Sunday, August 24, 2014

Academic Virtues

On the way back from the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Philadelphia, I fell into conversation with the woman in the seat next to me who was also returning from the meeting. She told me about a plenary session she had attended in which a large panel had extolled the virtues of social media in getting their research "out of the ivory tower" and into places where it "really matters". They were dissatisfied with the prospect of merely making another "contribution to theory"; their aim was to transform the practice of management. And they were full of helpful advice about to get this done.

The most memorable part of the session, my seatmate told me, was when a member of the audience stepped up to the microphone and made an impassioned plea for staying in the ivory tower. The panel, after all, had been almost unanimous about the pointlessness of publishing still more boring, unreadable (and therefore unread) journal articles. And their enthusiasm for social media extended even into the classroom where they were increasingly using social media to better engage with their students.

The speaker pointed out that the panel seemed to have given up on the idea that academic knowledge has its own particular ethos. It takes years of research to make an interesting discovery, and takes much more than a tweet to communicate that discovery to people who are qualified to assess the validity of the discovery and determine the significance of its contribution. More importantly, there was a time when everyone understood that our knowledge was not the sort of thing that could be disseminated by op-ed or blogpost but required the long term mutual commitment of students and teachers in the classroom to be properly understood. What the panel was really doing was redefining what it means to know something. By abandoning "old school" lecturing and classroom discussion, and traditional academic prose, they were simply giving up on the sort of care and attention that makes it possible for us, as a culture, to understand complicated facts. As an academic writing coach, he said, choking up a little, it was breaking his heart.

At this point in my seatmate's account I was, of course, able to introduce myself as the very speaker she had been so moved by, and if this had been a movie I would now have been more charming and she less married and the whole thing would have become a beautiful romance. But this was not to be. Instead, which is almost as good, I found another like-minded scholar, someone who is worried about what is happening to academia today, and until we were hushed by the people around us who wanted to sleep on the flight across the Atlantic, we discussed this sorry state of affairs.

In my speech from the floor, I had suggested that our admiration for people like Malcolm Gladwell (with whom many of the members of the panel were of course impressed) shows we are now trying to get people believe things they can't possibly understand. We are telling them what we think the truth is but without allowing them to engage critically with it. That's precisely what our classrooms and journals are for. They are situations in which ideas can be presented along with their justifications, and where those justifications can be questioned before the proposed belief is adopted.

Academics who have stopped believing in academic virtues and are turning to social media to "get the word out" have an exaggerated sense of their own authority. They think the world will change for the better if busy managers, inspired by a tweet that links to a blogpost, adopt their views about one thing or another. (This, I pointed out, is a bit like thinking that if Harry Styles* would only tell his twitter followers to read Plato...) But the world will only change for the better if they devote their time to carefully explaining to their peers what they have discovered, and then still more carefully and patiently explaining themselves to their students, year in and year out, so that the next generation of managers will be better informed than the last.

Perhaps the greatest academic virtue, that is, is patience. Too many academics today think of themselves as a public intellectuals whose job it is to "spread ideas" through the most efficient media available to them. Such academics are, literally, ideologues; they think universities produce and distribute ideas. What universities really "produce", friends, is more articulate and knowledgeable students. People who are less likely to be immediately impressed by a TED talk, in fact, because they have a higher standard of belief.

*I'm embarrassed to admit that during the plenary I retold this anecdote as being about Justin Bieber. My apologies to Harry Styles.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Practice of Writing

This semester, RSL is going to be a more explorative blog than it's been, at least at times, over the past seven years. Perhaps also a more personal one. So far, I've been trying to cultivate a kind of "professionalism" here about writing, both because I actually am a professional writing coach and because I've wanted to set a good example for professional writers. But a number of conversations, both online and off, have returned me to a number of fundamental doubts about my approach to scholarly writing. This should not indicate a "crisis" except in the ordinary sense that all "foundational" issues are "critical". The important thing to remember is that this, i.e., doubt, is an entirely normal part of serious, academic inquiry. We have to be able to question what we are doing, how we are doing it, and not least why we are doing it.

These questions will affect my blogging in both the form and the content of my blog posts. First of all, I'm not going to publish on a schedule (I will, of course, follow my own advice an write on a schedule, however) but when I feel I have something to say. I don't expect to post more than once a week, and not at any particular time. Second, I'm going to be much less categorical about advice and suggestions. My clients will of course continue to benefit from straight talk about how to improve their own processes. I still feel entirely comfortable giving specific advice in specific situations. What I'm no longer so sure about is whether my general advice is leaving the right impression in the minds of my readers and audiences.

Mainly, I worry that I am implying or presuming some kind of "theory" of writing that might have (undue) normative force in the regard to the evaluation of a given piece of research writing. In my coaching, I'm always able to draw a strict line between my observations about the process and the product that is being produced. The evaluation of the product must always fall to the author's peers, not to me. I may have all kinds of opinions about it, but, as Borges once said, "opinions are the most trivial things about us." Certainly, given the fact that you have actual peers who have a real interest in what you come up with, my opinion about your writing is the most trivial thing about our relationship. The questions is: am I helping you to work in a better, healthier, happier way?

I have a feeling—one that is quickly becoming a thought—that our desire for professionalism in the academy is a misunderstanding and almost a perversion of our natural "professorialism", which has an important component of amateurism. And academic discipline is not quite a profession, though it may be part of a profession (as in law, medicine, engineering, journalism, etc.). The "freedom" of academic inquiry is, in a sense, a freedom from the professional standards that are in force in the application of scientific knowledge, where a certain amount of caution should be observed. Since academics confine their experiments to "controlled" situations and confine their actions to, well, writing, they are harmless enough to be allowed a little leeway in regard to their conduct. I think we've allowed the spirit of the age to undermine our sense of play in the world of ideas. We've been too concerned with our "relevance", our "impact". We've taken ourselves too seriously in a way.

I'll say more about this in the weeks to come. But there is one thing that I will remain serious about. I can best put this by way of a story. Imagine that you are a teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. One day, walking the halls, you hear two students talking and one of them is telling an old joke, or what you originally recognise as an old joke. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" asks one. "Theory, man, theory," answers the other. And they both break out laughing over this twist, which was invented, I'm told, by the poet Charles Bernstein. The original answer is, of course, "Practice, man, practice." Unfortunately, you, too, get the joke. You realise that your colleagues and your students have, for years now, been cultivating a largely "theoretical" interest in music, and that this has even been valorised in the rest of society, so that practical mastery of the instrument has become secondary to one's conceptual cleverness. Your students are not as good as they once were at actually playing their instruments. They may be more knowledgeable about music (though you have your doubts there too) but they are demonstrably less, let's say, articulate. We are losing our "chops", you realise with horror.

I don't know if that's how it actually is in the world of music, of course. And I don't want to make blanket statements of gloom and despair about academia either. But it's something I sincerely worry about. In our obsession with "theory" (and "method" for that matter) we are becoming less articulate in our writing. And the reason for this is simply that we are not practicing nearly enough. (Interestingly, this does not imply that we aren't writing as much as we ever were. It's just that we're "on stage" too often. Sort of like how much of my writing is immediately published to the blog, rather than remaining a private rehearsal of my views.) And we're letting each other get away with it, too. My goal, in the months and years to come, is to see if I can't bring us back to the fundamental practice of writing, the means by which we may become more articulate, which is, to my mind, much more important than "producing knowledge" and making "theoretical contributions". It's not that we don't know enough these days. It's that we aren't able to talk about it carefully enough. We know too much, perhaps.

Monday, July 21, 2014


"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (Ernest Hemingway)

"It's reassuring to know these things: right orientation, disposition, atmosphere." (Michael Andrews)

Sometimes we despair. The project does not go as well as we had hoped, or we run into a familiar sort of laziness, or both, and suddenly what needs to be done seems beyond our abilities, or not worth the trouble, or both. And when we consider, then, how it must be for everyone else, that every intellectual project depends, at some point, on overcoming this sort of difficulty, under these sorts of conditions, and is dependent for its completion on this sort of effort, made or not made by human beings as imperfect as ourselves, well, we're likely to lose all hope for the academic enterprise as such. It's at moments like these that simple activities can help. I always find it reassuring that I can do ten push-ups, for example. Or that I can run five kilometers in about half an hour. Or that I can write a 175-word paragraph of prose at will. "Do not worry," I tell myself. "One thing at a time. Easy it does it."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Zizek Owes Us a Rewrite

Adam Kotsko has posted a puzzling defense of Slavoj Zizek on the occasion of his plagiarism. I've been working on a post of my own about it, but Adam's post offers a good place to begin. Let's keep in mind, however, that we are talking about a verbatim transcription, with minor stylistic changes, that covers more than a page of Zizek's The Parallax View (pp. 301-303). The source is clearly Stanley Hornbeck's review of Kevin MacDonald's Culture of Critique. (Credit for discovering the plagiarism goes to Deogolwulf, with an assist from Steve Sailer.) Zizek has acknowledged the error in an email to Critical-Theory, so the facts aren't really at issue, but you can see for yourself using the Diff Checker. In what follows, I assume familiarity with the case.

I agree with Adam that what Zizek says happened is probably what did happen, but I don’t think I understand Adam's analogy to student writing. If a student handed in a paper and you discovered that a page or two had been lifted verbatim from a book review published online, and when you confront him with it he explains that he had a friend write that part of the paper because, well, he didn’t have time to read the book it is about (and it looks like his friend didn’t have time to write the passage either), would you just give him a rewrite? I think he would at the very least have to fail the assignment. And get a very stern warning about cheating.

It’s probably true that many established academics don’t write all the actual prose in their books, but I do think it remains the implicit norm. That is, you can’t defend yourself against criticism of a book you've put your name to by saying, “Oh, but I didn’t write that part of the book.” (This is true even where you have a co-author to share the blame with. You can't just unload it.) Zizek may not have passed off as his own something he and Adam would dignify as an “idea”*, but he has surely passed off Hornbeck’s work of summarizing MacDonald’s work as though he, Zizek, did that work himself. The fact that he disagrees with MacDonald does not make it better, but worse. Zizek is dismissing an author that he in any case implicitly, and in this case explicitly, claims to have read. ("...reading authors like MacDonald, one often cannot decide...") In his explanation of the plagiarism he is forced to admit that he hasn’t read MacDonald’s book at all. So this isn’t just stealing Hornbeck’s reading of MacDonald. It’s failing to observe a minimal standard of intellectual decency.

When I discussed this case with Campbell Jones recently, he pointed out something else. As in almost all other cases of plagiarism I'm aware of, the act of uncritically pasting someone else's writing (even if you think it's your friend's original writing) into your text will reproduce errors in your source that you might otherwise have caught. That's happened in this case in the quote that Hornbeck attributes to Derrida but which is actually John Caputo's reading of Derrida. (I have not been able to confirm that the mistake was introduced by Hornbeck, but from the chapters that MacDonald has available online it seems clear that it's not a mistake he would make. He lists Caputo's book in the bibliography, and a major part of his argument seems to be aimed at deconstruction.) That is, the Derrida quote is a misattribution, and one that, as Campbell pointed out, anyone who knows anything about Derrida should easily have spotted. (Derrida would never say, "The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct…") I assume that Zizek knows a great deal about Derrida. In the footnotes (where Zizek attributes all non-attributed quotations to MacDonald and so, by implication, attributes the misattribution to MacDonald), Zizek goes on to bring his critique of Derridean thought to a ridiculous "climax". Derrida goes from being a kind of Jewish conspirator (as construed by Hornbeck) to being an al-Qaeda sympathizer—or that's how it looks to me.

This is very unfair to MacDonald, whose work appears to be controversial enough on its own not to need to be read through the lens of what appears to be an pseudonymous white supremacist! This is a bit like getting your Nietzsche through a Nazi like Rosenberg and dismissing it, i.e., Nietzsche's thought, as "barbarism".

And this brings me to something that I find very confusing about this case. Zizek has used the description of MacDonald's work in a positive review as the basis of his dismissal of that work. But, precisely because the review is positive, we find Zizek (which is to say, Hornbeck, whose sentences Zizek has plagiarized), actively nodding along with and corroborating various parts of MacDonald's theory. This includes the critical gesture at the deconstruction of immigration policies. Hornbeck and MacDonald appear to be very critical of deconstruction and the Frankfurt school, personified by Derrida and Adorno respectively. As I read these pages, so is Zizek.

So, for example, when Zizek/Hornbeck writes that

For these Jewish intellectuals, anti-Semitism was also a sign of mental illness: They concluded that Christian self-denial and especially sexual repression caused hatred of Jews,

and that

this project has been successful; anyone opposed to the displacement of whites is routinely treated as a mentally unhinged hatemonger, and whenever whites defend their group interests they are described as psychologically inadequate—with, of course, the silent exception of the Jews themselves

I can really only get this to make sense as a way of agreeing with MacDonald about the excesses of post-modernism and/or critical theory. Zizek does not seem to me to be saying that MacDonald is wrongly accusing these intellectuals of "adopting what would became a favorite Soviet tactic against dissidents". Following MacDonald, he (Zizek) is accusing them of adopting those tactics (just as Hornbeck is). Now, as I read on, it seems clear that Zizek had intended the entire plagiarized passage as straight, objective exegesis of what MacDonald says, i.e., without spin.* It's just that Hornbeck didn't write it that way, and Zizek clearly hadn't read it closely enough to see that it couldn't, really, be read that way. It simply doesn't make sense if we don't read it as a sympathetic account of MacDonald's critique of Adorno and Derrida.

(To exaggerate the effect, imagine that Zizek had been describing MacDonald's work as "brilliant" and as "having demonstrated" and as "rightly pointing out" and "astutely noting" etc. but then ultimately dismissing it as "nonsense". Even if it could be done without violating the rules of logic, it would be a very strange rhetorical strategy, making it virtually impossible to interpret.)

Plagiarism is not just a crime against the author of the original text. It's an affront to the reader because it makes a shambles of the essential intertextuality of scholarship and punishes any attempt at close reading with confusion. So, instead of just saying that, since he is ultimately dismissive of MacDonald at the end, he has not stolen any important ideas, I think Zizek owes us at the very least the rewrite that Adam Kotsko (too charitably, like I say) would have demanded of him if he were his student. Specifically, I want to know, in his own words, what Zizek really thinks of (1) MacDonald, (2) Derrida, (3) Caputo, (4) Adorno and, somewhat urgently, what he thinks of (5) "Jewish intellectuals". Given that he has plagiarized a favorable review of the first that mistakes the third for the second and derides them along with the fourth by lumping them together in the thinly veiled racism of the fifth, he cannot, if he wants me to take him seriously, simply "regret the incident". He has to clean up the mess.

*NPR has a reaction from Zizek himself, which confirms what he also says in his email to Critical Theory. "As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another's theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever." He may think Hornbeck's prose is "purely informative" but this reader, like I say, can't very quickly establish that to be the case. Obviously I can't let this stand unrebuked either: "My friend not only agreed, he wrote those words for my use! Plus they are a resume of a book, not any creative development of ideas. So I really don't see a problem here." The friend did not, it turns out, write those words, he stole them. And it can't be true that only words that effect the "creative development of ideas" are protected from theft. Sort of like a rich man stealing two dollars from a beggar's cup and saying, "You call that money? And it wasn't even yours in the first place. Get a life!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blogs, Books and Papers

I often ask myself why I, who find it so easy to write a blog a post, have such difficulties writing books and scholarly papers. It's important here to keep in mind that the blog post is a relatively new academic genre. (A journalistic blog post, by the way, is a different kind of writing than an academic blog post.) Perhaps my cavalier attitude about blogging comes simply from the lack of any clear, commonly accepted standard. We don't really know what it is yet, so we don't know how to do it well or badly. Recall that the name of the barrier to writing that derives from our unwillingness to do something badly is Vanity. There is a general feeling around blogs that if you don't like what you're reading it's your own damn fault. After all, you're basically reading someone else's diary. Sure, he left it open on the desk for you to see, but still, in a sense, nobody asked you to read it and certainly not to form an opinion about it.

Well, obviously, that's not really true. Many blogs these days are written to be read by others and in order to influence their thinking. We bloggers can't say we don't take any pride in our work. We do. We look at our stats. We promote ourselves in other social media. We like being talked about. And yet, even with all those occasions for my (formidable) vanity to express itself and block my writing, I don't seem to have any trouble communicating in this medium. Why not?

I have to two theories, which may both be true. First, a blog post makes entirely differently demands of its readers. It is generally short and self-contained. It may, certainly, be importantly related to some context, but the reader is expected to either recognize that context or just be serenely untroubled by the content of the post. The reader can, often, also engage directly with the post (in the comments) or might write a post on their own blog in response. There's something conversational and, therefore, ephemeral about the act of reading. You're just trying to understand the post well enough to respond within the hour. Or not. There's no presumption that you're going to have to spend a long time reflecting on the post, digesting it.

When writing books and papers, by contrast, I feel that I owe the reader a richly textured, multi-layered literary and intellectual experience. I am myself too often disappointed with books and papers that have too little content or too little form.

The second important difference between blog posts and other kinds of writing is that it is written directly to the reader. There is no editorial oversight. (This is absolutely crucial, in my mind, to the definition of a blog. I was recently approached about contributing to a collective blog but my interest was strongly dampened when I was told that each post would have to be approved before posting.) There are all kinds of good things to say about editorial oversight, but the whole point of blogging is to be able to speak your mind directly, without the task of getting it past someone. (There may always been an "implied editor", however.)

When writing something that has to pass through an editorial process I always feel like I'm placing the editor himmerherself at risk. There's always that kind of criticism of crappy papers that openly wonders "how this garbage got through peer review", etc. So part of what blocks me as a writer is the idea that it's not just my reputation that is at stake. I wonder if that sounds strange.