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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Enjoy Your Moping

There's a lot of anguished time spent not working. If you are really stuck, then try to just do something completely different and mindless for a while rather than using your moping time moping. I find looking at episodes of The Rockford Files useful.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Memorization and Working Memory

One thing I did a lot of during my comparatively fallow, unproductive period was to memorize a lot of poetry. I picked up my copy of Robert Frost's poems from my office today to bring home, and found poems that I didn't even know I knew. I could look at them again and almost instantly re-memorize them. And I don't even like Robert Frost!

Memorizing that much changed my whole relation to my subject matter. When I say that I know a poem I mean that I've memorized it at one time, not just that I know of its existence. Insight have come from this level of knowledge, though I didn't need to memorize anything. I'm sure many scholars of poetry don't bother.

One thing memorization increases (possibly) is working memory, "the ability to actively hold information in the mind needed to do complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning" according to this wikipedia article.. I don't have any proof of that, but that's my own experience. For example, I can read an article once, then the next day look at it and write a reader's report. I remember everything that is wrong and right with it and don't even need to look back at it once I get the quotes I need for the report. I'm pretty sure my working memory was not this good even when I was younger, in graduate school.

The mind does decline in pure speed with age, but certain tasks can actually become easier.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stupid Motivational Tricks--The Book

I'm thinking of publishing SMT as a book, a kind of "best of" collection that I would self-publish as a "print on demand" sort of deal. I'm getting sixty people a day reading this, so I'm sure there is a demand. All I'd have to do is to go through a few hundred posts and choose the best ones, organize them by categories, and do minimal revisions.

It wouldn't replace all the more systematic books on how to write and publish and manage time. I probably wouldn't earn any money doing it, but I think it would be a valuable service for people who crave this sort of stupid advice.

Monday, September 27, 2010


[From the archives at RSL.]

It is said that Milo of Croton, the six-time Olympic wrestling champion, maintained his strength between the Olympiads by lifting a calf onto his shoulders every day from its birth. After four years, then, he was lifting an ox, and, so the story goes, he carried this ox on his shoulders right into the stadium, where he killed it with his bare hands, cooked it, and ate it.

You know where I'm going with this. How like a PhD student was Milo the Crotonian! For three years (give or take) you grow with your task until the day comes to defend your thesis. You throw the dissertation from your shoulders to the ground, deftly slaughtering it before the amazed eyes of your committee. Then you cook it, of course, and consume it with the utmost relish.

What intellectual exercise can serve as a fitting analogue? Well, from the first day of your doctoral studies, write down something you know (I mean really know) about your topic. Do that again on the second day and then again on the third. Do it every day for a thousand days (three years or so) and you will then know enough about your topic to justify your degree. You will also have written, more or less, your thesis.

Give your research a daily workout (an e-labor-ation) in writing from the very beginning. By this means you will arrive at an articulate body of knowledge just as surely as Milo achieved his Olympian strength.


Many creative people are also given to melancholy, to the point where we might consider melancholy itself a component of creation itself. Less than ideal working conditions, delayed or non-existent rewards, the inherent solitude of many types of scholarship, and many other analogous factors (I am too lazy to list) contribute to dysphoria. I get a little jolt of satisfaction when my work is cited favorably, when I get a spike in hits on my blog, when my articles are accepted, but these events are infrequent.

Instead of eliminating melancholy, I prefer to anatomize it, control or minimize it through conscious effort, use it and listen to its messages. What is your melancholy telling you? I argued a lot with one therapist who said that my being more productive would not make me happier. I'm sure she was correct in saying that productivity would not eliminate dysphoria, but I was right that publishing more would help me manage the problem by removing a significant source of frustration.

It seems superficial to want rewards for what we do: admiration, renown, prestige and respect, power, money. Since scholarship is inherently rewarding, it is too much to ask that it also bring such conventional rewards. Yet people (including myself) do want such things even when they don't want to admit it to themselves.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

There Is Nothing Too Basic, addendum

In the season's first practice, the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would teach all of his players, even seniors who had won multiple national championships, the proper way to put on socks and lace up sneakers. Why? To prevent blisters ... that might cause the players to run down the court off-balance, which could then cause knee problems, then back problems.

I trot this anecdote out when I'm explaining something that my students might find too obvious. Nothing is too obvious when it comes to composing prose. You have to take care of everything.

You just can't

The late, great Diane Middlebrook (author of Anne Sexton biography and beloved Stanford prof) once told me, "You can't edit yourself any more than you can tickle yourself" -- and for the same reason, I might add: You know what's coming.

There are four questions even experienced authors cannot answer about his or her own prose, without a second set of eyes: Is it clear enough, concise enough, complete enough, convincing enough?

There Is Nothing Too Basic

There is nothing too basic when considering your scholarly writing. There is no stage that you arrive at, at which you can forget the basics of sentence and paragraph construction, effective argumentation, punctuation, good citation practices. That's why I value the insights of those who teach composition at a basic level to college students, or of those who are not even academic writers at all.

Many academic writers would benefit from basic instruction in composition, because the basics remain the key, even when we want to introduce additional nuances.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Some stats about where the readers of SMT reside. These are numbers of page views between July 1 and Sept 12:

United States 2,705
Denmark 383
Canada 282
United Kingdom 143
South Korea 77
Taiwan 54
Germany 35
Spain 35
France 30
Australia 29

Friday, September 24, 2010

You Can't Do Everything

Scholarship is just one dimension of academic life, of life in general. A really big name in my field has no family, few close friends who aren't academics, no romantic relationship. All she does is her work. I'm not suggesting that as a model by any means, but when you look at the great things this person has accomplished, that's the context.

If you are being judged for tenure on research, at a research university, you have to realize that people expect a certain dedication to developing a research program. The problem is that you might be pulled in many directions at once. If you are involved in five or six things that are as demanding as your research, guess what's going to suffer? Better to do two or three things well than struggle to keep up with twice that many commitments. You can have family, work, and one serious hobby. You can't have small children, work, one serious hobby, run a community organization, be involved in university governance, spend hours devoted to religious activities, and take care of three dogs.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Notes on Expertise

(1) It's unlikely that you will be the person who knows the most about any subject. There will always be at least one person who will know more about any given thing--unless that thing is defined so narrowly that nobody actually cares. You don't really have to worry about that, because you can be second best (or tenth) and still make a contribution. There's a law of diminishing returns, too. Often the specialist on an author will no biographical information that nobody really even needs to know.

(2) It is relatively easy to gain a respectable amount of expertise about something. Say someone wanted to learn about Dickens. It would require a lot of time to do the reading, but anyone, in principle, could just do that reading. Read all the novels, then read the criticism until you pick up a book that doesn't tell you anything you don't already know. (This for fields in which there is no huge technical barrier to understanding.)

(3) Expertise does not mean originality. You know Dickens, you know what everyone thinks about Dickens. Maybe you think the same things as everyone else, more or less. Originality comes from the encounter between you, a unique individual, and the text. The text strikes you differently, it takes a funny bounce when it hits your mind, the same funny bounce every time. You start to study that bounce and develop an argument from there. Maybe your expertise is only respectable, not extraordinary, but you can still make a contribution.

(4) Then "all of a sudden" after 10 or 15 years you will be one of top experts. It still doesn't matter if there are few who know more in absolute terms, if you know almost as much but are a little more original.

10 minutes, 2.5 kilometers

No, I can't run 2.5 kilometers in ten minutes. But these two figures mark a kind of minimum threshold for the effect that busy-ness in my work is allowed to have on my regular physical and intellectual activities. This week, for example, I have (as always, partly owing to poor planning) found myself having some difficulty keeping up with the commitments I'm making and have made, teaching, editing, consulting, etc. So I'm a bit busier than I'd like to be.

This morning, therefore, I didn't cancel my jog in order to get a bit more prep time in between 6 and 7 am. Rather, I cut it down from 5 kilometers to 2.5. There are other reasons for the shorter, easier run, like my still somewhat sore rib. But the principle of cutting down on rather than outright canceling recreational activities is the point I want to make here.

The same goes for my writing sessions. My plan says I should write 1 hour every day on a paper I'd like to get done before the fall break in mid-October. But this week that would be an extravagant luxury. So at 9 am, when my writing session begins, I take exactly 10 minutes to write about the subject of a particular section of the paper. That produced 236 words yesterday and 213 words today. Not bad, when you think about it. And it's good for my style because I'm writing straight out of my head; the language gains a certain kind of freshness under those constraints.

Both my mind and my body are happy (if not thrilled) to be given at least some attention. The momentary crisis is never allowed to become a rout.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Rotation

I've settled into a pattern of having two articles / chapters in rotation at any given point, and trying to complete one of them every month or two. I have a deadline of October 1 so I have one that's near completion for that, along with a chapter that I've been plugging away at. The idea is that the completed piece will drop out of rotation on Sep. 30 and I will add a new one.

My aim is to strike the perfect balance between focus and distraction. One is not enough because if I get stuck, then I waste time. Three is one too many, because I am not likely to make substantial progress on any one of the three.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Seeing Your Name in Print

There's something about seeing your own name in print. It belongs to you, refers to you, but somehow is not you. It's a kind of an addiction. To be published is a wonderful thing, but the fix only comes a couple times a year.


I got a book in the mail with my article in it. I re=read it in print and it gave me a different sensation than when I had written it. I wasn't thrilled with it at the time, but now I think it pretty much kicks ass.


I'm hoping my tips about time management and work will be useful for other kinds of writing or creation not necessarily academic or scholarly. Some of my advice applies to scholarship alone, but some is more general.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Coming Back to a Paper

I like papers that I can come back to, that I know will take a long time to complete and that will always be there for me to work on (until I eventually finish them that is). One idea I had quite some time ago, put aside, then came back to - and is now developing nicely.

There's a comfort in having some papers like that, but usually I have the urge to finish everything quickly.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


At my son's hockey practice today, I was sitting on the bench nursing my bruised rib from Monday night's practice (we parents are trying to put a team together). The kids, I noticed, fall down all the time, sometimes so hard that it makes them cry, but they very rarely get seriously hurt. The reason, of course, is that their coaches know what they are capable of and give them exercises that will challenge them but not hurt them. Also, there are serious rules about equipment and etiquette (uncompromisingly enforced) that keeps everything safe. Finally, they're on the ice for an hour at a time, fully focused and doing their best. All of this is part of a long tradition, throughout which the experience of getting injured has been taken seriously and incorporated into the practice (in a double sense) of the game. Hockey can be a dangerous game, and this fact is recognized in very practical ways by those who play it, and those who teach it.

A disturbing thought now entered my head: Are we as good at respecting the inherent mental dangers of scholarship? Do we even recognize the possibility of getting "injured" while engaged in our "knowledge work"? Is it, indeed, possible to injure your mind in a way that is analogous to the way I injured my ribs Monday night? I'm not sleeping well because of it. I'm going to skip a couple of practices. I'm going to buy some equipment (not doing so earlier was clearly mistake number one!). I'm going to think about the reckless abandon with which I threw myself in to the game. But does anything like that apply to the two or three hours we sit in front of the computer writing our papers, practicing our thinking? Can we "break" something? Or is scholarship a completely harmless activity?

I'm going to think about this some more and blog about it at RSL tomorrow morning.

I Know What You're Going to Say

"How can I get the next task done the next day if I'm already behind on everything else? "

In the first place, if you do things right away in the first place you won't be as far behind, because things won't be piling up. Some people feel they don't really want to do anything unless they have a pile of undone things to do, so you have to get yourself out of that mentality. Don't think of the night before the deadline as the time you should be doing something: that is letting the deadline, set by someone else, control your time management instead of having control over it yourself.

I kind of worry sometimes that if I am too quick people (who don't know me well) will think I've been hasty. I've been known to write something, put it in an email draft, and not send it until a few days later, simply so someone won't think that.

If you do have a pile of undone tasks, the first thing to do is to dig yourself out. Once that is done, then you can start doing things as they come up and trying to get yourself to the point where you never have a pile at all. Then, when something comes up, you will have time to do it right then.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Next Day

It came up in the faculty meeting the other day that if you want your peer evaluation of teaching (where the senior colleague visits your class and writes up an evaluation letter for your tenure or promotion file) written up in one day, ask Jonathan. I just find it a lot less work to write up the observation while it's still fresh in my mind. That way I don't have to take super detailed notes or dredge up memories from last week. I just go, take some minimal notes, and write them up into a letter. I'm sure I do as good a job as anyone else: taking more time in between the observation and the writing of the letter wouldn't lead me to craft an even better letter. In fact, I might forget things I wanted to say.

Some things are just done better in one or two days. I've learned to grade papers super fast too, rather than waiting for a hypothetical moment in the future where time will be more abundant. It's kind of cheap way of impressing people. Cheap, in that it doesn't cost me any more time (saves me time in fact) and in the sense that it's kind of a gimmick. I don't have to be that fast: people are surprised when an academic meets any deadline with a lot of time to spare, since last-minute or late is the norm.

Friday, September 17, 2010


A very good academic writer I know once told me how he and his co-author were working through the manuscript of a book they were preparing to deliver to their publisher. They spent a day together, reading the book out loud to each other, slowly and carefully, stopping every chapter or so to discuss matters of style and, to some extent, content (though that wasn't really an issue at this stage).

I don't know how many of our readers here at SMT do this even for papers they have authored by themselves. (They should, of course.) But I think it is an absolutely crucial operation for co-authored papers. As a language editor, I have seen some very strange papers that were obviously the result of a writing process—or, rather, two or more much too separate writing processes—that never meet in the same rhetorical space. A good way to get this meeting to happen is to instantiate it physically, in speech.

If you are writing a paper or a book with someone who would find reading it out loud to you embarrassing, I would argue, or if you would find it embarrassing to do so yourself, you are working with the wrong person.

(Like I say, instantiating your text in a single, physical, rhetorical moment is a good idea also for papers you are writing by yourself. As part of the editing process, read your paper out loud to yourself. You'll be surprised at the improvements this will force you to make, and how easy those improvements are to make once you hear what your writing sounds like. If this idea bores or embarrasses you, I would argue here too, then you might not be the right person to be writing this paper.)


*Something* told me I should go to the library and check out one of the volumes of Saintsbury's great history of English prosody. I didn't even know exactly why I needed it until I started reading it again, but I knew it had something to do with my current project. Now, of course, I realize that I needed to look at his contrast between blank verse before Shakespeare, with its end-stopped, hiccuping lines, and Shakespeare's more fluid approach, in order to work on this chapter on the Spanish verse-paragraph. I had half remembered, from reading this maybe 10 years ago, that this would be relevant. He also talks about Milton's approach to paragraphing. It's probably only worth a few sentences, but those few lines could make a significant difference. Spanish prosody, I think, is even more geared toward the unity of the individual line than English is, so calling in Saintsbury as a reinforcement would be advantageous in making my argument. The "sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another" and the like.

I find it marvelous that Saintsbury uses the word groove in a modern sense:
But in the second [half of his life], he had what was all his own, a resless and catholic spirit of exploration and appreciation that made it impossible for him to stay in one groove.

I began working on prosody the minute I was in Graduate School. If that had been a more acceptable option professinally and I had been a better linguist, I would have only done that. I remember my professors in Graduate School asking me if I was going to read the entire three volumes of Saintsbury or look only at the abridged version.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


If you really had a good bibliography for a project, you could just read the bibliography and know what you had to say. You could have a room with all those books and articles and you could complete the project without ever having to leave the room. Of course, for me the bibliography doesn't take shape until the project itself is complete: it is in flux until the last moment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Research and Writing

Though I talk here a lot about writing, I don't go much into the process of research. In other words, I'm dealing with the process of turning ideas and claims into finished prose and then publishing it. But where does my knowledge come from? How do I know what I know?

You might see me in café in Lawrence Kansas. I'll have a pen and a notebook, but no books or other materials. I will just be writing things down from my head, working out problems. Obviously this only gets me so far. Here's the thing, though. I cannot gather all my information before I begin the writing process. Until I start writing, I literally do not know what else I need to find out. So I'm working with an idea I know something about, enough to start writing about, but I always have to do more research as I go along. Writing in the humanities is a heuristic process: you can't just find out some results and later write them up, because the writing always causes other issues to surface.

So my research is mostly reading other things and trying to make them fit together. A second component of my research is knowing people I can ask things I don't know. So if I'm writing about Valente, say, I would email Claudio Rodríguez Fer in Galicia, the head of the Cátedra José Ángel Valente, and ask him a few pertinent questions. If I'm writing about Gamoneda, I would ask Miguel Casado, who is the foremost expert on this poet. I have Lorquistas I can ask Lorca questions to. I never abuse the privilege by asking things I could easily look up myself. Scholarly contacts are part of my scholarly base. Aside from specialized information, they can provide a "check" on my ideas by saying, "you're right, that's a fruitful approach" or "you're barking up the wrong tree."

Other researchers are very good at looking at archives, specialized collections of materials. Some people I know have a great archive at their disposal but aren't as good at interpreting what they find. They unearth things, but these things are of interest to people like me, the hermeneuts. Scholarship really requires both types of people.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We Are Less Interdisciplinary Than We Think We Are

I think it's safe to say that most people, including myself, think of ourselves as more competent across disciplines than we really are. I'm constantly having to correct that self-perception, reminding myself that I don't know very much outside my specialization. It might be as simple as picking up a book of linguistics and not even understanding what issues are at stake except very vaguely.

I'm interested in those places where disciplines are most obdurate, most settled in their own technical languages, where the insights don't automatically translate. To be really interdisciplinary you would have to actually know how to think in another discipline.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I Just Want to Do My Work (Dammit)

I don't want to read an email from the Chancellor about parking for the football game. I don't want to fill out a form telling the university my ethnicity and other demographic details. I just want to do teaching and research, research and teaching, and then some more research after that. I'll do essential, meaningful service as well, helping to put together tenure documents, mentoring junior faculty, doing peer reviews of articles. I'll suffer through meetings. Most of what is "work" aside from that, however, is just a drain on energy.


Since teaching is highly structured in time and research is highly unstructured, service cuts into research much more than teaching. Service is also like research in that it takes place in less structured time frames, and can be infinitely expandable. There are people with the same teaching load who do four times more service, just as there are scholars who publish four times more than their colleagues.

What if research was structured: you had to sit in a room and do it for so many hours a day for so many weeks (like Thomas's 16 week plan) and you had to be accountable for that time? What if, at the same time, teaching was totally unstructured: you would meet with random groups of students who wanted to see you on random occasions? In other words, what if we inverted the relation between research and teaching? Obviously a lot more research would get done, but more significantly the relation between the two activities would change. It seems rather odd that our too main activities should be so asymmetric in the way they are organized and rewarded.


It's also interesting that scholarship is communication upwards, where the intended audience consists of specialists who know as much or more than you, and that teaching is communication downwards, where the intended audience knows vastly less than the instructor. It shouldn't be too surprising that the best at communicating upwards wouldn't always be the best at communicating in the other direction, or that those that are best at planning 15 weeks of classes aren't the best at working in a less structured way.

Graduate teaching is a special case, because the instructor has to decide when to go down and when to go up.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Another Film Theory Assignment

Like the previous assignment, the challenge is to "de-allegorize". This time you will be working on a scene from The Patriot. How, then, is it an allegory for the composition of an academic paper? Hint: the clip begins with some "motivation" and "outlining"; the "writing" proper begins at 6:33. Warning: violence throughout. Not for kids.


I was in a bit of a slump between about 1998 and 2005 or so. You wouldn't really know it from looking at my cv, though. I continued to write and publish. There are no gaps, periods of more than 2 years without significant publications. From my perspective I was in a slump, because I was writing more than I was publishing and having a hard time putting together a book manuscript. I wasn't having a very good time in my job and suffered from mild to moderate depression. What I did, essentially, is write myself out of it. Now it is clear to me that the work I did during this period wasn't wasted in the least, but I went 15 years without publishing a book.

I still bear some ill effects from that period. It took me longer than it should have to become a full professor, and my salary is still far below where it should be in relation to my accomplishments and those of comparable people in my department. I was barely hanging on in terms of living a satisfactory life, but I was still able to write, somehow.

Now I'm in a phase where I'm asking myself "what next?" I need to make a change of some kind for purely financial reasons. This means either getting another job where the renumeration is decent, staying at Kansas as Distinguished Professor, or taking on some kind of administrative job. None of these is a sure thing in a stagnant economy, but I need to try to make some move at this point. If I retired tomorrow I would have had a kick-ass career in terms of pure scholarship, but there are many things I have left to do, and the most urgent of these things is to make a little more money so I can eventually retire in comfort.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


These things help to produce - although they might not by themselves entirely suffice to produce it - a general flatness that is dully excruciating. Glover is seldom, if ever, bombastic, as most of the other blank-verse writers of this time are. His inversions are not violent; nor does he often overplay the cards of Miltonic omission of articles or of apposition. An absolutely absurd single verse or phrase is not very common with him. But the midwife (no doubt a descendant of Shadwell's, as prophetic and as laconic) had laid her hand on his head at his birth and said, "Be thou flat"; and except in Admiral Hosier's Ghost (under what special disenchanting influence one does not know) he never discredited the prophecy. His verse not only cannot soar; it can hardly flap its wings. It toddles along after what Johnson (in another context) calls "the manner of the heavier domestic fowls." When we look at its inanity; when we look, on the other hand, at the faults of the "tumid and gorgeous" school - it is not surprising that in the middle of the century the heroic for a time shook off its competitor, and blank verse hardly came into competition again till the deferred advent of Cowper.

Saintsbury, History of English Prosody

Here is an admirably constructed paragraph. It begins with a topic sentence: Glover is dull because of the reasons adduced in the previous paragraph. Then three sentences that tell of flaws Glover did not have (bombast, affectation). Then a few hyperbolic sentences about the dullness itself. Finally, a concluding sentence that brings us to the real point: if blank verse was mostly either Miltonically pretentious or dull as dishwater in the 18th century, then heroic verse (the rhymed heroic couplet) had little to fear from the rival form.

We wouldn't necessarily want to write sentences like Saintsbury's today. They are too verbose and heavy handed, the metaphors and conceits too drawn out, the diction too recondite, for current taste. All the same, there is wit and humor, along with confident vigor, in the writing. These are good sentences within the Victorian ethos; post-Hemingway, they seem excessive. In terms of the structure of the paragraph, however, GS is still a model to be followed. What I most like about it is that it is self-contained, beginning and ending very strongly. The seemingly irrelevant list of faults the poet did not have turns out to be relevant at the end.

See This post by blog collaborator Thomas for a related view of paragraphs.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Coordinated Prepositions

I am not fond of coordinated prepositions, like "He drew from, and wrote about, the tradition of American Indian poetry" (invented example). They are grammatically impeccable, because you need those two prepositions to avoid a grammatical faux pas, but they are stylistically inelegant. I reviewed a book once that used several constructions like this in every paragraph (or so it seemed.) They started to weary me. To me they sound awkward and a bit fussy.

Every writer develops a set of preferences. I tend to avoid this construction, although I'm sure I might have other mannerisms in my prose that might annoy you. I get the feeling with some writers, though, that they don't even have stylistic preferences at all. They haven't even thought about their approach.

So the point of this post is not that you should avoid writing things like "She came upon, and remarked about..." but that you should have a well-thought out approach to your style and your individual preferences.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do I Follow My Own Advice?


Things often fall apart in unexpected ways. I don't follow every stupid motivational trick because I outthink myself and get too intelligent for my own good. I rationalize departures from best practice, or I simply fail to follow the path of maximal results. The blog is based on my own experience, what really has worked for me, but I'm sure I cling to habits that are not optimal. As I've argued here before, if you increase efficiency from 20% to 40% you will still get twice as much done, even if you aren't close to 100%. There is no point in beating yourself up if you think you're at 70. 70 is very, very good.

Ok. I despise sports analogies but here is one that might hold up: Hitting .300 in baseball if very, very good. Hitting .200 is marginal. So the entire differential between really solid hitters and bad ones is only 10%. Nobody hits 1000, or even over 400, and nobody hits below 200 and keeps their job very long. The real differences occur between bad (200), average (250), great (300), and extraordinary (350). So for most players it's going to be a matter of improving from 240 to 275, or from 290 to 304. Marginal differences but that in a fiercely competitive environment make a lot of difference.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Signposting Without Signposting

I had a sentence that started like this:
In the remainder of this chapter I will look at Eduardo Milán and Blanca Varela, the two Spanish American editors of this anthology, whose poetry illustrates some of the tensions between...

Then I changed it to this:
The poetry of the two Spanish American editors of this anthology, Eduardo Milán and Blanca Varela, illustrates some of the tensions between ....

I'm still signposting, simply by beginning a new section of the chapter by introducing the topics I'm going to be addressing. The reader can expect to find a discussion of these two poets. As easy as that.

So explicit signposting is only necessary when the topics do not flow into one another seamlessly. I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever use it, but often its presence points to an organizational glitch. Like: "I know you thought I've already discussed this topic, but I am bringing it back here because it has a different kind of relevance in this new context..."

Once in a while you are going to have to do things like that. I'm sure I had way too much explicit signposting in Apocryphal Lorca, because the book was hard to organize and I needed those extra nails to keep things from falling apart.


We are getting some attention from other bloggers,here for instance from a very cool-looking site.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mixed metaphors

Let's take a few sentences quoted the day before yesterday:
Culture is insular and molds its members so much that when they are steeped too heavily in it, the culture blinds them to all other things. Culture may be so engrained by the majority of members as to go unnoticed by them, but it will surely be reflected in the actions of new entrants and subversives who have not fully embraced the culture

There are too many implied metaphors packed into too small a space.
Culture is insular. It resembles an island, cut off from other influences.

It molds its members. The metaphor of putting something liquid into a mold and then solidifying it.

They are steeped in culture, like tea bags.

It blinds them.

It is engrained in them. The metaphor of something embedded in the grain of a piece of wood.

It is reflected. The metaphor of the mirror. Here I'm not following the logic, because I don't see how those subverting a culture would also reflect it in their actions. What the authors seem to mean is that cultural differences will emerge if new members don't yet know the rules, or if dissident members consciously break these rules.

New members have not embraced it....

Seven metaphors in total. (8 if you count "subversives.") The problem is that the authors haven't thought about what they want to communicate and so their message pulls the reader in many random directions at once. They aren't consciously using these metaphors at all, so they don't notice the potential for distraction.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More on Citation

Maybe you think I'm mean-spirited in pointing to inadequate citations in a (quasi)scholarly publication. Scholars, though, should expect readers to check their citations. The basic purpose of a citation is to provide support for a claim by providing documentation of sources that made this claim previously, or to document what other scholars have concluded, even if these conclusions are ones you want to question. You can also work backwards, checking the citations in cited sources to see if they are valid too. Tracing claims backwards through the references of several articles is an excellent way of learning the secondary literature in a subfield.

There might be several reasons why I might check sources. For example, the Edward Said citation I talked about in yesterday's post seemed suspicious because I know that is not the main point of Said's book. Sometimes I'll see two citations side by side that might seem incompatible or wildly different in genre: if someone is citing Shakespeare and Talcott Parsons to support the same claim I might get suspicious. Maybe a claim seems improbable and I want to see if the sources cited really support it. In other cases, I might just be curious about what a previous author said, so I'll check out the source for that reason. Maybe it contains a separate claim that I want to use in my own work.

Overcitation can cloud the waters by making it difficult for readers to check the references, sometimes creating a false impression that a lot of serious research has gone on. Massive references can intimidate less experienced scholars. A superfluous source is one that is adduced in support of a non-controversial or over-obvious point, or is redundant or irrelevant, or doesn't quite support the claim being made. Since overcitation is not a hanging offense like plagiarism, people get away with it a lot more.

Another mistake some people make is place all references on equal footing. What if the source I'm citing is a self-help book of dubious scholarly merit? It is still a name in parentheses with a page number and a date, but it should not have the same authority. Maybe it is a book published 100-years ago. Should I cite it alongside a more recent source without acknowledging the time lag? I want to feel I trust a scholar to have made the relevant acts of discrimination so sh/e can steer me to valid sources of information. Anything that undermines that trust weakens scholarly authority.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Citation Failure

Bob Basil's first post came yesterday. He offers a fresh perspective, complementary to my own but a bit different in tone.


Citation failure occurs when authors cite a text to support a claim, but in an incomplete or confusing way. Take this example from Twale & De Luca, Faculty Incivility:
Knowledge and acceptance are prerequisites to claiming any power and authority over other members of the culture (Eagleton, 2000; Said, 1993). Without recognition of the power it takes to eradicate a bully culture, it will prevail. Culture is insular and molds its members so much that when they are steeped too heavily in it, the culture blinds them to all other things. Culture may be so engrained by the majority of members as to go unnoticed by them, but it will surely be reflected in the actions of new entrants and subversives who have not fully embraced the culture (Bourdieu, 1977). [p. 96]

Putting aside the infelicitous writing, the mixed metaphors and stylistic tone-deafness, I'd like to focus on the citation practice. The first thing I notice is that the first claim is very general, almost uncontroversial, yet also imprecise. Knowledge of what? Acceptance of what, or by whom? Secondly, both Eagleton and Said are credited with this insight. Looking to the bibliography, I see that these are not academic articles, but entire books. So Terry Eagleton, at some point in his 2000 book The Idea of Culture, lends support to this idea, as does Edward Said, at some point in his book Culture and Imperialism. There are no page numbers, so a reader would have to judge whether these claims are supported by looking holistically at these books. "Bourdieu 1977" is also an entire book. Here the claim is a little more specific, but how and where and to what end does Bourdieu make this claim, in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice? Do the authors of this study on academic bullying really understand Said and Bourdieu, or are they just name-dropping? How do the claims Twale and De Luca make on their own in this paragraph relate to the claims attributed to their cited references?

A fifteen page list of references seems to add scholarly gravitas to this work, but citation failure this pervasive undermines this impression--especially for a reader like myself who is somewhat familiar with the ideas of Said, Eagleton, and Bourdieu. To be fair, I should point out that not all the references in this book are this sloppy, only a few I've checked so far. I wouldn't want to be an academic bully!

So what is the correct path to successful citation? First, the claim itself must be specific and concrete, something distinctive. Secondly, the reader must have the tools to find specific support for the claim in the cited source. A page number perhaps. You can cite the entire article with no page numbers, if you are citing the central claim of that article. You could even get away with citing an entire book with no page numbers, if you were referring to the central argument of that book and made it clear what that argument is. A 200-page book will contain many sets of claims.

You can either cite directly, taking language from your source verbatim, or paraphrase. If there is direct discourse, a page number is obligatory. If you paraphrase a specific claim, you also need a page number or numbers, unless, by implication, the claim is that of an entire article.

I've seen this loose style of citation more in some less rigorous branches of the social sciences than in my own field, but I still think it is instructive to look at weak examples--as opposed to more subtle ones where citation failure is more a matter of nuance.

See also this post by Thomas that also addresses some issues related to the rigor of citations. I read his post before writing my own and owe some of my interest in this topic to him.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Detecting BS

I was delighted when Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University published On Bullshit, because that book gave me cover to teach a module on the subject to my university students. My short definition of bullshit: language a person uses to hide that person’s real intention. Bullshit can be a lie, or the truth, or something else all together.

A scenario to explain what I mean: A teenage son has been out smoking pot with his friends. His mother confronts him when he comes home: “Have you been smoking pot, son?” The son has many options to BS and thus hide is real intention, which is to make it up to his room without getting busted.

The (incomplete) truth: “Nothing to worry about. I was in a car that some of my friends had been smoking pot in.”

The lie: “Of course not. I always listen to my Mom.”

Changing the subject: “How could you ask me that question, when you know how important your belief in me is to my fragile self esteem?”

I have seen each of these options work nicely.

I love Jonathan’s dissections of bad scholarly prose. Sometimes the badness is the consequence of an attempt to bullshit. The intention that the authors of this prose often wish to hide: “I don’t want my reader to see that I haven’t thought through this argument or idea thoroughly.”

As a professional editor and a former communications consultant for publicly traded companies, I believe I'm a nifty bullshit-spotter, but only when I’m reading it – more specifically, when I am reading prose written by people who are not me. (Face to face, I’m hopeless. Why? A person’s physical confidence usually wins me over.)

I was a good deal older than I should have been when I finally figured out how to detect bullshit, if only sometimes, in my own prose. I’ll try to address that in a later post.


You'll find that 10% of your time is spent producing really great results, that 10% of secondary sources you consult will be relevant and revelatory. The problem is that you can't just do the 10% of work that's really valuable: you have to do all 100% in order to get to that 10%. That 90% is not wasted time, but simply a measure of the inevitable inefficiency of things.

So proposals that people should do less scholarship in order to allow room for the good stuff to shine are misguided. If we reduced scholarship to 10% of what it is in quantitative terms, then the 90% rule (Sturgeon's Law) would still apply, but we'd have eliminated almost all of the good work along with the bad. By the same token, we wouldn't want to increase the volume any more than necessary either.

About 50% of work is going to be below average, no matter how much of it there is. Not everything is going to be excellent. Even in a research department like mine, there will be a wide range of metabolisms for doing scholarship. If everyone was like me, my department simply wouldn't function.

Friday, September 3, 2010

More Bad Writing

Here's some bad writing to consider:
With the fierce competition for space in journals, not to mention top-tier journals, expectations exist for a high quality of research (Blackburn & Lawrence, 1995). Although successive generations of academics at research universities publish more than those not at these universities, it is likely that this is as much a matter of personal choice, fulfillment, and field advancement as it is institutional expectations for merit, tenure, and promotion. The expectation is survival. Survival implies a competitive spirit that may overlook civility in favor of success. This competitive environment invites bullying...

(Twale and De Luca, Faculty Incivility, 66)

Causal relations are not clear in writing like this. Does limited space in journals lead to expectations for high quality of research, or is this simply a roundabout way of saying that the quality of research is judged by publication in top-tier journals? The concessive "although" in the second section is equally unclear: it is unlikely that faculty of research institutions publish more because of "personal choice"; rather, these are the type of institutions in which more research is produced, almost by definition. The next sentence seems contradictory: now the focus shifts to something that was minimized in the previous sentence, namely promotion and tenure. Survival in the research university means getting tenure, a competitive process which may lead to bullying. Or maybe not, since the paragraph doesn't really lead logically to this conclusion. It sort of sidles up to the conclusion with baby steps, so that the lack of space in journals at the beginning of the paragraph seems to produce bullying by the end. But how did we get there?

The authors are advancing certain claims, but the only citation they provide in this particular passage is in support of a relatively banal and tautological point: top-tier journals are more competitive. The citation does not make it clear what Blackburn and Lawrence are actually claiming, either: it is unlikely that the central claim of their work is that academic research is competitive!

The longer sentences here are wordy, expressing simple points in convoluted fashion. The shorter ones, on the other hand, are non-sequiturs requiring more explanation.

I applaud the effort to address the problem of academic bullying, but this book (what I've read of it so far) is full of sloppy thinking, unarticulated presuppositions, and false dichotomies. For example, is the top-tier researcher likely to be the bully? Or could it be the more typical case that the older scholar who hasn't published as much bullies the younger, more successful researcher? Is bullying more common in top research institutions or in liberal arts colleges or in 2nd-tier state schools? I don't really know, but do Twale and De Luca know, and how, exactly, do they know what they claim to know? Not being in control of the language they use, they give the impression of not being in control of their knowledge, either. They appear to have no empirical basis for some of their central claims. For example, they repeatedly imply that academic bullying is on the rise, but they don't really know that as far as I can tell. Maybe the problem has always been there. Maybe it's less widespread now than in the past. How would you find out the answer to that kind of question? "Horror story" is not the singular of data.

After I wrote the above, I was curious to know the reception of this book and found a review by Michael Imber (who like me is a professor at the University of Kansas, although I've never met him) in the Review of Higher Education that supported my first impression:
Among the theses advanced by Faculty Incivility are that there is more incivility in higher education than there used to be; that there is more incivility in higher education than in other organizations and work environments; that the organization and culture (particularly the emergent "corporate culture") of higher education promotes incivility; that there is less cooperation among faculty in research and teaching than there used to be; and that women in higher education suffer a greater share of incivility than men.

All of these theses would be interesting and important if they were supported by evidence and logic, but the book doesn't even come close. Instead it presents a badly written, poorly argued screed, full of jargon, convoluted sentence structure, misused words, and sources that don't make a convincing case for any of its claims.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

9 to 5

I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches four courses a semester at a local college. She treats her job as a 9-5 one, putting all instruction, preparation, and grading - along with committee work and other service - into 40 hours a week. Then her own writing, of which there is a lot, gets done outside those 40 hours- weekends, evenings, summers.

I teach 2 courses a semester, so I could do all my teaching and service in 40 hours a week and still have time to write and do research during the actual work week. Yes, I could be one of those people who brag about how many hours they work, but I'm not that guy. An hour of work for me can be extremely efficient and productive and I'd rather work 30 good hours than 60 mediocre ones.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Our library here has almost 200 volumes starting with the call number PQ6085, beginning with After the War and ending with a book by Concha Zardoya. Basically, this is my territory, twentieth century Spanish poetry. i know personally many of the authors in this section of the category; my own book is there as well, one of my books. Have I read all these 200 books? No, but I should basically know what they are if I claim to be a specialist. Some I've not only read but reviewed in print. Many are on my own personal shelves as well. I've spent a lot of time in the library just looking at that section and imagining what I could contribute to it. I want to be the Master of the domain of PQ6085... or something like that. That's my turf, my neighborhood and bailiwick.

That's one way of conceptualizing your work: where on the library shelf would it end up? The authors on that shelf will be your influences, your friends and enemies, your reviewers. Go a little further away you'll find more specialized books on Spanish poetry in PQ6073... Studies of individual Spanish authors will cover the rest of the PQ6000s. Latin American is PQ7000 and PQ8000.

The call number for Apocryphal Lorca starts with PS159.S7. (PS is American literature.) Here I'm with a few other books that compare American literature with literature from the Spanish speaking world. There is plenty of room on that shelf to make a contribution, since there are only 3 or 4 books there.