Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Build for It

Jonathan has raised two related issues this week: one about the idea of a "natural talent" for writing and one about your image of yourself as a writer. The first post, especially, reminded me of a passage in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. It's the scene where Holden Caulfield's roommate, Stradlater, asks him to write his English composition for him. He'd be free to write anything he wanted, "just as a long as it's descriptive as hell", and just as long as he doesn't put commas all in the right place because that would be a dead giveaway that Stradlater hadn't done the assignment himself.

That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place. He was a little bit like Ackley, that way. I once sat next to Ackley at this basketball game. We had a terrific guy on the team, Howie Coyle, that could sink them from the middle of the floor, without even touching the backboard or anything. Ackley kept saying, the whole goddam game, that Coyle had a perfect build for basketball. God, how I hate that stuff.

Stradlater doesn't know what it takes to be a good writer, just as a Ackley doesn't know what makes a good basketball player. It's not, of course, that your build or where you put the commas is completely unimportant, it's just that by reducing the question to these things, we miss the essential thing: practice. Writers gain mastery of the craft by continuous practice. They may start with some natural disposition to become writers, but they have to develop that talent in the usual way.

Caulfield hates the way Stradlater and Ackley talk about the talent of others because it's a way of trivializing it. It is a way of not really being impressed. (It's also represented by Stradlater's yawn while while he asks Caulfield for this favor. Stradlater is saying that Caulfield should do it for him because, for reasons entirely beyond their combined control, Caulfield can write and Stradlater cannot. From each according to his ability, we might say, to each according to their need.) And if you're not really impressed by people who can write—if you don't appreciate their efforts to develop their talent—then you're not going to make an effort to emulate them in your own writing. You won't look to them as models.

When I teach writing, I try not to introduce rules and criteria. Instead, I introduce forms. That is, I try to show writers what the different parts of a paper are for, and then I tell them to practice getting their sentences to work together to accomplish those goals. (I give them the that/which distinction not as a rule of grammar but as a way of deciding whether you are restricting the meaning of a term or not.) I also normally always give students something that they'll learn (only) by doing for twenty minutes or half an hour. One of the problems with an image of a oneself as a non-writer grounded in the belief that one "doesn't know where the commas go" is that it suggests that your writing is held back by a lack of knowledge about writing. It's usually not. It's held back by a lack of writing. The relevant "build" emerges from your training.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Prose Experience

Last week was very busy for me. I had been invited to Barcelona and Budapest to talk about various aspects of the writing process. In between, I spent two days here in Copenhagen talking about the new Carnegie Foundation report about "liberal learning" in business education. Bill Sullivan, one of the report's authors, made an interesting comment at the end of the first day. He cited the widely discussed study of critical thinking and analytical reasoning among undergraduates by Arum and Roksa. That study found that students develop these abilities only in programs that demand a significant amount of reading and writing. That is, our ability to think depends on our degree of engagement with prose.

Well, in my talks at ESADE and Corvinus I was telling researchers and PhD students how to keep their prose "in shape". In fact, the difficulty that researchers have finding time to read and write is distressing in the light of Arum and Roksa's study. If students need to read and write in order to improve their intellectual capacities, then it is highly likely that the rest of us must read and write in order to maintain them. If students must make reading and writing part of their learning, then scholars must make it part of their knowing. Like musicians and athletes (a comparison I never tire of making), scholars cannot expect to perform well if they don't work at their talent every day. In an important sense, scholars who haven't been writing for a few months simply don't know what they are talking about.

I should admit, at this point, that I've been neglecting my own prose for some time. My reasons are the usual ones: I've had other things to think about. But I'm going to have to get back to writing every day (not just blogging twice a week) if I'm to keep my wits about me. Lately, I really have been feeling distracted, and that feeling is nothing other than a lack of prose in my life. A mind that is continuously informing itself by reading well-formed paragraphs and expressing itself in likewise well-formed paragraphs is maintaining a kind of "rigor". That's what Arum and Roksa call it, but I like to think of it as "grace", i.e., the precision that comes from strength—from being much stronger than a given task requires, from not always working at the outer limits of your abilities.

I tell researchers to master the time and space of their writing. I tell them to think of the text they are writing as an object with 40 parts distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections. This is the space in which they work, and it is, importantly, an orderly space in which 40 discrete claims can be supported. Likewise, I ask them to think of their time in 16-week periods of structured work, writing every day, but for no more than 3 hours. The rest of the day can be spent engaged in other activities, including, of course, reading.

Kant was probably right that without time and space we wouldn't experience anything at all. Bergson was right to say that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once, and space, I like to add, is what keeps everything from piling up in the same place. A continuous engagement with prose, then, is a particular way of ordering experience. It is, in many ways, what university is all about (as the Arum and Roksa study shows). Unfortunately, scholars increasingly find themselves with "no time" to read and write—and no place to do it. I worry a great deal about this situation, I must say. We have forgotten the value of maintaining a group of people in society, namely, scholars, whose primary activity is to read and write prose. We need some people to keep their prose strong.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hope, an epigram

Here's another sentence that google gives me reason to think I just coined:

If there's any hope, it lies in the prose.

It's a variation on Orwell's (Winston Smith's) famous remark about the proles, of course. And I really have a hard time believing that no one out there has punned it before.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weekend Clip

I've been wanting to post something on weekends as well. Here's the sort of thing I'm thinking about. I'd like to just post this sort of thing without comment. Watch it with the implicit question: What does this have to do with academic writing? (This one's kind of a no brainer.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

RSL on Tour

Next week, I won't be blogging on the regular schedule because I'm travelling. On Sunday, I leave for Barcelona to run a couple of workshops for PhD students at the ESADE Business School. I return Wednesday, and will be spending the following two days here in Copenhagen at a round table on the recently proposed "liberal learning" model of business of education. Then I fly to Budapest to do a one-day seminar and workshop on Writing Process Reengineering at Corvinus University on Saturday. I'll be back at the regular blogging on Tuesday, October 25. But the following week, November 3, I'll be in Bristol at the University of the West of England. It feels a bit like a European tour.

I'm looking to forward to meeting a lot of new people and to testing my "product". In the new year, I'll begin my freelance career as a writing consultant, and I hope that the majority of the work will consist of doing seminars and workshops like these, as well as advising administrators (including department heads) on how to organize productive writing environments. I will also, no doubt, continue to offer individual coaching and editorial assistance here in Copenhagen. A number of my current authors have expressed interest in continuing the relationship, and that is still something that gives me a great deal of satisfation to do (though it's relatively time consuming). But I'm also very interested in building a network of institutions, especially in Europe, around the concepts of Research as a Second Language and Writing Process Reengineering. I think "discursive impact", for example, ought to be an explicit part of any research strategy, whether at the individual, departmental, university or national level. Even the EU, to my mind, should be thinking about it.

I'm willing to help in whatever way I can.

One simple thing I can do is to share my experiences as a resident writing consultant, presented in the form of a proposal for how to reengineer your writing process, individually and collectively. The one-day workshop I'll be doing in Budapest and Bristol deals with the problem of managing the writing process and developing the written product. It is a workshop in four parts:

1. Research as a Second Language. Even researchers who have English as their native language find themselves struggling with the idiom of their chosen field. In this introductory lecture, I define academic writing both in terms of the knowledge it communicates and the conversation that it informs. I argue that your prose style is a crucial part of your skill set as a scholar. The challenge is simply to become an articulate member of your scholarly community.

2. Discursive Impact. Your ability to speak and write knowledgeably is conditioned by the "discursive formation" or "disciplinary matrix" in which you participate. I talk to participants about how the exemplary work that has already been done in their traditions can be used to inform their own efforts to write more effectively. I show participants how to use our growing knowledge of citation networks to give their writing the impact it deserves.

3. Time Management. One of the most common explanations scholars give for not writing is that there is no time to do so. I try to dismantle some common myths about the time that is required to write effectively and provide a number of simple tools to help participants secure the time they need to work. These tools can be used by individuals, but can benefit greatly from a supportive collegial environment.

4. Space Management. The "space" for writing must be thought of both physically and conceptually. It is important to structure both the environment in which writing goes on (i.e., that it be sequestered enough from everything else that is going on at the same time) and the manuscript that is being developed. If you begin with a blank page in an open space you are not likely to work effectively. I show participants how to get organized to avoid this problem.

This is familiar stuff to readers of this blog. (New readers who want to get a sense of what I'm about might read my sketch of the book I'm working on.) If you want to experience me live, then, you now have a simple way of making it happen. My standard fee is 1000€ per day, plus expenses, to hold the workshop. Participants are expected to do a little bit of work in advance to prepare (I have a form for them to fill out). Contact me by email at tbasboll at gmail dot com.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teacher or Coach?

Reading Atul Gawande's recent in piece in The New Yorker got me thinking about whether I'm primarily a teacher of writing or a coach. And it got me thinking about which of these labels I prefer. I've been aware of the distinction for some time—ever since I noticed the difference between how my children learn at school and how they learn at sports. The difference is getting muddled, however, as teachers are increasingly expected to function as coaches.

There's a video of Gawande's talk at the New Yorker Festival at Fora TV. Here he talks about the passage from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence through the stages of concious incompetence and conscious competence. Now, in my view, both teachers and coaches facilitate this passage, but they begin and end their involvement at different points.

Part of the teacher's job is to make you conscious of your incompetence.* This is much more necessary than it might sound, and in two senses. It is necessary in the sense that you can't really get around it given the way the classroom situation is set up: attendance is mandatory; the class itself is simply part of a curriculum. The student often shows up without any awareness of their incompetence and often only a vague interest in the subject matter. It is also necessary in the other sense that there are many things we must learn that we will not learn if we are not made aware of our ignorance. These are competences that our culture requires of us, but which we do not immediately possess and don't naturally feel we need. Teachers give us those competences.

But because of the structure of education into courses, the teacher's final task is often the exam, which is to say, a highly conscious moment. The students end their involvement with their teacher acutely aware of what they learned (hopefully not just what they don't know) mainly because they have just been graded. That is, teachers start with the unconscious incompetence of students and try to bring them to the stage of conscious competence.

Coaches, meanwhile, start with (let's call them) aspirants who are normally very conscious of their incompetence. Gawande himself, for example, sought out a coach after eight years of practice as a surgeon because he noticed he was no longer improving. These are people who not only want to get better, they know what they want to get better at. But the coach works with them continuously, so that the skills they learn pass into the unconscious on a running basis. The coach does not subject the aspirant to an exam. That is, coaches start with conscious incompetence and stays with it until it is unconscious.

Another important difference between coaching and teaching, to my mind, is that coaches deal directly with the relevant competence in its performance. Teachers assign homework and check whether or not its been done. The teachers themselves "perform" in front the students with the aim of transfering something to them. But the coach simply watches and suggests alternative and exercises.

I would much prefer to be a writing coach than a writing teacher. Sometimes, however, my job really is to teach writing. That is, I show up in the classroom with the task of showing students what competences they lack. And I leave the students after I've given and graded an exam. Fortunately, there are many writers I work with in a manner that better resembles coaching. I give them things to do. I observe the results and suggests ways of doing it better. And I only get a sense of their competence by watching (or hearing about) their performance. (PhD students for example tell me what their committee thought about their writing. Scholars show me the reviews they got back from the journal.)

I have a feeling that under the many complicated reasons that lay behind my decision not to return to academia (a suitable position recently opened up, which I didn't apply for) this difference between being a teacher and a coach is important. Teachers are bound to teach even students who don't want to learn; one of the most noble things a teacher can do is to "awaken" the interest of a student in a subject that the culture values. Coaches have the luxury of being sought out by people who aspire to a competence, i.e., who are already interested in the relevant art. I respect what teachers do, of course, but I'm not sure it's my thing. Teachers are authorities in one way, coaches in another. Socrates, like all the other sophists, I might argue, was not so much a teacher as a coach. His student, Plato, founded the Academy.

*I mean this in a somewhat different sense than Gawande, I should note. He constructs the contrast between the "teaching model" and the "coaching model" differently. More later, perhaps.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Professorial Writers

"A writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does," said Hemingway (Conversations, p. 46). His solution, as I noted in my last post, was to put some physical distance between himself and his potential visitors. The ultimate "threat" from which the writer needs to be "protected" is, of course, not friendship, but distraction. Hemingway welcomed distractions (and accordingly had to "enforce" his discipline) precisely because they came in the form of his friends. Academic writers, however, sometimes seem to welcome distractions for their own sake. That is, they gladly let their work be interrupted, or certainly allow it as a matter of course.

In a sense, professors need to protect their writing process from precisely the "office organization" that Hemingway said litarary writers don't have. Academics are not just professional writers, they are also professional researchers, teachers and administrators. Hemingway only had to live and write. Professors have to organize their work into smaller compartments and then also, of course, find time to live. And that life, in turn, is not what they write about. Here it is important to keep in mind that they do in fact have an office, and an organization around it.

First, there is the familiar concept of "office hours". Professors can limit their time with students to the classroom and a few hours a week, during which they are available to answer questions and offer advice. Similarly, the administrative work they do can be given a particular amount of time each week, usually centred around preparations for meetings with colleagues and university officials. Their research, too, whether it consists of reading books or conducting field work, can be confined to particular times of the day, though they may dominate the schedule more in some periods than others.

And then, like Hemingway, professors must find time to write. Here they can also use their office, or even their larger "office organization". Consider that people who wanted to talk to Hemingway sought him out in his home (where he also worked). But when people want to speak to a professor, they normally wait until she turns up in the office. And they do largely respect her closed door. The university institution really does offer "protection" from distractions.

Another difference between Hemingway's "professional writer" and this professorial counterpart has to do with the peer relationship. "Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful," said Hemingway. "Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public" (Conversations, p. 52). Well, professors do have such an obligation, precisely because they are not writing for public consumption but for their fellow scholars. A professional writer works for (i.e., writes for) a non-professional reader. A professorial writer is working with her readers to understand the subject. And this means that they often have to point out the errors that their peers have made while, of course, also acknowledging their contributions. The writing of scholar is instrinsically much more social than the writing of a novelist.

The work of our professors is constitutively tied to, not severed from, the "life" that the writing is about. It is the luxury of the professional (literary) writer to write, as Hemingway put it, "one true sentence that you know" after another, without worrying too much about what your friends or other writers are up to. But the professor must constantly write with peers and students in mind. There is no abstract "reading public" for whom to keep up "professional" appearances. The reader and the "critic" are one. This difference in the social organization of academic and literary life, which, I would argue, is much more complex in the case of the academic, is, perhaps, what accounts for the famous persona of "the distracted professor".

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Professional Writers

Ernest Hemingway was famously "professional" about his writing. He cultivated a certain seriousness about "the work" of writing, which could be seen in his discipline, his unsentimentality about his own genius, and his principled respect for his fellow writers. Beyond his infectuous (and some would say inisidious) prose style, Hemingway's professionalism was arguably his greatest influence on the literature of his age. This morning, I want to describe this professionalism, and how it was taken up by Norman Mailer in shaping his own writing process. I'll do this with an eye to another post on Thursday about what "professorial" writing might look like by comparison.

Let's begin with discipline. Here's a typical statement of his famous method as it appeared in a 1946 newspaper article.

Not as fast a writer as you might think from his easy style, Mr. Hemingway works on a strict schedule that produces an average of 500 to 1,000 words a day. "I start in at seven in the morning," he says, "and I always quit when I'm going good, so that I'll be able to pick right up again the next day." (Conversations, p. 46)

Notice both the early start and the moderate quantity of writing he gets done. (This blog post, written from 6:00 to 7:00 AM will break 900.) He goes on to note that "a writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does", which is why he needs "enforced discipline". He accomplished this by living in a physically inaccessible house on Cuba, with signs reminding visitors they'd better have an appointment.

In a 1937 speech, he described "the writer's problem" simply as "writing truly". "There is nothing more difficult to do," he says (a professional's pride, of course, is that he's good at something difficult), and the good writer is therefore justly rewarded. Even if these rewards only come posthumously, he says, "a really good writer is sure of eventual recognition. Only romantics think there are such things as unkonwn masters." (Conversations, p. 193) That is: the professional writer is someone who sets out to do good work and expects to rewarded appropriately. I.e., he expects to be paid. He does not complain that people (or whole ages) who won't reward him don't understand his genius.

Ten years after that speech, Time magazine asked Hemingway to identify "once-prominent writers that have slipped or failed to measure up to early promise." He declined to answer the question on the grounds that "A writer has no more right to inform the public of the weaknesses and strengths of his fellow professionals than a doctor or a lawyer has." (Conversations, p. 50) Two years later, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, he put the point forcefully:

Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful. Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public. If te other writer is read the public must find the good in him. I see no reason to try to put him out of business by disillusioning anyone that he may mystify." (Conversations, p. 52)
I'll return to this point in the next post, but do notice that we do (morally) expect doctors and lawyers to put the known frauds among them "out of business" (though we don't hold our breath, to be sure).

Norman Mailer is one of Hemingway's greatest legacies, and he certainly claimed to practice what Papa preached. "To be a professional," he famously said, "is to do good work on a bad day", i.e., to write even when you don't 'feel like it'. (I need to find the reference for this.) He was as disciplined as (and, at times, harder working than) Hemingway. And he adopted the master's faith in the unconscious:

Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. ((The Spooky Art)
This is something I practice too, not least when writing these regularly scheduled blog posts. The theme of Hemingway's professionalism has been with me half-consciously since Thursday.

Another idea I've taken from Mailer, and Mailer has taken from Hemingway, is the idea that one keeps oneself "in shape" by writing, and that one is always working to improve one's style. Mailer sometimes compared himself to Muhammad Ali, and once, as in the following passage, to a professional football player.

In the absence of a greater faith, a professional keeps himself in shape by remaining true to his professionalism. Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed., and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers that his ribs are broken. (Preface to Deaths for the Ladies, reprinted in Existential Errands, p. 200)

Mailer, of course, learned this the hard way, as do many writers. And some never learn it. But no writer who takes himmerherself seriously as a professional can say they have not been warned. The "professional writer" has a long and proud tradition to draw on—and to live up to.