Featured Post

Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Clay or Granite?

[Merry Christmas, for those of you who celebrate that. SMT will be going on hiatus until New Year's. Temporarily hiding comments too.]

Do you mold your ideas out modeling clay, or do you cut away the unnecessary parts from a solid mass of granite?

I prefer the first method, since it's less complicated, but often I find myself with a massive stone that I need to carve. In other words, an inchoate document with thousands of words concealing an article that needs to be written. In that case sometimes I just start over with a clean version containing only the actual sentences that say something intelligible.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deadline Disassociation

I picked up the term "deadline disassociation" from this post by Cal Newport.

DD means that you don't work backwards from the deadline, but forwards from when you get the assignment. CN recommends starting a college assignment within 24 hours after it is assigned, rather than 24 hours (or less) before it is due.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

T'ang Dynasty

The T'ang dynasty, the greatest period of Chinese classical poetry, was 618 through 907. A T'ang dynasty writing session last from 6:18 a.m. to 9:07, or approximately that much. If you are an early riser then you can get all your writing done by shortly after 9, and then have the rest of the day to live your life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Productive Boredom

We think of interest as being productive but not boredom. Curiosity is productive, but not incuriosity, we think, and rightly so.

Yet a dissatisfaction about the dull way things are habitually done can be productive. Boredom is like pain, it tells us that something is wrong and requires a change. After all, if we don't think the materials we are studying are dull, then something is wrong if our approaches have no spark of interest.

Very dull texts can also be mines of interest, if looked at in the right way. I'm thinking of things like Rousel's long poem La vue, with its interminably flat descriptions. These evoked the interest of Foucault, Ashbery, and Robbe-Grillet.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some Things a Thesis Isn't

A thesis is not a list of themes. (A thesis is the statement of a claim, not a list.)

A thesis is not a statement of intention. ("In this paper I will explore the relation between Lorca and Andalusia.")

A thesis is not a list of five or six minor claims.

A thesis should not be an obvious or self-evident statement. It must be arguable in two senses. Someone, potentially, might disagree with it: "That's an arguable proposition, sir." And you can make an argument for it.

It must be novel and distinctive: not present already in the critical literature. It can't be the same thesis as that of any other scholar.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nickel Words and Dollar Words

I would never advocate dumbing down your prose by avoiding "big words." Nevertheless, an avalanche of excessively latinate verbiage can have an obfuscatory effect on your potential interlocutors as well as being downright ugly. I would never say not to use a dollar word where a nickel word would do, but I would say that you should calibrate your vocabulary for precision and rhetorical efficacy. One common problem is the use of too many words ending in -ize or -ization.

One problem is that people use "big words" without knowing what they mean, confusing desultory with derogatory. Throwing verbiage at a problem is like throwing money at it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Have you ever been really tired when all you've done is attend pointless meetings where you did not have to do very much, or wait for a plane, or wait around for other people to do things so you can complete the next step of a process? You can expend energy in those activities; you might even call them work, if they are part of your day at work and more or less mandatory. You are tired afterwords, yet you did not even try to get anything done. You are not tired from working, but from not working, which is extremely wearisome. You could say: "I did not work very hard today, and as a consequence I am very tired."

In contrast, you might write for two hours first thing in the morning and not feel tired at all. If you are doing it right, you might have even more energy for the rest of the day to go out guiltlessly and do other things unrelated to your writing. It might sound like heresy, but you do not need to be mentally fatigued and emotionally spent after writing for a few hours.

If you sleep well, then you will be well-rested and be ready to write the next day. There is no point in bragging about how over-worked you are, so much that you are losing sleep. That's like boasting about not being able to work, since chances are that your work after an unrestful night will not go as well. When I am sleep-deprived I barely get through the day, through the classes I have to teach, and nothing more. Nothing to brag about.


A related point:: if you exercise for an hour, you will more energy, rather than less, the rest of the day. The exercise will not tire you out physically the way waiting in an airport will. Fatigue comes more from not exercising or from overdoing it. After exercising, rest is more restful.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Feast or Famine

"Feast or famine" is a colloquial expression in English referring to events irregularly distributed in time. Feast or famine writers get very little done most weeks and months, but have periods of two or three days when they try to make up for what they haven't done. They realize they are up for tenure and try to write three or four extra articles all at once. This does not work.

Their scholarly base might be very strong; they might spend a lot of time reading and very little time writing. The problem is that a feast or two does not make up for the lean times when nothing gets done. These are the writers with huge gaps in their cvs.

Friday, December 17, 2010

SMT--The Book (Introduction)

This is a book for everyone who wants to get something written within the academic world--and beyond. It will not replace more complete guides to grammar or time management; it is not a style guide like The Chicago Manual or a treatise on research methodology, or a defense of the humanities. It includes ideas and tips on many of these topics, but not in particularly systematic form. Stupid Motivational Tricks consists of a selection of blog posts in a few categories, ranging from the scholarly base and "scholarly self-fashioning" to task management.

I am a moderately successful academic in a Spanish and Portuguese Department of a mid-Western University. One thing I have been able to do with more than moderate success is to publish books and articles and become a recognized scholar in my field. My tips might be more useful for scholars in the Humanities, but I believe many of them have wider applicability. I have learned quite a bit from one of the other authors of the blog, Thomas Basbøll, a poet and scholar of organization theory working in Denmark, despite the differences in our academic training. Perhaps because of these differences. Some of my tips might be relevant to other kinds of work, whether or not it is academic or even writing. My other sometime blog collaborator, Bob Basil, shares my background in academic humanities and, like Thomas, teaches in a business school. I'd like to emphasize what academic writing shares with other types of effective communication rather than what makes it unique.

This book is informed by own distinctive approach and sensibility, my own sense of humor and propensity to outrage. While my quirky writerly voice might not be congenial to everyone, I believe my core principles are valid ones. Develop and maintain your scholarly base, intelligently manage your time and space, refine your prose style, and get to work.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Limits of Agreement

I try to maintain a good equilibrium between the comfort and consolation of the confirmation of my beliefs and the stimulation offered in debate and disagreement. When people agree with me or tell me I am right, especially people I respect, it creates a warm feeling. On the other hand, when someone disagrees, it helps me to clarify my own thoughts.

What is the origin of the disagreement?

(1) I have not expressed myself clearly.

(2) I have been clear, but my interlocutor has substituted a less nuanced version of my argument and is disagreeing with that.

(3) The interlocutor has understood my argument completely, but will not accept it because s/he simply believes a countervailing claim is stronger. Or it might be a case where the disagreement comes down to irreducible appeals to individual differences in temperament, taste...

(4) I was clearly wrong and someone is setting me straight.

(5) My interlocutor simply has such a strong stake in a particular position, that s/he is not willing to listen.

(6) The disagreer is a defender of the indefensible: plagiarism, racism, piracy on the high seas...

(7) The disagreer is arguing in bad faith, acting as a concern troll or "Kent Johnson."

This is not an exhaustive list, but it will do for now. In cases 1-4, disagreement is productive (the way a cough can be "productive") in producing the clarification of claims and opinions. In the last three situations, disagreement is an unproductive irritant rather than a stimulation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Certain fields have barriers for entry. To do what I do, for example, I have to be able to speak and write Spanish at a high level. I see this as a barrier because it is simply a given. Since it's something I share with everyone else in my field, it doesn't set me off from the crowd. (Nevertheless, there are Hispanists who haven't mastered certain details of phonology yet; so maybe it's not a barrier to entry. In the UK Hispanists did not [traditionally] speak Spanish well though that has changed considerably in the past generation) I wish I had even more mastery of the language than I do, but it hasn't held me back.

The high-wire artist has to be able to stay on the wire. Whatever other tricks she can perform in theory or on the ground don't mean anything without that one skill.

The barrier is not a trivial one. Suppose I wanted to be a Sinologist but didn't want to memorize endless characters, or be a musicologist without knowledge of harmony. I might even have interesting ideas about the T'ang dynasty or about music, but I wouldn't be taken seriously. That's the medium in which experts in the field have to swim. (Water polo players have to learn to swim first; hockey players, to skate.)

It's a complex question, because the barrier to entry can get confused with competence in the field. A "heritage speaker" might face discrimination in a Spanish Department. Or a minor flaw in phonology might disqualify a candidate who is otherwise superior.

It's difficult to enforce a high level of writing among Spanish majors. Since we don't view undergraduates as (potential) colleagues, we don't accord them the respect of demanding a minimal standard of writing in the Spanish language. If we demanded that level, then we would be effectively creating a barrier to entry into the major itself, or spending all our time teaching syntax and never really getting to the content of the literature and culture courses.

The English major can do a backflip on the ground; the Spanish major has to do it on the high-wire. We are constantly having to say: "that would have been a good flip, had you not fallen off the wire."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Orwell's Passives

The subject of Orwell's dislike of the passive voice has been covered at Language Log extensively, so I won't cover the topic at length. Orwell himself uses the passive voice quite a bit in his own essay. He cheerfully admits that he breaks his own rules, but does not draw the logical conclusion from this.

The passive voice is one of the main shibboleths of a certain kind of composition teacher, one who has seen too many badly written papers that tend, also, to use the passive voice. I never use the passive when the active is better; nevertheless, I also try to never use the active voice when the passive might be preferable. Does the passive obscure agency? Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't. Most people who hate the passive for that reason give examples like "It hasn't happened yet." The only problem is that this sentence happens to be in the active voice. Not all sentences that obscure agency are in the passive, and not all uses of the passive voice obscure agency, since you can add the phrase "by the agent" at the end of the sentence.

What the passive allows is for a shift in information structure. Sometimes, you don't need to put the agent first, as subject of the sentence. "This bridge was put up in 1938." Who put it up? We don't care; the point is the bridge and when it was built, not the names of the bridge-builders.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Introductions & Theses

I had a colleague once (someone I no longer work with and who will not be identified here) who told me that an ex-spouse had looked at an introductory paragraph and said, "That's not a proper introduction, try again." My colleague tried again and was told the same thing, etc... My colleague, in fact, could not write an introduction, though I did not say this in the conversation. No wonder it was an ex-spouse!


I was visiting professor 10 years ago at a university I won't name. The Graduate Students in my course were supposed to turn in a thesis, and only one out of a class of 10 could do it, write a thesis that was acceptable to me. Many articles I review for journals do not have an arguable thesis.


I learned to write introductions and theses in High School. These are basic skills that should be acquired before college, and yet colleagues and aspiring scholars have not always mastered them.

A thesis is the central claim that the article will demonstrate. You should be able to express it in a single sentence of about 30 words. It has to be broad-ranging and significant in its implications, and yet highly specific. It cannot be simply self-evident. Vagueness is fatal.


Suppose I think that the narrator of a novel is paranoid. That's an insight or the germ of one. So let's build a thesis out of this.

(1) The narrator of Over the Hills and Through the Forest is paranoid.

That's not a good thesis yet, because it looks like an isolated insight without any significance. Let's try again.

(2) Since Raimundo Pera was writing during the Patagonian dictatorship of 1934-36, he chose to use a paranoid narrator in Over the Hills and Through the Forest to reflect the general aura of paranoia experienced during this period.

Here the thesis reflects the relationship between two phenomena. That's better. Let's imagine the finished paper, though: the writer is likely to establish some background about the political situation and then go on to talk about the paranoid narrator. Boring. The writer holds to a very naive theory about how literature reflects society.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Page is Never Blank

For the scholarly writer, the page can never be blank. There is always some reading, some research, some thought, that precedes the act of writing. Once the page is not blank, then the process of writing becomes one of modifying, revising, what is already there on the pages or on the screen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Meetings & Email

Suppose there's a meeting of 15 people (departmental faculty, for example) earning an average of $35 an hour plus benefits. That's a $750 dollar meeting. By skipping this meeting and putting this time to more productive use I'm actually saving my university a lot of money!


I kind of wish my employer would not bombard me with emails all day long. They are different sorts of email, from different units on campus; some are vacuous feel-good messages from the Chancellor or Provost; some are actually useful invitations; some are necessary requests to fill in some legal form. I get the calendar of events every week--something available on the university web page. The department secretary will forward a message to the entire department. Maybe one in ten of these messages is something I really need to see. The economic cost of everyone in the university sorting through all these mass emails every day is not insignificant. Sure, it's 10 seconds here and ten seconds here, but it adds up to a chunk of change at the end of the day. So why am I wasting time writing this post? By clarifying these issues to myself I can come up with solutions, like turning off my email when I want to get something done.

Also, the larger picture is that the employer should not make the employee feel he's working by just opening up emails and deciding whether they are relevant or not. That is work that is not at all productive for teaching, research, or service. When I am doing this, I am doing a work-related activity, I am in my office, and engaged in official business, but I am not actually getting anything done. The email actually makes me feel Iike I'm doing something, even when I'm not. They might as well put an obstacle course between the parking lot and the office: that at least would increase employee agility and physical fitness.

In publishing SMT, I feel I am engaged in a sort of scholarship of benefit to other scholars and writers, even if in a very modest way. Even 100 visitors in a day is an audience larger than that of any scholarly publication I have ever written.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Some Jokes

This began as a post on the notion of "the real world" as opposed to academia, but then degenerated into a series of asinine jokes. Stop me if you've heard this one.

"Sure, it works fine in practice, if you like, but will it work in theory?"

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? [practice / theory]

How do you make $1,000,000 in publishing? Start with $10,000,000.

67% of statistics are made-up...

A guy with a split personality went out to eat alone--and asked for separate checks.

All of use are strong enough to withstand the misfortunes of other people. (La Rochefoucauld).

"What do you get if you play a country song backwards?" -- "You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your truck back ..."

An old guy is on his death bed, and asks his wife, tell me one thing, were you every unfaithful to me? "Well, you remember the time you needed a loan for your business, and I went to visit the banker?" Yes... Was that the only time? "Well, you remember when you were running for the president of the condominium association, and you were twenty votes short..."

A linguistics grad student from MIT was moonlighting as cab driver in Boston and picked up a fare at the airport. "Where to, buddy?" "Someplace I can get scrod." 'Huh?" What, haven't you heard that word before." "Sure... but not in perfect subjunctive."

In a linguistics lecture the speaker said "Some languages use a double negative to express a positive, but no language uses a double positive to express a negative." From the back of the lecture hall rose a sarcastic voice saying "Yeah, right."

A guy from [ethnic group deleted] kept a full glass of water and and empty glass beside his bed at night. "One for if I'm thirsty; the other for if I'm not."

How many jazz singers does it take to sing "Summertime"? --All of them.

A guy goes to launder counterfeit money in a small hillbilly town and says, "Do you have change for a 24 dollar bill?" "Sure, do you want 4 sixes or 6 fours?"

A new prisoner arrives at the Gulag and is asked, "What are in for? " "Nothing, can you believe that? Nothing, and I get 15 years." "No that can't be right, you must have done something: nothing is 10 years."

LIttle Ivan is asked in school for the definition of Capitalism. "The exploitation of man by man." And communism? "The reverse."

The owner of a small country store was known for quoting a bible verse whenever a customer came in. If some children came in to buy candy he would say "Suffer the little children to come unto me." A man came in from out of town and aksed for some blankets. "These here are a dollar a piece," he said, showing the stranger some blue blankets. "Do you have any better ones?" he asked. Just a minute, he said, and came back with some green blankets from the back room, identical to the first in everything but color. "These are five dollars a piece," he said. "Gee, I don't know, don't you have some better quality blankets?" So he went back and got some purple ones: "These are the best I have, at $20 a piece, just for you." After he made the sale and the out-of-towner left, the regulars at the store wondered what bible verse he would quote. The store-keeper said: "I saw a stranger, and I took him in."

"You told me when I met you / that your life was pretty tame. / Well I took you to a nightclub / and the the whole band knew your name."

There was tenor named Guido Nazzo. A witty critic said that he sang "Nazzo guido."

Written on a student paper: "You have a future in literary criticism; unfortunately, literary criticism has no future."

The Pope and the Head Religious Official of Israel decide to make a bet about golf. It will be the Pope and his golf partner, chosen from among the Vatican officials, against the Head Rabbi of the Jewish state and whomever he chooses in similar fashion. So the Pope convinces Phil Mickelson convert to Catholicism and brings him to the golf course. "I'd like you to meet Honorary Cardinal Mickelson." "And I'd like you to meet Rabbi Tiger Woods."

You don't want to be operated on by a surgeon whose nickname is "Zorro."

An Orthodox Rabbi, a Catholic Priest, and Imam, and a Protestant minister walk into a bar, and the bartender says, What is this, a joke?

A rabbi, a minisetr, and a priest die all around the same time and arrived at the pearly gates. St. Peter says: "What is this, a joke?"

What's after Assistant Professor? Associate Professor. What's after Associate Professor? Full Professor. What's after Full Professor? God.

The Duke English Department: a group of people united only by their common hatred of literature.

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Knock knock.
Who's there?

Philip Glass.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fire The Workaholics

Fire the Workaholics

Judge people by how much they get done, not by how over-worked they seem to be.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Orwell's Third Rule

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Orwell could have just said "Avoid wordiness" or "Be pithy." Instead, he opted for a longer version, a periphrasis. 16 syllables instead of my three or five. The shorter versions would be "possible," but maybe not desirable. I am a concise writer, but not every idea should be expressed in the most compressed, aphoristic mode. After all, with a maxim or proverb we often have to gloss or explain further.

For my taste, Orwell's essay is itself written in a verbose style. I'm not trying to play "gotcha' or "tu quoque" here, but simply to point out that pithiness is a relative judgment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Orwell's Second Rule

"Never use a long word where a short one will do."

The length of words has nothing to do with anything. I would say: "always use the right word whatever its length." Use the precise word you need to use. Sometimes empty will do and sometimes you need vacuous. Sometimes puerile and sometimes childish. Well, those are pretty much the same length, but you see what I'm saying. I've always felt that the prejudice against Latinate vocabulary stinks.

Pullum says it well: "If longer words generally have slightly different meanings to shorter ones, then surely the right injunction is to use a word which means what you want to say, regardless of length." Pullum points out that Orwell uses "scrupulous" rather than "careful," because scrupulous was the word he needed. It brings extra resonance, extra connotations, that the shorter word doesn't.

Search for "Orwell" on Language Log and you'll find similar critiques of Orwell.


Orwell begins his famous (and vastly overrated) essay "Politics and The English Language" by noting the decline of the English language. It should be obvious that the English language had declined in 1946.

The problem I see here is that this is not at all obvious what it would mean to say that the English language was in a sorry state. To what is Orwell comparing it? Victorian English? English in 1800, in 1700? Without a meaningful point of comparison the statement is vacuous.

Virginia Woolf had died in 1941; I suppose her death dealt the English language a serious blow, especially since James Joyce died the same year, but Hemingway and Faulkner and Auden and William Carlos Williams were still alive. And Orwell himself. (He himself excludes literary language at the end of his essay, but by doing so I think he makes a grave mistake. After all, if writers of fiction and poetry, and literary essays [like those of Woolf], can write English then the language itself cannot be decadent, only certain genres of non-fiction writing.) He can't mean that there was nobody around who was handy with a prepositional phrase. What he seems to mean is that he can pick up the newspaper or a book and easily find bad writing. Once again, without a point of comparison (newspapers of 10 years before?) he really hasn't a leg to stand on.

That a Communist pamphlet is poorly written tells us nothing about the "state of English" at a particular time. It might tell you something about Communism, or the writer of the tract. Bad writing is always possible, in any period of time.

His own invented examples are particularly puerile. You can't attack something by substituting your own parody of it for the real thing, as he does with his mock translation of Ecclesiastes. HIs suggestion of "unblack" as an example of litotes is particularly thick-headed, showing his utter lack of understanding of how the trope works rhetorically.

In future posts I will be examining more of Orwell's weak thinking about language. What bothers me most is how much people admire this fallacious and poorly executed essay. After all, if it weren't admired, I would have not reason to complain.

Don't bother to tell me what Orwell really meant. If a manifesto on behalf of clarity is so hard to understand then Orwell has failed twice over.

Monday, December 6, 2010


In my work diaries I often put down the word "nothing" for a day nothing was accomplished. I never offer an excuse for that day. There may be a reason why I didn't get anything accomplished on that particular day. Maybe I was driving 5 hours between my two residences; maybe I was teaching and meeting with students. Maybe I was reading something for my project and didn't have anything to show for it in tangible terms. It makes no difference why I didn't accomplish anything on a particular day. What is important is that I know how many days I accomplished something and how many days I didn't.

Learning not to make excuses for yourself is fundamental. Suppose I had really good reasons for not working. I could be sick, or stressed, or whatever. At the end of the week, then, I have either have a list of accomplishments or a list of excuses.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Do It My Way

Thomas had a wonderful post a few days ago in which he basically said, quoting Tolstoi, that happy writers all write in the same way. It's wonderful because it seems so counterintuitive. Aren't there different styles of writing and of writers? Don't some people work better without as much structure?

I agree with him completely. What all happy writers share is

good time and task management: an understanding of the finiteness of time and space

attention to the basics

no excuses for not getting it done

This doesn't mean you shouldn't find the particular schedule, the particular rhythm, that suits you best, or fine-tune the methods that have been proven to work. By all means tailor your time-design individually.


Unhappy writers fuck themselves up in numerous ways, just like Tolstoy's unhappy families. But these multiple ways can be boiled down to a few. I've been an unhappy writer too, so I know what I'm talking about.

Unhappy writers trick themselves into not writing; they are very smart about it too, inventing infinite rationalizations. They view schedules and word counts as uncreative and constrictive, rather than liberating as they really are. On the other hand, they love deadlines! Only a deadline can really get them moving, give them that external pressure. (Remember they have no internal structure to their work so they let other people tell them when they need to get something done.) They don't have a good idea of how much they can get done in an hour or fifteen minutes or a week. As a consequence they are hopelessly busy, confusing activity with accomplishment.

They are too busy to take a break from work, even if, at work, they are endlessly procrastinating. They wouldn't think of writing two hours in the morning and relaxing the rest of the day. They can't do this because they are always behind, never ahead.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


(1) I am very fast at writing rough notes down in a microsoft word doc.

(2) I am also very fast at turning these notes into grammatical and inelegant sentences.

(3) I am very fast at turning these sentences into slightly better sentences.

(4)I am fast at revising these sentences so that they are actually good.

Nevertheless, I cannot perform all these steps at once. I cannot produce elegant sentences directly out of the messiness of my brain.

It might make you feel better to know that my mind is just about as messy as yours. My initial thoughts are no better arranged, no more specific, than anyone else's. What I think I am better at is the 1st step and the last: I am better than most people I know at simply generating the ideas in the first place, and also at the final stage of writing it in a decent style. I doubt I am better at (2) and (3) than the average person.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Consider the following record:
Nov. 5: 100 words.
Nov. 7: 600
Nov. 10: 1.100
Nov. 12: 2.000
Nov. 13: 2.400
Nov. 16: 3.200
Nov. 18: 3.500
Nov. 19 4.200
Nov. 20 4.500
Nov. 24 5.000

Before I kept rigorous track of how many words I wrote, in Obsessive-Compulsive fashion, I did not know how and when the work got done. I'm not saying that the work did not get done, but it bothered me not to know how this happened. Time could slip away without me doing very much, or I could overestimate / underestimate the length of time something would take. Having a chart of how many words I work on a particular project allows me to evaluate exactly how much I can reasonably do.

Here for example, I note a span of 10 days, with an average number of words of 500. Veee-ry respectable. I notice that I am able to put two or three days together, and fit in these 10 days in a span of 17. That's good without being extraordinary.

This way I am accountable to myself. Remember that my appointment calls for me to do research for 40% of my total effort if not time. I like knowing exactly what goes into that, because otherwise it is a rather diffuse commitment. I could spend a year just on the scholarly base if I wanted; I'm certainly entitled to that at this point in my career path. While I'm working on a major project, though, I like to know what the results of my effort are in very precise terms.

If you know how much you can write, then you can correct problems and make plans. You might say: wow: "I didn't know how slowly I write; I need to have more frequent, or longer, writing sessions." Or "I can write a lot on days when I get around to it, but those days are few and far between."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jason Fried: Why work doesn't happen at work

Bob Basil, one of the authors of this blog, recommends this video. It's interesting that successful academics already do what Jason Fried recommends. They schedule themselves 3 or 4 hour blocks of time, often away from the office, to get their writing down. They abhor meetings and distrust managers (administrators) who waste their time.


SMT was born a year ago today. Here is a post from the first day, explaining my use of the word stupid.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Busy-ness or Accomplishments?

How do you want to be judged, by how busy you appear to be or by how much you get done?

One way of judging how hard you are working is by how much of your time is occupied. The other way of judging is by looking at how much you accomplished in a given week / month / year / career.

So do you say "I worked 70 hours last week!" or do you say "Last week I finished an article!" Note the difference.

Now maybe you worked 70 hours and finished something too; that's great, but only the accomplishment really counts, in a way. The rest is what you had to do to get it done. You wouldn't judge how much you wrote by how many bottles of fountain pen ink you went through either, or your success in sales by how much gas or shoe-leather you consumed.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Don't Do This Either

If you are submitting to a journal that reviews articles anonymously, don't use the 1st person singular to refer to another article you wrote, listing the article in the Works Cited. Then I will know who you are and have to disqualify myself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Show Me the Type

(Cross posted from RSL.)

Happy writers are all alike; unhappy writers are unhappy in their own way. This wasn't quite how I responded to a question at a Writing Process Reengineering seminar on Friday, but it was what I had tried to say. The question was based on the idea, apparently promoted by the writers of some writing manuals, that there are different writing temperaments, different types of writers (the artistic type, I presume, the scientific type, the engineering type, the military type?), and that they should approach the task differently. Didn't my program of "outlines" and "schedules" assume a particular kind of writer (a very orderly and "linear" one)? I was asked. Shouldn't other kinds of writers do things differently?

"There may be different kinds of unhappy writers," I said. "All happy writers do it this way." That is, there may be many different reasons that people are not productive (expressed with sentences that begin "I'm the type that..."), but there is only one reason that they are productive: they are working on a regular schedule, writing paragraphs that fill out an outline. I suppose what I was really saying, however, is that the academic writer is already a "type" and if that's what you want to be, and be it happily, then you will have to experience the joy of writing paragraphs that defend claims one at a time. That's the only way.

If you are the "type" of writer who needs inspiration to write, or the type of writer who needs to read more before you begin to write, or if you are the type of writer who can't write for a half hour or an hour at a time but needs several days to get started, or if you are the type of writer who can't write when you're also teaching, or if you're the kind of writer who worries about how "original" you are or does not not know (or want to know) who your readers are, or if you're the kind of writer who can only write under the pressure of an immediate deadline, well, then, you will be unhappy (as an academic writer) in exactly that way. But if you write every day, always to a thesis and for a readership of your peers, one paragraph at a time, then you will be the "typical" happy academic writer.

Unhappy writers have their own approaches to writing. Happy writers do it my way.

Create Ideal Conditions / Work in Real Conditions

Set up your work conditions to be ideal, in terms of space and time. Develop your scholarly base; have all your work materials that you need on hand when you work. Sharpen your pencils.


But don't wait until everything is ideal to start working. Work anyway, because there will always be conditions that are less than ideal in some significant respect. For me, for example, I often don't have the book I need on hand. I could be more organized, but I am not. Somehow I out-publish people who are much better organized because I don't let things like that bother me and I don't make excuses for myself.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Work Diary November 19-25

I don't know quite what to do with this record of my work. I suspect my readers find it duller than my other posts, but part of the impulse behind SMT was to get my own project done.
Friday, Nov. 19: A solid 700 words. At least some of the writing was disciplined enough to stand, since I focused on only a few segments of the article.

Sat. Nov. 20. 300 words + a planning session of a few hours.

Sun. Nov. 21. Nothing.

Mon. Nov. 22. Nothing.

Tuesday. Nov. 23. Nothing

Wed. Nov. 24. 500 words.

Thursday, Nov. 25. 400 words.

SUMMARY: With four solid days of works, including an excellent Friday, a good to excellent result. I don't like those three blank days in the middle though.

I also need a system to keep track of months. Maybe I should do months instead of weeks...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Clichés and the "Idiom Principle"

One of Orwell's sillier pieces of writing advice is ""Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Orwell advises "scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness." But then wouldn't he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb "scrap" and the cliché phrase "has outworn its usefulness"? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are "abundantly clear." We don't just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer's jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn't have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I'm not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase "makes a valuable contribution to the field" in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as "chunking." Ben Zimmer of Language Log and The New York Times explains it like this:

The insights that are being put into practice have to do with "chunking" — the way that we learn and process language in prefabricated strings of words, or "lexical chunks." Native speakers of a language like English take for granted how much we rely on these chunks, and we tend not to appreciate their significance in the creation of linguistic fluency. But acquiring competency in a language isn't all about mastering rules of grammar and finding words to fill the functional slots, despite the syntactic emphasis in formal linguistics that has been championed by Noam Chomsky and his followers. A counter-current in linguistics since the 1960s has focused on what the late British scholar John Sinclair called "the idiom principle," or the tendency of certain words to cluster together with certain other words in their vicinity.

So we know in English someone can outwear her welcome, or something can outwear its usefulness. This verb has certain acceptable metaphorical uses. *"I've outworn that movie" doesn't really cut it.

I'm thinking of teaching my next advanced language course (a language course, but at the highest level for undergraduate Spanish majors) on idioms and proverbs. In my view, idioms are like truncated proverbs, or else proverbs are idiomatic phrases that take the form of entire sentences. The main weakness in the Spanish of very advanced learners is precisely this sense of the idiomatic principle. They can translate word by word and even make it grammatically correct, but they are translating chunks of English rather than adopting new idiomatic patterns. I'll let you know how it works out.

Friday, November 26, 2010


We've all had the graduate student who is a sponge. The last thing he or she has read has to go into the dissertation, relevance aside. It's hard with this kind of spongy student because the attention tends to wander a bit. The absorptive impulse isn't bad in and of itself, but sometimes it becomes too associational (this reminds me of that) and lacks depth.

I'm a little like that too. When I'm working on a project, everything else I read just happens to bear a relation to it. Now, I happen to be teaching a novel by Unamuno and working on a section of an article where Unamuno comes up. Naturally, I turn to that novel and to another by Atxaga I just happened to have taught just now in my other course. Maybe I assigned these novels subconsciously knowing I would need them?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Aim Small, Miss Small"

Here's my personal take on the aphorism "aim small, miss small," which Thomas develops in this post, the "best seller" of Stupid Motivational Tricks, the post most often viewed by visitors to the blog. It took me a while to get the meaning of this and translate it into terms that made sense to me.

Even if you aim to be as precise as possible, as close to your target, you will still make mistakes and misreadings. Nevertheless, you won't miss by a mile: your errors are likely to be small and relatively insignificant ones. This applies to various aspects of scholarly writing: prose style, argumentation, citation practices. The purpose of being somewhat pedantic about seemingly small issues is to avoid bigger mistakes.

That is the negative case for "aim small, miss small," emphasizing hedges against error. I wonder if there is also a positive case to be made. After all, the purpose of scholarship is not to avoid mistakes, but to make an affirmative contribution. Here I would argue that precision produces insight. I'm going to have to develop the case for this in another post, though.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Flaubert & Shakespeare

The Flaubertian idea of prose style: an avoidance of sonority, redundancy, and of the rhetorical repetition of lexical items. No unintentional rhymes or "jingles." A clear, limpid surface. An attention to rhythm, but more to the end of avoiding too obvious rhythmical effects. I knew a fine academic writer of my father's generation who would not repeat the same word in one paragraph.

An older, rhetorical model of an opulent, prose, written with a taste for baroque antithesis, gradatio, hendiadys, alliteration...

Victorian prose in English is still opulent in contrast to the clipped, modern style of the 20th century, but it is not as opulent as baroque prose. The 18th century brings a certain prosification of prose that reaches its logical extreme in Flaubert, and then in Hemingway.

A modern writer will tend to reduce word play, avoiding the use of two words with the same lexical root: "And that unfair which fairly doth excel," or the use of two adjectives with similar and overlapping meanings: 'Led by a delicate and tender prince." We recognize this Shakespearian rhetoric as effective, but not in a way very useful for our prose.

There are modern prose styles, though, that allow more rhetorical flair without sacrificing the modern gains of simplicity and clarity. I find William Gass's alliterations cloying, but I'd like to allow for some linguistic flourish that isn't in the ascetic, Flaubertian line.

Prose had to be invented, freed from its rhetorical (oratorical) and poetic origins. Imagine inventing a form of writing more effective when read silently than aloud. That is a real cultural achievement.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Work Diary November 12-18

Friday, Nov. 12: 900 words on the new / old article, virtually doubling it in length. An extraordinary windfall.

Sat. Nov. 13. An "inertia day," where 400 words got produced, somehow, just from the momentum generated the day before.

Sun. Nov. 14. Nothing at all.

Monday. Nov. 15. Nothing.

Tuesday. Nov. 16. I added 800 words to the New Article, which would have been more than respectable had I not felt that I was writing in an undisciplined way, almost randomly.

Wed. Nov. 17. Graded a set of papers.

Thursday, Nov. 18 300 words, but a more disciplined 300 words. I thought about María Zambrano and some specific claims I wanted to make about her, and wrote them done, then tried to write specific sentences to back them up. I didn't flit back and forth between multiple sections, as I did on Tuesday.

Summary: Some good days but not a good week. With mediocre weeks like this I should be in fine shape! I don't mean that sarcastically at all: it's the mediocre weeks that keep the project going. Actually, on further thought, this was a good week. A mediocre week would have been 3 days of writing rather than 4, and without Friday's windfall or Thursday's more disciplined approach.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Work Diary November 5-11

Just doing these diaries has upped my writing productivity. I have to confess if I get nothing done and I can make sure I get at least 3 or 4 days of good work in. For some reason I have Friday as the first day of the week, simply because the first of the Month was a Friday a while back, but this turned out to be a good idea. Fridays I usually have some time to write, so I get to start the week off well.

Friday, Nov 5: 700 words on the Lorca Chapter in 90 minutes. Some of the words actually made sense. An extraordinary day. Later in the afternoon I came up with the idea for my Hall Center paper and my article for Modernist Cultures. Wrote a 100 word outline.

Saturday, Nov. 6: Added three hundred words to Lezama Lima outline. Reorganized chapters of book, eliminating one, and eliminating sectional division. Toyed with the preface a bit. Now I have 5 out of 9 chapters completed, and only three will also be published articles.

Sunday, Nov. 7: Added 500 words to the outline I started on Friday. Emailed the editor who solicited the article about my change of plans. I could quite working today and not start until next Friday and still have had a productive week.

Monday. Nov. 8: Wrote part of a blog post for Arcade that will also form part of the Lezama chapter.

Tuesday, Nov. 9: I got nothing done, even though I wasn't teaching or driving home. I just spent a day reading.

Wednesday, Nov. 10. 500 words on the new article on cultural exceptionalism, begun on Sunday.

Thursday, Nov. 11. Nothing.

SUMMARY: A good five days with substantial progress toward long-term goals.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Plan for the Best, Plan for the Worst

What I mean by this maxim is that you should make an optimistic plan for completing work on your current project. For example, I could probably finish by December of 2011 if everything works out. That optimistic plan is highly motivating.

But if I have unforeseen difficulties and don't meet that deadline, I have still planned for the worst case scenario, which is that is will take me longer. Working steadily but inefficiently, I will still get something done; I will still meet external deadlines (just not my own). Planning for the worst outcome in the first place is counterproductive, however. If my best case date for finishing were 2012, then I might not finish until 2013. My goal now is to see how much gets done by December of 11, but if I don't meet that I will still be in good shape.


You can string together enough "bad" weeks, where you are less productive than you might have been, and still make substantial progress. A bad week, maybe you only had 1-3 days where you made substantial progress, as opposed to 4-7. It doesn't matter. A totally uninspired day of writing still makes its contribution. In fact, I think those bad days are even more significant than the very few days where the muse or duende actually descends upon you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How can you be as efficient as possible when your base is still fairly undeveloped and your confidence is fragile?

This is the final question posed by my correspondent:

"How can you be as efficient as possible when your base is still fairly undeveloped and your confidence is fragile?"

This is an excellent question, and hard for me to answer. I have been there, with an undeveloped scholarly base and less confidence, but right now I don't have those particular problems. Thinking back, I remember struggling with whether I could write the dissertation, just get it done. I was dealing with very complex ideas and trying to come up with a brilliantly original theoretical framework. The first chapter in particular was very difficult.

Let's break this question down into three parts.

The base. I'd recommend doing an inventory of your base. Just sit down and write down everything that is part of it. Any foreign language you know; the fact that your advisor is a good one; that your university library has the resources you need; that you are a good prose stylist and have good time management skills (Include any positives in your happiness base too.) Once you have inventoried your base you will see where the weaknesses are. Maybe you haven't read enough theory, or don't understand what you've read. Make a shorter list of things you need to work on. Ok. Now instead of a vague and uneasy sense that you don't know enough to write a dissertation, you have a realistic assessment of your assets and liabilities.

Confidence. "Be confident!" is useless advice. Real confidence develops through realistic experience with successful performance. The most successful students are not even the most over-confident ones, because they can have more trouble when the world doesn't agree with their self-assessments. Realistically, almost nobody fails to write a dissertation because of lack of intelligence or because of a lack of a scholarly base.

Once again, I think the key is to replace vague, existential, infinite worries with very specific lists of things you can already do fairly well and things that still give you some trouble.

Efficiency. Yikes. The dissertation is hard work and will be inefficient simply because it is the first project on that scale you have done. There will be "wasted" work, pages you write that will end up on the cutting room floor. I have documents on my computer from my current project with titles like "rejected bits from Lezama Lima chapter." Here I will only say that regular work is efficient work. In other words, inefficiency tends to be more of a function of not having regular working hours, as opposed to sitting down for two hours and working inefficiently. The latter scenario does happen, but you can just average in those days with the rest and it will all come out ok.

Friday, November 19, 2010

More questions about beginning the dissertation

How do you make the best use of a prospectus colloquium or other landmarks along the way? How do you work with advisors to get the best help from them?

Choose the advisor who will be toughest on you, within your tolerance range. (Don't choose the junior person just because you think that person will be more lenient or less intimidating.) Look for someone whose style of time management fits with yours or at least will have clear expectations about deadlines and turn-around times for reading chapters. It doesn't much matter whether the person has a turn-around time of 3 weeks or 8, if there is some consistency. The best guide is how fast that professor turned back papers in seminars. You should plan to turn in things regularly and get them back regularly. That is the key to a good working relationship.

For other readers of a dissertation, you should look for alternative perspectives, but ones that are complementary and don't pull you too much in other directions.

The exam or meeting at which you discuss your proposal with your committee is a time to listen to what the committee is saying about the viability of your project. It's a very useful "landmark" and will also tell you how helpful your committee is going to be. I have no specific advice except to listen very closely to the questions behind the questions. Ask for clarification later. "When you asked me this, were you implying that I should be looking more at this kind of issue."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How do you determine the parameters of your project?

Here is my second answer to a question posed to me by a reader of this blog about how to begin a dissertation.

You need to know disciplinary requirements and expectations. For example, a lot of us 20 years ago had dissertations on a single author, where I notice now that that's become more and more rare. It's a dumb prejudice, but a lot of people now think you are too narrow if you work on a single author, even an important one. We have a lot of dissertations here with one author from Brazil and the others from Spanish speaking countries, or three chapters on novels and one on film.

So several authors, from the same region or overlapping areas. There should be both temporal and geographic parameters, but it shouldn't be a topic that strikes the observer as esoterically narrow. Think of having to explain the topic briefly in an interview; if it isn't a topic that you can foresee explaining orally it is going to be harder to conceptualize.

The topic has to name a critical problem, with a how and a why, not just a what or who.

People often don't think to look at existing dissertations in the library of their institution. Usually, all the previous dissertations in your university are going to be housed in the library. Look at disses in the last 5 years in your own department. Who has directed them? Which ones look most interesting? Which of those students is now having a successful career? Which dissertations became books quickly?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How do you know how much research is enough?

I've received some questions from a reader of this blog about starting a dissertation or first book project. Her first questions are

"How do you know how much research is enough? When do you start writing?"

I'd say, the take that second question first, that you should begin writing immediately. Write an essay just for yourself about what you know about your topic. You will never really have a blank page facing you, because you will have already have written something. You can try an encerrona, for example. Lock yourself in a room for 5 hours and write something. This should be done once you have a topic, and before you have done extensive research.

The real question here, though, is when you should end the research phase of your project and begin the writing phase: how much research is enough before you know it's time to start writing? Here, I would say that you will have been writing up your research notes all along. You will know when an argument emerges out of those notes that demands to be chapter. Once you start writing that up, you will know if you have to do additional research and reading. Research needs to be guided by some firmly articulated questions. In other words, you have to know what you are looking for in very concrete terms. Obviously those questions are going to get more precise as you work.

There are students who want to put the entire contents of their research into their dissertations. The problem is not that they know too much about their topics, but that they haven't learned to distinguish between research that belongs in the finished project and information that should remain as background. Once you find yourself in the situation of knowing more than will actually "fit," then you should stop researching and begin writing. In the course of developing an argument, you may find that you haven't answered a question you need to answer--so more research is needed, but of a very directed variety.

Really, all the SMTs are valid for the dissertation as for any other project, but there are specific problems that writers get into because of the nature of the dissertation requirement and the lack of self-assurance inherent to writers at this stage. I'll be addressing some of these problems in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Work Diary Oct. 29-Nov. 4

Oct 29 / 30. Attended "MACHL" Conference. No work done aside from giving a talk on Saturday.

Sun. Oct. 31 200 words. Re-organized chapters of books, adding an extra chapter to the plan.

Mon. Nov. 1 Nothing

Tues. Nov 2 Worked on preface to book. Trying to define what the book is about coherently in actual words. Rearranged chapter order and added a chapter on Lezama Lima to the book. That would give me 10 chapters rather than 8.

Wed. Nov 3. Nothing.

Th. Nov 4. Brainstorming session on the Lezama Lima section. Wrote 800 words of notes. Pretty good because I did not even now this chapter existed until Monday. It didn't in fact exist until Monday.

SUMMARY: A slightly worse than average week, but still productive enough in the three days I got something done. With enough "bad" weeks like this I should be in great shape!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Weeks and Years

If you have productive weeks you will have productive years. To have a productive week you need to have four or five days when you accomplish something significant. Major progress on a chapter, completing a peer review of an article, or a book review. If you have 40 weeks like that in a year, or about 80%, you cannot not be productive. Even if some of these tasks are grading a complete set of papers, enough will be research related that you will be productive in research too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stupid Motivational Tricks--The Book (ii)

The book will be organized around several main topics:
(1) The scholarly base.

(2) Time and task management.

(3) The psychology of writing; cognitive therapy and ego management.

(4) Prose. Good writing, the plain style, and the mechanics of writing, including best citation practices.

(5) The sculpting of the scholarly career.

My plan is to begin on January 1, 2011. I will select the best posts from the blog thus far in each category and retag them with the label SMT--The Book. I will revise these posts for style and write a brief introduction, then look into print on demand services.

At some point I will have to read the other books about scholarly writing, other guide books out there. I don't feel my book will replace those as much as be a supplement for a certain kind of reader who appreciates my mordant wit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Work Diary Oct. 22-25

How was the week? Glad you asked:

Fri. Oct 22: Read a colleague's proposal. 400 words on The Chapter. Rewrote several of my chapter titles.

Sat. Oct. 23: 500 words on the chapter before going to work in the bingo hall from 4:30-10.

Sun. Oct. 24: Nothing.

Minday. Oct. 25. Nothing. I'm a lazy bum this week.

Tuesday. Oct 24. Stealth attack! of 1,000 words. Making solid progress despite laziness. Just read where Mark Scroggins attributes OCD to me! Ha! If only he knew how disorganized I really am.

Wed. Oct. 25 500 words on chapter. 2,400 total for the week. Ordered the books for two courses (next semester.) In the evening made some significant notes on bar napkin.

Thurs. Oct 25: Brainstorming session. Had a few major new ideas.

A good week of writing, with substantial progress on a key chapter of the book. Considering I've finished two chapters and an article this semester, I've been doing a good job of keeping the momentum going.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Another Plagiarism Case: Bush

It turns out there is yet another plagiarist: former president Bush:

Crown [Bush's publisher] also got a mash-up of worn-out anecdotes from previously published memoirs written by his subordinates, from which Bush lifts quotes word for word, passing them off as his own recollections. He took equal license in lifting from nonfiction books about his presidency or newspaper or magazine articles from the time. Far from shedding light on how the president approached the crucial "decision points" of his presidency, the clip jobs illuminate something shallower and less surprising about Bush's character: He's too lazy to write his own memoir.

What Not do Do (ii)

I saw a similar case the other day of someone putting some of their worst and least precise writing in the paragraph explaining what sh/e was going to do in the article, in a few very crucial sentences. I wish I could quote an illustration, but confidentiality prevents me from sharing, but it is best described as a wave in the direction of of a theory sh/e wasn't going to use, a feint the direction of another, rather dull sounding theory, and then a spin back toward the first one.

In a running back, this might have worked, but the academic writer should signal where she is going rather than trying to fake out the reader. You want to be tackled.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Tracing is a technique of plagiarism that consists of closely following the shape of another secondary source. (I am unsure of who coined the term but it came up in the recent Sokal / Fischer controversy.) You might use some of the same quotes for the same purposes, or summarize at too great a length, too closely. It is true that you are free to use a quote you found quoted already elsewhere, but there are some cautions here. You should indicate "qtd in" if you found the source in a third place and didn't go back to the original. You should be careful about reproducing 3rd party errors (misquoting a source the same way someone else did). You should not take over several 3rd-hand quotes in a row from another source, especially if these quotes are distinctive or uncommon, or seemingly unrelated to the topic.

For example, if I am writing about Juan Ramón Jiménez and quote Wittgenstein, Barthes, and Derrida in that order. I don't own those quotes: I am not Wittgenstein, Barthes, or Derrida. But it is distinctive to use those exact authors and quotes to explicate Jiménez's poetry. You have to say "qtd. in Mayhew" in that context.

I feel that a summary of other material should be either

(1) Much shorter. You are extracting the essence of that source, not repeating all of its findings one after another.

(2) Much longer. You are taking something short in the original text and exploring additional implications.

(3) Shorter and longer at the same time, like an accordion. You are sometimes compressing, sometimes expanding, on what the other source said.

If you write a paragraph summarizing another paragraph of about equal length, then you are probably doing something wrong: why not just quote the paragraph verbatim if you are neither compressing nor expanding?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Citation and Distinctive Language

Take a distinctive combination of words: "her labile yet exigent demeanor"; "as non-descript as a sparrow in the suburbs." When you are paraphrasing a secondary source, your own vocabulary will overlap somewhat with that source, but you wouldn't want to use a phrase like that from the source you are citing without quotation marks. An especially distinctive or felicitous phrase has more of a claim not to be repeated without attribution. By the same token, you would not say that, 'according to Fulano, HItler "invaded Poland" in 1939.' The quotation marks make no sense there, since neither the idea not the words have any claim to be distinctive. Putting those words into quotes would imply that you were commenting, in some way, on that particular combination of words.

Human language is creative in the rather ordinary sense that we can invent phrases and sentences that have (probably) never been used before. For example, I could find no examples on google where labile and exigent were even in the same vicinity in a sentence. Even a string of ordinary words can be distinctive: "As the cat stepped over the top of the jamcloset, first the right forefoot, carefully, then the hind, stepped down, into the pit of the empty flowerpot." Sure, there is a torrent of words on the internet, but if you express your own thoughts precisely, trying to say exactly what you mean, you are unlikely to duplicate the previous efforts of any other writer.

There are also facts that are banal and repeated from source to source with no change. Somebody was born in such and such a place in such and such a year. There is a standard wording for that, even.

I hate when people cite my banal statements. They have every right to do it, but I'd rather they cite me where I'm making a good point rather than for background.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Causes of Plagiarism

(More of my wildly popular series on plagiarism.)

Here are some possible causes of plagiarism.

(1) Weak or lax standards in certain fields. There are underlying disciplinary causes of certain lapses. The standard practices in all fields might not be equally rigorous, even if theoretically all scholars are bound by the same code. I won't single any fields out here, but you probably have some idea.

(2) Incompetence. When a student feels he or she simply cannot do the work, plagiarism seems like an option. Buy a paper off the internet! Copy and paste from wiki.

(3) Negligence. When a scholar is poorly trained or does not understand the value of scholarship, or has poor habits of taking notes, he or she may become negligent. By the way, negligence is not an excuse.

(4) Research assistants. Blame it on them! If the scholar is not responsible for every aspect of research, then there needs to be a system for checking the work of subordinates and collaborators.

(5) Misunderstanding of the rules of citation and of their scholarly justification. Some scholars will think that some sorts of plagiarism are ok if they don't violate rules of citation according to narrow, legalistic criteria, or if they plagiarize in the gray areas.

(6) Arrogance. It's not plagiarism if I do it, because I am a full professor.

(7) Means-to-an end thinking. I need this MA to get a higher salary as a teacher; I need to get it done in the most efficient way.

Notice I didn't list other causes. In my experience, people do not plagiarize (usually) because they like someone else's idea so much that they want to take it as their own. People do not plagiarize because they are postmodernists or intertextualists with innovative ideas about intellectual property. It makes me sick when people try to justify it through some recourse to literary theory,* or when others say that obviously the plagiarism wasn't intentional theft of someone's brilliant idea, so it isn't so bad.

The fact that it is easy to copy and paste off the internet cannot justify plagiarism. That just makes it easier: you don't have to type when you can just copy and paste, but it also makes it easier to catch. The internet does not make the prohibition of plagiarism obsolete.


I came of age intellectually during the apogee of Derrida in the American academy, so I know this theory better than you. If you try this argument with me I will crush you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Human Subjects

One thing that rankled me in the debate surrounding Fischer was how quick his defenders were to attribute naiveté or ignorance to those of us who saw something wrong in his citation practice. One commenter on the CHE accused me of not knowing the function of IRBs, claiming that Sokal should have submitted his research plans to the NYU IRB before proceeding. IRBs deal with research on human subjects, whether medically or anthropologically. There is absolutely no human subject, in this sense, that would be within the scope of an institutional review board, in Sokal's analysis of a scholar's plagiarism. He wasn't doing research on a human subject, attaching electrodes to Fischer's head! No animals were harmed.

Others appealed to the idea of a smaller community of inquiry in which Frank Fischer's practices would be acceptable. In other words, nobody outside the field of policy studies had enough expertise to be able to judge them. This is ridiculous for multiple reasons, not least because policy studies by definition is a field of vital significance to the res publica, not merely to a handful of people who happen to be professors in the field. It is also an example of an argument to a seemingly more sophisticated principle with the aim of obfuscating the issue.

It was, however, rather fun to wipe the floor with many social scientists on the comments. I was writing under the pseudonym of bemsha, and my arguments were simply superior. The ad hominem attacks on Sokal, the red herrings and logical fallacies, were breathtakingly blatant examples of mauvaise foi.

Write So As Not To Be Misunderstood

Don't write so as to be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood. This adage is atrributes to the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus. I am a little skeptical. I'm going to try to track down the true source if I can.

Anyway, you want your writing to be so precise that misunderstanding is the reader's fault, not yours. The test is not whether someone can understand you, but whether they cannot not understand. Someone I know complains that people are always misrepresenting Judith Butler. That's irritating, for sure, but I wonder why? The more difficult the ideas, the more opportunity for people to misread them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What's the Harm?

Here's a paragraph:
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. As Carlos Piera astutely points out, “[w]hen it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics” (Piera, “Rephrasing Line-End Restrictions” 300). The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this “mechanical” view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody, such as Piera’s, does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the “perceived richness” of poetic form

No suppose I had simply appropriated Piera's words as my own, like this
Poets create rhythmical structures of astonishing subtlety and complexity. Within Hispanic literary criticism, however, these structures typically receive only the most cursory attention. When it comes to accounting for poetic effects, traditional rhythmic theories of all kind tend to capture only somewhat mechanical aspects of metre, and leave the greater part of the perceived richness of literary language to the literary critics. The problem, however, is that many of these critics seem to share this mechanical view, regarding rhythm as a pedestrian question of counting syllables and charting rhyme, to be addressed mainly at the lower levels of the curriculum. The technical detail of a rigorously linguistic approach to prosody does not translate unproblematically into an examination of the perceived richness of poetic form

What's the harm in plagiarism? First, I stole those words that I didn't write; they don't belong to me. I've done harm to the original author and to the institution of scholarship.

I've also done damage to my own writing by flattening the effect I had achieved by citing (adroitly I hope) his quote to make my own point. I also lose some authority. It is better for me to have Piera, a linguist, say that linguistic approaches to prosody are often mechanical, than for me, a literary critic, to say the same thing. Then I can criticize other critics myself. I like that layered effect I get from quoting him and calling him astute. I look like a nice guy calling him that too, so that helps to establish my ethos as a writer from the beginning of the chapter. It is interesting that my style does not clash with Piera's. There is a smoothness there in the integration of the quote (if I don't say so myself).


On the purely mechanical level, it can be hard to incorporate other people's words into your own writing, or to integrate paraphrase with direct quotation and your own discourse. Paraphrases should often contain words and phrases in quotes from the original text: those clarify that it is a paraphrase and not your own writing. Short quotes do not interrupt what you are saying but form a seamless part of the argumentation. Longer, block quotes are used when you really want to analyze that quote itself, not (usually) to make up for something that you should have said yourself. I almost never end the paragraph with the block-quote itself. I always end with a few lines of my own analysis.

I was disappointed when I saw a publisher recently (actually two publishers of two separate books published in Spain) just automatically begin a new paragraph after each long quote (I'm assuming the publishers did it because the authors probably wouldn't have). That is a way of losing an important distinction between a quote at the end of a paragraph and another in the middle of one. If that quibble seems to basic to you you are reading the wrong blog.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Top Posts / as of Nov. 5

The Tomahawk is Mightier than the Sword 62 Pageviews

Another Plagiarism Case 42 Pageviews

Choosing a Topic 36 Pageviews

What's your metaphor? 36 Pageviews

Mentoring 32 Pageviews

Detecting BS 32 Pageviews

Another Film Theory Assignment 32 Pageviews

There Is Nothing Too Basic, addendum 31 Pageviews

Plagiarism and the Distinctive Voice

The best defense against plagiarism is having a distinctive scholarly voice and point of view. By this mean that nobody else's prose, nobody else's ideas, should satisfy you. You will rarely spend whole pages summarizing other people's ideas, or presenting raw data. When you do, you will make it clear that that material comes from other sources, because you want to make it clear that that it is not yours. You will never confuse a sentence someone else wrote with one of your own.

Plagiarism arises out of a position of weakness. The student is trying to get up to a certain level of professional or trying to fill space in the paper. The senior scholar uses plagiarized verbiage as filler, without taking pride in every paragraph. Maybe he is overcommitted and has to churn things out fast and can't be bothered.

When I cite something I think is very brilliant, I make sure I am extra careful to give full credit. I feel self-confident enough to lavish praise on other scholars when appropriate, especially when their work helped mine along. When I quote anything, I am conscious of the style gap between quoted material and my own prose. I don't mean that I write better than anyone else, but that I have my own ethos of prose that will be distinctively different from that of other writers, good or bad. It also helps that I rarely agree with anybody else. (Just kidding.)

I think I have improved as a writer, but I look at some things I wrote 20 years ago and they still are more or less fine with me. I would change sentences, but I would do the same with sentences I wrote a year or month ago.

Plagiarism is somewhat more likely for more routine information, stuff that doesn't seem to belong to any particular person in the field. If I find a good statement that I think expresses a consensus view, I will quote that verbatim: it saves me some time, and I don't have to state my own views as though they were the consensus (they rarely are; I overestimate my agreement with other people many times.)

On the mechanical level, I make sure quotes go around a foreign phrase the second it goes into a word-processing document. It isn't even allowed to be there one second unattributed, without the protective cocoon of quotation marks. I never take notes paraphrasing something that I might confuse at a later date with my own notes from my own brain. I will paraphrase something in a word processing document with the source in front of me and provide the source in the act.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sokal Responds to Fischer and his Supporters

Sokal responds.

2 hours / 400 words

If I work about two hours on a document, the word count will increase by 400 words. That means that I can write 50 words, or about two sentences, in about 15 minutes, while at the same time fixing other, previously written sentences. Sometimes I throw away whole sentences, so this 400 words takes that into account also. (Rough notes might be faster--but rougher.)

An article is about 6,000 words, so it could be written in 15 writing sessions @2 hours. Let's say that's three weeks of work, at a pretty hard pace. Two hours of writing is a lot; it is mentally taxing. To do that 5 days a week is hard work.

Since I like to take into account the fact that I might be faster than average, let's double that to six weeks. You want to be realistic about how long something is going to take. At the same time, being realistic means not just giving yourself enough time, but also avoiding the trap of giving yourself infinite time. I like giving myself 2 months for something that might take 3-4 weeks. Then I feel great about how much I get done. Or I get it done in two months and still meet my internal deadline.

You can be an extremely slow writer and still get enough written, since steadiness and regularity are much more important than speed. Endurance itself creates speed, in the sense that the manuscript will grow faster with more regular work.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Plagiarism Case

Here is another plagiarism case. (Hat tip to Margaret Soltan.) The perpetrator, Professor Fischer said, in his defense
When asked whether the verbatim material should have been in quotation marks, he responded: "Yes, but does one have to change every word? I don't think what I did is all that uncommon. I think the important part is to cite the works."

Does one have to change every word? That is such a revealing statement because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, so fundamental that the person who said it should be tarred and feathered. It's not plagiarism just because you didn't change enough of the words from the original passage to cover up your tracks. You cannot just take a passage and change enough words to make it your own work, because even a paraphrase has to be cited as such. You have to be clear about what is essentially a paraphrase of someone else's ideas, even if you change every damned word.You cannot just have a citation to the work somewhere, a few paragraphs or pages away. It is not enough to cite the works; you have to cite them in a way that doesn't obscure the nature and extent of your debt to them.

The defenses on the CHE site, by some of the commenters, are outrageous. They point out that most of the guy's writing is not plagiarized from other sources. Why, there are whole paragraphs that are not plagiarized, In fact, only 19 separate cases were found, leaving the vast majority of this scholar's work untouched.

But I'm assuming most plagiarists don't do it on every page. It would be like the bank robber saying that he goes into the bank plenty of times without robbing it. Here is one commenter:
Methodologically, all we have here is a few hundred words from which were are supposed to judge a book of how many words. What overall percentage is plagiarised (this percentage would inform our judgements of students ?) What percentage, too, of the important stuff the book says, rather than this nuts-and-bolts explication would end up higlighted ?

A plagiarism offense is an offense. It doesn't really matter what percent of the total work is non-original. A few hundred words for each plagiarized passage is enough.

I'd also like to point out that the plagiarisms were found by google searches. Obviously, not every piece of text is googleable, so there could actually be more cases. I wouldn't be surprised if google missed a few case, especially since it would only catch "copy and paste" examples, not paraphrases where enough words were changed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ask the Tough Questions

Creativity has (at least) two different meanings in literary criticism. One is like the creative in "creative accounting" where the creative urge is to make up crap about the text or to invent the most fanciful interpretation. A deeper creativity is the creativity of seeing what's actually there and asking the tough questions about it. Why is something one way and not another. How do we account for something that is (seemingly) anomalous.

Something that seems off, strange, is a good place to start. For example, I wondered why Juan Ramón Jiménez had created an anthology of his work that printed all his free-verse poems as prose, suppressing the original lineation. That seemed odd to me, because skill in verse is defined by, well, verse, and readers don't tend to read blocks of prose for rhythm. That question became the basis of a fairly original book chapter which should form part of my next book. What are the implications of this decision? How is this similar to what other poets have done?

If you are deeply engaged in a field, you will constantly be constantly confronted with things that seem off. Why can Donne be perfectly metrical when he wants to be, yet write the strangest lines elsewhere? If Greek and Roman poetry doesn't rhyme, why is rhyme so central to any neo-classical aesthetic? If you see the strangeness of what's before your eyes, you won't have a need to look for originality in spurious ways. A good critical insight has to be paradoxical, against the doxa or somehow internally contradictory in an interesting way.

Plodding, dutiful criticism just seems to go through the text and point out obvious things we already now.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Writer's Block and Creativity

You don't really have to experience writer's block. The days where you don't get quite as much written just get averaged into your total level of production, just like the days when you do a bit more that usual. The "typical" day will either be below average or above average. In fact, I can just about guarantee that about half your days will be below average! On a day when you are blocked, you can edit other parts of your project, or take very rough notes on an inchoate part of it. Work at either extreme, fixing almost polished prose or just getting words down by hook or crook. The next day you can just try to make complete sentences out of those notes. Once you have complete sentences, no matter how badly written, you can convert them into better prose.


The one thing I don't know how teach is how to get that spark of originality, how to generate really good ideas in the first place. For me, the ideas just arise out of my normal reading habits, out my intellectual involvement with the subject matter. Everything I read just suggests interesting ideas to me, though of course I only use a small fraction of those in my research. Students are supposed to learn this by observing other people doing it, by discussing their own ideas in class, but this process does not "take" with every student. The good news is that people can have successful scholarly careers with no real spark. That is good news for them, but bad news for scholarship, which ideally should be imbued with the creative spirit.

I have no faith in creativity as the next educational buzzword. Once you decide you want creativity, you will devise rubrics to measure it. I will let you in on my secret, though. Ask the tough questions. (Find out tomorrow what the tough questions are.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Work done: Oct 15-21

Fri. Oct. 15. Nothing much. Took a "reading day."

Sat. Oct. 16. Significant progress on Lorca's duende (chapter 5). Wrote a nice introductory paragraph. My goal is to complete it in two month (Oct. 15-Dec. 15). Graded exam + late papers for one course.

Sun. Oct. 17.Significant progress = 400 words on this chapter.

Mon. Oct. 18. Re-completed that chapter I thought I was done with last week. Finished intro to duende chapter.

Tues. Oct. 19. Added a significant chunk to Chapter 8, which I thought was more or less done a few weeks a ago.

Wed. Oct. 20. Graded exam.

Th. Oct 21 Reviewed article for a journal (700 word report). Worked a bit on the Lorca chapter (300 words).

SUMMARY: Four days of writing on the chapter I'm currently supposed to be working on; overall a productive week since I improved two other chapters as well. The book is starting to snowball.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Planning to Complete the Paper

Suppose you want to get a chapter or article written in the next two or three months--that's the situation I'm in. You can think about that in terms of hours at the computer it will take you to write it, or in terms of months. It might only take your 30 hours to complete it, so two months seems like an absurdly long time. 30 hours in 60 days! What could be easier? That's an average of half an hour per day. Yet most scholars take much longer to produce their work. Part of the problem is that there is too much time. In other words, it is hard to figure out where those 30 hours are going to come from, simply because they might come anywhere. 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Wed. Sat. and Sun., every other week, and 1-5 p.m. every Sat? That might get it done, as long as you realize the weekend you lose to house guests... The key is finitude.

That's why I've been keeping track of my work during each week. Months are too long for this kind of planning, but if every week you make significant progress, then there shouldn't be a chapter that takes more than a month or two.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Untricking Yourself

What Stupid Motivational Tricks really is about is untricking yourself. In other words, reversing the stupid ways you've tricked yourself into not getting things done by being so busy working at not working.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I've been on both sides of the interview process--more on the hiring side recently. The most important factor is to be able to show awareness of the other people in the room. For example, do you notice when you are boring people? When your answer has gone on too long? Are you just reeling off a spiel about your research or engaging in a conversation? If the interview lasts 30 minutes, what does giving a 10-minute answer to a question do for you? It takes up a third of the time and shows you to be a self-absorbed person. You need to answer informatively and briefly, and then take follow-up questions.


Don't suck up to the full professors in the hotel suite and ignore the junior faculty. Even the full professors will hold that against you. One job candidate once looked at me and said, 'You and [name of other full professor in the room] are so productive." The other professor quickly mentioned that the other two people in the room, more junior, were also publishing scholars. It was a very awkward moment for all concerned.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Best Time to Start the Next Chapter

is right after you finish the previous one. The same day if possible. Take advantage of that momentum. My daughter's music teacher said that right after an audition is a good time to do a lot of practicing. Why? Because you have peaked for that audition, so the practice will be in that higher zone and thus be more effective. With writing, you can take advantage of the fact that you were just now writing very well, in finished prose rather than in rough notes, in order to complete the last thing you wrote. Mentally, you will be riding that wave of elation rather than experiencing let-down.

I recently finished an article and two chapters, so I am beginning with chapter that has intimidated me in the past and that I have to conclude by February. If I finish this, I will be 5/8 done with the book, more or less.


If you want to take a short break of a day or two, then, don't do it between chapters, but in the middle of one of them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breaking It Up

I'm about three weeks ahead in writing these posts. I wish I could find a place to hide out from my ideas for a while. They keep coming at me. I have more than I know what to do with. I'm talking about ideas for posts here as well as ideas for my actual scholarly writing.


A large task can be broken up into several smaller ones. When I'm close to done with a piece I make a list of discrete tasks that have to be done. On the other hand, having too many small tasks can be overwhelming to, so in that case, I cluster them together and they seem easier that way. You can shift your perspective back and forth and make things a lot easier on yourself.

Finishing the article means doing tasks 1-10. Each is easy in itself, so you could do one very easy thing a day and finish the whole thing in 10 days! Rewrite the footnotes one day, tweak the concluding paragraph another, complete a short section on X another day. Once you start doing this, you can do 2 or 3 easy things a day.

But if your list is writing 10 emails, then group those into one task. "Answer email." Do those all at once.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Work Done Oct. 8-14

Once again: the rules are that I only list significant tasks of writing or major grading (entire sets of papers). I don't list teaching classes, writing emails, reading for class or other prep, or my regular blogging. If I had group like Thomas does where we could all talk about our progress for the week, that would be even better, but for now I have to content myself with doing it on the blog.

Fri. Oct. 8: Major progress on planning the writing of next few chapters. Worked on Chapter 4.

Sat. Oct. 9: Nothing. I really needed a day off.

Sun. Oct. 10: Nothing. I guess I needed two days off!

Mon. Oct. 11: Wrote two study guides and one exam / worked on Chapter 4 with significant progress. Had idea to organize "Working Group on Prosody and Versification" for the Spring and wrote up a brief proposal for that. I arranged a date for an outside speaker to come to the Hall Center. I guess those two days off paid off. I did this all in an 8 1/2 hour day too, and taught my two courses, and called it a day at 4:30. Then I read a big chunk of a novel I have to teach next week, after dinner.

Tues. Oct. 12: Wrote another exam. Significant progress on Chapter 4, eliminating one section and completing section on Blanca Varela. All before one p.m.

Wed. Oct. 13: Graded a set of papers. Class of 17 students, excluding papers turned in late or not at all.

Thur. Oct. 14: Finished chapter 4, except for a few references that will be coming in a book I ordered from amazon. Began to organize a new chapter.

Summary: Finished a chapter. Considering I finished one last week too, and an article at the end of last month, I'm doing pretty well. Basically I did the work I needed to for October in research. I think I'll rest on my laurels for a few days (if I can find them). I have 4 out of 8 chapters written for my next book project. Considering there were two days here I did not work very much, and that it was a heavy grading week, I'm pretty happy with myself.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Akiko's Book

Human Resources

Part of the scholarly base is your network of scholarly contacts, people who can give you advice about your research. Recently, I finished a chapter and sent it to someone I had been in correspondence with a few years ago. He responded with some comments 24 hours later. This person is a poet and linguist, and more specifically is one of the leading linguists specializing in the prosody of Spanish. What incredible luck. When I was writing Apocryphal Lorca I had access to Jack Spicer's biographer (Kevin Killian), to Kenneth Koch's editorial assistant (Jordan Davis), an expert on Creeley (Ben Friedlander). To several Lorquistas. Pretty much everyone was willing to help, whether they were people who happened to be my friends already, contacts I had cultivated over the years, or simply people I contacted out of the blue. The key is approaching people respectfully and asking intelligent questions. The consultant is not there to do your research for you, but to tell you if you are on the right track, or sometimes to save you from dumb errors of fact. You wouldn't use a leading scholar to be your copy-editor (unless you are close friends and read each other's work).

This seems remarkably easy, but the problem is that you have to have the confidence to contact people, and you have to be at a certain level already to know what the right questions are to ask. I wouldn't email a leading physicist to explain string theory to me. For certain dumber questions you can ask people in your own university you know.