Conceptualize, Analyze, Discuss

Last week, a collaborator and I gave our students (hello, students!) 72 hours to write a five-paragraph essay (hello, John!). Officially, the students had been given a 3-page limit (6825 characters including spaces), which was to include their reference list. That gave them about 1000 words of prose to write. They have been taught to think of their writing as a series of paragraphs, each of which supports, elaborates or defends one thing they know in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. They know these are just ball-park figures that chalk out a playing field, and that their real task, in this case, is to construct a five-minute reading experience for their peers, which is to say, for their fellow students. They were to present what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people — each other. They were given a podcast to listen to and told to draw on the theories we were studying in the course to “conceptualize, analyze and discuss” it. As I prepare to read their essays this week, I thought I’d say a few words (or, indeed, five paragraphs) about what we meant by that.

To conceptualize something is to subsume it under a concept. Less tautologically (if perhaps only slightly less so), to conceptualize is to conceive of a thing as an object. Everyday life is full of “things”, which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. We can pick them up, run them into things (and people), buy them, sell them, steal them, break and fix them. When we conceptualize them (which, you’ll note, is just another thing to do with things) we prepare ourselves to think about them objectively. Consider electric scooters, for example. You can, indeed, buy, sell, steal, or rent these things for your own subjective profit or pleasure. But you can also think about them more dispassionately — as, say, “innovations”. To conceptualize an electric scooter as an innovation is to introduce concepts like technology, opportunity, and life-cycle in ways that let you see possibilities (like R&D, ascent, maturity, and decline) that are not visible without those concepts. Note, by contrast, that an engineer might conceptualize the scooter in very different terms, as a “vehicle” perhaps, which might be fast or slow, efficient or wasteful. It’s the same thing but a different object, subsumed under a different concept (or set of concepts), focusing attention on altogether different possibilities.

Once you have constructed your object (conceptualized your thing) and situated it in a space of possibilities, you are ready to analyze it. This means figuring out, not what is possible by virtue of its being an innovation, but what is actually going on with it as such. If all innovations can be located somewhere on the S-curve of the technology life-cycle, for example, then (simplifying somewhat) electric scooters, or a particular brand of electric scooter, are either in the R&D, ascent, maturity or decline phase. Well, what is it? Once you have decided what the truth is, you must also decide how to tell your reader about it, and here it is important to keep mind that when you conceptualized your object you activated your reader’s expectations of it. Engineers and entrepreneurs expect totally different things of electric scooters, so when you told your reader to think of them as “innovations” your reader (being familiar with the scholarship on entrepreneurship) immediately expected your analysis to show certain things. And here’s the twist: an analysis is always the artful disappointment of your reader’s expectations of the object. You want to challenge your reader’s expectations; indeed, your reader expects to be disappointed. They want to be challenged to go beyond the terms of the theory they already have. They want to learn something from your analysis that they didn’t already know.

A disappointment, no matter how expected, no matter how accepted, has to have consequences. And your discussion is all about what those consequences are. Since you have now identified an interesting tension between the concepts of your theory and the object of your analysis, the reader will want to know what you are going to do about it, or what you think someone else (perhaps the reader) should do about it. This could involve modifications to the theory, i.e., some tweaking of the concepts that you subsumed the object under in the first place. We might say you merely tried to subsume the object under a concept and you weren’t entirely successful. The concept, it turned out, couldn’t fully capture the nuances of innovation in electric scooters and improvements to the concept must now be made. (Before you assert your humility, remember that these are merely improvements to your understanding of the theory at the level of the course you’re taking.) Conversely, you can insist that there’s nothing wrong with the theory and the failure is all in the object. If an electric scooter lacks the maturity that befits its station on life’s way, let’s say, your advice is that it grow up. You are proposing entirely practical consequences, which will bring the thing you’re studying into alignment with the theory you share with your reader. You are, of course, willing to discuss it.

Obviously, given the terms of the assignment, one solution would be to spend a paragraph doing each of these things, just as I’ve devoted a single paragraph each to the tasks of conceptualizing, analyzing and discussing innovations. But, as I made clear to my students even as I presented this “easy” solution to them, you can get the conceptualization out of the way in two or three sentences in the introduction. This means you’ll be making some serious assumptions about the theoretical competence of your reader but not necessarily unreasonable ones. (I stress again that the reader is an intellectual equal.) You might also leave your discussion entirely to the last three or four sentences of your conclusion, gesturing to implications that your reader, you assume, will understand the significance and relevance of without further elaboration. That leaves you with three paragraphs in the middle to do a detailed analysis of the object, and in some cases that might be the best way to bring about the artful disappointment you seek in the mind of your reader. Or you might come up with some other way to organize your essay. The important thing is to get your reader to expect something, to challenge those expectations, and to talk your way out the trouble you have thereby caused, all within five minutes (1000 words). With the right reader in mind, a few hours spread over a few days is all you need.

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