Monthly Archives: August 2021

Writing Process Reengineering: The Course

During the lockdown I had a number of teaching experiences that I’m going to try to integrate into my attempts to impart Writing Process Reengineering to doctoral students and early career academics. In November, I will be running a four-week course here at the Copenhagen Business School, which will also have a “massive online”, if you will, presence. I thought I’d write a little post today about what I have in mind.

The course consists of three 3-hour on-campus meetings: an introductory seminar, a masterclass, and a capstone seminar. In between meetings, participants will do 20 hours of writing, but they can leave some of this for the week of the capstone seminar, which is on a Monday. At the end of the course, they should have a complete first draft of a journal article and 40 very explicit writing experiences. They will also have given and received feedback and discussed the problem of academic writing from philosophical, rhetorical, and literary perspectives; they will have been exposed both to the grand ideas of Writing Process Reengineering and its grimy little nuts and bolts. And they should depart with a good sense of how they can continue to implement it in their research and writing processes going forward, hopefully throughout a long and productive career.

As an ambitious explorer of media, I’ve decided to add a podcast element to the course. In fact, I’ve decided to organize it in such a way that a “podcourse” is available to people who can’t attend the live sessions. Participating in this way will require a little extra reading, but if they make a little effort, they should be able to get almost as much out of it as the flesh-and-blood participants.

This is something I learned from a writing course I co-teach in one of our master’s programs. The standard set-up is to meet with students for whole (8-hour) days separated by a few weeks. Moving these sessions online during the lockdown was quite exhausting for both the instructors and the participants, but it was not possible simply to shorten the days and have more of them. (Our professional master’s programs are designed for people who have an easier time devoting a whole day to study than taking a few hours out of their workday.) So we came up with an elegant solution. The last two hours of every day were organized around two pre-recorded 20-minute podcasts, each with a short exercise that could be completed within about half an hour. This allowed participants either to leave it for later in the evening, or even another day, or go straight to it (since they may already have freed up the time.) It offered a good combination of structure and flexibility.

To get them away from the screen, we encouraged participants to take the podcasts with them on a walk, and we even designed the exercises so that they could be done unaided by anything more complicated than a pen, a piece of paper, and their imaginations (in some cases, their imaginations were actually equipment enough). This is what I want to try to replicate for my course, but on a daily rather than semi-weekly basis.

Starting in early November, therefore, I’ll begin to post short 5-minute podcasts with reflections and exercises to prepare participants for the writing they will do on each (most) of the days between meetings of the course. There will be twenty podcasts in all, five days a week for four weeks. The idea is to listen to them as the last thing you do in your working day, just before deciding what you will write in the morning. I recommend you listen to them in a relaxed mood, perhaps while taking a walk. When the course is over, the twenty podcasts will remain on the course website, so you can take the course again anytime you want to devote some deliberate hours to getting better at writing. You just book some writing time into your calendar, and listen to a brief podcast at the end of each day.

I’m looking forward to seeing how well this works. Both as a supplement to the on-campus course and as a stand-alone podcourse. Any feedback, even at this early planning stage, is much appreciated. Let me have it!

[Read the full program and register here.]

Arts and Crafts

I’m back from my leave and looking forward to talking to scholars and students about their writing again. As always, I will be pursuing it as a “craft” that can be developed through practice. I’ve been putting the final touches on my main activities for this semester and I thought I’d share them today for those who are interested. You will notice that registration is open only to CBS students and staff, but if you would like to participate in something and are not part of the CBS community feel free to contact me to see if that might be possible. Some of these activities have an online option, and that will usually be a quite open channel. You can get an overview here.

As a new thing this year, I’ve decided to address some ordinary “pedagogical” issues. What can we do to improve ourselves as students, as learners? There’s a definite art to this, which is situated in some rather familiar conventional contexts, aptly captured in the title of Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the Lecture, or what I sometimes simply call “the academic situation”. This situation provides a number of reliable resources for learning, and, of course, a number of dependable challenges to overcome. For example, it provides us with an orderly framework within which to think, which risks becoming a set of constraints on our creativity. We are encouraged to be precise, but there’s a risk that we’ll be bored. That tension is virtually constitutive of academia.

The “Art of Learning” series in the fall is intended as a kind of loose warmup to the more goal-oriented “Craft of Research” series in the spring. In the fall, we’ll talk about the various competences that together define what it means to be a “knowledgeable” person, what it means to have “learned” something. In the spring, we’ll bring these skills together in the work of researching and writing a year-end project or thesis. If a research paper is written “one paragraph at a time” an education proceeds through azure moments, “rooted in watching with affection the way people grow”. The talks will give me an opportunity to explain what I mean by this, not least to myself.

I don’t intend to make too much out of the distinction between “art” and “craft”, except that, to me, craftsmanship is more about the work that is produced and artistry is more about the experience that it produces. Somewhat clumsily, we might say that craft is more objective and art is more subjective. Craft is about whether the thing works, while art is about what it does to us. The reason they’re hard to keep apart, of course, is that a “work of art” works precisely when it moves us. And sometimes an encounter with plain old good craftsmanship is a transformative experience in itself. It’s a good thing I’ve a got a few weeks before I start, and many more to work though these issues one at a time!

While I was on leave, I drew a lot of hands. My artist friend helpfully reminded me to draw, not what I know, but what I see. Even more specifically, she told me to begin with the shadows, not the lines. “The lines aren’t really there,” she said; “they’re just edges, where things end.” I have tried and tried but I’m still blinded by my knowledge from seeing my hand clearly. On some days I am proud of what I have accomplished, on others I am frustrated beyond consolation. On some days, I feel both emotions about the same drawing. I am far from mastering the craft of drawing anything, let alone the complex machinery of the hand. But I am learning.

“We suffer and we learn,” said Aeschylus. For many students, that’s all there is to it. You tough it out, you suffer through it, and you move on with your life. But what I want to suggest is that this suffering isn’t just what Oscar Wilde (writing from jail) called “one very long moment”. It is a series of discrete moments during each of which we find a specific kind of composure. We learn how to read and how to write, how to listen and how to talk, how to think and how, finally, to enjoy the whole business of knowing things, one experience at a time. We have to give ourselves the time to do this. We have to find a moment, and then another, and undertake to learn something from it. Under these conditions, guided by this discipline, I would argue that Whitman’s words hold true: “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”

A Long Summer

Bent Galatius (uncertain), untitled, 1944

I took some time off this summer to begin work on a book. Like you, I had had a strange year, and as the spring semester drew to a close I could feel I needed some time to think things through in a new way. I was generously granted a leave of absence from my duties at the Library, and I cleared my calendar so that I had three hours a day to work on the book and the rest of the time to think and read and play and putter around. For a number of personal reasons, I have had to make some lifestyle changes (I turned fifty this year) and, since May, I’ve been running regularly, walking a lot, and taking care to derive pleasure from everyday things like cooking and listening to music. Like the book, it’s a work in progress, but I think I now know what Hemingway meant when he said, “I always live a hell of a healthy life for the first five hours of every day.”

I have written before about the idea that fell into place for me while doing the Craft of Research talks this spring. When I talk to students and scholars about their writing, I always get them to imagine an iceberg (Hemingway’s famous iceberg), with their paper above the surface of the water and their study below. The paper has a number of sections: introduction, background, theory, method, analysis, discussion, conclusion. The study has various components: documents, literature, experience, data, and a great deal of thought. I slowly began to notice the centrality of experience as the basis of our methods. Our papers are connected to our studies most intensely in our methodologies — our account of what we did to collect our data and why we did it. Writing our methods section is the closest we come to simply telling a story based on personal experience. It’s the most “literary” part of our paper, if you will. We just have to be honest, we just have to be ourselves.

This is a rather stern lesson, I know. It has become increasingly clear to me that academic writers (perhaps especially students, but certainly not only them) struggle with their papers largely because they don’t quite know what they’re talking about, who they’re talking to, or even, sometimes, who they think they are. They are using their writing to find out what they mean, to discover what they have learned from their studies. And I know that a lot of writing advice encourages this way of thinking. My book proposes a different strategy and, I must say, I’m not at all sure how it will go over when I finally find the courage to publish it. I believe you will become a better writer if you resolve to write down what you know for the purpose of exposing those ideas to criticism. So you have to begin with claims you understand and think are true. You have to write from the center of your strength, wherever it is.

Like I say, I’ve been struggling all summer with this idea, trying to find a fitting tone of voice in which to present it. I like to think I’m a pleasant and affable fellow, but there’s something hard and terse in my instructions for writers. I want to encourage writers to experiment, but I don’t want to nurture their illusions. So I imagine that my book, like my coaching, won’t be for everyone, and that’s because I don’t actually think writing is for everyone. By extension, I don’t think scholarship is for everyone either. We want to encourage our students to succeed in our classes, of course; but we must let them discover that they may not be suited for academic life. We can spare them a lot of trouble if they discover this before they enroll in graduate school. As we now return to the daily routine of teaching and learning, this is something I’ve been thinking about.

For me, it’s been a long, slow summer, with plenty of time to reflect. I have a really privileged position in the academy. Most importantly, I have the privilege to work with ambitious and intelligent people who want something out this life and want to make a contribution to their world. To this end, some have chosen (or will soon choose) to devote themselves scholarship as a career, and I wish them well in that, of course. Others will choose to go into one or another profession, or start a business, seek elected office, or pursue an art. If I have anything to do with them, it’ll probably be because they need to write something and want to learn how to do that better.

The core of my contribution will continue to be something like this:

Write what you think. Write in order to expose the ideas you actually have to the criticism of your peers. If you’re a student, always write for your fellow students — the most serious and interesting among them. If you’re a scholar, write for those one or two dozen people whose names you know and whose methods you respect. In short, write with a reader in mind who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. Get used to that posture. It is what distinctly “academic” writing is all about. If you don’t like it, there is no shame in that. It’s not for everyone. To be frank, we probably don’t actually need more academics. But while you are here, at university, try as hard as you can to become good at it. Even outside the academy, we need people who understand what it means to be critical.

Like I say, I’m a little doubtful about the tone of this thing. I know that by writing I, too, am merely exposing my ideas to criticism. I look forward to hearing what you think. The summer is over. It’s time to go back to school. Time to discover what I’m wrong about. To learn.