Monthly Archives: August 2017

Rule #5

Start on time and finish on time. If you start late, still finish on time.

Think of your writing moment like you would any other scheduled event, like a class. Here at CBS classes begin and end at all sorts of weird times because they are scheduled in 45 minute blocks with ten minute breaks. The first block starts at 8:00, the second 8:55, the third at 9:50, etc. While teachers sometimes lose track of time, no one thinks to “round off” the start time or finish time because that would cause all kinds of chaos for students trying to get from one class to another. The beginning and end of class is determined by the schedule.

If the teacher shows up late for class, she doesn’t ask the students to stay correspondingly late. She just makes do with the time she has left. Students, of course, would never demand that the class wait for them before it begins, or that it run late because they couldn’t be there on time. When coordinating groups of people, its natural to be a bit arbitrary about the time issue.

Now, it could be argued that writing is a not a group activity and therefore requires no coordination. Rule #5 is intended as a prohibition against this argument. Of course it is possible to shirk your writing time. No one will know. Except…

There is the part of your that writes, the part of you that wants to get the writing done, and wants to become a better writer. That part of you is feeling disappointed and disoriented by your lack of discipline. You would apologize to your students for showing up late. And you wouldn’t keep them later as a punishment for your tardiness. Treat the part of you that writes with the same respect. Try to keep your appointment; but if you don’t begin on time, at least keep your promise to stop when you said you would. Remember that this is also a promise to the various parts of you that have other things to do.

Many people who fail to get their writing done at the time they had hoped (first thing in the morning, for example) carry the task around with them for the rest of the day, hoping they will get it done when an opportunity presents itself. Don’t do that. It will just make everything else you do less enjoyable, always burdened by this thing you’ve left undone. In fact, even the most planned activity comes to feel like an interruption, an obstruction to your writing. This means that what you are supposed to be doing doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And your writing, of course, is still not getting done.

So, when the time you had allotted to your writing passes, scratch it from your list of things to do today, whether or not you finished the paragraph or even managed to begin. Why worry today about what you have put off until tomorrow?

[Click here to see all the Rules.]

What Makes Writing “Academic”?

This is a good question that Julia Molinari has asked over at the Doctoral Writing SIG blog. (See my previous post inspired by that one.) I have posted some comments on that post and Julia has been kind enough to respond. I thought I’d just re-post the essence of the exchange here as well, elaborating a little as I go.

I have found it useful to define academic writing simply as the presentation of what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. This, I like to stress, implies writing in such way that you open your thinking to criticism from your epistemic peers. “Form” can here be though of in terms of how it supports occasions for criticism. Mastering a form is really about learning how your reader needs your ideas to be presented if they are to be able to engage constructively with them.

Or, rather, that’s what academic form is about. We can perfectly well imagine other forms of writing where “mastery” is shown in how well you deflect criticism, or that your reader can simply enjoy the text, i.e., be entertained by it. What I want to argue is that such forms are not academic.

The essay is one way to occasion criticism. Here claims are made and supported, preferably one claim to a paragraph, each providing the basis on which the claim is made. This is a very common form in academia because it is very effective, but I don’t want to rule out alternatives. I just want to maintain some sense of the “essence” of scholarly writing. A form becomes “academic” when it frames a critical practice, when it becomes a manner of giving and taking criticism. To say of a statement (in whatever medium) that it is “academic”, we might say, is merely to say it is open to criticism from peers.

In her response, Julia raised a couple of important issues. First, she pointed out that I’m letting the intention behind a text determine whether or not it is academic, and intentions are not always as simple and pure as I seem to think. “What if you are writing with the intention of being published …  or pass an exam, for example, but have no intention to engage in discussion (as is the case with many academics)?” she asks. “Would that kind of writing still be academic?”

My answer is that, no,  “getting published” or “passing an exam” does not count as an “academic” intention. But it’s also not the proper intentionality of most texts written by either students or scholars. I would say that a text that says–i.e., means–only that it wants to get published, or that it should get a good grade, should get neither. That is, if, no other sense can be made of the text than, “I want an A in this course” then that text must receive an F. Such a text is of course hard to imagine anyone actually handing in and most writers, thankfully, have mixed motives.

Moreover, we should distinguish psychological from textual intention, or the actual from the implied author. The psychology of the actual writer doesn’t make or break the “academicity” of the text. The fact that the writer is seeking personal fame or fortune matters less than the means the writer users to that end. The question is what relationship is established between the authorial persona and its implied reader. This relationship is a construct. It’s constructed. It’s what the craft is about.

Julia also worried about the negative connotation of a “critical” occasion. She prefers, she says, “the term ‘critique’ to the term ‘criticism’: the latter connotes confrontation, hostility, and belligerence; the former, intellectual respect, thoughtful engagement, and precision.” This, I want to acknowledge, is a serious and common objection to the traditional posture of academic writing, so its worth dealing with head-on.

I begin with somewhat different connotations, however. I take “critique” in a Kantian sense, as the revelation of the conditions of the possibility of an object of knowledge. And I think of “criticism” more as in “literary criticism”, i.e., a weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of the work against exemplars of masterwork in the relevant tradition.

I very definitely want to maintain opportunities for “confrontation”. Outright hostility is obviously not desirable, but it has to be possible to offer a corrective to someone’s point of view. It has to be possible to tell a peer that they are wrong about something. My notion of criticism includes that possibility; indeed, it reserves a place of honor for it.

We might say that I think of academic writing as almost essentially defined by the possibility of being wrong. That possibility should not feel threatening to academics. On the contrary, academia is constituted by the right to be wrong, and this right comes with the obligation to listen to one’s peers. Someone who takes any suggestion that they are, or even might be, in error as an act of hostility is not taking an “academic” stance. The academic produces a text that is “open” to criticism: it is ready to be shown wrong by other knowledgeable people. That rhetorical posture is central to my definition of “academic”.

Much depends, as Julia rightly points out, on how we define our “peers”. In most cases of academic writing, however, there is no need to overthink this. The peer group can be confined for all practical purposes to a handful of people, maybe ten or twenty of them, whose names are known. Obviously, the text will have many more (or many less) readers than we imagine. But we know who to imagine, who we are thinking of when we write. And the text will be judged relative to those readers’ expectations. For first year students, it might be helpful to imagine the other people in the class. I truly believe a lot could be won by getting students to tell each other what they have learned in the course, rather than trying to tell their teachers. For more senior scholars, the literature review is supposed to identify the relevant peer group. In any case, all academic writing should be done with a pretty finite list of names in mind and awareness of what knowledge they bring with them to reading.

Start with what you know. Then imagine saying it in a way that makes sense to someone else who knows it. A way that allows them to critically engage with your ideas. If you don’t know the name of even one person who is qualified to show you that you are wrong, what you’re doing is probably not “academic”. But I’m willing to consider counter-examples, of course.

Rule #4

Never write a paragraph that you have not planned the day before. Never write at a time you did not plan to.

I know this is hard. During the period of discipline — that is, during the eight weeks you have decided to write very deliberate prose in an attempt become a better writer — try as best as you can not to write spontaneously. Don’t write when “the mood strikes” or you are “hit by inspiration”. Part of the discipline is to train your muse not to show up at the most inconvenient times. The way you do this is to make a quick note of the idea, and then to resolve to write about it at your earliest possible convenience.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wait until next week in accordance with Rule #2. After all, while the idea to write about something may suddenly hit you, it may be something you have known for years. In that case, all you have to do is wait until tomorrow to write the corresponding paragraph or paragraphs. Just let the creative side of you know that the writer needs a bit of warning before the work can be carried out. You need to give your unconscious time to catch up. In order for this unconscious process to work properly, without anxiety, it must count on you to do the work you plan at the time you planned to do it. This also means not changing your mind in the middle of paragraph and writing something else that just occurred to you. Stick to the paragraph you planned.

Stephen King rightly said that “your muse has to know where to find you”. But s/he also has to stop calling you at work. And s/he will stop doing that when s/he can count on you to show up at the planned writing moments.

The other side of the bargain is that you can’t just summon your muse at all times of day and night whenever you feel like it. Sometimes what you thought was the song of angels was actually just a vague hunch. Once you start writing, you realize the idea wasn’t as good as it felt. For the eight weeks of the Challenge, I’m asking you simply not to have this problem. Don’t act on this feeling. Write according to your plan. I’m suggesting that you resolve to write only at the times you planned to do so. There will be no ambiguity about whether you are following this rule.

[Click here for all the Rules.]

Academic Discourse, Folk Psychology, and Intelligent Cat Pictures

“English Academic Discourse has always presented itself as a neutral vehicle of objective fact.” (Karen Bennett)

“I have, as it happens, a strikingly intelligent cat.” (Jerry Fodor)

Julia Molinari asks an important question in a recent post at the DoctoralWriting SIG blog: “What makes our writing ‘academic’?” She serenely disdains to answer it, of course. But she does provide a list of commonly suggested answers:

When you ask anyone this question—be they initiated or not—their answers will roughly cluster around the following features: its formality, linearity, clarity, lexical density, grammatical complexity, micro-macro structure (i.e., from paragraphs to whole-text organisation), intertextuality and citation, objectivity, meta-discursivity.

One of her sources for this list is Karen Bennett, who published a useful survey of academic style manuals in 2009, following it up in 2015 with a “deconstruction” of the putative “objectivity” of academic writing. The first quote in my epigraph is the first sentence of the abstract of the latter of those papers. The second quote is from Fodor’s Psychosemantics–a sentence that, for I hope obvious reasons, has stuck in my mind since I first read it. (Okay, I confess, that’s not true. I did not first read it. It was spoken to me by a very beautiful classmate on a sunlit campus hill on a fall day when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. She was impressed with how witty a way that was to begin a book and she expressed her admiration for philosophers who write like this. I, of course, immediately resolved to develop my style accordingly.)

It came to mind after reading Bennett’s claim. Was Jerry Fodor really “presenting” his text as a “neutral vehicle of objective fact”? Should he not have said, for example, “Cats display remarkable intelligence,” if that is what he was trying to do? Fodor continues as follows:

In the morning , at his usual feeding time, Greycat prowls the area of the kitchen near his food bowl . When breakfast appears, he positions himself with respect to the bowl in a manner that facilitates ingestion.
When the house is cold, Greycat often sleeps before the fireplace. But he does this only if there’s a fire on the hearth, and he never gets close enough to singe his hair.
When his foot encounters a sharp object, Greycat withdraws it. In similar spirit , he maintains an appreciable distance between himself and the nearest aggressive dog.
He occasionally traps and disembowels small rodents.

Surely, if he is here deploying “formality”, “objectivity” and “neutrality”, he is doing so in a light-hearted, ironic way? If he were really trying to participate in English Academic Discourse, wouldn’t he, again, just talk about the observable behavior of any cat. Why implicate himself in all this? Why, we might ask, does he write so well? Isn’t he supposed to be an academic?

Just to assuage any doubt, let me say that the book was written in 1989 and published by MIT Press, so it is neither particularly recent (recall Bennett’s “has always presented itself “) nor lacking an academic imprimatur. Moreover, Fodor is by no means some postmodern deconstructionist trying to highlight “the play of the signifier” or “the death of the subject”. He’s just an ordinary “analytic” philosopher having a little fun with his style. I would argue that such writing is entirely commonplace in academia. Think of Stanley Cavell. Think of Richard Rorty. [Update: I should acknowledge that Rorty has somewhere made an argument similar to mine, in that case, as I recall, aimed at Derrida.]

Okay, you might say, but those are philosophers! Not only that, they are white males. Not only that, one of them is dead. But that’s in many ways only better for my argument. If anyone is supposed to subscribe to English Academic Discourse, surely it’s a white male philosopher writing in America at the end of the Reagan era. Surely Fodor is a licensed driver of “the hegemonic vehicle of knowledge in the modern world.” And even his style is all over the rhetorical road!

In fact, I don’t think it’s misplaced at all to use a philosopher’s style as a counterexample to Bennett’s claim that (English) academic writing is hegemonicly “neutral” and “objective” and needs to be “deconstructed”, to become more comfortable with “overt rhetoric”.  After all, Bennett’s argument is overtly philosophical and almost entirely humorless. In her conclusion she says:

Clearly, then, the empiricist principles upon which EAD is based are deeply flawed. We cannot affirm with any certainty that there exists an objective extralingual reality that appears in same way to all and is gradually revealed through linear and communal process of discovery. Objectivity is a linguistic construct, achieved largely through use of nominalizations and impersonal verbs, and reinforced by devices such as epistemic modality which carefully distinguish between what is considered to be ‘fact’ and the author’s subjective opinion.

Moreover, ‘facts’ as such have no independent existence…. (Bennett, 2015, p. 15)

“Clearly”? Bennett here states as a categorical fact the non-existence of independent facts! It is true that philosophers have been arguing since the time of Socrates that we cannot be completely certain that reality exists as presented to our senses. Perhaps we are dreaming, or perhaps we are disembodied brains stimulated by electrodes, or perhaps we are simply simulations in a computer program, digital identities inhabiting digital worlds. But we can’t have “any certainty” that there are facts of the matter? Can we seriously doubt that Jerry Fodor ever had a cat named Greycat? (I admit the name stretches credulity.) Do we have to abandon our belief that he sometimes killed? I would argue that we can’t “with any certainty” deny the existence of facts that might be interesting to discover, discuss and write about. Nor that these facts might, in fact (!), settle some interesting disputes.

I hope Bennett doesn’t mind a little ribbing, but surely, linguistic constructivism, as it is presented in her text, is itself a linguistic construct, achieved largely through the use of nominalizations and impersonal verbs. Indeed, her deconstruction of objectivity leaves us with the impression that she thinks linguistic constructs are objective facts, and she achieves this through the deft deployment of an objective, neutral, “academic” discourse. I’m sure the irony is deliberate. But the point is that her own text is a much better example of the style she is suggesting we abandon than a great deal of perfectly mainstream academic writing.

I’m not just doing this to poke fun. Jerry Fodor’s psychosemantics was an attempt to overcome precisely something like the skepticism that seems to underpin Bennett’s deconstruction. He argued for a “folk psychology” to understand behavior. He suggested we should happily attribute beliefs and desires to people (and cats, of course) to explain why they do the things they do. Likewise, I think we should happily attribute facts and events to our experiences to explain why things appear to us as they do, largely stable, dependably “real” constituents of our life world.  They don’t have to “appear in the same way to all” but I do have some hope (if not “any certainty”) that they are “gradually revealed [to us] through linear and communal process of discovery.”

We call that process research. It’s a bit “academic” sometimes, perhaps, but it does get us a little closer to the truth. Without it, we’d probably just be circulating pictures of cats doing strikingly intelligent things on the Internet. Someone has to take those behaviors a bit more seriously. But that doesn’t mean they can’t write well and engagingly. It never has. English Academic Discourse is largely a linguistic construct achieved by writing instructors through a peculiar kind of “empirical research” (about which more later). It doesn’t actually govern academic writing; it holds no objective hegemonic power over us. That is, I don’t think we need to deconstruct our discourse as much Bennett thinks we do. I think we can begin (and let our students begin) with a sanguine common sense realism about, say, the existence of the works of Shakespeare and the reality of the industrial revolution. Then let’s discourse about them with all the sophistication (and wit) we can muster.

Rule #3

Always write a single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words in support, elaboration or defense of a single well-defined claim expressed in the key sentence.

You have decided when you will write and what you will say. This rule now tells you what you should do. Or, better, what you should make. The paragraph is the unit of scholarly prose composition; you are not writing scholarly prose if you are not writing paragraphs.* The paragraph will express a justified, true belief you hold and then, depending on the needs of your reader, provide support for it, elaboration of it or a defense of it against the reader’s objections. The problem of writing a paragraph can really only be solved with a reader in mind. That’s important to remember.

The rule here may seem a bit rigid but notice that it defines a minimum and a maximum. You can write eight sentences and 187 words and still be following this rule. Ezra Pound had a good way of thinking about form: think of it as a center “around which”, not a box “within which”. The key sentence provides you with a focus, the six sentences mark out a minimum level of complexity, and the 200 words sets an outer boundary. This tells you what you are heading for, but gives you a lot of leeway about where exactly you end up. If you experience it as a constraint, you are approaching the problem with the wrong attitude. Having 27 minutes to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words should feel liberating, not oppressive.

I am suggesting you make writing paragraphs the rule rather than the exception. Don’t think that paragraphs are easy or boring to write. Don’t think they have to be boring to read either. Asking you to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words about a single thing doesn’t tell you very specifically what you should be doing. It merely rules out a lot of things you shouldn’t be doing. There is a great range of freedom for creativity within that form, arguably greater than if I asked you to write a sonnet.

“Aim small, miss small,” sharpshooters say. What they mean is that if you aim for the man and miss, you miss the man. But if you aim for a button on his shirt and miss, you may still hit the man. That is the virtue of having a focus. And a limit. It lets you find your composure. It lets you compose your paragraph.

[Click here for all the Rules.]


*I don’t have to imagine readers that would object to this generalization. I have respect for these conscientious objectors; I know where they’re coming from. (I’ve been there.) I want to meet them halfway by granting that not everything in a piece of academic writing needs to be strictly “scholarly”. These rules, I should repeat, are here for those who are making a deliberate effort to improve their scholarly prose style. These people should be writing paragraphs.