Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Is a Paragraph?

This is also a first draft of a stand-alone page I think I need to have on this blog. Once again, comments are welcome.

The paragraph is the unit of prose composition. It usually consists of at least six sentences and no more than two-hundred words. It makes a single, well-defined claim and supports it. The claim should be articulated in a relatively simple, declarative sentence somewhere in the paragraph. We call this the key sentence. The rest of the sentences are organized around it, beneath it, or up to it.

A paragraph is a very limited statement of what you know. It is the scholar's task to divide the known into discrete, articulable units, each of which can be stated and supported on its own. So training your ability to write paragraphs is tantamount to organizing your knowledge in a scholarly way. It allows for one's ideas to be examined one at a time by one's peers.

I wonder if I'm a mystic about this. The zen master does not offer much in the way of technique, but is very stern about discipline. You must sit down, hold your hands just so, etc. But then you must simply sit and "be" (perhaps counting your breaths) for half an hour. I'd prefer to take this line on what a paragraph is. A paragraph is what you write for twenty-seven minutes when you are trying to say exactly one thing, using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Every time you try to do this you learn something about what it is you're trying to do, i.e., what a paragraph is.

No amount of "technique", principles, rules or "elements of style", will get you around the basic need to practice. Writing forty paragraphs this way will take you twenty hours. I simply can't think of a better way to spend twenty hours learning what that might teach you.

And I say that as someone who sells a six-hour seminar! But keep in mind that my seminar deals with a lot of other topics. I don't talk for six hours about what a paragraph is. I'm inclined to say that this post tells you all you can learn from me about that particular question. The rest you learn by doing.

Like I say, this is actually a draft of what will become a permanent page. And I suppose I'm going to make it my goal to say on that page something you can read in about five minutes, after which the only way to learn more about what a paragraph is is to write one. And then another. And then another.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Is Knowledge?

I'm working a on stand-alone page with this title. This morning's post is a preliminary sketch of it. Comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.

In my seminars I present three mutually reinforcing definitions of knowledge.

1. Knowledge is justified, true belief. It is not enough that you believe something; what you believe also has to be true. And it is not enough that you happen to hold a true belief if that belief is based on a mere prejudice. You must have a good reason to believe, a justification. Finally, do note that it is not enough that something be true and justified; you must also believe it. That's not actually a trivial point; many scholars today are coming to the cynical realization that speaking their minds may not be the best way to advance their careers. They would be better off, they think, saying entirely orthodox, reliably publishable things. However strategically wise that may be, it is important to me to emphasize that, lacking belief, such writers are not writing down what they know. That aside, they may be behaving in a perfectly rational manner.

The problem with this definition, in any case, is that it construes knowledge as some exalted "state of mind". One might think the goal is simply to get into that state and stay there. The second definition, while it does not reject the first, is intended to introduce a more social and dynamic atmosphere.

2. Knowledge is the ability to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. These other people are your peers and it is no particular mystery who they are or what they know. There is no circularity here because, in academic life, they are given in advance of your own knowledge project. After much study, you know something when you can have sustained intellectual discussion about it with them. This doesn't have to mean they already knew what you have learned (although many of the things you come to know are known by others before you). It just means that you don't know until you can talk to them about it. Moreover, you may know (as proven by your ability to converse) without causing them to know. You may fail to persuade them.

The last definition is intended to get us squarely into the problem of writing.

3. Knowledge is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in 27 minutes. A paragraph is at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words long. It makes a single well-defined claim and offers support for it. You know something if working for 27 minutes at composing such a paragraph is a meaningful activity for you. (27 minutes is a rough, ballpark figure that usefully divides the hour into two half hours including a 3-minute break. Some people know how to write 18 and even 13 minute paragraphs. Some people need longer, but I recommend training yourself to be able to do it in 27, from both a quality and quantity point of view.)

This post isn't quite a paragraph (and isn't quite three paragraphs either) but it does suggest something of what I'm talking about. My claim to know what knowledge is depends, minimally, on my ability to write a paragraph that identifies and describes the three aspects I've just mentioned. Even better, I claim to have the ability to write three full paragraphs in about an hour and a half, one for each definition. I could also converse intelligently about what knowledge is with any number of knowledgeable peers, including, even, professional philosophers, although here I think my knowledge would begin to run into its limits, as is only fitting.

How much and how well we know something will be shown in our mastery of specific discourses. There is no simple shame in ignorance. But to think one knows something, when one is unable to converse about it or write about it, is a bit, to my mind, foolish. Conversely, to think one does not know something one has not talked about with anyone, and has not tried to write down, is not humble but vain. One has avoided knowing that one does not know.

The regular habit of writing down what you know will help you distinguish what you know from what you don't know. It will also help you better understand what knowledge is.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Change of Pace

"We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there." (Cyril Connolly)

This blog, like my coaching, accepts Heidegger's observation that modern research is, in an essential way, an "ongoing activity" (Betrieb). But, like Heidegger, I worry that the increasingly "businesslike" nature of research will degenerate into "mere busyness", unreflective activity towards the completion of ultimately meaningless "projects". I'm not making a judgment here about all science, just noting a danger. And Heidegger was fond of quoting Hölderlin's lines about the "saving power" that grows where the danger is. So that's a kind of hope, I guess.

My criticism of innovation in higher education is also grounded in this worry. Recently I've rejected everything from promoting great ideas through celebrity tweets to allowing smartphones in exam situations (curiously, both ideas have been promoted by Steve Fuller on Twitter, who I respect a great deal.) Like many others, I'm also vaguely horrified (or intensely anxious) about the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs). There is a basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of education in all of these ideas, I suspect.

This will sound a bit naive and certainly old-fashioned, but my view is that the basic instructional situation has to be that of one or two dozen students, some assigned reading (preferably of a canonical kind), and intelligent conversation led by a learned professor. Mass lectures are an expedience, a somewhat necessary evil (or somewhat evil necessity), but they do provide training in sitting still for three quarters of an hour, listening to a knowledgeable person say knowledgeable things, and trying to understand them. It is the experience of listening, and preferably discussing, issues that arise in the context of a shared set of readings, that constitutes the basic "academic" situation and which all scholarship is supposed to support.

Similarly, scholarly writing is a relatively unhurried process of writing down things you know, one claim at a time, with support. (That's what prose paragraphs are for.) Much of your writing process should be devoted, not to discovering what you think, though you are certainly free to write to that end as well, but to presenting clearly and plainly what you think is true and have some reason to believe is true—in a word, what you know. This part of the process should consist of writing things down you've known for while—for weeks, months, and even years—not things you just discovered this morning, and may discover is false by nightfall. Scholarly prose records and conserves knowledge.

The idea of the university is to slow things down. Universities should be places where there is time to read, to write, and to talk things through. They should not be places where "ideas worth spreading" are most efficiently installed in the minds of young people. Nor should they be places where data is efficiently manufactured to support some currently fashionable and convenient truth. They should be sites of learned discourse, intellectual discussion. And there is no other way to teach people to read, write, and discuss, than to have them read and write and discuss. There is no technology that will make these activities obsolete. But there are of course technologies and emergencies of all kinds that can be used to crowd them out, reducing the university sector to just another industry.

I don't promote "research productivity" as such. I don't value activity for the sake of activity. Rather, I help people organize their activities to fight the most deleterious effects of the forces that threaten to turn research into mindless activity, soul-destroying labor. Time is the key. I help people control the pace of their scholarship, the speed of their thinking. Usually, I try to get them to slow down. Ironically, but of course not at all surprisingly, this has the effect of making them more productive.

As a blogger and tweeter, of course, I don't stand aloof from social media. I try to use them for good. And in that spirit I'm going to slow down the pace of my blogging again. From now on, I'll blog only twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, posting at 7:00AM as usual. The idea is not to spend more time on each post, but to spend some time developing my ideas in other media (like books and articles) and then post from that greater depth of understanding. I will continue to tweet new posts, and perhaps some things from the archives, and I will retweet things I find interesting in the usual way.

See you Tuesday!

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Inner Life

I'm taking a few days off from blogging to think some things through.

(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

"In an Ideal World..."

I want to apologize for that ill-tempered post I wrote yesterday morning. It's not that I didn't mean it, it's just that, well, what's the point of railing against the populist sentiments that are printed in the popular press? Obviously, I let the first four words in Alain de Botton's "In an ideal world Harry Styles would be teaching his 10million Twitter followers a little more about Greek philosophy" throw me off my game. I was enraged.

Why belabor the obvious? And obviously there is nothing ideal about such a world. Nor would "the cause of intellectual life in this [or any other] country ... be helped immeasurably" if Harry Styles would just put his shoulder to the wheel. His first twitter lesson, which merely plagiarized Wikipedia, ably proved the point. (And I am sure that was his point.) Like I say, however, there is no point in being outraged about it. What I'd like to do this morning is to put forth the ideal that de Botton's suggestion offends.

Imagine an undergraduate university program consisting of two 16-week semesters. Give the students the weekends (and the remaining 20 weeks) off to do whatever they like. Expect them, during the 32 weeks of school to write for three hours, go to class for three hours and read for three hours every day, five days a week. (I know that's a 45-hour work week, but it's varied work, and it's only 32 weeks a year.)

Now, expect them to write no more than 200 words every thirty minutes, or about one paragraph's worth of prose. At 15 hours a week, that's 480 hours, or 960 paragraphs. "In an ideal world," I want to argue, students would not be receiving tweets from Harry Styles about Socrates. They would be writing almost 3 PhD dissertations worth of prose every year! They would not hand all this prose in of course. My point is that they would be engaged in a rather formidable process of training.

This presumption in favor of actually doing a lot of writing would allow teachers to enforce a pretty high standard in regard to written work. So they may hand in, for example, 60 paragraphs every semester all told, and they will be graded on the presumption that each could have been written, on average, eight times. Let's move on to the reading component.

Remember students are expected to read for three hours a day, 480 hours per year. Now, imagine giving them only a limited number of texts to read. My standard suggestion is six books: Don Quixote, Hamlet, Being and Time, Philosophical Investigations, Ulysses, and In Search of Lost Time. I can defend those choices in very sophisticated ways, but if you want a list of ten or twelve books, or six different books of comparable richness, I'm fine with it. What I'm saying is: give them a finite amount of high-quality reading and enforce a high standard of comprehension.

Finally, classroom instruction. Expect the students to attend 480 hours of class (3 hours a day). This can take many different forms, from mass lectures to small discussion groups. Teaching can be done by everything from full professors to undergraduate tutors. To save money, it can amount to no more than mandatory group meetings without supervision. The point is that they are expected to sit down and listen, ask questions, discuss.

That, friends, is an "ideal world". It's not entirely unrealistic, I would argue, but it will probably be dismissed as romantic or nostalgic or otherwise ridiculous by some. (Or such schools may actually exist somewhere, of course. I'm not saying I've invented the idea.) In any case, the suggestion that academics should try to be public intellectuals and feel some sort of envy about Harry Style's twitter audience must finally, I will insist, founder against this ideal. Because, after all, it cannot be denied that the students and teachers who worked in this way, for those 1440 hours every year, would be forming a particular kind of mind. And that kind of mind, though of great value, is almost impossible to produce these days because almost no one defends the institutions that have even the slightest chance of fostering it.

I feel as though the default attitude is increasingly to normalize, and indeed totalize, the mass media (including so-called "social" media) as a the real (and certainly not ideal) speech situation. We assume that students have these "mass minds" and that it is the duty of academics to speak to them. This is what bothered me about Steve Fuller's remark about the "mediums people normally communicate through and through people who are normally listened to.” It's the idea that "the academic situation" is now an eccentric deviation from the "norm" of mass media that horrifies me. (Also the idea that teachers are no longer among the "people who are normally listened to".) We are "losing our minds" in a very particular way. We are losing that particular kind of mind that emerges from the discipline of prose.

I'm not saying it's the only kind of mind worth having. It is one kind of mind worth having. Crucially, it does not require academics to engage in any way with the mass media. It requires them only to demand that their students turn off their devices for 45 hours every week, 32 weeks out of the year.

It feels much better to talk about this in terms of a positive ideal. Though I am prone to despair myself, I think the idea that the solution is to be found in forcing academics into public life, selling ideas to the mass mind, is mainly an indication that Fuller and de Botton, who I think are sincere enough in their desire to promote great ideas, have really just given up all hope for the university.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Popular Notions

So apparently Alain de Botton thinks that "In an ideal world Harry Styles would be teaching his 10million Twitter followers a little more about Greek philosophy." He thinks this would solve an important problem that the UK Arts Council has been unable to address. He thinks that "the cause of intellectual life in this country would be helped immeasurably" if "people such as Harry Styles [were] to go on television and recommend to everyone they read Proust and Hegel." Which tells you something about what Alain de Botton means by "intellectual life", I guess.

And then we find out that Steve Fuller agrees. I think this populist attack on the so-called Ivory Tower has to stop. It is based on the worst kind of caricature. “Academics are used to speaking to a captive audience of students whom they can lecture to uninterrupted,” Fuller says, “but if they have something meaningful to get across, [de Botton] has a point about getting it across in mediums people normally communicate through and through people who are normally listened to.” How does this idea that we have to change the way we communicate at our universities because it is no longer the "normal" way to listen and be listened to get so much presumptive traction? The idea that students are "normally" entertained (by entertainers!) and should therefore not have to suffer through lectures is one thing. The idea that all communication at universities consists of lecturing to captive audiences is another thing. Both presumptions are plainly false.

"The problem we’ve got is the most famous people in the country tend to believe in things that aren’t particularly ambitious," says de Botton, "whereas the people who believe in really ambitious things are stuck away in an ivory tower and no one bothers listening to what they think." They are not "stuck" anywhere. They are at a remove from precisely those communicative contexts where intellectual ambition is dysfunctional. Like twitter and the popular press. It's actually quite outrageous that Fuller denigrates the act of speaking without being interrupted (though this is only part of what can happen at a university) in favor of tweeting something to 10 million followers. How is Styles' audience less "captive" than a university lecturer's?

It's telling that when Styles went ahead and jokingly tweeted about Greek philosophy, he did so so by plagiarizing a sentence about Socrates from Wikipedia. Notice that de Botton wants "famous people" to tell everyone to read Proust and Hegel, without necessarily reading them themselves, I take it. Even if they did, it's their fame, not their understanding of Proust and Hegel that will qualify them to recommend those books. The idea that ideas succeed when they are widely distributed, regardless of medium, is as ridiculous as the (underlying) idea that ideas can be distributed at will. It's as though once a truth is discovered it's just a matter of "getting it out there". It's a popular notion—for obvious reasons. But it forgets that ideas must be talked about, not just imposed on an infinitely gullible public mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2

(Sometimes you write a blog post just because you've given yourself an occasion to use a cool allusion in a title.)

There is a great deal of ambivalence among academics about education, in part, no doubt, because they are feeling pressures on the system that worry them. But it's also because the sort of intelligence you need to be a successful scholar is actually not exactly the same kind you need to be a "good student". University teachers are often much less authoritarian (or perhaps authoritative) than the institutions they work for presume to be. So they cultivate a light irony in the classroom, rather than the "dark sarcasm" of Roger Waters' famous song.

I don't really have a position on it ready. (I'm traveling and my plane is delayed and I thought for once I'd write and post something spontaneously.) I only want to say that I believe that a significant part of the purpose of research is to supply materials for teaching. Indeed, research should be a way for teachers to keep their minds in shape to the benefit of the students. Or put another way: I think the knowledge of scholars is best transmitted to society through teaching (not patents or popular books). Research writing is not about communicating knowledge but qualifying it through conversations with peers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Passive Reading?

The argument against dissertations confuses me a little. This article in the Chronicle has been the subject of discussion recently, but it doesn't really seem to make the case that "the dissertation is broken". Rather, it suggests that some PhD programs could be better and that some PhD students should probably consider other careers. All of which is something that's been known for decades.

The most concrete issue that the article raises is that of outright alternatives to the dissertation. As usual, these alternatives are based on "new media" platforms and appeal to the virtues of "interactivity" and "collaboration". These digital projects are opposed to the "traditional, book-style dissertation", which is described as "a written text that readers would engage with only passively". It's interesting. We live at a time when we worry that grade schoolers are losing the ability to enjoy books because they are watching those "interactive" screens all the time, while at the same time denigrating the very site that "traditionally" produces the knowledge-bearing prose of our civilization.

The idea that a 200 page book consisting of, say, 300 paragraphs of prose that each supports a distinct knowledge claim can only be engaged passively is nonsense. What has really happened is that we have stopped valuing the careful expression of ideas in well-written prose. So now the idea of a "digital edition of Ulysses, which allows users to read the novel's first two episodes with explanatory annotations and images that appear when the reader moves his or her mouse over words that might be confusing" seems like a ground-breaking new possibility.

But somebody has to discover the knowledge that goes into those annotations. And those discoveries have to be presented to other knowledgeable scholars for critical discussion. These scholars will not passively consume annotations (by moving their mouse over words that confuse them!); they will assess their peers' claims critically. The whole conversation will proceed in prose. And the dissertation is an occasion to produce a good example of such prose.

Proving you can mitigate confusion in the minds of lay readers is not the purpose of grad school. Nor, frankly, should grad school be preparing you for work outside academia. It should be your first serious attempt to work inside academia. If you fail, you can find something else to do. Many people have changed careers. That does not prove that the first career they chose was "broken".

Monday, February 11, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall?

On the urging of Liam Stanley, I've just started reading Patrick Dunleavy's Authoring a PhD. I'll probably have much more to say about this in the coming weeks; there are many aspect to explore. This morning I want to begin with the first two pages of the preface. Here Dunleavy quotes Michael Oakeshott's description of a university.

A university is an association of persons, locally situated, engaged in caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilisation. It is concerned not merely to keep an intellectual inheritance intact, but to be continuously recovering what has been lost, restoring what has been neglect, collecting together what has been dissipated, repairing what has been corrupted, reconsidering, reshaping, reorganising, making more intelligible, reissuing and reinventing.

Dunleavy sets up his book in opposition to the spirit of this description, and this puzzles me a little. He discerns an "antiquarian bias against any genuine or substantive innovation" in this passage. My view is that the university, and the discourse it situates, is primarily and inherently and importantly "conservative". It should, indeed, function as a "conservatory", both of what we know about the world and the ability to learn about it. And it is precisely this preservation of the past that provides the background against which real innovation is possible.

Dunleavy's aim in the book is to make explicit the "craft skills" of scholarship. These skills, too, must be conserved by tradition. And I'm not sure that traditionalists (I count myself among them) would reject Dunleavy's project as "just another brick in the wall", an example of the onward march of Weberian bureaucracy. I've worried about my own work in similar terms, though in a distinctly post-Weberian world of "New Public Management". Paul du Gay, in his In Praise of Bureaucracy, tries to defend the traditional values of bureaucracies against the increasingly "entrepreneurial" attitude of public administration. I've worried that I'm just another brick in that wall. But in the end I've decided that what I'm talking about is precisely the activity of "caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilisation". Dunleavy and I are on the same team here, I believe. We are trying to help students and scholars become good at something our civilization needs some people to be good at.

Friday, February 08, 2013


I've been down with the flu this week and haven't been posting. I'll resume posting again on Monday. See you then.

P.S. I've been receiving a lot of heartening feedback these past few days about how useful people find this blog. I suppose medical science will refute me, but I feel the warmth has speeded my recovery. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Length of the Journey

"No man ever knows enough about any art," says Ezra Pound. "I have seen young men with most brilliant endowment who have failed to consider the length of the journey." I thought about this when reading Jonathan's post about the "serious dissertation". It's a difficult piece of advice to give, both in general and in the specific case. Whether you say, "don't take it too seriously" or "take it seriously as hell", you are liable to be misunderstood, and then you'll undermine the joy that writing a dissertation can be.

I remember very clearly, early on in my PhD process, reading Jaqueline de Romilly's Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Though it had a very tangential relation to my project, I found its form very seductive. I immediately imagined my dissertation written in the same way. This was actually a somewhat odd idea since the book is a collection of lectures, but my point is just that I got the sense that I might write a very good little book and submit it as my dissertation.

The key to writing a satisfying dissertation is to focus your thesis (i.e., your result) so tightly that a well-written book can serve as a support for it. A dissertation really just is a step on the way to greater things, and you only have limited time to write it. Moreover, that time includes the effort of discovering what you want to say. It's important to make that discovery early.

This discovery, however, is also a decision. At some point you have to decide that you have learned enough to earn your PhD and now you must demonstrate this learning to your committee. Though you will of course have been writing all along, and even writing on parts of your dissertation, it's after that decision is made that your "seriousness" or ambition about your dissertation and, perhaps, your first book, can be determined.

Some conclusions can be supported by a well-organized argument, others need a long rambling work that goes in all sorts of directions and could never be a book and could, properly speaking, never be finished, so you just have to hand it in when you run out of time. When some people say "don't take it too seriously" they mean that you should just write that long, rambling unfocused dissertation, hand it in, and move on. But other people mean what I mean: find a small but significant thing to say. That is: don't take the depth or range of your conclusion too seriously (there'll be plenty of time to make a "major" discovery) but do take the task of demonstrating the quality of your reasoning ... and your writing ... seriously.

Scholarship is a long journey. You want to start off at a measured pace.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Two-Part Invention

I've been working on these two bars for a few weeks and I can now say I can play them. I suppose only someone who has tried and succeeded at this will understand my sense of accomplishment. I learned the right hand first. Then I figured out the left hand. Then I put them together, which was really, really hard. At first I thought I'd never figure it out. But I remember learning another (much easier) piece about a year ago, which I can still play today, and I had the same feeling: that it was impossibly complex and I could never get my hands to operate independently enough to pull it off. But each time I tried, I made a little bit of progress, enough to keep me at it.

Coincidentally, my daughter was working on her axel this week. (She's a figure skater. An axel is a jump with one and a half rotations.) On Monday she landed it twice. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday she couldn't do it. It was very frustrating for her. Thursday is her day off. Friday she tried and failed again. Then on Saturday she nailed it. Several times. And yesterday she was still landing it. Now, she doesn't always do it equally well, with equal grace. If it had been in competition they'd each get a different amount of points. But she is feeling the satisfaction of crossing the threshold between not being able to do it and being able to do it. It's a joy to watch.

I feel like I will ruin this post by explaining what this has to do with writing. The important thing is that you sit down at the machine every day and try to perform something. With that two-part invention, there are forty-four notes altogether, and the trick is to play them all in the right order at the right time, often two at a time (one with each hand). So you have to have a strategy for which fingers to use when, making sure they are available to play the notes comfortably as you need them. (On my sheet music—not the one pictured here—there are numbers that suggest what fingers to use. That's a big help.) Here's how Wikipedia describes the axel:

To perform an Axel, the skater typically approaches the jump on a right back outside edge in a strongly held check position before stepping on a left forward outside edge. He or she vaults over the toe pick of the left skate and "steps up" into the jump with the right leg. The skater crosses the left foot in front of the right, which is known as a back spin position (similar to the loop jump), to bring the center of rotation around the right side of the body. This act is often described as a weight shift in the air. Uncrossing the legs during the landing checks the rotation and allows the skater to flow out of the jump with good speed.

So when you're practicing for either an axel or the first two bars of Invention No. 13, it's clear what you have to do. You sit yourself down at the keyboard, or you lace up your skates and get on the ice, and then you have a certain amount of time on a given day to do it. And for a while, many days in a row, you fail. (During that time you sometimes forget that until you started trying you weren't failing at it, you were succeeding at other things.) And then, suddenly, you don't fail anymore, but rather do it more or less well.

From then on, it's one of the things you are able to do. You're not always at the top of the game, but you have this move as part of your repertoire. (Of course, you have to keep practicing or you'll lose it. You can't expect to play a piece of music after a year away from the piano. You can't expect to land your axel on the first day back after a year off the ice.) This is all common sense stuff. It makes intuitive sense.

Just try to think of your writing that way too. Think of the problem of writing a particular kind of paragraph (about the background of your study, or your theory, or your method, or your results, etc.) like the problem of playing a few bars on the piano or completing a figure-skating jump. Try to make the task as straightforward as the information provided by the sheet music, or that description of the jump in Wikipedia. Have a clear idea in mind when you try to write. At one level, I could "read" the music. But I did not know how to play the notes. That's like having an idea but not being able to put it into words.

So you have to sit down and try. Again and again and again. And when you're satisfied ... well, that's a really satisfying thing.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Research Practices

One of my most radical ideas, to some people, is the strict separation of the writing process from other research activities. Many scholars think they do their best writing as an extension of, especially, their reading. They spend the day moving back and forth between reading other people's work and writing their own, guided by a feeling of having, or not having, something to say. When they write, their desks are piled up with the books and articles they are reading.

Very few people will actually spend even, say, six solid hours on any given day actually engaged in reading and writing when working this way. But they may let the day go doing nothing else of note for as many as eight or ten hours. Such a day will include wholly unproductive acts of procrastination and background administrative work, like answering emails and booking flights for conferences. It may also include work on other texts, like abstracts or research proposals. Whatever comes up.

But even if we imagine that someone can actually devote six full hours to work on a single paper or book chapter, shifting back and forth between reading for it and writing on it, it is my view that those six hours will be better spent in two blocks of three. One should be spent reading and taking notes. The other should be spent writing six paragraphs, twenty-seven minutes at a time.

Remember what I said yesterday, too. You should not write something you just discovered. So the three hours of reading should be spent a few days (even weeks) before you write about what you've read. If you do want to spend "a whole day" engaged in research, you will be writing (in the morning) about something you learned a while back, and reading (in the afternoon) for something you'll be writing in the days or weeks to come. Again, this is where some people despair. They thought what was keeping their text together was the continuity (some would even "integrity") of their writing process with their reading process.

As I argued yesterday, the problem with this "organic" approach to writing is that makes your article a record of what you're thinking about in the moment, not what you've learned over a period of time and now know comfortably. But it is true that it makes certain demands of your memory. I should point out that one of the qualifications for research should properly speaking be a reasonably reliable memory for what texts say. But you should not rely solely on memory to provide the content of your writing. This is why most people take notes while reading. It's the traditional way of assisting your memory.

During your reading sessions, you carefully take notes, keeping a record, not of what the text says (which would ultimately mean transcribing it), but of what the text has taught you, what you've "taken away" from your confrontation with it. You then bring these notes to your writing sessions. But, because your writing is focused (in our example) six paragraphs, each of which says one thing you know and supports it, you don't need all your notes. You don't need a representation of all your reading, or even the whole any particular text you've read. You only need the notes that provide you with support for the particular claims you've made. These notes can be selected at the same time that you decide what paragraphs to write.

I'll say something more concrete about how to take notes in a future post. It's not actually something I'm very good at. But once you understand the process that note-taking is supposed to support, the art becomes much easier to think about and develop consciously.