The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.
Which brings us full circle in the wandering web of links. I began this
thread yesterday afternoon, flipping through Metropolis, an interior design
magazine. One of the articles was about Ken Burns' latest documentary, on
Frank Lloyd Wright, which opens with the first part of _The Choice_. In
searching for more about the poem, I eventually found MIT sociologist
emeritus Prof Gary Marx's autobiographical essay "REFLECTIONS ON ACADEMIC
SUCCESS AND FAILURE: Making It, Forsaking It, Reshaping It."
(at: http://socsci.colorado.edu/~marxg/success.html ), where the critical
line appears in a footnote to his saga. And from there, it's just a hop,
skip, and a link away to his "Of Methods and Manners for Aspiring
Sociologists: =A037 Moral Imperatives" (at:
http://socsci.colorado.edu/~marxg/37moral.html) -- which includes the motto
in the subject line.
Starck -> Burns(Wright) -> Yeats -> Norway -> Marx -> Maxims -> Wright
But the wonders of the Web are not what we find in the end, but what we
learn in the journey. A simple excursion to find the price of a used
Nakamichi tape deck (the kind that sticks out and flips *the tape* rather
than the record head) yesterday taught me, understandably enough, tons abou=
azimuth and bias and chrome and the netiquette of bootleg concert tape
traders. Divining one's professional fortunes, though, is an unexpected gem
indeed. (By the way, I do want to note that in none of my peregrinations di=
I ever find another direct link to Burns or Wright).
So forthwith, the punchline: Marx's admonitions mapped on to computer
science and engineering. Rather than copy the entire articles in, I will
excerpt, and exhort ye all to read them whole. [Yes, I stand guilty of
"burying the lede"]
I apologize in advance for what might be spam to you. I just wanted to focu=
attention on the lessons learned about academic maturity a bit further
afield of Computer Science... something to complement Agre's "Advice for
Undergraduates Considering Graduate School" (at:
[PS. MS Word's AutoSummarize feature was a useful control to my experiments
with what to excerpt from these two articles... recommended. They should
(shudder) integrate it with the browser]
[Introductory quote and abstract of his biographical essay]
When I came West with the wagon, I was a young man with expectations of
something, I don't know what, I tarpainted my name on a big rock by the
Missouri trailside. But in time my expectations wore away with the weather,
like my name had from that rock, and I learned it was enough to stay alive.
--E. L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times
My attitudes toward work and life were shaped by an unusual early career
pattern --success beyond my wildest expectations, followed by unexpected
failure. Given the formative power of that experience, I will restrict my
attention to only one of the many topics that an article on work and life
might treat: occupational success and failure.
[Ah, back when there were two job offers for every girl and guy -- academia
has long since shrank from its high-water mark in 1967, which he describes
below. And the anachronism of a *secretary* -- pshaw, aren't we glad
computers let us do all that ourselves today?]
I had a job at Harvard with a higher salary and a longer contract
(negotiated under threat of deserting to another Ivy League school) than th=
other assistant professors in the Department of Social Relations. I taught
only one course and had a mammoth corner of office, where I was protected
from intruders by my own secretary in an outer office... From my experience
in presenting papers at the annual meetings of the American Sociological
Association I assumed that it was not unusual to receive more than 150
requests for preprints of a timely paper.
[more great quotes for MsgList, adam...]
Barely a year before, in beard and sandals, I had been sitting in
smoke-filled cafes on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, listening to folk music
and talking about the machinations of the power elite, plotting coups and
bemoaning the sad role of co-opted American intellectuals. At Harvard I
became a regular on the Boston-Washington shuttle and dressed in a
three-piece suit. I eagerly rejected Thoreau's advice, "Beware of all
enterprises that require new clothes." Ignoring the sarcasm, I chose instea=
to follow Bob Dylan's advice "Get dressed, get blessed. Try to be a
[In the beginning all was good: the young man got accustomed to positions o=
power, easy funding, and opening the frontier of a new subspecialty in his
Unsolicited, funding sources such as the Urban Institute and Law Enforcemen=
Assistance Administration offered me money for research; all they required
from me was a letter of a few pages, and I would receive a grant.
At a relatively young age I was fortunate to have the chance to serve on th=
editorial boards of several major journals and was elected to the Council o=
the American Sociological Association, enjoying the company of senior
colleagues old enough to be my parents and even grandparents. The mail
routinely brought inquiries about positions elsewhere, along with requests
to write books, articles, and reviews for both academic and popular
publications, serve on editorial and other boards, participate in symposia,
and give lectures and deliver papers at an array of academic meetings both
in the United States and abroad. The invitations removed from me the anxiet=
and risk many of my peers experienced as they sought professional attention=
I was not conducting research with only a hope that someday, somehow, the
results would be published. Instead, I could adopt the more cost-effective
and safe technique of filling orders on hand. Since invitations were usuall=
general, I had the freedom to write on whatever I wanted.
...Each article was an investment that earned interest. My problem was not
having the goods rejected but finding it impossible to keep enough in stock=
The certainty of publication probably encouraged me to produce more than I
otherwise might have and perhaps to let it go to press earlier.
[Indeed, writing by invitation is far too easy and ego-boosting to equal
journal publication. I've been spoiled by the W3C WD, I-D, WWWn, and W3J
processes, for example. From one angle, I have a great publication record,
and from another the mirage vanishes entirely. More on that from Gary
True, I knew that the chances of someone who had not received at least one
degree from Harvard getting tenure were very slim. But I was too busy to
think much about tenure in those early years. Besides, there was always the
exception, and wasn't I on the fast track (as the list of achievements I
also kept tucked away in the top drawer of my desk indicated)? Clearly
sociology offered a great career if you had the right stuff. Who knows wher=
it might lead? --an endowed chair, a deanship, a presidential appointment,
honorary degrees, plenary addresses, editorships, more foreign translations=
directorship of a research center, perhaps a best-selling novel and even a
movie career. Was life ever so sweet for a young academic?
[There's a footnote about how subjective success amongst peers can be in
sociology. Don't fool yourself into believing computer science is any close=
One observer even suggests that academic fauna can be ordered according to
the degree of concern shown toward the outward presentation of self.
Variation is inversely related to a discipline's certainty of results: "Thu=
at one end of the spectrum occupied by sociologists and professors of
literature, where there is uncertainty as to how to discover the facts, the
nature of the facts to be discovered, and whether indeed there are any fact=
at all, all attention is focused on one's peers, whose regard is the sole
criterion for professional success. Great pains are taken in the developmen=
of the *impressive persona*.... At the other end, where, as the
mathematicians themselves are fond of pointing out, 'a proof is a proof,' n=
concern need be given to making oneself acceptable to others; and as a rule
none whatsoever is given." Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind- Body Problem. (New
York: Norton, 1983), p. 202.
[Don't forget how this tale becomes even more extreme under the fisheye len=
of Cambridge -- these are VERY arrogant institutions he's dealing with.
Personally, I'm glad I've had my tastes of them, enough to inform my presen=
happiness at Irvine :-]
In 1972 someone even younger than me, and with (at the time) a less
impressive teaching and publication record, was suddenly given tenure in
sociology. I had to give up my big office as a result. My book went out of
print... After more than a decade of receiving everything I applied for, a
grant application was rejected, and then another
When my two most supportive senior colleagues and mentors left Harvard for
Stanford, I realized that it was time to look further afield for work. Yet
by 1972 the job offers had become fewer...I now had to confront ghosts that
had lain dormant during the past decade of continuous graduate school and
professional success. My need for achievement had been well served in those
early years. I was able to leverage the success I found against inner demon=
always ready to tell me that I was not worth much.
[And here's the fall. This was a very poignant passage for me. Personally, =
know I'm doing this (PhD) to answer some deep technical questions about the
future of distributed systems -- a biological/social basis for networking -=
but that's just the core. Above, layers and layers of ego and approbation
and hunger for material/psychological success tempered only by self-loathin=
for such base motives.]
My experience in those early years had supported a simple, adolescent,
Nietzschean (and probably male) view in which the world could be neatly
divided into winners and losers, leaders and led, those in the inner circle
and those outside it. Of course, depending on the arena, one might be in or
out. But many of my youthful memories revolve around a desperate need to be
in that circle. Good taste required not openly acknowledging the intensity
of the drive or that sweet, smug feeling that success made possible. But th=
quiet, invidious feelings achievement permitted were terribly important.
Through grit, determination, hard work, and luck I had done a good job of
showing the world where I stood --at least up to the early 1970s.
Then things changed. The appropriate tragic model was not the Greek hero
destroyed by his own virtues, but the Biblical hero Job brought down by
random external forces. I was the same person doing what I had always done
(and probably even doing it better), and yet things were not working as the=
had before. I had jumped through what I thought were the appropriate burnin=
hoops, but the cheers were now muffled. I had worked very hard to reach the
brass ring, but it was always just out of reach. I had constructed a
positive self-image based on possessing a nice suit of clothes, but they no=
were in danger of becoming outmoded and even being repossessed. I was
suddenly vulnerable in a way I had not been before. What is more, the
achievements that had given me so much pleasure in the past seemed less
fulfilling on repetition.
Not even old enough for a real mid-life crisis, I went through a period of
reassessment and asked all the familiar questions: What did it all add up
to? Was it worth it? Why keep playing the same old game if the connection
between merit, hard work, and reward was not assured or if the reward was
not all that great to begin with?
[Here we come to the most valuable synthesis in Marx's article.]
*** Seven Characteristics of Success ***
While success is nice to have, it is not all it is cracked up to be:
1. It does not last
...Mark Twain said, "One can live for two months on a good compliment."
Depending on one's psyche two hours or two weeks might also apply. But as a
character in a Neil Simon play observes, "Nothing recedes like success." ..=
Books go out of print and journal articles cease to be read.
2. You can never be successful enough (at least in your own eyes)
...As Durkheim observed, in a rapidly transforming society you can never
achieve enough success. When what is at stake is something as open-ended as
reputation, productivity, impact, or accumulation, there is no clear limit.=
[I wonder what Durkheim meant by "rapidly transforming" -- all of modern
civilization for the last two centuries, or just this postwar era? It is
especially true that there are few set social hierarchies in Computing -- a
particularly mobile field where success can come overnight, in many
3. The more success you have, the harder it becomes
...there is little variation among participants. Everyone is qualified and
hardworking, and there are fewer rewards.
4. There is a diminishing-returns effect.
...Larry Bird captured it in his comment on receiving the Most Valuable
Player Award a second time: "It's funny because when you're a kid you can't
wait to get those trophies. You get 'em home and shine 'em up. Now I forget
all about 'em. I got one last year that I left in a friend's truck for a
whole year before he reminded me of it."
5. Success may have costly and unintended side effects
...the paradox that success brings less time to do the very thing for which
you are now being recognized... A virtue of obscurity is greater control
over your time and greater privacy.
6. The correlation between ability, or merit, and success is far from
...a central sociological message. Factors beyond merit that may bear on th=
distribution of rewards include the makeup of the selection committee, what
it had done the previous year, timing, the characteristics of the applicant
pool, and intellectual, ideological, or personal biases.
7. There is no reason to expect that what you do next will be better
...In graduate school and the early professional years this may not be true=
You start with little, so each achievement is a milestone...Fallow periods,
if that be the right term, are nothing to worry about (at least if you have
[He lays out the lessons he learned from this fall in three goals. I can
applaud them with my left brain, but some of them are still hard to take,
** Practical Lessons **
Three broad practical lessons follow from these perspectives on success and
(1) value the process of creating as an end itself;
(2) develop new professional goals;
(3) do not make your career your life.
[Regarding (1), I am *strongly* in favor. Idea-making is what we're here
for, and it's a regrettably small part of our actual days. I wish there wer=
some way to teach this art, to hone the craft of seeing connections, of
building models, of approximating design. But that's not the job of any one
course, is it?]
I came to realize that I got pleasure from finding partial answers to
questions I wondered about, turning a clever phrase, ordering a set of
ideas, and seeing connections between apparently unrelated phenomena. In a
competitive world of uncertain and perhaps unsatisfying reward there is muc=
to be said for valuing the process of production as an end in itself.
[As for (2), sed/s/Sociology/CS/g ...]
You are likely to discover early in your career that you quickly master
contemporary sociological research knowledge regarding your topic (or if
not, at least get bored with it). Occasionally there will be some highly
informative, useful, or fresh empirical findings, concepts, theoretical
approaches, or methods, but not often... [it has been said] sociology
consists of "findings of the obvious by the devious" (as an Alison Lurie
...In my work on social movements I am investigating the role of art and
songs in mobilizing people. My work on electronic surveillance methods for
discovering violations deals directly with ethics. This broadening I
advocate may not endear you to those with highly specialized disciplinary
concerns who have their hands on the reward levers of your profession.
[Marx writes very well on the temptations of consulting and professional
goals. It's a particularly apt subject for CS types, not just because of th=
profusion of outside opportunities, but the the temptation to bend our own
"research" work to commercial ends. That's not to slight dual-use projects
like Endeavors at all -- just to warn us all, as Jim Waldo did me, that
academia seems more market-oriented and terrified of the installed-base and
small-minded that industry does today!]
Given disillusionment and fatigue with academic amateurism, it was easy to
rationalize spending more time playing for pay instead of for honor,
footnotes, and the acclaim of adolescents... My senior colleagues were
living well, and well beyond their academic salaries. Spacious, elegantly
restored historic homes with cleaning services, travel to exotic places in
the winter and vacation homes in the summer, camp and enriched education fo=
children, gourmet foods and foreign sports cars were not available to
persons who gave all their royalties to political causes (as I had
originally planned to do) or who only did social research gratis on behalf
of causes they believed in. This shift in emphasis began symbolically with
my gradual acceptance of, and eventual belief in, the usefulness of an
electric can opener. We received one as a wedding present in the 1960s, and
it stayed in its unopened box for many years. For reasons I cannot clearly
recall, at the time it seemed to epitomize all that was wrong with our
...earning outside money was not all that great either. It got boring, and =
did not like the feeling of being a sociologist for sale...I felt the
consulting reports I wrote were generally unappreciated and unread, except
for the oversimplified and watered down "executive summaries" with which
they had to begin... It was alienating to be told what research to do and t=
have business persons and bureaucrats place conditions on intellectual
inquiry... I felt uncomfortable with the pressures and temptations to dilut=
work, cut corners, treat issues superficially, and delegate tasks I was
hired to do to much lower-paid graduate students.
[Now, the next part, well it's too far away from me. Much burnout before yo=
catch me replastering anything :-) But the starred conclusion is very
profound. It's hard for me, and, I think, graduate students in general, to
make the transition from being classified, quantified, and judged by the
educational system to the scientific one -- where you are your own ideas, n=
more or less. There is no "system" to beat anymore.]
A bit weary and cynical about the single-minded pursuit of academic
achievement, I devoted more time to highly personal, noncompetitive
activities over which I had more control. I spent more and better time with
my family, rebuilt a dilapidated Victorian house, learned to play the
guitar, read novels, kayaked wild rivers, and worked on a family history
project...The respite from an unrelenting focus on academic work gave me
great pleasure. Concrete activities provided immediate rewards. Ascriptive
rather than achievement criteria were present. *There were no risks and no
concern over whether distant judges would find me wanting.*
[This last bit I left in as a comment on MIT, and the virtues of a
'problem-centered' department. There are times where you need to be with
diverse colleagues tackling the Big One, and there are times you need to
retreat to the nest of your subdiscipline and "water your theoretical
garden", to paraphrase Ms. Jackson.
Within our CORPS+Software corner of the department, I feel like there's a
healthy balance being struck, but even in the Internet age, proximity is
paramount -- what happened to all the other groups in our own school, on ou=
campus, that work with computers?]
...feelings of being underutilized and underappreciated, which comes with
being the only academic sociologist in an interdisciplinary department of
urban studies and planning at a technology institute. To be sure, in other
ways my department and MIT have offered a superb home. There are advantages
to being left alone in an environment where no one is like yourself. But it
leaves a vague sense of loss. The part of academic life that I have found
most satisfying is mentoring and working with younger colleagues and
students on research. I would have learned and published more and done less
self-questioning had I had the steady flow of students and the day-to-day
validation and chance to contribute that large graduate sociology programs
offer. It does not feel right to offer a new class or hold office hours and
have few or no students appear. What kind of a professor are you if no one
seems interested in what you profess?
[I leave the floor to Marx's voice in conclusion (except to concur that the
gulf between North and South in this State is as wide as the other
I am both the intensely driven, hardworking, competitive, ambitious person
(like those I encountered early in my career) and the laid-back bohemian
surfer of my California days; the intellectual interested in ideas for thei=
own sake and one of the progeny of Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills who wanted
to see ideas linked to change (perhaps a committed spectator, as Raymond
Aron termed it); the quantitative and systematic sociologist and the
journalist seeking to describe in language that people could understand wha=
Robert Park called the big story; the scholar and the handyman; the
athletic, river-running, beer-drinking, former fraternity man who could
admit to still having some neanderthal-like macho attitudes and feelings an=
the righteous carrier of a new gender morality; a Jew with German and
Eastern European roots and a secular American at home on both coasts (and i=
northern as well as southern California); the pin-striped=A0suiter who could
easily pass among elites and yet announce when the emperor was scantily cla=
or naked --but always with civility=A0and in the King's English. And, as
Levi-Strauss notes, sociological inquiry can be enhanced by the skill of
Of Methods and Manners for Aspiring Sociologists: =A037 Moral Imperatives
Gary T. Marx
Well sir, here is to plain speaking and clear understanding.
-- The Fat Man, The Maltese Falcon
* Develop the habits of critical thought, evaluation and observation
Have opinions... be passionate!... order your observations into models and
theories that can be systematically assessed, whether by you or by others.
* Write with clarity, logic and vigor
The ability to write **can** be learned.
* Write everywhere, all the time, on everything
...napkins, envelopes, credit card slips, blank checks and when they aren=B9t
available, on your palm and forearm.
* Have a fresh argument
Make sure, that if someone says "this is a good and original paper" it can
not then be said "unfortunately the parts that are good are not original an=
the parts that are original are not good."
* Write books -- don't just read them
...searching the literature must not become an end in itself or a convenien=
way not to have to face the blank page...Approach the literature with
questions and remember that your goal is to advance it
* Take short cuts
There are people who make careers out of serving up computerized
information. Make them feel needed.
* Learn how to be an effective public speaker
Be proud to have blues singer Mose Allison's line "if silence was golden yo=
couldn't raise a dime" applied to you.
* Don=B9t be scriptocentric [use multimedia]
I am still living off the capital I generated in 1984 when I played "Every
Breath You Take" by Sting at a large, austere ASA panel and subsequently
analyzed that and related materials on the culture of surveillance.
* Disaggregate and aggregate
* Be wary of sociologists bearing over-broad generalizations
* Be wary of "Jack Webb-Badge 714 'Just the fact ma'am'" sociologists
* Avoid the dangers that can arise from rigidly taking sides in doctrinal
debates over theory and method
* Diversify. don't stay a specialist in one area too long
* Be problem and interdisciplinary as well as discipline focused
* Be wary of sociologists denying the desirability and possibility of
scientific approaches to understanding society
* Treasure and develop the unique position of sociology as both a scientifi=
and humanistic undertaking
Entombed for several decades in the academic engineering and scientific
center of the universe at M.I.T. and a sociological profession that in
recent decades too often seemed to value technique over substance, I have
certainly had my doubts about the Science side. I admit to taking solace
sometimes from Rene Descartes=B9s "Thanks be to God, I did not find myself in
a condition which obliged me to make a merchandise of science for the
improvement of my fortune," and W.H. Auden's "Thou shalt not sit with
statisticians, nor commit a social science."... C. Wright Mills [noted in
1952] that focused empirical studies are fine for "those who are not able t=
handle the complexities of big problems" and for "highly formal men who do
not care what they study so long as it appears to be orderly. All these
types have a right to do as they please or as they must; they have no right
to impose in the name of science such narrow limits on others."
* Know what the questions are
* Be bold. Take risks!
* Cultivate marginality
* Have short and long range plans and goals
* Life and sociology are about unfinished business and process
* Create real and virtual communities
* Actively look for mentors and role models, as well as anti-role models
* Seek out those who are more knowledgeable, clever and/or successful than
* Learn to "meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters
just the same"
* Don't be selfish! give of your time and your thoughts to others
* Be proud to be an academic
- passionate curiosity and an unrelenting and unremmitting search
- defiance of pressures to compromise intellectual integrity
- asking the difficult questions
- being independent... from institutions, sponsors and interest
- being in it for what you owe to civilization
- the qualities of the work, not the worker, are what matter.
- sharing the knowledge!
* Tell it like it is. Speak truth to power and others
In a room
where people unanimously maintain
a conspiracy of silence,
one word of truth
sounds like a pistol shot.
* Believe in the sociology of knowledge and use it responsibly for insights=
* Know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist
* Avoid the exclusionary notion that you must belong to a group in order to
study it and that individuals have some special obligation to study groups
they belong to
* Don't join the thought-police or spend undue amount of time looking for
any possible evidence of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or ageism on
the part of your peers
* Be aware when you are operating as a scientist and trying to be value-fre=
and when you are a more explicit political actor
* Have fun! Enjoy what you do!
* Have a sense of humor!
* Keep the faith!...Know that both principles and ideas matter and that the
individual can make a difference. Believe that knowledge is better than
ignorance, that knowledge is possible, and that empirical and scientific
knowlege about human and social conditions can result in the improvement of
[My favorite: "Don=B9t confuse incomprehensibility with profundity"]
[From his footnotes. I don't see where he gets "romance", but perhaps that
has something to do with minority and female participation in Computer
There is of course a great deal to be said on behalf of attending
conferences. Yet once you are established you must be very selective...
There is a life cycle element to conference attendance: the young first go
for socialization, as tourists and perhaps in search of romance and because
someone else may be paying for the trip; for those a bit farther along the
goal is professional opportunities; for those who are more established,
career maintenance and visibility play a larger role; and for those still
farther, honor-collecting and nostalgia may become paramount.