Trust and Authority

Simplifying somewhat, your theory section either activates your reader’s expectations of your object or stimulates their curiosity about it. Your analysis (which I will talk about next week) will either disappoint those expectations or satisfy that curiosity. With this in mind, I will talk about how to write the methods section of a research project tomorrow afternoon. The important thing to remember is that there should be an interesting tension between the theory and the analysis. Your method operates in that tension.

In general, your methodology is just an account of what you did and why you did it that way. This has the interesting consequence that you can write it based directly on your own experience. As I’ve said before, you won’t tell the whole story, but you will be talking about things you did yourself for reasons you yourself determined. If you conducted interviews, you chose some people to talk to, decided what to ask them about, and then met with them, recorded the conversation, perhaps even transcribed and coded it. If you did field work in an organization you decided when you would be where and what you would be doing there. You then tried to be there and do that at the planned time. All of these actions can be described and the main task of your methods section is provide those descriptions.

One of my favorite statements of method can be found in Erving Goffman’s preface to Asylums:

In 1955-56 I did a year’s field work at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C., a federal institution of somewhat over 7000 inmates. …

I started out in the role of assistant to the athletic director, when pressed avowing to be a student of recreation and community life, and I passed the day with patients, avoiding sociable contact with the staff and the carrying of a key. I did not sleep in the wards, and the top hospital management knew what my aims were.

Here, in plain language, we are told the conditions under which he made his observations. We can decide whether we think they are valid before we read his conclusions. This is especially important if those conclusions intend to teach us something new.

If you are going to disappoint your reader’s expectations, for example, (and, don’t worry, I’ll say more about this “disappointment” next week) you are going to need to gain your reader’s trust in your data. Otherwise the reader is more likely to reject your analysis than let you use it to challenge their theory. Since the reader has all kinds of good reasons to presume that the theory is true (as do you, I should say), it would be natural to resolve its tension with your analysis by suspecting there is something wrong with your data. You anticipate this suspicion (which is really just some healthy skepticism) by explaining, in your methods section, how you avoided the most familiar sources of error. You also point out the limitations of your method so that the reader doesn’t make too much of your conclusions (making them too challenging). Overall, you tell the reader everything they need to know to be as confident as you are about the quality and relevance of your data to your research question.

Here’s another sample from Goffman’s preface:

The limits, of both my method and my application of it, are obvious: I did not allow myself to be committed even nominally, and had I done so my my range of movements and roles, and hence my data, would have been restricted even more than they were.

Notice that he presents this as both a limit and a strength. He takes the measure of the scope of his data.

If, on the other hand, you intend to satisfy your reader’s curiosity, you have to establish your authority to relate the facts of the story. This could involve classical methodological issues, like the ones I’ve already mentioned: Who did you talk to? For how long? With what questions in mind? Did you make a recording, a transcription? Did you keep careful notes of events that you witnessed? But it can also involve something that especially researchers in qualitative fields are taking increasingly seriously, what they call your “positionality”*. Who are you to tell this story? What gives you the authority to state these facts? How did you get yourself into a position to speak credibly on the issues you have studied? We can find at least two examples of this kind of statement in Goffman:

I want to warn that my view is probably too much that of a middle-class male; perhaps I suffered vicariously about conditions that lower-class patients handled with little pain.

Permission to study St. Elizabeths was negotiated through the then First Assistant Physician, the late Dr. Jay Hoffman. He agreed that the hospital would expect pre-publication criticism rights but exert no final censorship or clearance privileges.

Note, again, that he simply and plainly describes how he got into possession of his data, and why we can trust his presentation of his results. In my view, it is an exemplary statement of method in the sense that, after we have read it, we’re inclined to trust the basis of analysis of the institutions he is about to present to us. He presents himself as both thoughtful and experienced with his subject matter. He constructs himself as a plausible authority on the subject.

*This is a relatively new trend in academia, though the “reflexivity” it implies is older even than Goffman’s nascent example. At the moment I’m reading Katja Thieme’s paper “Spacious Grammar” in Discourse and Writing 32, 2022, which has led me to Gillian Rose’s “Situating Knowledges” in Progress in Human Geography 21(3), 1997, which led me to Linda McDowell’s “Doing Gender” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17(4), 1992. I’m going to write a follow-up post of “positionality statements” sometime soon.

“Never Write Literature Reviews”

Probably the most controversial thing I say in my “How to Review the Literature” talk is that you shouldn’t write a literature review. (I normally credit — or blame, if you will — Ezra Zuckerman, but for some reason I forgot this year. Sorry, Ezra.) I also understand if it comes as something of a surprise to my audience. After all, my first talk was called “How to Write a Research Project” and next week’s talk will be “How to Write the Theory Section”, the week after that, “How to Write the Methods Section”, and then “How to Write the Analysis.” It would be reasonable to assume that the last week’s talk could just as well have been called “How to Write a Literature Review,” not merely “how to review the literature,” but, in fact, the difference is important. I was not talking about how to write at all; I was talking about how to review the literature, i.e., how to search for it and how to read it when you find it.

Now students and scholars are sometimes asked very explicitly, by their teachers or editors, to do exactly what Ezra and I recommend against. In such cases, I’m afraid, there’s no way around it. You will need a heading called something like “A Review of the Literature” and you will need to explicitly demonstrate that you are familiar with the most important work in the tradition that you’re working in. Here, I recommend that you see the problem as one of providing the scholarly backstory for the theoretical model you will be presenting in the theory section. Ezra and I think that you should really just leave that out and present the model with the relevant references to your tradition directly. But, like I say, if you’ve been told to show your work, try to make the story itself as interesting as the theory is compelling.

You’re trying to work towards a description of the “state of the art” in your discipline. As we’ll discuss in tomorrow’s talk, your theory really just summarizes your reader’s expectations of your object, and it’s actually useful to think about how you would tell the story of how those expectation were shaped if you had to. That will not be exactly the same story as the one of how your expectations (or even those of your reader) were shaped because you (both) probably learned the theory in a more efficient way. But the expectations (the concepts and assumptions) do have a history that can be traced back through the traditions in your discipline. Sometimes they can be traced back all the way to Aristotle, sometimes you can locate a relevant “origin story” in the eighteenth century or in the 1950s or even more recently than that. The point is that your review of the literature will locate the “seminal” work in your tradition and then follow its development into the mature theory that you’re using today.

Being aware of this history is very valuable. The effort you make to achieve this awareness is never wasted, even if you follow our advice and serenely disdain to bore your reader with the record of your struggle. Also, though you’ll always be engaging in some sort of “rational reconstruction”, reading the literature closely can almost feel like reading a novel with characters and settings and conflicts. It’s important to remind yourself that theories aren’t just abstract arrangements of concepts on some ideal plane, they are the themes of conversations that have been going on for decades, even centuries. This difference will be useful when we talk about how to write your introduction; being able to shift your perspective from the abstract plane of “theory” to the much more material reality of “scholarship” is a useful skill. And it does of course require you to know something about the literature.

Never write literature reviews. No one likes to read literature reviews. They are borrring. So don’t write them. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore “the relevant literature.” To the contrary. You have raised a puzzle about the real world (see tips 3-5). One reason why it is a puzzle is because existing answers are compelling (see point 7), but flawed. So you review the literature not as an end in itself but because you show what is compelling but flawed about existing answers. Any research that does not pertain to that objective can remain unmentioned. (Ok, ok. Some reviewers will demand to see their names or that of their favorite scholars even when their work is essentially irrelevant. And it is usually good to anticipate that. But try to do as little as possible.)


Ezra is right to say that you are looking, in part, for the limits of the existing literature. It’s often suggested that you should be looking for “gaps”, but in so far as these exist, you should actually try to fill them in with presumptions. (This idea, that theories are presumptions, is something I learned from Steve Fuller many years ago and which I’ll unpack in tomorrow’s talk.) That is, if one glaring feature of the literature in your tradition is the lack of any work on the subject that you are interested in, then you should read the literature looking for what your reader expects in their ignorance, not simply for a basis to claim that the reader probably doesn’t expect anything at all and will therefore (presumably!) be happy to learn whatever you find out. Ezra says you’re looking for the sense in which a theory is “compelling but flawed”. We might also say you’re trying to assure your readers that you think they’re rational before you tell them they’re mistaken. They have good reasons to to expect what they expect; though you think they’re wrong, you don’t think they’re stupid. Indeed, you know the story how they came to think that way. If you hadn’t discovered the facts you did, you’d probably think like that too.


I came up with this analogy about a week ago and tweeted it. I’ve since been thinking about it, and I think it holds up under scrutiny. So I thought I’d write a quick post.

Back in November I heard Gary Marcus describe large language models as “autocomplete on steroids” and I immediately free-associated to Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory which, we might say, holds that human language is autocomplete on mushrooms. That’s a bit glib, but it suggests a more serious analogy. “PC is the LSD of the 1990s,” said the acid guru Timothy Leary once (he meant “personal computers” not “political correctness”) and today he would even more correct to suggest that AI is our LSD. Now, I don’t actually mean that there is some interesting similarity between artificial intelligence and psychedelic experience. These are very different things. But what I’ve noticed is that my reaction to AI, and the range of reactions of my peers in academic writing instruction, is similar to the reaction to the introduction of LSD into mass culture in the 1960s.

To set the scene, let me state my reasonably educated but utterly non-expert view of LSD. (I’ve checked my facts in this post using Wikipedia.) Lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938, and, in 1943, he discovered its psychedelic properties by accident. It was then used in psychiatric research and treatment in the 1950s and 1960s, while the CIA also began to weaponize it for “intelligence” purposes. (Maybe you can already see the pattern!) Its use in research made it widely available to academics and their students, and it was soon adopted by the counter-culture of the 1960s. Timothy Leary was one of its most ardent proponents, famously urging young people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and was described by Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. Despite being “non-addictive with low potential for abuse” and known to “induce transcendental experiences with lasting psychological benefit,” LSD was “scheduled” in 1968, making it illegal to use both medically and recreationally. But by this time it was, as it were, “too late”; Sgt. Pepper had already been, if you will, inspired and conceived, and, indeed, released to the public.

I’m sure you can imagine many clever ways to replace the people and events in this story to produce a pretty close approximation of the narrative around GPT. But, for me, the analogy suggests a number of important things.

  1. There’s no way back. Our students will increasingly use ChatGPT (and other language models) to inspire and, no doubt, produce their written assignments at university. I’m sure they’ll also find ways to use it “recreationally”.
  2. Prohibition will not work. Punishing students for using it where it seems relevant to them and is technically possible will merely undermine our authority. (I’ll leave it to you to work out the analogy to the “war on drugs” in its details.)
  3. Language models are perfectly safe. They are non-addictive and, so long as students continue to read and write on their own, will not damage their minds.
  4. The quality of artificially generated text will improve. As will its “potency”. That is, both the style and the content of the output of language models will become increasingly effective in all sorts of applications.
  5. Language models can both motivate and inspire students to produce writing they might not otherwise have come up with.

This may seem like an endorsement, which brings me to my final reason for liking the GPT/LSD analogy. Since the Summer of Bots, I have experimented extensively with GPT-3 and ChatGPT, and I have thought a great deal about it. And, if I had been a professor of philosophy or psychology in 1963, I think I might have experimented with LSD and mushrooms and DMT and other drugs, at least until they were forbidden. But…

6. I will not encourage students to use GPT to assist them in their writing projects.

That is, like LSD, while I’m comfortable with it myself, and while I grant that it has probably helped many artists and thinkers have experiences that have helped them produce interesting work to the benefit of themselves and our culture, I am not comfortable with the idea of integrating artificial intelligence into the process of developing the natural abilities of students to make up their minds, speak their minds, and write it down. Yes, I know that many students will use it anyway, and I’m not going to warn them off it, but I will not personally advise them to see how it might help solve their writing problems. I’m simply not sure I know how to use it to help them become better writers.

If they do use it to make the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of the college essay, that’s great! It was possible to enjoy that record without dropping acid too. But I am not going to engage explicitly with their experiments with artificial intelligence or suggest particularly effective ways of getting the most out of it. Like I say, I’m not sure I know enough about it.

Of course, if LSD had not been forced underground in 1968, there’s no telling what uses mainstream psychiatry and psychology, philosophy and poetry, would have found for it, and what place it would therefore now have in academic life. In some alternate universe, acid trips might today be familiar parts of the college (and even high school!) curriculum, as common as field trips! I truly hope that we make the best of artificial intelligence too. I hope we don’t let a moral panic awaken our prohibitionist impulses.

Let’s turn on, tune in, and stay calm.

The Patron and the Iceberg

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a variety of images, stories, and slogans to get my ideas about academic writing across to students and scholars. This year, I’m going to try to keep the decorative effects to a minimum and give myself more time to present the actual craft. “More matter, less art,” as Hamlet’s mother wishes. I’ve settled on two key insights, which are no doubt timeless, but which happen to come to us in the words of two great modernist writers, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway, 1939
Source: Wikipedia

“The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” Hemingway tells us in Death in the Afternoon. The dignity of a piece of writing, likewise, depends on what the writer has under the surface. This is where I will begin the Craft of Research Series this year, starting on Thursday by drawing an iceberg on the board and detailing what the writer of a research paper should have above and below the water. In fact, though it’s a rough approximation, I have found it useful to coordinate each of the sections of a paper with the sources that typically serve as their basis. So, for example, the theory section will be based on the literature and the analysis will be based on the data. Hemingway, of course, believed that a story, even a fictional one, should be based on the experience of the writer, and the reader should feel that experience even when it is not being directly reported by the writer. Last week, I wrote about how the experience of gathering data is similarly shared in our methods sections. Here, too, a great deal depends on the decisions we make about what to tell the reader and what to hold back. “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows,” says Hemingway, “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.”

Virginia Woolf, 1927
Source: Wikipedia

“To know whom to write for is to know how to write,” said Woolf in her essay “The Patron and the Crocus.” In one way or another, all writing instructors have this message at the core of their pedagogy. Your decisions about what to put on the surface and what to leave below will always be guided by your image of the reader. In academic writing, the important thing is to have a good sense of what the reader knows. As I never tire of saying, it is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people, and those other people are your peers. For students, that means that they should not imagine writing for their teachers but for their fellow students, which is helpful because they can actually know something about them. Not only can they reach out and talk to them, they can imagine a mind shaped by roughly the same experiences, taking the same courses, reading the same readings, participating in the same discussions. Scholars at all levels conduct their research as members of a community of curious minds; they are always looking at their objects on behalf of their peers. The so-called “problem of representation” isn’t just about how to imagine objects; it’s about taking the point of view of one’s community. The scholar is a representative of the intellectual interests of that community and students struggle with their materials on behalf of each other in the same way. “The choice of a patron is of the highest importance,” Woolf tells us. “But how to choose rightly? How to write well? Those are the questions.”

“Jose Medina is correct in his disdain,” says my favorite poet, Tony Tost, in Invisible Bride; “the doctors are absolutely modern.” I don’t know if he meant the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern. (I have a feeling that he serves mainly as an allusion to “pale” Ramon Fernandez, in Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West”. Stevens himself has said he did not mean it as a reference to the literary critic of the same name, but merely chose two common Spanish names for a fictional presence he needed in the poem.) I mention the line here only to acknowledge your possible disdain for “modernist” approaches to writing. It is true that there are other ways to compose your research papers — less classic and more romantic, even absolutely post-modern. I guess I’m suggesting that you begin by learning how to be modern, to become your own contemporary, as I think Kierkegaard once put it. Let Hemingway’s iceberg and Woolf’s patron inspire you to clarify your sources and your purpose as you go.

The Iceberg, Method

Like many writing instructors, I teach Hemingway’s “iceberg method” to students. I make sure to remind them that Hemingway was not an “academic” writer but a novelist and writer of short stories but, still, I tell them, he was adamant that writers must know what they’re talking about. If you’re going to write a novel about war, or bullfighting, or love, you better have some knowledge of the subject to start with. Indeed, he would argue, you should have some experience with these things. And, while academic knowledge is not always based on direct, personal experience, there is one section of a typical research paper that can apply Hemingway’s method almost directly. This, it turns out, is the methods section.

Let’s quickly recap what Hemingway meant. In fact, let us let Papa himself explain it.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about 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. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Ernest hemingway, death in the afternoon

How does this apply to writing your methods section? Well, imagine writing the full story, in every detail, of how you gathered your data and analyzed it. This would be more Proust than Hemingway, I guess, and it’s not something you’d ever actually hand in for a grade or submit for publication. But imagine making it so complete that the reader could, not only replicate something like your study, but would in effect be doing the very same study if they did everything you tell them. In fact, imagine giving them instructions for having the very same experience that you did. Imagine putting in physical descriptions of the locations in which you interviewed your subjects or the office where you came up with your survey questions. Describe the bus ride to the field location where you carried out your observations, even what you had for lunch. Put in all your subjective judgments and perceptions, everything you thought and felt. Tell the reader where you are in doubt that you did it right, and which parts you thought at the time were just brilliant. Tell them what your enjoyed and what you suffered through, what gave you pleasure and what gave you pain. Capture every nuance of the process.

Now, think of your reader as someone who has done a similar study. What can you leave out of your account and let this reader fill in with their own experience? What do you have to keep in your account so that the reader can feel that you actually did all the things you leave out, because that’s what the reader would have done to have the experiences you describe. What parts are irrelevant to whether or not your data is of high quality because the reader assumes that you did them in the proper way (and you did them in that proper way, of course). What lengthy descriptions in our imaginary first draft can be summarized in a single bit of jargon (“semi-structured interview”, “control group”, “coding scheme”)? What is the simplest possible statement of your method to a reader who understands your methodology?

We can easily imagine that this version would be (less than) one-eight as long as the “Proustian” draft. That is, you can leave a great deal under the surface and the reader will still know everything they need to know to replicate your study, or at least enough to trust your data. “A writer’s problem does not change,” Hemingway 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.” In research writing, this art of writing “truly enough” begins with an honest statement of your method that your reader understands. Face that problem squarely and you are well on your way.