Thursday, December 20, 2018

Shake, shake, shake

I've been thinking a lot about the topics broached in the last post, and how we learn the darnedest things without realizing it. Get into the habit, as it were. The darnedest of these habits is the one where you are expected to give a too full account of yourself - covering every aspect that may or may not be relevant to what's going on.

Academia in particular fosters this kind of habit, in a very explicit fashion. When writing anything larger than a paper, you have to describe your methodology down to the nuts and bolts, and then evaluate the merits of the chosen brands of bolts against other brands. It is all very down to the wire and very literal - no obfuscation or ambiguity is allowed. Everything has to be explained, and it has to be explained well.

Part of this comes down to the scientific method, and the importance placed on being able to replicate results of previous efforts. Like recipes, they becomes easier to follow when the steps are clearly laid out in a straightforward manner. But another, I suspect more important, part of it is that it's become a habit which is (pun very much intended) habitually applied even when scientific exactitude is not on the line. It keeps going even outside the specific domains wherein it is a virtue.

Thus, we often see young academics spring into action writing in public about past thinkers with alacrity. Five posts into the new blog, they are grappling with the significance of semicolons in Derrida or the travails of making sense of the few remaining pre-Socratic fragments in context. Which is all very interesting, to be sure, but it is also way too specific, too explicit - too much in the vein of giving an account of oneself and justifying one's claim to be an academic. As if failing to live up to the implicit academic ideal would disqualify one's efforts and forever cement a reputation of being a fraud, a know-nothing, an amateur. It's all or nothing, and "all" includes lengthy and explicit accounts of whatever one happens to be doing at the moment.

If this sounds very much like impostor syndrome, it's because that's what it is.

That academics in particular fall into this habit more often than others is no accident. It goes with the territory: introductory courses demand that you show you've read the literature, with intermediary courses demanding more of it, and theses being a culmination of expository discourse. At every step of the way, you have to prove yourself, justifying each and every sentence. Down to the semicolon.

It is a very difficult habit to shake indeed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Shaking the habit

As I am ever faster approaching the end of my time as a master student, I naturally become more reflective of times past. Not only because these times are soon to be irrevocably over for my part, but also because others are bound to begin the same journey soon enough. It's an integral aspect of institutionalized education - there have been others before you, and there will be others after you. The show doth go on.

Part of this process is seeing young ones (they do get younger every year) enter into university life and encountering everything for the first time. And second time. And a lot of times until they, probably, hopefully, possibly get it. Or get a degree, whichever comes first. Their path is as personal as it is predictable - first comes the obstacle of getting into reading, then the obstacle of getting into writing, and somewhere along the way it all translates into getting into thinking. One step at a time, until either understanding or degree undergoes the formality of actually occurring.

I don't say this to imply that bachelors leave with a partial understanding of whatever field they've studied. Everyone has a partial understanding of everything - the world is to big for it to be otherwise. Rather, what I mean to imply is that there are habits that one gets into that one does not necessarily get out of. The most prominent of these habits is to write in the way that is demanded by the university system - particularly, in a way that shows you have actually read the literature on the syllabus. It is an easy habit to get into, seeing as it keeps graders off your back. However, it takes work to get out of this habit once the need for it has passed.

Like, say, after graduation.

The reasons for teaching such a style of writing are many, but most of them relate to a vaguely protestant notion of having Performed the Work. Thus, it is routinely demanded that students include page numbers whenever they refer to an author, rather than just make the reference in general. The only way to actually have a page number on hand, it is assumed, is if you have the opened and read book right there in front of you. This goes for every reference at all times, meaning that writing becomes an bibliographically exhausting (not to be confused with exhaustive) effort - every time an author is mentioned, there has to be a page number to go along with it. To show that you indeed read the book.

If you at this point are having flashbacks to your university days, I apologize.

Thing is. Unless you are doing heavy duty exegesis where every word has to be read and understood in context, there is no reason to write like this outside of the educational setting. It is sufficient to give an account of what the author wrote, get the year of publication right, and move along with whatever argument you are trying to make. Especially if you are trying to tie several authors' lines of thought together - the overall thrust of your discursive momentum is sufficient to give context to your writing, and the addition (or, as the case might be, subtraction) of page numbers will not substantially contribute anything.

The same tendency can be seen, albeit writ large, in comprehensive introductions which mention every author in the field before getting to the topic at hand. This is an excellent writing strategy if you need to convey that you have read about a number of theories and can place them in a proper context. It is a less than excellent strategy if you want to write a compelling introduction which gets right to the heart of things.

There are a number of these habits that gets drilled into you during your university years. Most of them are there to make you easier to evaluate (and subsequently grade), others are accidental. Some are even useful. The key to moving forward is to take a look at oneself and assess which habits still serve a purpose, which have to be unlearned, and which have to be kept in a state of being just remembered enough so that you can give useful advice to new students upon encountering them. The goal, of course, being to nudge these young fellows toward the habit of thinking, rather than settling for a habit of performing.

The show doth go on.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Getting ahead, one leg at a time

There are three different ways of going about riding a bike.

The most intuitive way is to give it your all and effort to maintain maximum speed, Tour de France style, where it is all muscle all the time. Full speed ahead, legs thumping and whooshing. Oontz oontz oontz oontz. Faster, harder, overtake that Scooter. This usually occurs when you are in a hurry to get somewhere, want the exercise, or simply have not thought too hard about how to go about biking.

Then there is the economical way, where you effort just enough to get the bike into enough sufficiently sustained momentum that you can move forward without additional input. Just keep on rolling, maybe lean forward a bit, until more power is required. Then repeat the process as many times as necessary, alternating between building momentum and effortlessly moving forward. Eventually, you'll get where you are going, minimum effort style.

And then there is the low-speed high effort method, where you effort just enough to get moving, but not enough to actually move at sustained speed, and thus have to continually apply leg power to move at a crawl. Friction and gravity keeps on slowing down the bike to such an extent that every pedal push becomes akin to the initial oomph to transition from standstill to motion. Previous efforts do not accumulate or help you sustain momentum, and every iota of speed has to be reestablished anew every step along the way.

At this point, you might be asking yourself - is this some sort of metaphor for life in general, where the different modes of biking represent different approaches to everyday activities and how to approach them? Or, possibly also, different states of mind that a person might slip into as they go about doing the thing called being alive?

To which I say: yes. Yes it is.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

An analytical poke

Every now and again I come to think of the big disconnect between the act of performing rhetorical communication and rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical communication happens any time you strategically choose your words to get someone to do something (from passing the salt to approving a bank loan). Rhetorical analysis is the act of looking really closely at some sort of rhetorical communication and analyzing what's going on in it. The communication usually happens very fast, and the analysis very slowly. That's the disconnect.

The disconnect is, of course, inevitable. An analysis has to perform many tasks, and be explicit about most of them. It has to provide context, justify the significance of the communicative act under analysis, and describe it in sufficient detail to convey to readers what's going on. This takes quite a number of words, even if only performed with the minimum of surplus verbiage. Even after subsequent revisions with the explicit intent to reduce word count, there will by necessity be a substantial amount of words to it. It goes with the territory.

The communicative act, on the other hand, only has to do what it set out to do. Once done, it's over, and other things can commence. In trivial cases, it literally takes seconds - the salt is passed. In other cases, it can take a bit longer, but tends to be limited by the physical constraints of the human body. A speech can only be so long. All said and done, other things happen. Life goes on.

Thus, analyses tend to end up being much ado about seemingly nothing. On first glance, you might wonder how it is even possible to write thousands of words about something that takes seconds to perform. Then you dig into it and discover that there's a lot going on in that one moment, which indeed needed all those words to unpack. Worse, you begin to look at similar situations for similar implications - the analysis continues inside you. Further communicative acts require at least some thought before they become routine again.

The power of rhetorical analysis lies in this disconnect. A good analysis will disconnect you from a situation, and then force you to reconnect to it in a new way. You think you knew what's going on, but looking back on it you realize that, no, there's more to it. Your perspective has changed, and so you must pay attention to the differences made visible. You have permission to be perturbed.

In all this, life goes on. But you still have to reconnect.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Active listening by the numbers

I like hearing mathematicians talk about doing math things. Usually I do not follow along, but it's nice to listen to. The [name] algorithm passed through the [name] filter and then cleaned up through the [name] process. It all makes sense to someone, probably.

There are different ways to approach discourse you do not understand. One is to simply throw up your hands and declare you do not understand any of it. Sometimes, this is in fact the most useful approach - radical honesty and all that.

Another approach is to take what you do understand and try to parse it using available data. If we know that, in math, procedures are often named after those who formulate them, we can gather that each time a name is mentioned, some sort of procedure is brought into the context. The names themselves do not matter as much as the courses of action they connote; they are shorthand for what to do and how to go about it.

This does not make the specifics any clearer, to be sure. But when someone objects "but what about the [name] conjecture?", you are now clued in to the fact that there is something amiss with the proposed course of action, which needs to be addressed. The content of this objection is unknown, but the form of it is clear. Whatever comes next - be it an "oh, but the [name] postulate solves that" or a heartfelt "shit shit shit shit shit" - your act of active listening has provided you with some insight into what's going on.

The same goes for any context. There are always two conversations going on at any given time, where one might be more prominent than the other. There is the factual conversation where specifics are tossed around left and right, where knowing what's what helps tremendously. These facts are timeless, and can be grappled with later on, on their own terms. There is also a very time-sensitive conversation going on in the now, where everything is specific to the very moment it is happening. This is the realm of moods, postures, physical positioning within the room, hierarchy - everything that affects a situation without necessarily being explicitly mentioned by anyone involved.

Needless to say, the fact that it goes without saying does not mean it is unimportant.

There is an ideal out there that conversations ought to take place solely in terms of the first conversation. Putting ideas against each other and all that. It has the merit of being an ideal, but as an analytic approach to actual social situations, it leaves out too many relevant aspects to generate useful insight. The "shit shit shit" response above might be a response to the fact that the [name] conjecture makes the thing difficult to perform, but it might also be a response to the fact that the person in question was planning on going home early that day, and just had that very plan dashed to pieces right there and then. Merely thinking in terms of content leaves out the very real life implications of form.

Be sure to keep both ears open as you move through life. Arguments are very seldom about the things they are about, and there are cases where losing the argument in the first kind of conversation means winning in the second. You just have to know to listen for it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Universal literacy and you

Every once in a while, I remind people that writing (and reading) is a technology. This might seem an obvious point, but it has a series of non-obvious implications. One of the most important implications is that no one is born literate, and everyone has to attain it somehow. Writing is not an intrinsic ability of human beings, but a technology that can be mastered through practice. There is no natural age at which literacy occurs; it's all culture.

If you consider this in the context of education, the implications become slightly more tangible. Especially with regards to standardized education, where everyone is supposed to achieve the same goals at the same time. On the one hand, there are organizational and administrative reasons for having a system like that; standardization brings interoperability and routine. On the other hand, it is easy to over time begin to view the goals as natural stages of development. By age x, the standardized child is supposed to know a, by age y b, and so on. Performance becomes both expected and measurable.

The thing about technologies is that they are not one size fits all. Like clothing (another technology), it fits differently on different bodies. Some can just put it on, no big deal, while others have to struggle to even get an elbow in. Everybody is different, and expecting everyone to conform to the same standards becomes something of a contradiction in terms. Or, to invoke Foucault, a power tool.

Literacy has the advantage of having a high adoption rate. A large proportion of everyone can attain some basic level of literacy with effort, enough to process the written word for functional purposes. A high adoption rate is still less than 100%, however, and there will inevitably be those who for various reasons are simply not cut out for it. Not because of personal defects or lack of effort, but because that's how statistics work. Even at an adoption rate of 99%, there will be a sizable number of non-adopters. By feat of statistics, the illiterate walk among us.

To be sure, this is not an either/or issue. There are a significant number of dyslectics in the world, who can do the reading but have to effort for it. This is a result of the same process; the technology simply does not sit right with how their bodies work.

By reminding people that writing is a technology, I perform the slightly violent act of recontextualizing illiterate persons from deficient to unfortunate. Being illiterate in a society which expects universal literacy is a massive disadvantage, no two ways about it. If writing is a technology with less than 100% adoption rate, however, those unfortunate souls who end up being born as non-compatible become an expected (indeed inevitable) side-effect of a policy choice, rather than malfunctioning individuals. It is not their fault that one of the major societal technological choices made happened to have the side-effect of excluding them.

Writing is a technology. It is an obvious point, with many non-obvious implications.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The funny side of systematic literature reviews

I find myself thinking about systematic literature reviews these days. It is an unexpected thing to be randomly thinking about, to be sure, so I guess that means I'm officially an academic now. My habitus is augmented.

The quickest way to introduce systematic literature reviews is through a detour to unsystematic literature reviews. The unsystematic approach is easy to grasp: you simply grab a hold of any books or articles that seem relevant and start reading. At the other end of the reading process, you know more than you did before. This is generally a good way to go about learning (especially if you have a nice local library to draw from), and should not be underestimated.

It is not, however, systematic.

The lack of systematicity is something of a problem, though. Not to the learning process, mind, but to the performative aspect of being an academic. It is not cool or hip to say that you've read a lot of books and keep tabs on new articles in your field, and thus know a thing or two. This is not the image of a structured, rigorous and disciplined scientific mind that academia wants to project (both to itself and to the public), so something has to be done. A system has to be created, to let everyone involved claim that they followed proper procedure and did not leave things to chance. Thus, systematic literature reviews.

Depending on where you are in the process, the systematic approach can take many guises. If you are just learning about science and scientific literature, having a system in place to guide you through the reading is immensely helpful. It gives permission to look at a search result of 2931 articles and cut it down to a more manageable number. If it is a robust system, it specifies that search engines giveth what you asketh, and that you probably should be more specific in your search. Moreover, knowing which questions to ask the articles beforehand gives a structure to the reading, and allows for paying closer attention to the important parts. And so on, through all the steps. Having a template to follow answers a lot of questions, even if you find yourself deviating from it.

When you've been at being an academic for a while, the presence of an adopted system can shield you from the burden of overreading. There are always more books and articles than can be readily read, and every text ever written can be criticized on the basis of not taking something into account. By using the system, the age-old question of "why did you choose to include these texts but not these other texts" can finally be put to rest. The systematic literature review unburdens the load by defining exactly which texts are relevant and which are not. And thus, the rigorous and disciplined reading can commence, conscience clear.

Next up the abstraction ladder, we find another use of these systematic reviews. When research has to be summarized and administrated, it simply will not do to go with something as unscientific as a gut feeling. The scientists involved might know what's what, but this intricate insider knowledge is not easily translated into something outsiders can partake of. Outsiders, such as the non-scientist bureaucrats put in place to administrate the funding mechanisms that determine which research efforts are awarded grants and which do not. By strategically employing review systems that include desired results (and exclude undesired results), funding can be directed in certain directions under the guise of impartial systematicity. Administrators (or their superiors) can claim all the academic benefits of rigorously following the method laid out for all to see, while at the same time subtly steering research efforts without having to be explicit about it. It is systematic, disciplined and impartial, whilst also being ruthlessly political.

The key takeaway here is not that systematic literature reviews are bad (problematic, maybe, but not bad). Rather, it is a reminder that the presence of a system does not in itself guarantee a robust outcome. Like all methodologies, there are strengths and weaknesses to consider in each particular case, sometimes more obvious than not. When a systematic review finds that only articles published by (say) economists are relevant to a particular issue, despite decades of scholarly publishing on the subject on other disciplines, the issue is not a lack of systematicity, but too much of it. A flawless execution of review methodology does not preclude asking what is up with such unrepresentative results.

I find it amusing that strategic and rhetorical dimensions of academia are obscured by reference to systematicity and specialized vocabulary (the terminology surrounding systematic literature reviews is something to behold). Not least because academics are the very people best positioned to problematize the living bejeezus out of just these kinds of subtle processes.

It's funny that way.