28 June 2011

No Jews Need Apply?

I'm starting the exciting and rewarding process of searching for a job, so I'm reading lots of academic help-wanted ads.

While reading an ad for one particular school, I came across this language:
Women, Aboriginal peoples, members of visible minorities, and people with disabilities are especially encouraged to apply and to voluntarily self identify as a member of a designated group as part of their application.
I'm not usually touchy about these things (when it comes to jobs, I'm the anti-Marx; I wouldn't accept a job that won't take someone like me), but it immediately occurred to me that I'm being excluded. But there must a long list of non-visible minorities (heck, they might even be trying to keep out the mentally ill, although the disability language indicates otherwise). Let's list all the people who don't get preferential treatment.

26 June 2011

The Passive We

The heart of academia is the peer review process, and the heart of the peer review process is peer review. We read one another's papers to try to make sure that published articles quack like a paper. And since the gatekeepers are peer reviewers, we all try to have peers review our papers before they are submitted to a journal, on the same theory as the lottery number picker I once saw on sale -- a ping pong ball bubbler just like the lottery has.

I like reviewing, and I'm pretty good at it, so I get asked to read friends' and colleagues' papers more often than the average academic. One thing I do for friends that we are advised against doing in real reviewing is throw in some copy editing. Academics, by and large, aren't great stylists but a better written paper is more likely, all other things equal, to get published than a poorly written paper.

We all have some odd writing habits (foreigners are absolutely convinced that it's ungrammatical to start a sentence with "Because"), but mostly the people I review accept my advice. There are two exceptions. I cannot convince anyone to: refer to themselves in the first person singular in single-authored papers; or to stop assigning agency to the paper (as in "This paper conclusively proves..."). So papers that I know a friend of mine wrote all on his own keep saying that "we" did this and "we" argue that. Then, in the next paragraph, "we" stop doing anything and the paper itself gets up off the table and conducts research.

I'm not sure how to explain this reluctance to take personal responsibility for a paper that the author hopes to publish and take credit for. Does it seem too egotistical to write that "due to the nested nature of the data, I used hierarchical linear modeling?" Why write that "we used" or "this paper uses?"

Management research and writing is almost always performed alone. Since peer review is double blind (the reviewers don't know the identity of the author and the author doesn't know the reviewers) the flow of credibility is from work to author, not the other way round. As a result, this blog post is puzzled that we write this way.

20 June 2011

Goodl Ol'Canada

Apparently, Bill Ayers can't get across the border into Canada to give a speech and absolutely not, under any circumstances, to blow up buildings and kill innocent poeple in terror attacks.

So three cheers for Canada.

17 June 2011


I've now read The Possessed by Elif Batuman, in part because Brit recommended it and in part because she complained about exactly the objection to the Kindle that most annoys me: I don't use a Kindle because I love books. (Not only is this a category mistake (the book is not the physical object) but it is usually said with unearned smug moral superiority.)

I quite liked the book and think you will too, and thus I recommend it. But I do want to quibble with one thing Brit said, which is that The Possessed is a memoir. It is quite clear to me that this is not a memoir, but a novel.

It is true that, if it is a novel, it is a novel about a character named Elif Batuman, who shares at least some important characteristics with her author. Generally, I find authors showing up in their own books to be anathema -- one of the few things Kingsley Amis and I have in common is our reaction to the appearence of the Martin Amis character in Money; both of us immediately threw the book across the room. Perhaps because the novel takes the form of a memoir, this trick is less objectionable than it might otherwise be.

Once I began to suspect that The Possessed is a novel, it quickly became obvious. In fact, the first part of the book is taken up with meditations on a Russion writer who, Elif continually finds, writes autobiography that is actually fictional. The author wasn't or couldn't have been various places he writes about, and certain stories don't seem to have happened quite as presented. In other words, the first part of the book is a quite obvious justification for authors presenting fiction as fact, even as to their own lives.

Elif is, in fact, an untrustworthy narrator of her own life. The untrustworthy narrator, as literary device, shows up throughout the book, at least once explicitly ("a Romanian girl who briefly studied unreliable narrators before dropping out."). Elif lives through story after story, and person after person, who can't quite be believed and who is shown eventually to be unreliable: among others, a landlord who hides the only working bathroom and refrigerator; a student who makes up a fatal illness for a security guard; Isaak Babel's daughters.) There are facts here that could be Googled, the death of a Balkan Arch-Bishop for example, but I have resolutely declined to do so. truth is irrelevant to the story.

Indeed, the irrelevence of truth seems to be the point of the novel. Elif (the character) is made to question her devotion to literature. If she had it to do over, would she still study literature. She could, instead, study radical Islam, which really matters. Elif decides that "[i]f I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them." It's possible for someone who is not a character in a novel to reach that conclusion, but from a real person such an answer is self-refuting.

12 June 2011

Life In Northampton

The artist, needless to say, misunderstands her own art.