Monthly Archives: January 2015

Literature Reviews

Colloquium: Thursday, February 5, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)

As a scholar you have to have a good sense of the state your field. The value of your contribution will always be relative to what is already known by your peers, and your awareness of their work is part of your qualifications as a scholar. This is why literature reviews are such an important part of scholarship. They tell you what your peers are thinking and, while you don’t have to agree with them on every point, as a member of the community your work will build on theirs.

All scholars will usually carry our a review of the literature several times during the course of their careers. Sometimes they will do this in order to publish a so-called “review article”, which is an important community service. Ideally, it will save others the trouble of reviewing the same literature themselves, at least for a while. At other times, a scholar will carry our a mini-review of a particular corner of the literature, mainly to see what’s new, or because they moving into an area that had previously been peripheral to their interests. At the start of the career, as part of one’s PhD research, one will normally do a thorough search of several literatures, trying to find a place that feels like “home”. This process is formative; it shapes a scholars sense of self along with a sense of the community. It helps to define the “I” by identifying the “we”.

Our first “Craft Thursday” this year will be devoted the art of reviewing the literature. We will show you a number of tricks for searching bodies of literature that may be relevant to you, and identifying the key texts and central authors in your tradition. We will also talk about how to find already published literature reviews.

Liv Bjerge Laursen will guide us through the library’s databases “live”. So do please bring your own question and problems for us to work through.

The 8-Week Challenge

If you want to develop your mastery of some particular skill you will have give yourself time to practice. This also goes for writing. That’s why I’ve long recommended that scholars periodically commit themselves to eight weeks of deliberate writing, whether their aim is to get their writing process under control or simply to improve their style. During the 8-week period, you should write for at least half an hour and at most three hours every day, five days a week. (Yes, do please take the weekends off.) That means you will be writing between 20 and 120 hours over the eight-week period.

I offer weekly coaching to support this process, but normally only recommend it if you’re committing at least 40 hours to the Challenge. After all, you’ll be meeting with me (in a group of up to ten people) one hour every week, which would be almost a third of the time your committing to this discipline if you’re only actually writing for another two and half hours any given week. It’s okay to try this by yourself at a lower intensity for a while and then join the group when you’re ready to make a bigger commitment.

The trick, in any case, is to  appreciate your finitude. During the 8 weeks you’ll have, say, 40 hours of writing to do. I suggest you divide them into 27-minute paragraphs, which means you can write 80 paragraphs. And that means that you’ll be making 80 claims and providing support for them; making a claim and providing support for it is what a paragraph does. That’s 80 opportunities to improve yourself in that art. My Challenge to you is very simply to give yourself those 80 opportunities.

I suggest dividing your semester into two 8-week periods of this kind, with a one-week break in middle. For each of those 8-week periods, decide how many hours you’ll commit to the challenge. Then keep your commitment. For 32 weeks out of the year, you’ll now be producing careful, deliberate paragraphs. And this will keep your prose in shape.

Higher Education

I’m starting to get back at it, and I’ll be updating the events calender and announcing new seminars and workshops shortly. But I wanted to begin the year by writing a more reflective post about the what it all means. What am I trying to accomplish here? What were we thinking here at the CBS Library when we decided to focus on the “crafts skills” that define academic work?

Well, there’s no getting around a sense of “crisis” in today’s academic institutions. Higher education is more important than ever, both in life of the individual and the in the life of the community. More and more people are getting university degrees, and more and more policy is based on the knowledge that is produced at universities. Universities are being asked, increasingly explicitly and with increasing urgency, to serve its social function, to contribute both knowledge and knowledgeable people to deal with the world’s problems. All this, of course, to be accomplished at the lowest possible cost.

There is now a concern about whether students are learning as much as they used to at universities. One specific area of concern, and one that happens to be the focus of much of my work, is the quality of student writing, which, of course, eventually becomes the quality of writing that is done by graduates, and therefore the state of the written language in society as a such. Another area of concern is the quality of the research that is being published, first in top-tier academic journals and then in high-circulation popular media. One of the most tireless defender of standards here, I should mention, is Andrew Gelman at Columbia, who has a very sharp eye for problematic studies and academic misconduct, and also cares about the standards we hold students to.

I think all these things go together, and I’m proud to have been able to contribute in my small way to what Andrew calls the “replication and criticism” movement. My ambition is to one day be as precise about storytelling as Andrew is about statistics. At bottom, the connection is our sense of the “craft”: the “care” we take in our scholarship, whether as students or as  teachers or as researchers. As I get older, I have to admit, I find myself feeling somewhat “conservative” about the universities, as though there is a greater of losing something than gaining something through “progress”. In fact, universities are, to my mind, best understood as conservatories of tradition not laboratories of progress. I think we have to defend the craft that makes it possible to know something.