Monthly Archives: December 2017

Making Up Your Mind

There’s is only so much that you can say in a journal article. But how much? And how do you decide what to say?

I usually answer the first question with a simple “back of the envelope” calculation. How many words do you have available? This will often be determined by the journal you are planning to submit to, but it is useful for you to have your own sense of how long the various kinds of papers you are writing will be. (You can then choose the right journal based on the sort of paper you want to publish, rather than the other way around.) Whatever number of words you settle on, divide it by 200 to get a lower bound on the amount of paragraphs you will be writing. Since paragraphs can be as short as 100 words, the upper bound will be roughly twice that. An 8000-word paper will consists of at least (I would actually say ideally) 40 paragraphs and at most 80.

The paragraph, however, is not just an arbitrary way of carving a larger text into 1-200-word units. The paragraph is the “unit of composition”, delivering a single point that it supports, elaborates or defends. That is, each paragraph says one thing you know and then tells us how you know it. When you are trying to decide what your paper will say, you are ultimately trying to decide what each paragraph will say. And after you have done your back-of-the-envelope calculation you know roughly how many decisions you have to make. Let each decision produce a “key sentence” that belongs somewhere in the outline of your paper.

I often suggest that people make these decisions in four stages. First, decide what you will say in paragraph 1, 2, 3 (the introduction) and “39” (the first paragraph of the conclusion). Then spend two hours writing those paragraphs, one moment at a time. Next, decide what you’ll say say in two paragraphs of each of the background, theory, methods and discussion sections, as well six things you’ll say in your analysis. Spend seven hours writing those 14 paragraphs, again taking a well-defined writing moment to produce each one. You know what you are trying to say; think carefully about how you’re going to say it. Craft the paragraph so that it tells your reader how you know and, ideally, imparts that knowledge to the reader. That is, at the end of the paragraph the reader, too, knows what you know about some particular thing.

You now have 18 paragraphs written and, if you’re writing a 40 paragraph paper, 22 paragraphs to go. In the third stage, read through what you have written, mindful of what you have not yet said but would like to say to your reader. Write down the key sentences of these paragraphs as you think of them. The  reading itself should take 18 minutes. (A paragraph should take about a minute to read. It should be possible to “get it” in that time; that is, after a minute the reader should understand what you are trying to say and why you think it is true.) If you add in the time to write down the “missing” ideas, the whole exercise should take no more than an hour. After that hour is over, take a look at what you’ve got. Put the key sentences in the right sections and in the most logical position relative to the 18 paragraphs you’ve already written.

Now take 11 hours to write those remaining 22 paragraphs. (Don’t work more than three hours per day on this, please. Two is plenty.) When you’re done, take a one or two day break from this paper. Now, give yourself an hour to read the whole text through, slowly and out loud. For each paragraph, identify the key sentence and put it in a separate document, numbering the paragraphs as you go. Don’t “construct” these sentences. Just pick the one sentence in each paragraph that expresses its point and put this in your after-the-fact outline. Don’t use any headings in this document. It should just be a list of 40 sentences, numbered to correspond to each paragraph in the paper.

Take a break. Go for a walk. Clear your head. You might even want to call it a day.

The fourth stage begins by looking at your after-the-fact outline. Read each key sentence out loud. Feel free to polish it and sharpen it so that it makes the strongest possible impression. Get it to say exactly what you think about the matter. (Remember that it appears in a paragraph that supports and qualifies it. Trust in that as you sharpen its edge.) Now look at the sentences in sequence. Do they make sense as assertions made one after the other? Remember that you’ve left out all the relevant arguments and evidence. The question, in a sense, is “If I persuade you of this, will the next claim make sense too?” Do your key sentences indicate the “line” of your argument? Move them around until they do. Add key sentences as needed. You might also have to remove some points that interfere with your purpose in this paper.

You now have a list of crisp, declarative sentences that say the roughly forty things that you want to get across to the reader in this paper in an order that makes logical and rhetorical sense. You have finally decided what you want to say. Now, take 20 hours to rewrite the paragraphs that support, elaborate or defend each of those 40 claims as best as you know how. When you’re done, the entire process will have taken about 50 hours: five five-day weeks working on average 2 hours per day on this paper. (Including reading and deciding, stage one took about five hours. Stage two 2 took about eight. Stage three took about 13 hours and stage four took about 24.) Whether or not it was worth it depends on what you’ve got to say, of course. I’ll leave that judgment entirely up to you.

Students as Peers

Most writing in schools and colleges is a perversion of practical style: the student pretends that he is writing a memorandum. He pretends that he knows more than the reader, that the reader needs this information, and that his job is to impart that information in a way that is easy for the reader to parse. The pretense is supposed to be practice for the real thing. Actually, the reader (the teacher) probably knows much more about the subject than the writer; the reader (the teacher) has no need whatever for the information; and the job of the writer is to cover himself from attack by his superior (the teacher). The actual scene interferes so much with the fantasy scene that the result is almost inevitably compromised, if not fraudulent. (Francis-Nöel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth, p. 77-8)

Scholars write for their peers. They present their ideas to a readership of people who are roughly as knowledgeable about their subject as they are. They write for readers who are qualified, not just to learn from their discoveries, but to point out their mistakes. Shakespeare scholars write about his plays and sonnets for people who are familiar with them. They imagine a reader who knows the text as well they do and has easy access to it. Sociologists write about society on the presumption that their readers, too, have thought a great deal about, say, the causes of crime or poverty. They assume that their readers also have data to inform these thoughts. Writing instructors, finally, when writing in their journals, are addressing other writing instructors, with a rich understanding of the problems of writing and many years of experience trying to solve them. Their readers already know what student writing looks like.

But who are those students writing for? Sometimes we will give students a kind of “simulation”; we ask them to write a text with an imaginary audience of magazine readers, policy makers, or business leaders. We place them in the role of journalist, or expert, or consultant. Sometimes we will ask them to imagine writing an article in one of the major academic journals of their discipline. But we are, indeed, asking them to imagine these readers–they are not yet journalists, experts, consultants, or scholars–and they are, by no means, our students’ peers. Is there a way of getting the students to really simulate the experience of writing for a peer readership, of getting them to engage directly with the problem of writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people? I believe that there is, and it’s quite straightforward. I think we should, in most cases, for the majority of their assignments, ask students to imagine their fellow students as their readers. They should explain what they have learned to each other.

This community can be defined quite precisely. Their readers will, first and foremost, have participated in the course. They will have read the required reading and attended the lectures and workshops. The teacher, who has also read the readings and attended the classes, and has even read all the students’ work during the term, is in a good position to judge whether any given student is effectively addressing the others. The imagined or “ideal” reader is, of course, a good student — one of the most intelligent and serious among them — but even this reader must be addressed with an awareness of the difficulty of the texts discussed and the disagreements about them that came up in class. The students are pitching their claims to each other. They are trying to get each other to believe, understand or agree with them about what the learning experience means, what the course has taught them.

Knowing how to write, said Virginia Woolf, is knowing who you’re writing for. We can say that it means knowing what difficulty your reader faces when you make your claims. If the reader finds them hard to believe you must provide evidence. If the reader finds them hard to understand you must explain your meaning. If the reader finds them hard to agree with you must engage with the known objections. Your writing helps the reader overcome the difficulty of the claim you are making. But when students imagine not each other but their teacher as their reader, they can’t feel the difficulty very easily. Indeed, they probably imagine a reader who already knows what they are trying to say, or, anxiously, that what they are trying to say is wrong. They let the reader contribute too much to the reading. In an important sense, they are making their own task too easy by expecting the reader already to understand the ideas they are presenting.

I don’t know how often university students are asked to imagine each other as their readers. I don’t know how widespread the practice of evaluating them on their ability to address the difficulties of their (most intelligent, most serious) peers is. In my view, it should be the standard approach to university-level writing. It would incentivize the students, not merely to read the course material, but to attend class and engage their fellow students in conversation, both inside and outside of class. They would be tasked with learning, not just about Elizabethan tragedy or inner city poverty or the elements of style, but also with what is on a “like mind” working on the same problem at the same level. This awareness is fundamentally “academic” and we spare our students the experience — the very instructive trouble — at their peril. In fact, the ability to address yourself effectively to your peers is not just a useful skill for you to have as a person, it is useful to all of us as a culture that you possess it. It takes a village to know anything of value; we build the community of scholars in the university classroom.

Further reading: “Some Thoughts on Peer Grading” and “Peer Grading and Peer Review”

Beyond the Logic of Representation

I think Jonathon Kneeland’s “rejection of academia” is worth taking seriously. After all, he is not an academic but is, as he points out, one of its benefactors. His taxes support the work of academics; he wants to hold them accountable just as he would his politicians and police officers. “He has never been to university,” his author bio tells us, “and has no formal training in writing.” He appears to have acquired his writing skills by reading extensively and, I’m going to assume, writing a great deal. He writes well and appears to have informed himself about the issues he’s writing about. It would be completely wrong to dismiss him as simply “unqualified”.

Also, his concerns are entirely reasonable. Indeed, he isn’t making arguments that we haven’t heard from academics themselves. Like many scholars, Kneeland is dismayed by the sort of thing that is considered a contribution to scholarly discourse these days. He offers a specific example, an article by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah Truman in Body and Society . It’s a perfectly respectable journal that has been operating since 1995 and is published by SAGE, a perfectly respectable academic publisher. The lead author is an associate professor, presumably tenured, at a public university. Kneeland isn’t tilting at windmills here or slaughtering straw men. He’s taking aim at something that can be held to a certain standard.

I was struck by a particular phrase in the abstract because I think it goes a long way towards explaining the clash of expectations that motivate Kneeland’s rejection of academia:

…scholars have examined vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation.

Though Kneeland himself doesn’t emphasize it, his underlying objection might well be to this idea of working “beyond” representation. After all, suppose our elected “representatives” boldly announced their intention to work “beyond” their mandates.  In that light, laypeople like Kneeland can be forgiven for being taken aback by the idea of a methodology that does not commit itself to a logic of representation. Of course, we might remind him that politicians do in fact often state their personal convictions and, sometimes, cast their vote according to their conscience rather than the majority opinion among the people they represent. Politicians sometimes openly oppose themselves to the will of their constituents, hoping to persuade them of the rightness of their views before the next election. So the analogy does offer us something like a space “beyond representation”, a legitimate space for experimental work.

But I think two questions can be reasonably asked: How many resources should be devoted to such experimentation? And how should the existing representational space constrain the pursuit of such experiments? If everyone in a given a discipline (like pedagogy) is always working beyond the confines of representation–beyond the presumption that there are facts in the world and some of them are known–then how can we ever know anything at all? Who can we call on to tell us what the facts are? Worse still, we sometimes get the impression that academics want us to believe that there simply are no relevant facts of the matter, that there is no truth at all, because “representation” simply doesn’t work. Again, I would encourage people who find themselves saying such things to imagine an elected official eschewing “representative democracy” as a illusion.

We want there to be an institution in society whose main purpose is to represent the knowable facts. We sometimes call that institution the University.

On the other hand, we can certainly come up with good reasons to allow exploratory and experimental research to exist as well, no matter how odd it sounds. As long as we are offered assurances that the majority of the research funding in pedagogy is going to produce stable, orderly, (indeed, “logical”) representations of pedagogical practice, there is no harm, and indeed some benefit to letting some researchers explore “vital, sensory, material, and ephemeral intensities beyond the logics of representation“. I think  it must come with an obligation to engage with those who are puzzled by it. Or, at the very least, there should be an expectation that the editors who decide to publish such work are able to defend these decisions, in part by pointing to the world of represented facts that are not at risk, at least immediately, of being overturned by one or another experiment. Meeting that obligation, I believe, is what it will take to regain Kneeland’s trust. Like I say, I think we should try. I think scholars do well to express themselves in ways that make sense to obviously intelligent but unabashedly “uneducated” laypeople like him.

The Representation of Knowledge in Writing

I often compare writing to drawing. My own amateur sense of the difficulty of drawing objects (hands, trees, boats) is that you have to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. I got this idea many years ago when I tried modelling heads in plasticine based on photographs. I found it surprisingly easy, and I assumed it had something to do with the extra dimension the plasticine gave me to represent the information in a two-dimensional picture. In the same way, it’s easier to reproduce a photograph in a drawing than it is to work with a live model. It’s the disparity between the amount of dimensions that the object has and the amount that the representational space has that determines the degree of difficulty. That’s the idea I got, anyway.

On this view, we can think of writing as a one-dimensional representational space. One word follows another in single file. Especially in prose, where there is no “line” (as in poetry) to work with. It’s just a series of words that form a sentence and series of sentences that form a paragraph–a series of paragraphs that form an essay. It’s one-dimensional and even uni-directional (you can’t read a sentence backwards). Prose is linear. It is a very impoverished representational situation. It lacks dimensional resources.

If we think about what our writing is “about” the situation gets even worse. Writing rarely confines itself to three-dimensional objects. Normally, what we write about will include a fourth dimension, namely, time. We are writing about facts that change over time, events that transpire in history. Moreover, we are normally trying to represent not just how they actually are, but what they could have been or what they might one day become. That is, we are representing the possibilities that are implicit in our object of study. Indeed, I would argue that an object of knowledge is “objective” precisely in so far as it determines the possible ways in which it can be combined with other objects. (Readers of the early Wittgenstein will perhaps recognize this point.) That is, our objects are located in logical space.

Lastly, we have to consider that, as scholars, we are as often representing “ideas” as we are representing “things”. When we are representing our knowledge, we are representing a rich set of competences, both individual and social, that imply both perceptual and communicative abilities. We are claiming to be able to see certain things and to talk about them with others. We are claiming to have collected and analysed data. We claim to understand the methodologies that we and our peers use to construct our facts. We claim even to uphold certain ethical standards and open ourselves to particular forms of critique.  (Here readers of Foucault will perhaps feel on familiar ground.) That is, the objects of our knowledge are located also in discursive space.

I don’t know how many dimensions all this implies. But it’s certainly more than the single dimension that the space of writing (the “page”) provides. (A piece of drawing paper has two dimensions to work with and the eye can scan it in all directions; but the written page of prose, like I say, has only a single line along which the reader’s attention passes in one direction.) I think this is the basis of the felt difficulty of writing. Indeed, it may indicate the real difficulty.