Friday, September 28, 2012


Academic knowledge is the ability to support assertions. To assert claims, that is, and then offer support for their truth. For each specific claim, this ability is developed by studying the object about which the claim is made. But the scholar also draws on more general abilities, one of which is the ability to write scholarly prose. The unit of scholarly composition is the paragraph, which is an important if limited rhetorical gesture. In a paragraph an assertion is made and then supported. There are many different kinds of assertion and many different kinds of support that can be offered for them. But the general principle holds: a piece of scholarly writing is a series of supported claims.

We can judge a university, in part, by the quality of its "writing environment". What conditions are provided for teachers and students to develop the craft of composing coherent prose paragraphs? Do the faculty members take the time they need to keep their prose in shape? Do they impress upon the students the need to write often in order to write well? (Still more fundamentally, do they emphasize the need to write well?) Is the work produced by students approached in terms of its potential to become scholarly prose, and judged accordingly? Are the students rewarded for composing themselves in paragraphs, one supported assertion at a time?

No one can be expected to master the art of supporting assertions without a great deal of practice. In a particular subject area, the art includes the acquisition of factual knowledge (facts are what one makes assertions about). This is why it is so important to think about the conditions that are provided at a university, both for faculty and students, under which to write. In the student the craft of writing must be developed. Faculty members, too, can work to become better writers. And as a culture, we can be become better at asserting and supporting facts. (Note that "critique" is also the assertion and support of facts, albeit facts adduced in opposition to the facts already asserted by others.) Minimally, however, a university should be a place where the state of the art is maintained. I.e., where the culture maintains the ability of its language to assert facts.

A university should provide good ccnditions under which to assert oneself in prose.

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