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Reading Out Loud

I try to help people shape their prose faculty, their facility with prose. About a week ago Greg Ashman tweeted an NPR interview about the “science of reading,” which occasioned mixed feelings in me. It’s always nice to hear science confirm one’s teaching philosophy and, though I don’t teach reading to grade schoolers, but writing to university students and scholars, I find “phonics” to be both a compelling theory and a useful practice. When students want to know whether or not they are “doing it right”, i.e., whether or not they are writing well, I tell them to read their paragraphs out loud. Even better, I tell them to get a classmate to read it out loud to them. The way a paragraph sounds, the ease with which it comes off the page, tells you a great deal about how well it is written.

But I’ve also long been skeptical about the scientific study of ordinary cognitive abilities like reading and writing.  Claudio Sanchez introduces his interview with Mark Seidenberg with this observation:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

At first pass, this seems like a reasonable point. But suppose I said that only one third of the nation’s school children eat a healthy diet. And suppose I explained this by way of a “disconnect” between what kids are fed and what the latest research shows us about how foods and beverages actually affect the brains of children. The research may be perfectly sound (or it may not) but did we really need brain research to understand what children should eat? This becomes still more clear when we hear what the science actually shows.

Success in reading depends on linking print to speech. There’s a massive amount of behavioral research, neuroimaging research, on brain organization and brain development, which conclusively shows that skilled reading is associated with children’s spoken language, grammar and the vocabulary they already know. It’s about teaching kids the correspondence between the letters on a page and the sounds of words.

This sounds very “old school” to me and (as all things old-school) immediately sensible. What should puzzle us is that grade-school teaching was ever disconnected from this insight. And this is where things get tricky for me. I want to celebrate Seidenberg for speaking the truth to teachers, but I fear that the problem itself arises because the teaching profession is, increasingly, guided by research. If teachers had been able to maintain autonomy over their own teaching methods, they would never have abandoned the close connection between learning to read and reading out loud. And then I wouldn’t have to teach students to read out loud when learning how to write clear, scholarly prose. It would just be natural.

I don’t know much about the scientific literature on reading at the grade school level, so I don’t know exactly when exactly what went wrong. But  I do suspect that the distance between the spoken and the written word grew substantially under the so-called “post-modern” conditions that were inspired by Derrida’s “deconstruction” of “logocentrism”. At one level, after all, it was precisely an attempt to free the written word from its servitude to speech. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that complaints about the “turgidity” of contemporary academic prose are often traced back to Derrida’s influence. And it can certainly be demonstrated that composition studies has been profoundly affected by this influence. Indeed, I’m increasingly confident that literacy studies has been deconstructed as well, so it would not surprise me to find that grade-school literacy practices have been deliberately freed from the shackles of logocentrism. It would not surprise me if this can be shown to have had a detrimental effect on the reading level of school children.

My mixed feelings about Seidenberg’s suggestion, then, stem, not from any disagreement I have with him, but from the authority that science increasingly has over teachers. I don’t think teachers should adopt phonics on the advice of science, but on the counsel of common sense. (Indeed, it was also common sense that should have pushed back against the “ideological turn” in literacy studies and the “process turn” in composition studies.) It has never really made sense to separate writing from speech entirely–to let writing live a life of its own, independently of the sound that our words make. It only made sense after we taught ourselves to trust “research” more than the evidence of our own senses. Or rather, at that point we had begun to happily believe things we didn’t understand, to adopt practices that didn’t really makes sense to us, because one or another “study” had “shown” that some new pedagogy was needed to get us “beyond” traditional teaching methods. I don’t think it made things easier.

Academic Exceptionalism

I doubt if a man deserves freedom until he can get along without being being cow-herded.

“The art,” says my venerable colleague once Vorticist W. Lewis, “of being ruled”! The art of not being exploited…

(Ezra Pound)

I recently came upon a pointed critique of “neoliberalism” in university administration on Twitter: “Academics aren’t ’employees’ and we don’t work with/for our ‘managers’.” That’s not literally true, of course. Academics do usually collect a paycheck and enjoy a not insignificant package of benefits. They also normally answer to a research director, department head, dean or some sort of president. They are governed by a board, which is responsible to “stakeholders” of some kind, often simply the citizens whose taxes fund the operation. To be an academic is, in that sense, to have an ordinary corporate job.

But the tweet I’m thinking of was trying to suggest a less ordinary picture of the work of an academic. “As an academic, I work with/for students, the international research community, local community and industry partners, [and] the future of humankind.” It was in this sense, it argued, that academics aren’t “employees” as we know it. Presumably, then, we would not say the same about a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm. Presumably, indeed, a sales representative working for a major pharmaceutical firm would not tell neoliberalism to “fuck off” for the same reasons.

But is that presumption true? Suppose we tweak the list of stakeholders a little: “As a pharma rep, I work with/for patients, the international medical community, local community and industry partners, and the future of humankind.” Isn’t there a perfectly good sense in which that is true? Isn’t it entirely legitimate for the employees of Big Pharma to think of themselves in these terms? Is it that much more naive for them to think this way than it is for the (not-)employees of Big Academia?

When people deride “neoliberalism” in the universities they usually mean the increasingly managerial culture that shapes how their work is organized. I agree with Joseph Heath that the term functions mainly to shift the blame onto an abstract entity that can’t defend itself–one that no one is, in fact, prepared to speak in defense of. But where Heath suggests that it might be better to engage in real arguments with libertarians than to “critique” the influence of neoliberalism, I would suggest talking directly about management. I think we too often, and too easily, blame “neoliberalism” for the consequences of what is, at the end of the day, simply bad management. “Managerialism” (which we might define as the ideology that promotes management for its own sake) is certainly at the root of countless bad management decisions; but the solution is not to tell the ideologues to fuck off. To be sure, that’s a pretty good start, but the real revolution will come when the managers smarten up.

What I want to call “academic exceptionalism” is the view academic work is unlike all other kinds of work. I cultivate a version of this attitude myself when I say that universities should be good places, indeed, exceptionally good places, for smart and curious people to thrive. (Let pleasant and ambitious people thrive elsewhere, I say.) But I think it is misapplied when we say that academics are neither “employed” nor “managed”, when we suggest that being managed is somehow beneath the dignity of academics in a way that does not (or should not) humiliate a corporate employee.

The problem in universities, I would say, is mainly that a new managerial culture has been imposed too quickly and is being implemented by people who have limited management skills (they are mainly academics) or limited academic experience (managers “brought in” from the corporate sector). That is, I disagree with the “neoliberalism” diagnosis, though I lament many of the same ills that plague us today. As universities grew, they needed management that looked more like that of a corporation. It was badly implemented and the results are often less than ideal. But rejecting “managerial culture” as such isn’t the solution.

There is managerial excess and it should be challenged. But it’s everywhere and equally bad. And serving our stakeholders directly without the mediation of a manager is more stressful than many academics like to admit. None of their “bosses”–our students, colleagues, collaborators, editors–know what the others are demanding, and what the “future of humankind” demands of us is downright horrifying to consider! A good department head or program director, who reduces our complexities to manageable contingencies, is worthy of respect, and an incompetent one should be returned to the ordinary academic labor they’re more suited for.  When “neoliberalism” is used to cover all the effects of “managerial culture” on the university, it actually ends up providing ideological cover for  bad management. Creeping managerialism becomes an excuse for crappy management.

Wyndham Lewis published The Art of Being Ruled almost a century ago. Two and a half millennia before that, Lao Tzu suggested that “ruling a large state is like cooking a small fish.” (Think on it a bit. I’ll unpack it, or unpick it, in a later post.) Academics should not eschew management; they should learn how to do it well. They should not reject “neoliberalism” but earn the academic freedoms they enjoy. At the end of the day, though they may be under new management, they are employees after all. At the end of the day, like their managers, they go home.

Errors and Sources

These are two things you have to acknowledge. If someone asks you where you got your information from, you have to tell them. You may have learned something just from reading a book or you may have gleaned it from careful analysis of data. You may have happened on a long-forgotten document in an archive. Whatever is the case, you have a story to tell about how you know something. If you are a scholar, other people have a perfectly legitimate interest in that story. If you refuse to share it, you have stopped behaving like a scholar. Even telling someone that you don’t know where you got it (if you in fact don’t remember) is a (true) story about the basis of your claim. Being a scholar means having to be honest about that.

The same goes for your mistakes. If someone points out that you’ve gotten something wrong, you have an obligation as a scholar to do something about that. You have to acknowledge the mistake and you have to try to correct it. This also means that you have to check whether it affects the general conclusions you’ve reached. Don’t assume (or pretend) that it doesn’t matter. “When the authors protest that none of the errors really matter,” Andrew Gelman reminds us, “it makes you realize that, in these projects, the data hardly matter at all.” You seriously undermine your credibility by not taking people who think you’re wrong seriously. If they do spot a mistake, you really lose us if you act like it’s of no importance to you. Why did you assert a fact that it’s of no importance to you to be right about?

Remember Wayne Booth’s story about “the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford”: “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” Make sure you know the answers to those questions. Think of them as answers to the questions, “How could I be wrong?” and “Where can I find more information?” That is, if you know a thing you also know how things could be different, and you know how to find out whether they have changed and how similar things are now arranged. You are not just saying things that other people can take or leave, believe or reject. You are proposing to discuss these things with people whose opinions you respect. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation among people who are mutually committed to acknowledging both their sources and their errors.

Knowledge, Belief and Institutions

Philosophers have long thought of knowledge as a special case of belief. The idea is that in order to know something you have to believe that something is the case. It also has to actually be the case, which is just to say that the belief has to be true. Finally, you have to understand why it is true; you have to have a justification for believing what you believe. While many issues can still be raised, this definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief” offers a nice heuristic for deciding whether you, as an individual, know something. In this post, however, I want talk about what we can call “epistemic institutions”, i.e., social arrangements that support knowing and believing.

I’m thinking especially of the institutions* of journalism and education. These institutions shape what we think, they direct our “epistemic” states. But it recently occurred to me that we do well to distinguish between institutions that help us to know the truth of things and institutions that aim merely to get us to believe that particular things are true. The difference, it seems to me, is that which exists between journalism and propaganda, education and indoctrination.

Now, it should be obvious that no organization* would identify itself as a propaganda machine or indoctrination center if its aim was to actually get us to believe something. It would say it was engaged in journalism or education. So it is on us to make the necessary distinction, i.e., to exercise critical judgment. What then are the criteria for deciding whether or not an organization is engaged in journalism or propaganda, education or indoctrination. When we open a newspaper or enter a classroom, how do we know whether we are being supported in our search for knowledge, or being manipulated into believing something? From the other side, when we sit down to write an article or stand up to begin a lecture, how do we know what we’re doing? Are we journalists or propagandists? Are we educators or indoctrinators?

More instrumentally, suppose we wanted to become good at any of these things. (I may find it distasteful, but is it really my place to say that propaganda and indoctrination are always bad things?) I think it would be good not to kid ourselves that we are doing one thing when we’re really doing another.

Obviously, from the point of view of immediate action, a belief is as good as knowledge. If I falsely believe that a threat is imminent or that a reward awaits I will be guided to the same action that I would take if I were right. The difference lies in what the consequences of that action will be, how successful it will be. (This is why pragmatists sometimes tell us that “the truth is what works”; a true belief is simply one that guides action towards its desired outcome.) Since knowledge is a species of belief, an educator’s immediate effect on me may be indistinguishable from an indoctrinor’s. Both will get me to believe something. How can I tell the difference between the processes that got me into this state of belief? Or can I, perhaps, tell the difference between the states of belief themselves?

I think the most important clue is the role that criticism played in the formation of your belief. Another is whether the soi-disant journalist or educator cares very much what you end up believing. Was the belief you formed at any point challenged? Were you afforded a means to make up your own mind?

It’s relatively easy to decide whether your situation is a “critical” occasion. Try asking some questions. “How do you know?” is a classic question. If your instructor immediately takes this as though it’s a polemical one, you might be dealing with an ideologue (which we can take as a covering term for propagandists and indoctrinators). Also, you should be skeptical (i.e., less disposed to believe them) if they answer this question by invoking their authority rather than telling you what their evidence is and how they got it. My favorite example of this is a professor I once heard answer a sincere question from a student about his method by explaining where he got his millions in funding from. Education and indoctrination have very different “foundations”. If drawing attention to them immediately causes a crisis, you’re not going to be able to do much in the way of critical thinking.

The other question is whether your instructor leaves you dignified place of disagreement. Do they imply that your are either stupid or evil if you don’t believe what they are trying to tell you? Or are they content to lay out a set of arguments and let you draw one of several conclusions, including (as per the previous paragraph) the possibility that some of those arguments are unfounded? Someone who truly knows something will be patient with your attempts to learn it; they know themselves how difficult it is to understand. Someone who has merely been instructed that something is “true” will be distressed (and perhaps disgusted) when you do not process the instruction to “Believe!” as easily as they did. An ideologue is someone who thinks you should believe things even if you don’t understand them. A teacher is someone whose primary aim is to get you to understand something. Only that way can you also know when you finally come to believe.


*A quick terminological note. We sometimes use the word “institution” to denote what is really an organisation. As I use this distinction (I’m sure imperfectly at times), journalism is the institution of bringing news of current events to the population and CNN, for example, is a news organization. When we say that the New York Times is an “institution” we mean that in an honorific sense. Really it’s just another organization; it’s just that it is so powerful that it has a formative influence on what we think journalism is. A particular university is an organization; higher education is an institution.

Book of Sand, Box of Parts

“Both these worries aggravated my already long-standing misanthropy.” (J. L. Borges, “The Book of Sand”)

Jon Winokur runs a blog called Advice to Writers and an associated Twitter account to remind us of the “writerly wisdom of the ages”. The other day he tweeted Shannon Hale’s approach to writing a first draft, which she describes as “shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” I retweeted it with a caveat. “Please remember,” I said, “that what is good advice for writers of young adult fantasy is not necessarily good advice for early career researchers.” Novelists and literary types are not always good models for researchers and scholars. You may admire the result, but you don’t want to write like Henry “Vas-y” Miller.

Jo Van Every, an academic career guide, came to the defense of Hale’s metaphor,  however, suggesting that early career researchers, perhaps, “already have sand in a box. They are now using that sand to create different published outputs.” This was a good prod for me to clarify the issue I have with the image of writing as filling boxes with sand. I prefer to think of scholarly writing as building something out of relatively well-defined and sturdy parts, I said, not as shoveling and shaping a mass of undifferentiated particles. I could have added that I don’t think it is helpful to think of producing scholarly output on the model of weeding a garden or pruning a tree. That metaphor has other, perfectly legitimate, uses in academic writing.

The correct metaphor, if you ask me, is that of a construction. It’s not as limited as, say, Lego, but more like a constructor set that also lets you include bits and pieces of everyday reality, ordinary household objects and other toys. There are general structural elements and more specialized parts. Your paper will present a theoretical “framework”, for example, built out of concepts that your reader recognizes and it will then then put it to work by subjecting it to a “load”, i.e., by introducing data that has been gathered according to a methodology that, again, is recognizable to the reader. A paper can certainly “fall apart” on you (or in the hands of your reader) but it cannot, meaningfully, be “smashed to atoms”. Its meaning does not erode like a castle in the sand.

Maybe some novelists have a more rugged conception of their materials but, like I say, I’m not going to tell novelists how to write a first draft or how to think of their writing process. I’m just trying to help scholars avoid a less than apt metaphor with which to understand their own writing.

In any case, Jo rightly reminded me that researchers aren’t usually “starting from scratch” when they’re writing journal articles. They’ve “already got a conference paper, a working paper, pages and pages of analysis” or some basis like that to proceed from. This happens to be something I have an opinion about too., and I answered that conference papers and working papers are best seen as unfinished journal articles. They should be written in the same way. You still need to decide what to say (i.e., what you know) before you begin one. As for “pages and pages of analysis”: I would encourage researchers to think of them merely as a warmup. After they have helped you decide what to say, throw them out. Now write what you know for the purpose of discussing it with your peers.

Understandably enough, this suggestion puzzled Jo. “Isn’t that ‘warm up’ the first draft?” she asked. “I’m not sure what is gained by calling it something that isn’t writing.” And this is indeed exactly my point. The metaphor we are evaluating is one of shoveling sand into boxes and then later shaping that same sand into castles. I’m suggesting that you should not try to shape your drafts, and therefore that you should not produce them as though they are made of a “malleable” substance. Instead, write it around claims you identified through the “free-writing” process.

I realize that it is counter-intuitive to say that that process isn’t actually “writing”. But I really do believe that it stands in the same relation to your final text as drawing a mind-map, talking to a colleague about your results,  or just going for a walk and thinking things through. It’s as far from scholarly writing as that. Or as close to it, if you will. And here Hale’s image of a box of sand may have some carry after all.

Some researchers (especially ethnographers, I have found) approach the writing of their analysis as shoveling particles of experience into their paper where they will gradually be given meaning. That is, they are simply importing their data set into their word processor, which they think of as a tool to help them with their analysis. (There are much better tools for this purpose, I’m told.) In the first instance, it’s just a box to distinguish their “sample” from the “population”. If they had been working with more quantitative data, there would be no confusion here; it obviously wouldn’t be writing. But because qualitative analysis is, indeed, very much like drafting a novel–they are drawing , not just on their interview transcripts and field notes, but  also on their memory of their research experiences–it feels like they are actually in the first stages of their writing. This is the feeling I’m trying to get writers to understand better.

Just because you are putting words together, even in sentences, doesn’t mean that you are writing. You might, for example, be speaking. Even if you are typing, you might be transcribing or, to come closest to drafting a novel, thinking “out loud”, i.e., transcribing what is on your mind about something. But to be really engaged in scholarly writing is to be composing a paragraph–at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. If you’re not doing that you may as well be talking or drawing a picture … or, of course, thinking. That’s also something you should do, of course. But it isn’t writing.