Monthly Archives: June 2019

Break for the Summer

“Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?”

Ludwig Wittgenstein
(Philosophical Investigations, §364)

I’m taking a break here at Inframethodology until mid-August. Before I do, let me draw your attention to Dominik Lukes’ reply to my last post, which you can find over at his blog. His metaphor hacking is always appreciated; everything is, after all, like everything else and unlike everything else in some sense. We have to keep both in mind when analogizing academic writing to a second language or to a musical instrument, to jogging or to drawing. I’ve always liked Wittgenstein’s reflection on whether calculating in the head is “like” calculating on paper. It does probably boil down to the sense which a marked up piece of paper “behaves” like a human body. In many ways, not very. In a few crucial ways, exactly.

I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but I’m also once again taking a break from social media, which, in my case, is confined to blogging and tweeting. I’m going to see what happens to my thinking when I stop paying attention to my Twitter feed and, especially, when I stop engaging with it. Truthfully, I think I’m doing more to damage my social network than to build it by thinking out loud about what others are thinking out loud about. I should work on my book. In fact, I should probably recenter my writing instruction on principles worthy of being preserved in a book and presented in seminars, rather than being blogged and tweeted left and right. “Please don’t understand me too quickly,” André Gide used to say. I’ve been expecting this too much of others, and not enough of myself, perhaps.

This year, I’ve been particularly concerned with two major developments in higher education pedagogy: the anti-five-paragraph-essay campaign and the ungrading movement. I think these are well-intentioned but misguided efforts to deal with the consequences of the last thirty years of growth in the student population. Our main disagreement, I think, is about how university students should be treated and what they are capable of. My view is simple: students are not performing well enough at university these days, including in their writing, not because there’s something new that’s wrong with them, but simply because we’re not requiring it of them. We have to raise our standards and lower their grades. That’s really all that is needed. They’ll work a little harder, do a little better, and learn a little more. Of course, a few more of them well also drop out. But that’s good for everyone, since their talents are probably best used elsewhere. We were probably wasting their time (and money). We have to get away from the idea that academic success is the basis of all other kinds of success. It should be merely one of many ways to get ahead in this world. A university education should be a particular source of value, not a universal marker of worth.

In any case, much to think about. I’m looking forward to mulling it over at a slower pace. In what sense, after all, is the paperback in my hand like my body in the sun? Have a great summer!

Basic Skills

Dominik Lukes offers some great suggestions in his comment to my last post. But before I steal them I want to note an interesting thing he also says (or insinuates) about what is “worth writing”:

I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

It’s that parenthetical remark that intrigues me. Can it really be true that the straightforward representation of a known fact is not “worth writing”? Is the value of writing always to be discovered (by way of discovering something new in the moment of writing)? I think Dominik is thinking of kinds of writing that are indeed very valuable because they present ideas that move our own thinking forward and, ideally, contribute positively to the thinking of our peers. But I also think there is value is writing that doesn’t do this, writing that is, for lack of a better word, boring.

In fact, I think it’s the primary of value of academic writing and one of the reasons that so many people (and even academics themselves) almost equate “academic” (adj.) with “boring”. The business of scholarship is not to bring new ideas into the world, indeed, the function of distinctively academic work (in contrast to, say, scientific or philosophical or literary work) is not to innovate or discover but to critique, to expose ideas to criticism. In order for this happen efficiently and regularly, academics must spend some of their time representing ideas that are not especially exciting to them along with their grounds for entertaining them. They must present their beliefs to their peers along with their justification for thinking they’re true. And they must do this honestly, which is to say, they must not invent new beliefs or new reasons for holding them in the moment of writing. They must write down, not what they’re thinking right now, but what they’ve been thinking all along. This includes what they’ve been telling their students and their stakeholders in the policy apparatus. It’s these ideas — the ones that are already circulating in the discourse (and in their heads) — that must exposed to criticism, lest their errors, if they exist, be perpetuated.

And here Dominik’s exercises are excellent. I’m paraphrasing:

  1. Describe a picture (a photograph or drawing or painting).
  2. Describe a picture as if it were part of a sequence of events.
  3. Describe a comic strip as if telling a joke.

The good thing about these exercises is that we can refer back to the source on which the description is based. We can see if you got the source right. We can get a reader who has not seen the source to draw the pictures that your description evokes in their mind. You are representing something you can yourself imagine (indeed, you can see it) and your aim is to get the reader to imagine it too. These basic skills could then be used in a harder case that might be relevant in, say, a finance (or sociology of finance) class. Here we will move from description to explanation, but there will be need to do some describing too:

  • Explain what is happening in the “Fire Sale” scene in the movie Margin Call. What instructions are the traders being given? What rewards are they being offered? Why is this happening?
Scene from Margin Call (2011)

To do this, they will of course have to watch the entire movie, and they’ll probably find it useful to draw on their knowledge of finance and trading. The assignment can be limited to a single paragraph or to an essay (of essentially any length); they can be given any number of weeks to complete it or it can be done in class. The point is that there’s a right answer — or several (countless) right answers. The scene can be misunderstood, or only superficially understood, or it can be understood at a very deep level. (In another classroom, after all, students might be asked to compare it to Harry’s St Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.) The point of writing about it is not to discover something new in it (though many students will no doubt see things they wouldn’t have seen if they hadn’t written about it), nor is the point to demonstrate to the teacher that you know something about how finance and trading works. The point is to open yourself to criticism from your peers (your fellow classmates) so that they can correct you on points of fact and interpretation that you have gotten wrong.

I never tire of quoting John Henry Newman. “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery,” he said, “I do not see why a University should have students” (1852). Only once we recognize why academics have students can we recognize why it is that they write for each other, the true value of that writing, the real problem it solves. The problem isn’t one of having more or better ideas. The problem is that our heads are full of bad ideas we haven’t yet written down. I’m happy to grant the point that Dominik will no doubt make: sometimes that is all it will take to show the error to ourselves. That is of course a kind of discovery.

How Well Do You Write? (2)

As I said in my last post, if you want to see how well you write, you have to disentangle your writing competence from your knowledge competence. You do this by picking something to write about that you know well. Decide to define a concept, describe a fact, or tell a story that is familiar to you. Make this decision the day before in the form of a simple declarative sentence you know to be true. Then get up the next morning resolved to compose the best paragraph you can muster within 18 or 27 minutes. The time limit is important because you want to set yourself a goal within reasonable limits. The whole point is to appreciate your finitude and then set about expanding your domain of mastery.

Start on time. That is, start at exactly the time you said you would when you made the decision the day before. If you said 9:00 start at 9:00, not a few minutes early or late; then keep at it until 9:18 or 9:27, not whenever you feel you’re done. Produce the best paragraph of prose you’re capable of within the time limit you have set yourself.

Think of your reader, a knowledgeable peer. Ask yourself what difficulty the key sentence poses for them. Do they find it hard to believe, or to understand, or to agree with? Support, elaborate or defend accordingly. (You might want to consider the case of the elephant in the lobby, perhaps also the fourth difficulty.) Spend the first half of your session writing as many sentences as you can. Then spend the rest making them sharper, more precise. You want to end up with at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Three or four minutes from the end, read your paragraph out loud, fixing minor mistakes as you go. When the time is up, stop.

Make a little note of how you feel, but don’t evaluate the product. Take a three minute break and get on with your day. Put the paragraph out of your mind for at least a day. Then give yourself nine minutes to look at it carefully. Read it out load again. Mark any errors of style or grammar or reasoning. Ask yourself whether it supports, elaborates or defends your key sentence as well as you had hoped. Don’t overthink this. Confine the experience of self-criticism to those nine-minutes. When you’re done compare it the feeling you had when you finished writing. (It’s good to test the accuracy of that emotional response.) Then take a one minute break and, once again, get on with your day. Repeat this whole process — of deciding what to write at the end of the day, writing it the next day, and critiquing it a day after that — a few times. You are facing the difficulty of writing from the center of your strength. You will learn something about how to improve. But also remember to enjoy it.

How Well Do You Write? (1)

When I talk to a group of students or scholars about writing, I sometimes begin by asking how many of them want to become better academic writers, or at least think they need to improve their writing in order to succeed. Most of them of course do. But how do we know how good we are? And why is it we’d like to get better? What is it exactly that we’d like to get better at? To answer these questions, I want to suggest a simple exercise that lets you, if not measure your competence as a writer, then at least experience it.

The first thing is to take your knowledge out of the the equation. You don’t want to experience mainly your tenuous grasp of the subject matter you’re writing about. You want to make sure that knowing isn’t the problem so that the difficulty of writing can come to the fore. You do this by choosing something you’re confident you know something about. If you’re a student, pick something from a course you did well in, preferably a course you also enjoyed and, since this is unfortunately not always the case, where you feel like you deserved the decent grade you got. If you’re a working scholar, pick a theory or a practice that you are well-versed in, something that lies near the center of your expertise. Remember that no one is forcing you write about these things for this purpose of conducting this test. You are free to choose what you will write about, and the main criterion is going to be your grasp of the subject.

Now, since you want to experience your mastery of academic writing, you have to consider a very particular kind of reader: a peer. Think of someone who knows about as much as you do about the subject you just decided to write about. You can make this person up, construct a composite of individuals you know, or think of a specific person. The important thing is that you imagine a reader who is an intellectual equal. If you’re a student, think of another student who did well in the same class. If you’re a scholar, think of the people who attend the same conference sessions and research seminars that you do. You and your reader will have read roughly the same things, understand the same theories, master the same methods. To put it as starkly as possible, your reader is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. Indeed, you respect your reader’s opinion enough to listen carefully when they suggest you’ve made an error. They are not qualified to tell what to think, however, nor are you in awe of them. You’ll consider their opinion and make up your own mind.

(If you want to reconsider your choice of subject after thinking about your reader, go ahead.)

It is now time to see how good you are at writing something down for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. First of all, relax. None of what you are about to learn about yourself is going to be very deep. (People sometimes say writing is at the core of our research, the heart of what we do, but that’s overstating it a little. It’s more like the skin of our body of knowledge, the surface of discourse.) You are going to experience your facility with words, your difficulty in putting them together. You’re going to do this under very controlled circumstances and with nothing at stake. After you’re done, you’re not even going draw any final conclusions. You’re going to do it a few more times before you know anything at all. And by then you won’t know whether you’re “good” or “bad” so much as how you’re going to get better. That said, I’m not promising that this will be an entirely pleasant experience. If you want to know how hard something is, you’re going to have to let it hit you.

Here’s how to do it. Take five minutes at the end of your working day and write down a single, simple declarative sentence that says something you know about the subject you’ve chosen. Make sure it’s a serious statement and that it’s just he tip of the iceberg of your knowledge. And make sure it’s something that demands that more be said in your discipline, something that is in need of support, elaboration or defense. In a word, make sure it’s something that’s worth writing a whole paragraph about. Resolve to write that paragraph tomorrow morning, but for now just focus on getting its key sentence down as precisely as you can. For five minutes, try to write what Hemingway called “the truest sentence that you know” about the subject. Then — and this is very important and not at all easy — stop thinking about it for the rest of the evening. (Being able to do that is part of being a good writer.) Put it out of your mind until tomorrow morning. In my next post I’ll tell you what to do then.

Training and Practice

“You don’t like that idea? I’ve got others.”

Marshall McLuhan

Dominik Lukes raised a good point in the comments to my last post. “Your running metaphor,” he said, “is going to filter out a lot of students who do have foundational problems with the basic building blocks of writing.”

No metaphor is perfect and Dominik here catches an important imperfection in the idea that being able to write good prose is like being in good shape. Many struggling writers simply don’t see their problem in those terms. They have no analogue to “just put one foot in front of the other”; when you say “just put one word after another on the page”, they think you’re making fun of them. When you tell them to pick something they know and write a paragraph about it they literally can’t imagine what you’re talking about. They need someone to show them them the basic building blocks (often sentences) and how they go together. They don’t know, we might, say the first thing about writing. I grant Dominic’s general point. Pedagogical analogies like this are rhetorical figures and they have to be judged on their persuasiveness. If they don’t work, they aren’t good metaphors.

So one thing I would emphasize is that you really do have to be more specific about the task than “put your ass in the chair and write”. A jogging coach will give you some reasonable distance to run, tell you to take a day’s break between runs, show you how to stretch out, and even give you some advice about what shoes to wear. A coach might also anticipate problems that could come up along the way (pains, cramps, general tiredness) and what to do about that. I try to be helpful in the same way about how to manage your writing moment. I even tell you what to do if you realize that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Like a jogging coach (I imagine) I tell you not to give up. Walk the rest of the way. Then try again another day.

I sometimes say that scholarly discourse is a bit like boxing. Not everyone likes this metaphor either, so I usually offer an alternative even before being asked: it’s just as much like the tango. You have to think of your reader as an equal and you have require a measured amount of energy, of yourself and your reader, for each move in your writing. Grace emerges not just from knowing what to do, but from knowing how much you can accomplish in a single move, round by round, dance by dance.

This brings us to the part where I really agree with Dominik. Learning to write is much like learning how to play a musical instrument. Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of “training” as a matter of “practicing”. Many people face their writing difficulty much as they would face a piano they don’t know how to play. Yes, they know what the keys do. They understand that the high notes are on the right and the low notes on the left. But whenever they hear someone actually play the thing they also understand that they could never do anything like that. They lack a basic understanding of chords and melody. When they see a good piece of writing they simply don’t understand how it was made.

I’m grateful for Dominik’s prod here and I’m going to write a few posts imagining basic exercises to practice. It’s a good way to get clear about what I think those “basic building blocks of writing” are.