Posts Tagged ‘writing’
In light of Matt Desmond winning a Pulitzer for Evicted, I think it’s worth thinking about why sociologists don’t get this kind of recognition more often. Well, you might say, we just don’t write for a mass audience like that. That’s not the point. We’re developing science. Okay, sure. It’s a fair point that Desmond’s book is not really a theoretical argument and even it’s public policy/social problems angle isn’t necessarily revelatory. According to Henry Grabar, a Staff writer at Slate:
It’s not that Desmond pioneered the idea that, as the Pulitzer foundation puts it, evictions “were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” But he does give it pathos. And that makes a difference.
Others describe similar reactions to the book, moved by its empathy, moral commitment, and sense of character and place. There are people who should know about evictions, and they learn about them through Desmond’s book. But those who already know this literature aren’t necessarily learning anything new.
So then that’s not real sociology, I can hear people saying, which can sometimes be a silly kind of boundary-making, especially for books, especially for a book written by a sociologist, using tools and data developed by sociologists, and even more so for a sociologist’s book that’s really trying to make the world a better place. That’s why a lot of us got into this game in the first place.
But what’s the mechanism? What’s the causal story? What’s the counter-intuitive finding? Well, book folks will often say something like “that’s for the articles.” A lot of sociologists—especially qualitative types—write articles for each other and books for the world. Except it’s usually not the world. Usually it’s a very small section of the world, a mystical land full of people forced to buy our wares, good or not. Those people are called by a word with an English prefix and a Latinate root, a people, via a small ritual twice or thrice a year with a mystical power: they are named undergraduates.
So better put: articles are for each other, books are (often) for undergrads. If people put you on their syllabus, it’s a guaranteed sale, or possibly 150 sales. That means you might make a good 30 bucks or so! Clearly it’s not for the money, but most of us spend a lot of time with undergrads, we get used to thinking about how to talk to them, and we care about writing books they’ll relate to and that our colleagues will enjoy teaching.
But here’s the question. Why stop at undergrads? Why not, you know, the public? I think part of this is simply a function of understanding your audience. We know how to write to academics (and I’m including grad students in that group) and we also know how to write to undergraduates. Most of us aren’t really sure what it means to write to a broader audience.
But more importantly—and this gets to the point of this piece—good writing is hard. In different ways, both academics and undergrads are captive audiences, and so writing for them requires less attention to the quality of the prose. It’s the ideas that matter, and while undergrads might require some level of simplicity, they don’t require elegance or grace. Popular books tend to have better sentences and paragraphs. The non-fiction reads with the smoothness and verve of captivating journalism, often with characters and scenes that feel novelistic.
There are good recent examples of such excellent writing by sociologists about sociology: among others, there are Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s Crook County, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, Lisa Wade’s American Hookup, and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price. Note these are a mixture of university and trade presses, and that each advances a description of a social mechanism even as it also gives a broad lay-of-the-land for interested general readers.
Now sometimes that focus on quality prose can distract from meaningful ideas. This is a criticism within fiction as well, with various critics lambasting the “sentence fetish” (see especially debate about whether Updike was actually a good writer rather than simply a brilliant stylist). But ideas and good prose don’t have to conflict, even if people sometimes think they do. Look at the philosophy of Charles Taylor, the cultural criticism of Matthew Crawford, the essays of James Baldwin or literally anything by Rebecca Solnit. Within sociology, I think a lot about how Habits of the Heart is often underrated for its theoretical contributions: if it reads well, it’s gotta be too simple, right? There’s no necessary reason we couldn’t all be much better writers. And then possibly win a few more Pulitzers. There’s just no institutional incentive for us to write well (except inasmuch as we have to make our ideas relatively clear).
I’m not sure there’s a clean way out of this. I don’t want to start rejecting papers from ASR and AJS because their sentences are clunky. That really isn’t the point. But especially for those of us who write and evaluate books, it’s worth thinking about the role of prose itself within our criteria. An institutionalized norm of high quality writing will have spillover effects beyond any one book. It might even mean we win a few more prizes for our writing and don’t have to apologize that we’re still sociologists despite writing well.
At orgtheory, we’ve repeatedly discussed whether letters of recommendation (LOR) are useful or not. For some committees and tasks, LOR can help decision-making a lot – for example, undergraduate admissions, graduate school admissions, and tenure for professors. But for other committees and matters, LOR serve a per forma function and are less likely to impart information useful for decision-making. Worse, LOR can increase workloads for letter-writers, especially when they are at institutions that do not offer support for this kind of bureaucratic task.*
Nonetheless, committed letter-writers dutifully carry out their responsibilities, especially since LOR can be consequential.** As Fabio, olderwoman, David Meyer, and others have pointed out, writing effective LOR is an art, with carefully coded language that require fluency on the parts of both letter-writers and letter-readers. Otherwise, what one letter-writer might view as effusive could be interpreted as a lukewarm endorsement by readers; hyperbolic letters with hierarchical rankings ( i.e., “best student ever”) might be considered suspect. But what if LOR and related documents were brutally honest about their contexts, rather than merely following convention?
A recently published novel Dear Committee Members takes aim at these bureaucratic documents and their institutions’ crumbling support. Julie Schumacher‘s novel unfolds as a series of documents composed by a professor for various audiences. Check out the following reviews for tidbits.
writing peeves: use first person and active voice or the red pen of wrath will rain a rewrite upon thee
In my undergraduate classes, students always express surprise when I say that I expect them to use first person when appropriate in writing, including field notes and the methods section of research papers. I explain that disciplines and instructors have different norms about voice, but my preference is for conveying that an actor is responsible for an action. My undergrads usually embrace first person after this short explanation.
However, some writers find breaking the passive voice habit a difficult endeavor. Manuscripts and publications reveal that some colleagues rely on passive space-wasters such as “There is/are…” rather than explicitly identifying actors or assigning responsibility for actions. When encountering such fillers in manuscripts and publications, I have the same visceral reaction as a craftsperson spotting a poorly executed part in a colleague’s handiwork – an immediate urge to transform the offending sentence into a tighter, more informative one.* It seems I’m not the only one.
One journal editor shares similar rationales for using first rather than third person:
First person pronouns
This is one area in which I am not conservative. In the olden days we were taught to write in the third person – “the author found” – and in passive voice – “it was found that….” This is really a rhetorical device to convince readers to believe you and not ask embarrassing questions. The results were discovered on stone tablets on the mystic mountain. No human beings were involved in the research. Of course it’s correct! It’s SCIENCE.
In the last thirty years or so, people in the philosophy of science have been dealing with the fact that human beings actually are involved in research, that they have interests and biases, and that the best way to develop some kind of shareable knowledge, otherwise known as “science” or “objectivity,” is to admit these biases and try to control them rather than pretending they don’t exist. Post-modernists and phenomenologists seem to have given up on shareable knowledge.
At JSSW we still look for it, we just realize that it’s harder to attain than we used to think.
So, it’s fine with me if you want to speak in the first person. But if you’re of the old school, I won’t try to change you. I’ll settle for trying to make you uncomfortable.
William H. Starbuck shares his tips for how to avoid first person, without resorting to third person:
Avoid first-person and second-person pronouns.
First-person pronouns do sometimes serve well, but you should recognize the disadvantages of saying I, we, our or you. When you refer explicitly to yourself, you remind your readers that they are reading your ideas, not their ideas; and consequently you make it more difficult for your readers to adopt your ideas as their own. Thus, taking credit for your ideas makes your writing less persuasive and gives your ideas less impact. For example,
In this paper we argue that focusing on –> Focusing on
It is my assumption that the support problems stated are common to any bank service bureau. –> Such support problems afflict any bank service bureau.
I will concentrate my efforts on the coordination mechanisms between departments. –> This research focuses on coordination between departments.
We suggest, furthermore, that assessing –> Furthermore, assessing
In presenting our typology, we will therefore give concrete examples –> Concrete examples illustrate each type.
For similar reasons, do not talk about the reader or the author.
* I would much rather follow the writer’s argument than break out the red pen of wrath.
What does it take to pull together a collaborative research project? Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner reveal all, via a reconstruction of their prolific email correspondence collected in a new ebook Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz. Prompted by the puzzling observation that younger musicians didn’t know the same repertoire of songs shared among older musicians, Becker and Faulkner, who are both practicing musicians, muscle through hammering out a research design and theoretical explanation for how musicians, including ones who have never practiced together before, can collectively perform.* Their exchanges evidence the gradual refinement of categories with plenty of links to songs, descriptions of illustrative experiences, and recounting of interviews with fellow musicians while practicing in the field. Here’s a blurb penned by Becker:
Would you like to know how people really think their way through all the problems of doing research and writing a book? Watch two old pros in action as they do that in the e-mail correspondence between sociologists Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker as they wrote Do You Know? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.
The book Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz shows the authors exchanging ideas and modifying them as the conversation proceeds. It shows them extracting ideas from their experiences in the field: performing in public, collaborating with other musicians, interviewing, using their field notes to generate ideas and test them, to elaborate theories as they go, all the thinking that goes on when you actually do research. No review of the literature—it’s replaced by the two of them drawing in work that seems relevant, that gives them something they can use to explain what they’ve seen and heard: using a study of Mexican witchcraft, for instance, to develop a research strategy, and painfully realizing that they have some substantial musical prejudices that they have to turn into a kind of historical sociology.
This is the way research really gets done, what you do after you write the research proposal and start working and find out that none of your plans are going to work because things were more complicated than you thought they were.
Writing is like raising children.* You spend endless time on it, cultivating and fussing over the details.
Sometimes writing is a joy, and you can’t believe you have the privilege of doing this for a living. In this state, you can repeat tasks like rewriting sections over and over, all because you believe in it and think you have something to share with the world. At this point, writing feels a lot like this:
When a deadline hits and/or you feel you’re done enough work to share with others, you may feel a bit anxious about releasing the kids into the wild, but you reassure yourself that they can hold up on their own. But, at some point, submitted manuscripts return home like boomer-rang adult children with several “needs more work” recommendations safety-pinned to their shirts.
In some cases, you bite your lip, as you supported or even encouraged this child’s majoring in pomo-such-and-such studies. However, sometimes agents of the cruel world (i.e., reviewers and editors) disagree about whether it needs another one of these and what can be done to improve chances for independent living. You are grateful for the feedback, but it’s not always clear how you can implement changes, especially when recommendations conflict. In the meantime, the child is lying aimlessly on your couch with earbuds in, leaving dirty dishes and empty candy wrappers everywhere, and muttering monosyllabic responses to your increasingly alarmed inquiries about future steps towards independence.
During these times, the rewriting process feels more like this:
More comparisons after the jump…
Today, at my university library, I went to pick up ten books I had ordered. The circulation worker started checking the tall stack of books out for me. To my surprise, rather than commenting on my reading habits (as the security guard later did, muttering “lots of books”), the circulation worker asked, “are you writing a book?” I answered yes, explaining that I had written one book and that I intended to write more, eliciting what sounded like a happy noise from the worker. What the worker intuitively got was that in order to write, one also has to read – both to stand on the shoulders of giants (i.e., learn and build on existing content) and to understand different ways of writing and presenting material.
Although an intrinsic desire to read and write is important, reading and writing habits can be cultivated and encouraged by family members, friends, teachers, professors, mentors, and colleagues. For example, one professor of mine devoted a portion of his slideshow lecture to describing the writings and displaying the covers of books published by previous students; he also noted that readers should have to periodically consult a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words – if they didn’t, they were reading below their level. Similarly, another regularly mentioned students’ journal publications in lecture. Such mentions underscored how writing and publishing were within the realm of reality, rather than something limited to a few, other-worldly individuals. Similarly, a dissertation writing group, particularly one led by a trained facilitator, can help junior researchers learn how to troubleshoot issues and run future writing groups with colleagues that facilitate a regular stream of publications.
However, figuring out what to read is no longer as easy as waiting for a journal delivery or pulling out a drawer of alphabetically organized index cards, looking at the subject indexes for more cards, and heading into the stacks with a list of call numbers. The struggles of today’s students and trained librarians to effectively locate appropriate resources on even very specific topics suggests that something is amiss. Partly, the proliferation of electronic journal search engines that access some journals but not others, as well as budgetary cuts that have curtailed book acquisitions and cancelled electronic journal subscriptions don’t help. Even the well-heeled Ivies are slashing their library collections.
What are people doing in response?
– Some instructors, including those at elite institutions where one might assume that students are well-prepared for college instruction, devote part of classtime to teaching students how to read scholarly articles and books. Some also send students to trainings at university libraries for instruction on how to search for resources.
– Individuals can look for recommendations of readings on listservs, blogs, and colleagues’ webpages. In addition, recently published books can be located on university presses’ catalogs or websites; conference attendees can ask representatives for recommendations on specific topics or peruse the offerings at the publishers’ book displays.
– Besides regularly reviewing manuscripts for journals and publishers (a necessary professional responsibility to keep the community alive and thriving), colleagues can suggest colleagues’ books for library collections or purchase books from grant funds. Update: Implicit in this remark is that contributing to the production and consumption of publications is important to sustaining venues that allow people to publish…though the advent of self-publishing and open-access suggest alternative opportunities as well.
Any ideas or comments on the state of cultivating reader- and writership?