All posts by Thomas Basbøll

A One-Year Plan

Begin in mid-August and count eight weeks to the fall break. There should be another eight-week stretch up to around Christmas. Then count off eight weeks before and eight weeks after Easter. You now have four eight-week periods that cover the whole school year. 32 weeks in all.

Make a rough estimate for each period of how many hours you can devote to writing. Not to thinking or researching, but to actually, physically writing your papers. How many hours will you be “at the machine”, typing? If your estimate is under 20 your are either too busy or not ambitious enough. If it’s over 120 you are probably not thinking straight. You should aim to write between half an hour and three hours every day, five days a week.

Okay, now take your rough estimate for each period an multiply it by two. This gives you the amount a paragraphs you can write (27 minutes at a time). And then go on and multiply this number by 200, which is the maximum amount a words you can write (limiting each paragraph to at most 200 words). Finally, divide this number by 8000, or whatever the standard length of the papers published in your field might be. This gives the amount of full drafts you can write (or rewrite) during each period, i.e., the amount of paper-sized texts you can produce. Now, add it all up and make a table:


I wonder if I need to explain how this might be useful…

Social Knowledge

I’ve been thinking about a technical issue in social epistemology. Can some things be known only by groups, not individuals? My intuition says no. If something can be known at all, it can be known by a single mind. It may take a collective effort to discover it, of course. It may take a whole village or an entire civilization to uncover some fact. But once it is known, it can be known by individuals. If no individual can possibly understand it, I’m not willing to call it knowledge.

But this raises a question. Is one such individual knower enough? Is something known if only one person could ever know it? I think this is where I become a social epistemologist. I believe that knowledge must, in principle, be understandable to several people. The “in principle” is important. Suppose I am a pilot whose plane crashes in the pacific ocean near a desert Island. I bail out and parachute to safety, carrying a map. Based on my last known location, I correctly identify the island on my map. I know where I am.

Now, at this point, no other human being knows where I am. But once they find the wreckage of my plane, they can make a reasonable guess as to where I might be. That is, I know something that can, in principle, be known by others, even though no one else knows. I think all knowledge must meet this minimal condition.

But let’s think about “academic” or “scholarly” knowledge. I want to argue that scholarly knowledge is the sort of thing an individual can know and share with a group of people, namely, peers. Thomas Kuhn suggested that a “paradigm” is usually maintained by a scientific community of 20-100 people.  That puts a good bound it. Scientific or scholarly claims should be comprehensible to at least 20 people. Indeed, such truths should not  remain unknown to those 20 people for long. Discoveries are made to be shared with your peers.

First Draft, Introduction

This morning I started writing a 6:00 AM, writing three 18-minute paragraphs separated by two-minute breaks, using yesterday’s key sentences to define each task. Here’s the result:

  1. On August 4, 1949, lightning started a fire on the southern ridge of Mann Gulch.* The next afternoon, a crew of smokejumpers parachuted in, landing at the top of the gulch. They collected their gear and decided to fight the fire from below, with their backs to the river. While they were hiking down towards the river, following the northern slop of the gulch, the fire jumped over to their side. But it was outside of their line of sight when it happened, so they saw it coming towards them too late. They dropped their tools and tried to outrun it, but it was moving too fast, gaining on them quickly. At the last moment, Dodge lit the grass in front of him on fire and ordered the men to lie down down in on the burnt ground. They thought he was crazy and ignored his orders, continuing up the slope, away from the fire. Dodge lay down, and after the fire had passed, he rose from the ashes of his escape fire to find that his men were dead.
  2. The received view in organization studies is that the Mann Gulch  disaster resulted from a collapse of sensemaking. In an influential analysis from 1993, Karl Weick proposed to shift our analytical focus from the decisions that were made about the fire, to the process that formed the crew’s understanding of their situation. Weick argued that the crew lacked structure and leadership, and at the crucial moment, when they should have obeyed the order to lie down in the escape fire, the men panicked. The crew, he argued, held on to a “stubborn belief” that they would have the fire under control by morning, causing them to ignore signs that their situation was changing. This produced a “cosmology episode”, in which the world become unrecognizable to them and this, in turn, ultimately decided their fate. Today, this is the generally held view: the disaster was characterized by “multiple failures of leadership” resulting in an “interelated collapse of structure and sensemaking” (Weick 1993). Indeed, the taciturn foreman, Wagner Dodge, is often said to have lacked what Weick called an “attitude of wisdom”.
  3. In this paper, I show that sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch. I present a re-analysis of the events described in Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire, which had also been the source of Weick’s “data”. I carry out what John Van Maanen (1995) called an “allegoric breaching” of our received views about the disaster. On my reading, the crew abandoned its belief that it would have the fire out by morning before it began to move towards the river. Maclean explicitly says that the men “did not panic” and shows that Dodge had a good sense of the danger they were in, attempting to get his men out of harm’s way. His escape fire, finally, was a spontaneous improvisation with which the men had no prior experience and therefore could not have made sense of in the moment. This reading should get us to rethink our assumptions about the importance of sensemaking in Mann Gulch specifically, and crisis situations more generally. Mann Gulch was a tragedy that could not have been prevented by greater wisdom on the part of the men who died.

This is very much a first draft; there are lots of things I may do differently when I rewrite these paragraphs later in the process. But that’s not something I’m going to worry about now. Next, I will write “paragraph 39”: the first paragraph of the conclusion, the penultimate paragraph of the paper. Its key sentence is contained in paragraph 3: “Sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch.” I will then write 2 paragraphs from each of the background, theory and methods sections, 6 paragraphs of analysis, and 2 paragraphs of discussion. That’s 18 paragraphs over 6 hours of work. It will give me a good sketch of the first draft. Then I’ll fill in the remaining 22 paragraphs.

It’s worth pointing out that the structure of the entire paper is contained in the introduction. In the background section I will talk about the dangerous work that smokejumpers do and why they do it. In the theory section I will talk about sensemaking and how it is supposed to explain failure in critical situations. In the methods section, I will talk about “allegoric breaching” and the use of a non-fiction book like Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire as “data” for analysis. In the analysis, I will support my assertion that the crew did not hold a “stubborn belief”, did not panic, and did not lack wisdom in its attitude. Finally, in the discussion section I will argue that sensemaking is often allowed to explain too much when we study tragedies like the Mann Gulch disaster.


* You may have noticed that this is not the key sentence from yesterday. In fact, the key sentence was to a certain extent “written out” out of this paragraph, which sometimes happens. If I was reading this paragraph trying to find its key sentence I would say, “In August of 1949 some smokejumpers were killed in Mann Gulch,” which is pretty close. It is constructed from the opening and closing words of the paragraph. The paragraph tells the story of how the men died; it elaborates (rather than supporting or defending) the key sentence.

A Demonstration

“The lover of Virgil who wishes to bring a libel action against me would be well advised to begin his attack by separating the part of the Aeneid in which Virgil was directly interested (one might almost say, the folk-lore element) from the parts he wrote chiefly because he was trying to write an epic poem.” (Ezra Pound)

In an attempt to put my method where my mouth is, I’m going to write a paper about the Mann Gulch disaster. Actually, I will be re-writing a paper that I published back in 2010 in (wait for it) “The Leading Journal in the Field”, a collection of practical critiques of management research from a 2009 conference at the University of Leicester.  I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with, not the conclusions of the paper, nor even its argument, but its somewhat ponderous style. I was overthinking it. I was trying too hard to write a scholarly essay rather than simply expose a piece influential but dubious research as directly as possible.

Most glaringly, anyone who has heard me insist (over and over) that a paragraph consists of at most 200 words that say exactly ONE well-defined thing will smile (or perhaps even frown) at my somewhat intermittent discipline in this regard. So I’m going to have a go at this paper over the summer as time permits. Here are the key sentences for the three paragraphs of my introduction. I hope the message is entirely clear.

  1. On August 5, 1949, thirteen smokejumpers died in Mann Gulch.
  2. The received view in organization scholarship is that the Mann Gulch disaster was the result of a collapse of sensemaking.
  3. In this paper, I show that sensemaking played no decisive role in the deaths of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch.

This also suggests a shift of focus. I will not be emphasizing the errors of scholarship that has led us to think of Mann Gulch as a sensemaking episode. Rather, I will simply correct our misunderstanding of the disaster as such. This will, of course, require me to document the received view on the matter, but I can present the corrective as a re-analysis of the events. Indeed, the paper will present a re-analysis of the original “data”, namely, Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire.


“What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross.” (Ezra Pound)

Brady Haran is a masterful filmmaker. He is especially good at getting knowledgeable people to explain what they know, as I’ve now had the occasion to witness countless times, both in his Numberphile series and Sixty Symbols (about physics and astronomy). This video about pappus chains made me have an epiphany about my own craft. Indeed, Simon Pampena’s numberphilia, if you will, made me realize how much I love writing. If Brady ever makes a series of videos called Letterphile, I hope he’ll cast me.

What is great about this video is that Pampena is able to present an idea about which he is clearly enthusiastic in, essentially, its entirety. He is able to get the whole thing (at least in its essentials) onto film (and, you’ll note, down on paper). That’s quite an achievement. As long as you are interested in what he’s trying to tell you, it is a very engaging film to watch. He isn’t dumbing anything down. He is smartening you up. That’s what makes Haran’s work so brilliant.

Now, I have a set of principles for writing scholarly papers that are almost as elegant as the inverted circles we’re taught to use here. My paragraphs can be chained together in similar ways, and likewise scaled indefinitely. (That was sort of the point of my last post.) I think I’m going to try my hand at presenting these principles in a similar way, using this combination of a handheld camera with an interviewer behind it, a piece of paper (or perhaps a laptop) in front of me, and inserts of screen recordings (in the place of the animated circles and diagrams).

But I also realized something else. Something more important, almost existential. For a long time now, I’ve been beating my head against the walls of the “ideological” dimension of writing. While my understanding of this concept has of course evolved since high school, I only recently discovered the sense that Brian Street gave to it in the context of literacy. Back in 1984, he distinguished between “ideological” and “autonomous” models of literacy. The latter is what we normally think of when we think of the ability to read and write; it is an identifiable competence that can be developed in its own right, it empowers individuals and enriches cultures. What Street noticed in his ethnographic work, however, was that what counts as literacy within a culture is itself dependent on social context. Being able to read and write, that is, is also an ideological competence, which is related to one’s ability to do things within one’s society.

We see this ideological approach to literacy when we worry about how to make students better able to pass their exams rather than better able to put their ideas down on the page. And we see it in scholarship whenever an academic is more worried about getting published than about writing well. Now, passing exams and getting published are certainly important goals. But we have to remember that “good writing” isn’t just whatever helps us reach those goals. Ideally, being a good writer should be useful to you, but it is also valuable in itself–i.e., autonomously. Needless to say, a lot of bad writing is “passable” prose, a lot of published prose terribly written.

Which brings me back to my epiphany–and, indeed, my epigraph. I have been fixated too long on the ideological “dross” of examination and publication. I’ve been letting the writers I work with goad me into taking these worries seriously, indeed, more seriously than the main problem, which is simply writing well. I simply don’t love passing an exam, nor do I care very much whether the students I work with do this; I don’t love getting published or helping scholars get past their peer reviewers and editors. The competence they use to this end is only incidentally related my craft.

Please don’t think I feel superior to them. I am not putting them down for wanting to succeed. After all, in order to do so they have to know something; and on that score I am completely useless to them. I can only help them to write well. I truly love doing this. Just as I, myself, love writing. Or, rather, I love writing when it’s going well. More precisely, I love the writing that remains when the dross has been removed. Even if you sometimes have to leave it in when you submit.