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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...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Don't Do This Either

If you are submitting to a journal that reviews articles anonymously, don't use the 1st person singular to refer to another article you wrote, listing the article in the Works Cited. Then I will know who you are and have to disqualify myself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Show Me the Type

(Cross posted from RSL.)

Happy writers are all alike; unhappy writers are unhappy in their own way. This wasn't quite how I responded to a question at a Writing Process Reengineering seminar on Friday, but it was what I had tried to say. The question was based on the idea, apparently promoted by the writers of some writing manuals, that there are different writing temperaments, different types of writers (the artistic type, I presume, the scientific type, the engineering type, the military type?), and that they should approach the task differently. Didn't my program of "outlines" and "schedules" assume a particular kind of writer (a very orderly and "linear" one)? I was asked. Shouldn't other kinds of writers do things differently?

"There may be different kinds of unhappy writers," I said. "All happy writers do it this way." That is, there may be many different reasons that people are not productive (expressed with sentences that begin "I'm the type that..."), but there is only one reason that they are productive: they are working on a regular schedule, writing paragraphs that fill out an outline. I suppose what I was really saying, however, is that the academic writer is already a "type" and if that's what you want to be, and be it happily, then you will have to experience the joy of writing paragraphs that defend claims one at a time. That's the only way.

If you are the "type" of writer who needs inspiration to write, or the type of writer who needs to read more before you begin to write, or if you are the type of writer who can't write for a half hour or an hour at a time but needs several days to get started, or if you are the type of writer who can't write when you're also teaching, or if you're the kind of writer who worries about how "original" you are or does not not know (or want to know) who your readers are, or if you're the kind of writer who can only write under the pressure of an immediate deadline, well, then, you will be unhappy (as an academic writer) in exactly that way. But if you write every day, always to a thesis and for a readership of your peers, one paragraph at a time, then you will be the "typical" happy academic writer.

Unhappy writers have their own approaches to writing. Happy writers do it my way.

Create Ideal Conditions / Work in Real Conditions

Set up your work conditions to be ideal, in terms of space and time. Develop your scholarly base; have all your work materials that you need on hand when you work. Sharpen your pencils.


But don't wait until everything is ideal to start working. Work anyway, because there will always be conditions that are less than ideal in some significant respect. For me, for example, I often don't have the book I need on hand. I could be more organized, but I am not. Somehow I out-publish people who are much better organized because I don't let things like that bother me and I don't make excuses for myself.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Work Diary November 19-25

I don't know quite what to do with this record of my work. I suspect my readers find it duller than my other posts, but part of the impulse behind SMT was to get my own project done.
Friday, Nov. 19: A solid 700 words. At least some of the writing was disciplined enough to stand, since I focused on only a few segments of the article.

Sat. Nov. 20. 300 words + a planning session of a few hours.

Sun. Nov. 21. Nothing.

Mon. Nov. 22. Nothing.

Tuesday. Nov. 23. Nothing

Wed. Nov. 24. 500 words.

Thursday, Nov. 25. 400 words.

SUMMARY: With four solid days of works, including an excellent Friday, a good to excellent result. I don't like those three blank days in the middle though.

I also need a system to keep track of months. Maybe I should do months instead of weeks...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Clichés and the "Idiom Principle"

One of Orwell's sillier pieces of writing advice is ""Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Orwell advises "scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness." But then wouldn't he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb "scrap" and the cliché phrase "has outworn its usefulness"? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are "abundantly clear." We don't just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer's jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn't have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I'm not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase "makes a valuable contribution to the field" in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as "chunking." Ben Zimmer of Language Log and The New York Times explains it like this:

The insights that are being put into practice have to do with "chunking" — the way that we learn and process language in prefabricated strings of words, or "lexical chunks." Native speakers of a language like English take for granted how much we rely on these chunks, and we tend not to appreciate their significance in the creation of linguistic fluency. But acquiring competency in a language isn't all about mastering rules of grammar and finding words to fill the functional slots, despite the syntactic emphasis in formal linguistics that has been championed by Noam Chomsky and his followers. A counter-current in linguistics since the 1960s has focused on what the late British scholar John Sinclair called "the idiom principle," or the tendency of certain words to cluster together with certain other words in their vicinity.

So we know in English someone can outwear her welcome, or something can outwear its usefulness. This verb has certain acceptable metaphorical uses. *"I've outworn that movie" doesn't really cut it.

I'm thinking of teaching my next advanced language course (a language course, but at the highest level for undergraduate Spanish majors) on idioms and proverbs. In my view, idioms are like truncated proverbs, or else proverbs are idiomatic phrases that take the form of entire sentences. The main weakness in the Spanish of very advanced learners is precisely this sense of the idiomatic principle. They can translate word by word and even make it grammatically correct, but they are translating chunks of English rather than adopting new idiomatic patterns. I'll let you know how it works out.

Friday, November 26, 2010


We've all had the graduate student who is a sponge. The last thing he or she has read has to go into the dissertation, relevance aside. It's hard with this kind of spongy student because the attention tends to wander a bit. The absorptive impulse isn't bad in and of itself, but sometimes it becomes too associational (this reminds me of that) and lacks depth.

I'm a little like that too. When I'm working on a project, everything else I read just happens to bear a relation to it. Now, I happen to be teaching a novel by Unamuno and working on a section of an article where Unamuno comes up. Naturally, I turn to that novel and to another by Atxaga I just happened to have taught just now in my other course. Maybe I assigned these novels subconsciously knowing I would need them?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Aim Small, Miss Small"

Here's my personal take on the aphorism "aim small, miss small," which Thomas develops in this post, the "best seller" of Stupid Motivational Tricks, the post most often viewed by visitors to the blog. It took me a while to get the meaning of this and translate it into terms that made sense to me.

Even if you aim to be as precise as possible, as close to your target, you will still make mistakes and misreadings. Nevertheless, you won't miss by a mile: your errors are likely to be small and relatively insignificant ones. This applies to various aspects of scholarly writing: prose style, argumentation, citation practices. The purpose of being somewhat pedantic about seemingly small issues is to avoid bigger mistakes.

That is the negative case for "aim small, miss small," emphasizing hedges against error. I wonder if there is also a positive case to be made. After all, the purpose of scholarship is not to avoid mistakes, but to make an affirmative contribution. Here I would argue that precision produces insight. I'm going to have to develop the case for this in another post, though.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Flaubert & Shakespeare

The Flaubertian idea of prose style: an avoidance of sonority, redundancy, and of the rhetorical repetition of lexical items. No unintentional rhymes or "jingles." A clear, limpid surface. An attention to rhythm, but more to the end of avoiding too obvious rhythmical effects. I knew a fine academic writer of my father's generation who would not repeat the same word in one paragraph.

An older, rhetorical model of an opulent, prose, written with a taste for baroque antithesis, gradatio, hendiadys, alliteration...

Victorian prose in English is still opulent in contrast to the clipped, modern style of the 20th century, but it is not as opulent as baroque prose. The 18th century brings a certain prosification of prose that reaches its logical extreme in Flaubert, and then in Hemingway.

A modern writer will tend to reduce word play, avoiding the use of two words with the same lexical root: "And that unfair which fairly doth excel," or the use of two adjectives with similar and overlapping meanings: 'Led by a delicate and tender prince." We recognize this Shakespearian rhetoric as effective, but not in a way very useful for our prose.

There are modern prose styles, though, that allow more rhetorical flair without sacrificing the modern gains of simplicity and clarity. I find William Gass's alliterations cloying, but I'd like to allow for some linguistic flourish that isn't in the ascetic, Flaubertian line.

Prose had to be invented, freed from its rhetorical (oratorical) and poetic origins. Imagine inventing a form of writing more effective when read silently than aloud. That is a real cultural achievement.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Work Diary November 12-18

Friday, Nov. 12: 900 words on the new / old article, virtually doubling it in length. An extraordinary windfall.

Sat. Nov. 13. An "inertia day," where 400 words got produced, somehow, just from the momentum generated the day before.

Sun. Nov. 14. Nothing at all.

Monday. Nov. 15. Nothing.

Tuesday. Nov. 16. I added 800 words to the New Article, which would have been more than respectable had I not felt that I was writing in an undisciplined way, almost randomly.

Wed. Nov. 17. Graded a set of papers.

Thursday, Nov. 18 300 words, but a more disciplined 300 words. I thought about María Zambrano and some specific claims I wanted to make about her, and wrote them done, then tried to write specific sentences to back them up. I didn't flit back and forth between multiple sections, as I did on Tuesday.

Summary: Some good days but not a good week. With mediocre weeks like this I should be in fine shape! I don't mean that sarcastically at all: it's the mediocre weeks that keep the project going. Actually, on further thought, this was a good week. A mediocre week would have been 3 days of writing rather than 4, and without Friday's windfall or Thursday's more disciplined approach.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Work Diary November 5-11

Just doing these diaries has upped my writing productivity. I have to confess if I get nothing done and I can make sure I get at least 3 or 4 days of good work in. For some reason I have Friday as the first day of the week, simply because the first of the Month was a Friday a while back, but this turned out to be a good idea. Fridays I usually have some time to write, so I get to start the week off well.

Friday, Nov 5: 700 words on the Lorca Chapter in 90 minutes. Some of the words actually made sense. An extraordinary day. Later in the afternoon I came up with the idea for my Hall Center paper and my article for Modernist Cultures. Wrote a 100 word outline.

Saturday, Nov. 6: Added three hundred words to Lezama Lima outline. Reorganized chapters of book, eliminating one, and eliminating sectional division. Toyed with the preface a bit. Now I have 5 out of 9 chapters completed, and only three will also be published articles.

Sunday, Nov. 7: Added 500 words to the outline I started on Friday. Emailed the editor who solicited the article about my change of plans. I could quite working today and not start until next Friday and still have had a productive week.

Monday. Nov. 8: Wrote part of a blog post for Arcade that will also form part of the Lezama chapter.

Tuesday, Nov. 9: I got nothing done, even though I wasn't teaching or driving home. I just spent a day reading.

Wednesday, Nov. 10. 500 words on the new article on cultural exceptionalism, begun on Sunday.

Thursday, Nov. 11. Nothing.

SUMMARY: A good five days with substantial progress toward long-term goals.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Plan for the Best, Plan for the Worst

What I mean by this maxim is that you should make an optimistic plan for completing work on your current project. For example, I could probably finish by December of 2011 if everything works out. That optimistic plan is highly motivating.

But if I have unforeseen difficulties and don't meet that deadline, I have still planned for the worst case scenario, which is that is will take me longer. Working steadily but inefficiently, I will still get something done; I will still meet external deadlines (just not my own). Planning for the worst outcome in the first place is counterproductive, however. If my best case date for finishing were 2012, then I might not finish until 2013. My goal now is to see how much gets done by December of 11, but if I don't meet that I will still be in good shape.


You can string together enough "bad" weeks, where you are less productive than you might have been, and still make substantial progress. A bad week, maybe you only had 1-3 days where you made substantial progress, as opposed to 4-7. It doesn't matter. A totally uninspired day of writing still makes its contribution. In fact, I think those bad days are even more significant than the very few days where the muse or duende actually descends upon you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How can you be as efficient as possible when your base is still fairly undeveloped and your confidence is fragile?

This is the final question posed by my correspondent:

"How can you be as efficient as possible when your base is still fairly undeveloped and your confidence is fragile?"

This is an excellent question, and hard for me to answer. I have been there, with an undeveloped scholarly base and less confidence, but right now I don't have those particular problems. Thinking back, I remember struggling with whether I could write the dissertation, just get it done. I was dealing with very complex ideas and trying to come up with a brilliantly original theoretical framework. The first chapter in particular was very difficult.

Let's break this question down into three parts.

The base. I'd recommend doing an inventory of your base. Just sit down and write down everything that is part of it. Any foreign language you know; the fact that your advisor is a good one; that your university library has the resources you need; that you are a good prose stylist and have good time management skills (Include any positives in your happiness base too.) Once you have inventoried your base you will see where the weaknesses are. Maybe you haven't read enough theory, or don't understand what you've read. Make a shorter list of things you need to work on. Ok. Now instead of a vague and uneasy sense that you don't know enough to write a dissertation, you have a realistic assessment of your assets and liabilities.

Confidence. "Be confident!" is useless advice. Real confidence develops through realistic experience with successful performance. The most successful students are not even the most over-confident ones, because they can have more trouble when the world doesn't agree with their self-assessments. Realistically, almost nobody fails to write a dissertation because of lack of intelligence or because of a lack of a scholarly base.

Once again, I think the key is to replace vague, existential, infinite worries with very specific lists of things you can already do fairly well and things that still give you some trouble.

Efficiency. Yikes. The dissertation is hard work and will be inefficient simply because it is the first project on that scale you have done. There will be "wasted" work, pages you write that will end up on the cutting room floor. I have documents on my computer from my current project with titles like "rejected bits from Lezama Lima chapter." Here I will only say that regular work is efficient work. In other words, inefficiency tends to be more of a function of not having regular working hours, as opposed to sitting down for two hours and working inefficiently. The latter scenario does happen, but you can just average in those days with the rest and it will all come out ok.

Friday, November 19, 2010

More questions about beginning the dissertation

How do you make the best use of a prospectus colloquium or other landmarks along the way? How do you work with advisors to get the best help from them?

Choose the advisor who will be toughest on you, within your tolerance range. (Don't choose the junior person just because you think that person will be more lenient or less intimidating.) Look for someone whose style of time management fits with yours or at least will have clear expectations about deadlines and turn-around times for reading chapters. It doesn't much matter whether the person has a turn-around time of 3 weeks or 8, if there is some consistency. The best guide is how fast that professor turned back papers in seminars. You should plan to turn in things regularly and get them back regularly. That is the key to a good working relationship.

For other readers of a dissertation, you should look for alternative perspectives, but ones that are complementary and don't pull you too much in other directions.

The exam or meeting at which you discuss your proposal with your committee is a time to listen to what the committee is saying about the viability of your project. It's a very useful "landmark" and will also tell you how helpful your committee is going to be. I have no specific advice except to listen very closely to the questions behind the questions. Ask for clarification later. "When you asked me this, were you implying that I should be looking more at this kind of issue."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How do you determine the parameters of your project?

Here is my second answer to a question posed to me by a reader of this blog about how to begin a dissertation.

You need to know disciplinary requirements and expectations. For example, a lot of us 20 years ago had dissertations on a single author, where I notice now that that's become more and more rare. It's a dumb prejudice, but a lot of people now think you are too narrow if you work on a single author, even an important one. We have a lot of dissertations here with one author from Brazil and the others from Spanish speaking countries, or three chapters on novels and one on film.

So several authors, from the same region or overlapping areas. There should be both temporal and geographic parameters, but it shouldn't be a topic that strikes the observer as esoterically narrow. Think of having to explain the topic briefly in an interview; if it isn't a topic that you can foresee explaining orally it is going to be harder to conceptualize.

The topic has to name a critical problem, with a how and a why, not just a what or who.

People often don't think to look at existing dissertations in the library of their institution. Usually, all the previous dissertations in your university are going to be housed in the library. Look at disses in the last 5 years in your own department. Who has directed them? Which ones look most interesting? Which of those students is now having a successful career? Which dissertations became books quickly?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How do you know how much research is enough?

I've received some questions from a reader of this blog about starting a dissertation or first book project. Her first questions are

"How do you know how much research is enough? When do you start writing?"

I'd say, the take that second question first, that you should begin writing immediately. Write an essay just for yourself about what you know about your topic. You will never really have a blank page facing you, because you will have already have written something. You can try an encerrona, for example. Lock yourself in a room for 5 hours and write something. This should be done once you have a topic, and before you have done extensive research.

The real question here, though, is when you should end the research phase of your project and begin the writing phase: how much research is enough before you know it's time to start writing? Here, I would say that you will have been writing up your research notes all along. You will know when an argument emerges out of those notes that demands to be chapter. Once you start writing that up, you will know if you have to do additional research and reading. Research needs to be guided by some firmly articulated questions. In other words, you have to know what you are looking for in very concrete terms. Obviously those questions are going to get more precise as you work.

There are students who want to put the entire contents of their research into their dissertations. The problem is not that they know too much about their topics, but that they haven't learned to distinguish between research that belongs in the finished project and information that should remain as background. Once you find yourself in the situation of knowing more than will actually "fit," then you should stop researching and begin writing. In the course of developing an argument, you may find that you haven't answered a question you need to answer--so more research is needed, but of a very directed variety.

Really, all the SMTs are valid for the dissertation as for any other project, but there are specific problems that writers get into because of the nature of the dissertation requirement and the lack of self-assurance inherent to writers at this stage. I'll be addressing some of these problems in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Work Diary Oct. 29-Nov. 4

Oct 29 / 30. Attended "MACHL" Conference. No work done aside from giving a talk on Saturday.

Sun. Oct. 31 200 words. Re-organized chapters of books, adding an extra chapter to the plan.

Mon. Nov. 1 Nothing

Tues. Nov 2 Worked on preface to book. Trying to define what the book is about coherently in actual words. Rearranged chapter order and added a chapter on Lezama Lima to the book. That would give me 10 chapters rather than 8.

Wed. Nov 3. Nothing.

Th. Nov 4. Brainstorming session on the Lezama Lima section. Wrote 800 words of notes. Pretty good because I did not even now this chapter existed until Monday. It didn't in fact exist until Monday.

SUMMARY: A slightly worse than average week, but still productive enough in the three days I got something done. With enough "bad" weeks like this I should be in great shape!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Weeks and Years

If you have productive weeks you will have productive years. To have a productive week you need to have four or five days when you accomplish something significant. Major progress on a chapter, completing a peer review of an article, or a book review. If you have 40 weeks like that in a year, or about 80%, you cannot not be productive. Even if some of these tasks are grading a complete set of papers, enough will be research related that you will be productive in research too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stupid Motivational Tricks--The Book (ii)

The book will be organized around several main topics:
(1) The scholarly base.

(2) Time and task management.

(3) The psychology of writing; cognitive therapy and ego management.

(4) Prose. Good writing, the plain style, and the mechanics of writing, including best citation practices.

(5) The sculpting of the scholarly career.

My plan is to begin on January 1, 2011. I will select the best posts from the blog thus far in each category and retag them with the label SMT--The Book. I will revise these posts for style and write a brief introduction, then look into print on demand services.

At some point I will have to read the other books about scholarly writing, other guide books out there. I don't feel my book will replace those as much as be a supplement for a certain kind of reader who appreciates my mordant wit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Work Diary Oct. 22-25

How was the week? Glad you asked:

Fri. Oct 22: Read a colleague's proposal. 400 words on The Chapter. Rewrote several of my chapter titles.

Sat. Oct. 23: 500 words on the chapter before going to work in the bingo hall from 4:30-10.

Sun. Oct. 24: Nothing.

Minday. Oct. 25. Nothing. I'm a lazy bum this week.

Tuesday. Oct 24. Stealth attack! of 1,000 words. Making solid progress despite laziness. Just read where Mark Scroggins attributes OCD to me! Ha! If only he knew how disorganized I really am.

Wed. Oct. 25 500 words on chapter. 2,400 total for the week. Ordered the books for two courses (next semester.) In the evening made some significant notes on bar napkin.

Thurs. Oct 25: Brainstorming session. Had a few major new ideas.

A good week of writing, with substantial progress on a key chapter of the book. Considering I've finished two chapters and an article this semester, I've been doing a good job of keeping the momentum going.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Another Plagiarism Case: Bush

It turns out there is yet another plagiarist: former president Bush:

Crown [Bush's publisher] also got a mash-up of worn-out anecdotes from previously published memoirs written by his subordinates, from which Bush lifts quotes word for word, passing them off as his own recollections. He took equal license in lifting from nonfiction books about his presidency or newspaper or magazine articles from the time. Far from shedding light on how the president approached the crucial "decision points" of his presidency, the clip jobs illuminate something shallower and less surprising about Bush's character: He's too lazy to write his own memoir.

What Not do Do (ii)

I saw a similar case the other day of someone putting some of their worst and least precise writing in the paragraph explaining what sh/e was going to do in the article, in a few very crucial sentences. I wish I could quote an illustration, but confidentiality prevents me from sharing, but it is best described as a wave in the direction of of a theory sh/e wasn't going to use, a feint the direction of another, rather dull sounding theory, and then a spin back toward the first one.

In a running back, this might have worked, but the academic writer should signal where she is going rather than trying to fake out the reader. You want to be tackled.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Tracing is a technique of plagiarism that consists of closely following the shape of another secondary source. (I am unsure of who coined the term but it came up in the recent Sokal / Fischer controversy.) You might use some of the same quotes for the same purposes, or summarize at too great a length, too closely. It is true that you are free to use a quote you found quoted already elsewhere, but there are some cautions here. You should indicate "qtd in" if you found the source in a third place and didn't go back to the original. You should be careful about reproducing 3rd party errors (misquoting a source the same way someone else did). You should not take over several 3rd-hand quotes in a row from another source, especially if these quotes are distinctive or uncommon, or seemingly unrelated to the topic.

For example, if I am writing about Juan Ramón Jiménez and quote Wittgenstein, Barthes, and Derrida in that order. I don't own those quotes: I am not Wittgenstein, Barthes, or Derrida. But it is distinctive to use those exact authors and quotes to explicate Jiménez's poetry. You have to say "qtd. in Mayhew" in that context.

I feel that a summary of other material should be either

(1) Much shorter. You are extracting the essence of that source, not repeating all of its findings one after another.

(2) Much longer. You are taking something short in the original text and exploring additional implications.

(3) Shorter and longer at the same time, like an accordion. You are sometimes compressing, sometimes expanding, on what the other source said.

If you write a paragraph summarizing another paragraph of about equal length, then you are probably doing something wrong: why not just quote the paragraph verbatim if you are neither compressing nor expanding?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Citation and Distinctive Language

Take a distinctive combination of words: "her labile yet exigent demeanor"; "as non-descript as a sparrow in the suburbs." When you are paraphrasing a secondary source, your own vocabulary will overlap somewhat with that source, but you wouldn't want to use a phrase like that from the source you are citing without quotation marks. An especially distinctive or felicitous phrase has more of a claim not to be repeated without attribution. By the same token, you would not say that, 'according to Fulano, HItler "invaded Poland" in 1939.' The quotation marks make no sense there, since neither the idea not the words have any claim to be distinctive. Putting those words into quotes would imply that you were commenting, in some way, on that particular combination of words.

Human language is creative in the rather ordinary sense that we can invent phrases and sentences that have (probably) never been used before. For example, I could find no examples on google where labile and exigent were even in the same vicinity in a sentence. Even a string of ordinary words can be distinctive: "As the cat stepped over the top of the jamcloset, first the right forefoot, carefully, then the hind, stepped down, into the pit of the empty flowerpot." Sure, there is a torrent of words on the internet, but if you express your own thoughts precisely, trying to say exactly what you mean, you are unlikely to duplicate the previous efforts of any other writer.

There are also facts that are banal and repeated from source to source with no change. Somebody was born in such and such a place in such and such a year. There is a standard wording for that, even.

I hate when people cite my banal statements. They have every right to do it, but I'd rather they cite me where I'm making a good point rather than for background.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Causes of Plagiarism

(More of my wildly popular series on plagiarism.)

Here are some possible causes of plagiarism.

(1) Weak or lax standards in certain fields. There are underlying disciplinary causes of certain lapses. The standard practices in all fields might not be equally rigorous, even if theoretically all scholars are bound by the same code. I won't single any fields out here, but you probably have some idea.

(2) Incompetence. When a student feels he or she simply cannot do the work, plagiarism seems like an option. Buy a paper off the internet! Copy and paste from wiki.

(3) Negligence. When a scholar is poorly trained or does not understand the value of scholarship, or has poor habits of taking notes, he or she may become negligent. By the way, negligence is not an excuse.

(4) Research assistants. Blame it on them! If the scholar is not responsible for every aspect of research, then there needs to be a system for checking the work of subordinates and collaborators.

(5) Misunderstanding of the rules of citation and of their scholarly justification. Some scholars will think that some sorts of plagiarism are ok if they don't violate rules of citation according to narrow, legalistic criteria, or if they plagiarize in the gray areas.

(6) Arrogance. It's not plagiarism if I do it, because I am a full professor.

(7) Means-to-an end thinking. I need this MA to get a higher salary as a teacher; I need to get it done in the most efficient way.

Notice I didn't list other causes. In my experience, people do not plagiarize (usually) because they like someone else's idea so much that they want to take it as their own. People do not plagiarize because they are postmodernists or intertextualists with innovative ideas about intellectual property. It makes me sick when people try to justify it through some recourse to literary theory,* or when others say that obviously the plagiarism wasn't intentional theft of someone's brilliant idea, so it isn't so bad.

The fact that it is easy to copy and paste off the internet cannot justify plagiarism. That just makes it easier: you don't have to type when you can just copy and paste, but it also makes it easier to catch. The internet does not make the prohibition of plagiarism obsolete.


I came of age intellectually during the apogee of Derrida in the American academy, so I know this theory better than you. If you try this argument with me I will crush you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Human Subjects

One thing that rankled me in the debate surrounding Fischer was how quick his defenders were to attribute naiveté or ignorance to those of us who saw something wrong in his citation practice. One commenter on the CHE accused me of not knowing the function of IRBs, claiming that Sokal should have submitted his research plans to the NYU IRB before proceeding. IRBs deal with research on human subjects, whether medically or anthropologically. There is absolutely no human subject, in this sense, that would be within the scope of an institutional review board, in Sokal's analysis of a scholar's plagiarism. He wasn't doing research on a human subject, attaching electrodes to Fischer's head! No animals were harmed.

Others appealed to the idea of a smaller community of inquiry in which Frank Fischer's practices would be acceptable. In other words, nobody outside the field of policy studies had enough expertise to be able to judge them. This is ridiculous for multiple reasons, not least because policy studies by definition is a field of vital significance to the res publica, not merely to a handful of people who happen to be professors in the field. It is also an example of an argument to a seemingly more sophisticated principle with the aim of obfuscating the issue.

It was, however, rather fun to wipe the floor with many social scientists on the comments. I was writing under the pseudonym of bemsha, and my arguments were simply superior. The ad hominem attacks on Sokal, the red herrings and logical fallacies, were breathtakingly blatant examples of mauvaise foi.

Write So As Not To Be Misunderstood

Don't write so as to be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood. This adage is atrributes to the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus. I am a little skeptical. I'm going to try to track down the true source if I can.

Anyway, you want your writing to be so precise that misunderstanding is the reader's fault, not yours. The test is not whether someone can understand you, but whether they cannot not understand. Someone I know complains that people are always misrepresenting Judith Butler. That's irritating, for sure, but I wonder why? The more difficult the ideas, the more opportunity for people to misread them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What's the Harm?

Here's a paragraph:
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. As Carlos Piera astutely points out, “[w]hen it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics” (Piera, “Rephrasing Line-End Restrictions” 300). The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this “mechanical” view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody, such as Piera’s, does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the “perceived richness” of poetic form

No suppose I had simply appropriated Piera's words as my own, like this
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. When it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics. The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this mechanical view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the perceived richness of poetic form

What's the harm in plagiarism? First, I stole those words that I didn't write; they don't belong to me. I've done harm to the original author and to the institution of scholarship.

I've also done damage to my own writing by flattening the effect I had achieved by citing (adroitly I hope) his quote to make my own point. I also lose some authority. It is better for me to have Piera, a linguist, say that linguistic approaches to prosody are often mechanical, than for me, a literary critic, to say the same thing. Then I can criticize other critics myself. I like that layered effect I get from quoting him and calling him astute. I look like a nice guy calling him that too, so that helps to establish my ethos as a writer from the beginning of the chapter. It is interesting that my style does not clash with Piera's. There is a smoothness there in the integration of the quote (if I don't say so myself).


On the purely mechanical level, it can be hard to incorporate other people's words into your own writing, or to integrate paraphrase with direct quotation and your own discourse. Paraphrases should often contain words and phrases in quotes from the original text: those clarify that it is a paraphrase and not your own writing. Short quotes do not interrupt what you are saying but form a seamless part of the argumentation. Longer, block quotes are used when you really want to analyze that quote itself, not (usually) to make up for something that you should have said yourself. I almost never end the paragraph with the block-quote itself. I always end with a few lines of my own analysis.

I was disappointed when I saw a publisher recently (actually two publishers of two separate books published in Spain) just automatically begin a new paragraph after each long quote (I'm assuming the publishers did it because the authors probably wouldn't have). That is a way of losing an important distinction between a quote at the end of a paragraph and another in the middle of one. If that quibble seems to basic to you you are reading the wrong blog.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Top Posts / as of Nov. 5

The Tomahawk is Mightier than the Sword 62 Pageviews

Another Plagiarism Case 42 Pageviews

Choosing a Topic 36 Pageviews

What's your metaphor? 36 Pageviews

Mentoring 32 Pageviews

Detecting BS 32 Pageviews

Another Film Theory Assignment 32 Pageviews

There Is Nothing Too Basic, addendum 31 Pageviews

Plagiarism and the Distinctive Voice

The best defense against plagiarism is having a distinctive scholarly voice and point of view. By this mean that nobody else's prose, nobody else's ideas, should satisfy you. You will rarely spend whole pages summarizing other people's ideas, or presenting raw data. When you do, you will make it clear that that material comes from other sources, because you want to make it clear that that it is not yours. You will never confuse a sentence someone else wrote with one of your own.

Plagiarism arises out of a position of weakness. The student is trying to get up to a certain level of professional or trying to fill space in the paper. The senior scholar uses plagiarized verbiage as filler, without taking pride in every paragraph. Maybe he is overcommitted and has to churn things out fast and can't be bothered.

When I cite something I think is very brilliant, I make sure I am extra careful to give full credit. I feel self-confident enough to lavish praise on other scholars when appropriate, especially when their work helped mine along. When I quote anything, I am conscious of the style gap between quoted material and my own prose. I don't mean that I write better than anyone else, but that I have my own ethos of prose that will be distinctively different from that of other writers, good or bad. It also helps that I rarely agree with anybody else. (Just kidding.)

I think I have improved as a writer, but I look at some things I wrote 20 years ago and they still are more or less fine with me. I would change sentences, but I would do the same with sentences I wrote a year or month ago.

Plagiarism is somewhat more likely for more routine information, stuff that doesn't seem to belong to any particular person in the field. If I find a good statement that I think expresses a consensus view, I will quote that verbatim: it saves me some time, and I don't have to state my own views as though they were the consensus (they rarely are; I overestimate my agreement with other people many times.)

On the mechanical level, I make sure quotes go around a foreign phrase the second it goes into a word-processing document. It isn't even allowed to be there one second unattributed, without the protective cocoon of quotation marks. I never take notes paraphrasing something that I might confuse at a later date with my own notes from my own brain. I will paraphrase something in a word processing document with the source in front of me and provide the source in the act.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sokal Responds to Fischer and his Supporters

Sokal responds.

2 hours / 400 words

If I work about two hours on a document, the word count will increase by 400 words. That means that I can write 50 words, or about two sentences, in about 15 minutes, while at the same time fixing other, previously written sentences. Sometimes I throw away whole sentences, so this 400 words takes that into account also. (Rough notes might be faster--but rougher.)

An article is about 6,000 words, so it could be written in 15 writing sessions @2 hours. Let's say that's three weeks of work, at a pretty hard pace. Two hours of writing is a lot; it is mentally taxing. To do that 5 days a week is hard work.

Since I like to take into account the fact that I might be faster than average, let's double that to six weeks. You want to be realistic about how long something is going to take. At the same time, being realistic means not just giving yourself enough time, but also avoiding the trap of giving yourself infinite time. I like giving myself 2 months for something that might take 3-4 weeks. Then I feel great about how much I get done. Or I get it done in two months and still meet my internal deadline.

You can be an extremely slow writer and still get enough written, since steadiness and regularity are much more important than speed. Endurance itself creates speed, in the sense that the manuscript will grow faster with more regular work.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Plagiarism Case

Here is another plagiarism case. (Hat tip to Margaret Soltan.) The perpetrator, Professor Fischer said, in his defense
When asked whether the verbatim material should have been in quotation marks, he responded: "Yes, but does one have to change every word? I don't think what I did is all that uncommon. I think the important part is to cite the works."

Does one have to change every word? That is such a revealing statement because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, so fundamental that the person who said it should be tarred and feathered. It's not plagiarism just because you didn't change enough of the words from the original passage to cover up your tracks. You cannot just take a passage and change enough words to make it your own work, because even a paraphrase has to be cited as such. You have to be clear about what is essentially a paraphrase of someone else's ideas, even if you change every damned word.You cannot just have a citation to the work somewhere, a few paragraphs or pages away. It is not enough to cite the works; you have to cite them in a way that doesn't obscure the nature and extent of your debt to them.

The defenses on the CHE site, by some of the commenters, are outrageous. They point out that most of the guy's writing is not plagiarized from other sources. Why, there are whole paragraphs that are not plagiarized, In fact, only 19 separate cases were found, leaving the vast majority of this scholar's work untouched.

But I'm assuming most plagiarists don't do it on every page. It would be like the bank robber saying that he goes into the bank plenty of times without robbing it. Here is one commenter:
Methodologically, all we have here is a few hundred words from which were are supposed to judge a book of how many words. What overall percentage is plagiarised (this percentage would inform our judgements of students ?) What percentage, too, of the important stuff the book says, rather than this nuts-and-bolts explication would end up higlighted ?

A plagiarism offense is an offense. It doesn't really matter what percent of the total work is non-original. A few hundred words for each plagiarized passage is enough.

I'd also like to point out that the plagiarisms were found by google searches. Obviously, not every piece of text is googleable, so there could actually be more cases. I wouldn't be surprised if google missed a few case, especially since it would only catch "copy and paste" examples, not paraphrases where enough words were changed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ask the Tough Questions

Creativity has (at least) two different meanings in literary criticism. One is like the creative in "creative accounting" where the creative urge is to make up crap about the text or to invent the most fanciful interpretation. A deeper creativity is the creativity of seeing what's actually there and asking the tough questions about it. Why is something one way and not another. How do we account for something that is (seemingly) anomalous.

Something that seems off, strange, is a good place to start. For example, I wondered why Juan Ramón Jiménez had created an anthology of his work that printed all his free-verse poems as prose, suppressing the original lineation. That seemed odd to me, because skill in verse is defined by, well, verse, and readers don't tend to read blocks of prose for rhythm. That question became the basis of a fairly original book chapter which should form part of my next book. What are the implications of this decision? How is this similar to what other poets have done?

If you are deeply engaged in a field, you will constantly be constantly confronted with things that seem off. Why can Donne be perfectly metrical when he wants to be, yet write the strangest lines elsewhere? If Greek and Roman poetry doesn't rhyme, why is rhyme so central to any neo-classical aesthetic? If you see the strangeness of what's before your eyes, you won't have a need to look for originality in spurious ways. A good critical insight has to be paradoxical, against the doxa or somehow internally contradictory in an interesting way.

Plodding, dutiful criticism just seems to go through the text and point out obvious things we already now.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Writer's Block and Creativity

You don't really have to experience writer's block. The days where you don't get quite as much written just get averaged into your total level of production, just like the days when you do a bit more that usual. The "typical" day will either be below average or above average. In fact, I can just about guarantee that about half your days will be below average! On a day when you are blocked, you can edit other parts of your project, or take very rough notes on an inchoate part of it. Work at either extreme, fixing almost polished prose or just getting words down by hook or crook. The next day you can just try to make complete sentences out of those notes. Once you have complete sentences, no matter how badly written, you can convert them into better prose.


The one thing I don't know how teach is how to get that spark of originality, how to generate really good ideas in the first place. For me, the ideas just arise out of my normal reading habits, out my intellectual involvement with the subject matter. Everything I read just suggests interesting ideas to me, though of course I only use a small fraction of those in my research. Students are supposed to learn this by observing other people doing it, by discussing their own ideas in class, but this process does not "take" with every student. The good news is that people can have successful scholarly careers with no real spark. That is good news for them, but bad news for scholarship, which ideally should be imbued with the creative spirit.

I have no faith in creativity as the next educational buzzword. Once you decide you want creativity, you will devise rubrics to measure it. I will let you in on my secret, though. Ask the tough questions. (Find out tomorrow what the tough questions are.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Work done: Oct 15-21

Fri. Oct. 15. Nothing much. Took a "reading day."

Sat. Oct. 16. Significant progress on Lorca's duende (chapter 5). Wrote a nice introductory paragraph. My goal is to complete it in two month (Oct. 15-Dec. 15). Graded exam + late papers for one course.

Sun. Oct. 17.Significant progress = 400 words on this chapter.

Mon. Oct. 18. Re-completed that chapter I thought I was done with last week. Finished intro to duende chapter.

Tues. Oct. 19. Added a significant chunk to Chapter 8, which I thought was more or less done a few weeks a ago.

Wed. Oct. 20. Graded exam.

Th. Oct 21 Reviewed article for a journal (700 word report). Worked a bit on the Lorca chapter (300 words).

SUMMARY: Four days of writing on the chapter I'm currently supposed to be working on; overall a productive week since I improved two other chapters as well. The book is starting to snowball.