Friday, May 29, 2015


[§2 here.]

In this paper, I combine philosophical, rhetorical, and historical epistemologies to show that scholarly knowledge amounts to the ability to compose coherent prose paragraphs. I base my argument on a decade of experience working as a writing coach for researchers, primarily in the social sciences, where I have developed an approach that helps scholars establish reliable writing moments in the familiar hustle and bustle of a modern research career. Notwithstanding the often "postmodern conditions", scholarship remains the formation of justified, true beliefs, about which one can converse intelligently with other knowledgeable people, and each of which can be written down in a paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that support a well-defined claim. I argue that a competent scholar can compose such a paragraph in under half an hour and that a competently written scholarly prose paragraph can be read by a competent peer in about one minute. I do not wish to imply that any of this is "easy", but I will insist that this ability to represent known facts in writing is the very essence of scholarship. It lies at the heart of a researcher's intellectual responsibilities.

(196 words)

[§4 here.]

[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]

Thursday, May 28, 2015


[§1 here.]

The nature of knowledge is, of course, itself the subject of scholarly debate. By approaching it through its "propositional content", philosophers from Socrates and forward have been instrumental in getting us to see knowledge as a kind of exalted mental state, namely, a "belief" that is both "true" and "justified". Writing instructors, meanwhile, have long argued that "research is a conversation" (Booth, Colomb, Williams 2006; Graff and Birkenstein 2007). Knowing something, on this view, is not so much a state of mind as a rhetorical competence that allows you to participate in discussions on particular subjects. This view also informs a historical conception of knowledge as shaped by "paradigms" (Kuhn 1970) or "discourses" (Foucault 1972). Here, knowledge is not an attribute of a certain class of propositions, but rather that which determines what counts as a either a solution to a puzzle (in a paradigm) or a statement (in a discourse). In academic contexts, certainly, language and writing are widely considered central to the business of knowing something.

(166 words)

[§3 here.]

[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here.]

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


We can get a good sense of what we think knowledge is by looking at the way our universities are organised. After all, these are institutions that are supposed to produce and distribute—or, if you prefer, create and conserve—knowledge in society. To be sure, we are talking about a particular kind of knowledge, which we call "academic" or "scientific", but this kind is, in turn, normally taken to set a rather high standard in this regard. If the way universities have traditionally been organised makes any sense at all, then there is a kind of knowledge that is best produced by (more or less) dedicated faculty working at full time jobs, to be distributed to (more or less) dedicated students pursuing multi-year programs of study. It is the sort of thing that can be discussed by the faculty at conferences and in journal articles, and can be imparted to students in classes and books, tested with various kinds of examination. In recognition of these school-like conditions, we call the maintenance of this kind of knowledge "scholarship".

(180 words)

[§2 here.]

[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here.]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New Project

Tomorrow I'm going to try something that I've been thinking of for a while. I'm going to start writing a forty-paragraph paper, one paragraph at a time, posting each of them to the blog as I write them. The rules are the familiar ones: every evening I will decide on a paragraph to write in the morning. Every morning from 6:30 to 6:57 I will write that paragraph. I will post it to the blog at 7:00.

The paper will be about my epistemology of scholarly writing or, more precisely, what I think "academic" knowledge is. I have forty things to say about this, and I will take twenty-seven minutes of my time, and one minute of yours, every morning for about forty days to say them to you. Let's see what happens.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Strong Kindness

"The reader ... is, of course, free to make what he will of the book he has been kind enough to read." (Michel Foucault)

My daughter has been singing the song for weeks, which is why that allusion to Rihanna slipped into my last post. "The reader," I had said, "is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness." Now, when I say the reader is always a few seconds "from wilding", I mean simply that we're all busy people and, if we grow impatient with a needlessly difficult text, we might, if not throw it wildly across the room, at least put it down and look for something else to read. And the other line from that song captures nicely the emotion that drives us away from the text. We feel that our kindness has been mistaken for weakness.

The important thing to remember is that, as scholars, we don't have to get our reader's attention, nor even hold it. The reader has their own reasons for giving it to us. We have to use it. We can expect the reader to read us carefully and deliberately and with curiosity. The reader expects to be addressed as someone who has a great deal of knowledge in advance. You must not try to teach the reader something that is already part of the reader's attention, part of their reason for reading you. Rather, what you say must depend on a great deal of knowledge to be understood. It is in this sense that the kindness of their attention is not weakness. On the contrary, it is grounded in their strength.

But in what sense is it right to call it "kindness"? Not, to be sure, in the sense that they are doing you a favour by reading you. To be kind originally meant to do something "with the feeling of relatives for each other". That is why "the kindness of strangers" is such a beautiful thing. And scholarly writing is very much based on this idea of being "of the same kind" even when one doesn't know one another personally. One presumes a shared body of knowledge, a shared tradition. And so we read each other's work, not with actual personal knowledge of the other, as we would read a letter from a relative, but with a presumption that we come from the same "background", that we've had the same, as it were, "upbringing". Our kindness displays this impersonal kinship. The reader is already listening.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Third Minute of Your Reader's Attention

A good introduction to a journal article need not take more than three minutes to read. In the first minute, you construct a world of practice; in the second, you frame an object in theory; in the third you state your thesis. After the three minutes are up, your reader should know what you are trying to show them and how you intend to show it to them. This morning I want to talk about the third minute—the last paragraph of the introduction.

Remember that your reader already knows what (worldly) practice you are writing about and what (scientific) theory you are guided by. The third paragraph could begin "This paper shows that...," and then state your thesis in clear, plain language. The sentence will take maybe five seconds to read. Next, there should be two or three sentences—ten to twenty seconds' worth—about your method. Then, two or three sentences summarising your analysis (stating the sub-theses that amount to your larger thesis, which you've already stated). Finally, there should be two or three sentences that summarise the implications section of your paper, answering the question, "So what? Why is this important?"

This paragraph is useful to think about in part because it is possible for me to structure it at such a fine level of detail without knowing what you are writing about. If we assume (as we should) that the reader has already given you their attention, and we assume (as we can) that the reader can read 200 words in about a minute, then we can reasonably ask what the reader should be experiencing basically second for second. Reading, after all, is a linear process. We are designing an experience for the reader one word at a time; we control exactly what is "going through the reader's mind".

About five seconds to state your thesis. Fifteen seconds of method. Fifteen seconds of analysis. Fifteen seconds of implications. And, yes, please remember, friends, that, like you, the reader is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Scientific Minute

After you have constructed a shared world for you and your reader, it is time to remind them of your world-view. This is the shared perspective on the facts that your scientific discipline establishes. Again, imagine that you have a minute of the reader's time. And imagine you already know how your reader sees the world. Give yourself 27 minutes to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words that remind the reader of your concepts, i.e., your "categories of observation", i.e., the mental equipment that turns the flux of your experience into stable "objects of inquiry". What theoretical frame are you bringing into this world to see it with?

As in the first paragraph, you are not going to say anything earth-shattering. You and your reader are still only trying to get to know each other. (This is the second minute of their attention.) Even deconstructionists have friends that their "hermeneutic of suspicion" doesn't shock or offend. In this paragraph, you are writing among these friends, or your peers anyway. What you say here will not surprise your reader; on the contrary, you are going to be telling them what they expect of the world. Whatever you say here, you are expecting the reader, in turn, to agree with, without much effort.

There are two general strategies for introducing your scientific point of view (the view of the world you share with your scientifically trained peer reader). You can either remind them of the consensus that brings the members of your field together, or you can remind them of the controversy that organises it into factions. Most fields will have both options available. There will be a traditional underlying consensus about some matters, and a currently ongoing controversy about other things. If you research bears mainly on the consensus (in order to challenge it, perhaps) you spend your minute bringing it into focus for the reader. If your research bears mainly on the controversy (weighing in on one side or the other), your should remind the reader where the lines of conflict run. (If you must, though I advise against it, you can define your field also by its ignorance, a "gap" in the literature.) Whatever you say here, however, even if you draw up the lines of disagreement, your reader should immediately agree with you. You are not yet taking a position in the controversy (where the reader may take the opposite position). You are merely acknowledging, uncontroversially, that it exists.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Being in the World

Think of your reader. Imagine a reader who is just about to read your article. They came to it by some familiar route—a reference in another article, a search in the library's databases, a colleague's recommendation, an editor's request that they peer review your paper—or perhaps by mere chance. Something about the paper—its title or abstract or who has cited it—has told them that they should perhaps read it, even though they know a great deal about the subject already. They want to know what you have to add. Now, remember that reading, like writing, takes time. It's a process that unfolds in time—roughly speaking, one paragraph at a time, one minute at a time. The reader is giving you their attention; what are you going to do with it?

My suggestion is that you begin by showing the reader that you live in the same world and are concerned about some of the same things within it. If your paper is about managing teams, describe a world in which people are managed in teams. If you are writing about the dynamics of home ownership, describe a world in which people make decisions about whether to buy or sell their home, or whether to rent or buy. If you are writing about sensemaking in a crisis, write about a world in which organizations sometimes lose their minds under exceptional circumstances. In that first paragraph, you have about one minute of the reader's time, about 200 words, to show them that you know something about the world in which they live.

Tell them something uncontroversial. You don't want to spend the first minute your reader has given you arguing with them about what color the sky is. Tell them something they are immediately going to grant is true. Don't be shy. Tell them the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. Yes, that seems pretty obvious and trivial but, if your paper is about the use of Twitter to sell shoes, that really is the world in which we live, a world full of businesses and customers, connected by the Internet. The reader is not learning something about the world yet, they are learning something about you. They are learning whether or not you have some interesting perspective on a world that obviously exists. Anyone can say that the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. But only someone who knows the subject can write a full paragraph about it that is both interesting and informative.

You know when the Internet began to be used commercially, perhaps. Or who invented Twitter. Or you know, in detail, the story of a famous business that failed miserably because it did not understand how to use social media. Nothing in that paragraph needs to shock the reader in order to impress them. They should come out of that first minute, that first paragraph, thinking in a useful and detailed way about the world they already know they live in. You have brought that world to presence before them with your writing. Sure, it was always there. But now it has a certain urgency. It is something that is worth looking into, worth looking at a little more closely. It has become a worthy object of study.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reader's Situation

Let's look at your journal article one paragraph at a time, but from the reader's perspective. Think of reading as a linear process, with a clear beginning and a clear end. There's a moment just before the reading begins and a moment just after it ends.

Let's imagine the reader in that first moment. What's on the reader's mind? Well, the reader has some reason to read your article. (Remember: the next thing that happens is that they begin to read.) The reader's mind, then, is full of expectations about what you are going to say. They probably know who you are, i.e., what field you work in. They come to the text with some questions and with a great deal of rather specific opinions. Even a few prejudices.

Then the reading begins. After about a minute, the reader will have gotten through your first paragraph. If you have written it deliberately, which is to say, in support of a clearly defined key sentence that says one thing you know, then the reader will now presumably believe one particular thing to be true (sometimes "for the sake of argument", sometimes in charitable "suspension of disbelief"). If you are following my outline, this truth will not be new to them; they actually believed it before they started reading, but now they are also thinking about it. It is a truth about the world in which they live. More specifically, it is about that area of the world that contains the objects of their research—and yours.

One minute later, they will have been reminded of the state of the field in which they work, which is also the field in which you work. They will be thinking about the constitutive controversy or consensus that defines their own research program. A minute later, they will know what your paper is going to try to show them and how you intend to show it. After three minutes of reading, then, the reader will have had three distinct moments of understanding: "This is the world in which we live." "This is the scientific field in which we work." "This is what the author wants to show me."

Over the next few posts, I want to think very carefully about these first three minutes of reading. A great deal depends on them. They determine how the next 37 minutes will go.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Scholarly Situation

Suppose you had one minute to convince somebody that something is true. That's a pretty tight time-constraint, but suppose you were assured in advance that you would have their full attention and that they would give your argument careful consideration. Finally, suppose that you know a great deal about this person's current beliefs. You know what knowledge you share and on what points you disagree; you also know what style of argumentation will appeal to them. While the one-minute time limit is of course a serious constraint, then, you are otherwise in a good position to persuade.

Now, suppose you were given exactly twenty-seven minutes to prepare your one-minute pitch. And suppose you were given full freedom to choose the medium in which you would present it. What would you do?

I want to suggest that the smartest choice of medium would be writing. If the person you are trying to persuade spends that minute reading carefully, you have the best chance of getting your message across. Give yourself at most two-hundred words (that's about what a person can read in a minute) and spend your twenty seven minutes writing a paragraph to support the truth in question. Write the best possible paragraph you can, starting from a point that is defined by the knowledge you share. Take into account the objections your reader will have (remember that you know a great deal about the reader's beliefs.)

This is the literary situation of the scholarly writer. You are working in the most efficient medium available for the transmission of knowledge to a very intelligent, very knowledgeable—highly "opinionated", if you will—and very attentive person, with whom you share a great deal of knowledge and the state of whose knowledge you know a great deal about. This reader is necessarily rather critical, to be sure. Your argument will persuade insofar as it is compatible with the reader's existing knowledge. The reader is constantly comparing what you are saying with what they already know (perhaps with what you have told them in the foregoing minutes, in the preceding paragraphs). They are trying to think the thought you are suggesting to them. In a word, they are trying to understand you.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Regular, Deliberate Practice

A favourite reader of this blog tells me she has stopped reading. Not only is my posting not as reliable as it has been in the past, my posts have been too long and impractical. (Maybe I was right, after all, to apologise for being so "philosophical".) My regular readers are important to me, so I'm going to do something about this starting already next week. I'll go back to posts written between and 6:30 and 7:00 in the morning, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and to writing mainly about how to write scholarly articles.

In fact, I think I need to write two articles of my own—one about the process, the other about the product. In the first, I will present in a comprehensive way my approach to establishing reliable "writing moments" for the composition of prose paragraphs. In the second, I will present my outline of the "standard social science article". My aim is, first and foremost, to be helpful. But I recognise that I also have a "normative" project. I think social science would be better off if its contributors were more deliberate about the presentation of their results. My posts for the next little while will be about clarifying my proposal for getting this to happen.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

To Open Minds

"To Albers mind, you couldn't get anywhere until you'd mastered the fundamentals. School was not a place to let loose and express yourself, or even to make art. School was a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later. His approach was a pragmatic one, steeped in an old-world ethos of diligence and craftsmanship, values often dramatically at odds with those in force in American schools today." (Frederick A. Horowitz)

For my birthday, my wonderful ex-wife and children recently got me the beautiful biography of Josef Albers, To Open Eyes (Phaidon, 2006), by Frederick Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz. I'm a huge admirer of Albers, both as an artist and as a teacher, and this book explains, in elaborate detail, why that is. Like most people, I first learned of his approach to teaching art through his book, Interaction of Color, which spoke to me immediately. "Because of the laboratory character of these studies," Albers wrote, "there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything, or to express something—or one's self." He was trying to open the students' eyes to colour, he wanted to get them to experience what colour does on the page. In that same spirit, I've long thought of my own project as opening students' minds to words.

Albers wanted to teach students how to produce particular visual effects simply by the careful arrangement of patches of colour. He was adamant that students would only learn how to do this by deliberate experimentation toward solutions to the simple problems he would set them. He did not want to teach them a "theory" of colour that their work might then demonstrate or illustrate. He wanted to make them good at organising colours deliberately. By a similar token, I want to make students good at arranging words, sentences and paragraphs into articles (little collections of "joints") with literary effects. In philosophy, this is the ability to write your concepts down. In science, it's being able to write down what you know.

While this does, as I wrote about recently*, ultimately involve "representation" (of facts) and "expression" (of beliefs), the objects and subjects of my authors' writing are not really any of my concern. I take it for granted that they know things and that they have something to say. This becomes merely the material and the occasion for thinking seriously about how to write. I do sometimes point out that an author has not adequately supported a claim in a particular paragraph, or that their theory sounds very strange or puzzling. This is not a comment on their ideas but their expression of them; it is a critique of what they have accomplished on the page (with their hands), not what's on their minds (in their heads). If they reach a conclusion about their ideas on this basis, however, they are of course welcome to do so.

"School," says Horowitz in his introduction, "was [for Albers] a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later." That's my attitude too. I don't really expect students (at any level) to discover the "truth" about their subject matter. I don't care whether or not what they are saying is a correct description of reality. I care about whether the words they write carry a definite meaning. Whether they make sense. Just as Albers cared mainly whether the student's work had an effect, whether it made a definite visual impression. Our common goal is to teach people how to "work effectively". It is to this end that we must open their eyes and minds.

*See this post and this one. Note that I'm here also echoing Horowitz's worry about the "values ... in force in American schools today". "In many schools," he writes earlier, "[visual training has been replaced] with courses and exercises that address social, scientific, political, gender, and ethnic concerns." This looks a lot like the displacement of the prose essay in the composition classroom that Freddie deBoer cautions against. Horowitz admits that our values look "old-fashioned". I prefer the hipper expression: I'm old-school!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Leisure Day!

"Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

In a recent column, Steve Fuller argues that "'privacy invasion' has become the new 'worker exploitation' in our era of informational capitalism." So we need what he calls "Marx 2.0" to mobilise an effective resistance. But, as I argued on Wednesday, Marx's original focus on the exploitation of workers missed the underlying or pre-requisite exploitation of nature's bounty. It's not the worker's labour that is exploited, but the worker's leisure. Capital does not really need workers to achieve its goals; machines and natural processes do most of the actual work. Capital needs mainly to prevent Diggers: people who "work the lands in common and ... make the waste grounds grow". Capital needs to get us to rely on work for purchasing power, and on purchasing power to satisfy our needs. Capitalism needs consumers, not workers.

Interestingly, Norman Mailer made this argument for a kind of Marx 2.0 way back in the late 1950s. In a short piece called "From Surplus Value to the Mass-media", he analysed mass consumerism as an exploitation of the "personal leisure" that is needed for us to repair the damage inflicted on us by "a war-and-pleasure economy". What is so appalling about surveillance, if you ask me, is that it invades a privacy that has already been exploited. After all, our privacy is, let's say, that secret part of our leisure that has not already been discovered by the State and the Corporation and tapped for profit.

Mailer was very concerned about the consequences of this on "the mind of civilised man". Indeed, the full quote from which the epigraph is taken runs as follows:

It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man. (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

What does all this have to do with academic writing? you might ask. Well, let's remember the original Greek meaning of "school", namely, "spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness". Our schools are precisely what should prevent the destruction of the mind of humankind by providing at least some people (and all people until a certain age) with means for "the adequate exercise of personal leisure" to recover from the "psychic havoc" of capitalism. As one might expect, however, they are all too often just another site of exploitation.

Since this is the International Workers' Day, also sometimes called Labour Day, I'd like to end this post by joining those who are calling for its reframing as Basic Income Day or what I would call Leisure Day. What we really need is not "coveillance" to push back against state and corporate surveillance by redefining "intellectual property", as Steve argues. What we need is a direct and adequate compensation for the hoarding of the earth's natural productivity by capitalist rent seekers. Our privacy means very little without leisure. We don't need to own our private thoughts. We need, first and foremost, time to think them!