Productive in Publishing 2: Reply to Brennan (guest post by David Enoch)

Yesterday, I posted an outline of Jason Brennan’s advice to graduate students on how to be productive in publishing (when you read that, do note the further details Brennan supplies in response to some of the comments). In what follows, David Enoch, the Rodney Blackman Chair in the Philosophy of Law in the Faculty of Law and the Philosophy Department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, replies to Brennan.

A Reply to Brennan’s “Productive in Publishing”
by David Enoch

My first reaction, when reading Jason Brennan’s advice for grad students on productivity and publishing was, “No, no, no!”. This is why I am writing this response. Still, there’s a lot to like about Brennan’s advice: First, I think that Brennan is right that (with very few exceptions) graduating without publications is a very bad idea. Second, some of his advice is right and helpful. Third, I think that some of his wrong advice can be useful – in correcting for mistakes many graduate students often make. For instance, “Don’t read, write.” is a horrible piece of advice understood literally. But, if addressed at a specific grad student who will not write anything until s/he has read everything, it may be useful advice nonetheless, because it would push him/her in the right direction. And if there’s reason to think that this feature is common to all or most grad student, perhaps it can be useful even more generally.

Still, I found the advice disturbing. One general problem is that the post has “cynicism” written all over it. Sure, grad students should be done with writing their dissertations already, but “a done dissertation is a good dissertation”? Really? And no reading? Multiply nails per hammer? Perhaps it’s just me and my allergic reaction to business-school-talk, but all of this is way too cynical for me (as is, by the way, the presentation of Brennan in Justin’s introduction just by the number of books he’s written).  I don’t think I’m naïve – I am perfectly willing to consider pragmatic considerations, and I often advise graduate students on pragmatic matters as well. But in my experience, utter cynicism is not just morally problematic and not conducive to good work, it is also not pragmatically optimal. Sure, you should publish, but in my experience, the best way to publish is first to write a good paper. Substance first. And while it’s good – sometimes important, and certainly useful – to publish a lot, writing good philosophy also seems important to me. This is not the tone one hears from Brennan’s advice, though it’s possible, of course, that this is because he is taking all of the substance for granted, and focuses here on other stuff. Still, perhaps the reader does not take it for granted. So it’s worth highlighting.

There’s another general problem with Brennan’s advice: It is way too general. Not getting stuck is important for all grad students, sure, but how it is that one avoids getting stuck varies widely, in my experience, from one person to another. I take Brennan’s word, of course, that following his advice worked for him, but it’s a giant leap to think that it works for everyone. And some of his advice just cannot work for some grad students: 20 hours writing a week is possible for some people, and that’s wonderful. But if you still take courses, and maybe have a child, or need to work, you’re going to have to find some other way of writing. So here’s my first piece of advice: Don’t take too seriously general advice. There are some common mistakes it’s important to avoid, and in his over-corrective way, Brennan is helpful in highlighting some of them. But at the end of the day, there’s a “know-thyself” part to writing a dissertation, and you should find your own ways of avoiding those common mistakes (and other, less common ones). In this process, it may be a good idea to talk to others and see what works for them. But this is it – you can’t assume that what works for them works for you. Check and see.

Also, when it comes to supervising dissertation writing, no one is really that experienced. The numbers are almost always rather small (even for those of us who supervise quite a lot), and I suspect – but don’t know – that pretty much all of us remain forever influenced by the idiosyncratic experiences of the one grad student we know best – our own past selves. And it goes without saying that this may not be the best induction base. This applies also to me, of course, so it’s possible that what I write here is not true of all grad students (or, indeed, of most dissertation advisors) – and I should emphasize that the university I’m at is in many respects different from the typical American university – but still.

With all of this in mind, here are some more focused points where Brennan and I seem to differ:

  1. I don’t know about every weekday, or about 20 hours, but I think that most people find routines helpful, so find the routine that works for you. (For me, sometimes what works best is clearing a full day or two for just writing, then a few days of doing all the rest of the stuff that needs to be done.)
  2. Of course you should read. Take excessive notes. And have a stopping rule – understand that you’re never going to read everything relevant, so you need a somewhat artificial stopping rule. (Mine is: once my notes give me a good feel for what exactly I want to say, and most of the references I come across in reading (and all of the central ones) are things I already know, I stop reading). Then write. Then edit, and read some more, and keep taking notes, so that after the first rejection you can revise, and so on.
  3. Don’t look down upon hairdressers. On the other hand, it’s quite ok if what you do is not immediately accessible to people without background. You should be excited about it, as should your intended readers. And you should be able to explain what’s exciting about your work in a conversation, say, with someone like me – namely, a philosopher who works in a totally different field. You should be able to let me see that your work is cool. And it’s always nice to be able to explain to others as well, but not all work lends itself to this kind of explanation. As for writing in 12th grade reading level – I suggest not. Rather, write as simply as possible. Anything above 12th grade level, so to speak, needs special justification. Often, though, such justification will be available.
  4. Don’t even think in terms of hammers and nails and selling a paper. Do good, interesting philosophy. It most certainly doesn’t have to be perfect (what was the last paper you’ve read that was perfect?) And once you have a paper that you’re pretty happy with, do think about pragmatic matters re publishing – where to send, when to send, how to structure it, whom to address, perhaps even find an amusing title (but for the love of god, don’t overdo it. Nothing is worse than a title that screams “forced cuteness”). All of this is important. But substance first.
  5. Prep for teaching. Sure, you shouldn’t let it be your excuse for not writing. But you should definitely prep. This is so, first, because others are counting on you (even if it doesn’t feel they care), and they are entitled to a good class; second, because teaching can be very rewarding, but for most of us, not if we’re not prepared; and third, because poor teaching evaluations won’t help you to get a job.


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