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.

_AdobeRGB1998-7

guest
27 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
5 years ago

Thanks for the reply. Still, I find it baffling, and saddening, that anyone could read what I wrote as “looking down on hairdressers” or “cynical”. I thought I was a happy-go-lucky person offering advice to graduate students about how to get things done and be happy. Also, I take it you didn’t read the clarifying comments, since some of what you wrote above is just repeating what I said in the clarifying comments.Report

Peter
Peter
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

I must say that although I didn’t agree with every bit of advice in Jason’s post, I did agree with most of it, and I certainly didn’t find it cynical. If anything, it was refreshing to hear about what works for different people, especially very productive people. So: Thanks Jason (and David too–it was nice to hear about which habits work for you).Report

Simone Tulumello
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

Than you both, Jason and David (and Stuart Elden who shared it), it’s an interesting debate.
I feel more “next to” David’s take here but I have read Jason’s clarifying comments in his post and them change perspective quite a lot.
But one comment, Jason (and David): if many people read a text and find it “looking down on hairdressers” or “cynical”, but you had not intention to be; maybe the problem is this particular text’s, how it is written. Not always intention and output coincide. And as long as we are talking about how to write better (and more, ok), my non-requested advice:
– take very seriously what others think of your texts. If many have understood something you didn’t want to convey, it’s not them, it’s your text.Report

Amy
Amy
Reply to  Simone Tulumello
5 years ago

I do no think David was saying Jason “looks down upon hairdressers” (But he was saying Jason’s tone was cynical, and I agree.) The hairdressing point was in reference to Jason’s comment to write like at a 12th-grade level. David was saying that although we should not look down on those who only understand 12th-grade writing, it does not follow that we must write philosophy at their level.Report

David
David
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

I too didn’t understand the “cynical” charge at all. Jason’s post was resolutely practical, but that’s very different from cynical.

I suppose one reading of the “many nails one hammer” remark–squeezing out many different papers from the same idea, to the extent that they’re just barely distinct enough to avoid the charge of self-plagiarism–could be understood as cynical. I didn’t read it that way, but I could see it. Otherwise I find the charge entirely out of left field.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

Uh, he didn’t say you look down on hairdressers. He was qualifying his remark that being able to explain your research to them may not be important.

Maybe you should have devoted more time to reading the post instead of quickly writing a response? I kid, I kid.Report

recentgrad
recentgrad
5 years ago

Thank you for this! Brennan’s piece is so awfully cynical, but in such a familiar way that I didn’t even expect anyone to object to it. This response is wonderful, exactly right.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  recentgrad
5 years ago

Again, it’s not cynical at all, and that people read it that way reflect their own cynicism, not ine.Report

recentgrad
recentgrad
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

I did read your clarifications, such as “I assume most philosophers are not as dense as our humanitiesprof above.” Does my reading this as petulant reflect my own petulance?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  recentgrad
5 years ago

That was petulant in response to petulance, but the post wasn’t cynical.Report

Amy
Amy
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

Of course, some one’s problem with your writing is always their fault, not yours. That is the cynicism I am talking about. The tone of your work is, “Look and how successful I am. You guys are not successful like me because you are not as dedicated and smart and your strategy is not as good as mine.” Maybe you did not mean it like that, but you come across that way a lot to a lot of people. If you don’t want to be read that way, try harder to come across as kind and understanding.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Amy
5 years ago

It might be worth noting the context of all of this.

The grad students at my school asked me to give a talk about publishing. I wrote up some bullet points and posted them on Facebook the night before the talk, tagging some of my academic friends who have done similar workshops and who I’ve learned from. Justin saw it and asked if he could the outline here. I didn’t write to him asking if I could brag on DN about how awesome I am.Report

David
David
Reply to  Amy
5 years ago

WRT:

“Look and how successful I am. You guys are not successful like me because you are not as dedicated and smart and your strategy is not as good as mine.”

Setting aside whether that’s a reasonable implication to take from his piece, I don’t see what this has to do with cynicism in the slightest. Self-regard =/= cynicism.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

“people read it that way reflect their own cynicism, not mine.” That seems bang on the money to me. I read most of your advice nodding my head along the way — much of it similar to advice I gave in this post: http://diaryofdoctorlogic.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/on-productivity-techniques-i-find-useful.html (although I find teaching prep a very good way to stimulate ideas for research, and I often try to organize my courses so that I’m teaching things I want to be reading for research, thus killing two birds with one stone, so I, personally, disagree with this one; but of course no one should’ve expected all the advice to fit everyone equally well).

When one decides one wants to write, it’s easy to do so. I started a project in July that has since rather overtaken me, heart and soul, such that I was writing 6-8 hours a day for most of September (got in to the office, checked email; sat down, wrote; at lunch; came back to office; did a few pressing things; wrote; picked up kid from school, went home, made supper, put kid to bed; wrote). Since term started in October, I haven’t been able to devote that much time to it, but I still find a few hours every day while I’m at the office to write, and still spend roughly 8pm to 11pm every night writing (Note: This goes against all my usual practice of leaving work at work at 5pm. The reason I’m breaking that rule is because this project has me so distracted that I have trouble thinking about anything else and all I want to be doing is writing on it, I don’t want to be doing anything else. As long as that holds true, working in the evening is not an unhealthy thing for me.)

As a result, since mid-July, I’ve written 77,500 words, and I intend and expect to break 100,000 by the end of this month (at which point I hope draft 1 will be finished and I can get back to the piece of advice about having multiple drafts going at once; this is the longest I’ve worked on only one thing, and it’s….weird.)

I write what I want because I want to, and I enjoy doing it. I think if you’re already in a place where writing is a joy and not a chore, then Brennan’s advice is very good advice. For people for whom writing is a chore and a slog, then perhaps it may seem overly cynical.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
5 years ago

Please Students First!: Most of us will be remembered for what good we do for students, mostly undergraduates, not by our writing/scholarship. The vocation of teaching is worthy, and requires reading, scholarship, preparation, and dedication to one’s charges.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Owen Flanagan
5 years ago

Teaching is a great and noble thing. And if you want a real chance to become a teacher in this horrible job market, I highly recommend you take my advice about publishing. Even the “teaching jobs” tend to go to well-published people now.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  Jason Brennan
5 years ago

Why think that your advice about publishing is the advice people should take if they want jobs in philosophy? Your advice about publishing is in service of quantity of publication. Are the best jobs going to those who publish the most? Is everyone who publishes a lot getting a job?
Not in my experience on the hiring end at a good institution and not in my experience as a supervisor for a great many PhD students.
Advising graduate students to publish before going on the market is in my view good sensible advice. That advice is not the same as your advice about publishing.Report

currentgrad
currentgrad
5 years ago

I found both Brennan’s and Enoch’s posts very helpful, a big thanks to both of you. I wonder whether Enoch is correct about the advice being a little too general. Whilst I tend to write every day as per Brennan’s post, I know some grad students who just can’t; they have some weeks where they write very little, and some where they write excessively. Is it just that people work best in different ways? I am unsure.

There is, however, a take home point from Brennan’s article that really helped me when I started teaching, which echoes the financial investment phrase: `pay yourself first’. I put a lot of time into my teaching, and I read widely. But I only prep and read inessential material *after* doing my own research. Your students deserve a good class, and reading widely is important (and fun!) but unless you want to go down that route, your research should come first. That doesn’t mean your students have to suffer, it just means that your research won’t. The first work you do in the day will likely be the best quality; put that quality into your writing, and I imagine that your chances of teaching in the future will be greatly enhanced.

Also, I don’t really understand why people are taking Brennan’s article to be cynical. The job market may well make you cynical, Brennan was just being realistic as far as I could tell.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
5 years ago

Jason is obviously more than capable of defending himself here, and I wrote a comment in favor of his advice on his post. I think this issue is important enough, however, to risk repeating myself. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I’m a humanities editor at a university press, so I deal with lots of authors. I also did a PhD in philosophy and found writing a dissertation to be the worst experience of my life, in part because I did not at all follow Jason’s advice (which I had access to, by the way, in the form of David Schmidtz’s very similar remarks that were circulating among my libertarian friends at the time). Thus, I am currently someone who, because of my professional experience working with authors, has seen that Jason’s writing advice is indeed extremely effective. I also used to be someone who was terrified and put-off by Jason’s advice and would have looked for reasons to reject it. I’m very confident that there aren’t such reasons. I think grad students should get this the first day of grad school. I think they should send it with the application. I think undergraduate advisors should give it to all the majors thinking of going to grad school. There are many professions that will afford someone a happy and successful life, and many of them do not involve having to follow Jason’s advice. Academia is a profession that does indeed require following something like Jason’s advice in order to be successful and happy.

Turning to Jason’s advice, I think it can be roughly distilled as follows:
1. Being a successful and happy academic requires being a successfully published writer.
2. Being a successfully published writer requires writing a lot.
3. The most effective way of writing a lot is to write everyday, to write (sometimes shitty) first drafts that you later revise and edit, to not over research before writing.

Here’s what I’ll say about this:
A. You needn’t take Jason’s word for it. Go talk to writing professionals or look at writing books. They will all say some version of 1-3. Does this mean 1-3 are the only ways of writing a lot that work for every person? No, of course not. (And, in Jason’s defense, he never said it was the only way for every person – reasonable people know that’s not how advice is offered or meant to be received.) Moreover, I don’t think everyone is capable of implementing 1-3. I’m not, which is why I was so terrible at writing a dissertation and why I’m very happy not to be a professional writer. But if you want to be a happy and successful academic, you have to find some way to get a good deal of writing done, and 1-3 is a very effective way of doing that.

B. 1-3 demonstrate something that folks may be both picking up on and chafing against: writing a lot, and, therefore, being a happy and successful academic, is difficult and takes a lot of steady, continuing hard work. Being smart, interesting, an inspiring teacher, a wonderful colleague, an efficient administrator, a deliverer of good talks, brilliant on your feet in intellectual sparing, none of these will suffice for being a successful and happy academic.

C. In Jason’s defense, don’t shoot the messenger here. Don’t romanticize about being an academic. Is it lamentable that 1 is true? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s not the point. It just is true, overwhelmingly true for most academic positions. (It should go without saying, though I gather from reading some comments that it doesn’t, that Jason can offer his advice without commenting on this issue. If you think he’s being harsh or cynical by simply laying out a recipe for academic success without commenting on the current state of this slice of academic life, you’re reading wrong and that’s on you.) And, note, if you think it is lamentable, you should really think hard about whether academia is for you. As Jason notes at the outset of his advice, at least part of the point, a big part, of being an academic is writing. Being a successful and happy academic is being a writer. If you don’t want to be a writer, academia isn’t for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t know Jason, but I think he would have been a writer of some kind anyway, had he not been an academic. I think this is true of most successful and happy academics.Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

I have to say, part of me is on Brennan’s side, and this is partly because I object very strongly to advice which takes the form: “write good philosophy”. The advice is basically unfollowable, since every grad student is trying to write good papers, and since no-one wants to publish something that will make them look bad. “Do good, interesting philosophy”? Who is the person who is trying to do bad, uninteresting philosophy? Who will this help?

More generally: Brennan’s advice might be good advice because it might help grads to avoid unemployment and career suicide in a context where PhD departments are admitting and graduating WAY more cheap labo… sorry, STUDENTS than the field can employ. Brennan’s advice sounds morally distasteful, but I object in principle to powerful members of our profession voicing this sort of distaste rather than doing something about chronic under-employment. Brennan’s is good advice given that we inhabit a bad context. If you don’t like the fact that it’s good advice, attack the context, not the advice.Report

Alex Howe
5 years ago

“Nothing is worse than a title that screams “forced cuteness”).”

Three responses:

1) That advice seems to contrast with the counsel that what is really important is substance. Reading you strongly, this suggests a “bad” title would turn readers off your paper in such a robust manner that you should dedicate non-trivial resources to avoiding a “bad” title. But if substance is what matters, presumably that is because what professional philosophers in your opinion value is substance. Odd that a dumb title would so seriously interfere with that.

2) On the contrary, nothing is better than an *awful* pun. The more forced the better.

3) I prefer Boonin’s advice: “But I am going to go ahead and reveal my secret now: my approach to philosophical research has always been to start with a good title and then try to figure out what I would have to write about in order to use it.” (From p.1 of Boonin’s “Robbing PETA to Spay Paul”)

Terribly important stuff, I know.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Alex Howe
5 years ago

I wasn’t aware of 3. Good stuff.Report

Lauren Brennan
Lauren Brennan
5 years ago

What is the point of academia? Are you trying to create new knowledge through research and put it out into the world by publishing? Or are you trying to pass along existing knowledge by teaching? I believe that all of you are smart people that are capable of producing new knowledge. Do that in whatever way works best for you. Academia is not just work or a job, it is an opportunity to create new ways of thinking and doing.

In the meantime, if you haven’t met Jason Brennan or know him well like I do, you should avoid making any assessments of his intended tone, moral character or cynicism. I can assure you he doesn’t look down on hairdressers or speak in business speak. He is simply saying that if you can explain your ideas in a clear and concise way you will be better off.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  Lauren Brennan
5 years ago

Ah for the love of Pete, he didn’t say Jason looked down on hairdressers. The hairdressers are respected by all! Jason can frequent salons without fear of reprisal.Report

David Enoch
David Enoch
5 years ago

Thanks for all the comments.
For the record (for instance, re Lauren’s comment): I wasn’t commenting in any way on Jason’s personality. I was commenting on his text, as I understood it, and as I believe it is extremely likely to be understood by many of those for whom it is intended. A text may be harmful – and require harm-diminishing response – even if it is harmful as a result of things other than reflecting the writer’s character (or even the writer’s intentions).Report

pietro maffettone
pietro maffettone
4 years ago

I would like to thank Jason Brennan and David Enoch for the interesting conversation.

For what it’s worth, I did not interpret Brennan’s tips as rigid side-constraints on one’s actions to be taken/understood and applied in a literal sense. Perhaps UK academia (where I am based) is different, but it seems impossible to write 4 hours a day during term time. What seems to be the core of the message is: write very regularly, don’t wait forever to start writing about something.

I find the remarks about Brennan’s imagined personal life and potential character traits astonishing. I have never met him, but: a) I would never dream of commenting on what kind of life he could lead outside the profession without knowledge (I would probably not do so even if I had that kind of knowledge); b) I am at a loss to see how exactly one would come to the conclusion that he is being cynical – I start to doubt that people have come across real cynicism.Report

pietro maffettone
pietro maffettone
4 years ago

I should also add that I do not attribute the remarks about Brennan’s character to Enoch. And that, even considering the text itself, I see no basis to think that it sends a cynical message.Report