Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writers, Facts, and Readers

Under what conditions can you speak for the facts? Well, it seems reasonable to demand that you have some knowledge of "the facts" in question and that you are a competent user of whatever language you propose to speak of them in. In my work, I generally assume that my authors know what they are talking about and that my job is to help them to develop their linguistic competence, their style. What, then, is it about a sentence, or a paragraph, or a journal article, that makes it able to represent facts in the world?*

In my last post, I suggested that time and space are essential conditions. That's a very "transcendental" (in the Kantian sense) way of putting it, and may not be immediately useful. It would be better to say that a text needs a particular time and a particular space in which to represent facts. Moreover, it is ultimately not the text itself that represents the facts but the writing and reading of the text that does. The text must be used in a particular way (at a particular time in a particular space) in order to be relevantly "about" the facts in question.

Because the text must be written and read to represent facts if it is to have any chance of doing so at all, there is some reason to think that facts are "socially constructed". Representations of facts certainly are. The most common way of talking about this today is probably to say that facts emerge in "discourse"; they exist in exchanges between speakers. The essential thing about a fact is not so much that statements about them may be true or false (though I'm generally sympathetic to this idea) but rather that such statements may be questioned. They are the proper subjects of discussion.

Factual claims have lost some of their currency in these deconstructive times, but I think somewhat unfairly. People who invoke facts (people who tell you what the facts "are") are sometimes dismissed as arrogant, or at least a little presumptuous. Who are they to make such "pronouncements"? it is sometimes asked. (I heard a version of this argument at a keynote lecture at a recent conference.) But this dismissive attitude is actually a failure to hold up the other end of a conversation that the speaker (of factual "truth") is proposing. A "proposition" is always a proposed topic of discussion: it says "Here's what I think," and always implies the question, "What do you think?"

Facts are things we talk about in particular ways at particular times to particular ends. It is not silly or presumptuous to propose to have such conversations. So, in developing the style of your factual writing, think about the conversation you are implicitly proposing to have with your readers. Don't imagine that they will believe every word you say just because you have chosen to speak in declarative sentences. And, as a reader of such sentences, don't just refuse to believe them, as if that's all the writer wants you to do. Hold up your end.

*As Bertrand Russell pointed out in his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, this "logical" question was its central concern. I have always admired the directness with which he addressed this question.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Writers and Facts

At the summer house I dipped into Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Asked to speak on the subject of "women and fiction", she offered the attractively simple idea that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". It made me think about what one might say about the connection between writers more generally and facts.

I've written about the importance of facts in academic writing before. Facts are not all there is to academic writing (academic writing is about more than just the facts), but how you deal with factual material does a lot to determine the cut of your style. Woolf's neat little formula (writing requires money and a room) must be elaborated a little to fit scholarly writing, however, because it is precisely fiction that can emerge from only a modicum of freedom from economic worries and a sequestered space in which to work in peace. Academic writers need these conditions as well, but they must also be situated, socially and materially, in a way that gives them access to the facts.

It should be said that Woolf does note that women, at least in her day, faced specific barriers to accessing the social experiences that could inform their writing. She typified these barriers in crisp descriptions of a "fictional" academic environment, in fact—a place she called "Oxbridge".

I may return to that strange place in a later post. My aim here is simply to note that, for our purposes, the monetary component of Woolf's formula for a writing environment must be translated into the funding conditions that secure the scholar the necessary time to write, while the "room of one's own" can stand for the physical infrastructure of a university department or research institute, a space for scholarship. ("Independent scholars" of course exist, but their success depends on simulating these conditions by other means.) Not incidentally, Kant defined time and space as the transcendental forms of all appearances, and it is through appearances that facts become known to us.

An important part of your academic training ("schooling"), then, is to situate yourself in time and space, with plenty of money and plenty of room, to discover and understand "the facts", and to retain your knowledge of them. This relationship that you must establish to a particular set of facts (those pertaining to your research area) is, of course, supported by your writing process. And over the next few posts I want to consider some of the ways in which your writing process fosters a constructive relation to the facts your research is, at least ostensibly, about.

Friday, July 03, 2009

And the Living Is Easy

Jonathan Mayhew has one of the healthiest academic attitudes I know of. In a recent post he made a point of provoking those who think professors don't work hard enough:

I got this idea while mowing the lawn this morning. I say this because of the idea that a lot of hostility to professors comes from the [fact that] we can mow our lawns any day of the week. I.e.: we don't do enough work.

This offers me a great opportunity to propose that you all relax this summer. Enjoy the life of the mind. Allowing for an enjoyable but altogether intellectual summer is one of the main reasons for my sixteen week program. I use a not-quite-arbitrary calender to set an annual rhythm and here's how I imagine my life if I ever return to a proper research position.

Starting in late January or early February I commit myself to eight weeks of stuctured work, with well-defined writing and teaching goals. I then take a week off for Easter. I return to do another eight weeks of structured work, and then there's the summer. Starting in mid-August, I get back to work for eight weeks, take a week off for the fall break, and then work another eight intense weeks until Christmas.

There are 52 weeks in a year. 32 of them, then, are spent immersed in "intense" periods of work. Much of the intensity comes from devoting a significant amount of time to research and writing while meeting my teaching obligations. Now, I only have about 6 weeks of vacation. So there are (do the math) 14 weeks to do "unstructured" work, generally free of teaching responsibilities (except exams). Some of that is spent at conferences. The rest is spent satisfying my curiosity and playing around with inchoate ideas. I don't worry too much about what I'm getting done or when I'm working during this time; there are those 32 weeks of actually "performing" to do that.

This image appeals to me. But it is realistic only if one has a great deal of discipline. Academia is not an easy business, but, given the right attidude, it offers the possibility of a pretty good way of life. Keep in mind that the last thing a scholar and teacher should submit to is so-called "soul-destroying labour". Don't let them guilt you into a "work ethic" that will fry your brain and make you, ultimately, less knowledgeable about your area of expertise. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind in good working order, whatever you need to do to retain the knowledge that you represent on your campus.

Teach your classes and publish your papers and let them howl about how you get your ideas while walking around in your garden in floral-patterned shorts with a cocktail in your hand. It's none of their business. You know what your mind needs to stay in shape.