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Reading and Time

I think both scholars and students do well to consider the time their readers spend with what they have written. Consider a 5-paragraph or 5-page or 8000-word essay. Think of them as consisting of 5, 10 and 40 paragraphs respectively. Now, consider this: each paragraph takes about one minute to read and should support, elaborate or defend an easily identified statement (articulated in the “key sentence”). That is, every minute or so, the reader should “get” something–namely, one of the things you’re trying to say. This goes on for however many minutes there are paragraphs.

Think about this when you are writing each individual paragraph. Have you constructed a minute of reading experience for the reader that effectively delivers your message. Do you even know what the message in a given paragraph is? Have decided whether the reader will find it difficult to believe, understand or agree with? Have you made specific rhetorical choices in an effort to help the reader overcome this difficulty? Do you care how this minute feels in the mind of the reader? Have you taken into account the minutes leading up and following after this minute? In many cases, these minutes will have passed according to your instructions, i.e., reading the words you have selected in the order you have arranged them.

Instead of thinking of your text as a structure that simply abides by the rules of style and grammar and therefore “stands up” to a certain kind of judgement, think of it as a texture. Imagine that the reader feels something as their attention passes over the surface of your writing.

Mind, Voice, Style

If you are reading this blog you are probably a student or scholar working in a particular academic discipline. Take a moment and think of something within this discipline that you know well, something you have reason to believe is true. (At some level, after all, knowledge is justified, true belief.) It may be a simple, practical fact or complex theoretical insight. Think of something, in any case, that you might confidently assert among your peers. I’m not suggesting that holding such beliefs is the only thing you do, nor even the most important thing. I’m just reminding you that you do hold some beliefs in this way, and I want you to call one of these beliefs to mind.

Now subject this belief to doubt. Draw the belief into question. Ask yourself how you know that this thing is true. Ask yourself how good your reasons are, how likely your reasons to believe it are to be wrong. Keep in mind that it’s possible to be wrong for the right reasons or right for the wrong reasons. When was the last time you checked the sources that support your belief on this matter? Could new evidence have come to light? Might you simply be remembering the story in a convenient but ultimately inaccurate way? Pull the belief out of the space in which you are quite certain about it, and imagine it in a tougher room. Put it in a state of crisis. Think critically about it, just for a moment.

Now make up your mind. Is it true or false? What sort of investigation, if any, will you have to carry out to decide? What sorts of reasons will you bring to bear on this question? Are they same as the ones you started with? (Your belief may remain firm during this process, though your reasons to hold it change.) Take about 10 minutes to consider the matter.

Okay, now find a peer to discuss it with. Ask them for 20 minutes of their time to talk through your doubts about something that you had previously been quite certain about. Your peer might immediately share your doubts, or even be quite sure you were wrong all along. Or this conversation itself might raise doubts in the mind of your peer. In any case, try to explain the conclusion you reached. Seek their input and advice. But don’t let the conversation go on and on. After twenty minutes, thank them and be on your way.

Finally, take a moment to write a single paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends your current belief on the matter. If your peer ended up disagreeing with you, you might consider writing the paragraph with them in mind, defending your belief against their objections. If your peer had a hard time understanding you, you might elaborate your meaning. If your peer found your assertion difficult to believe, try writing a paragraph that supports it with evidence. Don’t spend more than half an hour on this.

Hopefully the value of this exercise is obvious. It will let you experience your mind, your voice and your prose style directly. It will give immediate information about the quality of your thinking, your speaking and your writing. Pay attention to how you went about deciding what to think, what to say, and what to write. And notice that this is giving you important insight into how you think, speak and write. It’s also showing you how you can improve your ability to do these things.

Finally, please notice that they support each other. Or, at least, they support each other when you are doing them well. When you are not concentrating, however, they may undermine each other. In any case, the clarity of your mind and your voice will be apparent in the clarity of your style. Your style and your voice represent your mind, we might say; your writing and speaking represent your thinking. You do well to train these abilities and strengthen the connections between them.

The Statement and the Paragraph

“At first sight, the statement appears as an ultimate, undecomposable element … An atom of discourse.” (Michel Foucault)

“The phrase ‘At first sight’ implies that the idea is introduced only to ensure its elimination.” (David Webb)

“…the paragraph can be described very roughly as an autochthonous pattern in prose discourse…” (Paul Rodgers)

It is my view that scholarly discourse divides into paragraphs. I don’t mean that scholars always talk in tightly composed paragraphs, only that what they say — when they speak as scholars — can be restated within the form of a paragraph: a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. A paragraph makes a statement for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Everything a scholar knows can be be articulated in such statements, and, while Foucault is right to question its undecomposability, Rodgers is no less right to say that the pattern seems to have “sprung from the soil it inhabits”. Would it strain the metaphor to say that when statements are discarded they return to that soil as a kind of compost? Discourse is the soil out of which paragraphs are composed and into which they decompose.

The important thing about the paragraph is that it states a claim along with its basis. It expresses a belief along with the author’s reasons to think it is true. This lets the reader, not merely believe or disbelieve the claim, but consider it carefully; it lets us discuss it.  The claim may be true but the reasons bad, in which case the statement will not hold up under scrutiny, even if the claim will later emerge in discourse again, this time supported by better reasons. Or the reasons may be good but the claim nonetheless false, for reasons not yet discovered and not yet articulated in the discourse. One day they will be, and they will appear in paragraphs making the counter-statement.

For my part, I want to help students and scholars become better at composing paragraphs in their writing, and decomposing them in their reading. If we all committed to the idea that “knowledge”, at least in academic settings, is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something, and we all worked to keep our prose healthy — to support the emergence of these native patterns, and  hasten their return to the earth when their work is done — then I think our discourse, too, would be more vibrant, more joyful. Scholars are organized by “discipline” and this is not at all incidental. I’m not just playing on words when I say it takes discipline to write a paragraph. The form of the statement, the pattern that we recognize in the paragraph that makes it, is shaped by the traditions of a community of scholars. We work hard to acquire that form, to get into shape.

The Wheel and the Whip

I’ve been meaning to write a proper review of Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the LectureThis post isn’t it, but I can direct you to Lavinia Marin’s informative review at the LSE Review of Books. What I want to do here is simply to riff off the book’s (for me) central insight, namely, that the traditional “media” of education, such as textbooks and lectures, go back a long, long way and are closely tied to the history of literacy in general. What we mean by reading and writing, and especially academic reading and writing, has been conditioned by millennia of shared classroom experiences in which information has been presented in a particular way. Scholarly writing doesn’t simply transcribe these experiences, it is informed by them. The classroom experience, likewise, is shaped by the role we grant to writing in education.

It’s the depth of this history, its “longue durée”, that Friesen is trying to get us to appreciate, which is why I’ve been encouraging anyone who is thinking seriously about the future of academia to read his book.  These days, there’s a strong tendency to jettison “traditional” elements of our pedagogy in favor of fancy new technologies. I was recently told of a student reading “app” that would essentially overlay a social media experience on the experience of reading an assigned text. While it wouldn’t add much more than a set of study questions and group discussion, it would completely destroy the solitary experience of reading. A few years ago the chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication “retired” the essay.

As Friesen reminds us, however, the denigration of traditional forms, like lecturing, isn’t actually a new thing. It can be found in John Dewey’s “progressive” ideal of education. We’ve grown used to dismissing lecturing as uselessly passive or even harmfully pacifying. Friesen is trying to tell us that making sense of a 45 minute lecture (without PowerPoint!) is an important, trainable skill and that going through this training leaves our minds (and in fact our brains) in better shape than we would be if we were constantly “activated” by classroom gadgetry.

The insight that brought it all together for me was realizing that lecturing is about as old as writing, and both are about as old the wheel. When people reject a medium of instruction that has been with us for 6000 years undergoing continuous small improvements, because some new technology (like the Internet) has made it “obsolete”, I always want to remind them that some inventions have yet to be transcended. It is true that the automobile made the buggy whip largely obsolete and it is now being produced for a very specialized niche market. But the same is not true of the wheel. It is has simply been improved, century after century, rolling, rolling, rolling ever more efficiently, and in ever more creative applications, but always leveraging the same mechanical force in the same way, round and round.

Likewise, written and spoken “prose”, the plain expression of what we believe to be true, has a long history of gradual development. I hope I never tire of celebrating the advance of the paragraph as a form of expression and I firmly believe that its force is leveraged both in our academic writing and our academic speaking. The focus and coherence of paragraphs are virtues that run through both our essays and our lectures, not to mention our treatises and our textbooks. We have learned, through ongoing experimentation, how to describe facts along with our reasons to believe in them. This form of communication is essentially “academic” and the foundation of critical thinking as we know it. The “modern fact” and the modern paragraph owe a great deal to each other, and we owe a great deal to both of them.

So that’s why I urge scholars to think seriously about the changes they are proposing to our media of instruction. Some of them have been around for a long time because they are part of the essence of what we do. They have served us well for thousands of years and, if we let them, they will continue to serve us well for thousands more. That’s because they were never just a gadget we invented; they emerged from the long moment of human history, the encounter between the world and our bodies, our history and the human brain. Not everything old-fashioned is out of date. Before removing a “traditional” element from your pedagogy because “it’s 2018”, therefore, ask yourself whether it’s more like the buggy whip or more like the wheel. I believe that lecturing and prose writing, for example, are the wheels of knowledge circulation. Their moment will not soon pass. Or will pass at our very definite peril.

20 x 20

Here’s a thought experiment I’m using to focus my own writing pedagogy. Suppose you were given twenty 20-minute moments of a students’ full attention. That’s six hours and forty minutes altogether. Suppose you could decide where, when and how that time was used. You can do it all in one day or spread it out over eight weeks (or even more). The student could practice a particular skill, or simply sit and listen to you instruct them. You could give the student feedback or ask the student questions. The content of this little course is entirely up to you. But outside of the 20 x 20 minute sessions you are not to expect anything at all from the student other than they are leading the life of an average college student, with an average course load and average ambitions. Your job is to improve their writing as a much as possible. Again, during each of those 20-minute moments, you have their full attention.

The finitude of this problem appeals to me. I recently ran a Twitter poll which confirmed my hunch that most of us would agree that a substantial portion of the time should be spent  by the student, alone, practicing. But surely some instruction would help. So the first question is how much time we’d spend meeting with the student to give instructions and feedback. Actually, that’s two questions: how much instruction? How much feedback? Then there’s the question of what instructions to give them and what kind of feedback. But don’t forget your finitude here: there are enough resources for twenty things to happen. There are twenty moments of twenty minutes each. Some for instruction, some for writing, some for feedback.

I think it would be very interesting to compare the variety of writing philosophies according to how they would manage the resources in this problem. In fact, I’m sure I would have answered this question differently at different times over the last ten years or so. Before I got into the business of writing instruction I would probably have dismissed the exercise as absurd, or trivial, or in some other way not worthy of a university education. But the more I try to help writers improve, the more I think we cannot get around this, at least as a thought experiment. If the goal is to make students into better writers, what would be the optimal use we could make of these conditions?

I leave it open for now, but I’ll post my own answer later this week.