Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Jargon, complex prose, and the writing process

Recently I was speaking with a writer who bemoaned the fact that in her field of study people (including her) tried to write complicated, jargon-filled papers. This was not a new idea—I have heard that in many fields, especially those that value post-modern philosophies that writing complex prose is a matter of pride, or perhaps of ego: I have heard it suggested that writing prose that no one can understand will actually earn the author respect because people will assume that they’re just so smart. (Of course, there are also many who mock these same authors as being bad writers.) Many famed scholars are known for their difficult prose—Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida are particularly renowned for these issues.

I don’t know what other writers are thinking when they write—at best I can interpret the words they have chosen—but I believe that often difficult and complex writing is the product of honest attempts to clearly convey complex and difficult ideas.

Consider, for example, legal writing—another field notorious for difficult, jargon-filled writing.  Do we want to assume that that lawyers and judges write difficult prose because they want to impress everyone with their erudition? It seems much more likely to assume that lawyers and judges want to be understood, but the nature their work involves significant complexity that is difficult to communicate.

The way I see it, ideas are complex. And, in the world of scholarship and research in which new understanding is sought, it seems possible that a new idea—a new perspective—will not easily be conveyed in the language that developed to express old ideas. I’ve struggled to understand some very difficult writing that, in the end, rewarded me with very interesting ideas. Those ideas might possibly have been written in clearer and simpler language.

But, as the post title suggests, I’m more interested in this question from the point of view of the writing process. Getting back to the writer I mentioned in the opening paragraph and the idea of trying to write complex prose, I want to speculate on the impact of such an attempt to the scholarly writing process.

It seems to me that trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds a layer of difficulty to an already difficult task. Doing good scholarship is hard. Analyzing data and developing theoretical explanations for observed phenomena is hard. Exploring logical concerns with theories is hard. Coming up with a clear, coherent, and consistent explanation for anything is hard.

Not only is it hard to come up with good explanations, it’s also hard to write clearly about those ideas.  Perusing any user’s manual will demonstrate how easy it is to write unclearly about something that is often fairly simple. So, if you’re a scholar trying to develop explanations/theories, your job is made difficult both by the conceptual complexities and by the difficulties of writing.

To me, it seems like trying to write complex and jargon-filled prose adds yet another layer of complexity and difficulty.  Not only do you have to figure out the ideas that you want to express, but you also have to work to make the expression complex. it’s an extra layer of effort.

Therefore, my suggestion is always to try to write as clearly and concisely as possible while also paying attention to important details.  My belief is that if you focus on the ideas and the details, and you try to be as clear as possible, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with difficult convoluted prose anyway. For my part, I try to write clearly and often end up with weak and muddy prose.

I don’t know what Butler was thinking when she wrote, but it’s easy for me to believe that she (and other scholars who write difficult prose) was doing her best to be clear, and that at some point she said “I have to stop working on this project to move on to another.” What was left was no exemplar of elegant prose, but it was not (necessarily) the product of an attempt to obfuscate.

For a writer who is struggling, I think the most important thing is to focus on what  you want to say and on expressing that as clearly as possible.  Trying to meet some stylistic standard is secondary and only worth your effort once you’ve gotten a good handle on the ideas that you want to express.

Persistence

In the last week or two, I’ve been hitting a rough spot in my writing practice. I don’t feel like I’m making progress on anything…more searching for something to work on, for all that I have several tasks that require my attention.  I’ve not been particularly disciplined in working, either: I do sit down to work and do some writing, but when I get stuck I have very little patience to push on in the attempt to make more progress.

This is less than ideal.  It would certainly be preferable to be consistently productive, consistently disciplined, and consistently focused.  But that’s not how it is, and there’s nothing I can do to go back and change what has already happened.  My best hope is to do better in the future.

Even looking back, I still keep attention on the little that I did do—I may not have done much, but I’m happy to say that I have done something. That’s a place to start—I didn’t completely get stopped.  It’s nice to be able to look back and count any positive progress or outcomes, even if that positive progress was small. And, from the perspective of practicing—the perspective concerned with writing as an activity carried out habitually and regularly for the purpose of improving skill—the fact that I engaged with the practice of writing at all is a bit of a win.  Being able to look back at a period of time and try to identify positive actions taken can be useful. Having practiced a little is better than not having practiced at all.

But even if I had gotten nothing done for weeks previously, I can still look to the future with some hope: perhaps I wasn’t regular in working in the past, but with persistence, I can develop such a practice. All it really takes is persistence, and some reasonable moderation.

If you want to develop a long-term practice, it’s important to recognize that there are ups and downs in any practice. There are days when things come more easily than others.  And on the days that things don’t come easily, it’s important to remember that those bad days help set the foundation for the good days.  Persisting through bad days helps keep projects moving, even if the progress is minimal in the immediate present. Persisting helps keep up the momentum on a project, which is valuable.

I was speaking with a writer who had a death in the family.  This quite reasonably interrupted the writing practice, but what then is the next step? Well, persistence, of course. Getting back to the process is what’s important, not looking bad and regretting the lost time.  Given the significance of a death in the family, it’s totally reasonable to lose time to grieving and to family gatherings to celebrate the person and mourn their loss. If some extreme and unusual event prevents writing, well that’s ok, too. But all the while, one can maintain an underlying idea of persistence—the notion that in the long run, it’s necessary to persist through the interruptions and distractions., but also that, if one maintains the long-term practice, then those unusual interruptions won’t actually pose a danger to the larger practice.

Keeping any eye on the importance of persistence is crucial after an interruption because after an interruption, there are two common responses, one is to shrug off the interruption and get back to work.  The other focuses on the interruption and on the lost time, and often turns that focus into critical self-judgement that then inhibits future work.

The persistent attitude can be flexible—it can decide to return to an interrupted project because that’s the place of persistence. Rather than letting the bad result—slow days or days with no work—dictate future behavior, the attention focuses on what can be done to keep moving. One small step at a time, but persistently!

Feeling Overwhelmed? Focus on one thing.

Sometimes, I get stuck as a writer because I start feeling overwhelmed by myriad issues, none severe in itself, but in combination more than enough to distract from the focus required by writing.

There are any number of potential distractions that interfere with writing. Chores and regular life continually present many demands. Maybe no chore or errand is crucial or particularly difficult, but they gain weight in combination as other responsibilities multiply: taking out the trash is trivial if you have plenty of time, but when you’re running late, it can be significant. Everyday life is a constant background noise that can contribute to feeling overwhelmed.

For me, an additional drain on my focus comes as I consider the state of the world. In my opinion, it is a civic duty for the citizen of a democracy to remain aware of news, and reading the news is, on one level no more than a necessary chore like washing dishes. Except for the fact that the news is so vexing. I find myself sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the real problems that face humanity, starting with climate change, but including the vast range of issues.  Sometimes, the process of writing can provide some refuge, but these problems are present and demanding attention, and again contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed.

And then on another level—much more specific to the process of writing—I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with my own limitations as a writer. For all my practice, for all my effort and work, each new attempt to communicate my ideas involves significant effort and frustration, even when things generally go well!  Even if sentences are generally flowing, and I’m writing a fairly large amount, there is, at the second-to-second or minute-to-minute level, a series of pauses and struggles as each new sentence struggles to fit into both the structure that I imagined when I started and the vision that has developed in the process of writing. Add in to this mix all the doubts I have—have I spelled correctly? have I punctuated correctly? is my phrasing going to be clear? how will different people read that statement? Am I repeating something I wrote before?—and it’s pretty easy to get weighed down with the multiplicity of concerns.

And then on yet another level, I often find myself overwhelmed with ideas.  This is a common problem, I think: someone wrote to me recently to complain of a “traffic jam” of ideas.  Having too many ideas is consistently one of the problems I see in writers who generally do good research: their project bogs down as they try to address every different dimension of a general interest.  In writing this post about feeling overwhelmed, for example, I had manage all the different ways in which I can get overwhelmed—the complication and difficulty comes from the many different threads that can contribute to the larger fabric of feeling overwhelmed, and I can’t talk about all of them at once, and until I make a choice among them about which to discuss first, I can become stuck. 

The more choices a writer has, the easier it is to become overwhelmed, because each choice demands attention. In combination, writing presents difficulties that can be compounded by other difficulties, and these can lead to feeling overwhelmed.

When that happens, I find that my most effective response is to try to focus on something small—something that I need to do, perhaps, and that can be done pretty easily. But only one thing. So, for example, I take out the trash, without worrying about cleaning the whole house. It’s one step in the right direction.  When I would get stuck writing my dissertation, I would often pick one small thing—a citation or page number I needed, for example—without having to fix all the problems that I knew were waiting. When feeling swamped by ideas and other concerns, I can focus on one thing—one idea, one problem—and work on that without concern for other issues. Focus doesn’t solve all my problems, but at least it helps me solve some of them.

 

Giving Thanks

This coming Thursday, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  Despite the fraught history of the holiday, I like it because I believe in the importance of giving thanks.

Gratitude is good. It is all too easy to take for granted the good things that we do have and to focus our attention on things that worry us. It is, indeed, quite natural because focusing attention on potential danger is a survival skill: if you’re starving, your attention focuses on finding food, and if you’ve had enough to eat, your attention focuses on other potential threats. Being aware of danger is important, but it also takes a toll on the body in the form of stress. Gratitude, by contrast, focuses the attention on those things that are going well and on things supporting us—on things that are good in our lives, but that can be taken for granted because they are familiar.

The good aspects of the familiar can fade into the background while the rough spots in the familiar move forward in prominence: if one eats the same nutritious food every day, for example, at some point the repetition and monotony get more attention than the good fortune of having nutritious food. Or, for example, good health can become familiar and taken for granted, and is then only appreciated once it has been lost.  A practice of giving thanks can help focus attention on those things that fall into the background of the familiar. I believe that gratitude can help reduce stress, boost emotions, and help us remember our positive opportunities, and I believe that there is empirical evidence for this, though I don’t have any citations to hand.  

For the US, the story traditionally told about Thanksgiving is the story of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims, and this story opens the difficult and problematic history of how European colonists and their descendants treated the native populations—a relationship that is still fraught today.  Thanksgiving’s association with this difficult history, and the Thanksgiving story which presents the relationship between native and pilgrim as so innocent and pure, are all problematic.  But that history is problematic every day. I don’t believe that appreciating Thanksgiving—a holiday for giving thanks and showing gratitude–a harvest festival—should be prevented by the difficult history of race relations in America. (And I certainly don’t want Thanksgiving to become an excuse to forget that history the rest of the year.) Basically, no history should stop me from giving thanks for what I do have. Indeed, in giving thanks for whatever good I have, I become more sensitive to the plight of those who do not have the same good.

When I am thankful that I have clean air to breathe, then I have greater sympathy for those who do not. When I am thankful I have clean water to drink, I better appreciate the plight of those who don’t.  When I have food to eat, a home in which to live, good health, hope for the future, I have things to be thankful for, and in giving thanks, I have more feeling for those who don’t. I’m thankful for all these things and more—friends, family, teachers, colleagues. I’m thankful for music. I’m thankful for the beauty of trees, leaves, flowers, clouds, the moon, sunrises, sunsets, etc., etc.  There may be a lot of things that I could complain about, but none of those are so dire that they should stop me from appreciating what good I do have—perhaps if my life hangs in the balance, then it might make sense to focus my attention on things other than giving thanks, but as long as my troubles are a little more distance, giving thanks only helps me find a foundation from which I can try to deal with the problems.

Giving thanks is central to most religions that I know of. And harvest festivals or other festivals that celebrate the good things that we have are common.  Religions often have stories like that of Job, where even the person beset by ills, is called upon to show gratitude and appreciation. The religious focus on giving thanks could be seen solely through the perspective of the spiritual relationship with the deity. But if we think about the role religions play in society, we might wonder whether those religious calls to show gratitude are some form of public mental health: worshippers are kept healthier by focusing their attention on the things for which they are grateful. But that is speculation.

In any event, despite the difficult history of race relations in the US, I appreciate Thanksgiving because I like giving thanks.

Thank you to my readers for reading.

I hope that you can find something to be thankful for.

I have categorized this under “practice” because giving thanks is something that can be practiced with benefit.

Product and Practice

Recently, I’ve written a couple of times about missing targets, and I’m returning to that same theme from a slightly different angle after talking with a writer who is trying to get on track with his dissertation work.  We had been talking about setting up a regular practice of writing and he reported that he had missed a day during the prior week. That’s no big deal, but it had me thinking.

This man is in a professional program; he’s not going to be an academic, so he won’t be in a publish-or-perish career that will require public demonstration of his writing. In his situation, it makes good sense to focus his attention on the product he is trying to complete—his dissertation. But I was also thinking about the value of the practice—a subject I think and write about often.

Developing actual products of your work and your efforts is important—without actual products of your work, it’s hard to share anything with anyone.  All the same, each individual product is a one-shot thing (one shot, in the sense that’s only one step in a career, not in the sense that you only have one chance to get it right), while a career or a life is more of an on-going matter.

In the course of a life, which is more important, the products or the practice?  Asking about which is more important necessarily invokes questions of value that have uncertain answers (because different people have different values), but it’s an interesting question, I think.

There is no question that it’s good to have some sort of “product” to show for efforts—a graduate student quite naturally wants to produce the necessary dissertation.  Products are important.  Having something to show for your efforts is important.

Having something to show for your efforts is not the only important thing, however.  Living well and having rewarding experiences is also valuable, even if there is no product.  As a writer, I find that writing with the emphasis on the practice is not only more enjoyable than writing with an eye on the product, it is also more productive. When I am writing for the practice, my emphasis is on using my time well.  This emphasis does not preclude working on some product, but it does make the product secondary to engaging my practice effectively.  

When I focus on a product, I can see the many difficulties that surround me, and I see clearly the many limits of my work and my abilities.  The pieces that I want to be insightful and interesting, often seem trite.  The pieces that I have tried to edit carefully, still have errors. It is, in short, very easy to become frustrated with the product of my efforts.  And frustration is a good way to get stuck working.

When I focus on the practice, my attention is much more directed towards my own efforts: am I engaging in the practice?  Am I giving myself a chance to benefit from the practice? Have I put in enough effort that the practice will pay off?

For me, at least, the practice is more valuable than the product (admittedly, I might say differently if I had ever had a very successful book), because with the practice, I feel more likely to produce multiple products, and thus I’m less dependent on the outcome for any single product.   And realistically, pretty much every person in an intellectual field will have to produce multiple written products. For someone aiming at a professional career—the dissertation writer I mentioned above, for example—the dissertation may seem like the one big writing product, and once it’s done, there’s no need for a writing practice. But that is, I think, a false vision: people in professional careers have lots of things to write, even if never as big as a dissertation.  Professionals write to colleagues, to supervisors, to subordinates. They write to describe their decisions and to coordinate with the people with whom they work.  They write to communicate with other organizations.  

Writing is a skill that is generally used, so developing a practice that helps you improve your skill and feel more comfortable about the difficulty of writing may be one that helps you in many ways and in many contexts.  Although developing a practice is difficult, and it may seem more efficient to focus on finishing a single product, developing a writing practice is the best way to finish a large research/writing project.

Courtesy, Truth, and Political Correctness

My previous post, “Who Gets to Say What Is Offensive?”, basically argued that it’s always appropriate to respect the opinions of those who say they are offended.  If you say something and someone is offended by it, you are generally violating a basic and important principle of human interaction—to respect other people. The argument that someone should not be offended because other people reveals a basic disrespect for the person who has expressed offense.  In most cases.

There are times when it is important to say things that offend people.  The search for knowledge and understanding can reveal things that offend people, but that search should not be limited by the attempt to avoid offending people. (Ironically, my attempt to write about this is hampered by my desire to avoid offending anyone.)

Many opponents of the theory of evolution were offended by the suggestion that humans were related to other primates. Nonetheless, we don’t want to stop researchers from discussing evolution, do we? The Copernican revolution—the notion that humans and the earth were not at the center of the universe—was offensive to many. All the same, we want to continue to pursue research based on the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. On a more personal level, many people with addictions will be offended if their illness is pointed out.

Some truths need to be stated, even if people get offended.  

Stating the “truth” can get treacherous because there are more than a few disagreements on what constitutes truth.

One principle to keep in mind as a writer is the intention: if your intention is to offend, truth is little excuse.  If you are trying to offend someone, that’s behavior outside the bounds of academic ethics. Writers in other fields may have more ethical leeway on whether they try to offend people, but trying to offend people certainly violates the moral precept captured in Christianity’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).

A scholar or researcher ought not try to offend, but at the same time, the scholar cannot allow him or herself to be stopped by the possibility of offending others. Given the diversity of voices in any debate, and the fact that people often get offended when others disagree, any one message is likely to offend someone. If you say that TheoryX is bad, then some of the people who think that TheoryX is good will be offended. Research will not move forward productively if researchers are unable to challenge accepted ideas for fear of offending people.  This, in fact, is what tenure status in universities is about: providing scholars freedom from political pressures related to unpopular theories.

Speaking abstractly, a scholar/researcher (or other writer) is caught between two conflicting forces: on the one hand there is the abstract search for understanding, or “Truth,” and on the other there is the principle of courtesy.  There is, I think, a balance that can be found between these two forces.

There is an additional motivation relevant for writers/speakers, but it is a motivation that is typically backgrounded in academia, and that is the motivation of wanting speech/writing to change how people act. 

The question of motivation is, I think, part of what makes the idea of “political correctness” unpalatable to many.  The care for being “politically correct” can be interpreted not as courtesy or an attempt to care for others (or, from another perspective, an attempt to be treated with respect), but rather as a hypocritical attempt to gain some political advantage. If we think about the attempt to avoid offending from that perspective, it’s far less palatable. If my interest in avoiding offensive terms is that I am motivated to treat all people with respect, that is a very different thing than if I am merely trying to avoid offense to gain a political advantage.  And it is certainly the case that some people are concerned with gaining political advantage.

But are we all so jaded to assume that gaining political advantage is the only motivation that people have?  If someone shows concern to avoid offending others, it could be that they’re just trying to get the support of people they secretly hate (e.g., an anti-semite who courts Jews to get their votes), but couldn’t it also be true that the person actually respects others and tries to avoid offending out of respect? Or, from the other side, it is certainly true that someone might pretend to be offended in order to gain political advantage, but isn’t possible that the person is actually offended?

I have no simple summary here.  We all have to do the best we can, and life is complex. Despite our best intentions, we can err. Different principles may compete in the paths of action they suggest: the desire to respect others and avoid offending may be at odds with the desire to be truthful. The desire to persuade may be at odds with the desire to respect and the desire to be truthful.  And a variety of motivations that might lie hidden behind any action make it hard to interpret right and wrong. Maybe that concern for careful language is a reflection of a honest caring desire, or maybe it’s a reflection of insincere rhetorical manipulation.

It would be nice to have universal principles, but in the end, I suppose that even though principles like respect, caring, and honesty may be universal in the abstract, in reality they sometimes conflict leading to difficult choices.  It’s not good to offend, and it should be avoided, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially with emotionally charged issues, where people have strong opinions. Courtesy is sometimes at odds with truth, and sometimes its necessary to choose truth over courtesy (with the caveat that identifying “truth” is problematic, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to be open to learning that what one has previously accepted as truth might be wrong).

Who gets to say what is offensive?

This particular post was sparked by the recent Megyn Kelly blackface controversy in which Kelly said (among other things) “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” while defending blackface costumes as “OK” because, basically, they used to be (among the people she knew or remembers as important). The controversy brought into the foreground a debate that every writer or scholar needs to consider: whether or not their words offend others.

Kelly’s defense of blackface was offensive to many people. Whether she revealed total ignorance that some people are offended by blackface or dismissal of those people’s concerns, I leave to the reader to decide.

Kelly’s position highlights something that should be in the foreground of discussions: “offensive” behavior is something that different people judge differently, and the fact that one person is not offended does not mean that another is not offended.  When we are concerned with offensive social behavior, the question is who, if anyone, is offended? No behavior is offensive if no one is offended. And if someone is offended, then the behavior is offensive. My general answer to the question asked in this post’s title–who gets to say what is offensive–is “anyone and everyone.”

When someone is offended, one way to respond is to argue that person should not be offended because people at some other specific time and/or place don’t find it offensive (e.g., “no one thought it was offensive when I was young, so it can’t be offensive now!”). And/or to question the right of the people to be offended (e.g., “they shouldn’t be so sensitive!”).  Those are essentially the elements of Kelly’s defense of blackface. 

Instead of questioning whether a person is right to be offended, or has a right to be offended, another way to address the question of what is offensive is to take a standard like that suggested by the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, which is basically that if someone is offended by what you have written, then it is offensive.  (There is, of course, the understanding that factual statements are not bound by this rule. Research has to be able to challenge accepted truths: plenty of people were offended by the idea of evolution.) 

Personally, I believe that the APA standard is much the better one.  If someone is offended by something I write, the fault lies heavily on me. I am willing to offend people in some circumstances (which circumstances are a matter for another discussion), but it certainly is to be avoided. This is a matter of courtesy, a matter of respect, and, certainly with respect to the expectations of the academic community, and in wider contexts, too, a matter of ethics. 

If you respect other people, you do not willingly offend them. The idea that you should respect other people is a very old one (I would say it was a “conservative” principle, except for the willingness, and even glee, with which people who currently call themselves conservative flout it).  The idea that we should respect other people is a principle we can find in religions through history. According to the Bible, 2,000+ years ago, Jesus stated the Golden Rule: “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). Basically, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, in this specific context: “if you don’t like people saying things that offend you, then don’t say things that offend others.

When thinking about this version of the rule (“If you don’t like other people saying things that you find offensive; don’t say things they find offensive”), it must be framed in terms of the emotions of the person who is affected: it’s not honest to say “well, I don’t mind being called a ‘girl’, so it’s totally cool if I call other people ‘girls’.” (I chose ‘girl’ as term that is offensive to some people—e.g., many boys and men; many adult women—but not offensive to others—e.g., many little girls, some adult women.) Saying that things are only offensive if they offend you is true from a grossly egocentric point of view: if you’re only concerned with whether or not you’re offended, then you miss the fact that someone else might be offended.  You may not care if someone calls you a ‘girl’, but that doesn’t mean that the term isn’t offensive to others. Context and perspective matter.  

Applying the Golden Rule propounded by Jesus requires understanding what others want, not just applying your own standards to everyone.  You may love to eat pork, but the Golden Rule doesn’t therefore suggest that you force everybody else to eat pork. If you love to eat pork then the Golden Rule should lead you to try to provide others with things that they love to eat.  

The principle known as the Golden Rule is echoed across many religions. In Hinduism: “One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish nature” Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8). And in Judaism: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). Buddhism, Islam, and others also have scripture that extols these same values (https://www.feedkindness.com/resources/mindful-religion-coexistence/; https://inspiremetoday.com/blog/kindness-the-core-of-12-religions/).

The place to start, according to this basic principle, is not with arguing whether someone has a right to be offended, but with whether they are offended. By this standard, Kelly’s argument that at a certain place in time people were not offended, therefore no one should be offended is clearly flawed because it is essentially egocentric: “The people from whom I take my standard are not offended, and therefore other people shouldn’t be offended.”  The idea that you treat others with respect means that you take them and their concerns as seriously as you take yourself and your interests; it doesn’t mean you dismiss their concerns because they don’t seem important to you.

Society depends on people treating each other with respect and care. Large social groups depend on the willingness of their members to make decisions for the good of the whole group, and to show a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of the whole group.  This need for a social awareness and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good does not preclude competition; it does not preclude seizing personal opportunities or having success beyond the common person; it does not preclude capitalism or personal liberty. It does, however, call on people to be willing to give up some things to help other members of their society, and thus their society as a whole. Sometimes these sacrifices are large: many have given their lives for their nation or their community. Sometimes the sacrifices are rather smaller: giving up that blackface costume is a pretty small sacrifice; giving up callous insults also seems like a pretty small sacrifice.

To Kelly and others who would argue, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” let me suggest that if by being “normal” you offend people, you might try to be better than normal.  The principles espoused by religions—the Golden Rule and its relatives—are rules to which people should aspire, they are not descriptions of normal behavior. If being normal means callously offending people, I, personally, don’t want to be normal. I want to be better. That’s what it means to live up to ethical standards. The people who follow ethical standards consistently are rightly held up as exemplars; the fact that “normal” people don’t live up to that standard is a poor excuse for not trying to do better.

There are times when other concerns override the interest in being considerate to others, and there are times when people are offended without good reason, but those are outside the scope of this post, which is already overly long.

Advice for Dissertation Advisors 3: Focus on the Practical Dimensions of Research Projects

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Generally speaking, this may be the least common of the “bad feedback” issues that I see, but it can be crushingly bad feedback. Many, many professors try to force their students to look at the practical dimensions of the project and try to get the students to do less. Almost every professor I ever worked with told me some variation of “do less,” and many students with whom I’ve worked have also been told to try to do less, so I know it’s no rare idea, but some students could really benefit from this advice.

I have two main suggestions here: 1. Get the students to reduce the scope of their project if possible and reasonable, and 2. Explicitly focus on the practical dimensions as a reason to make the project smaller in order to reduce the emotional impact of being told to do less. Some students take on too much work because their professors are not guiding them to a project of a reasonable scope; other students take on too much work because they are focused on creating the best intellectual work possible without sufficient attention to the practical concerns.

Set reasonable practical expectations for the study’s completion. Don’t encourage a project that will take many years! Don’t encourage something too far beyond the student’s abilities and experience. These seem like common sense, but I want to shake every dissertation advisor who ever encouraged a student to pursue a mixed-methods study regardless of that student’s inexperience in carrying out and completing a single-method study. There are students who are capable of doing a good mixed-methods study as a dissertation, and for whom it really makes sense. But, despite the value of mixed-methods research, it’s not good for dissertation writers who would struggle to carry out a single-method study. Almost everything that needs to be done for a single methods study needs to be done twice for a mixed-methods study.

In my previous post on advice for dissertation advisors, I said to focus on clearly defining the research purpose and research question because poorly defined questions were a major hurdle. For obvious reasons, research questions are a double hurdle for a mixed-methods study, where a research question needs to be defined for each method individually and also with respect to the purpose of the larger project. If a student can’t clearly define one research question, and doesn’t know how to align a research question with a research method, then trying to do a mixed-methods study will only muddy the waters, even granting that the two individual methods are being used together to illuminate a single larger question. If completing one study well is hard, completing two research studies simultaneously in a way that they do a good job of complementing and supporting each other is a lot harder.

Another problem that I see too often is students trying to do a quantitative study that requires the development of their own instrument. This can be fine, if expectations for checking the quality of the instrument are low, but that reduces the value of the research. But doing all the work to validate and check reliability of a quantitative instrument can be a full project in itself—indeed commonly used instruments typically go through many different tests, each of which is a project of sufficient scope to be a dissertation. Again, there are students who are able to do all this, but for students who are struggling, you can help them by getting them to either find an established instrument, or to focus on the design and testing of a new instrument.

There are important pragmatic concerns that may be obvious, but may be worth making explicit. Pointing out that a ten-year longitudinal study wouldn’t be good for a dissertation might help a student decide to focus on shorter-term questions. This concern for practical dimension is also an issue of emotional guidance. A lot of students are ambitious and they want to answer large-scale, meaningful questions, and when professors suggest smaller projects, the students feel a sense of loss because of the desire to answer something larger. Choosing to work on a very limited project can feel like a betrayal of ambition.

The emotional impact of suggesting a reduction of scope can often be reduced by focusing on and asking about the project in practical terms—what steps/actions will they take? How long will that take? What will they do if that takes longer than planned? Highlighting the real practical costs of a project can both reduce the distress related to reducing scope and, when combined with specific pragmatic questions, can help them make incremental progress in defining their project. If you focus on the practical dimensions, you may not even need to say “make the project smaller,” because they’ll start to face their own limitations as they proceed. A student who starts thinking about waiting for the completion of a longitudinal study might think again, and a student thinking of recruiting thousands, might wonder if there’s a study that would work with only hundreds, or dozens. Of course, facing one’s own limitations can be frustrating and disappointing, so it’s not out of line to remind students that all research is limited by practical concerns.

Research requires real, practical resources—time, money, effort, equipment, and more—and graduate students rarely have those in great abundance. Economic resources should not become the barrier that prevents a qualified and capable student from completing a dissertation. Focusing on these practical dimensions can help students better define a project they can complete in a reasonable time and can reduce the emotional sting of reducing the scope of inquiry.

Missing targets, again

It’s not that long since I wrote a previous post about missing targets, to talk about the lesser importance of missing a specific deadline or target when compared to the much greater importance of developing and maintaining a regular practice of writing.  I wrote that previous post in the context of being several days late on my planned schedule of posting to my blog each Monday.  But the last time I posted a new post was on October 3 (or October 4, if I count my repost from the TAAOnline blog), so I’ve missed my targets by a much greater mark—an even greater failure with respect to those targets.

The thing is, what do I do about it?  I can’t go back in time and post something on Monday, October 8 or Monday, October 15, as would be in accord with my plan of posting each Monday.  My answer–which will probably not be surprising—is that the best response I can have is to get back to my practice of writing to try to produce material for my next post, which, ideally, would be posted by Monday, October 22. As I am writing this on October 21, there’s a good chance that I will, in fact, get back on my planned schedule of posting each Monday.  And I am optimistic that I will be able to keep that schedule in the future, though perhaps with occasional interruptions.  Getting back on track after missing a target allows each individual failure to be washed out by the weight of each time I do meet a target.  Missing two targets feels bad. Missing two targets out of 20, for example, doesn’t feel as bad.

It happens that the cause of my missing my blog target was that I was working toward another target, that I also missed.  I was writing the index of a book that will be out this spring, and that happened to be a big enough and difficult enough task that I missed my target for it: I had said I would be done by the 17th, and I didn’t finish and submit the index until the 19th.  The stakes of that project are much higher than the stakes of my blog post, in the sense that there are people who really care that the index gets done on time: the book’s author and publisher. At the same time, however, the missed target needs to be kept in perspective: the author may have been disappointed, but he is more pleased to have it done—we went over the index together on Friday and he seemed generally pleased, despite its limitations.  I have no direct feedback on how the publisher views the delay, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to prevent publication by the planned release date (in February of 2019).

When I had missed my target, I was certainly upset that I had missed it. But I also kept my focus on the project: I did not let missing the target keep me from making progress, and that was key in limiting the scope of my failure.  As an amateur musician, I have been thinking about this in comparison to playing music: one key skill a musician needs to learn in order to sound good to other people is the skill of continuing to play despite a mistake.  A single note/chord that is misplayed—whether by playing the wrong note or by playing at the wrong time—can be almost invisible (inaudible) to an audience as long as the rhythm is kept steady. The skill that the performer needs is to be able to stay on rhythm after playing a wrong note. Skilled musicians—professionals far above my skill level—make mistakes, but they keep playing, and we, the audience, may never even notice that they made an error. Inexperienced musicians, on the other hand, often become flustered by an error and they stop playing. And that—the larger break in the rhythm—is obvious to everyone.  The inexperienced musician focuses on the error, and loses the rhythm as a result. The experienced musician keeps focused on what comes next, and as a result, continues playing and the single miss gets washed away.

So what do you do if you miss a target?  Keep focused on where you’re trying to go; keep focused on the ideas you need to express and the audience you want to reach.  One missed target is only one spot in the larger fabric of your life. Keep your attention on the fabric that you want to weave in the future, not the flaw that happened in the past.

Having just finished the index of a soon-to-be-published book, I want to mention that book, and promote it, because I think it’s an excellent book, and I’m really very proud that I was able to help create it.  It’s called American Sutra, and it was written by Professor Duncan Williams of the University of Southern California. I hope that it is received with the enthusiasm I think it deserves.  It’s a book about Japanese American Buddhists and the discrimination they faced during the World War II era, which bring up many issues of religious discrimination (and combined racial-religious discrimination) that are relevant in the present day. It will be released in February, 2019, on what is known as the “Day of Remembrance” in the Japanese American community—February, 19—the anniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which created the legal framework for the incarceration without cause of over 100,000 American citizens and resident aliens (many of whom would have become citizens if not for laws that prevented Asians from gaining citizenship).

Advice for Dissertation Advisors 2: Focus on Problem Definition

This is reposted from the TAAOnline blog.

Defining a good research question is crucial to developing a successful research project, and it is no easy task. For some, defining a good question comes easily, but for many, especially doctoral candidates who may have never developed their own research project before, it is a great hurdle. And, as I suggested in the previous post, if the research purpose and question aren’t defined, then there’s no point in your looking at other stuff: if your student hasn’t defined the research purpose clearly, they’ll have trouble making progress.

A good definition of research question or purpose is not only crucial, it’s usually really easy for a reader to find in skimming through a paper. Most drafts have several sentences that say things like “the purpose of this research is…” and “the research question is…”. These sentences need to be clear, and they need to agree with each other (multiple conflicting statements of purpose can often be found in early drafts of research). One of the first things I look for when I read a draft is a clear statement of purpose. If a draft looks problematic—poorly edited or shows other obvious signs of weakness—I’ll almost immediately limit my review to skimming in search of any statements of purpose.

Often, there will be several statements of purpose in any given draft of research writing: the abstract states the purpose of the work, as does the beginning of the introduction. Many introductions include a statement of the problem and a statement of the significance, which are a pair of related statements about purpose. And then there are research questions, which are defined by how they respond to the intended purpose. If these several statements aren’t coherent, or don’t suggest a coherent and practical research project, feedback needs to start there, with the foundational stuff. Spend your time explaining the problems and offering suggestions on refining and focusing the research project into one single task that is enough for a research project. If you’re doubting the quality of the work, skim for such statements, and if they don’t all line up, focus your effort on getting a clear statement of purpose.

Students who have not done their own research before often try to stick many related but distinct questions into one study. It’s pretty easy to slide between distinct but related facets of one project, especially if one has limited experience setting up a research project.When faced with some problem or phenomenon, they shift between asking about causes, asking about impacts, and asking about responses. All three of these things are reasonable areas for study, of course, but they are also disparate areas of research. To study causes of poor educational outcomes, for example, different data and different analyses are required than to study the effects of poor educational outcomes or ways to improve poor educational outcomes.

For students who are aiming at professional careers—educators, clinicians, etc.,—such ideas naturally work together to address the practical concern for responding to some real-world phenomenon. An educator quite naturally might think about the causes, effects, and possible responses to poor educational outcomes as part of the same problem because from the perspective of a professional practice, they are part of the same problem. But from a researcher’s perspective, they are quite distinct, and many students benefit from having those distinctions made clear. Viewing the different dimensions as part of an integral whole is a great view for a professional practice, which can create a strong emotional attachment to addressing all the issues. But it’s a lousy practical approach to research, especially when the researcher running the project is a student who has never before completed an independent research project, so it’s good to force focus. To get over that kind of resistance, it might be effective to tell them to try to focus on one aspect as a first step to defining the larger array of issues. Once students start to see the complexity involved in researching the single dimension, they start to appreciate the need to leave out the other issues.

Checking for consistent and useful statements of purpose can be an effective tool to review documents quickly. Those that have conflicting statements of purpose can get feedback on narrowing their focus without having to wade through details of a project. Keep in mind that if they redefine the purpose, a good deal of the rest of the material will also need to be rewritten, which means that effort spent giving feedback on the body of a work with poorly defined purpose may be wasted.

Often, I see feedback that is grossly inefficient, both in terms of helping the student learn and in terms of saving the professor time. Most often this is feedback that focuses on grammar instead of examining and critiquing the focus and purpose of the work. An example of this that I recently saw was a student’s methods chapter draft for which the professor’s feedback had been that it needed better sentence structure and paragraph structure before higher-level feedback could be given. The professor had read the whole draft and commented in many places on a 25-page draft. It must have taken at least an hour, if not twice that, to do all that reading and to make all those comments. But in the first two pages there were obvious problems with the hypotheses. As soon as I saw that, it gave me a clue of what else to look for and I quickly found large chunks of the chapter really belonged in the literature review. Bad definition of the hypotheses (i.e., the research questions) led to bad choice of content. These problems were much more pressing than the grammatical problems, which were no more than one would expect in any early draft (it was far from perfect, but it was not hard to read). In this case, by focusing on the problems with the hypotheses (which are an expression of the researcher’s purpose), big problems with the study’s foundations were identified.”

Until a sense of purpose is clear and research questions well defined, there is little need to attend to other aspects of a project, so if you’re looking to save time, you benefit from starting with the statement(s) of purpose. Skipping the details of a project with a poorly defined purpose isn’t a failure to give students the attention they deserve, it’s giving attention to the top priorities. And, from the perspective of the student, although it might be difficult to hear that the project is not well defined, focusing attention on defining the research purpose and questions can help avoid many pitfalls that graduate students fall into (especially the trap of trying to read everything ever published). Save time by focusing on getting the purpose and question right before looking at other stuff.