Teaching or Training

As writing instructors, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about genre conventions. We imagine that our students are struggling to understand what is expected of them when they do their assignments. We imagine, I suppose, that they are perfectly capable of communicating with their friends and family but are unsure of how to present their ideas in an “academic” setting. Sometimes we approach the problem in terms of a “cultural divide”, either imagining that there is some distinct barrier between youth culture and the culture of the university, or, more literally, by supposing that “elite Western education” constitutes some special obstacle for foreign students or marginalized groups. In all cases, we imagine that the solution is to teach them what the genre requires, which is to say, to give them knowledge they are presumably lacking.

I have long been skeptical of this approach. Even to imagine that the students know how to communicate personally with each other is, I think, a bit optimistic. I don’t remember being particularly confident as a young man communicating my hopes and desires to other people my age. Certainly, I don’t remember doing very much of this in writing. (It should be said that we didn’t have social media back then and it wasn’t until I graduated from university that I moved away and began communicating by letters and email. I think it would be a stretch to think of these communications as compositions. But it’s not my impression that communication on social media today displays any particular “writtenness”. It seems very wedded to oral conventions.) I suspect that the idea that the difficulty lies mainly in the genre, not in the use of written language itself, has been misleading us for some time. (The historical roots of this will be the subject of another post.)

Let us think about this by way of two of my favorite analogies. (I am aware that these aren’t everyone’s favorites.) Suppose we were not teaching our students to write but how to box or dance. A boxing match certainly has rules and conventions that are worth knowing, just as the tango is a particular art with teachable elements. But does it make sense to think of competence here mainly as a kind of knowledge? I would argue that what is much more important is the physical training that boxers and dancers subject themselves to. This both improves their general fitness and their specific ability to make the moves that are required of them. Good boxers and good dancers are not demonstrating an understanding of rules and conventions but the product of years and years of experience, many hours of deliberate practice.

In fact, a boxing coach or dance instructor who suspects that the aspirant isn’t practicing between classes is not going to make up for this by presenting them with ever more theory. Under some conditions, the instructor will simply terminate the relationship, considering it to be a waste of everyone’s time. I think we need to apply a similar approach to writing. Whatever we do teach our students about writing, we must insist that they train it if they are to have any hope of actually doing it well. The ability to write confident prose is grounded in deep dispositions that must be strengthened through discipline. We cannot assume that our students just need to be given instructions that their hands can then easily carry out on the page.

My suspicion is that we are neglecting 90% of the problem by not being very explicit about the need to practice. When we see bad student writing, we should not assume that they misunderstood the genre (and certainly not the assignment), we should suspect that they haven’t been practicing. Politely explaining what was expected of them doesn’t do them any favors. Our first line of feedback should not be to correct their mistakes but to make them try again. Indeed, the very first thing we should do is have them read their work out loud to each other. The things they are not able to do well will here be as apparent to them as their inability to dance or fight would be on the floor or in the ring. We can then assign them the simple things to do that, through repeated practice, will make them better writers.

The Fundamentals of the Academy are Strong

I’m aware of the dangers of making such a statement. On September 15, 2008, while campaigning for president, John McCain declared that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” A few hours later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering a global financial meltdown. Time magazine has accordingly called it the fourth most “unfortunate political one-liner” ever uttered, bested only by “read my lips”, “I did not have sexual relations”, and “I am not a crook.” Indeed, Time reminds us that McCain’s bad timing repeated, almost verbatim, Herbert Hoover’s words of assurance four days before the stock market crash of 1929: “The fundamental business of the country, that is, production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” So when I now declare the production and distribution of knowledge in the university to be on a sound critical basis, it is not without trepidation. Perhaps tomorrow another scandal will make it appear that the whole edifice of higher education is a giant Ponzi scheme and extortion racket!

I was spurred to thinking about this by two opinion pieces published on the same day. Both declared academia to be “fundamentally broken”, albeit in two very different ways. In the Guardian, citing troubling mental health statistics, Julian Kirchherr argued that “the current PhD system is fundamentally broken”, while a blog post at Scientific American by the 500 Women Scientists collective argued that “academia is fundamentally broken and incapable of dealing with harassment”. The issues that they are addressing are of course both real and serious, and I’m sure it is intended as hyperbole, but before we even imagine tearing the whole academy down and starting over I think we should reflect on our foundations a little more carefully. I don’t think the situation is as a bad as we think.

I want to begin by defending both McCain and Hoover’s “unfortunately” timed pronouncements. (Let me make it absolutely clear, however, that I’m not defending Bush, Clinton, or Nixon!) What they were saying was in a certain sense true enough: in 1929 and 2008 the problem was not the fundamental productive capacity of the nation, but the circulation of money, the availability of credit. There was no shortage of supply or demand, just a lack of money to connect the two. The problem, as both McCain and Hoover were trying to explain, was financial not economic. The solution, accordingly, would not be a fundamental reorganization of the economy but a recentering, if you will, of the economy around its fundamental strengths. Indeed, some would argue that this has more or less been accomplished in both cases. (Others would rightly emphasize that a great deal remains to be done to avoid future crises.) I am aware that this sort of sophistry will not convince everyone, nor prevent them from making jokes. But it does, I want to insist, have some truth to it and it applies in an important way to the question of the academy’s allegedly fundemantal “brokenness”.

Just as the crises of 1929 and 2008 were not economic but financial, the problems that beset the academy today are not epistemic but social, not academic but political, and in that sense the institution is not (at least not yet) fundamentally broken. (I grant that social pressures can in extreme cases undermine intellectual foundations.) What is needed, I want to argue, is return of the social machinery of academia to the fundamental problem of knowledge, we need to recenter our scholarship on the production and distribution of truth, rather than trying to leverage our intellectual output in the service of political and, yes, economic goals — things like “justice” and “growth”, often brought together under the banner of “impact”.

In the same way that the economy was being distorted by “synthetic” financial products in 2008, so too is scholarship being distorted by the wrong sorts of incentives and “moral hazards”. They have been widely discussed, and I won’t go into them here, I want to look at our strengths. I want to show that we can do away with the administrative superstructure that caused this mess and rebuild on foundations that are, in fact, not broken at all.

In what sense, then are our academic “fundamentals” strong? In what sense can we declare that the “fundamental business” of the Academy rests on a “sound and prosperous basis”? First, consider the raw availability of intelligence and curiosity in the population. Millions of young people the world over attend university and many of them are eager to continue on to pursue graduate studies. (This, to answer The 500 Women Scientists, includes increasing numbers of women, who have already gained parity in some fields.) There is some variability in the trends, but, in general, academic pursuits are not being eschewed by the most intelligent and curious among us. It has even been suggested that the general intelligence of the population is naturally increasing. We’re getting smarter and smarter with every generation.

Second, the store of existing knowledge is both well-maintained and easily accessible. Our libraries do an excellent job of maintaining collections of books and articles and we have better and better means of searching them. Moreover, the system of email and blogs and social media makes it increasingly easy for researchers to contact each other directly and informally exchange ideas and challenge each other’s viewpoints. Never before have we had such promising conditions for the exchange of knowledge, and the situation is only likely to improve. If something it known, it is increasingly likely to be available to others to know as well. And if a falsehood is believed, it is increasingly likely to be corrected by someone who knows better.

Fortunately, there’s good reason to believe that rhetoric of a “fundamental brokenness” is not being used in a literal way. Asked for solutions to the sexual harassment problem in academia, Kathryn Clancy, who served on the committee that produced the NASEM report, has taken a somewhat hard line. “Burn it all down,” she said to the Washington Post, “and let’s start over.”  That’s certainly the line one would take on a system that is “fundamentally broken”, but I was glad to see that she softened this view when she talked to ScienceNews, noting that radical change “would be harmful to the people [she’s] trying to help” since “dismantling the system immediately, given the way sexism and racism still operate, means we wouldn’t have a clear lane for success.” Addressing the mental health crisis among PhD students, Kerchherr also ends up taking a more reformist view. He proposes to tweak the incentive structures and “fix the broken PhD machine”. Here, again, one imagines that radical changes wouldn’t bring much comfort to a PhD students who is already suffering under the strain of intellectual life.

Note that the idea of fixing something, rather than burning it down and starting over, already belies the language of “fundamental brokenness”. Indeed, if I’m as right as I hope I am, the system is not fundamentally broken. The incentives are just a little misaligned. What is needed is merely to shift the system (gently) back onto its true foundations. Exactly how to do that will have to be the subject of another post and the result of much discussion, but, whatever solutions we come up with, we should presume that the foundations are strong, not that everything is going to fall apart any day now.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, we should keep encouraging curious and intelligent people to pursue academic careers and assure them that they have the power to reject some of the more perverse incentives they may be offered. As I said many years ago, if you’ve devoted yourself to a life of the mind, you have an obligation not to engage in soul-destroying labor or moral degradation. Despite occassional outward appearances, it is my firm conviction that you are certainly not actually obligated to do so.

Something to Ask Your Students to Do

Students taking your course should become both more knowledgeable and more articulate about its content. You, of course, are already more knowledgeable and articulate than most on the subject, which is presumably how you got the teaching gig. That means that if there’s something in the readings for the course that you think is interesting then it’s probably worth the students’ time to learn it too. They may not find it as interesting as you do, and they may not be able to converse about it as intelligently as you can, but they should be able to sense its relevance in the context of your teaching.

With this in mind, find a single page in the course literature you have already covered that contains a fact or notion that interests you. It’s important to emphasize to the students that there’s something on this page that you find very interesting. It’s also important to remind them that this should not be the first time they’re reading the page; it was part of their class preparation. Finally, make sure they know the full agenda for the class, i.e., what will happen for the next 45 minutes.

Here’s the exercise:

  1. Give the students five minutes to read the page and identify the most interesting thing (to them) on it.
  2. Have them write down a simple, declarative sentence that states the interesting fact or defines the interesting notion.
  3. Give them five minutes to think about what they might say if they were given three minutes in front of the class to present it.
  4. Give them 14 minutes to write a paragraph that presents the fact or notion in the most interesting way they can.
  5. Select two or three students at random to come down in front of the class and make those three-minute presentations but do not let them bring their paragraph or the source with them.
  6. In the time that remains (of a 45-minute lecture), have them edit and proofread their paragraphs.
  7. Have them hand in their work.

Read all the paragraphs before the next class. Begin the class by asking two or three students to make a three-minute presentation. Choose them on the basis of the work they submitted — perhaps according to whether they found the same thing that you did interesting. Also, choose two or three paragraphs to look at with the whole class. These should be selected because they offer an occasion for you to show them something about writing, because they display either notable strengths or notable weaknesses.

The important thing to get across is that students in your class should be able to do these things well. You aren’t asking them to do anything more than demonstrate knowledge and articulateness about the subject matter of the course. If they find the exercise extremely difficult or even impossible to carry out they should be told that they need to practice more, study harder. But make sure they understand that competence here is a relative matter. It’s fine that it takes an effort on their part. It’s also fine that they aren’t entirely satisfied with the result–they weren’t given ideal conditions to work under, after all. But what you are asking them to do is not at all absurd. That’s the important thing to emphasize.

Finally, remind them that what you’ve just made them do, they could choose to do on their own at any time. Any page of the assigned readings will do. They can pick one at random, or they can ask a classmate to pick one for them. If necessary, they can hold the talk in front a mirror, but it’s obviously a great idea to do this in pairs or in a study group. It can (and really should) be done regularly. It should be as naturally a part of preparing for class as reading a book. Instead of the comments you give in class, they can give each other some unfiltered feedback.

What does it mean to be “academic”?

The word “academic” seems to be undergoing a change of late. There was a time when practically minded people thought of academics as somewhat quaint, muddleheaded people that wasted a great deal of their own time and the public’s resources in pursuit of arcane truths. The more enlightened among these practical folks recognized that an arcane truth could occasionally be very profitable, which justified the entire enterprise in the manner of venture capital. Academics were essentially micro-financed intellectual entrepreneurs whose day-to-day processes didn’t necessarily have to make sense because their products could be evaluated independently.

The pejorative sense of “academic”, i.e., what we mean when say that some question is merely academic, really just indicates that the question is still part of the academic process, which has not yet produced a tangible result. Academia is somewhat thankless work in the sense that as soon as you do actually discover something useful it is converted into “intellectual property” and its value is no longer associated with the long process that went into figuring out how something works. To add insult to injury, our practical peers describe this appropriation of academic output as a “real-world” application. As if up until the moment of discovery the idea existed only in some kind of fantasy land.

Or that, like I say, is how it used to be. These days “academic” has also taken on an honorific sense. It’s always had this sense too, of course, but it seems to be moving into the foreground. Academics are now being seen as experts who can be drawn on for their expertise. Journalists are referring to people as “academics” in order to bolster their credibility. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the increasingly stressful image of the academic, as a someone who has too much to think about and too little time to get their work done. As academia plays an increasingly important role in culture, academics are feeling the strain of their responsibilities.

I want to add a sense of “academic” that seems to be forgotten. Academics are people who subject their ideas to critical discourse. Practically minded people sometimes get impatient with this seemingly inexhaustible ability to talk about things, raise new questions, explore further details, open other cans of worms. But what this really means is that the idea that academics hold are also constantly help open to the criticism of people who are qualified to evaluate them. The apparent waffling and uncertainty of one academics stems from the very deliberate practice of presenting their beliefs along with their reasons for holding them. Our implicit faith (or at least trust) in academics comes from this ongoing “peer review” of their work.

I’ll have to develop these ideas in another post. I will end this one by pointing out that these conceptions of academic work are somewhat at odds with each other. We are asking a great deal of our academics these days, and it’s not hard to understand why they are feeling uncomfortable with those demands. I’m genuinely worried about the quality of the ideas that can be expected to emerge from this tension.

Unfiltered Feedback

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still. (T. S. Eliot)

If you want to write well you have to care how your work is read. You have to be interested in the effect your words have on someone with the requisite literacy skills and background knowledge. In academia, you don’t have to worry about how the typical ten-year old will perceive your writing. In fact, you can presume quite of a lot disciplinary knowledge, a relatively high reading level, and an understanding of a technical vocabulary. Also, remember that you are writing to open yourself to criticism from your peers. So make sure you imagine a reader who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. You have to care about whether or not you are wrong, and you have to care about whether or not your reader can help you decide. That means you have to care what your reader thinks of your style.

But how can you cultivate this sort of care in practice? I often recommend a simple exercise that you can do with a colleague or fellow student. It takes 9 minutes, plus a one minute break. I will stress this again at the end, but it is very important that you spend exactly and only those ten minutes on the exercise. Don’t “debrief” the experience, and don’t start talking about other things. Do the exercise and get on with your day, each to his or her own. If you need to talk, make an appointment for some other time.

The exercise is predicated on the idea that a paragraph can be written during 27 minutes of your deliberate effort and can be read during one minute of the reader’s no less deliberate attention. At the end of the day, you articulate your key sentence and at the beginning of the next you sit down to compose your paragraph. You here make a sincere, earnest attempt to support, elaborate or defend the claim in your key sentence. You will have thought about whether the reader will find the claim hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. And you will have tried to overcome this difficulty. By putting up to 200 well-chosen words in the right order, you have constructed a one-minute experience for you reader, during which you deliver a single well-defined claim for their consideration, along with evidence, explanation or argument as needed. For the purpose of this feedback exercise, it is important that this is how you have approached your task.

Sometime on the same day that you have written it, bring the paragraph to someone whose opinion you respect — an intellectual equal, one of your intended readers. (If you are a student, remember that your fellow students are, in fact, your intended readers.) Tell them you want 10 minutes of their time. (Ideally, you will have done this before, and you will have done this for them as well, so you’ll just ask them if they have time to give you some unfiltered feedback and they’ll know what you mean.) If they agree, here’s what you want them to do.

  1. Read the paragraph out loud to you.
  2. Identify the key sentence.
  3. Tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it.
  4. Say whatever else they think about it, whether in terms of content or form, everything from your thinking to your spelling.

Before you begin, set a timer for nine minutes. When the time is up, sit together in silence for a minute and think about what they have told you, then thank them for their time and bid them a good day.

Please notice that that at no point do you say anything. This is not a conversation, it is one-way communication from the reader to the writer. Do not answer any questions, nor correct any misunderstandings. Do not react to what they say. Just listen. And don’t try to fill any uncomfortable silences. In the worst case scenario, the silence will last nine minutes (and that’s if your reader finds your writing completely illegible.) Endure it. After they have have read it out loud, give your reader whatever time they need to decide what your key sentence is, then, again, whatever time they need to determine your rhetorical posture. Finally, give them whatever time they need to think of something to say. Long silences here mean that your writing didn’t stimulate any immediate reaction; that is an important piece of information for you as a writer.

I wonder if it is obvious how valuable this experience is, regardless of how “positive” or “negative” the feedback is. I wonder, we might say, if you understand how thankful you should be. It is a gift. Fortunately, it is also a favor that is easy to return. If you are inclined to see academia as a “gift economy”, it is easy to imagine the circulation of these little moments of attention to each other’s writing. It’s an easy gift to give because it requires no preparation and will last exactly 10 minutes. It requires no special talent for giving feedback or even any social intelligence; you are merely being asked to be open about your response to the paragraph, to let the writer into your experience of reading it. It’s also an easy gift to receive because you are under no obligation to react to the “quality” of the feedback. Just thank your reader for their time, which is exactly what they’ve given you. That last minute of silence, when you show the reader that you’re thinking about it, is all the gratification they need. As Heidegger suggested, to think is to thank.

PS: I forgot to mention an important point. Since you wrote the paragraph deliberately, i.e., with the aim of supporting, elaborating or defending a claim during a single minute of the readers attention, and with the further aim of opening your thinking to the criticism of your peers, the feedback tasks I propose here do actually have correct solutions. Your reader’s response will or will not live up to your expectations; your paragraph will or will not (or will more or less) have the intended effect. It is from the difference between the intended and the actual response that you learn something.