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The Key and the Content

Nabokov arises early in the morning and works. He does his writing on filing cards, which are gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels.

The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction No. 40

I’m working through each section of a paper in the Craft of Research series this spring using an image that has worked for me in the past, and which is by no means original, but which I think I just found a good way to label. In general, I tell students to distinguish each section by their “bases” and their “aims”. The theory section, for example, is based on the literature and aims to activate the reader’s expectations of the object, while the analysis is based on the data and aims to challenge those expectations. (They can decide they have other bases and aims; the idea is to make sure they differ in ways they understand from section to section.) But I also tell them to compose their papers one paragraph at a time and we need some way to map the somewhat abstract aims and bases of the sections onto the paragraphs they comprise. This is where I think I may have hit on something.

Think of each paragraph as represented by an old-fashioned cardboard index card. In the title field (above the red line), imagine your key sentence, and then imagine a list of your sources on the rest of the card. I’ve always struggled to label that “rest”. Is it the “body” of the paragraph? Perhaps, but people also like to talk about “body paragraphs”, i.e., the paragraphs in an essay that are not the introduction or the conclusion. They also talk about “topic” sentences for these paragraphs, as distinct from the “thesis” statement of introductory paragraphs. But this doesn’t work for me because every paragraph, including those in the introduction, will have a “key” sentence, one of which will include the thesis statement, i.e., “This paper shows that…” And, in any case, to talk of “keys” and “bodies” seems to mix our metaphors (bodies don’t have locks), so I’ve always wanted another word for the the rest of the paragraph.

Now, while a paragraph is not “a box within which” but “a center around which,” it still occupies a definite volume. It has a form. And so we can talk about the “content” of the paragraph. The key sentence will set up a little difficulty for the paragraph to solve and the content of the paragraph provides the resources we need to solve it. The paragraph “contains” the information we need to support, elaborate, or defend the key sentence. Again, although a paragraph isn’t really a box, the key sentence gives us a particular kind of “access” to the materials that paragraphs presents. The contents are arranged in such a way that the reader will find it easier to believe, understand, or agree with the key sentence.

A research paper can consist of 20 or 40 or 80 paragraphs (or more). Each paragraph can be represented by its key and its content, which, in turn, can be all be summarized on a single 3″ x 5″ piece of cardboard. (It is sufficient that you imagine this finitude, appreciate it; you don’t have to run out to an office-supply store.) Since a paragraph consists of no more than 200 words and takes under a minute to read, there is a limit to how many texts you can cite or how much data you can invoke. Reminding yourself of these limits is a good way to begin to face the much smaller difficulty that writing a paragraph for your theory section constitutes when compared to actually having a theory. The same can be said of the much smaller difficulty that writing a paragraph of analysis constitutes when compared with actually discovering the truth about your object. Try to keep these difficulties distinct, a half page for each little problem.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

Observation and Construction

Schematic of a Galilean telescope. Source: Wikipedia.

In preparation for a talk in the Craft of Research series that is coming up in a couple of months, I’m thinking a lot about the philosophy of science. I’ve also been talking to colleagues who have been tasked with teaching it to students in the social and applied sciences (business, nursing, engineering, etc.) and we all agree that it’s a difficult subject. The main problem is getting students, in a relatively short period of time (a few weeks or months), to understand the meaning of words like “epistemology” and “ontology”, “realism” and “positivism”, “hermeneutics” and “phenomenology”, and to use them to reflect on the foundations of the knowledge they’re acquiring, perhaps even the very nature of “truth”. Many students have more, let’s say, practical concerns, and, while they dutifully write a few pages based on the survey of these terms that they find in their methods handbooks (e.g., Bell et al. or Saunders et al.), they are not otherwise affected. I want to try to find another approach.

This morning a key distinction to teach students occurred to me. Quine pointed out that that what for ordinary people is sometimes understood “by construction” is, for working scientists, experienced as an observation. (See my post “Observation” for more, including the Quine reference.) We can go even further, however, and say that even scientists experience some things more directly than others. They observe what people say and do, but they construct what they mean. (See my post “Saying, Doing, Meaning” for more.) That is really what it means to “theorize a practice” or “conceptualize an object” and it seems to me that this distinction between observations and constructions can therefore be a good way to get students to think concretely about what it means to do “empirical” research. When I talk about writing up the analysis I often distinguish between observation and interpretation and this might be a good jumping off point for talking about how we “construct reality” out of what Lisa Robertson so poetically describes as our “shimmering” data. (See my posts “Observation, Interpretation, and Analysis” and “A Sense of Accomplishment” for more.)

This is just a short post to note down an insight I had while walking to work this morning. There’s a lot here to unpack over the next few weeks (the linked posts provide a starting point). If I’m lucky, I’ll have something useful to tell the students in April! Your comments are more than welcome.

Working Together on a Paper

A few years ago, a philosopher and a sociologist sought my advice on a paper they were working on. After they had explained the nature of their troubles, I asked them if they would let me assign a short, hour-and-a-half writing task them for them. They accepted. The task required them to each write — without discussing it in advance — a three-paragraph introduction for the paper they were struggling with. They were to go to their corners and spend a morning composing a paragraph about the world their research addressed, another about the science they were applying to the problem, and, finally, a paragraph about the paper itself. They were to write the first three of my “five easy paragraphs”, devoting no more than half an hour to each. Then, without showing each other what they had written, they were to send their work to me. After a few days, I received their introductions.

You can probably guess what happened next. It was now easy for me to tell them why this paper was difficult to write: they were writing two different papers, framed by two very different readings of the literature, and situated in two different practical contexts. At this point, I could only tell them that they would have to choose which of the two papers to write first. Or, of course, get clearer about why their takes on what they had been doing all these months were so different. When they felt they were ready, they could try the exercise again, this time more confident that the two introductions, while of course different in style, would be about the same thing. That is, still working on their own, they’d write two slightly different introductions to the same paper. Now they’d be ready to collaborate, to work together.

Once you understand the moral of this story, you don’t need a writing coach to facilitate this sort of insight. In fact, it occurred to me this morning that my recent aha! moment about Jeff Bezos’ “six-pager” provides a model for how any collaborative writing project can be focused, when the going gets a little blurry, by a group of co-authors of almost any size. (Within reason! I’m thinking thinking of the sort of collaborative project whose members you can gather in a conference room.) Have one of the members of the group (perhaps, but not necessarily, the lead author) write the introduction and conclusion of your paper (i.e., those five easy paragraphs) and then hold a Bezos-style “study hall” and “messy meeting” about it. Spend maybe 20 minutes reading it together in silence and then have an open discussion about the paper that is being summarized.

At the end of the meeting, assign someone (not necessarily the same author) the task of rewriting it in light of the discussion. Thereafter, apply the same procedure to each section (and perhaps sub-section) of the paper: background, theory, method, analysis, discussion. Have one member write a “crisp document” and then have an open discussion about it. Five paragraphs at a time. Each of these sections would take about two and half hours (for one member of the collaboration) to write and about an an hour to discuss (by all the members). Plan accordingly; appreciate your finitude. Rinse and repeat.

How Do You Know You Have Learned Anything?

Joss Fong, Vox, Dec. 12, 2023

As I often stress to my students, knowledge is not just a resource; it is a competence. To be knowledgeable is to be able to know things and to be enabled to do things you would not otherwise be able to do. (My emphasis.) Notice that this means you can easily test your knowledge. If you want to know what exactly you have learned, go to work on some materials and see what you can do with them. If you want to know whether you have learned something, notice how well you are able to perform the relevant tasks.

And that, of course, is also at the basis of our system of examination. After a teacher has tried to teach you something, they give you an assignment that you can only successfully complete if you have the knowledge they were trying to impart. They propose a performance of your competence. This provides an objective test of whether you possess the knowledge, and a subjective test how well you have mastered it. Your teacher can tell you whether or not you succeeded; but only you really know how hard it was.

I was reminded of this when watching Joss Fong’s video for Vox (above) about AI and homework. As I said a couple of weeks ago, it’s great at capturing the current mood among students and teachers (and journalists). Mine is somewhat different.

For one thing Fong, like many teachers, locates on-site, invigilated writing on the “ban AI” path, while I think of such exams as a way of allowing students (and teachers) to use AI in any way they like. By requiring students to regularly “sit” without AI at their side and show us what they can do, we can safely let them experiment with it both inside and outside the classroom. Rejecting rigorous exam conditions as “policing” and “hall monitoring” is like rejecting refereed competitions in physical education. An exam is just an opportunity to find out what you have learned, what you are good at. We need to normalize these conditions all the more urgently now, not use the occasion to get rid of them altogether.

What the teachers and students in the video have come to understand is that you simply can’t tell what you have learned if the performance of your competence has been assisted by AI. AI is capable of contributing both facts and logic to your writing whether or not you asked it to. You may think you’re just letting it prime your brainstorming, but it is really giving you ideas you don’t yet have the knowledge to understand; you may think it is just cleaning up your language a little, but it may be correcting (or distorting) your whole line of argument. Letting AI into your process renders your own contribution unclear. As I often say to teachers who think the trick is just to design the assignment to test the students ability to use AI, I simply don’t know how to distinguish the student’s contribution from the AI, nor how to grade the former in the presence of the latter. No one has yet been able to explain to me how I could.

I like what Fong says about “desirable difficulties” in learning. She cites research showing that apps that provide turn-by-turn navigation impoverish our spatial knowledge. Like the calculator analogy, which I also use, it is a simplification, but it is instructive. It turns out that coordinating a map with a territory activates our brains in much deeper, richer way, than simply turning right and left when a pleasant voice tells us to. Perhaps this is what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari had in mind when they recommended that we make “a map not a tracing”: “The map does not reproduce the unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields” (ATP, p. 13). Consider how much harder it is draw even a two dimensional image by looking at it than using tracing paper. Now consider the difference between drawing a three dimensional object and tracing over a photograph of it. One approach teaches you how to see; it even makes you more observant at an “unconscious” level; the other just requires a steady hand.

And, by relating this to writing, we can (literally) flesh out the analogy. Learning to write is not just “building a mental map of the world” it is articulating what Merleau-Ponty and Foucault (borrowing from Hegel) called “the prose of the world”. The “connections between fields” that Deleuze and Guattari are talking about is ultimately the body in the world, trying to find its way around. The grammar or “usage” of this world is represented in the grammar of our sentences and paragraphs. It is no accident that Hamlet’s melancholy, his loss of interest in “all the uses of this world,” was tied to his desire that his “too solid flesh would melt”. Meaning is use. Our prose works reality at the joints, coordinates our organs with our environment. It (literally) gives us meaning.

Literature is “equipment for living”, said Kenneth Burke. While higher education, and writing instruction specifically, should teach students how to articulate themselves, AI offers to articulate their minds and bodies for them. Ultimately, I fear, the effect will be to dismember them, to carve them (not their experience) up at the joints, to disintegrate the prose of their world. A piece of equipment, like a map, only helps if you know how to use it, how to read it. Getting students to write their own prose is no different from telling them to draw a map to show us (and them) they know their way around. We do them a disservice by not requiring them to show us how profitably they can make use of their world.

A Minimum Viable Essay

“Good writing is the creative destruction of bad ideas.”
Thomas Basbøll

Every fall, I help teach Rasmus Koss Hartmann‘s first-semester course on the management of innovation in organizations. There are three mandatory written assignments at regular intervals, which all have the same form, as does the final exam at the end. Students are asked to listen to a podcast and “theorize, analyze, and discuss” the innovation it features. Riffing on Eric Ries’ (2011) “lean innovation” strategy, we tell them to write a “minimum viable essay” (MVE) and, as it turns out, we are preparing our students to work for arguably the most successful entrepreneur in history. Jeff Bezos recently explained on the Lex Fridman podcast (Lex Clips, 2023) that he begins executive meetings in his companies with a silent “study hall” where everyone reads a six-page memo written by one of the participants. In this post, I want to show how our minimal viable essay approximates Bezos’ six-pager and what we can learn from his meetings to improve our classroom practices. I will go through the three body paragraphs of the five-paragraph essay we ask our students to write and then conclude by saying something about how Bezos has inspired next year’s iteration of the course. He has given us an idea for how to integrate peer-feedback.

A minimal viable product (MVP) is a platform for testing features by exposing them to the intended users early in the development process. “The goal of the MVP is to begin the process of learning,” Ries (2011, p. 77) tells us, “not end it.” That means that the developer must have a sense of what the customer expects and must play to those expectations. Similarly, in our class, the theory paragraph of an MVE draws on the course readings to activate the reader’s expectations of the object. Importantly, we tell our students to write, not for us, their teachers, but for each other, their fellow students. “It is inadequate to build a prototype that is evaluated solely for internal quality,” Ries points out (p. 64), and in our class the most important readers are the students’ classmates, who have read the same readings and discussed the same cases. The theory paragraph is essentially a reminder to the reader of what they would have thought the analysis would show if they hadn’t already read the introduction that announces something a little more interesting. Though they need not make it explicit, we can say that the theory paragraph frames the null hypothesis.

It is the purpose of the analysis to bring about the artful disappointment of the reader’s expectations of the object. In our class, we tell the students to use the podcast they had been given as “data”; they can quote and paraphrase from it in an attempt to support their conclusions. But their thinking has to be clear and explicit so that any errors will be visible, and it ultimately has to challenge us. “The author of the memo has got to be very vulnerable,” says Bezos (Lex Clip, 2023); “they have got to put all their thoughts out there” (4:00). He says the experience of being read under these conditions is often “terrifying” but also “productive” (4:35). The key is to write a “real memo” (4:50) with “paragraphs” (4:56) and ideas presented in “complete sentences” and “narrative structure” (5:09), not just bullet points, which “can hide a lot of sloppy thinking” (5:02). But, while he likes a “crisp” memo, he prefers a “messy” meeting (0:26; 5:34) because the purpose is “truth seeking” not persuasion (2:34). To get to the truth you have to “wander” (0:45) — out loud, if you will. You can set a six-page limit and set aside 30 minutes for reading, but you don’t know what will happen from there when you start talking about it.

Since there will ideally be some tension between the theory and analysis, something will have to give. Either we (you and I, dear reader) will have to rethink our theory and learn to expect something else next time we consider a similar innovation, or the practice that is being discussed in the podcast will have to change. The analysis has thrown us just a little off balance and we have to find our footing again, either in theory or in practice. The discussion paragraph makes these implications explicit. So, for example, we have long encouraged our students to produce that “crisp” memo, our minimal viable essay, but we have been less explicit about how the students should use it as a place to, as Ries (2011) puts it, “begin the process of learning” (p. 77). Bezos, likewise, says that the memo is just the starting point. The goal is to reach “real breakthroughs” in the “wandering” meeting that follows. “It has a kind of beauty to it,” he says; “it has an aesthetic beauty to it” (1:00). It would be great if we can show our students this too.

Our minimal viable essay, then, approximates the Bezos “six-pager”, but we’re not quite ready to order our $500-million yacht. Our MVE does follow a narrative line — expectations, disappointment, implications — but, at five paragraphs, it is only about half the length of Bezos’ six-pager. (Using the Copenhagen Business School’s standard exam guidelines, we estimate 2 paragraphs to the page.) It should take about half an hour to write a paragraph and about one minute to read it. So, in a Bezos meeting we estimate that about 12 minutes are spent actually reading the words in the memo and the remaining 18 minutes of “study hall” are devoted to silently critiquing the ideas, making notes in the margins and formulating questions. This suggests an obvious group exercise for our students. Groups of five could hold five meetings throughout the semester, each devoted to one MVE contributed by one of the members. It took them about 3 hours (over a few days) to write the essay and they now spend 15 minutes reading and thinking about it, followed by 30 minutes of “wandering”. It has kind of beauty to it, doesn’t it, friends? Fair winds and following seas!


Lex Clips. (2023, December 17). Jeff Bezos on banning Powerpoint in meetings at Amazon [Video]. YouTube.

Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Currency.