Monthly Archives: September 2021

The Art of Reading

I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…

wayne C. Booth, A rhetoric of irony, p. x.

Reading is an indispensable part of learning. And while it sounds like a simple skill, there is a whole art of academic reading that you will master mainly through trial and error and deliberate practice. You have to find the right things to read, the time to read them, and the energy to understand them. That’s what I will be talking about tomorrow, and I thought I’d write a quick post on the subject to prepare.

Let’s begin with what you are reading. Obviously, as a student, you’re going to have to read what your teachers tell you to read, i.e., what is on the syllabus. But already here it can be helpful to think a little about what you are being asked to do. Course materials can include textbook chapters, journal articles, selections from books, classic essays, business cases, magazine and newspaper articles, and even the instructor’s own lecture notes and blogposts. Sometimes these are all gathered together for you in a compendium, and often they will be presented to you in electronic form in your “learning management system” (at CBS we use Canvas). And sometimes you will be asked to buy books (and cases) yourself. What all this means is that the form that your reading materials come to you in is not always the form in which they were originally published. It can be a very good idea to learn to distinguish between, e.g., textbooks, articles, and monographs. They were written for different purposes and should be read differently too.

When reading a textbook it’s important not to take it too seriously. It’s trying to cover a lot of ground as efficiently as possible, to define some terms, and to give you a sense of what the facts are in the area. It will never be the definitive statement on a subject that it often sounds like it is trying to be. Notice that it will often cite a bunch of sources, many of which will be classics in the literature. A textbook is merely your entry into that literature. The real learning will happen when you engage with the sources, often to find out that either the textbook or your reading of the textbook was wrong. There’s no shame in that for either of you. You are forming your ideas gradually as you read, not just this book but everything else, and the textbook’s author(s) can’t be expected to keep up with (or even track of) what you are learning. Use your textbook as a map of the area, not as a monument. It’s what gets you where you want to go. It’s nothing to see in itself.

Sometimes you will be given a journal article to read in one of your courses; sometimes it will merely appear as a source in a textbook or monograph. Either way, you should learn how to find it in the journal that originally published it, see it in the context of the other articles that were published that month, or quarter, or year. More importantly, remember that a journal article always strives to contribute to a conversation, so you might want to use the library’s citation databases to track down the articles that have cited the one you’re reading now after it was published. And take a note of the books and articles that it itself cites. When reading, remember that there are probably a couple of dozen people who have a serious interest in what it says. You are eavesdropping on the conversation they are having and trying to learn from it. As a student, the article wasn’t written for you, but you are expected to learn how to read one of these things and, eventually, how to write something like it. So notice how it is structured, and try to figure out how it works.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to read a whole book, but you’ll probably mostly be reading chapters of books. Every now and then, go to the library and find the whole book. Have a look at the chapter you’re reading in the context of the original book. Books, too, can be located in our citation databases, but they’ll normally not be part of a small, well-defined conversation. And they will have bibliographies of their own, though these will usually cover a much wider field. Still, it can be useful to take a note of what a book has been used for and what work it makes use of. This is all part of how it works, and, in a certain sense, learning to read is just learning how texts “work”, i.e., what you can use them for. At the end of the day, you’re using them to learn things, to acquire knowledge, and books are especially good at giving you this sense of what is there to be known, even if they’re not always the most up-to-date sources of knowledge available. They are the monuments you can see from a distance.

There are lots of other kinds of reading matter. I usually recommend that people read some high quality magazines — like the Economist, Harper’s, or the New Yorker. Not only are they good sources of information, they usually provide you with examples of good prose that you can use as benchmarks for your own style. You should probably also try keep abreast of what goes on in the daily newspapers. In a similar vein, there is no shortage of “pulp” non-fiction out there: knowledge-based books aimed at a popular audience. Here, again, the prose is usually serviceable and the ideas are often interesting. Finally, do not think that reading poetry and fiction is a waste of time. I have found that poetry often helps me to see things in prose I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, and that reading a novel can be a good way to train my sense of narrative when telling my own (entirely true) stories. Whatever you do, make sure that you are reading something for pleasure on a regular basis. You don’t want “the literature” to feel like work all the time. It will be good for your style to experience a little of what Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss” when you’re reading.

When it comes down to it, the art of academic reading is the art of reading paragraphs. For every paragraph in a well-crafted academic text, Booth’s ideal Oxford tutorial questions should apply. You should be able to ask, “What is the author trying to say in this paragraph?” and “How does the author know it is true?” Answering these questions for yourself is what reading a text carefully is all about. It’s fine to struggle to answer them. For a time, your answer may be “I don’t know”, and this will mean only “I don’t understand this paragraph”. But there will be times when you don’t think it’s your fault and there’ll be times when you’re right about this. It is simply not clear what the author is trying to say. And the author may simply not know what they’re talking about! This is hopefully not what you’ll decide is the case most of the time, but it’s perfectly normal to arrive at this conclusion. And it’s quite okay to change your mind a few times. The authors of the books you read aren’t going to take offence.

The Art of Learning

I’ve been looking forward to this week. Today I will be holding my first writing workshop of the semester and tomorrow the Art of Learning Series begins. My theme this year will be “rebauchery” — a word I have made up to name the process of bringing meaning into our work, of taking our problems into the workshop (“bauche”, cf. “debauchery”). This will require us to find the pleasure in our labors, to discover the purpose of our studies. As always, I find my inspiration in the instructions of Oliver Senior and will try to help our students “acquire the mental equipment by which their vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed.” 

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, 1944, Plate XVIII

If you want to learn how to draw hands you will need to sit down at your desk, take out a piece of paper and a pencil, hold one hand steady in front of you, in a comfortable position, in good light, and look carefully at it. Then, with your other hand, pick up the pencil and begin to mark up the page in such way that it represents what is present before your eyes, namely, a distribution of light and shadow that is recognizable as your own hand. This is not easy and your first attempts will probably not be very satisfying. But if you want to become good at this you’ll just have to keep trying.

Now consider the problem of writing down your ideas. Here, again, you’ll need to get comfortable with the situation. You’ll need to hold an idea steadily before your mind’s eye and, well, be a little “bright”, light it up. (“When I’m writing a poem,” said Tony Tost long ago, “I’m basically just trying to be brilliant.”) Just as you wouldn’t try to draw a hand as it looks when you’re waving it around in the dark, you don’t want to try to write down an obscure idea that keeps changing the more you think about it. Don’t pick something you hardly know is true. Pick something you know comfortably and get to work on the other difficulty: the problem of writing. That’s what my writing workshops are intended to show you how to do.

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)
We must retract our offerings, burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.
We must flay the curiatoriat, invest our sackcloth,

 and enter the academy single file.

                      - Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures

To learn is to acquire new knowledge, to become knowledgeable — able-to-know and enabled-by-knowing. Though we say we “acquire” it, knowledge is not so much a possession as it is a competence. Knowledgeable people are capable of things — things they know something about — that ignorant people are not. Specifically, they are able to think about things, to talk about them, and to write them down. Students and scholars — academics, if you will — are more cognizant, more conversant, and more literate about their subjects than most people. Or that, in any case, is the ideal that guides our institutions of higher learning. On an average day, I am a defender, even a champion, of those institutions. I’m an idealist, let’s say.

My advice to students about how to get the most out of their education centers on those three basic skills: thinking, talking, and writing. But becoming good at these things requires us to consider some complementary ones: feeling, for example, and listening, and reading. So, in my Thursday afternoon talks, I will suggest ways to develop an academic comportment in our attempts to gain knowledge. After all, there are many ways of knowing and “academia” isn’t for everyone. Academic knowledge, we might say, is the sort of thing you can learn in school, and there are many things you very definitely can’t learn here. (Some would say there are things you positively mustn’t!) But there are also many things that can be imparted to you by way of books and lectures, and these things can be tested by way of writing and speaking. The gradual formation, and periodic examination, of your beliefs is what school is all about.

The last two talks are called “How to Enjoy Things” and “How to Know Things Again”. I’m looking especially forward to these talks because they introduce something that has occupied my mind this past year with increasing intensity. To be good at something is to be able to enjoy it. And if you have ever known something — I mean really known it — you know how to learn it (or similar things) again when you need to. You understand the discipline. You know your way around the workshop. And you can derive genuine pleasure from the work. That’s what I want “rebauchery” to mean.

The Place of Forms and the Form of Life

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Words only have meaning in the context of a life. Your words matter to me not just because they matter to you but because I use those same words to similar ends. We are here with each other, each in our own way. Our words, Heidegger pointed out, are part of the “equipmental contexture” of our existence; even our most theoretical pursuits are subject to our moods and require material resources. Our language is invested with the significance of the things and people we rely on to carry on our work.

Heidegger also taught us that human existence (Dasein, being-there) is a “place of forms” (topos eidon in Greek), a locus of ideas, a site of meaning. All of us are meeting places for ideas, our own and always also those of others. And, as William Carlos Williams famously said, there are “no ideas but in things”, i.e., ideas come to us in the significance of the things we find in our environment. We are simply the clearing in which they come to light. Our words are illuminated by this significance, just as our lives are. When we write we share that light with others.

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” said Wittgenstein. Much of his work consisted of getting us to imagine various “language games”, i.e., activities in which words might be used in particular ways and in which their meaning would arise out of their use. “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” If that activity involves tools and materials of various kinds then those things (and the way we use them) will contribute to the meaning of the words we use (and the way we use them). To make myself understood by you I must understand your form of life.

Writers must discover this again and again. Kenneth Burke approached literature as “equipment for living”; Roland Barthes argued that “writing is essentially the morality of form”. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. 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.” That is, the writer must find a way to arrange words such that what they mean in the context of the writer’s life remains when they are thrown into the context of the reader’s life.

Technical language (the language of the science, for example) is really just ordinary language used in the context of some specialized equipment. The language will include the names of the dials and switches on the machines we use to engage with the world and the instructions for using them correctly. This includes things like “interview transcripts” and “intercoder reliability”. To the right person, which is to say, the person who leads the right kind of life, properly trained in the methods we deploy, these concepts are meaningful in the ordinary way. Their “meaning is use,” as Wittgenstein might put it.

The words in this post, too, are only meaningful in the context of a particular kind of life. “Yes, the life of a philosopher!” you might say. Fair enough; I suppose I’m being a bit philosophical, and these words will only matter greatly to someone who is interested in such things. But all academics, to a certain degree, are invested in philosophy; and academia, too, is in any case a form of life. It can be useful to have a look around the place now and then, this place of a particular set of forms, this locus of a particular class of ideas. They are “in things” too. Try to find them. They are very close at hand, I promise you.

Clearing the Ground for the Place of Forms

Heidegger and Wittgenstein were both profoundly interested in the way language shapes experience. I have tried (somewhat less profoundly) to follow the way of this shape in my own work as a writing instructor and coach. About ten years ago, for example, I admonished the readers of my old blog to take metaphysical responsibility for their craftsmanship: scholars don’t (or shouldn’t) just “hustle and bustle” to “publish or perish”. Their work, literally, “keeps the real in place.” Lately, I’ve been thinking more about this.

Gaugin, “Clearing II”, Source: Wikimedia Foundation

Heidegger thought of human existence as a “clearing” of being, an opening in the brute “facticity” of the world that lets in the light of nature (the lumen naturale). Our existence is not merely a “presence at hand” like all the other things in the world. We are not just “extant”; we are here. In fact, our existence produces the “here” into which we are thrown. Without us there would be nothing, Technically, I suppose, the whole universe would still “be there”, just not here. It wouldn’t be anywhere; there would be nowhere for it to be. Existentially speaking, if you will, the universe wouldn’t exist without us. Or it at least it wouldn’t mean anything because we are the site of meaning, the place of forms. Language, as Heidegger put it, is the “house of being”, so without us, without our presence as “discursive creatures”, the universe would be homeless — meaningless, empty.

Wittgenstein offered us another way to think about this situation. To help us understand what a language is, he employed a number of metaphors, the most famous of which, perhaps, is the idea of a “game”: language is a game we play with words. He imagined one such game played by builders who use words to give each other instructions:

The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’.  A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language. (PI§2)

Gaugin, “Rue Jouvenet, Rouen”
Source: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

To fill in an association here, let us imagine that these builders end up building a town, which grows into a city. This leads us to another of Wittgenstein’s metaphors:

Our language may be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. (PI§18)

Gaugin, “Rue du Nord, Rouen“, Source: Wikimedia Foundation

But it is, of course, possible to get lost in such a city, especially in the older, less regular parts of town, where the streets, perhaps, don’t even have names. “A philosophical problem,” said Wittgenstein, “has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about'” (PI§123). Philosophy helps us to “command a clear view of the use of our words”. But while he sometimes proposes to accomplish this merely through the “perspicuous presentation” of ordinary expressions, providing a “synopsis of trivialities”, he sometimes uses more, let us say, radical language to describe his process:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand. (PI§118)

That’s quite an image! I guess it rivals Heidegger’s “destruction of the history of metaphysics” in its sheer catastrophism. But perhaps philosophy leaves behind not just stone and rubble. Perhaps, after clearing the ground of language, we still have those blocks and pillars and slabs and beams that Wittgenstein’s builders can play with. Something to rebuild our world from. Maybe there is some hope in philosophy, after all; maybe by thinking about the foundations of existence and language we are clearing the ground for the place of forms?

Students and Their Style

“The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style.”
(Cyril Connolly)

Let us consider the student’s predicament. Students are those members of our community who enroll in classes and attend lectures and complete assignments and sit for examinations, all in order, finally, to receive degrees. Though we preach the value of learning for its own sake, we give them many other reasons to learn the material we put before them. They may be called on in class and be embarrassed by their lack of preparation, they may submit an assignment and be disappointed by their grade, or they may graduate and find themselves competing with people more knowledgeable than they are. Or they may be proud, or happy, or victorious in these situations. Either way, the value of learning isn’t purely intrinsic.

Our students expect that the education they receive will play a role in their future success, in their pursuit of wealth and power. (Let’s not moralize about these basic ambitions. Perhaps they know that true wealth lies in knowing when you have enough and perhaps they seek power only to let them make the world a better place.) Whatever their extrinsic motivations, all we can do, as their teachers, is to impart knowledge. But we, too, are bound, by our obligations to society, to certain extrinsic values; we must reward our students for what they learn and punish them for that they don’t. So, like it or not, we give our students an incentive to pretend to know more than they really do, to present themselves for examination more confident than they really are. In short, we can’t help but make them feel a little ignorant when they write — less knowledgeable than they think they ought to be. “Just be natural,” doesn’t seem like a viable option when writing a term paper.

Cyril Connolly devoted the first third of his Enemies of Promise to “the predicament” of style. He was talking about the sort of thing that makes a book age well or badly. Style, after all, is often the means by which a book shows its age. A book can go “out of style” in this sense when the fashions change and its eloquence chafes against the “modern” demand for something more colloquial. We’ve all been students and had the experience of reading work from semesters past, cringing a little at the affected tone we thought was suitably “academic” or “scholarly” at the time. In hindsight, we recognize immediately that we were pretending to know more than we really did, and that we were vaguely hoping to get away with it. We were not opening our thoughts and feelings, our minds and hearts, to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell us we are wrong. We were trying to get our ideas across to our readers — indeed, past them.

Students often imagine that they are writing for their teachers and their examiners. You might think I’m using the word “imagine” strangely here, since, surely, they are in fact writing for their teachers and examiners. Well, yes and no. Their teachers are not really reading their work, since they have been put in the position of a judge — a position that they often resent as much as their students do. They do not really feel “addressed” by the students, except perhaps as the object of this shared resentment. But this situation is of course false; it is artificial, and it should be avoided if we can. The students should be writing for their peers, for people they respect as intellectual equals. Teachers should be judging them on their ability thus to address each other. Students should be developing a prose style that lets them share their thoughts with the brightest and most ambitious of their classmates. It is this conversation that their writing should contribute to.

This year, in any case, I’ll once again be telling students to address themselves to each other, with all the confidence and humility that this implies. They should get to know each other and they should choose their topics with each other in mind. They should weigh their claims so that their fellow students will find them just a little a hard to believe, understand, or agree with (in a word, interesting), and they should learn to write paragraphs that support, elaborate, or defend them accordingly. They should not develop a style that impresses their teachers but one that opens their own thinking to that of their peers. (Yes, of course, their teachers should be impressed when they succeed.) So they will have to make up their minds about what they are learning. They will have to speak their mind. And they will have to learn to write it down. That’s what I intend to tell them.