Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Practice of Writing

This semester, RSL is going to be a more explorative blog than it's been, at least at times, over the past seven years. Perhaps also a more personal one. So far, I've been trying to cultivate a kind of "professionalism" here about writing, both because I actually am a professional writing coach and because I've wanted to set a good example for professional writers. But a number of conversations, both online and off, have returned me to a number of fundamental doubts about my approach to scholarly writing. This should not indicate a "crisis" except in the ordinary sense that all "foundational" issues are "critical". The important thing to remember is that this, i.e., doubt, is an entirely normal part of serious, academic inquiry. We have to be able to question what we are doing, how we are doing it, and not least why we are doing it.

These questions will affect my blogging in both the form and the content of my blog posts. First of all, I'm not going to publish on a schedule (I will, of course, follow my own advice an write on a schedule, however) but when I feel I have something to say. I don't expect to post more than once a week, and not at any particular time. Second, I'm going to be much less categorical about advice and suggestions. My clients will of course continue to benefit from straight talk about how to improve their own processes. I still feel entirely comfortable giving specific advice in specific situations. What I'm no longer so sure about is whether my general advice is leaving the right impression in the minds of my readers and audiences.

Mainly, I worry that I am implying or presuming some kind of "theory" of writing that might have (undue) normative force in the regard to the evaluation of a given piece of research writing. In my coaching, I'm always able to draw a strict line between my observations about the process and the product that is being produced. The evaluation of the product must always fall to the author's peers, not to me. I may have all kinds of opinions about it, but, as Borges once said, "opinions are the most trivial things about us." Certainly, given the fact that you have actual peers who have a real interest in what you come up with, my opinion about your writing is the most trivial thing about our relationship. The questions is: am I helping you to work in a better, healthier, happier way?

I have a feeling—one that is quickly becoming a thought—that our desire for professionalism in the academy is a misunderstanding and almost a perversion of our natural "professorialism", which has an important component of amateurism. An academic discipline is not quite a profession, though it may be part of a profession (as in law, medicine, engineering, journalism, etc.). The "freedom" of academic inquiry is, in a sense, a freedom from the professional standards that are in force in the application of scientific knowledge, where a certain amount of caution should be observed. Since academics confine their experiments to "controlled" situations and confine their actions to, well, writing, they are harmless enough to be allowed a little leeway in regard to their conduct. I think we've allowed the spirit of the age to undermine our sense of play in the world of ideas. We've been too concerned with our "relevance", our "impact". We've taken ourselves too seriously in a way.

I'll say more about this in the weeks to come. But there is one thing that I will remain serious about. I can best put this by way of a story. Imagine that you are a teacher at the Juilliard School in New York. One day, walking the halls, you hear two students talking and one of them is telling an old joke, or what you originally recognise as an old joke. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" asks one. "Theory, man, theory," answers the other. And they both break out laughing over this twist, which was invented, I'm told, by the poet Charles Bernstein. The original answer is, of course, "Practice, man, practice." Unfortunately, you, too, get the joke. You realise that your colleagues and your students have, for years now, been cultivating a largely "theoretical" interest in music, and that this has even been valorised in the rest of society, so that practical mastery of the instrument has become secondary to one's conceptual cleverness. Your students are not as good as they once were at actually playing their instruments. They may be more knowledgeable about music (though you have your doubts there too) but they are demonstrably less, let's say, articulate. We are losing our "chops", you realise with horror.

I don't know if that's how it actually is in the world of music, of course. And I don't want to make blanket statements of gloom and despair about academia either. But it's something I sincerely worry about. In our obsession with "theory" (and "method" for that matter) we are becoming less articulate in our writing. And the reason for this is simply that we are not practicing nearly enough. (Interestingly, this does not imply that we aren't writing as much as we ever were. It's just that we're "on stage" too often. Sort of like how much of my writing is immediately published to the blog, rather than remaining a private rehearsal of my views.) And we're letting each other get away with it, too. My goal, in the months and years to come, is to see if I can't bring us back to the fundamental practice of writing, the means by which we may become more articulate, which is, to my mind, much more important than "producing knowledge" and making "theoretical contributions". It's not that we don't know enough these days. It's that we aren't able to talk about it carefully enough. We know too much, perhaps.


Presskorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Presskorn said...

I’m not quite certain that the problem is that we know too much. If I’ve at times doubted your method, it is because it has tended to repress the issue of knowledge. This is so even though your posts have admittedly often explicitly addressed knowledge, but knowledge is always merely a presupposition for your method. You assume that the writer already and at all times possess justified true beliefs about 40 deductively related topics and only needs to put these beliefs into writing. While having the advantage of clearly delineating the task of writing, it has always struck me as a quite unrealistic (too ideal, too wishful) presupposition about the academy. In any case, I’ve sometimes been left with the impression that the injunction to write more (to “Just do it!”) obscures the immense difficulty of knowing, thinking and even believing. A difficulty which - along with its simultaneous repression - is perhaps also characteristic of our age.

PS: But, as always, I’m looking forward to the experiments here at RSL…

Thomas said...

I'm with you on "the immense difficulty of knowing, thinking and even believing." It is my belief, however, that this difficulty does not have to be carried directly into the problem of writing ("the huge impossibility of language," as Robert Graves put it). Rather, we should overcome these two difficulties on their own terms. There is the problem of knowing and the problem of writing it down. Those who conflate these two problems are often doing so to avoid facing one or the other on head-on. If you can't get the paper finished because you don't know something, don't try to write your way out of that problem. If it's because your prose is not strong enough, however, don't try to think your way out of it.

Gabriela Rosschou said...

Somewhere in concerns about knowledge production, methodology and duels of quotes we've lost the courage to say/write things plainly, with the risk of being trite, which belongs to that.
Simpel is not easy, plain text is a mature one. One that has been cherished, nurtured and formed over time, not just produced.

Z said...

Yes, you have to work on knowledge and have time to cultivate the self who writes. In current academia you tear down the self who writes.

There is so much emphasis on "productivity." The right method applied to any graduate student will produce a "successful" professor. This method will also produce a job offer appropriate to that professor. That professor will produce.

Thomas said...

A number of recent experiences tells me that we are unnecessarily afraid of candour. There are too many things that need to be said plainly these days for the "authorities" to gun us all down when we say them.

Andrew Gelman said...


It seems to me that you're implying that academic writing used to be better-written than it is now, and I'm doubtful of this claim. I suspect it's simple selection bias, that you're comparing the surviving academic writing from many decades ago, to the mainstream of what we're seeing today.

Sure, there were classic academic stylists of the past. But there's great academic writing now as well. I don't see the evidence that the quality of academic writing has declined.

Thomas said...

I think that's a good point, Andrew. Maybe I can make the case without suggesting a decline in quality. Even if things have improved, in fact, I might be able to argue that they haven't improved enough. I'll think about it.