Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Write More, Publish Less

In Monday's post I said something that might seem contradictory. On the one hand, I said that there's "no shortage of writing in the world"; on the other hand, I said that "we need to write more".* What was I trying to say, then?

Well, obviously, my view is that there is too much bad writing in the world. By "bad" I mean writing that doesn't do its job, and there are of course many jobs for writing to do. My beat is academic or scholarly writing, and at the heart of such writing is what Bertrand Russell called the "essential business" of assertion. A scholar is able to competently assert and deny facts in prose. And, by "prose", I don't just mean writing in complete sentences. I also mean writing coherent paragraphs that each say one thing and support or elaborate it.

So when I say there's too much bad academic writing out there, I mean there's too much writing that presents itself as "scholarship" but doesn't actually consist of well-formed paragraphs that competently assert or deny facts. I am not saying that this is the only business that scholars are in, but I am going to insist that it is an "essential service", if you will, in the knowledge society. Even a scholarly journal article can include practical advice, normative recommendations, and political proposals. But the substance of the article should be an argument for the existence or non-existence of particular things in particular relations.

The solution is not to shame scholars into writing less. But it may well be to shame them into publishing less. (Along with this, of course, there should be a relaxing of the pressure to "publish or perish".) Instead of publishing bad prose regularly, scholars should write just as often, but without the immediate ambition to get into print. They should spend a long time both rehearsing their arguments and training their style, so that the work they do in fact publish clearly presents their justified, true beliefs about the world. Their peers are then in a good position to learn from them and to correct them on points of fact where they happen to know better.

In short, the contradiction between there already being too much writing in the world and the need to write more, not less, is resolved by the suggestion that we should leave the great bulk of our writing unpublished. Professional athletes get most of their exercise off the actual track or field on which they compete; professional musicians do most of their playing outside the concert hall. Professional scholars should do most of their writing as preparation for publication. They should write more and publish less.
*Truth be told, I added that "more" to Monday's post just before writing this one. It's what I meant.

Monday, November 23, 2015


"The physicist who wishes to understand the problems of the social sciences with the help of an analogy from his own field would have to imagine a world in which he knew by direct observation the inside of the atoms and had neither the possibility of making experiments with lumps of matter nor opportunity to observe more than the interactions of a comparatively few atoms during a limited period." (F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science)

One way to understand a "knowledge society" is as a society in which social problems are presumed to arise from ignorance. The solution to these problems, therefore, is to be found in their careful study, resulting in greater knowledge. The ignorance that underlies a social problem, meanwhile, may be of one of two kinds. The social problem may arise from ignorance among certain individuals or groups within society; these people are ignorant of something that the rest of the society has knowledge of. Alternatively, the social problem may arise from a general ignorance—from an absence, anywhere in society, of the needed knowledge. The first kind of problem is to be solved by education, the second, by science.

The particular social problem that interests me here, of course, is the sorry state of "the prose of the world". While there is no shortage of writing in the world, its ability to represent the world (the facts of which it is composed, "everything that is the case") is doubtful at best. In particular, the genre known as "academic" or "scholarly" writing is falling into increasing disrepair and, accordingly, disrepute.

The conventional wisdom among academic writing instructors is that we need more research and more teaching in the area. That is, it is approached as any other social problem in the knowledge society. (It should be noted that writing instructors are natural ideologues of the knowledge society. It's in our interest.) The problem is that students don't know how to write. Some of what they need to know we already know and only need to impart to them; some of it, however, requires careful "scientific" study of the problem—field work, discourse analysis, etc.

I disagree with the conventional view. I don't think the problem of academic writing stems from ignorance about writing, neither the student's nor the teacher's. We don't need to know more about writing to recover our prose faculties. We just need to write more.

As such, inspired by Hayek's words in the epigraph, I want to somewhat brashly declare a counter-revolution in writing instruction. Instead of approaching the problem of writing "from the outside", i.e., as something to be studied by looking at the surfaces of the students' texts, comparing them to the surfaces of exemplary writing, and then deriving "rules" for good writing that the students, it seems, need to learn, I want to insist that we "know by direct observation" how good writing works. Both we, ourselves, and they, our students, can recognize a clearly written text that yields an understanding of a particular set of facts. We can also recognize when a text of our own making is clear and clean.

With a moment's preparation, anyone can sit down for 27-minutes and experience both the difficulty and the satisfaction, the joy and the pain, of writing down what you know in a coherent paragraph. In that experience, repeated hundreds of times in the course of an education, and then thousands of times again throughout a lifetime, lies the alleged "secret" of good writing. No amount of experimentation with lumps of text will more effectively reveal the "mystery" of writing or shed light into the darkness of our supposed ignorance of the matter.

Let's stop pretending we don't understand how to solve this problem. If our students wrote paragraphs for half an hour a day, 32 weeks of the year, (that's 80 hours per year) the prose of the world would be in good hands. Today, I'm afraid, our prose is manufactured in the devil's workshop.

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Must Submit!

The other day, I finished teaching a crash course in academic writing. The structure was simple: students had been asked to submit a paper that they had written for a previous course. In my course, they would rewrite it, essentially by taking the "9-hour challenge". We had about 10 hours of classroom time set aside and they were expected to spend at least 10 hours writing outside of class. Like I say, a simple arrangement.

During the first class, I presented them with my definition of knowledge, the "writing moment", the importance of paragraphs, and the outline of a standard social science paper. This included my paragraph-for-paragraph instructions for writing a three-paragraph introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion. Their first task, to be submitted for the next class (the 2nd of 3) was to compose those four paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. A minimum of 2 hours of work.

Most participants submitted those paragraphs, though many admitted that they had not observed the 27-minute discipline very rigorously. Some of them had probably just done the assignment in the usual way, the night before it was due. I told them they would have to take it more seriously for next time. After all, they would now have to write 14 clearly defined paragraphs (two for the background, two for the theory, two for method, six for analysis and two for the discussion). They would need to spend exactly 7 hours doing this, 1 or 2 hours per day (there were about 5 days to the next class meeting.)

As you (unfortunately) might expect, things didn't go so well. Hardly anyone submitted the final assignment (the course was completely voluntary) and half the students stayed away from our final class (the 3rd of 3). This led to an interesting discussion with those who turned up anyway.

One student's remarks, in particular, stuck with me. He told me that he enjoyed the course and had gotten a great deal out of it. He hadn't submitted the final assignment because he had decided to spend his time doing something other than writing paragraphs, namely, thinking about the structure of the paper and "working on it". He had revisited my tutorials (available online) and read my blog and he found it all very edifying and even inspirational. He complimented me on my very good advice and told me he agreed with it entirely.

But he had not, like I say, spent seven hours writing fourteen paragraphs like I had suggested. He had decided to "do something else".

We went back and forth about it for a while. He suggested that building the structure of the paper was more important (for him, right now) than weaving (what I sometimes call) the texture of the paragraph. I countered that, if he thought only about structure but not about the materials it would be built out if, he would erect only a tower of garbage. (The discussion was frank like this, but I think he would agree that it was pleasant.) I told him he was trying to learn the rules and strategies of football but not running his laps with the team. He'd be no good to us come game time no matter how well he understood the problem and "agreed with" my (the coach's) strategy.

Again he said he agreed with me completely, he had just chosen to do something different. In exasperation, I finally said, "I don't want you to agree with me. I want you to submit to my will." I could also have said what I did say on the first day, "You won't learn this by believing what I tell you but by doing as I say." In fact, it's fine if you don't agree with me while you're doing it. Like Niels Bohr's horseshoe, it works even if you don't believe in it.

My exasperation must be like that of the doctor who is treating the high blood pressure of a patient who insists on spending every day in front of the TV. You suggest going for a "brisk walk" for merely 30 minutes every day and they say they understand and agree. But at the next consultation, they tell you that, well, they walked to the store last week (because the car was in the shop) and cleaned the house so that's got to count for something, right? Wrong. What works is deliberate, disciplined exercise. This is true both for general health issues and specific skills training. And it goes for the body as well as mind.

As you can imagine, I find moments of lucidity like this somewhat disconcerting. When you are confronted with naturally talented people who are insistently undisciplined and cheerfully disobedient, and therefore won't actually learn what you are trying to teach them, you begin to feel like a fascist, like your attempt to educate them is actually an attempt to subjugate them. There's nothing more disheartening (and confusing) than hearing someone tell you that they found your lecture "inspiring" while, in the very next sentence, telling you that, "of course", they didn't actually do the thing you suggested.

The only solution I can think of is to go back to grading on a curve. Give the students something to do that you know will make them smarter. Then give the good grades to the students who actually do what you tell them and, therefore, outperform those who are happy just to believe what you've said.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Disenjoyment: Science and Loathing in Writing Instruction

Earlier this year, I suddenly realized that my impulses run counter to an important trend in writing instruction—one that follows a broader trend in higher education. The trend is to base teaching, not on the experience of teachers, but on the evidence of studies of teaching. On a number of occasions that I've recently attended, I've noticed this strong emphasis on what the "research" tells us when thinking about how to teach students how to write, from their first year of undergraduate study to their last year in a PhD program. It's as if writing instructors no longer trust their intuitions. They want to implement writing methods (and the means to teach them) that "studies have shown" to be effective. I find this trend distressing.

Why wouldn't we want to base writing instruction on the careful study of how students learn to write? I think I can best explain what I mean by beginning with the two sources of trouble in contemporary writing instruction that Dino Knudsen rightly identifies when he introduces his "deliberate practice" approach:

1) Many teachers do not write well themselves.
2) Many teachers do not know how to teach writing in their field.

I suppose these are themselves both "empirical" claims, and they could be (and no doubt already are) subjected to careful scientific study. But let's grant them at least for the sake of argument. My first question is: can science help us to develop teaching strategies that don't depend on solving these two problems first? That is, can we develop writing modules, to be taught by writing instructors, that can succeed in improving student writing without affecting the ability of their course instructors to either do their own writing or support the students' writing? When I look at the approaches that are suggested, this often seems to be the goal: we want to make students better writers while accepting that their teachers aren't very good at it.

My second question is this: if we solved Dino's two problems, would there be any significant problem of "student writing" left to solve? That is, if the students' content teachers were good writers and knew how to teach writing, would there be any need for a "science of writing" to figure out what good writing is and how to teach it? Both of these questions are, of course, rhetorical ones, and my view is clearly that the answer is "no". I don't think there is any hope for writing instruction, no matter how much research it is backed by, if we ignore the competence of those who teach the students in their regular courses.

The problem, in my opinion, is precisely the separation of the writing problem from the problem of knowing. As a "writing coach" I'm fully aware that there's a sense in which I'm part of the problem. I guess that also puts me in a position to be part of the solution. This post is small step towards it, I hope.

Let me suggest two additional, and perhaps deeper, problems that underlie the current "crisis" of student writing. (I do believe there is a crisis, and I believe it goes beyond student writing. It's academic writing as such that is coming undone at its foundations.) Here are two theses I'd like to add to Dino's:

3) Many teachers hate reading student writing.
4) Many teachers hate writing.

I think the real driver of "scientific" interest in the writing process is the search for solutions to an underlying difficulty that we might call "disenjoyment". I thought I'd have to coin this word (it is not often used) but it already exists. I'd like to use it in a way that resembles the use of "disenchantment" to describe the influence of modern science on our understanding of both nature and culture, i.e., an undermining of a belief in magic. Modern science has taught us to understand the world in which we live without positing "occult" forces or divine interventions. Instead of miracles, we have accidents; instead of creation, we have evolution. Disenjoyment is the influence of modern science, not on our faith in magical powers, but on our joy in artful making. Please note that disenchantment can be a good thing, if you like, and disenjoyment still make you a little sad, as it should.

What I would like to accuse modern instruction of is to propose approaches to writing that constitute a "work-around" for a lack of joy in writing. My suggestion is that no such work-around is possible in the long run. If we rely on it, we will end up transforming all writing into the loathsome activity that some teachers, it seems, already see it as. Like a crutch, scientific studies of writing take the "load" off our hearts and, in the end, will foster a kind of writing that, if we tried to enjoy it, would break them. Good writing, and certainly the good writing that should be modeled by writing instructors, is enjoyable writing. I do not say that writing should be easy, nor even always a joy, but it should be enjoy-able. One should be able to enjoy it.

This will be a long argument. And I'm perfectly willing to develop it in reaction to forceful criticism. So please bring it on in the comments. I'll start developing this theme next week.