Monthly Archives: March 2021

Methodology and Experience

…a pattern of loss and of finding that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out, this picture that must be put together takes over mere seeing.

Robert Duncan

For the past few weeks I have found myself in a bit of a slump. I was stuck intellectually without really knowing what was wrong. It was like there was something just beyond the reach of my understanding that I wasn’t able to grasp, and it seemed somehow very important that I grasp it. Then, suddenly, the fog lifted and I could see clearly what I had been struggling with.

I can identify almost the exact moment that things fell into place. “Did something happen to the connection between language and experience?” I had tweeted. I meant this in the same way that we sometimes ask a family member or colleague, “Did something happen to the internet connection?” I was trying to be funny, to be sure, but I also wanted to engage in a little cultural criticism. I can’t be the only one who senses that something is amiss, and what’s Twitter for if not to share our exasperation with the world? Anyway, it was already late, and I was soon in bed and sleeping. But by the end of the next day I had my epiphany. “Now I can go on,” as Wittgenstein used to say. Let me try to explain what happened.

Along with Oliver Senior’s hands, Hemingway’s iceberg is probably the metaphor that dominates my thinking about writing most aggressively. I have used it to organize my teaching of academic writing at all levels, and across a variety of disciplines, and I think writers generally find the image useful. “The dignity of movement of an iceberg,” said Hemingway, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Most of the knowledge that we base our writing on is not visible to the reader on the surface of our text. But, “if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” Hemingway pointed out, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” It is that knowledge that gives our writing its dignity.

The ideal Hemingway story is a “sequence of motion and fact”. It consists of descriptions of what is happening and what is the case, what the characters do and see, as the action unfolds. These descriptions are what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlatives” of the emotions that a story is trying to convey. The modernists were sometimes outright purists about such matters and insisted that only these descriptions were legitimate in art; there was no room for explanations, as Wittgenstein also suggested. “Show, don’t tell,” as the saying goes. Don’t tell us the hero was angry, or happy, or sad; show us “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.” Make us feel it too. That was Hemingway’s goal and he knew it would it not be easy.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” he said. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” I like this way of putting it, and when I present Hemingway’s iceberg I normally do so in terms of experience rather than knowledge. After all, Hemingway wrote stories, not research papers, and I want to make clear that academic writing is not literary writing but stands in a special relation to this thing we call “knowledge”.

So I sometimes get writers to first imagine telling a story from their own ordinary lives. “What gives such a story its dignity?” I ask them. The obvious answer is: the experience that that the story is based on. If we depart too far from what we actually saw and did (if we start to embellish the story, as we are wont to do) our story may become more exciting, but we are risking its dignity. Someone who has done and seen similar things may find our story implausible.

Then I ask them to think about what makes research papers (and dissertations) different. What plays the role of experience? That answer, of course, is “knowledge,” and this then lets me open a rather big can of worms: What is knowledge? I try to keep things practical and manageable, but what follows is about forty-five minutes of working through the philosophical, rhetorical, and literary dimensions of academic knowledge. Alternatively, I work through the different kinds of knowledge (or the various sources of knowledge) that the individual sections of their papers are based on. I coordinate what is above the surface with what is below.

The epiphany I had this week, however, offers me a more natural transition from Hemingway’s iceberg to mine. It has to do with something I had begun to say already last year, namely, that the methods is the section of a research paper that is most directly based on your experience; in fact, it’s the section that is most analogous to a short story. Your methods consist of what you did to collect your data. In fact, it’s the story of how you converted what William James called (and Thomas Kuhn recalled) the “blooming buzzing confusion” of experience into data points for analysis. It’s the sequence of a fact and motion, if you will, that “makes” your concepts, your measuring instruments, your categories of observation.

Instead of just watching people work, you observed them and recorded these observations carefully in your field notes; instead of just listening to them talk, you conducted semi-structured interviews, recorded them and transcribed them, making them amenable to coding. The data that results has a certain order and formality, which makes it easier to work with in your analysis, than, say, your memory of what happened and what was said, but the experience of collecting the data is just as ordinary and “lived” as any other thing you do during the course of the day.

This is where I now intend to begin my writing instruction. And that’s also the answer to my vaguely rhetorical question on Twitter. Did something happen to the connection between language and experience? Yes. Method happened. The twentieth century has seen the rise of methodologies that increasingly get between our language and the experiences we use it to talk about. This is essentially the same thing as the rise of the social sciences and, by their means, the displacement of literature (poetry, novels, short stories) as means to understand the “human condition”. The imperative of method has made us unsure whether we can just talk about what we saw and what we did, what happened to us, what we think. Perhaps this was a necessary imposition of rigor on our otherwise hopelessly anecdotal lives. But could it be that it has gone a little too far?

I’m going to devote a few posts to this question, which, as we will discover, is the question beneath all the questions that has occupied me for well over a decade. I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads.

Sentences and the State of Things

[Note: this post is part of a series on the “substance of the craft” of scholarly writing. Inspired by by Wayne Booth (co-author of The Craft of Research) and Oliver Senior (author of How to Draw Hands), I argue that composition is the coordination of words and ideas, paragraphs and propositions, sentences and the state of things.]

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, Plate X

A drawing reveals an understanding of the subject. Different artists understand their subjects differently, as can be seen by comparing Oliver Senior’s understanding of his own knuckles to Paul Cézanne’s understanding of Ambroise Vollard’s. There is no question that both are capable artists, but they obviously had, as Senior might have put it, different things “on their mind” when they were rendering the hand they were looking at. Senior helpfully includes his understanding of the skeletal structure of his hand (though he is careful to remind us that those are not his bones). But his aim was also more didactic than Cézanne’s, and we must remember that that Vollard’s hand is but a detail in a full portrait, whereas Senior’s emphasis is very definitely on the hand itself, alone. Both artists, in any case, are trying to show us what they see.

Paul Cézanne, detail from Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Soure: Wikimedia.org)

I hope you will agree with me that Cézanne’s hand, while less detailed than Senior’s, is just as as well-informed (to use Senior’s language). It serves its purpose in the portrait but it doesn’t cut corners; it is “true” to human anatomy; it is an entirely possible hand in an altogether plausible position. Cézanne has not sidestepped the difficulty of drawing a hand by replacing it with a mere symbol — a bent fork or a bunch of bananas, for example. If he had, we might still understand that Vollard is holding a book in his hand, but we would not get the same overall sense of his humanity. It would be getting the facts right, but it wouldn’t feel right. In fact, the detail that I’ve cut off from its context for this post might not make any sense at all on its own if it wasn’t so well drawn. We might literally mistake it for a fork if we didn’t see it at the end of an arm. Somehow, however, using only a few simple brushstrokes, Cézanne gives us a flesh and blood (and, yes, even bone) human hand. It’s worth appreciating that accomplishment.

Now consider the sentences in your paragraphs. Think of a sentence in a paragraph describing a larger fact, or a sentence in a paragraph that is presenting the conceptual model you have built to guide your analysis of your data. You know the overall picture and you know how the parts fit together. That is, you know what you are talking about because you have studied it carefully. But do you know how to render each detail so that it conforms also to the underlying, unseen structures that constrain reality, the actual and possible state of things? If you read the sentences separately, out of context, do they still convey something? Do they feel true to the facts or the models you are writing about? Obviously, they won’t capture the full meaning of what you are trying to say in the paragraph. But are they utterly dependent on the context to mean anything at all?

Academic writing is a highly contextual and conventional affair. We often rely on our readers to play along with our use of technical jargon to communicate our ideas. It’s a bit like the nervous tick of saying, “you know,” after every sentence in conversation. We keep asking our reader to do the work of putting the image together because we know we’re not doing a very good job of explaining it ourselves. It’s not there on the page as the modernists used to say, even if it is somehow available in the discourse between us. More often, however, the reader doesn’t do the work we hope they will. Instead they simply let us get away with being vague, leaving them none the wiser about what we really mean, but happy to grant that we know our stuff. We have persuaded them that we’re smart (and we probably are) but we have not actually communicated our ideas to them. We have certainly not opened ourselves to criticism from our peers.

I am trying to persuade you to work on your sentences. Think of them as details in your pictures of the facts. Each sentence expresses a thought, and thoughts, properly speaking, must obey the rules of logic (just as hands must conform to their skeletal structure). To draw a convincing human figure, you must be able to draw the head, the torso, the legs, the feet, the arms and hands. And to draw a hand, you must be able to draw fingers and thumb and palm and wrist. Likewise, your model of organizational culture may include artifacts, values, and assumptions. But can you write two sentences about each of these notions that distinguish them from the ordinary, commonsense meanings of the words? Do your sentences capture, not only the sense that Edgar Schein gave to them, but also their underlying interconnection, i.e., the way they “add up” to a culture? Can you put all this together in a single paragraph of seven or eight sentences whose key sentence is “Edgar Schein (2017) posits three levels of organizational culture”? Can you then isolate each sentence and make (at least some) sense of it?

Try it. And then try to describe an actual organization in those same terms. “The organizational culture of XYZ Corp. was disintegrating.” The absolute state of it! Write two sentences about the state of the artifacts, another two about the company’s values, an then a couple about its assumptions. Make them as clear as you can and as detailed as you need. Make sure that the paragraph supports your overarching claim of that the company’s culture is in trouble; but make sure, also, that each sentence alludes to the underlying structure that is coming apart, the logic of XYZ’s disintegration. Again, write seven or eight sentences. Try long ones and short ones and simple ones and complex ones. “Try them all,” as Senior says of his materials (pencil, charcoal, pens, brushes, and all kinds of paper). “Each one will be a means of revelation concerning your subject. And the only true comprehensive answer to as to ‘How to…’ is the simple instruction ‘Get on with it.'”

Paragraphs and Propositions

[Note: this post is part of a series on the “substance of the craft” of scholarly writing. Inspired by by Wayne Booth (co-author of The Craft of Research) and Oliver Senior (author of How to Draw Hands), I argue that composition is the coordination of words and ideas, paragraphs and propositions, sentences and the state of things.]

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, Plate XIII

“We picture facts to ourselves,” said Wittgenstein. And a thought, he explained, is a “logical picture of facts.”

Think for a moment of your hand. (You can take a look, of course, but the important thing for my purposes is that you think. If you have to close your eyes, that’s okay too.) The hand, Oliver Senior tells us, is “a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism which is almost infinitely adaptable in use.” Imagine your hand open, held out, perhaps, in greeting, or imagine your fist clenched in anger. Picture your hand in these positions. Now, imagine it picking up and holding a delicate instrument. Your hand, says Senior, is capable of “multitudinous individual variations of character as well as changes of appearance in its great range of different positions, actions and movements, yet always conforming to a recognisable standard pattern and subject to strict laws of its own structure.” You can picture it, right?

With a little practice you can learn to draw these pictures. When you become good at it, you can represent the hand in its full variety of positions, always in accordance with the laws of its structure. You learn to see the hand “objectively”, constrained (and enabled) in its movements by its physiology, its reality. Your drawings become increasingly “realistic” because each drawing can be traced back to a recognizable pattern, to which it conforms. Each drawing is logically compatible with the other drawings — it’s simply a transformation of the possibilities in the others. Unless you imagine that your hand is broken (which you are free to imagine if you dare), certain pictures are impossible, unimaginable, unthinkable.

“In a proposition a thought finds an expression that can be perceived by the senses,” said Wittgenstein. That is, a proposition expresses a logical picture of facts. “My hand is empty,” is a proposition. “My fist is clenched,” is another. (“My finger is broken,” is a third.) You can imagine my hand (or yours) in these situations. “Objects contain the possibility of all situations,” said Wittgenstein. “The possibility of its occurring in states of affairs is the form of an object.” We can represent these possible states of affairs (these possible facts) in pictures and in propositions. We can draw them or we can write them down.

In scholarly writing, we arrange propositions (expressions of thoughts, i.e., sentences) into paragraphs that together represent a situation, a state of affairs, a set of facts. They may be facts about a company, a country, or a current event. They may be facts about the state of the literature or the methods you have used to gather data. They may be very abstract facts about the concepts you have used to model reality. But in all cases, you are claiming that something is true and, importantly, that a great deal more is possible. A paragraph, like a picture of a hand, doesn’t just confine itself to how things look right now, right here. A paragraph conforms to a “standard pattern” of reality so that the facts that are represented also imply the possibility (and impossibility) of other facts. The paragraph presents a logical picture of the facts; it expresses a series of thoughts about them. The reader must be able to imagine it.

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, plate I

This underlying logic of paragraphs also has implications for their arrangement. As readers pass from paragraph to paragraph, their imaginations are exposed to pictures of various facts. But these facts must conform to the pattern that is being established in the text. It must be possible to imagine what Hemingway called the “sequence of motion and fact” that brings us from one state of affairs to another, without breaking the bones, if you will, of the structure of the argument. (Of course, you can write a paragraph where those bones are explicitly broken if you need to. Now the reader will be able to imagine the painful contortions to come. Please remember to be as kind to your reader as you can.) Your concepts and objects will often be highly complex* mechanisms, but they should be familiar to you, and they should become increasingly familiar to your reader. Every time you depict them in a paragraph, they should become easier to imagine.

Try not to make this more difficult or philosophical or even mystical than I may, unfortunately, have made it sound. A paragraph consists of at least six sentences (propositions, thoughts) and at most 200 words. Like a drawing, it usually occupies no more than a page. You can read it in about a minute, just as you can study a drawing for that long and get some useful information out of it. Just as a drawing isn’t the whole or final truth about your hand, but only your hand in a particular position in a particular situation, a paragraph asserts only particular truths about the concepts or objects it describes. The important thing is to make a definite claim (cf. “this is a fist, clenched in anger,”) and then support, elaborate, or defend this claim within the space of two-hundred words (cf., “in each purposeful line or passage of [your] drawing, achieve … an expression of form, character, action …”). Appreciate the finitude of the problem and develop your craft from a realistic point of view.

“The world is everything that is case,” said Wittgenstein. “Objects contain the possibility of all situations.” And, yes, “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” He said that too.

_____

*A note for Wittgensteinians: I know that Wittgenstein says that “objects are simple” (T2.02). But in ordinary language objects can be more or less complex. The early Wittgenstein would refer to what I (and I assume most of my readers) think of as “objects” as “facts” at this point and distinguish “atomic” ones from the rest. Wittgenstein of course ended up abandoning the idea of “atomic facts” composed of simple “objects”. But I have retained the idea that the difference between ordinary things and objects of inquiry is that the latter “contain the possibilities” of their combination with other objects, while “things” are just lying around, if you will, taking up space. (Objects occupy logical space, let’s say.) I know that’s not particularly rigorous and won’t satisfy all philosophers, but hope you’ll acknowledge that I’m making an effort. Even after all these years, my reading of Wittgenstein continues to evolve. May yours, also.

Words and Ideas

[Note: this post is part of a series on the “substance of the craft” of scholarly writing. Inspired by by Wayne Booth (co-author of The Craft of Research) and Oliver Senior (author of How to Draw Hands), I argue that composition is the coordination of words and ideas, paragraphs and propositions, sentences and the state of things.]

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, plate XVIII

Writing trains you to see ideas just as drawing trains you to see things. “Look at your hand,” I often tell my students, “and imagine drawing it. Now, have an idea, and imagine writing it down.” I then go on (sometimes for hours) to talk about the second half of that last instruction, the problem of writing our ideas down, but I’ve noticed that I leave the first part, “have an idea,” almost entirely out of the discussion, as if it’s as obvious as looking at your hand. Rereading Oliver Senior’s How to Draw to Hands the other day, I realized that I’m actually not following his model as closely as I like to think. He does tell you to look at your hand. But he also tells you what to look for, what to notice in preparation for drawing it.

Hold up your spare hand, then, with the open front or inner surface facing you, fingers and thumb extended but held easily without strain, and look at its odd shape and remarkable system of upholstery as though you had never seen such an object before and did not want miss noting even the most obvious facts about it. (Pp. 10-1)

Senior has the distinct advantage over me that he has a pretty good idea what you’d be looking at if you followed his instructions, even though he’s never met you and never seen your hands. When I ask you to “call an idea to mind,” I have no idea what you’re going to be thinking of, nor how oddly it may be shaped or how remarkably upholstered. You might be thinking of a pricing model or an organizational culture or an aircraft manufacturer. Or you might be thinking of a historical event, a legal framework, or a comic-book villain. Or you might be thinking of an old friend, a dear colleague, or a feared enemy. Or you might… Well, you get the point, having an idea is much more general than holding up a hand, and I think that gets me some way towards recognizing my first mistake.

A while back I did actually have a better idea: think of an interesting place you know well. While I’d still be in the dark about exactly what place you now have in mind, the fact that it is a place would let me give you some meaningful instructions by which, as Senior puts it, your “vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed.” Notice, for example, how big the place is and where its boundaries are. Are those boundaries sharp, distinguishing the place clearly from its surroundings, or does it vaguely “shade off” into its environment? (Is it a room in a house or a clearing in a forest? Is it a section in a cafeteria or a building on a campus?) Is it a place in nature or is it furnished with artifacts? What sort of business is transacted there? How accessible is it? By land or sea? By plane, train, or automobile? Or can you, perhaps, only get there on foot? Is it wheelchair accessible? Do you need a key? Are there particular customs that apply there and are you expected to wear an official costume? How do you know you’ve made it when you get there? All of these questions become meaningful because I know in very general terms what you’re thinking of, namely, a place.

I could do something similar by asking you to think of something that happened to you recently, a true story with you as the protagonist. When did the event begin and end? Who was involved? Where did the events take place? What happened, i.e., what was the sequence of motion of fact, as Hemingway put it? How did it turn out and how did it make you feel? Why was it all necessary (what was the point)? These are all natural and reasonable questions that may be asked of any story. And, if I assume that you’ve followed my instructions, and thought of something that happened recently and to you, I can expect you to know the answers. Just as taking a mental look around a place you know well will prepare you to describe it in writing, so too will these basic questions (the so-called five Ws) prepare you to tell a story in writing.

And both of these skills are useful to you in your academic writing. You will often have to describe an organization or region or market in concrete terms, or just an ordinary social practice. Or you may need recount the recent (or ancient) history of the problem you’re studying, an unfolding series of current events, or the things you did to collect your data (i.e., you might be writing your methods sections). The ability to describe things and places, and to tell stories, will help you immensely in doing these perfectly “academic” things.

But I can’t just leave it there. There are more abstract entities you’ll need to be able to write about, more abstract ideas that you’ll need to be able reflect upon. With apologies to Hamlet for mixing his metaphors, you’ll need to learn to hold a mirror up to your mind’s eye and take a good close look at your concepts. (Interestingly, Senior sometimes suggests looking at your hand through a mirror too.) So I could ask you to imagine a theoretical object or a conceptual framework — an organizational hierarchy, for example, or a synthetic option, a collapse of sensemaking or a market equilibrium, a product innovation or a corporate merger. In all cases, I would ask you to pick something that you understand well if I was going to ask you to write about it. I’m not assigning reading homework, but writing homework, so we should begin with something you’re as familiar with as, yes, the back of your hand. If I’ve been invited into your classroom I can sometimes choose my examples by talking with your teacher, but if my examples turn out to be unhelpful (i.e., unfamiliar) then just ignore me and pick something that you actually have studied and do in fact understand well.

The important thing is to take this abstract object — essentially the concept without any particular thing in mind — and notice its parts. How are they related? Hierarchically, functionally, causally? Do the parts stand in relations of subordination to each other, or do they perform particular functions in concert with each other, or does one element cause effects in the other elements? Or is it a combination of these relationships? We have many different kinds of ideas about the objects that our theories are about. In fact, theories give us the conceptual resources we need to talk about those objects in very precise ways. Have a look at your resources every now and then and write about them.

I’ll write some posts next week about what I think you should be able to see. Remember Oliver Senior’s wise words: “the better drawing is not the more elaborate attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is the better informed.” That is, you’re not trying to reproduce what it says on the pages of your textbooks. You’re trying to write down what you learned from them, to write down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You are writing down your ideas as straightforwardly as you might draw a picture of your hand in a particular position. In fact, I’ll give Oliver Senior the last word:

The better draughtsman has more ‘on his mind’ concerning his subject; and by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent — even with real — ease an expression of form, character, action — whatever may be his immediate object — that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on his vision alone, finds beyond his power. (P. 8)