Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Showing Up for Practice

I've never really been involved in school sports but I imagine that if you don't show up for practice you risk losing your place on the team. You are expected to say no to things that are also perfectly valuable because you have prioritized the sport. At practice, meanwhile, you do more or less as you're told. Much of it is just physical conditioning (running). Some of it is more technical (making a shot). Some of it teaches you broader strategic competences (how to move on the court). While I'm sure there'll always be some grumbling and belly-aching, and while some coaches are wiser than others in what they put their athletes through, the basic rule is that you show up and do the work. If you don't like it, there are other teams, other sports, even altogether different pursuits.

I think we could vastly improve higher education by insisting that students show up for daily writing practice. For an hour a day, first thing in the morning, students would show up and complete a series of mandatory writing tasks under the "exam conditions" I described yesterday. Many of them would consist simply in writing the best possible paragraph they can in 27 minutes, perhaps given a key sentence by the teacher/coach. Sometimes they'd be given less time to rewrite a paragraph. Sometimes they'd be asked to write a paragraph reflecting on a quotations, perhaps specifically requiring them to quote it or, alternatively, to paraphrase it. They would show up, complete the tasks, submit them, and their work would be quickly checked by a teaching assistant. The teacher would spot-check (perhaps sometimes guided by a concerned TA) and intervene in the writing development of especially weak or especially strong writers, just as a coach on a sports team corrects people who are making mistakes, pushes people who are capable of more, and lets (I'm assuming again) most of the team, most of the time, just go through the motions, which are valuable precisely because they are "exercises". The motion itself develops your talent.

I imagine this idea can be criticized as either an infantilization or a militarization of higher education. In whatever sense this criticism might hit its mark, consider my suggestion a "modest proposal", i.e., a satire of the massification and corporatization of our universities. It's a way of taking the idea that universities should "train" citizens for service to society seriously. I don't deny that at a certain point (and a very extreme one that my proposal doesn't directly imply, I will insist) such training is merely indoctrination, a preparation for a life in servitude. The same critique can be made of sports teams and scout troops at all levels. Ideally, university students would cultivate their own exquisite solitude, requiring merely a gentle, mentoring hand from their teachers and a context for ongoing conversation (a classroom). They would not need to be forced to sit down and struggle with their writing. A university education would be reserved for people with an intrinsic desire for knowledge, and it would be of no use to people who lack the curiosity and drive required. But that is not the reality; universities have become an obligatory passage point for the pursuit of a wide variety of professions, not all of which actually demand "academic" skills, but all which, for some reason, would prefer to employ people who have demonstrated a modicum of such competence.

So I'm not actually being ironic at all. In the early days of the universities students would sit in lecture halls and be read to by, yes, "readers" (lecturers) and their main job was to write down what was said. This is how books were made before the printing press. But it is also how a particular kind of mind, and a particular kind of mentality, was formed. It may, indeed, be how the peculiar inwardness of literary pleasure was originally invented. Maybe it's not for everyone. But surely there is nothing wrong with maintaining an institution that cultivates it? My proposal is just a way of introducing a bit of realism into the way we approach writing at universities. Surely, your performance as a student must demonstrate "academic" ability even if you have no desire to be a professor, just as your performance on the varsity basketball team must be "athletic" even if you have no long-term professional ambitions. Just as in sports, you'll have people coming out of this with a "merely" solid set of skills and their prose in "merely" good shape. But you are also providing a place for people of exceptional talent to excel, again just as in sports, eventually to pursue careers as professional writers, scholars, intellectuals.

P.S. I didn't do sports in school, but I was in the band for a while. Not only did we have band practice, we were also expected to practice at home. It's just so obvious in the case of music and sports! Why is it so hard to approach writing the same way?

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Some Thoughts on Examination

If someone is learning how to play an instrument or how to draw, there is a straightforward way of testing them. You give them an object (some sheet music or a model) and ask them to represent it (to play it or draw it). The result may not be the most artistically interesting performance, but it will demonstrate a level of skill under the circumstances. You put something in front of them that you expect them to be able to represent (through a performance of the ability you've been trying to teach them) and then you watch them do it. Sending them home, and then letting them return with a finished drawing or a recording after, say, a week, would sort of miss the point. We now have to trust that it was in fact the student who produced the representation. And we wouldn't know under exactly what conditions it was produced in any case. There are too many ways of cheating if the process is kept out of sight.

I've been thinking about how this model might be applied in more bookish subjects. Wouldn't it be possible to examine the students' mastery of a sociological theory, or a historical period, or a literary corpus, by sitting them down in front of a computer for four hours with the task of writing, say, 8 individual paragraphs 27 minutes at a time? Or perhaps give them only 5 paragraphs to write. The first half hour is spent planning out their essay. They then submit one paragraph every half hour. Finally, they are given an hour to revise all five. They can be graded on both the individual paragraphs and the full composition, each of which shows something in particular.

By limiting the resources they can bring with them to the exam (a small set of paper books for example) it would be very easy to detect patchwriting and plagiarism. Their essays could be automatically run through a plagiarism checker comparing them against exactly the books they were allowed to bring with them. This would allow us to make an important concession to proponents of patchwriting: it would now be possible to stop treating it as a "crime". Even plagiarism could be treated simply as a poor scholarship. If you submit five paragraphs that are simply transcribed from the books you were allowed to bring with you, you don't get kicked out of school but you do get an F. Just as a pianist would if she didn't play the piece she had been assigned but openly played a CD of Glenn Gould's performance instead.

If this set-up were implemented, there would be absolutely no ambiguity about what they had learned to do during the semester. And it would be obvious to the students what they have to become good at. Now, you can give them all kinds of more "interesting" assignments throughout the year, and you can give them as much feedback on them as you like, including an indication of the sort grade they might receive ... if it counted. But this will work best if you don't let course work during the term contribute to the grade. It's just practice, training. You tell them how well they're doing, but you only, finally, judge their performance at the end.

Let's construct an easy example. Imagine a one-semester course on three of Shakespeare's tragedies: Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. The students are to bring the text of each play, and the collection of essays (perhaps a casebook) that was assigned in the course. At the start of the exam they are given a recognisable question, perhaps not quite as familiar (from the lectures) as "Why didn't Hamlet kill Claudius immediately?" but something like that—a question that reveals ignorance it it's relevance is not immediately apparent to them. It's the sort of question that after a semester of Shakespearean tragedy they should have a good answer to. Not something they're supposed to be able to come up with an answer to, but actually have one for going into the examination. For each play, in the context of its particular set of interpretations (in the casebook), there will many different possible questions. The trick is that they don't know exactly what will be asked of them, nor of which play. All they can do to prepare is to understand the play and its interpretations. And

they can get their prose in shape. They know they will need to quickly and efficiently (in thirty minutes) plan out a five-paragraph essay. They will then have to compose five paragraphs in a row, a half hour at a time. (I've discussed the technical issues with the IT department at my university and it would be a simple matter to set up a computerised exam like this.) Then they'd have an hour to polish it. Students who are capable of a such a performance have acquired not just valuable knowledge about Shakespeare's tragedies, but also a set of writing skills that will serve them (if they keep them in shape) for the rest of their lives.

And such assignments would be easy to grade. You would be able to determine at a glance what the students are capable of, and how well they understand the play. As, Bs, Cs, and Ds would be very easy to assign. Fs would result from radically incomplete or ignorant attempts, or, like I say, plagiarism. In four hours a student would have been able to provide a completely unambiguous demonstration of their understanding of the course material. And given only a few minutes per assignment (time could be saved by grading one of out of the five paragraphs at random + the whole composition), a teacher would not only be able to painlessly complete the grading, but also get a good sense of how effective they are as teachers.

I'd love to hear what readers of this blog think of this idea. I really think this is how we should do things.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Writing for Publication vs. Writing as Inquiry

A recent comment to an older post asks a question I get very often and I think the answer is worth a post of its own. In "What to Do", I suggest a series of activities to keep you busy for 27-minutes, working on a single paragraph that says one well-defined thing (offering support for it or an elaboration of it). In the comments, Fides writes:

There's a big assumption in this - that you already know *exactly* what you know and what you want to say. Maybe in scientific disciplines that is the case... but that's not generalisable to *all* academic disciplines, in my experience. See for example Daniel Doherty's "writing as inquiry" - writing can also be a process of clarification. Your guidelines seem to assume that that process has already taken place - correct me if I'm wrong.

What Fides says is both entirely correct and a misunderstanding (a very common one, like I say) of what I'm suggesting. There is, of course, a kind of writing that constitutes inquiry. Scholars often find out what they really think about a subject by sitting down to write about it. Sometimes scholars conduct such inquiry very intentionally; they sit down with only a vague idea of what they're going to say and start "free writing" whatever comes into their head.

In addition to that kind of writing, however, there is a kind of writing that consists simply in writing down what you know. To practice (in both senses)* this kind of writing, you don't need to know exactly what you know, nor even exactly what you want to say, you just have to decide what you want to try for twenty-seven minutes to say in a single paragraph. I'm not saying there aren't any other kinds of writing. I'm drawing attention to a kind of writing that is, all too often, neglected, and which many writers would do well to work at a bit more deliberately. It is true that this kind of writing depends on the truth of the (second) assumption Fides asks about: that a "process [of clarification] has already taken place". But please grant that most of the knowledge you have has already passed through this process. Please grant that you are in possession of a great many justified, true beliefs in your area of expertise that are clear enough to you to write a single deliberate paragraph about if given twenty-seven minutes. It's the the ability to write those paragraphs, not the inquiry that provides their content, that I'm talking about.

Now, sometimes the line between "writing for publication" and "writing as inquiry" is blurred. Notice, however, that it can be blurred either intentionally or in the act. Sometimes, we sit down to free write and are surprised by how easily we end up producing perfectly publishable prose. Here, I would argue that we merely become aware that the "process of clarification" has already happened, even if we somehow missed it. (It may have happened while we slept, or during a conversation the importance of which we hadn't noticed until now.) Sometimes, we sit down to work on an article and are frustrated by how difficult it is to say what we thought we had already understood. Here the process of clarification had been assumed, but mistakenly so, and we will have to go back and do some more thinking, reading, talking, etc. In both cases, however, we have a definite intention that defines what kind of writing we're trying to do. And we simply find ourselves doing a different kind of writing, by accident. The trick is to minimise the frequency of this sort of event. Don't valorise it as what all writing is all about.

Writing shouldn't always be an unpredictable adventure into the unknown. It will, unpredictably, be this some of the time; but [to the extent that this happens] your writing process and research process [become] just that: unpredictable. By conflating "writing as inquiry" with "writing for publication" you are likely to undermine both processes. You are trying to accomplish with a file what should be done with a saw, or vice versa. This is true in all areas of inquiry. There is no academic discipline in which all writing is always also inquiry, though there are many scholars who have been made unhappy by thinking so.

___________
*I.e., in the both in sense of doing it in a regular, orderly fashion, and in the sense of doing it for sake of improving your ability to do it.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Patchese

One thing that always makes me cringe when reading student papers is when they use my words, taking them from something I've written or something I've said in a lecture, but clearly don't understand what I meant, and so either turn it into a cliche or into nonsense. There's an implicit accusation in such "pastiche" (which, let's remember is supposed be a kind of homage), namely, "You told me to write like this! If you don't like it, blame yourself." This is true even at the formal level, of course, when a paper follows my guidelines to the letter and yet completely violates their spirit. The problem is that the student has tried to obey me, not understand me. Though I think it's rarely intended like this, it sometimes comes off as sarcasm.

In most cases, such students are doing what Rebecca Howard calls "patchwriting", something I've been talking about for a while now, even when I seem to be talking about something else. I'm trying to get clear about why I think it is wrong, and why I think it is poor advice, both for young writers and for their writing instructors, to allow it in the composition classroom. It should also be disallowed in the scholarly literature, of course, though I've come to see that this does not go without saying. I've heard people openly defend their borderline plagiarism as patchwriting.

I think that my disagreement with Howard is quite fundamental. It is about the very nature of language and writing. Inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein and William Carlos Williams, I believe that language is the means by which we articulate our imagination, literally the means by which we join images to each other, the means by which we compose ourselves. In writing, this can be done very precisely, or rather, by writing we can make ourselves more precise, more articulate, even when speaking. "We make ourselves pictures of the facts," says Wittgenstein; that is, we imagine them. In Spring and All Williams correctly notes the profound importance of this process:

Sometimes I speak of imagination as a force, an electricity or a medium, a place. It is immaterial which: for whether it is the condition of a place or a dynamization its effect is the same: to free the world of fact from the impositions 'art' ... and to liberate the man to act in whatever direction his disposition leads.

His friend, Ezra Pound, made a similar point in his ABC of Reading, though with a focus of the polity not the individual:

Your legislator can't legislate for the public good, your commander can't command, your populace (if you be a democratic country) can't instruct its 'representatives', save by language.

In other words, language serves an important representational function, and what you want to be able to represent are the facts you know and the acts your master. You can't do this directly, however. Your language is not directly connected to either the facts of the world or the acts of history. What you represent in your words is, first of all, your imagination. You have to learn to speak your mind.

Patchwriters see language more in terms of performance than in terms of representation. Susan Blum has very good way of putting this, albeit one that I find disturbing in its implications. We can approach our students either as "authentic selves" or as "performance selves". That is, we can ask them to represent their own ideas, the ideas they "own", however inchoate, in their speech and writing, or we can ask them merely to perform for us, to use language in appropriate ways under appropriate circumstances. I suppose there's a middle ground, which is actually closer to my veiw, where we ask students to perform their ability to articulate their ideas, but Howard and Blum seem to be asking us to accept that students aren't even trying to be themselves, and while they are no doubt as interested in "power" as people have always been, they don't desire the "authority" that we old-school traditionalists once believed is the legitimate basis of power. So instead of helping them to discipline their imaginations in a way that also frees them to act in accordance with their dispositions, Howard and Blum, and the composition instructors that find their approach compelling, are encouraging students merely to channel power through language, to speak as they are told to speak, not to say what they think.

Using language in this way will, I fear, change it beyond recognition. Let's call the result "patchese". It will be full of what Sarah Palin once called "verbage", of which James Wood rightly noted: "It would be hard to find a better example of the ... disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Ambivalence in Scholarship

As a writing coach, my job is to help people establish and maintain a process that reliably produces publishable prose, and the authors I work with are famously at risk of "perishing" professionally if they don't succeed. In that sense, I guess I'm helping them to manage a "high-reliability organization", namely, their own writing process, which is in an important sense an "existential" issue for them. I encourage them to face the problem resolutely and unsentimentally, to establish dependable, predictable routines, to reduce the complexity of the problem to a level that is manageable from day to day, and to ensure that they plan their tasks so that they complement each other. I have even been known to suggest that authors cultivate a kind of zen-like "mindfulness" about their writing.

I was therefore a bit disconcerted to read the recommendations of four sensemaking scholars—Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick (2014)—to the effect that mindfulness in high-reliability organizations depends on avoiding "routinization" and on "designing jobs in complex and contradictory ways" with the aim of fostering "emotional ambivalence". It seems like the opposite of what I recommend. So, either I am wrong about how to organize the writing process, or I am wrong to think of scholarship on the model of a high-reliablity organization, or they are wrong about the value of emotional ambivalence. I lean towards to the latter.

But in regard to the question of whether scholars can learn from hospital administrators or flight controllers or, say, wildland firefighters, it is important to note that this is not an analogy I've invented. In an influential paper from 1996, Karl Weick suggested that, since firefighters sometimes die because they "drop their tools" too late when running away from a fire, scholars should also unburden themselves of their rigor in order to remain agile in the face of a rapidly changing world. (I should note here that Weick sometimes reaches the opposite conclusion, saying how important it is to hang onto your tools in order to maintain a sense of purpose.) On the face of it, I also think universities should feel beholden to high standards of reliability, even if failure is less dramatic than in the case of a nuclear power plant or a taxiing 747.

Yesterday, I pointed out that many academics, consciously or not, justifiably or not, actually feel abused by their administrators, who might precisely be said to foster, or appear to foster, a high degree of emotional ambivalence in the faculty. I think Andrew Gelman put his finger on something important in the Whitaker plagiarism case at Arizona State University by emphasizing, in the ASU website's description of President Michael Crow, the conflict between "academic excellence" and "societal impact". (Andrew, however, didn't quite share my sense of the tension between these two values in general. See the comments.) In my view, we can openly acknowledge the trade-off, and this involves no ambivalence at all. What Vogus, Rothman, Sutcliffe and Weick might be suggesting in such cases is precisely what ASU is doing, namely, "equivocating" (another favored term in sensemaking scholarship). Instead of saying, "Yes, Whitaker's work is academically shoddy, but we're weighing this against his strong commitment to social issues," the administration's line seems to be that Whitaker, in some vague and unspecified sense, "combines the highest levels of academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact."

On a practical, day-to-day level, Whitaker's own actions might have been motivated by his attempt to think, as Vogus et al. suggest, in a "prosocial" way in the context of a job that has been explicitly designed to be both "complex" and "contradictory". As a result, his work (like Weick's, not incidentally) has come to be marred by plagiarism. I really do hope that hospitals and fire departments don't swallow this message too uncritically, though I'm afraid there is some evidence that the value of ambivalence is touted in all kinds of contexts. If you ask me, this is not a very "mindful" way to do your writing. And there is, unfortunately, also evidence that the writing processes of sensemaking scholars are ambivalent in precisely this way, and that brings us back to the problem of "patchwriting", which I'll take up in the posts to come.