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Going Offline

The birds chirped away. Fweet, Fweet, Bootchee-Fweet. Doing all the things naturalists say they do. Expressing abysmal depths of aggression, which only Man—Stupid Man—heard as innocence. We feel everything is so innocent—because our wickedness is so fearful.

Saul Bellow, Mosby’s memoirs

I have decided to stop blogging. And tweeting too, for that matter. In fact, I wish I had stopped while it was still uncomplicated to call it Twitter and to liken the medium to the chirping of birds. This morning, when I read Bellow’s reflections on “the abysmal depths of aggression” in birdsong that we mistake for innocence, the association was fearful indeed!

I have, of course, been thinking about this for some time. In fact, since I have been an active blogger for 20 years, I can date the feeling back to at least December 18, 2012. There is something peculiar about the way we have come to “think out loud” about everything. I think Bellow is on to something when he reminds us of the veneer of innocence we use to mask our aggression. We say we’re just speaking our minds, but at some level, sometimes altogether overtly, we’re demanding that everyone else make up their own — right now — and declare what side they’re on. People who don’t spend a lot of time online, people who don’t share their thoughts with us in so-called “real time”, are somehow suspect, vaguely criminal, like Winston Smith sitting in his corner, out of view of the telescreen, writing in his notebook. (They probably have sticky notes covering the lenses of their webcams too!) “If you want your privacy,” I once said, “you had better keep it like a secret.” Well, I haven’t been very good at keeping mine.

Late last year, I took up another idea that has been with me for almost as long. Are blogging and tweeting even writing, a form of literacy? Would it not be more appropriate, as Carlo Scannella has suggested, to think of them as oral media? I don’t think we are very good at “reading” (i.e,. hearing) each other this way. We hold each other to our words as if tweeting something is the same as “putting it in writing.” But we often don’t think carefully enough about the writing we do online to warrant such scrutiny. Mistakes are easily retracted (and even deleted) and, though sometimes regretted, we are happy to forget we ever wrote (i.e., said) the words. Like I say, we’re not correspondingly forgiving enough. If we were, social media would be a very different place. Though we’d still, I suspect, be up a tree.

Lately, I have been taking some strong stances against the use of AI writing assistants. It occurs to me that my avid use of social media makes me a bit of a hypocrite. It’s true that ChatGPT can’t write; but perhaps WordPress likewise can’t really publish. Being an author requires us to put a public face on our private thoughts. But the thoughts that I have been developing online are, in an important sense, born public. I haven’t been composing posts so much as a channeling ideas. “Entwittering,” I once called it. Maybe I haven’t been expressing myself, just internalizing the Internet? And the Internet, we must remember, is not an adequate representation of human civilization. I am going to have to go back to the library stacks and the drawing board. I’m going to gave to recover my literacy, my culture, my humanity.

What will become of Inframethodology? I’m going to reorganize it into website, rather than a blog. At some point, the front page will offer a point of entry to all the same resources that are here now, including Writing Process Reengineering and the two series of talks that I do every school year. As it will be less “current,” less topical (more “timeless”?), some things will be emphasized and others will be pushed into the background, but I will keep the archive of all the pasts posts. And the whole place will be searchable as usual. I’m not going to erase myself from the Internet. I’m just going to stop exposing myself to it continuously. I hope it will make me less aggressive, maybe a little kinder.

There are too many people that I should thank, and apologize to, for all they have done for me, and all I have done to them. I hope you know who you are. As for my offline activities … well, hopefully, I will see you around!

The Epiphany of the Paragraph

To have gathered from the air a live tradition…
this is not vanity.

Ezra Pound

This weekend I had one of those moments of clarity that changes nothing. It was merely (and literally) just another case of a middle-aged man discovering that he had been speaking prose all his life. Or, in my case, teaching prose for the past twenty years.

When I was younger, I thought I was a philosopher, first of mind, then of language, finally of science. But at some point I realized that if I had a contribution to make to modern scholarship it lay in helping people master the art of academic writing. More precisely, I could help people write down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. There are times when I think this still makes me a philosopher, working in a tradition that can be traced back, through Bolzano and Kierkegaard, to Kant, and then forward to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, through Feyerabend and Kuhn, Foucault and Derrida, back up to the present day. But it is unlikely that I will ever make a serious contribution to those traditions. I am a writing consultant, not a scholar.

But even in that humble role, I fear, I sometimes cut a disappointing figure. After all, I am strangely aloof to style manuals and author guidelines; I eschew any authority to tell you how to get published or succeed as a scholar. (I don’t even like to tell students how to pass their exams.) I’m happy to talk about it, but I don’t have the one simple trick to how to “get things done in academia.” After all, I am not a successful writer myself. I defer to those who do publish in the so-called “top journals” for advice on how to satisfy your reviewers. My goal is to help you become a better writer.

What use is that? you may ask. This is the substance of my little epiphany this weekend. Over the years, I have increasingly focused on the paragraph as the unit of composition for scholarly prose. I have defined this unit as (1) at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate, or defend it, and which constitutes (2) about half a page of prose and (3) one minute of a reader’s attention. I strongly believe that any scholar worth their tenure is able to compose a coherent prose paragraph, thus defined, about anything they know, and feel entitled to assume that they know a great many things. Writing papers and chapters and monographs is really just a matter of arranging a series of such paragraphs in a plausible order. If you can write a good paragraph, you have the writing skills you need to succeed in scholarship.

I emphasize writing skills, but that isn’t the whole of it, of course. I don’t know if you have the knowledge or the intelligence, the cunning, the courage, or the compassion that is required to survive (i.e., not “perish”) in the modern university. (I do have some sense of how hard it is.) Just because you can write a paragraph doesn’t mean you should; and just because you can’t doesn’t mean you’ll never pretend to. Careers are complicated, and nobody is perfect. But you will never regret the effort you made to develop the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in twenty or thirty minutes. This ability is the foundation of your confidence as a scholar among your peers. It is the basis of your discipline.

Writers and Readers

Most, perhaps all, of the readers of this blog are also writers. To be sure, some of them resent this fact a little, but, whether they are students or scholars, an important part of their “job” is to commit words to the page that express what they think. So is reading. Before they are my readers, my readers are readers of each other; they are peers to the people they write for. That in any case is what I imagine, what I presume.

My concern here is with so-called “academic” writing, i.e., the kind of writing that is done by students and scholars at universities. I don’t discriminate too much between them. Whether you are writing for examination or for publication, you are writing down what you know in order to discuss it with other knowledgeable people. You are opening your ideas to criticism. But you are not interested in just anyone’s criticism; you are interested in the criticism of your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. We sometimes mistakenly focus on the most proximal of these people — our teachers or reviewers — but it is important to keep our actual readers in mind. If you’re a student, these are your classmates. If you are a scholar, they are the members of your discipline.

Like yours, my readers are nice people, but I sometimes worry that we read each other in the wrong spirit. Students read each other’s papers on behalf of the teacher, ready to provide helpful to suggestions to their classmates about how to improve their grade. Scholars read each other’s papers on behalf of the reviewers, eager to help their colleagues satisfy the editorial standards of a journal. Once the paper is submitted, there’s nothing left to do but offer the appropriate congratulations or commiserations when the time comes. Reading a paper in its final form, simply for the purpose of discussing the ideas it presents, seems like an unnecessary inconvenience — not least to the author, who, as I’ve heard some of them declare openly, would prefer to put the often painful struggle of getting published behind them and move on to the next project. We have a tendency to respect their wishes; to be honest, we empathize with our comrades, kindred spirits in our “publish or perish” world. In a word, we’re kind.

But we should read each other’s finished work. And we should write it with the expectation of finding sincere readers who are interested in our ideas and ready to correct us where we are wrong. After all, getting a top grade, or getting published in a top journal, does not guarantee that everything you have written in paper is correct. Indeed, even your main thesis may be wrong. Your examiner or editor has only acknowledged that you have presented your ideas in a manner that opens them to qualified criticism. You have made your ideas available for discussion in an acceptable (even admirable) way; but it is now time to have that discussion. Your readers may love your paper but still disagree with you. In some cases, your readers may be compelled to try to replicate your results. Until they do, they can’t be sure you’re right. In an important sense, neither can you.

In our effort to be kind, in our eagerness to help nice people get on with their careers, we sometimes forget that good ideas take time, and, given time, ideas change. Not only do we need time to come up with them, and then to express them; our peers need to time to understand them, and test them against their own experiences, their own experiments. The greatest respect we show to an idea is to ponder it long enough to discover that it is wrong. Students who have earned good grades on their undergraduate papers will usually discover that they were completely wrong (often on some very important point) while writing their master’s thesis. (The better the paper, the more instructive this error will be.) Not to mention how wrong they find out they’ve always been while writing their doctoral dissertation!

Let’s remember that our peers took the time to write their ideas down. We need to take the time read them and engage with them. In academia, the best way to get to know your readers is to read them.

…and the Living is Easy

I know that summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice, but this is the last of week of my recommended 8-week period of discipline after Easter, and the weather in Copenhagen has been excellent these last few days, so a little nod to Lady Day seems in order.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recommend being very deliberate about your writing 32 weeks of the year and taking it easy for the remaining 20. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a lot of writing during those 32 weeks, only that you’re writing or not writing deliberately. That is, if you’re not writing, it’s because you planned not to write, and so you are not burdened by any guilt about not getting it done. And, if you are writing, you feel like you’re proceeding measurably towards some goal, which may only be getting better at writing, or contributing any number of paragraphs to a paper. You’re doing what you can every day; you are not “finally getting it done”. Being disciplined makes you feel good about the work you are doing, even when it is hard.

But for about 5 weeks in the winter, one week during the spring and the fall, and 13 weeks over the summer, you are free to write in a more spontaneous way. Or not at all, without thinking about why you’re not writing. You might just not feel like it. Or you might write just because you do feel like it. You are gripped by inspiration or bogged down in lethargy and you simply give into these forces instead of pitting your resolve against them. This gives you some time (and some mental space) to think things through.

For my part, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about how the philosophy of science relates to academic writing. The idea that has been brewing in my mind goes back to Bernard Bolzano, who suggested that the logic of science was really just the grammar of scientific “treatises”. Today, we’d probably focus on papers, and my approach to epistemology is rooted in Steve Fuller’s “social epistemology,” which suggests a close connection between the philosophy of science and the rhetoric of academic articles. Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’re overcomplicating both of these subjects. Academics should be able to say plainly what they think and publish these ideas without too much fuss. (I’m not a big fan of the familiar peer-review process.) It’s the knowing, not the writing, that should be the hard part.

If you know what you’re talking about, writing an academic paper should be straightforward. Just stick to what you know and write it down. Easy does it.