Monthly Archives: January 2019

Academic Knowing (2)

(Part 1 here)

“If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery,” said John Henry Newman (1852), “I do not see why a University should have students.” I think this is a crucial insight: what is known at a university is the sort of thing that can (and should) be imparted to students; academic knowledge is the sort of thing you can learn at school. I think a great deal of confusion about the aims and scope, not just of university education but of university-based research as well, stems from forgetting this point.

Let me begin with a somewhat naive epistemological observation. To know something is, at least at some level, to hold a “justified, true belief” about it. To be knowledgeable, in this sense, is the ability to make up your mind about something; and after four years of higher education we expect our students to have made up their minds about a great many things. But we also expect them to be able to change their minds in an orderly and efficient manner in the face of appropriate evidence. My view is that those four years of study, along with the stipulation that whatever is learned during that time should be open to revision, tells us a great deal about the sorts of beliefs that are the proper focus of higher education and academic research. Learning is, at least in part, the acquisition of beliefs and we can see what academic knowledge is by looking at the sort of “truth” and “justification” we attribute to them.

The first thing to notice is that these beliefs will be formed over a period of years. Some of them will be acquired easily and early and will stay with the student throughout their studies. Some of them will be appropriated only gradually and all of them will constantly be repositioned among the totality of the student’s beliefs, including extra-curricular ones. That is, the content and context of the student’s beliefs is constantly changing; as the frame of reference grows, the significance of each belief is reassessed. It is an ongoing process that is never completed. Though it does reach the occasional plateau, especially around exam time, not even graduation brings an end to this process.

There is, then, a world of difference between the sort of thing a scholar can know and the sort of thing a journalist can know. Likewise, there is a big difference between what you can learn from a scholar and what you can learn from a journalist. The catch is that it may take four years to understand what a scholar is trying to tell you, while a journalist is telling you something you can learn over your morning coffee. The catch, there, of course is that there’s no guarantee that it’ll still be true tomorrow.

And this brings me to last point I want to make in this post. A scholar’s knowledge is by definition corrigible. What scholars and students know is subject to constant criticism and correction; it is part of a larger “text” that is forever being updated and revised. That means that the beliefs we hold contain within them the possibility of correction. We know not just what is the case, but what would change our minds. And these critical standards are shared by the community so that it all happens in an orderly fashion.

At university, then, you don’t learn things you are expected to believe the rest of your life. You acquire beliefs along with the critical apparatus you need to adjust them in the face of experience. It’s not so much what you believe that matters but the way you hold your beliefs. It’s not the proposition but your intellectual posture that counts. Once you’ve learned something “for academic purposes” you’re set up to learn other things in the same way. Scholars are “knowledgeable” in the sense that they are “able to know” things. That’s an important part of their value to society.

Academic Knowing (1)

“Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” (Roman Jakobson, speaking on the prospect of hiring Vladimir Nabokov to Harvard.)

One of the abiding concerns of this blog is to defend the dignity of distinctly “academic” work. This is tantamount to defending the value of academic credentials (bachelor, master, professor, etc.), which, ideally, signal that the bearer possesses academic skills, which is to say, that the bearer is “knowledgeable” about a particular subject in some distinctive way. There are of course countless subject areas for you to pursue and I try to keep my advice general enough to apply to all of them (at least in the social sciences and humanities). “Inframethodology” is the name I give to my (sometimes morbid) interest in the sort of knowing that a university degree implies. It is of course possible to be good at poetry and finance without holding an academic post, but what I want to insist upon is that merely this “being good at it” does not in itself qualify you to hold one.

Whether you’re studying poetry or finance, you’re learning about something that also happens in real life. Indeed, even poetry and finance are themselves “about” something more “real”: poetry is about our emotions; finance is about our money. (Simplifying somewhat, poetry makes emotions available to people who might not otherwise have them. Finance makes money available to people who might not otherwise have it.) Now, my question is: how much can you learn about these things without actually doing them? How much can you learn about poetry without writing a poem? (How much can you learn about emotions without feeling them?) How much can you learn about finance without actually issuing a bond? (How much can you learn about money without making any?) These, I want to say, are “academic” questions.

But they are by no means trivial issues. It is possible to know what a Shakespearean sonnet is without ever writing a single one. And it is possible to write one merely as an exercise, without any desire to be published or likelihood of being read. It is, similarly, possible to know what a collateralized debt obligation is without ever buying or selling a single one. It is possible to design one entirely “in theory”, for the sole purpose of passing an assignment and without any chance of earning a penny. None of this knowledge is worthless just because the student hasn’t tried it out in practice. And the student’s knowledge can be meaningfully tested in an exam situation.

As academics, I believe, we have to appreciate this particular kind of knowing. We can’t be ashamed of our distance to practice, the “knowing-doing gap”. We have to boast of our ability to name the working of parts of things we can’t build, to understand their history and purpose in culture, to implicate them in their social functions. A scholar of Elizabethan literature will be able to tell you, probably better than any working poet, how the sonnet has developed over the centuries and how this has affected the language we use to express ourselves.  A professor of finance can tell you not just what the legal structure of a CDO is but what role these instruments played in the financial crisis of 2007-8. You don’t have to be a Wall Street banker to understand the financial system. Indeed, like poets, I think our bankers may be a bit too “invested”, if you will, in what the rest of us make of their business to be entirely trusted. It’s a good thing we have academics to approach their products a bit more dispassionately.


The Fourth Difficulty

Writing is hard so that reading may be easy. I’ve written about the three main difficulties (one, two, three) that good scholarly writing helps the reader overcome, but there is a fourth one that is worth considering. It’s sort of “off the books” because I don’t think an academic writer should take it on very often. The issue should arise very rarely when writing about your research for your peers, and it should almost never be the focus of an entire article. But it is an interesting rhetorical problem that you do well to learn how to solve quickly and efficiently when it does come up. The fourth difficulty is boredom.

Sometimes the reader finds what you’re saying neither hard to believe nor hard to understand nor hard to agree with. You’re telling them something they already know. Why, then, as one scholar speaking to another, are you insisting on saying it? Precisely because this fact or event or theory, one that bores your reader to tears, is of great interest to you and your work. It is important in a way that the reader presumably does not see. So you have given yourself the task of asserting it and getting the reader interested in it again. You are not hoping to make it more credible or comprehensible or less contentious. It is in no need of evidence, explication or critical engagement. It’s just that your reader has forgotten why it matters or how exciting its backstory actually is. You’re here to remind them.

Like I say, you don’t want this to be the problem in every paragraph you write. Scholars should for the most part assume that their readers are interested in what they have to say. They are, after all, members of the same community, built around the same intellectual puzzles, studying similar materials, using methods they all understand and respect. If your reader isn’t interested they’re most likely not the right reader. You don’t want to have to use every paragraph to pique the reader’s interest or get their attention; the whole point of academia, of scholarship, is to establish and maintain a group of people who are predisposed, indeed, precommitted, to discussing a certain set of topics. This saves us a lot of time and rhetorical effort, and also, of course, explains why “the general public” finds “academic writing” a bit of slog to read. It presumes interest, or what we sometimes, albeit to my mind a bit too easily and a bit too cynically, call a “captive audience”.

But, because this audience is familiar to you, you are familiar with the way your reader’s eyes begin to glaze over at the mere mention of certain subjects. You understand why this happens because you understand how the information is usually presented, and to what rhetorical end. But you, who are just a little more knowledgeable about it, have seen something in it that your audience, if only they knew, would get just as excited about as you. So you tell the story, provide the statistic, or recount the history that revivifies the facts for others as they already have been for you. An important part of your competence to do this work lies in your understanding of why your reader is provisionally bored. Indeed, the more empathy you have with your reader on this point, the better able you will be to help them overcome the difficulty.

The Elephant in the Lobby

People sometimes tell me they have a hard time clearly distinguishing the three rhetorical postures of the paragraph: support, elaborate or defend. I usually correlate them with the three difficulties that your imagined reader might face when reading your key sentence out of the context of the paragraph. Will the reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with what you are saying? You should support it with evidence, elaborate your meaning, or defend it against the reader’s likely objections accordingly. Writing is hard, but only in order to make reading easier. You write a whole paragraph because you can’t, as a scholar, merely assert your claim. It is something a bit heavier than that, if you will, or a bit more subtle, or perhaps a little edgy. “Yes, yes,” the writer says, “I heard all that and I get it at an abstract level. But can you give an example?”

Here’s one that sometimes helps. My office, where I’m writing this, is on the third floor of a big, modern university building. Suppose I tell you, “There’s an elephant in the lobby.” Well, you might find that somewhat hard to believe. If so, I could show you some evidence of the elephant in the lobby. I could perhaps take some pictures or cite witness reports or upload a video of the panicked students fleeing the scene. Or I could show you the event poster of the circus holding its career day and say, “I know it sounds strange, but they decided to bring a baby elephant to draw a crowd.” There are lots of different ways to try move you from a state of disbelief about the elephant in the lobby to one of belief. Some of these could easily be carried out in a coherent prose paragraph that supports the key sentence “There is an elephant in the lobby.”

But notice that this only works if we assume you understood what I meant and that you were able to doubt my word. Suppose we invert these priorities; suppose you are predisposed to believing what I tell you. When I say, “There is an elephant in the lobby,” you experience a difficulty, but it’s not the difficulty of believing me. You assume it’s true; you want to believe. But the statement puzzles you. How could there possibly be an elephant in the lobby? What are you not understanding? At this point, I could explain that it is, in fact, a statue of an elephant that has been donated by the Carlsberg Foundation to the business school. (Like the real elephant, I should say, this one is also fictional. We don’t have a statue of an elephant in the lobby.) “Ah! I get it,” you say. Now you understand what I mean and it all makes sense. I took the key sentence and I elaborated on it and the puzzle has been solved, the difficulty, overcome.

Finally, let us suppose you have just walked through the lobby and seen a hippopotamus there. In this case, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real one or a statue, but lets suppose that it is a piece of modern art that is ambiguous on this point. The important thing, however, is that you have experienced it yourself and have made up your mind, based on the evidence, that it is a hippopotamus. When I say, “There is an elephant in the lobby,” your difficulty is not one of believing or understanding me. You know exactly what I’m talking about but you can’t agree with me. And suppose, further, that I am also aware of your position (or the existence of a position like yours). I know what your arguments in favor of calling it a hippopotamus and not an elephant are. I can now spend my paragraph defending my interpretation of the block of granite against yours.

Keep in mind that a paragraph is only one minute of your reader’s experience. The key sentence should occasion a difficulty in the reader’s mind that can be resolved within that time. You have to be realistic about your ambitions. It’s not that the reader must end up believing you with firm conviction, only that your claim should have become more credible by the end of the paragraph. It’s not that the reader’s mind must be filled with pristine light upon your meaning, only that it should be less puzzling than when you began. Finally, don’t think you’re going to make your reader agree with you with a single paragraph. There are the rare cases  when you might know exactly what to tell the reader to change their mind, where you can point out, for example, that the sculpture you’re talking about was, in fact, called “The Elephant” by the artist (and the brass plaque on its base says so). But the normal case will simply be one of managing the disagreement itself, situating it in a larger argument. I hope that helps.


To haters of the five-paragraph essay, please notice that this is a perfectly valid example of one. Why don’t you want to teach students how to make one of these?


How to Be Ignorant

“While a genuine lecturer must obey the rules of mental decency, and clothe his personal idiosyncrasies in collectively acceptable generalities, an authentic ignoramus remains quite indecently free to speak as he feels. This prospect cheers me, because I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.” (E.E. Cummings)

I never tire of raving about Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands. He is enviably confident in his own abilities and proposes unblushingly to pass that ability on.  At one level, I share his confidence. If I was to write a book called How to Write Essays, I would boldly “assume authority to propose a readily available course of study” too. I’d feel like I knew what I was talking about, and there wouldn’t be a trick I wouldn’t feel able to demonstrate with an example of my own making. (Neither Senior nor I claim to be great stylists; we only recognize ourselves as competent, as experts in the craft, and we wouldn’t propose to instruct anyone if we didn’t.) But there’s another book I want to write, one that I think is more needed than a book about writing (of which there are many perfectly good ones). It would be called How to Know Things, and here I run into a bit of a problem. In fact, I run into a paradox.

Am I actually an expert-level “knower”? In a strictly formal, professional sense, I am not. I never did make tenure, abandoning an academic career in favor of this “alt-ac” gig as a writing consultant. This profession does have an associated academic discipline, namely, “composition studies” (and a number of related fields), but I am by no means a regular contributor to its literature. There are some things I like to think I know — about say, Wittgenstein or Hamlet — but I’m not sure my knowledge holds muster against the objections that could be raised by qualified scholars. I wouldn’t know how to defend myself if such people challenged my views. On most substantive matters, in literature, philosophy, politics, or science, I’m an amateur. There was a time when I thought I could hold my own with organization theorists, but a number of failed attempts to engage with that community have made me reconsider that project. These days I aspire only to be half as charming an ignoramus as E.E. Cummings.

In this pursuit, we have a very illustrious precursor. “In this world, confused by too much knowledge,” said Kierkegaard, “what we need is, not another system, but another Socrates!” (Okay, that’s actually two illustrious precursors.) Socrates famously said (or didn’t say, but no less famously) that he knew only that he knew nothing. This, then, was to make him wiser than those who didn’t know even this, but, aside from being a paradox, it of course assumed that no one actually knows anything, which seems a bit unlikely. A more plausible quote has him saying, “I know what I don’t know,” that is, he doesn’t kid himself or others that he knows something that he doesn’t actually know. And this, I think, is how I feel about most things.

There is, to be sure, still something of a critical edge in this statement.  Cummings isn’t exactly impressed with the “acceptable generalities” of the “genuine lecturer” and Socrates felt himself to be wiser than those who “fancy they know” things they don’t. But maybe that really is the wisdom we’re after. Perhaps the whole trick to knowing anything is recognizing what you don’t know; perhaps the bulk of our ignorance consists, not in having “no idea” about something, but in having false ideas about it. This certainly seems like the lesson of the “replication crisis” — the proliferation of overblown and underpowered “studies” that have led us to believe in “significant” effects that are simply artifacts of very noisy data. The ignorance that believing in these effects has caused is much greater than simply not believing them would have been.

In questions of representation — drawing hands and writing essays — Oliver Senior and I are willing to assert some measure of expertise. But even Senior cautions us to “hold our drawing back”, to let the whole picture emerge gradually, maintaining a sense of proportion between the parts. Carefully rendering what you see, or what you think, on paper is a good way to understand your limitations, to “appreciate your finitude”, as I sometimes put it. You can represent what’s in front of your face or on your mind quite accurately while still being somewhat unsure about how “real” it is, how well you’ve understood your world. Perhaps I don’t need to remind you of the dark arts that help us conceal these limitations: the art, if you will, of not knowing what you’re talking about. But real wisdom, and clear writing, comes from knowing when not to talk, knowing what you are not in a position to say. Knowledge consists of what remains after you honestly acknowledge your ignorance.