Friday, April 08, 2011

Consensus and Controversy

This week I've been working with the library, teaching undergraduates how to read and write. I emphasize the "craft" dimension of research and the "conversational" nature of academic writing. The aim is to get them to appreciate what it means to construct an argument. Some students are a bit taken aback by this focus on the rhetoric of academic writing. They had thought that it was all about facts and logic. Or they had hoped that's what it was all about.

One student, who had come from an engineering background, expressed his distaste for social science writing. It seemed to be all smoke and mirrors to him. He was compelled to bring this up precisely because I was encouraging them to notice the rhetorical conventions of the texts they are writing. Does one speak respectfully or disparagingly of Karl Marx, for example? Are qualitative methods approved of, merely tolerated, or outright banished? The idea that if one doesn't like the answers to these questions one can simply find a conversation where they are answered differently is, quite understandably, a bit disconcerting to some students, who may have thought they were going to school to learn the truth about their chosen subject.

It turns out that they are learning "merely" how to converse intelligently about their chosen subject. And this means that they have to spend as much time familiarizing themselves with the participants in the conversation as they do learning factual information. They have to know not just what they are saying, and why what they are saying is true; they also have to know what effect their words will have on their readers. Will their readers largely agree with what they are saying? Or will their readers take issue with what they are saying? Are they building on consensus? Or are they occasioning controversy?

As I often emphasize here at RSL, students learning a subject are learning how to write a series of coherent prose paragraphs about it. But there is no absolute standard of coherence, no sense in which a paragraph simply does or does not hold together. This would be like talking about the load-bearing capacity of a bridge in absolute terms, when the question, obviously, is always whether the structure holds under the weight it has been designed to carry. Likewise, a paragraph must be designed to cohere under the reading of a particular audience, which will bring particular questions to the text that are based on a particular body of knowledge.

So this issue can be raised at the level of each paragraph. A twenty-page paper will consist of maybe thirty paragraphs, thirty little rhetorical occasions where you can ask yourself, "Am I building on a consensus here? Or am I getting involved in a controversy?" How the paragraph is structured will depend on how you answer that question. And how you answer that question is dependent less on the claim you are making, which may be controversial in one field and not in another, than who your readers are. Here, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, knowing who you are writing for is knowing how to write.

This is really the lesson that I'm trying to teach. While it is true that you are becoming more knowledgeable in school, you are learning mainly something that other people already know. That means that as your knowledge grows so too does your awareness of a shared body of expert opinion. You are entering a field of scholarship that is supported by a great deal of consensus and marked by distinctive controversies. You are learning how to "hold your own" in that field, by which we might mean simply "hold your own opinions". Knowing is having the right to an opinion. You earn that right through study—and not just study of the facts, but of the arguments that are currently being had about them.

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