Monday, July 16, 2018

Perspective and telling your story

This is a follow-up to my previous post about writing from the heart and writing exercises, in which I argued that, while it is always important to be true to the story that you want to tell, sometimes it is a valuable exercise to try to tell that story in a way that suits a particular audience, especially an unfriendly audience.  This takes that same issue from a slightly different perspective—from the view that any story can be told in different ways. I’m not talking about there being two sides to every story, in the colloquial sense of different people viewing the same event in different lights—though that is closely related. I’m talking about how one person with one story can tell that one story in different ways and with different perspectives.

Consider, for example, this blog post and my previous one: both are telling my views on writing to varying audiences, including hostile ones, but the first focused on viewing the activity through the lens of a writing practice—a practice to develop your writing skills—and this through the lens of the variety of perspectives inherent in a given story.

Or consider, for example, a research analysis using a novel method: just from the start, one can focus on what the new method reveals about the subject or on how that particular analysis reveals insight into the method. Both of these are typically present in any research project that applies new research methodologies to old, established fields of study.

The perspective that you take in writing or telling your story can shift, even if the underlying story itself remains the same.  Now it may be that you are more interested in one perspective than the other, but that only makes it a little harder to shift to other perspectives. Because stories are complex, the other perspectives are always there.

The researcher who picks up a new method may be so fascinated with the method and learning the method that he/she tends to focus on the methodological issues despite matters of interest in the subject, or may be so focused on the research subject that he/she disregards matters of method.  And yet, in this generic situation—applying a new method of analysis to an old problem—both the perspectives are always there.  This can be most easily seen by imagining two separate audiences: one, the audience of people interested in the subject, the other, the audience of people interested in the development of the method.

The perspectives focused on theory and subject aren’t the only possible perspectives, of course. Any work that bridges disciplines will naturally have separate perspectives for each discipline. And then any study of literature or history or any social phenomenon could choose to focus on a variety of perspectives, including historical, economic, sociological, or technological concerns. A Jane Austen novel, for example, could be examined through all these lenses (and probably has been).  Or a building designed by Le Corbusier. These many lenses could be turned on almost anything related to humans.

How does this perspective (that every story can be told from multiple perspectives) affect your practice as a writer? In my previous post, I was talking about writing to a hostile audience while staying true to your own story, and I think there’s a similar opportunity there. In the previous post, I suggested using the attempt to write to a hostile audience, and to suit one’s words to the hostile audience, as an exercise to improve your skill as a writer. Now I’m suggesting a way to deepen your thinking about your work by imagining the different perspectives that different audiences are taking.  What perspective is your hostile audience taking?

By understanding the perspective of your audience, you can better craft your response so that you can reach them.  Understanding the perspective of your audience means understanding what they are going to focus on as important.  Now it is quite possible that what they want to focus on is not what you want to focus on. In the long run, of course, you do want to try to bring the discourse around to focus on what you want to focus on. But the starting place is to focus on what they want to focus on.

If you think of the different perspectives on your story as all being present in your own story, you can start to see how to tell the story you want to tell, even if the first things you need to talk about (write about) are not the things that you care about most.  Such shaping of your presentation to suit your audience is not a sell-out of your story: you can stay true to your story. It can be a very good learning experience as you try to imagine your work through someone else’s eyes. (But of course, try to imagine your work through reasonable eyes—you don’t want to get stuck asking yourself self-destructive questions about your work.) Imagining reasonable objections to your work is a good way to make it stronger—finding real weaknesses is the first step in fixing them. (But, again, be reasonable: all work has some limitations, so don’t throw your work away as soon as you see some weakness in it.)

Hostile audiences are often hostile because they see the world differently from you. Trying to understand their perspectives can help you gain some insight into your work by looking at it from angles you may not usually consider, and trying to communicate your understanding of their perspective can help reduce their hostility to your work. 

Trying to build such communicative bridges is not, in my view, an abdication of your story or any sort of selling out.  Communication need not be focused on and framed around a disagreement, even if that disagreement is central to the work being done.  The very fact that you are communicating with a given group means that there is some common ground—some place on which you stand along with your hostile audience.  That common ground is a good place place to start a discussion that will lead to a point of dispute. That shared perspective, however limited, is a tool to try to bridge the differences.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Writing from the heart and writing exercises

Last week I wrote about a scholar who does great work, but whose dissertation has not satisfied its reviewers. I am, to some extent, writing about that same or a tangential concern and a related idea that came up in my creative writer’s group. A poet in the group was talking about submitting work to various journals/e-journals and about his recognition of the tension between writing what he wanted to write and writing what would suit the journal/editor. This is a similar tension to that experienced by a scholar who is trying to please an audience that is in some way hostile to their work.  To what extent do you change what you say to please the audience? Especially when the audience has power—power to accept or reject your work? This is, in a way, one face of “selling out”: doing work that you don’t really believe in for financial gain.

To speak of “selling out” focuses on a sacrifice of integrity, and that’s not really where I want to go. I think there is a lot more to the dynamic between writer and audience than a simple, clear assumption that pleasing and audience is always a sacrifice of integrity. There is a balance that can be found between (1) writing for yourself and to be true to your own vision and (2) writing to please an audience, especially one that doesn’t want the same things you do. There’s a lot in this dynamic that I’m not going to discuss in this post. I want to focus on just one suggestion: view the task of writing to please a specific (possibly hostile) audience as an exercise in developing your ideas and your skill as a writer.

A scholar—or any writer—should be aiming to write about things that really matter personally. Write about things that you really care about and believe in. If you’re working on something that you care about and believe in, it’s much easier to do the work, and much more satisfying to work, and that generally means that there’s less danger of writer’s block or avoidance.

But what do you really care about? Is that something that can be expressed in only one way? To what extent can you shape your work to suit your audience without sacrificing your own integrity?

It seems to me that any idea can be expressed in many different ways.  It seems to me that most really substantive ideas have multiple dimensions that could be discussed in varying proportion to suit varying audiences.

To put this in terms of poetry, one might choose to express some thought—the transient nature of life, for example—in different poetic forms—sonnet, haiku, etc. Each form shapes how the idea is expressed, but none fundamentally change the underlying idea (or at least none need change the underlying idea—but most writers learn as they write, and learning does change ideas).

When writing to an audience that wants something other than what you want—if you really want to write haiku and your audience is expecting or demanding a sonnet, you can say “I’m not going to do it! I write haiku!”  That would lead to something of an impasse. What I am suggesting is that you approach such situations saying to yourself, “Maybe I can learn something from the exercise of writing a sonnet. Maybe I can learn something about my ideas and something about the craft of writing that will help me write better haiku in the future.”

Approach such situations is as an exercise—opportunities to stretch your communicative repertoire.  If you don’t want to write what the other person wants to read, and if you think of the task in those terms, you can easily feel resentment for having to work on something that you don’t want to work on. If you say “can I choose words that will satisfy my critical reviewer and also stay true to my purpose?”, then your challenge may not be flavored with resentment—and that’s worth a lot (especially if you are one of those people for whom resentment fuels procrastination).

There is a lot that can be done to shape a presentation of your ideas without sacrificing them or your integrity.  Let’s set aside extreme cases where you are called upon to make a statement that directly contradicts your beliefs—if the editor at the journal wants a poem on a subject you don’t want to write about, don’t write it. If your professor wants you to say “Marx was right about everything” and you don’t agree, don’t write it. But if you’re not being forced to a direct contradiction of your beliefs, then look for the challenge of writing your own ideas in a way that will reach the difficult audience. Look for the opportunity to develop your skill as a writer and the opportunity to find a new way to express a familiar idea.

You may need to (temporarily) abandon the ways in which you have previously tried to write about your work.  This can be frustrating and difficult, but it can be a great learning experience for a writer—both in terms of developing a greater discursive repertoire and skill as a writer.

Looking for new ways to communicate and old idea doesn’t change the underlying purposes, the underlying quality, or the underlying value of the work. It doesn’t stop the underlying message from being shared with others in other forms.  What it does do is stretch the scholar/writer’s ability to bridge communicative and intellectual gaps.

There is a problem in trying to write in a way that reaches people with whom you have fundamental disagreements—trying to write in their language often requires adopting some of the conceptual structures that they use.  This makes the exercise in trying to write across these communicative gaps quite difficult while still remaining true to your own vision.  But, if you remember to think of the exercise as an exercise—an attempt to develop the ability to write/speak to disparate audiences—then these dangers are challenges to be surmounted, rather than causes to abandon your beliefs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Make Them Reject It!

At a certain point, it is necessary to trust yourself that your work is good enough and ought to be accepted. Some self-doubt is appropriate—after all, there is little logical certainty to be had, and no matter how much data you gather or how many books/articles you read, there are always more data to be gathered and more books/articles to read. But, as a matter of practicality, eventually you must believe in yourself and believe that the work you have done is good work. At that point, it’s necessary to challenge your readers to reject your work.  You don’t want to get rejected, of course. You want to take the attitude that your work should be accepted, and that if someone is going to reject it, they better have damn good reasons for rejecting it.

Eventually, it’s necessary to force the issue with your reviewers—professors, editors, grant reviewers or whoever. It’s necessary for your work to be reviewed, regardless of outcome. In this post, I frame that in terms of “make them reject you,” not “make them accept you,” because I want to focus on the common emotional dynamic that many authors face where expectation of a negative response starts to impede progress. If your progress is delayed by thinking “they’re going to reject it,” then you might benefit from thinking “I have done good work, and I believe that my work should be accepted, and if they don't accept it, they better have a good reason, not some overly general complaint.”

In this post, I am generally writing to people who have brought their project to a certain level of accomplishment—people who have been basically diligent in their research and writing. If you haven’t completed a first draft yet, it’s probably better to finish the first draft and solicit feedback, expecting a critique, rather than “making them reject you”—getting a first draft returned with feedback isn’t a rejection, it’s an opportunity to improve the work.  Still, even during the early stages of a project, it’s good to think “I am going to do good work, and when I’ve finished, they better have damn good reasons if they reject me,” because it’s easy to get hung up thinking “they’ll reject me” at any point in a project.

I’m writing this post because I was recently talking with a scholar at the very end of a dissertation who was trying to respond to unreasonable expectations. A complete draft had been provisionally accepted, and in my eyes, it easily surpassed the quality necessary for a doctoral dissertation.  But the scholar was getting hung up on comments from some of the reviewers—getting hung up trying to make plans to respond to unreasonable complaints. And what was really needed was that the scholar assert that the work in the dissertation was done responsibly and to a reasonable standard. No work is perfect; every work has limits. At a certain point complaints that are logically defensible in the abstract become completely unreasonable in the context of the real practice of research.

When I say unreasonable, I’m thinking of one comment this scholar had received, in particular. One professor had said: “You didn’t come up with these ideas. Where did you get them?” There are contexts in which this might be a reasonable complaint—if, for example, the professor is absolutely certain of a specific source that uses the idea in question—but it is not a generally reasonable complaint inasmuch as the expectation and primary criterion for scholarly success is to come up with something new. The presumption that the scholar did not come up with the ideas is problematic.

A complaint like that must be met with confidence. It must be met with “These are my ideas. I have not read them anywhere else or heard them anywhere else. If you know of someone who has used them, please tell me.”  This doesn’t work, of course, if you want to claim that some well-known, established idea as your own—“every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” for example—but if ideas are really yours, it’s necessary to claim it, and to force the other person to prove you wrong. Say: “I have never seen this before, and I looked for things like it. Have you ever seen it? If so, where? Because I would like to see that source.” Such a response: 1. claims that you have been diligent; 2. forces the reviewer to specify, thus revealing whether the complaint is reasonable (there’s a source you should have used and didn’t) or unreasonable (it’s just an excuse to complain); and 3. it presents you as wanting to use the information (i.e., you want their advice, and you avoid conflict). This kind of response can help defuse complaints that are driven by emotional rather than intellectual motivations. And remember, it’s perfectly possible to independently come up with an idea that someone else has also had (e.g., Newton, Leibniz, and calculus)—it’s not a crime to assert “I haven’t seen that source, and came up with the idea on my own.”

A similarly unreasonable complaint is an open ended “how do you know no one else has done this?” A good scholar takes steps to find all possible resources that touches on the issues in their work. But no scholar, no matter how good, can read everything written. There are simply too many publications for any one person to read or even review them all. A good scholar will take steps to know what has been published in the literature, and then, having taken those steps, should proceed to do his or her own work.  At some point the scholar has to leave previous publications behind.  It should be enough to take diligent action to survey the literature and then to say “I have taken appropriate steps to review the literature, but that does not guarantee that my search did not miss something.”  On a certain level, this problem is something like the more general problem of induction: no matter how many observations an empirical scientist may take, it is always possible that the next observation will not follow the pattern set by previous observations. No matter how many articles you may read on a subject, you cannot guarantee that there will not be some other article that you did not find in previous searches. New articles are published every day--even if you did all the work as of yesterday, that could have changed with new publications.

It must be admitted that it is appropriate for a professor to ask what you have done to ensure that you haven’t missed anything. And it’s not right to be unduly arrogant about the work you have done. But when complaints like “how do you know there isn’t some work you haven’t seen” is combined with a less reasonable complaint like “these ideas aren’t yours; where did they come from,” then it’s appropriate to start to read that complaint as being unreasonable rather than just reasonable.

Ever since David Hume elucidated the problem of induction in the 18th century, empirical science has struggled to negotiate the problem that the next observation may break the pattern of previous observations. You’ve only seen white swans and never a black one? That doesn’t prove that there are no black swans, but still…  You’ve only seen books/articles that address one aspect of an idea, but not another? It doesn’t prove that there are no works that address the other idea, but…

At a certain point—when work has been executed diligently and carefully—you have to ask whether their complaints are reasonable, and you have to assert that your work is worthy. You have to force their hands: make them either reject your work or accept it, but don’t let them implicitly reject it by getting you hung up on unanswerable and unreasonable questions.

At a certain point, you have to force them to take their own stand and explicate their concerns, and if they reject you, either they have good reasons (I mean reasons that seem good to you and worth responding to, as opposed to unanswerable, unreasonable questions like “how do you know you’ve read everything?”) or you challenge their rejection (with, of course, an explanation of why your work ought not respond to their complaint).

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What are they thinking? Part 2: Speaking the same language


Last week, I wrote about the importance trying to understand the reasoning used by people who do things that seem inexplicable within our own reasoning schemes. I used two examples, one of a scholar struggling to communicate with her advisor, the other of the Democratic bewilderment at the behavior of GOP voters (who supposedly vote against their own best interests). That previous post wasn’t necessarily focused in reaching some point, but I suppose that I might summarize it as follows: people’s decisions are made with respect to their own sets of reasons; the fact that some decision seems unreasonable to you, implies that you do not understand the reasoning that guided the decision. Advisors want their students to graduate, and people vote for what they perceive to be their own best interests. Assuming anything else is silly.

People are sometimes wrong about their beliefs, and people sometimes draw bad conclusions from good evidence. I’m not denying that people make mistakes.  In the case of the scholar who can’t get her advisor to approve her work, I think the advisor is making a mistake. But my thinking that it is a mistake doesn’t change what the advisor believes. In the case of GOP voters, it may be that they would benefit in some ways from voting for non-GOP candidates, but that doesn’t mean that they weigh the costs and benefits of their decisions in the same way that you would.

The question of this post is on how to communicate with people who are seeing the world radically differently, and, if possible, to convince such people to consider seeing the world more as you do.  For both the scholar trying to convince her advisor, and for the politician trying to convince a potential voter, the issue is how does one sway the ideas so that the other will do as desired?
I have framed this in terms of Democrats trying convince Republicans because I don’t hear the Republicans saying “why do they vote against their best interests,” but the same dynamic is surely applicable--every single person has some desire to get others to act in ways that serve their own personal interests. I want people to act in ways that serve my interests, and you want people to act in ways that serve your interests—in a way, that’s exactly what “interests” are: the things that we want to happen.  When person A sees person B do something that A feels is not in his/her bet interest, A is motivated to get B to do otherwise.  Democrats want to get people who didn’t vote Democratic in the past to vote Democratic in the future. Republicans want to get people who didn’t vote Republican to vote Republican in the future.  And, of course, every scholar wants to convince their readers to accept their work.

The first step in getting people to see things your way is to make sure that you speak their language, and I mean “language” in a general sense to mean not only the large-scale language that determines their vocabulary and sentence structure (e.g., English vs. French), but also the more personal intellectual structures that shape their ideas. If, for example, a scholar has a deep reliance on the idea of “objective truth”, that belief will shape the language that they use and how they interpret language, too: such a scholar might not be able to hear or absorb ideas and language shaped by the assumption that there is no objective truth. Or a profoundly religious person might see the world through a lens of religious belief that makes little or no sense to a less religious person, and that difference in perspective may mean that each person views the ideas of the other as incoherent or wrong-headed.

Understanding the underlying logical structures that people are using creates an opportunity to begin to work with people and to begin to shape their reasoning.  The problem with speaking someone else’s language is that it will only make sense if you accept some of their underlying reasoning—and that can be uncomfortable.  But, if you can keep in mind that your effort is to communicate, then you can begin to build the necessary communicative bridges that will help you reach the person who understands the world very differently.

So, to summarize: 1. Remember that people are reasoning with respect to their own sets of ideas; assuming that they are incoherent or working against their best interests doesn’t provide insight into the reasoning that is guiding their decisions. 2. Understanding their reasoning, allows you to begin to speak their language, and unless you speak their language, they probably won’t understand you—and if they don’t understand you, you’re not going to have success convincing them that your work is good.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What are they thinking?

What I’m thinking about is two separate issues that have at least one point of intersection.  One of these issues is the struggle of a scholar to get her Ph.D. accepted by her committee.  This scholar does work of exceptionally high quality. I know plenty of people who did worse work and got a Ph.D., including myself. The other issue is the more general political trope common on America’s political left of asking why so many people vote for GOP candidates who propose policies that are clearly to their detriment, at least in some ways.

In both cases, we could ask ourselves: “what are they thinking?”  In the case of my scholar and her committee, she can reasonably ask “what are they thinking?” with respect to her dissertation, when by many standards her work obviously qualifies, and the reception her work receives from many scholars not on her committee confirms this. In the case of the GOP voters, we might ask “what are they thinking?” with respect to those GOP voters who have no health care, who need health care, who can’t afford health care, and who also regularly vote for candidates who are hostile to government action to provide health care for everyone.

Now, “what are they thinking?” can be asked from a point of curiosity—of wanting to know what they are thinking?  But it can also be asked from a more settled position—a position of greater belief in one’s own rightness—as a paraphrase of “how silly they are to think that!”

This post is about the importance of asking that question from the first perspective, not the second.  I don’t mean to say that you should not believe your own opinions—if you think someone is doing something silly or wrong, you may very well be right.  People do all sorts of silly things.  And if you’re just sitting back watching, thinking what they do is silly works just fine.  But if you’re involved—if you have some need to interact with or convince these people—as the scholar needs to convince her committee, and the political left wants to convince people to vote for candidates who align with the left—then that second version of the question is not going to help you get what you need.

If you need to communicate with people, and you want to get them to cooperate with you, there is great value in sincerely and openly asking “what are you thinking?” And there is great danger in the second version: “how could anyone be so silly as to think that?”

In the case of the scholar, it’s a little hard to dismiss her committee as silly, but taking them seriously is not quite enough to convince them that they should be on board with a project. It’s necessary to find out and understand what they are thinking so that you can create the necessary communicative bridges that will help them understand what you’re thinking.  (As I write that, it occurs to me that if you’re thinking “what are they thinking?” about someone, they may well be thinking the same thing as you are—certainly the political right speaks of the political left as foolish/immoral/etc., which are flavors of “how could anyone be so silly to think that?”)

To communicate, and to persuade people to accept your way of thinking, you need to present to them ideas that make sense to them—and that means understanding what they think, so that you can suit your communication to their ideas.

If, for example, the scholar of my example wants her committee to accept her work she needs to convince them of its value (and the fact that other people find it valuable doesn’t help with that), and that means understanding what they value and framing your work with respect to ideas that they are already using.  And then figuring out how to make some conceptual bridge to the ideas that you are using.

This can be particularly difficult if the ideas that you are using are radically different from the ideas that they are using. For the scholar, part of her struggle is getting her committee to accept her research methodology.  In thinking about her situation, I was thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his idea that different scientific paradigms are “incommensurable”—that is to say that there is no absolute, objective standard by which all paradigms can be measured—what makes sense in one paradigm doesn’t make sense in others. In the scholar’s case, one of the crucial structures of her research doesn’t really play any role in the research paradigms used by her committee—the question, then, is how to bring this structure into her dissertation in a way that her committee accepts it. Ultimately, I think that the route is through understanding and focusing on what the committee wants. Yes, it may be true that what they want doesn’t make sense from the scholar’s paradigm, but focusing on that difference in view doesn’t suggest a good strategy for moving forward. What does, is to look at what the committee thinks is important, and then use that to create as much common ground as possible—then, once the common ground has been created, it becomes easier to start to make a bridge to her own work—how can she frame her choices in terms of questions that the committee thinks important? How can the ideas that are important to the committee be used to explain the choices she made that led her work to diverge from their expected paradigm?

There’s another dynamic that can play a role, too: if you think “how can they be so silly to think that?" about someone with whom you interact, you’re likely to antagonize them.  Recently, while reading articles that brought up the “voting against their own interest” idea, I have been flashing back to a popular song from my youth: The Suicidal Tendencies’ Institutionalized.  The song relates interactions between child and parents, and near the end, the parents say “We’ve decided it’s in your best interest that…” And the song narrator cries “My best interest? How do you know what my best interest is?” Knowing what is in someone’s best interests is complicated—in the song, maybe the parents really do know their child’s interests, or maybe the parents are wrong. Regardless of what the song narrator’s best interests really are—whether the parents are right or the child—we can certainly say that most people, like the child in the song, will resent having someone else tell them what their best interests are. And that is especially true if they think that the other person/people doesn’t/don’t understand them.  Politicians are not going to win voters by saying “I know what you want better than you do.” Politicians are more likely to win voters by saying “your interests are valuable; here’s my plan to address them.” Or, if possible, to shift people fro one set of ideas to another: “your interests are valuable, but here’s something else that might be valuable to you, too.”  This second is what the scholar needs to do with her committee, certainly: she needs her dissertation to be able to say “here’s something you care about; I want to work on that problem because it’s something we both care about; But I am going to take a very different approach, so please give me a moment to explain why I’m taking this approach, even though it may not make sense to you at first glance.” If she can convince her committee that the problem she is working on is a problem that they care about, and get them to focus on that problem, then that focus on the problem can serve as the conceptual landmark that helps the committee orient themselves with respect to the unfamiliar ideas that the scholar needs them to accept in order to accept her thesis.

This is not the most focused post ever—there is more to be said than I want to write now—but I’ve already gone well over one thousand words, which is generally my target for blog posts, so I’m going to call it a wrap.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My problem with non-objectivist philosophies

Frequently, I quote from the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching: “the Tao that can be named is not the absolute Tao.” It’s an epistemological statement of limitation—a statement about our ability to know and communicate ideas—and one that reflects my understanding of our ability to know things. Knowledge, I believe, is not absolute. I do not, in short, accept the existence of “objective knowledge”—but that has implications for a scholar, philosopher, or researcher, and it becomes a problem.

Objective knowledge (if there is such a thing) is, by definition, true for everyone. That’s a great standard on which to drive a research agenda: “I’m going to discover something that everyone can agree upon!”
But if there is no objective knowledge—as generally asserted by post-modern and other philosophies (e.g., American Pragmatism, Hume's Skepticism, the Tao Te Ching)—what then prevents the slip of research into knowledge that is only meaningful for the individual?  If there is no objective knowledge, what makes my work valuable to anyone else?
This is one of the struggles for non-objectivist scholars: on the one hand, the limitations of knowledge are made central to any argument, and on the other, there is a desire to do work that is meaningful and even useful to others.

A lot of research strives to serve important social goals, but if the work is only “true” for a select group of people and not for others, can that serve the larger social goal?  This idea of being able to generalize is central to research methods, even those that accept limits to objective knowledge: the point of those methods are to give research work a foundation that others will accept, too.

For me, personally, I want to espouse ideas that will be “true” for everyone—ideas that any person would accept, given the evidence.  When I write about issues in writing and research, I want to write things that help others, and that requires other people to be able to apply my ideas to their view of the world.  But at the same time, one of the ideas that I write about is how ideas are limited, and how they are imperfect and uncertain, and that makes it difficult to make any claims.

So how to do I convince other people that my work has meaning and value to them?  This is especially difficult when dealing with people who generally accept the idea of objective truth.  After all, objective truth is a very comforting notion—even if the objective truth is unpleasant, it is, at least, certain and undeniable. A truth that is contingent on my limited knowledge and perspectives, on the other hand, is much more easily dismissed.

The problem, then, with non-objectivist philosophies, is how to convince others that they are meaningful and useful without resting on the idea that the claims are universally true.
My answer is generally driven by pragmatic concerns: because logical, certain proof is out of reach, and because I need to commit to something in writing (otherwise, I don’t write), I do my best. I accept what I accept for the best reasons that I can find and go from there.

On a certain level, that’s fine: personally, I’m ok making decisions in the face of uncertainty, and even though I’m sometimes wrong, I don’t belabor the decisions that were the best decisions I could make. But on another level, it’s a big problem if the audience doesn’t like what you have to say, or doesn’t accept what you have to say, especially if they want something certain—something solid that, if not objective, at least makes a claim to objectivity.

I don’t really have the answer to convincing a hostile audience. But I suppose on place to look is at your own concerns: what benefits might accrue from your research? If you suggest looking at some field of endeavor from a new perspective, what benefits could accrue? What can motivate interest in that view beyond just saying “here’s a different way of looking at things?” Focusing on benefits can reveal problems: if using a new perspective leads to doing things “better” in some way, that area of improvement could be viewed as a problem that you are addressing.

On advantage of focusing on benefits of a new idea is purely emotional for a writer—focusing on benefits keeps attention on the strong points of work, and helps sustain confidence.

I don’t have an answer for this. Without the anchor of objective certainty, how does one prevent the slippage towards ideas that are meaningful to the individual alone? If I am certain of anything, it is that there is no certain knowledge, but where does that lead me?

Somehow the scholar/philosopher/researcher who rejects objectivist philosophies needs to be able to make some claim that will convince their audience that their work is worth the time. But I’m not sure of the means of accomplishing this.

Monday, June 4, 2018

At what point do you stop trying to improve your work?

I have a friend who is a songwriter and musician. He writes a lot of songs, and some of them are absolutely beautiful.  We’ve been friends for nearly a decade, and in that time, he has not released a single album-length recording, and has released perhaps a handful of single tracks.  I have a number of recordings that he has made, and when I hear them (I listen to my music library on “shuffle”), I never think “Boy, this needed more time in the studio.” What I think is “he worked on this years ago, and it was good enough to be released, but now he’s on to new projects, and this will never get released.” But, to my friend, there’s always a reason that it’s not ready.

Lately he’s been saying that he’s got things set up so that he will start finishing albums. But, to me, the recordings that he thinks are unfinished are already good as they are and all they need are packaging and promotion. In any event, I am very much hoping that he will actually finish and release some projects—it would certainly help his business to have recordings that he could sell.
Making the decision to stop working on a project is emotionally difficult but necessary.

Last night, I was at the creative writers’ group that I sometimes attend—I dabble with sci-fi/fantasy, but with my serious efforts directed towards two books on research writing to follow up my first dissertation book (Getting the Best of Your Dissertation)—and I got into a similar dynamic with one of the writers: pushing him to finish, while he said he was trying to make changes to improve it. At one of the first meetings I attended, he shared a draft of the last chapter of the first volume of the epic he’s writing. That was several months ago, and he’s still “knocking off rough edges,” while I’m pushing him to try to finish it, and make some moves to get it published (he’s planning on self-publishing on the Internet).

It’s not that I can’t see possibility to improve the work. It’s that I see greater desirability in finishing a work and moving on to the next.  It’s always tempting to try to improve on the weaknesses that you can see in your own work, but is that always a good choice?

One way I view his work is through the lens of what I could imagine doing better.  I understand that he is viewing his work through that lens—it makes sense; it’s what leads to writing well and improving.

But another way I view his work is through the lens of what will help him become a better and more successful writer. And through that lens, I think he’ll learn more, produce better work, and possibly even earn a few bucks, if he stops trying to improve his work, and starts going through the steps to actually get his work self-published. Maybe it’s worth proofreading, but trying to make changes to make the work better? I think that’s not the most productive use of his time and effort.

And yet another way that I view his work is through the lens of how his work compares to other stuff—especially to the worst stuff I’ve read.  His work does not compare favorably to my absolute favorites, but that’s a pretty stringent standard.  If I think about all the things I’ve read, though, his work appears in a different light.  I’ve read some really lousy writing. I’ve read some lousy writing from authors who have had many books published and who have followings. Compared to these writers, suddenly his works shows as a totally viable project comparable or superior in quality to many.

During the writers’ group meeting, this author and another member were talking about a movie they had both seen and that they both thought was poorly written.  If you see enough movies or read enough books, you’re going to be in a position to say “this one is better and that one is worse.”  It’s easy to do. And in criticizing those relatively weak works, it’s worth remembering that they were published (which is how you saw them).

When writing (or working on another creative process), it’s easy to get focused on the work and on what you’d like to do better. Trying to improve your work is good. But there is no clear-cut criteria by which you can be certain that you have done enough.  So, at what point do you stop trying to improve the work?

People can get stuck trying to improve their work. To break out of that trap, finding some outside criteria for comparison is useful. When are you going to stop working, and take steps to have the work become more public?  If you have been working on a project for a long time, and you don’t have someone to give you feedback, ask yourself how your work compares to some of the worst examples of what you’re doing—such a comparison might give you confidence to move forward and share your work with more people.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Beware false equivalency: The difference between recent statements by Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr

To think clearly, to understand the world, to make good decisions, it is important to be careful not to conflate things that are unlike.  If two things are really equal, then we want to respond to them equally. And if two things are distinct, we want to respond to those differences. Assuming that two things are similar because they have one point of similarity is poor reasoning and can lead to problems and injustices.

I am motivated to this discussion because of the false equivalence that is being drawn between Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarrett and Samantha Bee’s comments about Ivanka Trump.  The two comedians should be treated differently because their actions were radically different.  Both Bee and Barr insulted someone, but not all insults are equal.  In the Bee vs. Barr comparison, there are at least five important points of difference:

1. Context
Bee was delivering a comic monologue—a format known for pushing against the boundaries of acceptable discourse.
Barr was making a tweet in response to someone else’s complaint about Jarret—a format in which the terms of service explicitly forbid insulting and harassing speech.

2. Truth/Accuracy
Bee called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” While it may be debatable whether these terms apply to Ivanka, they are not categorically false.
Barr associated Jarrett with the Muslim Brotherhood, a connection that has no basis in reality, but is part of the on-going right-wing attempt to portray the Obama administration as Muslim infiltration of America. Associating Jarrett with the Muslim Brotherhood is categorically false.

3. Misogyny, racism and speaker
Bee, a woman, used a term that can be viewed as misogynistic. It may be wrong for women to use misogynistic terms, but, in the same way that members of a racial group can use derogatory terms for their own group, women can use misogynistic terms. African Americans who use the n-word cannot be censured for racism in the same way the white people using the n-word can. Bee used a term that could be considered misogynistic, but being a woman, Bee is not clearly being misogynistic. (And Bee’s history does not suggest she is a misogynist.)
Barr, a white woman, used a common racist trope to demean Blacks—that of comparing a Black person to an ape, suggesting that the Black is less human, less evolved. Barr is not a member of the group she was insulting. Had a Black person made Barr’s tweet, it would have been received differently (although for the other reasons mentioned in this post, it would still have been less acceptable). Barr made a comment that could be considered racist, and as Barr is not Black, she cannot be given the benefit of a doubt about her racism. (And her history certainly suggests a fair share of racism.)

4. Crudity vs. Bigoted Stereotypes
Bee was crude. She was not misogynistic. It would be quite surprising for a media company to fire someone for crudity, especially a comedian, given that crudity is a standard part of comedy.
Barr was racist (but not crude). It is not at all surprising that a media company would want to fire someone for racism, because media companies don’t want to alienate massive segments of the population.

5. Behavior vs. Personal characteristics
Bee insulted Ivanka for her behavior—for speaking about how important families are, for example, while completely supporting her father’s administration which is, among other unpleasant behavior, separating children from their parents to punish the parents for trying to enter the U.S. Ivanka has a choice in how she acts, what she posts to social media, and what she says and does about her father. Ivanka, like any adult, should be open to criticism for her behavior: if Ivanka wants to talk about how important families are while also supporting policies that rip families apart, she (and any administration official) can be criticized for that inconsistency of her behavior. *(Just as we can criticize both Barr and Bee for their behavior.)
Barr, by contrast, insulted Jarrett’s personal characteristics (or at least tried to do so). Saying someone is an ape (or like an ape, or descended from Planet of the Apes) is not referring to anything the person did, but rather is merely drawing on well-worn racist tropes, and, as Barr herself noted, insults a person’s appearance (Barr said she was making a joke about Jarrett’s looks).

To summarize these five important differences:

1. Bee was in a context where crude language is appropriate; Barr was in a context where her comments were inappropriate.
2. Bee made an arguably true claim—an opinion; Barr made a demonstrably false claim.
3. Bee used a term that could be considered insulting to a group to which she belongs; Barr used an idea that could be considered insulting to a group to which she does not belong.
4. Bee was crude but not bigoted; Barr was bigoted.
5. Bee criticized Ivanka for things Ivanka does; Barr insulted Jarret for her appearance and race (and, falsely, her religion).

A final point that should not be relevant to whether Bee or Barr keep their jobs: It should also be noted that Ivanka Trump is a member of her father’s administration—she is a government official. The Constitution's First Amendment is specifically designed to protect those who make critical statements about the government and the actions of government officials. Bee’s comments are exactly the kind of statement the First Amendment is supposed to protect. Barr’s statement is not concerned with the behavior of the government or a government official—it’s just racist insult, not criticism of action. Barr’s statement does not warrant the same legal protection that Bee’s does. But if the Constitution of the U.S. is important to you, then you might view the two insults in this light: one is what the First Amendment is meant to protect, the other is not. Political discourse and personal insults are different things--Bee was engaged in the first, Barr in the second.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Emotion, reason, and LeBron James

This is a follow up on last week’s post about unresolvable questions in which I discussed evaluating basketball players and LeBron James, in particular.

After the Cavaliers’s win last night, James has once again led a team to the NBA Finals—this for the 8th straight year. This adds to his impressive resume and his claim to be greatest of all time (GOAT).  In my previous post, I argued that questions like “who is greater: James or Jordan?” were unresolvable.

At the same time, winning the conference finals 8 times in a row is—well, if Jordan had chosen to continue playing basketball instead of trying baseball, maybe he could have matched that feat. Perhaps Jordan was the more talented, but maybe those 8 straight trips to the Finals is the more impressive career? This also reveals two dimensions of evaluation I didn’t discuss in my previous post: the difference between potential and achievement.

But this is not about multidimensionality, but about the way that emotion can influence reasoning. To what extent is evaluation affected by emotions?  There is a plenty of actual empirical data on how emotions do influence reasoning (see, for example, the idea of “reactive devaluation”), but I’m just going to focus on one particular influence on evaluation.

This morning, I stopped at a cafe, and the music playing was music that was new and that I had loved when I was in high school and college. A lot of that music still seems particularly excellent to me.  Rationally, it makes no sense to me to suggest that the best musicians ever were all performing their best music in the first twenty years or so of my musical memory. But it often seems that way. Those songs were emotively impactful to me when the whole world was new. Music that is new to me today is often simply unable to catch my attention because I have so many other things in mind.

To what extent is this true for evaluating basketball players? Jordan was one of the great stars of that same period—high school/college—Jordan trying to take the mantle of greatness from Bird and Magic. I don’t really remember the greatness of Kareem, though I remember his long and productive post-peak career. Do I have a propensity to overrate Jordan in the same way that I have a propensity to overrate the music of my youth?  The baseball writer Bill James included a repeated item in his Historical Baseball Abstract in which, for each decade, he quoted old  ballplayers saying some variation of “they ain’t as great as when I was young.”

Will those who are in high school and college today—people too young to have watched Jordan’s great games live—will they be predisposed to consider James the greatest ever because he was the player who amazed them when the world was still new? And will there be a debate 20 years from now about whether some new player is greater than James (with Jordan having receded into the past)?
The decision-making process includes emotional elements that shape our reasoning. If we’re called upon to make a quick choice, the emotional factors are likely to be the deciding factors when complex decisions must be made because the complexity of carefully reasoned evaluation tends to defy answers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Unresolvable questions and the search for understanding

Researchers want answers, and ideally, they want good, solid answers that will stand up to examination and challenge. Unfortunately, some questions do not have any fixed answer. The absence of clear answers, however, does not preclude important learning, and researchers can benefit from being able to delve into such uncertainties in search of many interesting ideas, even if no specific answer can be found. 

In the late 1950s, a philosopher named W.B. Gallie demonstrated that there were some things could never be fully defined—he called them “essentially contested concepts.” In the late 1960s, design theorist Horst Rittel argued for a class of “wicked” problems (which included but was not limited to design problems) whose members had no definitive formulation, among other characteristics.  For both Gallie and Rittel, a crucial factor was the social element: different people view things differently. Gallie relied on a sporting example derived from cricket (I believe—I’m working from memory) to demonstrate how different views about the sport made it impossible to define the “best.”.  Gallie’s example is particularly salient for me because I enjoy the sporting fan’s common questions regarding which players are best and what teams should do—one of my favorite authors is Bill James, the baseball analytics guru—and yet, as a philosopher and researcher, the more I look at such questions, the more complexity there is to see. And ultimately, given that I accept the ideas of Gallie and Rittel, I see these questions as unanswerable.  Despite believing these questions are unanswerable, I still see the debates that they produce as interesting and often informative.

Not to mention that I am somewhat interested in basketball and the NBA playoffs, and a lot of current discussion revolves around an unanswerable question that is, nonetheless interesting, and perhaps even informative, to explore. That question is the question of LeBron James. How great is he? Is he the greatest ever, the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)? Or is he “just” top five? You don’t have to read much to find people discussing LeBron’s “legacy.”

Before LeBron, Michael Jordan was generally regarded as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Some argued for Bill Russell with his 11 championship rings and multiple MVP awards, or, perhaps, for a few others, but Jordan was the most common choice as GOAT. LeBron, however, has been doing amazing stuff that no one else in basketball can do, and his accomplishments are piling up. He is currently having another spectacular postseason, at least in terms of individual performances, although his team is facing a 1-2 deficit to Boston in the conference finals.  It is these performances that spark the debate: “look at that performance,” says one side, “he’s the best ever.” The other side says “well, it doesn’t mean much if he loses. Jordan won all six times he went to the finals!” 

This is the simplistic version of the argument, of course, because on closer examination this simple argument will reveal complexity that cannot be eliminated—complexity of the sort that contributed to the claims of Gallie and Rittel that some things cannot be completely defined. The simplicity of saying “Jordan won all six times in the finals; LeBron only won three and lost five,” might be fine for chatting at the bar during a game, but it certainly isn’t enough for serious research.

Firstly, we note that we can’t just reduce the argument to who has more rings, because by the “rings” standard, neither Jordan nor LeBron is all that close to the top of the list. By the rings standard, Bill Russell is the greatest, followed by a bunch of his teammates and Robert Horry. And, with all due respect to Robert Horry and Russell’s Celtics teammates, they are not all-time greats—no one is suggesting that Sam Jones, with 10 rings, is the second-greatest player ever. Trying to reduce the debate to a single dimension distorts the question: a player’s performance is much more complex than that single dimension.  This problem of multidimensionality makes it difficult to evaluate many things—what is intelligence? what is creativity? what is a “good employee”? how do we evaluate students’ learning?

Once an issue is understood to be multidimensional, it becomes increasingly difficult to make any certain decision. Beyond championship rings, there are many statistics that allow a comparison between two basketball players—points scored, rebounds, assists, etc., etc.  But the more dimensions added to the evaluation, the greater the likelihood that there will be contradictory indications. If one player had better stats in every possible category than any other player, there wouldn’t be difficulties. But that’s not the case, and that leads to complexity and uncertainty: how do you choose to weight different dimensional in an overall evaluation? If Jordan has more points but LeBron has more rebounds, who is greater? What’s more important for evaluating greatness?

Focusing on won-loss records can give an example of this problem of evaluation. MJ won more rings than LeBron, and that matters. But LeBron advanced to the finals more times, and that’s worth something, too: after all, if LeBron is criticized for losing in the Finals, shouldn’t MJ be criticized for losing in the Conference Finals? How do we compare those different achievements? Or, at the other end of the playoffs, we can see that MJ lost in the first round three times, while LeBron has never lost in the first round. If MJ were clearly greater, shouldn’t he have a better record in the first round? There are lots of stats and sometimes Jordan’s are more impressive (30.1 pts/gm vs. “only” 27.2 for LeBron), sometimes LeBron’s are (7.4 rebounds/game, 7.2 assists/game vs. 6.9 and 5.3 for Jordan).

The search for detail in comparing the two may not lead to any conclusive answer about which is better, but it can help us see the question more richly, and this can inform us about basketball and about processes of evaluation.  And, in a way, what we get out of the examination is potentially more valuable than an answer: it doesn’t really matter who is “the greatest”—whether we say that Jordan is the greatest or LeBron is the greatest or Russell, Kareem, Bird, Magic, Wilt or whoever. It doesn’t really matter who gets called the greatest, or who really is the greatest (if it makes sense to reduce such complexity to such a simple question). But, although the question itself cannot be answered, what is learned in the process of trying to answer that unanswerable question can give us insight into the more general process of player evaluation, and that has practical value to basketball organizations or to fantasy players.

Some questions that have no answer are still worth asking and examining.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Cultural appropriation and appropriate responses


The APA Manual discusses bias in writing and suggests, basically, that if anyone is offended, the writing should be considered offensive, and change is worth considering. I’d like to take this premise as the basic starting point for this discussion: if someone is offended, it is worth considering doing something different.  If someone feels hurt, that feeling should be taken very seriously.

At the same time, however, not all hurts are the same.  And losing sight of that, means sucking important nuance out of any possible dialogue that might move toward redress of hurts.

It is the loss of nuance in the debate that worries me. If serious ills are conflated with minor ills, it makes it harder to generate community action to address (and redress) the serious ills.

The recent case of Keziah Daum’s prom dress brought this question to mind, but I had already been thinking about those issues due to several previous situations that sparked cultural appropriation debates.

Cultural appropriation can be a serious problem. Many people have really suffered from it. For example, historically, the US music industry was a cultural appropriation machine that stole millions from African American musicians. White people got rich on music drawn from African Americans, while the African Americans who first made the music got little or nothing. It was a large-scale issue. 

At the same time, again, not all hurts are equal. The class of “micro-aggressions” explicitly marks the limited nature of those hurts.  This is not to say that micro-aggressions ought to be ignored, but again, this invites the question of degree of hurt and appropriate responses to that hurt. If micro-aggressions were equivalent to outright aggression, then no one would create the term “micro-aggression” to describe them.

Are all cases of cultural appropriation equal? Clearly not. Some cases of cultural appropriation affect the flow of millions of dollars, and directly impact the lives of many. Other cases? Well, what about the case of Keziah Daum and the response thereto?

Let us give full respect to the feelings and lives of those who were hurt by her decision to wear that dress, pose in the way she did, and post that image. Let us also retain nuance in the conversation by understanding the degree of injury and other potential ill effects of Daum’s choice to wear the dress and to post the now-infamous images, and the question of what is an appropriate response.

Let us suppose that you are browsing, you come across Daum’s post, and you are hurt. What hurts have you suffered from that image? Emotional hurts are significant and real, so we’ll count them. Are there other injuries from that image? Specific injuries from those posts or from Daum’s actions that led to the posts?

Let’s put aside a more general critique of Daum and society: perhaps she is more generally culpable, and unquestionably larger society has committed bad acts of cultural appropriation, but nonetheless, this image is a single act. Do we want to condemn this one act as if it embodied a who person’s life? What specific injury does the image do?  Asking whether Daum is guilty of other things is not entirely at issue. Now one might think, on seeing the image, that Daum needs to be educated—an idea with merit (of course, I’m generally biased toward education)—but that is a separate question from the question of what the image does.

So what is an appropriate response to the image? If that image is hurtful, should it be spread as far and wide as possible? That seems like it would only hurt more people.  And if the image is spread with the idea of censuring Daum (assuming that she needs censure) will that censure help promote the idea of cultural sensitivity and help prevent cultural appropriation?

Until this event Daum was hardly well known, now she has become a flashpoint of cultural conflict.  If no one had decided to spread the image as a display of cultural appropriation, Daum would have remained in shadows. Does making an example of her help the fight against cultural appropriation?

I don’t want to make light of the hurt that anyone might have suffered through Daum’s choice of dress, use at prom, and images posted on public forums.  But personally, I don’t think turning Daum’s dress into an issue of import helps eliminate cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation should be eliminated, but I don’t think the way to go about it is to lose sight of the nuance in the discourse.  Some hurts are too small to warrant a reaction. The potential hurts of Daum’s act seem small, and that makes the complaint a weaker issue to use in any public discourse that attempts to educate people about the ills of cultural appropriation.

About a year ago, a burrito shop in Portland, Oregon similarly became a “cultural appropriation” flashpoint, and that case was one in which the response seemed grossly out of proportion.  This little burrito shop run by two women was open on weekends. Let’s say they were basically stealing—how much were they stealing? The cost of dozens of burritos? That’s a bad thing. But what about Taco Bell? Is it owned and managed by Mexicans or is it cultural appropriation on a massive scale? The wave of public sentiment against that little burrito shop didn’t transform into a wave of public censure of Taco Bell. Is that an appropriate set of responses?  

If we want to convince people that cultural appropriation is a real problem that we should work to fix, it would be effective, I think, to try to focus on more serious instances—and that means instances where a lot of money is changing hands, or where people are suffering serious immediate injuries. By focusing on cases with smaller impact—a weekend burrito shop or a high school student wearing a prom dress—it makes it easier for complaints about the real problem to be brushed off as just another example of a non-problem imagined by some fevered liberal.  

This is about rhetoric and debate and how to shift public opinion on the large scale. Many people—the same people would would think in terms of “fevered liberals”—view the idea of cultural appropriation as ridiculous. These are the people whose opinions it would be most valuable to change—what discourse is going to reach them and educate them and get them to be more sensitive to the real problem of cultural appropriation?  Complaining about Daum might be very effective in reaching people who already believe that cultural appropriation is a problem, but is it effective in reaching people who don’t take cultural appropriation seriously?

In rhetoric and debate, it is, of course, very effective to fix upon an example that sparks a strong emotion.  But when the emotions generated are anger and resentment, it makes it harder for people to work together. And when emotions run high, it’s easy to lose the important nuance.

We don’t want to lose nuance in this debate (or in any debate, if we can help it), because that loss of nuance makes it harder to address and ameliorate the difficult and significant problems that face us—“us” the community of scholars, “us” the people of the US, and “us” the people of the world.

Cooperation won’t grow out of disrespecting the opposite side of the argument. Cooperation grows out of seeing the opposite side of the argument as real humans despite their faults.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Embrace frustration


Doing things well is difficult. As a general rule, if you want to excel, it’s necessary to work hard for it. Talent helps, of course, but to perform any task at a really high level, talent alone is not enough. (If there are any exceptions to this rule, they are few and far between.) To excel, it’s necessary to practice and to learn and work to improve your results, no matter how good they may already be. And that means looking for the things that you did poorly (or relatively poorly) and for the mistakes that you made.  And a focus on things that you did poorly can be very frustrating.

Emotionally speaking, it’s much more pleasant to when things are going well, but at the same time, things that come too easily are often less worth while.  If psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi is right, the best experiences in our lives occur in realms of experience where we face challenges—and facing challenges means facing failure—if there’s no chance of failure, then there’s no challenge.

Failure is frustrating. It’s not the only kind of frustration, but maybe all kinds of frustration stem from some sort of failure on a small scale: frustrating things are things that don’t go well—they don’t go the way you want, which could be viewed as a failure. The frustration, for example, of dealing with customer service, is that not only do you fail to get the product or service for which you initially hoped when you bought the product or service, but then you have to spend your time trying to get the thing you initially paid for.

There is nothing fun about frustration. But, it does feel good when you break through. Dealing with the frustration of a difficulty often leads to a breakthrough that really does lead to some sort of desirable improvement.

If you’re struggling with a writing project, pushing through the difficulties can lead to finishing the project. It may not be fun to proofread or to edit, or to rewrite sections that had taken a lot of effort the first time. Or to rewrite the whole thing, if that is necessary.

The difficulty of pushing against the frustration of a work is often tinged with the resentment of some sort of rejection: rewriting and revision generally follow on having someone suggest the need for revision! Or, perhaps better, perhaps worse, rewriting follows a work being ignored.

When a work is not accepted—after all the hours of effort—it is no fun. And going back at that project to change it—to try to make it better, when it likely feels like the best you have to offer—is frustrating.  Still, in that frustration, and in a positive, persistent response—one in which you keep working and trying to move forward—is the opportunity for growth and new opportunities. And possibility—the pursuit of happiness—is itself important and feels good.   

Many years ago, I got a fortune cookie fortune that said something like “your strengths grow out of your weaknesses,” and I have long considered how there is an interplay between strength and weakness—how an ability in some area may become a handicap in another—and how, at the same time, in facing a weakness, one has the opportunity to develop new strengths. Frustration arises in dealing with issues where one is not effective (or not effective enough), and that’s a form of weakness. And an opportunity to build strength.

Personally, I tend to avoid frustration. Even though I know that frustration is a sign of an opportunity. But when I can push through the frustration—if I keep working on the thing that is frustrating—I create a better piece of writing and become a better writer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Cooperation, compromise, and celebrating what you have to give up


One thing I’ve recently given up in favor of other things is getting a blog post out on Mondays.  It’s Wednesday, so this is two days behind, and my last was also a day or two behind. That’s relatively minor as far as sacrifices go.  It’s on my mind because it follows up the theme and the issue that I was writing about in my previous blog posts, which were both interested in the necessary sacrifices that accompany the process of working with other people. And it’s still part of my personal situation, as well: in my last, I was writing about how a query letter led to the need to write a proposal. This week, I get to celebrate the fact that the proposal also received a positive response.

Once again, however, the positive response was also tied to more work and more need to satisfy the concerns of the editor.  The acceptance requires my willingness to work with the desires of the editor/publisher—they are not, after all, going to publish my book because they want to do me a service. If they decide to publish my book, they’ll do so because they think they can make a profit by publishing it. If they stop thinking they can make a profit, they’re going to stop thinking about producing my book.

One way to respond to this tension pulling on my work is to insist that it remain unchanged and that they accept it as it is.  Sometimes work is so good that it warrants such an attitude, and sometimes the specific changes requested are obviously stupid. But often, the requests made by others are useful, even beneficial.

Personally, I don’t view my book as such a masterpiece of English that it couldn’t be improved.  Throughout the process, I made choices that seemed like good ideas at the time, given my sense of what the book could be, but were not central to what I wanted to discuss. One such choice was whether to aim the book at a smaller or larger audience—I went for the larger, but the publisher wants the smaller. Now that I’m speaking with a specific publisher, some of those choices don’t suit the publisher, because their vision of what the book could be differs from mine.  To me, as long as their vision doesn’t clash with what is central, I have no complaint about making the change, even if it is something that I am sacrificing.

One of the things about working with other people, and making compromises when their desires do not perfectly match your own, is that often the other people are right. In addition to my own book proposal, I’ve been working with a client who is trying to get his book through the steps of publication, and the most recent request from his publisher was to revise the opening pages. The book is awesome and a week or two ago, they were pushing the author to change the title. At the time, I supported him in insisting on the title he had chosen. This time, however, the publisher is right in asking for revision of the opening pages: they could be better.

To some extent such judgments of better/worse are personal: my view of those pages will not match those of all potential readers. But often there can be some consensus. I’m thinking right now of the “director’s cut” of many movies: often the director’s cut means adding scenes that had been left on the cutting room floor. And, personally, I think that such revised (extended) versions can often make the work worse as a whole, even when the added scenes are themselves good. The movie Apocalypse Now was re-released as Apocalypse Now Redux with almost 50 minutes of original scenes that had been cut from the original release, and while each scene is good in its way, the added running time takes a long movie and turns it into a test of endurance.

Working with other people—publishers, for example—means respecting their desires. It doesn’t mean surrendering all boundaries, but if you’re never willing to make a sacrifice when your opinion differs from that of a collaborator, that doesn’t show much respect for their desires. Compromise and sacrifice are an integral part of cooperation, and if you want to be part of a larger community, then cooperation is necessary. If you can keep focused on the success of the cooperative endeavor, then it’s easier to celebrate the compromises that you have to make.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Celebrate rejection, celebrate acceptance, and be careful what you ask for


Back in February, after sending a query to a literary agent, I wrote about celebrating rejection.  The agency website says, “If you don’t hear from us in six weeks, assume we’re not interested.” I didn’t hear after six weeks, so I assumed that I had been rejected. After the sixth week passed, I tried to celebrate my rejection. 
And then I began working on a query letter for a publisher (my book is the kind of thing that is at the edge of being mass-market enough for one of the commercial publishing houses—there are several different commercial houses that have related books, and the commercial publishers don’t accept unsolicited queries—if I want to publish at a commercial publisher, I need an agent—but it’s also suitable for academic publisher, who do accept queries from authors). I decided to try a query letter (“would you like to see a proposal for a book” rather than “would you like to see a manuscript of a book”), thinking that a shorter, simpler query might get a quicker response.  I sent my first (and only) query letter to a publisher on the seventh week after sending my previous proposal, preparing to (try to) celebrate rejection yet again.
Celebrating rejection is not the easiest thing. It’s silly to argue that rejection is all good—the central part of rejection is that someone rejected your request, and presumably you didn’t make a request for something you didn’t either want or need (or both).  The possibility of celebrating rejection comes from the complexity of rejection: rejection does force one to consider new opportunities or new avenues of exploration, and those opportunities can be celebrated. It takes effort and focus, but as the saying goes, “if you get lemons, make lemonade.”
This past Monday (eight weeks after sending the proposal), I did, in fact, receive a formal rejection from the agent, which gave me a second opportunity to “celebrate” my rejection. A double helping of rejection to celebrate!
Of course, as I had already sent off a new query letter, my attention and interest were elsewhere, despite the renewed sting of rejection. As it happens, my query letter to the publisher had received a positive response—the acquisitions editor had expressed interest in seeing a proposal and in setting a time to talk with me.
Naturally, I was thrilled that my query had received a positive response. In many ways, celebrating acceptance is much easier than celebrating rejection.
But one does need to be careful what one asks for, because sometimes the request is accepted! Because of the acceptance of the query letter, I spent the last week writing and rewriting a proposal for the publisher. There are elements of book proposals that can be re-used, but different publishers have different interests and different book lists, and that leads to a need for some differences. And once the process of rewriting has started, it can take on its own life, as previous choices come under examination.
Last week, I wrote about compromise and how even when things are going well, you can expect someone to ask you to compromise. And I guess this is in that same vein: things could be going well (by being accepted, for example), and still there is more work to do, there are compromises to make.  I’m pretty darn happy that my query letter received a positive response, but life doesn’t end there. Resting on laurels is rarely possible. I have a next step (a proposal), which could lead to rejection, and then, possibly, a next step (manuscript submission), which could lead to rejection. And if that is accepted, then there are the steps of revising, editing, possibly indexing, promoting, etc.

Since this post is about celebrating things, I’ll wrap by noting that we have some choice over where we direct our attention. And especially, that there are always concerns for looking forward to the future: regardless of whether you were accepted or rejected, you can choose where to direct your attention, and looking at the road ahead, seeing difficulties, one can still choose to focus attention on the positive goals, too. It would be nice to have some laurels to rest upon, even if that rest might be uneasy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Community, compromise, cooperation and contribution


This is about why I like to pay my taxes.  There are plenty of things about taxes that I don’t like, but on the whole, I like paying them because it’s my contribution to something I believe in.
The United States of America is hardly a perfect nation.  It’s got a problematic history and a problematic present.  Many have been victims of the injustices committed by the US and its representatives.  All the same, the US is something I believe in, particularly the principles espoused in the U.S. Constitution.

My belief in the Constitution is, in fact, so extreme, that I’m inclined to consider people who rail against taxes to be un-American.

These positions stem from understanding the value system espoused by the Constitution.
The preamble to the Constitution makes clear the purposes and the value system being invoked and created:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What is this saying? Well, the main idea of the sentence is “We’re establishing this constitution to provide certain outcomes that we deem desirable.”  It expresses the values that the government is trying to establish:

1. Union
2. Justice
3. Domestic Tranquility
4. Common Defense
5. General Welfare
and
6. Secure the Blessings of Liberty for current and future generations

Firstly, it should be noted that this is a liberal document in the classic sense of the term “liberal”:  It is concerned with ensuring the liberty of those whom it presumes to govern. It is also “liberal” in the common meaning of “open to change.”  It is distinctly not conservative (i.e., hoping to maintain and establish old forms of government).

Second, it should be noted that it is a fundamentally cooperative document: “We the People,” it says. It is designed to set up a cooperative community: the people are going to work together to achieve the stated aims.  As I have discussed in previous posts, cooperation often includes compromise.  Compromise made to promote some desired value is not a restriction of freedom, as those who rail against taxes often complain, it is a choice to put in the necessary contribution to make the cooperative system work.
For there to be a “perfect union” in which “We the people” work together, there must be people who choose to work together, and that means people choosing to contribute to the common effort, including a willingness to compromise.
The Constitution is not just saying the we think that liberty, justice, etc. are good, it is saying that we—the people working together—are going to accede to a coherent set of rules that will guide (and limit) our actions.  The framers of the Constitution knew that compromise was necessary, and the document sets up a system for negotiating compromises.

The United States is a community. For that community to work, effort and contribution are required. Taxes are one form of contribution.  That people would be happy to take the benefits of living in the US, and would claim to love the United States and its freedoms, and then would rail against paying taxes is, I think, selfish entitlement.  The system only works if we the people contribute to its operation, even when we don’t necessarily like how the system works.
People who live in the US, who talk about how great America is, and who complain that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes, are people who seem to believe that they should get the benefits of living in this cooperative society without making contributions or compromise. Such people, in my opinion, are un-American, and frankly, if they don’t like the way America works, they should move to another country.
To be part of a community working together to reach a goal means making compromises. Taxes are part of the compromise of living in, and benefiting from, the community defined and governed by the Constitution of the United States of America.

I have slightly more sympathy for people who don’t want to pay taxes because they don’t like how their tax dollars are being spent—that, at least, doesn’t represent a repudiation of the basic community and the need to contribute to the community.  But still—compromise is necessary, and paying taxes is a necessary compromise if we, the people of the United States of America, want to do things like establish Justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.

I believe in the project and ideals defined in the US Constitution’s preamble and Bill of Rights. I don’t like the compromise made by the original framers that allowed slavery to continue, but that language has been amended. The general project is still worthy, despite the problems. But believing in that project, and trying to realize that project means compromise, including the compromise of paying taxes.  If you consider yourself a patriot of the U.S., you should be willing to make compromises to contribute to the cooperative project that is this nation.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Inevitably, you will be asked to compromise.


You are going to get asked to do things you don't want to do. And you will have to negotiate some compromise. It's difficult, but accepting this inevitability makes it easier to set aside the frustration and focus on what you can accomplish.
When you’re a doctoral candidate, it can be pretty natural to start thinking “once I’m done, I’ll be free; I won’t have to do what my professors tell me any more. I’ll be able to do my work to suit myself.” Feeling adversarial toward your professors is pretty natural, as is feeling resentment for doing things that you don’t want to do. It’s not fun to be forced to write about something that you think off-subject  just to please your professor.  And it is therefore also natural to feel excitement at the prospect of being free of such disagreements with your professors.
The thing is, if it’s not your professors, it’s going to be someone else.  This point was really driven home to me when I was talking with an author who was negotiating with the president of his publisher. The book is deep in process. The author has already edited it down significantly in size to suit the publisher. But recently the publisher asked him to change the title. “People won’t understand it. It won’t sell,” the publisher said.
This author is a tenure-track professor and a department chair, with multiple publications and a book manuscript that got rave reviews from the blind reviewers. But this morning, he had to face someone saying “I want you to do it differently.”
If you show your work to enough people, there is sure to be someone who will ask you to change it.  And even if you’re only working with one person (or one institution), you might well get asked to change it. You are not, after all, the only independent actor with plans and desires and expectations.
I guess the message I’d like to boil this down to is that the need to compromise never goes away if you want to work with other people, so you have to figure out how (and when) to compromise on stuff.
You can do awesome work that many people will love, and you can still find people who will dislike it or want to change it. Are those people wrong?  At times, it becomes necessary to make choices that aren’t entirely palatable: does the author insist on the title, even though it might mean losing the publisher? Does the author, give up the title to satisfy the publisher? Of course, the author could also decide that it’s a good idea to trust the publisher: after all, it would be nice to sell a lot of copies, right? And publishers know something about selling—more about selling than most professors, I would imagine.
I’ve been writing about perfectionism recently, and this is another angle on perfectionism: what one person views as perfect, another might view as problematic. What one person views as excellent, another might view as insufficient. Such differences in perception and evaluation reveal that “perfect” is not, practically speaking, the same as excellent.
When working on a project, it’s natural to focus on your own vision and on making a creation that matches that vision, and lives up to the standards that you set.  It’s super important to be aware of your own standards, and to be able to strive for them.
To the extent that you hope your work will communicate with others—and that’s the purpose of writing—and will get good responses, the question of what is “perfect” is problematized: by which standard is the work evaluated? By your standard? By the standards of the audience? 
It can often feel frustrating and even disempowering when someone asks you to change something you do to satisfy their desires. This is especially true if you don’t agree with their position. But at the same time, that very disagreement is important: to the extent that you dismiss their position, you are frustrating and disempowering them. There are times to hold firm to what you believe—I recommended that the author hold firm on the title—and there are times to think about what the other person is asking from you, and why they want it. Communication and community require compromise. If not yours, then someone else’s. It’s not always fun to compromise, and it’s not always appropriate. But it can be taken for granted that you will be asked and that you will have to negotiate it. For me, at least, understanding that reality helps make it more palatable: this isn’t something that I can change by being smarter or working harder; this is the way it is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

More about perfectionism and tradeoffs


A few days ago, I got an e-mail from a perfectionist who does great work, but...

On 3/__/18 8:17 PM, _______ wrote: 
> Perfectionism is killing me. 
>
> [other job] is, too. But that's sometimes an excuse for perfectionism. 
>
> I’m going to try doing the shittiest job ever of reading and summarizing papers tomorrow morning. 


Hi ______, 

How can you find the balance--the point of tension between competing demands? There's [other job]. There's a dissertation that you've already done a great job on and still have to do more (both in terms of getting the dissertation signed off--which is not exciting--and in the longer run as you think about turning it into a book).  There's new research. There's the rest of your life, like friends and family, and self-indulgence. 

I got a fortune cookie fortune once that said something like "your strengths grow out of your weaknesses," which is a worthy consideration (even if I remember the cookie wrong).  In a way, character traits present a two-edged duality: an ability like your perfectionism both promotes and inhibits your success.  You don't want to set that vision and that drive aside, because that vision and that drive are precisely what allow you to create work of the quality that you produce. At the same time, allowing that vision and that drive too much leeway can drive you into a corner. On the one hand, you want to cultivate that perfectionism and encourage it. On the other, you want to keep it in check. 

Any ability is like that. A person with physical strength can do certain things well, but may also choose strength when physical force isn't the best option. Intelligence answers many situations, but sometimes rational thinking isn't the answer. Any ability suits some situations better than others.  How can you apply you perfectionist powers to best suit this situation? 

I heartily approve of your trying to do a shitty job. 

At the same time, remember that brevity is a virtue. If someone asks you to describe your work in one minute, you give it a try, even if the description you produce is a poor description by many standards. An "elevator pitch" is too short to be a good description of any work, and yet it can sometimes be exactly what is wanted.  A short discussion of literature about faculty roles is not necessarily worse for being brief!  There's a different perfection to seek here: the project manager's perfection, which is getting high quality work done on schedule. 

Finish that draft and perfect your schedule. 

best, 
Dave 



Monday, March 26, 2018

Trade-offs, perfectionism, and self-promotion


Recently, someone posted to my facebook page that they had bought a copy of my dissertation book. I am thrilled whenever anyone buys it, it goes without saying. I worked hard on that book and getting some positive return on my efforts feels good—just hearing that someone likes the idea is nice, for that matter. But there’s also a certain tinge of fear—what if someone doesn’t like it? I worked hard on it, but it’s not perfect. And ironically, the more successful my book, the more likely it is that I will hear from people who are disappointed.

Getting negative feedback is a problem that every author faces, and it can feel very personal. The rejection of your work might not be personal (it probably isn’t, given that most of the people who reject your work don’t know you personally), but whatever their cause, such rejections are failed hopes and disappointments (even if you can find silver linings in rejection).  

Rejection of work can be particularly difficult for perfectionists. When you’re a perfectionist, and you struggle to make the compromises demanded by practical tradeoffs, it can be hard enough to stop working on something just because the work itself feels incomplete.  The feeling of incompleteness is frustrating and drives many to say “I’m going to keep working.” It’s uncomfortable to stop working on something if you can see problems with it and think you can fix those problems. The idea that you have to show the work to someone else—to someone who might reject it—adds a layer of emotional complexity: not only is it necessary to stop working on something with known imperfections, but you have to show that work to someone else, creating the opportunity for that other person to see and potentially complain about those imperfections.  That’s not easy. At least it’s not easy for a lot of people.

The perfectionist doesn’t want to turn in imperfect work. That’s fine—having high standards is great. But the problem of tradeoffs—the practical limits created by conflicting issues—means that works are always imperfect. So the perfectionist is going to submit imperfect work (or no work at all). But, it is good to remember, that all work is imperfect, so imperfect works can still be of high quality relative to other similar works.

Beyond just “submitting” a work, is the question of getting attention for that work.  Professors are supposed to read the work of their students—and they often do so in a timely fashion. But when submitting a work to a professor, you can improve the response by how it is presented: you don’t have to focus on the problems that you see. You can focus on the strengths of your work—and that can help how your work is treated. Some self-promotion is valuable even when dealing with people who have a responsibility to read your work. But, if you’ve written something, there’s a good chance that you want it to reach beyond a small group of professors. You may want to get published somewhere, and that means reaching out to people who have no responsibility to you whatsoever.  

Practically speaking, to get your work under the eyes of people—from editors and publishers to readers, you need to promote your work, even if you’re a perfectionist who sees flaws. The facts don’t speak for themselves, quite frankly. No matter the quality of your work, it’s unlikely to be recognized if you don’t promote it. That may be submitting to journals or to publishers or some other avenues. Getting into any of those venues, requires self-promotion. In some cases, it’s obviously and explicitly about promotion, not about the quality of the work itself.  Academic journals don’t worry about whether an article will sell, only whether it satisfies review criteria, but journals are the exception.  Book publishers and non-academic publications all have a clear eye towards selling a work.  If you propose a book to an academic publisher, part of the proposal will be dedicated to describing the potential market and competing titles. And part of the proposal may ask what you do to promote your work.

There are some people who are utterly confident in themselves, and such people don’t necessarily struggle to promote themselves. But for perfectionists, it can be a real problem to self-promote, because the critical, perfectionist eye does not create glowing promotions. For creating promotions, a forgiving eye is more useful and effective.

Some perfectionists can promote their work because of their vast enthusiasm for the work itself: if you’re doing excellent work on a subject that you find exciting, it’s pretty easy to promote that, even if you do see weaknesses.  But perfectionism can drain away such enthusiasm, especially if you’re focusing on problems and not on the strengths of your work.

There’s a part of me that really loves my dissertation book. I would love to say that it’s the absolute best book in its class. On a certain level, I absolutely believe it is excellent and presents ideas that don’t appear in other competing books.  But my perfectionist tendencies get hung up on the compromises and choices I made: should it have been shorter? Should it have been longer? Is it too dense? Is it too lightweight?  Should it have been for a more focused audience?  None of these questions can really be answered by any objective standard, and so my answers—my choices—are uncertain.  This makes me doubt my work, even though I would like to believe that it’s the best in its class.  

Such tradeoffs and the choices made to negotiate those tradeoffs make works seem imperfect—but if the tradeoff is ultimately unavoidable, can you let such a tradeoff stop you from finishing your work and extolling it for its virtues, even if it is imperfect? Keep an eye to the strengths of your work so that you can promote it appropriately.