Monthly Archives: December 2018

Writing as Experience

Reading is an experience. As a writer, you are deciding what your readers will experience while they read what you have written. At one level, you determine exactly what they will experience, you decide exactly what will happen to them: one word after another will pass through their consciousness in the exact order you have arranged them. At another level, a great deal hinges on your ability as a writer and their competence as readers. Ideally, you will make them think something or feel something, or perhaps merely imagine something, but it will, in any case, be something you wanted them to think, feel or imagine. If they picture a white cat on a red rug, it’s because that was your intention. It was what you meant. Good writing makes the reader experience your meaning.

Now, experience takes time. It takes about five minutes to read a thousand words or about three words per second. In academic writing, a paragraph is normally at least six sentences long and should therefore occupy a minute of the reader’s attention, so about 10 seconds per sentence. That’s about 30 words. Of course, you won’t write an entire essay of 180-word paragraphs consisting of 30-word sentences, nor will your reader spend exactly one minute reading them at 3 words per second. But these measures give us a fair approximation of your problem as a writer and, therefore, the general sketch of a solution. Writing a paragraph means arranging a sequence of words that conveys your meaning (a thought, a feeling, or an image) in about one minute. At the end of that time, it should be clear to the reader what you are trying to say.

In academic writing, meanwhile, it should also be clear how you know. That is, after about a minute, the reader should understand the claim you are making and the basis on which you think it is true. This may mean that you cite your sources, whether they be scholarly papers or newspaper articles, or invoke your own data, whether qualitative or quantitative. Or it may just mean that you provide an argument, reasoning from premises the reader presumably shares. The reader may agree with your claim or not, and may find your basis solid or otherwise. (Note that the reader may agree with you and yet find your reasons wanting.) But before the reader moves on to the next paragraph it should be clear what you think and why you think so.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” You are not, or at least not usually, going to be communicating the full experience that produced your conclusions. You are not sharing your experience as a researcher with the reader. Rather, you are sharing your knowledge, the result of your experience. You are not telling them what happened to you in every detail but what it is like to be where you are. You’re telling them what the world looks like from your point of view and, by sharing your methods, how they, too, can see the world from the same vantage if they want to put in the time. First and foremost, however, you’re sparing them the trouble. If you write truly enough, many months of your effort can be represented in a single minute of the reader’s attention, a single well-written paragraph. That’s a marvelous thing in itself.

Interdisciplinarity (part 2)

Remember Kuhn’s Two Dozen. A “paradigm shift” is, first of all, a change in the minds of a small group of people, precipitated by a variety of pressures, both social and material, emotional and intellectual. And since interdisciplinarity works “between disciplines” it is natural think it works between paradigms, even that the point of interdisciplinary research is to bring about a “revolution” or at least a shift out of an established discipline’s way of thinking. One imagines that the interdiscipline is defined by the disciplines it brings together, but also therefore by its difference from these disciplines. One imagines the “interdiscipline” is simply the interstice, the space between, the disciplines.

But this is of course not true. Most interdisciplinary work happens where the concerns of two or more disciplines overlap. It is not the free exercise of thought in an empty space but the no-less-disciplined attempt to hold our observations accountable to multiple areas of expertise. What this means is that interdisciplinary work is also guided by a “paradigm”, which includes a set of exemplars of the kind of work, perhaps originally carried out within the existing disciplines, that the interdisciplinary collaboration would put on a more explicit formal grounding. This implies submitting to the same variety of pressures I started by mentioning:  both social and material, emotional and intellectual. In other words, you’re looking for another two dozen people whose minds you want to change, only this time working in different disciplines.

You also want them to be able to change your mind. You’re looking for peers who are qualified to engage seriously with your work. You want them to understand, or at least be capable of understanding, both your theories and your methods. You don’t want them to have to trust you on anything of great importance.

Interdisciplinarity, then, does not imply an intellectual vacuum. Don’t let your attempt to bring theories together isolate you from the theorists you want to talk to. Think of the inter-discipline as a community made up of members of various “home disciplines” and try to think of these people as peers in a meaningful sense. They should understand (or be able to understand with relative ease) each other’s theories; they should be able to understand (and, when they do understand, respect) each other’s methods. Being interdisciplinary does not let you deflect all criticism; it obligates you to deal with the criticism of particular people who are working in the same space that you are.

If there really is no one else working in the space you want to explore, I strongly caution you against going that way with your research. You are likely to suffer great intellectual loneliness and, worse, you are likely to make mistakes that no one will be able to help you see. You won’t be able to ask for help, and you won’t be able to listen to advice. So please, as you would under entirely “normal” (in Kuhn’s sense) conditions, find one or two dozen people whose work interests you and who you think might be interested in yours. Learn their names and what they are up to. Then build your own discipline in an attempt to earn their respect.

Interdisciplinarity (part 1)

Many years ago, a PhD student returned from a summer of conferences in a state of great excitement. At one conference, she had spoken to an audience of practitioners and they expressed great interested in the theories she was using. “What an interesting perspective!” they beamed. At another conference, she had met a more theoretically minded audience and they were mainly interested to hear more about the practice she was studying. “What wonderful empirical material you have!” they exclaimed. She found all of this very encouraging, of course.

It was my unhappy duty to tell her that she missed the mark in both cases. When talking to theorists, you want to make sure they are critiquing your use of theory; when talking to practitioners, you want to know what they think of your understanding of their practices. That is, you want qualified feedback, not just attempts to make conversation or pick your brains.

Interdisciplinarity, or even the use of multiple theories within the same discipline, occasions the same problem without navigating across the theory-practice or “knowing-doing” gap. Suppose you are trying to combine Foucauldian and Luhmannian perspectives. You attend a conference of Foucault scholars and they pass over your reading of the Archaeology of Knowledge in complete silence. What they want to hear about is your reading of Luhmann, because this is something they don’t know very much about. At another conference, this time of people who specialize in Luhmann, you are bombarded with questions about what Foucault has done for your analysis. Again, I would suggest your presentation has missed its mark. You have not opened yourself to criticism from your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you you are wrong.

Implicit in interdiscplinarity is the problem of multiple audiences. When writing a paper or preparing a conference presentation, you have to keep your readers and your audience in mind. It will not do to say “it’s complicated”. In this paper, on this page, and in this paragraph, you are directing yourself towards a particular kind of reader, with a particular kind of competence. At this conference, in this room, and on this slide, you are trying to tell a particular group of people something. You should know who they are. When addressing them, you should do it with an awareness of what they already know. They should not feel like you are addressing yourself to their ignorance, but to their knowledge base.

Obviously this is true in “academic” contexts, not when writing for the wider public, and this isn’t a trivial difference. For some people, indisciplinarity has come to indicate a collaboration at the level of common knowledge, public discourse. Each collaborator’s role is to cover an area of the inquiry that the others are unqualified to discuss. They approach the collaboration as an expert approaches the public, and they are usually treated that way too. Within the collaboration, the participants each have their own, unassailable, authority. Interestingly, however, when they return to their home disciplines they are not likely to be assailed either. They are likely to be celebrated for the “impact” they are having.

So I always advise people who are embarking on interdiciplinary research to define the “inter-discipline” they will then be working in. That is, I encourage them to seek a community of peers that share their competence, however complex it may be. You don’t want to be the only person in the room who understands two theories well enough to use them jointly to frame an analysis. You want to find some like minds who are at least capable of this synthesis, and you want to bring the theories together on their level. You want to present your ideas to people who can challenge you in interesting ways. The point of interdisciplinarity is not just to “leverage synergies”; it is to shed more light on your own methods and results. All too often, scholars who cultivate interdisciplinarity feel like they are the only ones who can see an issue in their particular way. Their ecclecticism isolates them.

Like I say, our colleagues are often nice about it. If you spend a great deal of time talking about things they aren’t qualified to critique, and otherwise say mainly trivially true things that they already know, they are going to use the question time to learn as much as they can, but they will not be able to tell you something that will make your argument stronger. It’s up to you to focus their attention and activate their intellectual resources. If you are bringing together two theories, and you know your audience understands one of them best, make sure you couch remarks to play to their strengths. Don’t treat them as though you are much smarter or more knowledgeable than they are.

I’ll continue this topic in my next post.


A Peer-grading Experiment

I’ve written about the use of peer grading at university before (here and here). I want to think out loud about an experiment that just occurred to me. Imagine a one semester course, with 10 weeks of instruction (and weekly assignments) and six weeks of independent research, culminating in a final term paper.

  • 50% of the grade comes from the term paper.
  • 25% of the grade comes from peer evaluation.*
  • 15% of the grade comes from how well a student’s grading matches the others.
  • 10% of the grade  comes from how well a student’s grading matches the teacher’s.

Here’s how it would work. Every week the students are required to write a single paragraph about that week’s reading and submit it before coming to class. After class, they are given 5 paragraphs from their fellow students to grade, giving them an A, B, C, D or F. The lowest grade is dropped and the rest are averaged and rounded up.  This happens 10 times. The lowest grade is again dropped and the rest are averaged to give 25% of the student’s final grade.

Every week, the graders also get a grade. It is calculated by comparing the grade assigned to the writer (by the process I just described) to the grade given by the grader. An exact match gives the grader an A, off by 1 grade is a B, off by two is a C, etc. These grades are also averaged after the lowest has been discarded and counts for 15% of the overall grade.

On a randomly selected week the teacher grades the entire class set of submitted paragraphs. This grade overrules the grades given by the students. Also, the students are given a grade, as described above, according to how well they matched the teacher’s grade, which counts for 10% of the final grade.

I’ll let this stand without explanation for now, except to say that this doesn’t just feel efficient to me, it feels like good pedagogy. It would attune students to what it means to write for their peers.


*Update: This is a darling I will probably have to kill. The current legal framework around grading, at least in Denmark, makes it unworkable. But it may also be unnecessary. It may be enough that the students are graded on the grades they give.


A “discourse” is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, “reason” served a similar function, albeit at a more abstract and, indeed, “transcendental” level. Reason constitutes “the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects” and discourse, we might say, determines the particular difficulty of making a statement. This difficulty is of course positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort. Interestingly, Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon can just as well mean “discursive animal” as the classic “rational animal”. Building on this insight, Foucault presented the “historical a priori” of “discursive formations” as a re-interpretation of Kant’s a priori of “pure reason” such that the difficulty (as I’ve put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions.

Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses “are very different from epistemological or ‘architectonic’ descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory” (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call “theorizing”.

Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that “mastery” does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. The presentation of research results within a theory is not a merely “epistemological” matter, as Foucault pointed out. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair. Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with others. They come to understand that viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most “scientific” of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Finally, they will learn the meaning of “respectful” engagement with their peers.

(This post was previously published on my old blog.)