Thursday, November 30, 2017

Benching Eli Manning

I generally try to write things that can at least provide some reflection on the issues of scholarly writing, but this doesn't have that. I grew up in New York, and as long as I’ve been a football fan, I’ve rooted for the Giants. I’m not as enthusiastic a fan as I was when younger, but the Super Bowl wins in the 2007 and 2011 seasons brought me a good deal of pleasure. Eli Manning, of course, was crucial in those Super Bowl games, making great plays when the game was on the line.

Eli Manning is the best quarterback in team history, and may go into the Hall of Fame. He had started 210 consecutive games—second longest such streak in NFL history (edging past his brother who started 209 consecutive games). He’s still playing about as well as he always has, although his stats are down because the rest of the team is not playing well.

Manning is getting benched for the next game, breaking his streak. This move has generally been panned, with lots of people saying it’s a bad decision, and many insisting that it’s the end of Manning’s career with the Giants. Maybe it is, but I agree with the decision to bench Manning at present—though my reasoning is not, apparently identical with that of the Giants’ coach.

 Coach McAdoo has decided to start Geno Smith. This is not a good decision, in my opinion. Geno Smith is not as good an NFL quarterback as Eli. And we’ve seen a good deal of Geno—30 NFL starts, over 850 NFL pass attempts. Geno is not some dude who has barely had a chance. Geno has had years of opportunity to impress. Maybe Geno’s coaches have all been wrong, but who has Geno Smith impressed? This is his fifth season, how many surprises does Geno have for us? There is no particularly compelling reason to start Geno over Eli, except, maybe, that you want to keep Eli from getting sacked so often. Or that you want to lose some games—tanking is an option here.

 It is hard on Eli to get benched, of course. But a lot of the difficulty comes from the way it was handled, too. They could have said: “You’re getting sacked a ton, our record stinks, and we want to see if the young guy is any good. Next year you’re our starter, and maybe for a few years, but we need to start thinking about our next QB.” That doesn’t feel good for Eli, sure, but at least it’s not a commentary on his play. It’s just a smart decision with respect to evaluating the state of the team.

The Giants are having a terrible season, and to fix the problems, they need to see what they have. They need to assess young players who haven’t had the time to play. In particular, they need to assess the quarterback on whom they spent a 3rd round pick last year, Davis Webb. A 3rd round pick is a very valuable asset in the NFL. If they don’t ever play Webb, then that’s just a wasted pick. If they do play Webb, and he plays well, he’s suddenly a highly valuable asset that the Giants can use. Maybe they keep him to groom him as a starter a couple of years from now if Manning flames out, or as a trade asset in the way the Patriots used Garoppolo. Maybe Webb looks bad, which might motivate the Giants to take one of the highly regarded quarterbacks who will be available in the upcoming draft—again to groom as Manning’s backup for a season or two.

Eli Manning will be 37 when next season starts. He’s not going to play forever. The Giants suck right now, Manning is getting hammered behind a bad offensive line (he’s been sacked more in 11 games this year than he was all last year), and the Giants need to assess the quarterback they drafted last year. That’s not a reflection on Manning’s quality or ability, it’s just a realistic assessment of what the Giants need to do to start preparing for future seasons, because they’re surely not going to the playoffs this year. If I ran the Giants, I would tell Eli that he’s my quarterback until he starts playing badly, but that right now he’s sitting so I can see whether my valuable 3rd round draft pick (Davis Webb) is worth anything that I can use to help the team win next year.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The "Problem" of Similar Work

One problem that many graduate students face is that they have started on a project and then discover a book or article that is very close to what they have done.

Recently I received an email that said: “I have just found a book that makes a large number of the same arguments I was planning to make. I am having a bit of a rethink on my basic proposal, and will take longer than I planned.” I think the “will take longer” part of this is one of the most common stumbling blocks, and I think it can be generally resolved by looking at the similar work differently.

If you want to do original work, finding a work similar to what you intended can be seen as a block, as something that prevents you from doing what you wanted because what you wanted to do will no longer be original. There is, possibly, some loss in prestige in following work that someone else has already done, but this does not prevent you from doing original work that supplements or complements the already-published work. But finishing a project is a primary concern, and the existence of a published work that is very similar to what you hoped to do is actually a boon in terms of designing a project and getting it accepted.

Every similarity with some other work is something that you can cite in support of your own work. Instead of asserting a point yourself, you can make that assertion in combination with a citation, which makes the assertion more acceptable to most academic readers. The greater the similarity, the greater the strength of the foundation for your own work. When you read a work that is similar to yours, you can profit from that work if you can find one question about the work that you can turn into a good research project that you would be willing to do.

All scholarly works have some limits—some conclusion that may have interesting unexamined implications, some premise that had been defended or explained poorly, some side issue that hasn’t been examined, some point where you disagree with the work. All you have to do is find one place where you think the work is limited, and you can do some sort of study that addresses the limitation. There are even times when attempting to replicate an experiment or study can be valuable.

If you can find such a single point, you can build a study using the same theoretical framework as the work that was similar to what you wanted to do, which saves you a lot of working in explaining the motivations and theoretical foundations of your own project (which are often stumbling blocks).

When you use a lot of a specific work, you can get the additional rhetorical benefit of speaking positively of other scholars: you present your work as an attempt to cooperate with and build on work that you respect. If you frame your work in that positive cooperative relationship with the similar work, you will not be perceived as contrarian, even if you do choose to challenge one aspect of the similar work.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

New Review of My Book on Amazon UK

It's always pleasing to get a new review for my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (at least so far--I'll see how I feel about that after I get slammed in a review for the first time).  This one is on Amazon UK, and I don't know if it will ever migrate to the regular US Amazon.

A very sensible and readable book, packed with good advice for doctoral students
I purchased the Kindle book because I wanted to review Dr Harris's ideas before speaking with him, and found it so useful that I have put in an order for the paperback as well. I'm based in the UK, and the book's advice is slanted towards the US system, but not overly so, and most of the discussion of topic selection, etc. is equally applicable over here. The fundamental rationale behind doctoral level study is pretty much universal, and that is what this book addresses.

If you want to know how to "survive" the "ordeal" of a doctoral degree, then this is probably not the book for you, but if you want sensible advice and an explanation of "what" you are being asked to do, "why" you are being asked to do it (dissertation tasks are not - only - the sadistic tendencies of your professors, they do serve a purpose), and most importantly "how" to do the various elements of a PhD, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Part of getting the best out of your dissertation is the enjoyment to be found in the process of studying, and Dr Harris emphasises this factor. He doesn't hide the facts about the hard work required, but demonstrates how a change of attitude about this aspect can help you to work more effectively, faster, and to produce a better piece at the end.

The book covers questions over all aspects of study, from getting onto a programme to finishing your dissertation, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Words and Things

Writing is a process that involves a lot of learning…so much that what one wants to say can get sidetracked.
I picked the title of this post because I wanted to talk about the gap between things in the world and the words that are used to refer to them.  But there seemed a familiarity to that title, and a quick search showed that, in fact, there is a famous book titled Words and Things, by a philosopher named Ernest Gellner.  A brief perusal of Wikipedia suggests that my concern is not the same as Gellner’s but there is a relationship between them. But I don’t want to talk about Gellner’s ideas.

What I want to talk about is the gap between things in the world and the words that we use to describe them.  I have been thinking of this both with respect to a common issue that causes trouble for academics: the question of genres and how to write about genre issues, and also the question of race, which is getting a lot of attention in the U.S. press, for obvious reasons.

My main concern is that the words are not the things, and I think that dangerous effects come from assuming identity between the words and things.  This is especially a concern for the damage of over-generalization, especially the use of stereotypes.
Genre and race are social constructions: they’re lenses through which people can see the world, but close examination of the ideas will reveal that drawing the boundaries on categories like these is more a matter of choice than a matter of reality: the words get used  as people see fit, but those usages do not necessarily adhere to any objective standard that is beyond dispute. Yes, of course, if we look at individual examples (whether people or artifacts), we can easily see gross differences: yes, this man has dark skin and this man has light skin; this piece of writing has rhymes/verses, while that has prose narrative. And yes, these gross differences can be used to characterize large groups for whom those gross differences hold true.  Sometimes it can be very useful to hold on to such generalizations.
But sometimes those generalizations can become burdens.  I suppose that these burdens depend on the context, but in general, the issue at hand is what any term means is not objectively definable, nor is the meaning of any term the same for all people.

My concern for genre is prompted by a paper draft I was reading recently that spent a lot of effort on defining a genre and discussing the different theoretical concerns for the genre. The problem for the academic writer trying to use genre is that it is very easy to slip into genre debates, and little clear way to end genre debates.  The alternative for the academic writer is to avoid relying on genre terms (and other sweeping generalizations), and to focus on specific things: for example a specific work, or a specific characteristic of certain works. By focusing on the specific issues in the world—the things to be described, rather than the words chosen to describe them—there is no ground for debates that grow out of different ideas of what a word means.
This question of avoiding genre in academic debate is often a real danger to graduate students, in the sense that it can really delay development of good research, but this is a relatively insignificant concern compared to concerns about race.

My concern for race was sparked by a number of different articles I was reading recently, all of which made gross generalizations about race, despite the clear intention of the articles to reveal and disrupt the systemic patterns of racial discrimination present in the US. One article ( quoted Tim Wise: “Whites have ALWAYS felt that we were being discriminated against every time there was evidence of black or brown progress.” With all due respect to Mr. Wise, I think he should speak for himself. He has no idea what all white people think. I feel absolutely safe to say that in any large group of people, there will be a variety of opinions and ideas. Personally, I don’t feel that black or brown progress means that I am being discriminated against, even if black or brown progress erode my white privilege. Personally, I feel that black and brown progress shows a move towards the kind of society that I would like to live in, one in which all people have real opportunities, and where success is more dependent on personal traits than on parentage.
In this society that is characterized by such great divisiveness, I think that generalizations about groups tend to expand the divisions in society. Assuming that someone thinks or feels a certain thing on the basis of some gross generalization (e.g., “white vs. black”), dehumanizes the individual.  If the hope is to eliminate racism or other divisive patterns of thought, then there is benefit in trying to avoid such gross generalizations: reducing people to nothing more than avatars of some category that you have constructed in your understanding of the world, reduces your chance of cooperating with actual people.  
Whether someone gets counted as white or black depends on context—and that means that categories like white and black can be fluid. In the movie The Commitments the protagonist says “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.”  But Irish, in the context of the US in the 21st century, are most definitely not black. 
Such things can be much more personal—one can imagine, for example, the Commitments character being “black” while in Dublin, and then traveling to the US and immediately becoming white.  Do we then assume that that person will feel the same way about discrimination against blacks that a white person born and raised in a Southern family with roots tracing back to the  Confederacy and further?

Using words to focus on one thing can also obscure focus on others: I recently read an article that argued that all white people are racist, because all white people have experienced the privileges of being white. (This does make the kind of over-generalization of which I was speaking—does a Dubliner experience “white privilege” if he or she lives in a context where he or she is at the bottom of the social order?)  In the case of this article, the word “racism” was used to describe a certain thing: the experience of white privilege.  But this use of the word “racism” obscures another use of the word racism—the meaning that “racism” is an attitude of racial superiority. And that attitude is a crucial one. Yes, whites all experience white privilege, but do all whites share racist attitudes?  Using “racism” to talk about people who have benefitted from white privilege obscures the fact the some white people think that black people are inferior, while other white people do not. A white child of 3 years of age had benefitted from white privilege, but I think it unlikely that a 3-year-old can have any meaningful sense of racial superiority. More personally, since I believe that race is a social construction, I don’t think it’s meaningful to speak of racial superiority because “race” isn’t inherent in people: how can one race be superior to another if races don’t exist?

My concern here is for the use of words and for the danger of using common simple words to describe complex things in the world. If we reduce a work of art to a genre—a “novel”, classical music, etc.—then we can miss important details. Reducing people to a concept—“black,” “white,” “racist,” “woke”—obscures the complexity of people and limits chances to work together.  Trying to focus on the thing in the world may require more words—it’s more complicated to say “people who have benefitted from structural inequalities that are often based on visual cues like the light color of their skin” than it is to say “whites”—but such careful definitions avoid making simplistic assumptions about people and their attitudes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unscrupulous man admits to lack of morals

Yesterday, in a tweet about trade relations with China, Donald Trump said:

"How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would've done same!" (

That's right. He admits to "taking advantage of people" and seems to think it's a good idea. In some situations it is ok to take advantage of people: I don't blame sports teams for trying to exploit opponents' weaknesses or mistakes. But the president of the United States? That's a lousy way to govern within the nation. And, unfortunately, his policy choices certainly suggest his willingness to take advantage of the people who voted for him, by cutting services that help his voters, and giving massive tax breaks that help himself and his family.

It's a lousy way to conduct international diplomacy, too. How can any government deal with his administration and think that there's any cooperative spirit in the negotiations? Trump has made it clear that he will try to take advantage of people.

It's one thing to resist being taken advantage of. And it's completely another to go out and try to take advantage of people--especially those who are lacking knowledge (i.e., "have no clue" to use Trump's words). Saying "I take advantage of those lacking the knowledge I have," is hardly taking the moral high ground. Unless morality is measured in money.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Seeing the Other Side

In previous posts I have been talking about cooperation, referencing both academic and political issues. I will continue that here because, although, I want the blog to focus on research issues, I think the political division in the U.S. needs attention.  My voice is a very quiet one in this loud political debate, but debate and the variety of voices is crucial to the idea of democracy: democracy ideally is able to capture and respond to the best ideas provided by the many members. In this sense, the ideal democracy seems to operate on the same basic principle as the ideal competitive market: many different ideas/products get introduced, and the wisdom of the majority leads to choosing the best of them. Therefore, even quiet people like me have a civic responsibility to speak their minds.

As with previous posts, I will talk about a general principle that ought not be partisan.  If basic concepts like cooperation and compromise are partisan principles, then the political division in the U.S. is even worse than I thought.  This blog post is about something central to cooperation and compromise: the ability to understand and respect the perspective of others. Such understanding of others—empathy—is a significant part of social interaction, and when it is missing social interactions become much more difficult.  Empathy is, I think, closely relates to the Christian golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—for the golden rule you must imagine that the other feels the same things that you do.  That is, I think, part of empathy—the willingness to respect and honor the other and the other’s opinions and feelings. But the other part of empathy is to actually understand the position of the the other, to understand their ideas and feelings from a place of respect.

In politics this understanding is crucial: if you try to understand what someone unlike you feels, if you respect their feelings and their human complexity, you are more likely to be able to cooperate and compromise.

But this is also true in academia, especially as a student dealing with difficult professors.  Indeed, one reason professors can be difficult is because they don’t see the student’s side of the story. It is, of course, part of the student’s responsibility to make their side of the story clear, but part of being able to make a story clear depends on understanding what will make sense to the audience. 

It can be very difficult to understand why a person thinks in a certain way, but sometimes even basic understandings can be useful guides to attempts to communicate. For example:

1. A professor with a strong dislike of Freud, might be best approached with a discussion that mentions Freud as little as possible, even if the basic argument depends on some idea(s) of Freud. 

2. A professor who thinks in objectivist terms might best be approached using language that leans towards objectivism, even if the student is following postmodern premises. Back in the 60s, Derrida wrote:
There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to attack metaphysics. We have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is alien to this history [of metaphysics]; we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest. (Derrida, 1989/1966, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Trans. R. Macksey and E. Donato. In The Critical Tradition, 959-971. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.)
The implication, as I read this, is that someone who has certain beliefs about the nature of knowledge will structure their language—their syntax and lexicon—on the basis of those beliefs, and that implies that writing to reach that person requires speaking their language, even though that language may not fit the writer’s ways of thinking. In a way the article from which this quotation is taken exemplifies Derrida’s attempt to put his non-objectivist thinking into the language of objectivism, which ruled academia at the time (and still is influential today). Later works of Derrida (e.g., The Post Card, 1980) don’t make the attempt to be scholarly in the same way. But such works only do well with those who are already willing a predisposed to less formal logic.

Sometimes all that is really needed, is to echo back the opinion of the other: to make them certain that you heard them and respect their argument in some way. By clearly stating the position of the other, the other feels heard (hopefully), and this in itself is enough.

You may want to argue that the sky is yellow and sun is blue—it’s ok to argue for unconventional ideas (indeed, it is expected at a certain level)—but your argument ought to at least acknowledge that most people believe that the sun is yellow and the sky blue. 

If you’re working with a professor who is opposed to the foundational ideas that you use, then you may have no option but to write in a way that acknowledges their ways of thinking. If they expect you to prove things, you need to figure out how to “prove” your ideas, even if they are not “provable.”

If you can’t see the other side, you’re going to struggle to get your ideas a hearing.  This is especially true if you treat your interlocutor with disrespect.  If you can’t respect the ideas of your interlocutor, you’re more likely to show exasperation at them, which only makes future communication more difficult. And, on the flip side, it’s also true that if your professor shows exasperation with your work, it’s hard to avoid a negative emotional response, which makes future communication and cooperation more difficult.