Monthly Archives: March 2020

The Third Discipline: Posture

Je t’écoute … Vas-y!” (Henry Miller)

This series is developing more slowly than I had anticipated. Truth be told, breaking down what is ultimately only a little more than 30 minutes of activity into seven discrete activities, and then devoting a whole post to each of them, also feels a little stranger to me than I had originally imagined. I’m going to have to revisit these posts in a few months and bring them all together in a more in a coherent gesture. They might work better as a book chapter.

I’m going to write about the third discipline today, which is the act of sitting down in front of the machine at the appointed time to begin writing the paragraph you decided on when practicing your first and second discipline the day before. It’s important to understand the situation: before going to bed you knew what you were going to say and when you were going to say it. Your plan is to write a single paragraph starting at some exact moment, like 8:00 AM. You know what the key sentence of that paragraph is and it expresses something you are knowledgeable about.

In a literal sense, you show up in front of a blank page, but, since your mind is prepared, there is no ambiguity about your task. When the writing moment begins, just type the key sentence. Do it slowly and deliberately, allowing yourself to modify it if you think this will make it clearer to your reader.

Now, consider why your reader needs a whole paragraph about this subject. Why can’t you just leave it at the one sentence? Why do you need at least five more? This must be because the reader faces some particular difficulty when the sentence is left there on its on. It may be hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. (Sometimes, it may be boring — the fourth difficulty — but that’s an interesting problem too.) The third discipline is all about posing the problem effectively. Write the key sentence in such a way that it presents the difficulty that your knowledge will allow you to solve. Direct the sentence at your reader in a particular way from the center of your own strength.

All of this occupies only about two minutes of the writing moment and you are working on a single sentence, which may not even be twelve words longs. You are choosing those words with particular care. You are adopting a rhetorical posture, comporting yourself in a deliberate way, in order to signal to the reader what posture they should adopt too. Once you see yourself and your reader squared off (like two boxers or two dancers, as you choose) move on the fourth discipline.

But that’s for another post.

The Second Discipline: Assertion

"Every writer has his own way of working. That's mine.
I take a drink before dinner." (Ernest Hemingway)

I’m trying to break the activity of writing down into small, manageable tasks. In my last post, I suggested spending just two minutes thinking about an intellectually interesting object. Basically, I was suggesting you train your ability to decide what to write about. Today, I want to take this only three minutes further, training your ability to decide what to say about it. Remember, this is all happening at the end of your working day, just before you begin to relax for the evening. Altogether, the first two disciplines should not take much longer than five minutes.

Spend three minutes writing a sentence that says something you know about the object you just selected. You can describe the background on which you and your reader find it interesting or you can make your theoretical expectations of it explicit; you can write about how you study it or state a result of your analysis of it; or you can discuss the implications of your research for theory or practice. The important thing is to write a true sentence about the thing you just decided was of “intellectual interest” to you and your peers in your research community (for students: this means your class).

Jot down a short simple sentence right away and then spend the time refining it. As you play around with it, make sure it’s always a grammatically correct sentence. That is to say, make sure that you’re always saying something intelligible, always making an assertion. You’re trying to come up with the key sentence of the paragraph that you will write tomorrow morning. A good way to keep yourself grounded is to write a sentence that you didn’t just discover was true. Don’t write something you learned today, or even this week. Say something you knew was true already last week. The underlying discipline here is that of drawing on your deep base of knowledge. You are training your ability to assert yourself with confidence. Much of that is about choosing what to say.

Since every tweak you make to this sentence leaves you (if you’re following my advice) with a complete sentence, you can end this exercise arbitrarily, i.e., not when it satisfies you but when the time is up. After three minutes, stop. Your working day is now officially over. Time to relax. I’ve been calling this “Discipline Zero”, the art of stopping, the skill of no longer thinking about your research. You need to be able to do this at the end of the day, but also at the end of every paragraph you write, so we’ll be returning to it again and again. Decide what you’re going to say. Then, like Hemingway, put it out of your mind and wait to see what your subconscious came up with in the morning.

The First Discipline: Objectivity

A catalogue of poses and motions produced from within a culture may read, then, like a form of special pleading, or, at the very least, like a product that must be ravaged of bias by scholars prepared to act as objective witnesses.

Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String)

Last year I suggested “seven little disciplines” to foster stronger prose. I want to write a series of posts over the next two weeks that goes through them one at a time, and also generalizes them a little beyond the training exercises that I originally suggested them to be. It is my aim to identify seven things that you should be pretty good at as a scholar and, therefore, seven things you should be working on as a student. These are “poses and motions” that should be familiar to you, which of course also means that they should occasion familiar difficulties that, as you develop your discipline, should become easier and easier to overcome.

The first discipline begins at the end of your working — or, let’s say, learning — day. This ability to end your day should, perhaps, be treated separately, as its own discipline — Discipline Zero, if we want to get dramatic about it. But it doesn’t belong to writing alone and I have in fact broken it down into two phases here. It’s the beginning of the first discipline and the end of the second, which we’ll get to in the next post. The important thing to recognize is that there’s a point in every day when you stop getting smarter, and you should reach that point with self-awareness well before you put your head on the pillow and go to sleep. In fact, it will be much easier to fall asleep if you decided to stop thinking seriously about your research a few hours before you close your eyes. Otherwise you’ll find your research project right there and waiting on the inside of your eyelids.

So let’s suppose it’s late afternoon, or early evening. You’ve finished work for the day, you’re about to start cooking, or, at the very latest, you’re about to call it quits after that extra hour of reading you gave yourself after dinner. Now you’re done. At this point you should call an intellectually interesting object to mind. The point of the first discipline is that “intellectual interest” isn’t a merely subjective matter. An intellectually interesting object is one that connects you to your peers; it is something that is of interest to you and to others working in your field, which, if you’re a student, means your classmates. Spend two minutes picking something to think about.

The best way to do this is to have a list (mental or written, it’s up to you) of things that interest you. Put one of them at the top, and spend the two minutes considering alternatives. You’re trying to pick something that you’d like to write about tomorrow, so it has to pique you a little, and you have to feel confident that you know something about it. What would you most like to write about tomorrow? Obviously, extrinsic pressures are entirely relevant here; the most “interesting” thing in the world right now may be the thing that your supervisor wants to see some pages from you about. Just remember that your supervisor (or journal or book editor) “represents the interests” of your broader community, your readership. So it has to be interesting to your peers more generally, not just to whoever is demanding some text from you. In any case, your two minutes should be devoted solely to picking a thing.

Don’t forget those peers — “scholars who are prepared to act as objective witnesses,” as Ben Marcus puts it. Tomorrow, you are going to be presenting it to this prepared audience, and they will expect, not just a thing, but an object. Something about which there can be facts of the matter. The first discipline is all about quickly and efficiently calling an object to mind, from among all the things that populate our world. You’re trying to pick something that other people also think about, something you can see from their perspective. You’re choosing it with their interests in mind. Give yourself two minutes to do this. Then go on to the second discipline… (more tomorrow).

A Pandemic Is Good Discipline

"All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head
until morning when I would start to work again."
--Ernest Hemingway

This must have been in 1924. In Our Time had not yet been published, Hemingway had quit his job at the Toronto Star, and all his manuscripts had been lost in a suitcase at the Gare de Lyon. He wasn’t making very much money from his writing and was skipping meals, lying to his wife that he was eating out, so she would have more for herself and their son. “It is necessary to handle yourself better when you have to cut down on food so you will not get too much hunger-thinking. Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it. And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them.” He was talking about his readers. “Oh sure,” he thought, “I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.” There’s a bad moment when he finds himself complaining to Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company about money. He catches himself and apologizes. “Forgive you for what?” she says. “Don’t you know that all writers ever talk about is their troubles?”

I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast and it’s pretty good company. I had forgotten his passing mention, in “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” of what was then his “new theory”, or what we now call “the iceberg method”: “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” He connected this idea both to his hunger and to his lost manuscripts. There was a whole novel in that suitcase that, he suspected, demonstrated “the lyric facility of boyhood that was a perishable and as deceptive as youth was.” Writing now, he would have to do without it, and he decided this was “probably a good thing”. But he wasn’t ready to write a new novel yet: “it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel.” That’s the difficulty I want to address in the coming weeks.

Of course, I’m not a novelist, and neither, I expect, are you. You’re probably trying to write a paper or a dissertation. Maybe you’re trying to write a book. But, like Hemingway, we’re writing prose, and the “distillation” of prose is the paragraph. It’s the “unit” of academic writing. It makes a statement and supports, elaborates or defends it, and any longer text is just a series of statements that have been variously supported, elaborated, and defended. Scholarly writing is the process of composing and arranging paragraphs that state what you know. These days, our process has been interrupted, but we must not complain about our troubles. Not too much. Every morning we get up and work on our paragraphs, our little disciplines. We decide what to put in and what to leave out and our iceberg gains a little of its dignity. Hemingway lived like that for almost two years. Then his readers finally caught up with him.

Homework in a Time of Quarantine

“Eighty percent of life,” said Woody Allen, “is showing up.” Fortunately at times like these, eighty percent of school is homework. As most of my readers are aware, the Danish university campuses are closed for the next two weeks in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. But this does not mean that school is out for the students. Classes are still formally in session and we have been asked to develop online alternatives to on-site instruction. While I don’t want to disparage those who have poured a lot of energy and creativity into holding their classes online (see Andrew’s post, for example), I have decided to keep things as simple as possible, for both myself and my students. In this post, I want to say a few things about what I’ve decided to do, and why.

The basic principle is the one I stated at the outset. Closing the campus affects only about 20% of the activities that a university education provides. Most of the time, students should be reading and writing at home. The most important thing, therefore, is to make sure that these activities keep happening, and continue to be meaningful for the students. In principle, the students should be fine for two weeks just following the existing course syllabus in their reading, supplemented with some questions to answer in writing. But it’s a minimal solution and it can be vastly improved with very little effort.

I say that the students ought to be fine with individual homework “in principle”. In practice, of course, that may a bit optimistic. Will the students read if they’re not preparing for a class? Will they write the suggested essays? Will they understand the readings and the questions well enough to get something out of it? This will vary from student to student, and some students will no doubt find the individual exercises meaningless.

While I think this tells us something important about how dependent higher education has become on instruction, and how dependent students have become on their teachers, I don’t want to “politicize” the crisis. Later on, when we start talking about how to make institutions resilient to pandemics and other disasters, I’m sure I’ll want to return to it. Too much in academic life has become subject to external deadlines and “extrinsic motivation”, which, I believe, has made both research and teaching much more vulnerable than it should be.

But this, like I say, is no time to solve that problem. I bring it up now in order to think about all the things we can do keep students on track and motivated.

Since I want to keeps things simple, let’s start with some old-fashioned technologies. Most of our classes will be using some form of Learning Management System, to which the students already have ready access. (If not, email can be used for everything I’m about to suggest.) This will allow you to post instructions from day one. While you can begin to think about video lectures, I recommend you start with some clearly written advice and guidance for how the students should spend their time at home.

Basically, you will be using your LMS as a kind of blog (or you may just set up a blog, or use the one you have), where you regularly suggest readings and exercises for the students to be doing at home. I also recommend you set up a forum, where students can ask questions if they get stuck. (Alternatively, a comment field will do.) The tasks should be so simple that they know they’re stuck simply if they don’t know what to do. “Read Act II of Hamlet,” is perhaps easier said than done, but there’s no question about what they should be doing. Even better: “Read Act II of Hamlet out loud.” That way there can be no doubt in their minds whether they’re doing the assignment!

By a similar token, ask them to write paragraphs in well-defined writing moments. Have them work on their discipline. As much as possible, let them decide what to write about (or at least what to say) themselves. Ask them to make a plan to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in 18 or 27 minutes the next day. Have them think seriously about who they’re talking to and how to say it. Again, after reading your instructions, it should be easy for them to know whether or not they’re doing what you’ve asked them to, irrespective of whether they think they’re doing it well or right. Have them do the assignments and similar assignments again, i.e., get them to repeat them. Tell them they are practicing. Like all practice, the task should be become easier with time and repetition. That’s how they know they’re learning.

Finally, a word about feedback. (I’ll say more about all these things in the days to come.) It is possible to facilitate feedback online by having students exchange their texts with each other. Here, too, keep the task simple and limited in time, so they can do it or not do it without any ambiguity about whether it’s one or the other. My “unfiltered feedback” exercise can easily be done by Skype (or even just phone). And most of it can be done in writing. If you want, you can pick one or more examples from a class set of submissions and do it as a short, 9-minute video. (I’ll demonstrate this in the coming days, too.)

I hope that is helpful to all those who are trying to cross these new social distances. Remember, academic writing is not “the loneliness that is the truth of things”. It’s a conversation among knowledgeable peers, and that conversation has always been mostly virtual. Eighty percent of school is homework.