Monday, February 11, 2008

Facts and Problems

In the early days of this blog I wrote a post about the sorts of facts that are normally invoked in academic writing. This week I want again to emphasize the importance of understanding the various roles that facts play in your writing.

Back then, I distinguished between accomplished facts, contentious facts, and peaceful facts. The first are the facts you establish for yourself through your research. They are facts about which you are the expert. While you should always be willing to discuss them, you expect people to believe you when talking about them and you would be very surprised to discover that you are wrong. This also implies a responsibility. You are likely to be cited as the source whenever these facts are used in other people's writing.

You expect people to engage with you rather than believe you when you invoke the second class of facts: the contentious ones. You know that in presenting them, you are identifying your position on a particular issue and that there are other positions. You expect other researchers to question you when you invoke these facts. That is, you are not the only authority in regard to these facts and you know of some the arguments that may be offered against you.

The last class of facts are the peaceful ones. These belong to your background knowledge and are not really up for debate. You may be aware of a number of researchers who do not agree with you, but they are in an important sense not your "peers". You know they exists but you don't really care what they think. In using these facts you normally identify with a whole community of like-minded researchers. That is, you should not feel that you are completely alone in your endorsement of facts you are not willing or able to discuss.

This week I want to talk about how to write about these different kinds of facts. That is, I want to talk about the difference between straightforward reporting and audacious provocation. This difference, of course, implies different stylistic challenges. I want to approach the arrangement of facts as an essential part of the problem of writing.

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