Monthly Archives: March 2018

Writer’s Block

I got to thinking of the Zen masters, one old dog in particular. The one who said, “It’s your mind that’s troubling you, is it? Well then, bring it out, put it down here, let’s have a look at it!” (Henry Miller)

Rachael Cayley has a good post about academic writer’s block up at the LSE Impact Blog, citing Helen Kara and Julia Molinari as inspiration. I think we’re all more or less on the same page on this issue. “Writers block” is a false name for a real problem. When we “debunk” writer’s block we are not denying the experience it names, which is very real, and entirely unpleasant. We are simply proposing a less occult explanation for it than the one people who say they are “blocked” are invoking, sometimes unconsciously. We are not saying that things don’t go bump in the night. We are saying that your house is probably not haunted. Or at least not as haunted as you think.

When someone tells me they are blocked, I take the attitude of a parent dealing with the monsters under the child’s bed. Most importantly, I don’t participate in their fear. While the child’s mind is assembling the play of light and shadow and the creaking that the motions their own body makes in the bed into the shape of some horrid beast, I know what’s really down there — namely, nothing — and I am not afraid. The child learns from my reaction to the “signs” that they are not dangerous, just familiar indications of something much simpler, something harmless. An important part of the “exorcism”, of course, is to have a look. Perhaps with a flashlight, perhaps just by turning on the lights in the room. What we thought was a scary monster turns out to be a lost toy and an old sock.

But how do we get a good a look under the bed of the writing process? How do we see that there’s nothing in the way of anything where the process is supposedly blocked. Well, the first question is: what is it you can’t write? What is it you think you should be able to say but can’t because your writing is stuck? At this point, the author will usually be able to identify the paper or chapter that is giving them trouble. That is, there is some specific text on which they are not making progress. And if I had probed them a little further, they would probably even be able to identify the intellectual difficulty they are facing. Sometimes, if I had in fact talked to them about it, they would have revealed that they didn’t have a clear idea of who their reader is. Both of these insights, of course, would immediately have revealed that the blockage isn’t really located in their writing, but in their thinking, their knowing. They are writing either about something or for someone they don’t know well enough. That’s the problem they’ll have to fix. (This is essentially Rachael’s cure for so-called writer’s block.)

But I don’t actually go down that route very often. Usually, I just ask them to identify the single paragraph they can’t write when they give themselves a moment to do so. This is sometimes puzzling to them. They’re happy to focus on a particular section of the paper, perhaps, but a single paragraph? They hadn’t considered the problem in those terms.

So I send them home with the following prescription: this evening, when you are done learning new things, done thinking about old problems, and ready to relax with a good book or a television show or the pleasant company of your friends or family, take five minutes to identify one thing you know that is of relevance to your paper. Formulate a simple, declarative sentence that states this truth. Ask yourself whether it’s something you need to tell your reader. If it is, ask yourself what difficulty it poses for the reader, why does it deserve a whole paragraph. (Is it hard to believe, to understand, or to agree with?) That’s it for today. Don’t spend more than five minutes on this. Just write the sentence down and consider the reader’s difficulty. Decide on a time tomorrow morning when you will spend 18 or 27 minutes writing a paragraph to support, elaborate or defend your sentence. Then get on with that relaxing evening I was talking about.

The next day, spend the planned 18 or 27 minutes working on the paragraph. When the time has run out, stop. No matter how well it went, stop. Stop even if you feel the block is gone and you’re elated and want to keep going. Stop even if you got no further than the sentence you already had the day before. So long as you faced the difficulty squarely at the time you planned, you have done what you could today. At the end of the day, make another plan for tomorrow. Write or don’t write three paragraphs this way in three days. Then come and see me again.

If you have done as I said, if you formulated three key sentences on three consecutive evenings and sat down the next day writing, or not writing, for 18 or 27 minutes, then you have, at least, taken a serious look at the problem you call writer’s block. You have probably also realized that you aren’t actually blocked. But in the unlikely event that you did no writing at all under these conditions — just sat in front of you computer watching the cursor blink — you at least have those three key sentences to talk to me about. Three different things you don’t know how to say. And we can talk about how to say them, and who to say them to. The experiment — the process by which you got the experience we can talk about — can have taken as little as a an hour altogether. If you still want to believe in ghosts and monsters and blocks after that, I can’t stop you. And I’m actually not sure I can help you either. I don’t think it’s your writing that there’s something wrong with.

(To be continued.)

A Thousand Paragraphs

I get this quite a lot, actually. Sometimes (as I think it’s intended here) it is a (good-natured) complaint about Deleuze and Guattari; more often it’s an attempt to make me look silly. Other writers have been invoked to this end — Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein — almost always with the insinuation that I would ban their books, or that I am at least somehow offended by them. If my rules were universally followed, it is said, none of these great thinkers would ever have written their books. Kierkegaard himself can be said to have ridiculed my position in advance, calling me out, a century before my birth, as an “enterprising abstracter, a gobbler of paragraphs … who will cut [thought] up into paragraphs … with the same inflexibility as the man who, in order to serve the science of punctuation, divided his discourse by counting out the words, fifty words to a period and thirty-five to a semicolon.” (Ouch, says the writing coach who defines the paragraph as at least six sentences and at most 200 words to be written in exactly 27 minutes, and strung together, forty paragraphs to a paper.) Surely writing is not solely about supporting, elaborating or defending statements of fact, they balk. Surely there’s something more interesting going on.

In my defense, I wouldn’t burn any of their books. Their existence doesn’t offend me in the least; my life is the richer for it. Indeed, I’d object to burning them in the strongest possible terms. It’s just that, as I usually put it when talking to students, I don’t know how they were written. I can’t help you write something like them. “There is no difference,” say Deleuze and Guattari, “between what a book talks about and how it is made.” And for the longest time I’ve been happy to admit that, half the time at least, I don’t know what they are talking about. But Ella’s tweet reminded me of one paragraph that did once offend me, albeit in a way that might surprise you.

I was younger then and very much on the same page as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari. Like Foucault, I was happy to leave the order of things to the bureaucrats and the police and write out of the unruly chaos of my own damnable heart. But then I got to the “War Machine” in Thousand Plateaus and read this shockingly conventional, altogether orderly paragraph:

A Thousand Plateaus,
p. 351

Georges Dumézil, in his definitive analyses of Indo-European mythology, has shown that political sovereignty, or domination, has two heads: the magician-king and the jurist-priest. Rex and flamen, raj and Brahman, Romulus and Numa, Varuna and Mitra, the despot and the legislator, the binder and the organiser. Undoubtedly, these two poles stand in opposition term by term, as the obscure and the clear, the violent and the calm, the quick and the weighty, the fearsome and the regulated, the “bond” and the “pact,” etc. But their opposition is only relative; they function as a pair, in alternation, as though they expressed a division of the One or constituted in themselves a sovereign unity. “At once antithetical and complementary, necessary to one another and consequently without hostility, lacking a mythology of conflict: a specification on any one level automatically calls forth a homologous specification on another. The two together exhaust the field of the function.” They are the principal elements of a State apparatus that proceeds by a One-Two, distributes binary distinctions, and forms a milieu of interiority. It is a double articulation that makes the State apparatus into a stratum. (ATP, p. 351-2)

What was I to make of these “definitive” analyses, this “undoubtable” polarity? Were Deleuze and Guattari expecting me to take this straight? Was my ass no longer a wolf? Two heads? Why not a thousand? Why not a multiplicity? And who was this Dumézil guy, anyway; wasn’t he some sort of fascist? Why quote him and not Henry Miller? What gives him this privileged position from which to speak? You get the idea. You’ve probably been there at one time or another yourself. But today, when I recalled this paragraph to my mind, I suspected something and took a closer look.

It consists of 8 sentences and 189 words. It says one thing, viz., “political sovereignty, or domination, has two heads: the magician-king and the jurist-priest,” and elaborates on it. Arguably, it also supports it, but it does so on the authority of Dumézil, which it endorses as “definitive”. It can be said to be an elaboration of Dumézil, except that he did not talk about the “State apparatus.” The key sentence might in fact be better said to be the last one: “[The opposition of magician-king and jurist-priest] is a double articulation that makes the State apparatus into a stratum.” After reading this paragraph, I dare say, we’re in no doubt about how it was made and we know, more or less, what they are talking about. It lays out the simple reasons behind a complex claim. It clearly exposes them to the criticism of their peers.

That is, maybe Ella is wrong. Maybe someone did tell Deleuze and Guattari what paragraphs are for and how they work. (Perhaps Deleuze’s teachers at the Lycée Carnot?) Indeed, maybe they made their books altogether deliberately out of paragraphs. “Each morning we would wake up, and each of us would ask himself what plateau he was going to tackle, writing five lines here, ten there.” They took their title concept “plateau” from Gregory Bateson, describing it as “a self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end”. Isn’t this how I advise authors to approach a moment in which to write a paragraph? I think it is.

Even Deleuze and Guattari’s translator seems to have missed this point.* Brian Massumi tells us that A Thousand Plateaus “presents itself as a network of ‘plateaus’ that are precisely dated but can be read in any order” (ix). But it’s the chapters, not the paragraphs, that are dated in this book. Perhaps he was misled by what the authors themselves say: “a book composed of chapters has culmination and termination points. What takes place in a book composed instead of plateaus that communicate with one another across microfissures, as in a brain?” (ATP, p. 22, my emphasis) The word “instead” leads us naturally to think that what looks like chapters are really plateaus. But the point is that the book was not composed into chapters, nor even around those precise dates, the moment when what is being talked about (how it is made) existed in some “pure form,” as Massumi suggests. Actually, forget the philosophical argument and just do the math: there are fifteen chapters in the book. But there are about 500 pages and an average of two paragraphs to the page is not a bad guess. What there’s a thousand of is neither chapters nor sections but paragraphs. Every morning the authors would get up and make one here, another one there. That’s what it’s about.


*The idea that “chapters” = “plateaus” in A Thousand Plateaus seems to be pretty standard. It’s also how Brian Adkins approaches them in his critical guide (pp. 15-7).

Competence & Competition

There is no better reminder of the relativity of competence than the fact that the word itself is derived from the verb “to compete”. No one is ever competent in some absolute sense, just more or less qualified to carry out a particular action. Whether you choose to compete against yourself or against others, becoming good at something is always a matter of getting “better” at it. Actually, there’s something too combative about the image of struggling against: the “com-” in compete literally suggests a striving alongside, more as in a race than in a fight. The loser is not beaten but passed.

How can this sense of relative mastery be instilled in students when it comes to their writing? How can we get them to see that being a “good” writer is the result of continuous improvement over time and that their “academic literacy” is inexorably related to that of their peers?

Here’s a thought experiment that sometimes gets people to see what I mean. Suppose an ordinary liberal arts college decided to hold an annual 3 mile race around the campus. Suppose all students were required to compete in this race and suppose that they were given a grade based on their time. The top 10% would get As, the next 25% Bs, the next 30% Cs and the remainder would get Ds (for completing the race) and Fs (for not completing). This grade would count for 25% of their GPA. Now, there’s of course no particular rationale for getting students to perform a physical competence like this (nor that it should involve running rather than, say, swimming or rowing) but one thing seems reasonable to assume: with this race on the curriculum the college is likely to have a student body that is in better shape than one that doesn’t. The students would have an incentive to devote some hours every week to training for the race; and those hours would, all things being equal, improve their level of physical fitness.

Like I say, the lack of intellectual rationale for this race is likely to leave it in the category of a thought experiment. (While the idea has a certain charm, it’s unlikely that a school that made this much depend on your physical fitness would attract the most academically ambitious students.) But suppose we imagined a different kind of race. Suppose that at the end of the year all the students in the same year of the same major were assigned the same essay question. Suppose they were given 72 hours to complete it and suppose the grades were distributed as in the case of the race and the grades again contributed 25% of the overall GPA. The essays would simply be ranked from best to worst, the top 10% would get As, the next 25%, Bs, etc. My hypothesis here is that, all things being equal, such a program would produce a student body with generally better writing skills, since they would have an incentive to train, just as in the case of the footrace. Their prose would simply get stronger.

Now, let me point out something else about that three-mile race. It would be possible to publish the cut-off times that decided whether you got an A, B, C or D. Looking at those times and comparing it to your own, you’d be in a good position to decide how much effort you would need to put into getting a higher grade next year, even without knowing the names of any particular participants. Grades, that is, could remain confidential. And something similar is possible when it comes to the essay competition. All the essays could be published anonymously, but with their grades stamped on them. Students could have a look at the essays that bested them in order to get a sense of the qualities that made a difference. They could plan their training program accordingly and even ask their teachers for advice about how to produce the quality they discern in the work of their peers. Obviously, this sort of transparency would pose a challenge to the teachers and examiners, who must now grade according to an objectively justifiable set of standards. But that’s probably a good thing anyway.

Most importantly, it would require students to focus on the production of text with obvious virtues — just as participants in a race are pacing themselves to produce one optimal result (a time) at the end. The important thing to keep in mind is that people who can run 3 miles relatively quickly can’t just do that. They’ve got a much more general kind of fitness. Likewise, someone who’s able to research and write a solid 11-paragraph essay in 72 hours may not be doing anything very useful during that time (other than passing an exam). But the ability is a very real display of an array of linguistic and intellectual competences that are well worth having as such.

These days, I’m increasingly of the mind that competition among students is the only thing that will truly get their prose into shape. It would give them a reason to spend 30 minutes every other day writing better and better paragraphs. This would make the student body as a whole much more articulate than it is today, and in a better position to learn the complex ideas that their teachers are trying to impart to them.

Something to Be Good At

Academia has always had a somewhat flickering public image. When they are not denounced for indoctrinating their students into a life of corporate servitude, universities are chided for failing to provide their students with “employable” “real-world” skills. While this might seem immediately unfair, I think academics themselves must take some of the blame. After all, they are prone to overselling both their emancipatory function and their practical relevance. When they underperform in their effort to foster critical thinking in their students, they are hoisted on one petard, and when they underperform in their efforts to produce competent members of the 21st-century workforce, they are hoisted on the other. In both cases, critics use the university’s own ideological language against it. Perhaps it is time that we cultivated a different idea of ourselves?

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, stimulated by a seminar at the University of Roskilde about “the textbook of the future” and a Twitter exchange with Julia Molinari, Lesley Gourlay, and Norm Friesen. At the seminar I was struck by the difficulty we had in agreeing on what textbooks and “teaching materials” in general actually are. This, it seems to me, can be traced to a deeper ambiguity about what such hallmarks of higher education as the classroom and the dissertation are. We seem to have lost our clarity about the purpose, not just of higher education as such, but even of the most iconic components of it. The source of confusion, it now seems clear to me, is the proliferation of “media” and their somewhat unreflective (and overenthusiastic) introduction into educational contexts. We sometimes seem more eager to acquire a shiny new technology than to understand what it can do for us.

I had a sort of epiphany during Nina Bonderup Dohn’s presentation at the seminar on the “hybrid spaces” that teaching materials are used in. She pointed out that our students are not far from their smart phones, that they coordinate their offline activities online and their online activities offline. We can’t, she suggested, ignore the media-saturated nature of their everyday experience when teaching them, since they bring it with them into their classroom. Indeed, one student at the seminar suggested that the ideal textbook would be a podcast you could listen to while doing the dishes. (She found reading exhausting at times.) She was turning the kitchen sink into a hybrid space of learning, we might say.

Related to this, I’ve also long been concerned about the slide from knowledge to “information” and truth to “competence” as educational values. In the Q&A, I pointed out that perhaps something important was lost when we began to construe learning, not as internalizing a body of known truths, but as cultivating something we call “information literacy”. It’s worth remembering that this term was coined by Information Industry Association in 1974 and quickly adopted by libraries, who now no longer see themselves as repositories of finished knowledge products but as access points for information processes and, indeed, data streams. Lesley Gourlay cites Friedrich Kittler’s work, which argues that, by embracing computers, the university succeeded in again becoming a “complete media system”. I’m inclined to agree with him on this point, though I think I look at the situation with somewhat greater concern.

Norm Friesen’s work, which I’ve only just begun to read, in any case offers an important challenge to this enthusiasm for new media. He makes us consider the possibility that lectures and textbooks (and, I would hope, libraries) are not incidental features of the modern university, soon to be eroded by the incursion of new and better media. He points out that things like classrooms and books are much more stable features of literate cultures than we’re sometimes led to believe.

In the Sumerian example, with a relatively “non-restricted literacy” and writing systems and practices indisputably sui generis (vis a vis Western models) literacy instruction began early in life, and continued through many successive steps. In this context, what can be called “school” –an isolated and artificial environment for structured activity also isolated from immediate application– does not appear as a confounding variable. Instead, it seems to constitute a necessary precondition –one that has arisen independently in civilizations across millennia (e.g.; Mayan ca,. 300 BCE; Chinese, ca 1500 BCE)– enabling a socially indispensable, multi-functional and multi- dimensional set of abilities to be reproduced over generations. (Friesen 2014)

(Gourlay is probably right to suspect our fetishism of “rupture” for missing this.) When people talk about doing away with lectures and textbooks, they’re not proposing just to get through another passing fad. They’re proposing to bring thousands of years of tradition to an end. Indeed, I would say they’re proposing to bring to and end the sense of “tradition” that T. S. Eliot talked about: the present moment of the past, in which “all ages are contemporaneous” because, before you can learn something new, you have learn what the last four or five millennia of human civilization have taught us.

That’s what schools are for. Not to open new ground (which we can leave to our scientists and our artists) but to preserve the learning of the past. So perhaps, then, being good at reading a book, writing an essay, listening to a lecture, and engaging in debate with peers, is not just an old-fashioned “brick and mortar” fantasy of the university as a structured space for learning. Perhaps it’s a durable competence — indeed, so durable that the word “competence” doesn’t quite do it justice and a word like “truth” would do better — that we should be making every effort to conserve, not erode. Perhaps there is some value in being “good at going to school” and perhaps this value is more or less the value of literacy as such — a “socially indispensable, multi-functional and multi- dimensional set of abilities,” as Friesen puts it. There are lots of other things that are perfectly valuable, many more things that you can choose to be good at if you don’t like school. But I think we have to stop asking schools to justify their value in so-called “real-world” terms. What is more real than the ability to read and and write? Why should some people in our culture not be good “merely” at knowing things?

The Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature of Knowing

I’m working on a cheat sheet for my definition of academic knowledge. In its current form it probably only makes sense to people who have attended my standard lecture on academic writing. (Fortunately it is available on YouTube.) I sometimes imagine that I have completely solved the so-called “problem of knowledge”, but I do understand that my solution will not satisfy everyone. In an important sense, I’m suggesting that we can’t solve the problem unless we work together across disciplines and by this I mean specifically that knowledge cannot be completely understood within the confines of philosophy, rhetoric or literature. If philosophers, rhetoricians, and literary theorists work together, however, I think some real progress can be made. My cheat sheet is a sort of schema of the solution that might emerge.

Recently, I’ve been presenting it more humbly as a mnemonic aid for people who are listening to my lectures. I don’t like using slides–but I’m not always sure my hour-long monologue is as tidy and coherent as it feels to me when I’m speaking. So now I tell my listeners that I want to tell them three things that each have three parts, and that the last three of them each have a further three. Depending your level of attention (or abstraction), you’ll learn three, nine or fifteen things about the nature of academic knowledge. Rewatching the video I notice that I give each item about 3 minutes on average, leaving about 10 minutes for introductory remarks and a concluding parable. It seems pretty tidy. (Maybe I’ll animate my cheat sheet at some point and edit it into the lecture. Maybe one day I’ll trust technology enough to project it above me as a I speak. We’ll see.

In this post, I just wanted to summarize the three main competences that, in my view, most usefully characterize what it means to be “knowledgeable”. By this I don’t just mean knowing particular things, of course, but having the ability to know such things. Being knowledgeable, then, also puts one in a good position to learn things. So this is a competence that a student has a particular interest in acquiring.

Philosophers have long pursued the idea that knowledge is “justified, true belief”. They’ve never really been satisfied with this definition, but it seems intuitively plausible that in order to know something you have to form a belief, that this belief should not be false, and that you should have a good reason to believe it. Knowledgeable people don’t just happen to believe true things, they do so deliberately, they understand why they believe as they do. Being knowledgeable, then, means being good at making up your mind. When faced with a situation or a set of materials, knowledgeable people are able to come to decision about what is going on. They are able to do this more efficiently and more accurately than ignorant people. While they are not infallible, of course, they have trained themselves to arrive at justified, true beliefs within a particular subject area more reliably than people who have not studied their discipline. This is a valuable cognitive competence.

But we should not be satisfied with thinking of knowledge as an exalted mental state. It is necessary but not sufficient to hold justified, true beliefs if we want say we are knowledgeable. We also need to be able to hold our own in conversation with other knowledgeable people. Being “conversant” implies a package of abilities and sensibilities, of which three strike me as emblematic. The first is the ability to articulate and recognize a good question. Among knowledgeable people there are, in fact, good and bad questions; bad questions are precisely those that come out of our ignorance — an ignorance that the relevantly knowledgeable person has already conquered. Related to this, good conversation depends on a shared sense of humor; knowledgeable people are capable of seeing the humor in things that go over the heads of people who are not “in the know”. Finally, if you are knowledgeable about a subject you know what can cause offense or provoke debate. You can then produce these effects on purpose rather than cause rhetorical accidents. These are all valuable communicative competences and are part of what I call “knowing” something.

Lastly, to know something is to have the ability to write a coherent prose paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that support, elaborate or defend it. This ability is rooted in your understanding of the difficulty the reader faces with the key point: will the reader find it hard to believe, to understand, or agree with. Sometimes the reader will need evidence before accepting your point; sometimes the reader needs you to define your terms or clarify your concepts; and sometimes the reader needs you to address their objections on a matter about which they have already made up their mind. It’s important to appreciate your finitude when thinking about this competence. Anyone can write a paragraph given unlimited resources. If you know something today, I suggest, you can write the paragraph tomorrow in under 30 minutes. If you can’t do this, it’s best just to admit to you don’t know it. The important thing is to count your textual competence–your facility with the written word–as part of your ability to know things. It’s not just for show.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Scholarship, broadly speaking, is the ongoing conversation in our culture that is carried out by its most knowledgeable people. So to know something is to be able to open your beliefs to the criticism of your peers, testing their truth, strengthening their justifications. This conversation happens in the head (perhaps also in the heart), in the talk, and on the page. It takes the combined efforts of philosophers, rhetoricians and literary types — or our combined philosophical, rhetorical and literary talents — to make sense of it all.