with this book and with coaching. Start with this book, but call him, because if you are not making progress or your committee is not helping you or worse against you, you can benefit from his dissertation expertise and experiences. I was already an expert in my discipline, but I was not an expert at navigating the significant politics and protocols that accompany the dissertation process - that's why I needed Dave! That's why you might need this book and Dave too. Dissertation Dave was so effective in eliciting dissertation writing from me, that my husband who was also working on his dissertation started working with him too.Dissertation coaching with Dave is a mega catalyst for dissertation completion. My husband also finished his dissertation, thanks to working with Dissertation Dave. I do not want to go into all of my dissertation headaches on Amazon, but I am telling you that I had at least 50 I can't believe this happened, I don't know if I can make it, God are you out there, moments. Thank God I finally found Dissertation Dave.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Bad Letter On Time is Better Than A Good Letter Late

“A bad letter on time is better than a good letter late.”  This is an idea I have long used as a quotation from the letters of Laurence Sterne, the 18th century English author.  It is, I find, a mis-quote of a letter Sterne wrote on August 3, 1760, which includes the following lines:
“thinking that a bad letter in season— to be better than a good one, out of it — this scrawl is the consequence, which, if you will burn the moment you get it—I promise to send you a fine set essay.”

The principle is one that I have used so many times, that I am quite surprised that I have only used it in one previous blog post, and never as the subject of one itself.

I was thinking of this quotation today for a couple of reasons, but then trying to find a subject for a blog post added another: I didn’t have a clear subject to discuss that I felt capable of discussing in a relatively constrained format.  I’m thinking a lot about the intersection of knowledge and politics, but there are a lot of separate threads that I’m having trouble untangling to put into any form that suits for a short piece.

I was thinking about the quotation with respect to a client who is sure he can’t write. My response is that the only way to resolve that is to practice writing—to be willing to produce something—anything—that can be critiqued. Good writers practice. I don’t think there’s any way around practicing.  I was also thinking how being willing to write bad drafts allows the practice that is crucial for generating good drafts.  The more you practice, the better your writing gets. Ironically, the willingness to be wrong allows the practice that allows growth, learning and the development of improved writing skills.

I was also thinking about it in terms of another client who has a number of different places to submit material, and I think a bad letter in season is better. If you have something to show to other people, they have an opportunity to appreciate it and learn from it, and/or to give you feedback so that you learn from the process. Sharing something bad creates the possibility of working with other people. By contrast, insisting on writing a good letter means missing opportunities—especially if your standard for a good letter is so high that you struggle to reach it.

In one episode of the Great British Baking Show, one of the participants ends up throwing his cake into the trash. As a result, he was sent home from the show. Unlike the others, he had nothing to show, and that was the deciding factor. Had he even shown any cake, he might well have survived for another week. For him, a bad cake in season would definitely have been superior.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Whose Responsibility is Communication?

My two previous posts were concerned with getting feedback and dealing with feedback, and this is following up on those ideas. I’m still thinking from the perspective of the writer concerned with the response, and particularly thinking about dealing with difficult feedback—complaints about the quality of work. I’m also thinking about a conversation I had with a friend about the purpose of music and of performing music.  The question in conversation was about the relationship between [author/performer/presenter] and audience, and where responsibility lies.

What burden lies on the performer to reach the audience? And is there any burden on the audience? In the previous post, I was writing about some comments that were difficult, and a lot of my response lies in my sense that the comments don’t reflect a sufficient attempt to understand the writer’s point of view.  But that idea requires believing that the reader has some responsibility in his or her approach to the work.

Different relationships between author/performer and audience bear different burdens of responsibility.  A professor definitely has different responsibility to the author of a dissertation than a bar patron does to no-cover charge musician. But still the question of where responsibility lies is one to consider, especially in the context of receiving feedback.

The bar patron hearing a no-cover musician bears little or no responsibility to the performer.  Certainly there is some normal standard of decorum—the bar patron can’t start yelling and trying to drown out the musician—but the bar patron certainly has the right to ignore the musician and to laugh out loud in conversation with a friend, even if that does interfere with the musician’s  performance.  If the audience for the musician has to pay for admission, then the expectations shift: having an audience paying to listen to music creates a greater responsibility for members of the audience. Of course, asking patrons to pay also means that they have a greater interest in fulfilling that general responsibility of listening. As anyone who has attended an expensive arena concert knows, there always seem to be plenty of people in the audience who have bought tickets whose primary interest is in the social event, not the concert itself, and thus talk through the music, but when people have paid for the music, this kind of behavior is less polite than identical behavior in a no-cover charge bar—it’s a matter of degree.

This was the conversation that I was having with my friend, who was talking about the difference in the behavior of audiences who paid vs. audiences at a free event.  That focuses on audience behavior.  The flip side is to wonder about the desires and purposes of the author or the performer. How the author/performer views the audience’s responses depends on what the author wants from the audience.

For my friend, the heart of the matter was in the music: the musician, he believed, should not compromise the integrity of the music, and it was important to have people who were coming to respect the music.  For me, the audience matters, too: if the music is really only about the music, then what’s the need for an audience? Once you bring the audience into the picture, the music in itself is not the only concern.  

To what extent is it a sell-out to shape the performance to meet the audience?

And to what extent is purity lost, if it reaches no audience?

Writers need audiences, and that means convincing audiences that the reading is worth the effort. If you have the choice to just write whatever you want and can then hope that someone will pick it up, that’s great—it will serve you well, if, like many writers, you have to submit it to many publishers before you find one that will take the work. On the other hand, if your audience is fixed—if you know that it’s a certain person—is it a sell-out to change what you do so that your audience will accept the work?

For writing more than for music, there is an underlying story or idea that could be transmitted in many different ways. To me, it’s that story that matters, and the form in which it is delivered is not fixed by the underlying purpose.

The Tao Te Ching opens by saying that the Tao that can be spoken (written) is not the absolute Tao.  But the book still continues to tell of the Tao. I think that writers need to think in those terms: the story that you tell is not the absolute version of the story, but you need to tell a story, anyway. Research (and therefore writing about research) delves into realms of uncertainty—but that can’t stop scholars, or the entire scholarly community would collapse. Research writing does its best to assert confidence, while still acknowledging the myriad limitations that any works of research faces.

Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with the statement that if one cannot speak accurately, one should remain silent (I’m paraphrasing slightly), and he never published another significant work in his life—his Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously from his notebooks.  Modeling your work as a scholar on the pattern of Wittgenstein—refusing to say anything unless it’s exactly right and certain—is not a path to scholarly success. 

If you are a writer, it’s useful to think about the gap between the ideas that you espouse and want to share and the many different ways in which those ideas can be expressed so as to reach different audiences. Reaching the audience is the writer’s responsibility. Although the reader may bear some burden of responsibility, it’s usually beneficial to simply accept the burden of reaching the audience: what does my reader want?  

(As a practical aside, understanding how to identify and write for an audience is extremely useful in getting published, because publishers want to sell books, and that means they want to know who you think your book will sell to.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

On receiving difficult feedback

In my last post, I was writing about how getting feedback is good, even when it’s bad feedback.  And I still believe that, even though I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes fuming over the quality of the feedback from the dissertation chair of the pseudonymous RSP (really smart person). 

To me, much of it seems petty and unnecessary. It angers me to see, for example, general statements that are obvious—beyond obvious—taken to task. But I look again, and I wonder, is it really obvious?

RSP and I share some fundamental views about the very nature of philosophy, especially with respect to the indeterminacy/indefinite nature of structures of knowledge (that’s not necessarily how RSP would phrase it, though), which leads to my accepting ideas that others are not so ready to accept. And that’s the issue: I’m not the person that RSP has to satisfy, and getting angry at the chair doesn’t actually help me find a route to satisfy the chair.

It’s a challenge to work through feedback like that. It’s the death of a thousand pinpricks. I read one comment, and I’m slightly annoyed. I read two, I’m a little more annoyed. I read four or ten or a dozen, and I’m fuming. It’s not even my work and I’m still more than annoyed at the feedback. There are comments that I agree with and comments that complimentary. But those are respites in a sea of brambles, picking at my skin. 

Is this bad feedback?  That depends on the standards by which I judge it. By the standards that come most easily—the emotional response shaped by by immediate intellectual judgements about the feedback (e.g., being annoyed that the chair asks for a citation on a claim that I don’t think ought to be cited)—yes, it’s bad feedback.  Bad in two ways: 1. doesn’t give sufficient guidance on how to fix it (e.g., “I don’t like the way you do this” vs. “you need to take steps X, Y, and Z to resolve this problem”), and, 2. emotionally loaded, at times (e.g., not only saying “this is a problem” but also “I don’t know why you refuse to fix this problem”).  The thing about those judgements is that they’re entirely based on my own perspective. What about the professor’s perspective?

I don’t know the professor’s perspective, of course, so I’m left to guess. And given that there is not enough clear guidance on how to fix it to be confident, my guess is a little bit of a shot in the dark. But it’s the best I can do…

In this situation, it’s interesting to try to imagine what the person who gave feedback is thinking. What is it that the chair needs or wants that is not being delivered? Is the resistance a matter of resistance to the general project? Or is it a resistance to a specific absence?  These questions are speculative, of course, but exploring them can be useful at least in defusing some of the emotion. Is the chair unable to understand some points? Or unwilling? Is the problem that the chair disagrees with something or that the chair thinks something is unclear?

A dissertation writer is obviously a student who is n many ways at the mercy of the dissertation chair. But it still can be useful to think as a teacher: suppose, as a teacher, you have trouble reaching a student? Do you say that the student is too stupid? Or do you try to explain the same ideas from a different angle?
Getting feedback can be difficult to deal with, but to try to think through the eyes of the person who gave the feedback can help at least defuse some of the emotional charge.

Once you’re past the emotional charge (at least for a while): What is the plan to persuade that person of the value of your work? What steps can you take? In this case, and in many others, my next step is to look for the feedback that seems the best: there are dozens of comments in this draft—which ones do I think make good points that I want to address?  It’s with these that I will start, and the rest, I’ll look at later—maybe I’ll figure something out for them by trying to respond to the feedback that asks good questions.

None of this eliminates the emotional sting of a complaint, or the frustration of wading through pages filled with comments, but it does help me step back from the work to ask whether the same ideas could be conveyed in a different form. And what form would be suitable to satisfy the specific individual of significance (the chair)? The written work is not an abstract sharing of some idealized truth, but rather a lesson that teaches your reader the value of the work. If your reader doesn’t get it the first time, how can you do it differently to resolve the difficulties that appeared?