Wednesday, March 26, 2014


About a week ago I spoke to a class of undergraduate business students as part two of a two-part module on the craft of research. In part one, six weeks earlier, I had explained the basic discipline of writing a paragraph about something you know on a regular basis, always deciding the day before what you will write the next morning, always writing for exactly twenty-seven minutes, producing at least six sentences and at most 200 words. On this second occasion I asked them whether they had tried it, say, fifteen times since we last met. (There are thirty weekdays in a six-week period. So I was in effect asking them whether they had written a paragraph every other day.) No one had. Ten times? No one. Five? A few hands. Three, two? A few more. Once? Well, it did seem like about half of them would at least claim that, in the days immediately after my first meeting with them, they were curious enough to try it. Like I say, once.

I then asked how many of them had engaged in formally structured physical exercise for at least 27 minutes on fifteen or more occasions during the past six weeks. Jogging, aerobics, going to the gym, practice for a sports team—things like that. Well over half the class had of course done so. And when I counted down—ten, five, three, two, one—I naturally got pretty much all the hands up in the class. After all, we're talking about young people, most of them are probably eighteen to twenty years old. They take their health seriously. At the very least, they have a certain amount of physical vanity.

I'm not above moralizing about writing to students (and faculty, for that matter). So I pointed out that we had just gotten a clear indication of their priorities. They are obviously more concerned about the shape of their bodies than the shape of their minds. They set aside a great deal of time to train their muscles but not their prose. They do a lot to maintain a good relationship with the part of them that is physically ambitious, let's say, but not the part of them that is intellectually ambitious. Here, again, we can make this point even in terms of their lack of intellectual vanity.

As a coach, my goal in life is to get people to understand that they will become more productive, more effective, and happier writers only if they take the time to train, to practice. They have to see the connected acts of deciding on a truth they know at the end of one day and writing that truth down at the beginning of the next as a form of exercise that improves their prose style. Shaping your knowledge into paragraph-sized units of different kinds—historical, theoretical, methodological, empirical, polemical—is what you do as a scholar, an academic. It is not an ability you were born with or learned just by showing up for class or reading books in college. You have to learn it by training, and then you have to maintain that ability. You have to keep your prose in shape.


j. said...

but what is their attitude, as business students, toward research and (scholarly) knowledge?

Thomas said...

I think it's the same as in all programs. Many of them are academically ambitious, i.e., they'd like to learn something and get good grades. I don't think freshman college students in other disciplines would display very different attitudes as a group.