Hamlet for Academic Purposes

Imagine a first-year cohort of undergraduate English majors consisting of 200 students. In the first semester, they take a required course called, say, “Hamlet, Unlimited”. During the course, they read the play, watch three or four performances, and read a half dozen essays about the play, such as Eliot’s “Hamlet and his Problems” and Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem, Unlimited. (Obviously these selections are entirely at the discretion of the responsible course faculty.)

A series of lectures by a Shakespeare scholar is offered and the students are assigned to small TA-led tutorials (the TAs might simply be older students who have taken the course previously.) They are also offered workshops with a librarian, who shows them how to search the literature, and writing workshops where they can work on their prose style. Both workshops are centered on well-defined tasks, such as finding particular kinds of texts and writing particular kinds of paragraphs. These activities are entirely voluntary; the students can pick and choose what they want to attend.

At the end of the semester, the lecturer assigns a 72-hour, 1000-word essay question. It will always be something simple like “How did Hamlet feel about his mother?” and no further guidance on how to answer it is offered. The students are to have spent the semester readying themselves for a question of this kind, one that the lectures and their reading will have prepared them to answer. There are strict formatting guidelines, so that all students submit papers that are visually similar (same font, line-spacing, and referencing style.)

The essays are graded on a curve by a panel of two internal examiners and one external examiner. The panel is sequestered from all other activities for one week (perhaps in a retreat setting) to distribute 40 As , 60 Bs, 60 Cs, and 40 Ds or Fs. (These may be further qualified with + or -. And there would be some flexibility in boundary cases.) The graded (anonymous) essays would be made available to all students.

Such a course, it seems to me, would go a long way towards restoring sanity to the modern university, rife with both grade inflation and performance anxiety. The students would have a straightforward problem — that of becoming better scholars — and every bit of effort they put into solving it will be rewarded. Everyone, including the faculty, will have a clear idea of what is possible given a little effort, and the students’ minds will have been focused on a topic that is of central importance in their discipline. A similar course can, of course, be imagined for any other major. The trick is simply to choose materials that everyone in a discipline does well to be familiar with.

How to Imagine a Fact

In my teaching and coaching, I am always looking for the repeatable, trainable activity of writing. This, I believe, should be the focus of instruction: the thing you can safely tell the student to do with an expectation of seeing improvement. To this end, I’ve been telling scholars and students to write paragraphs, the units of prose composition. I will go on doing this, of course, but I have decided to open another front. I will tell them also to think seriously about what they know. In fact, I want to suggest that the exercise of imagination is a repeatable, trainable activity. It’s something we should be encouraging students to do because it will make them better prose writers.

If paragraphs are the unit of composition, let’s say that images are the units of composure. In imagination, we bring our beliefs and desires, our concepts and emotions, our senses and motives together. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” as Wittgenstein put it. But how, exactly, do we do this? And how do we become better at it?

I already suggest you take a moment at the end of the day to plan a paragraph to write tomorrow. This moment can also be used to train your imagination. It should last no longer than 10 minutes, during which you call to mind some fact you know to be the case. Now, a fact is always an arrangement of things, so you do well to imagine those things and give them names. You should also give the arrangement itself a name, and once something has a name it can be a “thing” in its own right, which is to say you can imagine it as part of another, larger fact.

If I’m not mistaken, you’d like an example about now. Here’s one:

Microsoft is a hierarchical organization.

As an arrangement of things, this fact consists of organizational roles that are filled by people called “members”. To imagine this fact is to imagine that some of these members are at the “top” and others are at the “bottom” — usually there will more people at the bottom than at the top. This arrangement is called a “hierarchy” and I will ask you to notice that this word doesn’t name the fact; it names the arrangement of these particular things, but that name could also be used to name the arrangement of the members of another organization. The fact is here named by the entire sentence, “Microsoft is a hierarchical organization,” not just the word “hierarchy”. (It takes a proposition to state a fact, not merely a word, which can only name a thing.)

So we’ve just noticed something important about imagining a fact. If something is a fact about one set of particular things it can also be a fact about another. “Microsoft is a hierarchical organization,” says something about Microsoft that could just as well be true of Google. To imagine that Microsoft is is a hierarchical organization requires the same sort of effort as imagining that Google is a hierarchical organization. And this brings us immediately to the most important thing about imagining facts: to imagine that something is the case is always to imagine a bunch of things that are not the case. That is, a fact is always contingent on other things not being the case.

There is no one, simple image of Microsoft’s hierarchy, or Google’s. A triangle with Satya Nadella at the apex would be as true as an elaborate tree diagram that reached down to the lowliest coder — the difference is a question of detail, not truth. What is important is that any particular image always suggests things that could be arranged differently. Every element could be replaced by another element. Nadella could be someone else and Microsoft wouldn’t be any less a hierarchy. On the other hand, though it is difficult, it is not impossible to imagine a significant “flattening” of the organization to destroy its hierarchical structure. The ability to imagine such a cataclysm is actually an important part of the ability to meaningfully imagine that an organization is a hierarchy.

This brings us to a final and crucial point. The “things” in the arrangement become “objects” by virtue of imagining the possible arrangements that aren’t actually the case. Objectivity is the perception of things in terms of their possible relations with other things rather than the merely subjective impression they leave on us. A fact is “objective” in that it has to co-exist with every other fact. It’s not just that in imagining a fact you have to picture where one fact ends and another begins; rather, you have to imagine where one fact must end if another is to begin. It is necessary that the actual be possible, and what makes one fact possible is that other facts don’t exclude it. (Wittgenstein originally argued that “atomic facts” are facts that can be otherwise without consideration of other facts; but one way of reading his later work is as a rejection of the existence of such factual atoms.)

So, to sum up, here’s how to imagine a fact. First, give it a name by composing a sentence. Next, imagine the things that the fact comprises. Name them. Now, consider them from an objective point view, in terms of their possible combination with other things, i.e., other objects that can be meaningfully combined with them. All of this should take no more than 10 minutes in the case of facts you know well. There should be many facts you know well enough to meaningfully imagine for ten minutes. The next day, compose the paragraph. Render the composition of pictures in your mind as a composition of words on your page. Perform your composure.

Orwellian Daydreams

In a recent post, I tried to recover the role of imagination in George Orwell’s view of writing. “Probably it is better,” he said in “Politics and the English Language”, “to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.” What your writing finally represents, then, is not the state of things in the world, but your state of mind as regards those things. When Orwell said that your prose should be “like a window pane”, he didn’t mean a window on the world but on your mind. Your writing can’t give the reader a direct view of the facts; but it can show the reader what you think the facts are. You can’t communicate the facts directly to the reader, but you can communicate your experience of those facts. You can tell the reader how you imagine the world to be.

Perhaps this is obvious but it bears restating. Indeed, I find it interesting that Orwell’s famous remark about “the first duty of intelligent men” sometimes being “the restatement of the obvious” comes from a 1939 review of a book by Bertrand Russell, who, in addition to being one of the great philosophers, was also Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mentor. In his introduction to the Tractatus, Russell aptly summarized the underlying (and ultimately too simple) assumption of Wittgenstein’s early work as follows: “The essential business of language is to assert and deny facts.” Wittgenstein’s book starts with the famous assertion (though he would say it’s not really an assertion of fact) that “The world is everything that is the case.” But my favorite line in that book comes a bit later on and brings us back to the imagination. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts.” It is this ability with which all good writing must begin.

Rereading Orwell’s review of Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis, I was struck by how well it anticipates the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, perhaps a bit distressingly, the themes of 2018.

It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two and two will make five when the Leader says so. Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organised lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave-society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves.

Let me emphasize that last sentence: “It is quite easy to imagine…” Ten years later, of course, he would publish the novel that demonstrated just how easy it is to imagine such a state, providing the referent for what we today simply call an “Orwellian nightmare”. We all have a pretty clear picture in our minds when we see those words.

As a counterpoint, I want to suggest a more pleasurable act of imagination. I want to suggest we take Orwell’s writing advice as a means to heed his political warning and propose that we “get [our] meaning as clear as [we] can through pictures and sensations” before we commit ourselves to the page. For years I’ve been telling people to decide at the end of the day what they will say during an appointed moment on the next. They often ask me how they should “prepare” themselves, and my sense is they are imagining a prodigious amount of reading, and note-taking, and pondering, and suffering in general. It sounds nightmarish to me and I always tell them that if they find it hard to decide what to write tomorrow they are doing it wrong. They should just pick one of the hundreds of things that they had a good understanding of already last week and express it in a simple declarative sentence. They should pick something that is “easy to imagine” today and then devote themselves to the very real difficulty of writing it down tomorrow. This “preparatory” act of imagination shouldn’t take more than ten minutes and it should be an entirely pleasant experience.

I honestly believe that this free, playful exercise of imagination is an essential bulwark against totalitarianism. It is what the dictators, if they exist, are trying to prevent. Let us call it Orwellian daydreaming.


One way to find out whether someone can read is to give them a text they haven’t seen before and ask them to read it out loud. Depending on the difficulty of the text and the quality of the performance, we can also get a good sense of their reading level. Does the reader recognize the words? Do they read with an intonation that suggests understanding? This will give us insight into their grammar and vocabulary. And this is all very useful to a teacher who is trying to help them improve.

I call it a “performance” and I wonder if something similar is possible with writing ability. Can a teacher ask someone to perform their ability to write — “live”, as it were?  Now, I don’t just mean typing, of course. I mean the act of putting one’s thoughts down on paper. Is that something that a writer — someone who claims to be able to write — should be able to perform in “real time”, in front of a teacher. Should we be able to do this in front of a larger audience even? Consider, for example, the student in a music class who is asked by the teacher to play something while everyone else listens. Is writing something we can watch people do well or less well before our very eyes, or is skill here mainly something that is apparent in the finished product — in “polished prose”?

Does watching me write this paragraph, for example, reveal with any greater clarity how good a writer I am? Could our opinion of a writer change on the basis of first-hand observation of the word-for-word, letter-for-letter, process by which their text was made? Obviously, the video only captures a part of the writing process. Many writers engage in a great deal of revision before they are satisfied with their work. Perhaps we could look at that process too? Indeed, when we see an marked-up manuscript by a famous writer, we imagine that the draft was produced in a sort of flow, right? We think that it was somehow “given” to the author and that the editorial decisions revealed by the red or blue pencil are where the distinct quality of the text was produced. And yet, surely, the video version of this paragraph is not uninformative about how my post was written?

Does it prove more convincingly that I can write? Does is undermine any part of the illusion I’ve otherwise created, here and elsewhere, that I am able to commit my thoughts to the page? Does the difference between what the video shows and what the “printed” paragraph below says reveal my insincerity, my vanity, even my incompetence? Of course not. We know full well that our favorite musicians produce the recordings we love through many takes and, often, splices. And yet, if we could not sit them down in front of the piano and hear them bring off a plausible performance of their music, we’d be a little disappointed. Most importantly, again, from the point view of their teachers, too great a difference between what  our students can do in front of us and what they finally hand in makes it impossible to know what to tell them if they want to improve. The part of the process that makes their text as good as it is is shrouded in too much mystery.

Anyway…this post isn’t a finished thought. Just an experiment. I have a hunch that we need to work more directly with the activity of writing. Writing is essentially a matter of covering your tracks and that’s what makes it so hard to teach. Good writing, by its very nature, conceals the difficulty of producing it. And yet I think we should try looking at our students while they write. We should see what they actually do. But let me stress I don’t mean some sort of video capture experiment for the purpose of doing research in writing pedagogy. I don’t mean we need to learn something in general about how students actually write. (I can imagine.) I mean we need to look at particular students as they write and suggest particular improvements to the way they do it. Therein, perhaps, we’ll get access to their style.

Prose Like A Window Pane

And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

(Paul Simon, “Graceland”)



I was surprised to see Julia take the implication of Orwell’s trope to be that language can (and should) “capture reality”. Many years ago, on my other blog, I wrote a post about “Politics and the English Language”, in which I drew attention to this passage:

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.

In that post, I was trying to remind us that Orwell did actually care about what the reader thinks. But the much more important thing in this passage is the role that imagination plays. When Orwell suggests that our prose should be like a window pane, he’s not suggesting that it should capture reality. He’s not saying that your writing should give the reader a clear view of the the world or the facts that constitute it. He is saying that it should present clearly what you have in mind. Language can’t be asked to “capture reality” but it can be tasked with expressing thought. Indeed, Orwell (unlike Bertrand Russell and the early Wittgenstein) isn’t even going to limit us to using language to express thought or describing facts. He’s happy to let you begin with “pictures and sensations”.

This is very important in my approach to academic writing. I do sometimes say, often invoking Wittgenstein, that a paragraph is “a picture of the facts”. But it’s not a picture of the facts themselves. It’s not so much a photograph as a drawing. It’s a picture of the facts as you imagine them, a representation, in words, of your image of the facts. When writing, you are trying to evoke the same image in the mind of the reader as you have in your own. Your prose should be like a window in your mind.