Some Questions

What is going on in the world that warrants your study?

What is the current consensus or controversy about it in your discipline?

What does your paper tell us about it?

What can be known about it without collecting new data?

What would we have expected of it if we didn’t have your data?

How did you collect your data?

What did you learn from your data?

What are the consequences for theory or practice?

The answers to these simple questions can guide your writing of a paper. In fact, if you give one paragraph to each of the first three, that’s your introduction. The rest of the questions are answered by your background, theory, methods, analysis, and discussion sections, respectively. I’ll write a bit more about this after Easter. But I didn’t want to keep the idea to myself over the long weekend. Comments and questions are welcome.

Normal Science

“Some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
(Blanche Balait, as recorded by Albert Camus)

One of the things you’re supposed to discover about yourself at university is whether or not you’re inclined towards research and, of course, whether you have an aptitude for it. Not everyone is cut out for a professorship, and that’s no shame on anyone. People go through years and years of schooling and then, at some point, many of them leave school to go into business, or politics, or entertainment, or some other racket. It makes sense to have “elite” schools, like Harvard and Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford, where exceptionally high-achieving high-school students go to get a(n even) higher education.

But once there, it would be really surprising if all of them turn out have the intelligence and curiosity to impress “academically” — to become “scientists”. Indeed, it also makes sense to have less elite universities, where people who didn’t do quite as well in high-school can go and, again, try to impress their academic teachers. If the elite schools provide a path for straight-A high school students through an Ivy League BA, to a top law school and into the legal profession, the less elite schools provide a path for a B-student in high school, through a public university, a master’s degree somewhat higher up the ladder and, finally, a PhD at those elite institutions. That’s because what it takes to succeed in academia isn’t exactly the same thing as a what it takes to succeed in high school. Different norms apply.

I’m focusing on academic outcomes here, but they are of course affected by extracurricular distractions. The important thing is to have a system that actually registers the students’ relative success at meeting the specifically academic standard at a particular point of their life path. At some point, the student runs into a limitation. Having received easy As in math all her life, she suddenly finds herself getting Bs in advanced statistics. This should not be a tragedy for her; she’s just learning what she’s good at. Having struggled for his Cs in high school English, he suddenly discovers he’s able to earn As in philosophy. This isn’t an indictment of high-school English. It’s just, again, an exposure to a different set of norms.

What about the curve? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of meaningfully graduating at the “top of your class”, i.e., of letting academic achievement be relative to your cohort, not some Platonic ideal grasp of a subject matter. And most people in most classes really should be satisfied with the Bs and Cs that are available to them after all the well-deserved As have been given out to people with abnormal intelligence or curiosity, and the well-deserved Ds and Fs have been assigned to those who need to find other things to do (or learn to show up to the courses they have enrolled in).

My point is that there are enough different kinds of “normal” out there for everyone to be normal in some ways, exceptional in others. Grading gives students an opportunity to find out exactly where and how they are normal. Sure, some will still make the tragic effort to be normal (or brilliant) in an area they are simply not normal (or brilliant) in. They may be trying to impress their parents, for example, or embarrass them. The truly sad cases, I guess, are those who pretend to be average where they are really brilliant.

We should remember that any effort we make risks being wasted. There should be vast regions of normalcy out there that most people, in most of their activities, can enjoy effortlessly. Being yourself should by and large be easy. Our opposition to “normal distribution” is really a demand for uniqueness. We are asking everyone to be unique in every way. And we then ask our already beleaguered faculty to grade these singularities by way of an assessment of the “whole person”. Can’t we see how impossible we’re making things for ourselves? Just assign those damn 5-paragraph essays, I say. Tell the students there are such things as good and bad writing, greater or lesser ignorance. Then spend the ten or fifteen minutes per paper it will take to distribute their efforts under a normal curve. These “whole people” will be fine knowing only how well they did relative to each other in the art of composing themselves into five, more or less coherent, more or less intelligent, more or less knowledgeable, paragraphs. If they seek you out for more detailed feedback, go ahead; give it to them.

Even the most brilliant people are, for the most part, normal. We have to make that part easy for them so that they can devote their exceptional energies to making the occasional scientific discovery. These days, I fear, our scientists are working way too hard just to be normal — writing grant applications and journal articles, not to mention teaching and examining their students in ever more “progressive” ways. They’re going at it all wrong, in my opinion. It probably started when they were undergraduates.

*This is an edited version of a post I wrote ten years ago at my old blog inspired by a post by Andrew Gelman on grade inflation.

Look and Feel

In the rare moments when I suggest that students think of their readers as examiners (rather than peers), I try to provide them with some quantities to help them reflect on the quality of their prose. A paragraph consists of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words and should take about one minute to read. It occupies roughly half a page and, if you know what you’re talking about, takes about half an hour to write well. When reading over their work, students should therefore ask themselves whether any given page looks and feels like the author devoted about an hour of their best attention to it. If not, there is a very easy fix: take a moment to rewrite each of the paragraphs on the page. The more deliberately you do this, trying your very best to get your ideas across to intelligent, knowledgeable reader, the better the reading experience will be.

I said that the page should “look and feel” like you’ve given it your best attention. That is, I’m thinking of the aesthetic impression your writing makes on your reader. A well-written page should look solid and confident to the eye and should then feel pleasant and generous when being read. Here it may be worth remembering that reading isn’t something you do only with your eyes and your brain. Even when we’re reading silently, we “sound out” the words in our vocal chords. Reading, friends, is something that happens also in the throat. That is why I tell writers to read every paragraph they write out loud as part of the writing moment. It is a way of practicing kindness to your reader, a form of empathy. You’ve have chosen these words explicitly to pass through the mind and body of another human being. Try them out on yours first.

The point I’m trying to make is that reading is not primarily an act of judgment. It is an experience. In school (and in scholarship more generally) we tend to think of our writing as mainly an occasion for criticism. We submit our work and we brace ourselves for the reader’s verdict (whether that is a grade or an editorial decision). But before any critical judgment can be made the text must be read. It must be experienced by another human being who willingly takes the role of a reader, and a reader, too, submits: to the text. The reader consents to dutifully pass each word through their consciousness and make the best possible sense of their order. It is you who decided to put them in that order, you who subjected your reader to your prose. When we talk about being “kind to the reader”, this is what we have in mind.

What does it mean to write well?

When I talk to students and faculty about writing I always presume that they want to improve their ability to write academically. Like all presumptions (e.g., the presumption of innocence), it is not always true,* but it helps us to manage the problem of how to proceed. Presuming a desire to learn is always a good starting point for a teacher and it is only at the end (when the “verdict” is handed down) that the presumption’s truth value might be properly assessed. (Procedurally, the accused has been treated “as if” they were innocent; but that doesn’t mean that we had been assuming this. In a sense, it’s a hypothesis we were testing.) One simple way to find out whether a writer really wants to improve their writing is to ask them whether they ever practice. Do they devote some number of deliberate moments to the problem of becoming a better writer?

This commitment, in turn, has to make sense to the writer. My standard suggestion is to choose something you know to be true and then devote a half hour to writing it down the next day. During that half hour you should pose the writing problem, write some sentences, compose them into a paragraph, and read it out loud. All of these things, including the act of deciding what to write about the day before, are skills that you will become better at through practice. But what does it mean to become “better” at them? How do you know you’re improving as a writer? What does it feel like?

First of all, the work of writing will become easier. As you improve you will find that deciding what to write about, and choosing the right words to express it, is less of a struggle than it once was. Here it is important to confine your writing to matters that you are confident you know something about. If writing is hard because you don’t really know what you’re talking about then you are not giving yourself an opportunity to become a better writer. You are just experiencing your ignorance. To be sure, that’s an important experience too, but it is not a good way to work on your style. In fact, there is a risk that you will develop a style that “works around” the problem of actually knowing what you’re talking about. You will be learning how to pretend to know things in writing. Your writing will become pretentious.

Another way to notice that you’re improving is that your readers will become more interesting to you. Presumably you are interested in your own ideas, and if you’re writing them down more clearly your readers will begin to engage more relevantly with what you think. You’ll notice this in everything from your colleagues when they read your drafts to your end readers when they cite you in their own work. You’ll hopefully also notice this in the quality of your peer reviews, which will increasingly address the real strengths and weaknesses of your arguments, rather than the straw men you have haplessly marshalled in their defense. If you are a student, you will find that you are learning more from your teachers’ feedback and, if you are sharing your writing with peers (as you should), that your conversations outside of class are getting richer and deeper. To experience all of this more intensely, try giving a peer reader a single paragraph of your prose to read out loud to you and comment on while you sit and listen. A good writer is someone who, given twenty-seven minutes, can make another human being interesting for nine.

Finally, you will find that writing becomes more pleasurable as you get better at it. Your running coach and piano teacher, helpful as they might otherwise be, don’t need to tell you that you’re getting into better shape or becoming a better musician if you’re practicing regularly. You can feel this improvement yourself in the pleasure it gives you to engage in the work. The same is true of writing. Of course, you’ll have your ups and down, good days and bad days, but if you think back to how it felt to write a few weeks or months ago, it should be immediately apparent that it’s now a more enjoyable experience. If not, you need to change your approach. Good writers are not people who suffer more profoundly than bad writers when they write. As a scholar or student you will be spending many hours doing it. Don’t get into the the habit of resenting it. Try to find joy in it.

*You might be wondering why people who don’t want to become better writers would be listening to me. My sense is that some people expect me to tell them “the secret” to getting published in a prestigious journal or to getting a good grade. They want a rule to follow, not a discipline to build. I must, of course, disappoint them. As I often say, you’re going to become a better writer, not by believing what I tell you, but by doing as I say.

How? Why? Wha…?

I teach at a business school, so many of my students are practically minded. Their research projects have problem statements like, “How can Xompany, Inc. meet ESG requirements while maintaining longterm growth?” When I talk to them, I sometimes challenge them to tell me what their empirical question is. They say things like, “Why is it hard to increase both shareholder value and ESG ratings?” Is that really an empirical question? I ask. It sounds more like a theoretical one. What is it you don’t know about Xompany that you want to learn with this project? What is it you can’t know until you’ve collected some data and analyzed it? That is your empirical question.

The how-question will be answered in their discussion and the why-question will be framed by their theory. The theory will provide the warrant for their practical recommendations; it will tell us why what they are proposing will work. But the real content of the answer will come from what-questions, which will be answered in the analysis.

This simple heuristic may be another way into the thorny issues of the philosophy of science, which I’m working on very deliberately these days. Empirical research tries to settle questions that are “framed” by concepts (theories) and “driven” by norms (values). But our theories and values can’t interact directly. They must meet on the solid ground of objective fact. Why-questions lead us to formulate explanations. How-questions lead us to formulate recommendations. But what-questions demand that we describe reality as it is, even if that reality puzzles us or thwarts our aims.