Monthly Archives: June 2018

On Telling People What to Do

For many years now, I’ve been trying to explain what I mean by “writing processs reengineering”. I have assumed that people need to understand something about writing in order to gain control of their writing process and produce a satisfying product. But I’ve also long been aware that people won’t become better writers simply by understanding and believing me. At the end of the day, they have to do as I say or they won’t actually improve. Recent experiences have led me to consider a more radical consequence of this simple fact. Perhaps all my explanations are meaningless until my authors (scholars, students) have actually done some writing under the conditions I propose. Perhaps I should tell them what to do first, and only afterwards explain what I mean. This is something I’m going to experiment with after the summer break.

Before I explain to them what “academic writing” is, then, I’m going to give them an exercise to do at home. It can be repeated as many times as they like, but I will probably suggest they do it three times before we talk further, before I try to explain what they’re doing. At the end of the working day they are to write down a simple declarative sentence that they know to be true. This should take no more than ten minutes and preferable only five; they should choose something they know comfortably, not something they’re still trying to understand. Then, at the start of the next they are to compose a paragraph of least six sentences and at most 200 words that supports, elaborates or defends it. That is, they have to decide whether they want provide evidence for the claim, explain what it means, or deal with some possible objections. They are to spend exactly 27 minutes doing this and then take a three minute break. That’s it. They do this three days in a row and then we talk again.

The instructions I just gave should be interpreted in the same commonsense way one would interpret an instruction to draw one’s hand. Suppose I told you to take five minutes at the end of the day and look at your hand in some fixed, comfortable position. Within those five minutes, sketch its outline on a piece of paper. Then, at the beginning of the next day take 27 minutes to draw it as accurately as you can in the same position (you can look, you don’t have to do it from memory). However difficult you may find it is to draw an accurate representation of your own hand, these instructions, surely, are not hard to follow. I want you to think of my instruction to write that paragraph in the same way. You may be unhappy with the result as a piece of writing, but there should be no doubt about what you are trying to do: write at least six sentences that support, elaborate or defend a well-defined claim.

Why, you might ask, should you do as I say before I’ve told you what you’re doing? Here I think I will simply invoke the master’s prerogative. You came to me for advice on the assumption that I know how to write, that I have something to teach you. I gave you some advice that happens to be an instruction. It will take less than two hours to complete and it will be a better use of your time (and mine) than having me spend two hours trying to convince you that you can become a better scholarly writer through deliberate practice. You trusted me enough to contact me; I’m asking you to trust me just a little longer. After that, I’m happy to justify my methods.

Hamlet for Academic Purposes

Imagine a first-year cohort of undergraduate English majors consisting of 200 students. In the first semester, they take a required course called, say, “Hamlet, Unlimited”. During the course, they read the play, watch three or four performances, and read a half dozen essays about the play, such as Eliot’s “Hamlet and his Problems” and Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem, Unlimited. (Obviously these selections are entirely at the discretion of the responsible course faculty.)

A series of lectures by a Shakespeare scholar is offered and the students are assigned to small TA-led tutorials (the TAs might simply be older students who have taken the course previously.) They are also offered workshops with a librarian, who shows them how to search the literature, and writing workshops where they can work on their prose style. Both workshops are centered on well-defined tasks, such as finding particular kinds of texts and writing particular kinds of paragraphs. These activities are entirely voluntary; the students can pick and choose what they want to attend.

At the end of the semester, the lecturer assigns a 72-hour, 1000-word essay question. It will always be something simple like “How did Hamlet feel about his mother?” and no further guidance on how to answer it is offered. The students are to have spent the semester readying themselves for a question of this kind, one that the lectures and their reading will have prepared them to answer. There are strict formatting guidelines, so that all students submit papers that are visually similar (same font, line-spacing, and referencing style.)

The essays are graded on a curve by a panel of two internal examiners and one external examiner. The panel is sequestered from all other activities for one week (perhaps in a retreat setting) to distribute 40 As , 60 Bs, 60 Cs, and 40 Ds or Fs. (These may be further qualified with + or -. And there would be some flexibility in boundary cases.) The graded (anonymized) essays would be made available to all students.

Such a course, it seems to me, would go a long way towards restoring sanity to the modern university, rife with both grade inflation and performance anxiety. The students would have a straightforward problem — that of becoming better scholars — and every bit of effort they put into solving it will be rewarded. Everyone, including the faculty, will have a clear idea of what is possible given a little effort, and the students’ minds will have been focused on a topic that is of central importance in their discipline. A similar course can, of course, be imagined for any other major. The trick is simply to choose materials that everyone in a discipline does well to be familiar with.

How to Imagine a Fact

In my teaching and coaching, I am always looking for the repeatable, trainable activity of writing. This, I believe, should be the focus of instruction: the thing you can safely tell the student to do with an expectation of seeing improvement. To this end, I’ve been telling scholars and students to write paragraphs, the units of prose composition. I will go on doing this, of course, but I have decided to open another front. I will tell them also to think seriously about what they know. In fact, I want to suggest that the exercise of imagination is a repeatable, trainable activity. It’s something we should be encouraging students to do because it will make them better prose writers.

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. Source: Nivaagaard Collection

If paragraphs are the unit of composition, let’s say that images are the units of composure. In imagination, we bring our beliefs and desires, our concepts and emotions, our senses and motives together. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” as Wittgenstein put it. But how, exactly, do we do this? And how do we become better at it?

I already suggest you take a moment at the end of the day to plan a paragraph to write tomorrow. This moment can also be used to train your imagination. It should last no longer than 10 minutes, during which you call to mind some fact you know to be the case. Now, a fact is always an arrangement of things, so you do well to imagine those things and give them names. You should also give the arrangement itself a name, and once something has a name it can be a “thing” in its own right, which is to say you can imagine it as part of another, larger fact.

If I’m not mistaken, you’d like an example about now. Here’s one:

Microsoft is a hierarchical organization.

As an arrangement of things, this fact consists of organizational roles that are filled by people called “members”. To imagine this fact is to imagine that some of these members are at the “top” and others are at the “bottom” — usually there will be more people at the bottom than at the top. This arrangement is called a “hierarchy” and I will ask you to notice that this word doesn’t name the fact; it names the arrangement of these particular things, but that name could also be used to name the arrangement of the members of another organization. The fact is here named by the entire sentence, “Microsoft is a hierarchical organization,” not just the word “hierarchy”. (It takes a proposition to state a fact, not merely a word, which can only name a thing.)

So we’ve just noticed something important about imagining a fact. If something is a fact about one set of particular things it can also be a fact about another. “Microsoft is a hierarchical organization,” says something about Microsoft that could just as well be true of Google. To imagine that Microsoft is is a hierarchical organization requires the same sort of effort as imagining that Google is a hierarchical organization. And this brings us immediately to the most important thing about imagining facts: to imagine that something is the case is always to imagine a bunch of things that are not the case. That is, a fact is always contingent on other things not being the case.

There is no one, simple image of Microsoft’s hierarchy, or Google’s. A triangle with Satya Nadella at the apex would be as true as an elaborate tree diagram that reached down to the lowliest coder — the difference is a question of detail, not truth. What is important is that any particular image always suggests things that could be arranged differently. Every element could be replaced by another element. Nadella could be someone else and Microsoft wouldn’t be any less a hierarchy. On the other hand, though it is difficult, it is not impossible to imagine a significant “flattening” of the organization to destroy its hierarchical structure. The ability to imagine such a cataclysm is actually an important part of the ability to meaningfully imagine that an organization is a hierarchy.

This brings us to a final and crucial point. The “things” in the arrangement become “objects” by virtue of imagining the possible arrangements that aren’t actually the case. Objectivity is the perception of things in terms of their possible relations with other things rather than the merely subjective impression they leave on us. A fact is “objective” in that it has to co-exist with every other fact. It’s not just that in imagining a fact you have to picture where one fact ends and another begins; rather, you have to imagine where one fact must end if another is to begin. It is necessary that the actual be possible, and what makes one fact possible is that other facts don’t exclude it. (Wittgenstein originally argued that “atomic facts” are facts that can be otherwise without consideration of other facts; but one way of reading his later work is as a rejection of the existence of such factual atoms.)

So, to sum up, here’s how to imagine a fact. First, give it a name by composing a sentence. Next, imagine the things that the fact comprises. Name them. Now, consider them from an objective point view, in terms of their possible combination with other things, i.e., other objects that can be meaningfully combined with them. All of this should take no more than 10 minutes in the case of facts you know well. There should be many facts you know well enough to meaningfully imagine for ten minutes. The next day, compose the paragraph. Render the composition of pictures in your mind as a composition of words on your page. Perform your composure.

Orwellian Daydreams

Detail from the cover of the 1950 Signet paperback edition of George Orwell’s 1984.

In a recent post, I tried to recover the role of imagination in George Orwell’s view of writing. “Probably it is better,” he said in “Politics and the English Language”, “to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.” What your writing finally represents, then, is not the state of things in the world, but your state of mind as regards those things. When Orwell said that your prose should be “like a window pane”, he didn’t mean a window on the world; he meant a window on your mind. Your writing can’t give the reader a direct view of the facts; but it can show the reader what you think the facts are. You can’t communicate the facts directly to the reader, but you can communicate your experience of those facts. You can tell the reader how you imagine the world to be.

Perhaps this is obvious but it bears restating. Indeed, I find it interesting that Orwell’s famous remark about “the first duty of intelligent men” sometimes being “the restatement of the obvious” comes from a 1939 review of a book by Bertrand Russell, who, in addition to being one of the great philosophers, was also Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mentor. In his introduction to the Tractatus, Russell aptly summarized the underlying (and ultimately too simple) assumption of Wittgenstein’s early work as follows: “The essential business of language is to assert and deny facts.” Wittgenstein’s book starts with the famous assertion (though he would say it’s not really an assertion of fact) that “The world is everything that is the case.” But my favorite line in that book comes a bit later on and brings us back to the imagination. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts.” It is this ability with which all good writing must begin.

Rereading Orwell’s review of Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis, I was struck by how well it anticipates the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, perhaps a bit distressingly, the themes of 2018.

It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organised lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave-society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves.

Let me emphasize that last sentence: “It is quite easy to imagine…” Ten years later, of course, he would publish the novel that demonstrated just how easy it is to imagine such a state, providing the referent for what we today simply call an “Orwellian nightmare”. We all have a pretty clear picture in our minds when we see those words.

As a counterpoint, I want to suggest a more pleasurable act of imagination. I want to suggest we take Orwell’s writing advice as a means to heed his political warning and propose that we “get [our] meaning as clear as [we] can through pictures and sensations” before we commit ourselves to the page. For years I’ve been telling people to decide at the end of the day what they will say during an appointed moment on the next. They often ask me how they should “prepare” themselves, and my sense is they are imagining a prodigious amount of reading, and note-taking, and pondering, and suffering in general. It sounds nightmarish to me and I always tell them that if they find it hard to decide what to write tomorrow they are doing it wrong. They should just pick one of the hundreds of things that they had a good understanding of already last week and express it in a simple declarative sentence. They should pick something that is “easy to imagine” today and then devote themselves to the very real difficulty of writing it down tomorrow. This “preparatory” act of imagination shouldn’t take more than ten minutes and it should be an entirely pleasant experience.

I honestly believe that this free, playful exercise of imagination is an essential bulwark against totalitarianism. It is what the dictators, if they exist, are trying to prevent. Let us call it Orwellian daydreaming.