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Friday, November 20, 2015

Some Writing Resources (in development)

Below is a general compilation of ideas, suggestions, and stylistic points for undergraduate students. I'm going to compile some bits as I go along.

1. If you are going to head or start your essay with a quote from Marx (or anyone) make sure that that quote is not part of the main body of the text. It is a "head," so stylistically you should right justify it, place it in a smaller font, say 10, then use italics. It has a specific citation method, eg -"xxx" -Marx, Capital Vol1. So include the title of the book or paper. Leave a line between the head and the introduction. The point of a "head" is it someone else's proposition that you aim to support or provide evidence thereof. So make sure the "head" matches the "body" of the essay.

2. Don't leave the quotes you have selected hanging. What I mean is that they need to be integrated in the narrative, and you need to explain their relevance, what they provide evidence for. Don't let the reader try to think about what you are trying to use the quote for; remember, this is your paper, you want to control the understanding of your argument. But not integrating or 'explaining your quotes' you lessen your control over the interpretation of your argument. And furthermore, if you reply by suggesting that it is up to the audience to interpret what you say, well besides that being just lazy writing, I would reply by saying why even bother to make an argument in the first place then? But back to the point, don't let your quotes just hang, get more narrative mileage out of them.

3. Sadly, some students fill their essays with quotes. For example, 50% Marx quotes, 50% of their words, but which functionally was padding to get to the next Marx quote. This isn't a good way to write. First, you are just stringing disconnected quotes together hoping that their pastiche arrangement will make a point. But if you don't tell me what that point is, well, are you actually making an argument? Second, and this is the more moral point, if you just string a bunch of quotes together, are you a person or a parrot? Are you thinking and analysis, are you your own agent? Or are you someone's agent? That different makes a moral difference. And more than that I am not interested in teaching parrots! So don't string quotes together. Instead either analyse them, or use them in support of your analysis. Don't let them determine the analysis.

4. If you quote is longer is about 30-35 words+ you should use the block quote method. It looks neater, reads better, and is easier for the reader to see how you are using them in your analysis.

5. Don't end a paragraph with a quote. Remember if you are 'explaining your quotes' this should never happen.

6. Give the reader signpost and directions. Recently, I was reading a paper on alienation when suddenly the writer says "the fourth kind of alienation is..." but when I checked they didn't have any previous "first" "second" "then another" "lastly" kinds of signposts. So use them to help the reader understand your various points. On that note, sometimes you need to give the reader "directions" on how to read your paper. These do not only come in the introduction, but can come at the top of new sections. For example, think like this: xxxx. xxxx. "Definition of alienation" (Marx) XX...why this is important...XXX. I will give a brief descriptive treatment to the four primary kinds of alienation, where after I will demonstrate XXX. The first kind of alienation is...

7. Don't pass up an opportunity to discuss the roots of ideas. For example, if you are writing about the Communist Manifesto take the time to discuss Kant or the Hegelian roots of Marx's ideas. Here you could address the need for the working class to recognize (Hegel) their oppression and then recognize (Hegel) their need to transcend (Kant) these conditions through international solidarity (Kant.) So show the roots of ideas. Then, to continue the example, spend a paragraph describing what recognition in this example practically means.

8. Related to the above point, don't pass over ideas. Stay. Expand. Elaborate. These are the vocational skills that the liberal arts teaches. And your ability to go to a great depth is one skill that will differential you in a world so caught up in a fray of day to day activities. So ask yourself this: Could I elaborate here? Is yes, then you should. In this respects coulds become shoulds.

9. Page numbers. Sometimes binding errors occur. You can save everyone time and energy by using page numbers.

10. Please stop plagiarizing. I don't care per se. I am not really interested in playing policeman and trying to "catch" students. Further to that, for almost all of you, grades are meaningless. They don't carry over to the world. So stop trying to chase a false currency. That said, I am saddened because the more you plagiarize the less you grow intellectually. Let me explain. There is a common adage that 90% of everything is crap. So most of the material you plagiarize from is erroneous. I can virtually guarantee that you, yourselves, right now, are more likely to produce better material if you just spent the time just thinking about the ideas in front of you. You may risk making a few errors. But making errors and correcting them is central to learning new things. In short, I don't really prioritize you being "right," "correct," (or even agreeing with me,) I prioritize whether you learn or not. So, for me, every time you plagiarize you don`t get the reward of intellectual growth. You don't build up the proverbial muscles of the mind. At the end of the day, I have more interest in you building "mind muscles." But to do that, you need to do the exercises. That means you shouldn't take other`s work, tweak it, then try to pass it off as your own. Instead have the courage to try yourselves. You may make an error or so, but that is intrinsic to learning and living

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Drafting in Public & #AcWriMo

It is halfway through November and I am far from achieving my #AcWroMo goals. One item did pass the editors' eye test and is off to reviewers. The rest are close to being sent off, but close is not submitted.

There are reasons for this. Job applications do suck up more time than one initially thinks. And then one cannot be writing all the time. Indeed, more time should be spent reading, interviewing, collecting data and so on.

Nevertheless, I do need to get things submitted. A research project isn't complete until the results are disseminated in some way, even if it is just uploaded to SSRN. So in that spirit, I might not be able to get all my various manuscripts polished for journals, but they will be available for wider circulation and comment.

In that spirit I have decided to imitate a practice I've seen some other social scientists do. I'm going to try draft in public. Naturally, I have some reservations, but I think distributing portions of larger projects will help them become polished quicker especially if you know others might read it. Hopefully this will speed up iterations, but more importantly, I should be able to identify and correct the various errors that I will make. Let's see how the next two weeks go.

As always, comments invited and welcomed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Racial Profiling and Trust in the US

Racial profiling is obviously wrong; it presumes a predictive power of race, itself an implicit bias and racially motivated prejudice, and thus too simplistic for investigative purposes. Not only are these distortions present when arresting, as to are the over-reliance on them, but so are increases in police brutality such as humiliating harassment and verbal abuse. This effects every aspect of a community, especially when the police steal and destroy the property of the people they stop and frisk. The police are rife with misconduct, brutality, and corruption. Therefore it is unsurprising, even reasonable, that African-Americans distrust the police and the criminal justice system.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Buiness and the Bifurcation of Ethics from Morality

My partner is taking classes to complete her degree. She has a belligerent corporate apologist as an instructor. So the term so has been hard will little prospect of it improving. Despite her forbearance thus far, her patience is wearing thin, especially this last week when the instructor's assigned reading on business ethics limited the issue to reducing costs from employee stock thief. When my partner asked if there was something more to business ethics, like reducing social harm or exploitation, he said that pertained to law and was not under the purview of practical ethics.

Now, we do live in a capitalist state and that is the prevailing ideology, but still this is weak reasoning. Justifiably, my partner has been ranting and raving this week, but has got little sympathy from her classmates, in part because it seems they haven't thought about the issue at all really. So she asked me to write up a simple argument that she might be able to modify and draw up to use in class next week when she brings up the matter. This is what I wrote up. 

I'm not sure your strict distinction between ethics and morality is sustainable. You say morals are a person's private beliefs and customs, whereas you say ethics is the system of rules. But others might say morality has a religious anchor and ethics is a person's discretion to act. Do you see how these things can be easily reversed? 
The reason for this is because you have made a mistake. You cannot pretend that people are isolated individuals absolutely free to decide their beliefs outside of their social circumstances. We are social creatures and we grow up in communities. So a person private conduct is informed by the prevailing system of belief, whether that be religious or cultural or otherwise.
Almost all moral philosophers say that you can study ethics like you can study mathematics. This means that there are moral facts. Think of this example: If I hurt you by telling others you are a bad teacher and so fewer people take your class and eventually you are fired, but you didn't know it was me or anyone for that mater, would your subjective ignorance of what went on mean that you weren't hurt? No, of course not.
Let's take this a step further. It is a moral fact that you can exploit someone, hurt or harm them. And this happens too often at companies. Indeed, lots of people sign up to be exploited even if they are subjectively ignorant of their exploitation, mostly because if they didn't work they would become homeless, perhaps even die. Saying that my private beliefs as HR, or the company itself, is not interested in these larger pressing questions of harm simply because the law is silent on the matter is nothing more than weaseling from, colludes with, or simply condones objective harm because they think it less important than profit. No matter how you try to define the problem away, there is nothing ethical about that.

If anyone has something to add or re-frame please jump in the comments. I am more than interested in basic clear compelling arguments. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Two Unrelated Thoughts on Failure

1. Many years ago I was a TA for Communication in Everyday Life. The course was taught by Terry Neiman, a long time sessional at Simon Fraser’s School of Communication. In some ways it was a good class to teach because I learnt a lot very quickly, but it was chaotic. Terry, himself is a genius, and perhaps one of the most captivating lecturers I have had the great pleasure to work for. Still, his genius is bizarre, and the class was a whirlwind tour of pseudo-deconstructivist linguistics and then its subsequent application to power and beliefs like sciences, medicines, religions and politics. The course hinged on Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It suited Terry's teaching personality.

Still, many of the students would come to this class thinking it was something altogether different. To the uninitiated, the apparently generic title certainly did not give any indication of post war French thought. (In fairness the course description was fairly clear, but then again most students don’t speak this theoretical vernacular, and because of the “W” designation the course was, and still is, a point which most undergrads had to cross to carry on.) This unfamiliarly, these lectures about differance, caused many students to lock down with fear. Indeed, Terry delighted in keeping students confused, because confusion and ambivalence was an indication of minds confronting the long chain of significant associations until they traced apparent impossiblies and encountered the limits of action and agency. Or so he thought. Sigh. So, with all this going on, I thought it my job  to provide assurance to students that it made sense, and give confidence that I would get them the mid-terms, exams, and essays.

At this stage I was hardly the best TA. I had moved here for graduate studies and was still learning the educational culture here in Western Canada, trying to figure out the discrepancy between what students did and did not know and what they were expected to know. In the meantime I had to rely upon the tradition I came from which was one of relative distance and formality. I now realize how antithetical this is to how things are done here. So despite my efforts I came across as gruff, callous, indifferent: This hampered my self-set goals.

In any case, between Terry’s lecturing style, the material, and my TA abilities, the fear of failure was never far from students’ minds. This was doubly so when asked to write papers on self-selected topics without much direction from the stage. While the A students always wrote A papers, the vast majority of students were befuddled and some took to took to recycling papers in from other courses just to try get by. We caught a fair number of those. (Once I was marking with a friend, and she read a paper that was so garbled and convoluted she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. An hour later I read her a paper that made no sense to me. She jumped up, rumbled through her stack, and pulled out the earlier paper. It was the same nonsensical paper submitted to two different classes.)

Still, that anomaly aside, altogether almost all papers were sincerely concerned with, and made vague allusions to technology as a general category being an accelerating force of social life. These papers walked a tightrope trying to exonerate the inventors and system which produced technology, while hand waving at the potential rate of social change. I spent a good portion of my time and energy trying to just get students to consider the role of ideology. Sadly, for a course that spent so much time concerned with beliefs, there was little to be found in the papers themselves. Aside from a lack of passion, or desire to look beyond the given, there was little genuine understanding of class, politics, or larger overarching inter-generational projects. And indeed Terry did little to clear the issue, for from his vantage social change to take one example was but another “grand narrative” that had to be binned, for as much as Marx bore the honorific ‘master of suspicion,’ substantive method was nevertheless replaced by iconographic cliché.

If I was being honest with you, I was a failure, most of those papers were failures, and the course was a failure. And in Terry’s mind, this made it a success, because the entire course was a performative exercise in deconstructing the educational institution and undermining traditional forms of authority, the lectern included. This didn’t sit well with me, and is still unsettling. This is not because of traces that have decentered my understanding of the classroom, but because I think of it specifically as an ethical lapse, where student’s good will is squandered. I saw the difference between students walking into and out of that class. Too many had become cynical with university and less interested in intellectual life. So as far as I was concerned, it was an unnecessary failure of our educational mission.

2. Most Marxist and communists, liberals and progressives are intimately aware of defeat. This is not because their projects are premature, historically ill-timed or self-defeating, but because their politics face well-resourced and well-entrenched interests and rulers. Despite what the prevailing ideology says, the Western tradition of government is not one of noble progress but is rather anti-democratic, and I would argue, anti-political and oppressive. More to the point, there is no natural tendency in Western government to mass democratic participation. Even Marx’s radicalism is predicated upon a necessary dictatorship of the proletariat in post-capitalist societies to get to a society of freely associated producers. So to my mind, democracy, even the little bit we have, is a historical anomaly and unfortunately, as much as I wish it otherwise, unlikely to last. I do hope to be proved wrong on this front.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Dawn in Ferguson, August 2014





**Images from Corey Pein's The Guns of Ferguson: When Tyranny Really Comes into Town, the NRA Goes into Hiding, The Baffler, August 14, 2014