Monthly Archives: October 2014

Arts and Crafts

We’re starting our “Craft of Research” colloquium on Thursday. I thought I’d take few minutes to reflect on what we mean by that.

Research is, famously, framed by theory and grounded in method. Simplifying somewhat, we can say there is there is a way of seeing things and way of doing them that is specific to every discipline. (Or there may be be several ways. Some disciplines draw on several theories and mix their methods.) When we reflect on our theories, when we theorize about theory, let’s say, we call this “meta-theory”, which is often a matter of looking at our “foundations”, suggesting an almost metaphysical pursuit. Likewise, I would like to call our attempts to “get to the bottom” of our methodologies an exercise in “inframethodology”, a gesture at what lies under our methods.

Just as meta-theory is not “theoretical” in the same sense that the theories that frame the actual research we do are theoretical, infra-methdology is not “methodological” in the sense of prescribing correct ways of, say, collecting data and analyzing it. What I’m interested in is the “craftsmanship” that is implicit in our work, the “art” of it even. I’m trying to understand, in particular, what the difference between careful and careless work in a specific discipline amounts to.

Much of what I’m after can be seen in the writing we do. Do we read others carefully and report their findings accurately? Do we take careful notes while reading? How do we construct an accurate and informative reference? In the natural sciences, I’d be interested in how we keep order in the lab and our test tubes clean. In the social sciences, there are questions about how we treat the people we study, our ethics.

Finally, there’s the whole mess of issues related to time management and the avoidance of stress. Many years ago I hit on the idea that as intellectual workers it is our duty not to engage in “soul-destroying labor”. We have to keep our minds healthy since it is our minds that we contribute to the community. This, again, means establishing some sort of workable order in our working lives. All this, I sort under the label “infra-methodology” and I’m looking forward to discussing them on Thursday, and many Thursdays to come.

Learning, Training

I sometimes fantasize about returning to teaching. For now, however, I can only call myself a coach or a consultant. The crucial difference lies in whether I am imparting knowledge or facilitating mastery.

“Mastery” is a big-sounding word. But so is “knowledge”, when you think about it. We can put them both in perspective by recognizing that they are achieved always only partially. We do not ever master something absolutely, nor is there any absolute knowledge. There is always room for improvement.

What I usually say to the people I coach is that they won’t learn what I’m trying to teach them if they believe what I tell them. They’ll learn it by doing as a I say. That is, I am suggesting exercises, not professing doctrines.

The exact meaning of my advice can only be grasped by practicing. In this sense, learning how to write is exactly like learning how to play the piano or dance the tango. It’s a question of gathering nerves and training muscles.

What Can Be Learned at University?

“… a very distinct component of truth remains ungrasped by the non-participant in the action.” (Ezra Pound)

Consider the difference between earning a bachelor’s degree in political science or finance, on the one hand, and spending four years as a consultant for a political party or working on Wall Street, on the other. In both cases, you are working in an environment that is full of knowledge and in both cases you are bound to learn a great deal. Also, in both cases what you learn can be rightly called knowledge of “politics” and “finance” respectively; that is, whether you are at school or at work, the object of your knowledge is the same. This, of course, is one of the things that must be true in order for a university education to make sense as a “preparation” for a career in, say, politics or finance. School must be, as we say, “relevant” for life.

And yet there must, surely, be differences between the sorts of the things you learn at school and the sorts of things you learn in life. I think a great way to think about these differences is to look at the central “experience” in each context. At university, it is (or at least should be) “textual”. That is, at university we learn, if we do, mainly through our reading and our writing. Our writing is largely about our reading and it is, in turn, read by others, who give us feedback on it. This is true for both faculty and students.

At work, in business or politics, the central experience is, well, “experiential”. I’m trying to find a good word to distinguish it from the “textual” focus of the university. We might call it “vital experience” or “lived experience” (the standard translation of the German Erlebnis.) Or we could call it “actual” experience, if this didn’t make academic experience seem somehow fake. Then again, we could perhaps distinguish the university’s “factual” kind of experience, i.e., the world experienced as the representation of facts, “everything that is the case,” as Wittgenstein famously put it, from the “actual experience” of life outside of school, where the world is experienced as a “field of action” (William Carlos Williams’ famous characterization of poetry.)

In life, we learn by success and failure in action. In school, we learn by passing and failing, largely in writing, i.e., in our examinations and our term papers. This simple distinction is worth observing, and sometimes by honoring in the breach. I sometimes get the sense that we’re expecting things of universities (and criticizing them for not accomplishing them) that they were never intended to accomplish. It seems to me to be perfectly in order to have place in society (and a time in one’s life) that is devoted to the transmission (and reception) of the sort of knowledge you can acquire by reading a book and discussing it with others. There is also some wisdom to demanding that students struggle with this kind of knowledge before “going into action”, before being let slip like dogs of war upon the world we all inhabit, and of which there is only one.

Let people imagine the world in theory, as students, before they ravage it in practice as professionals. Some good might yet come of that.

Teacher, Learner, Researcher

There’s a famous scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus is talking to the headmaster of the school where he’s teaching. “You were not born to be a teacher,” says the headmaster. “A learner rather,” Stephen replies. That image has lately popped into my mind again and again.

After starting at the CBS Library, I’ve been getting increasingly interested in discussions about developments in the university library sector, which is, like everything else in academia, experiencing some rapid and dramatic changes. This, in turn, has produced a lot of discussion, which makes key assumptions about the purpose of university libraries explicit. One thing I’ve noticed is that they are construed as “learning environments”, which is to say, they are organized to serve students. There is an obvious sense in which this makes sense, but also a few senses in which it is troubling.

University students are not just supposed to learn; they are supposed, as the famous phrase goes, to learn how to learn. We might put this less recursively by saying that attending university is a way of gaining a membership in the community of knowers. They gain knowledge, but they also become knowledge-able. What does this have to do with the function and orientation of a university library?

It is increasingly unfashionable to think of a library as a “repository” of knowledge, a place where knowledge is passively stored in books to be retrieved by scholars. Rather, libraries are now nodes where vast networks of knowledge can be accessed, through a wide array of technologies. Learning how to use a library is an important part of your university education. And this, to my mind, brings us to a sort of paradox.

If we organize a university library primarily to serve the needs of students, then, when they learn how to use the library, they are only learning how to go to school. (A similar problem can be found in the design of writing assignments: are we teaching them how to write or merely how to write school assignments.)  When we give students the difficult and sometimes frustrating task of doing “library research”, we should not be sending them into an artificially “academic” environment. We should ask them to “enter” the modern university library, to which they are privileged to have access, and figure out how it works.

It should be set up primarily to serve the needs of researchers, who may of course be either teachers (faculty) or “learners” (students).  A library, even one that happens to be on a university campus, is an important institution in society. Learning how to use one is an important skill. It’s not just relevant to the needs of students, and students should not get the impression that it is all about them. They should be told to think like researchers.

Not to demand this of them would be a mistake on par with exposing them only to encyclopedias and textbooks and compendia, or teaching them only how to write exam essays. They have to be shown knowledge in its original form, the primary sources in their natural habitat.

(Note: This post by Brian Mathews at the Chronicle of Higher Education serves as part of the impetus for my reflections here.)

Imagination and Paraphrase

One of my abiding preoccupations is the role of imagination  in scholarly writing. To be frank, I think too much writing in the social sciences is unimaginative–sometimes, in fact, resolutely so. That is, I think some writers make an active effort to marginalize the imagination in their articles. This makes them very difficult to read.

George Orwell famously said this many years ago. Too much ideological writing is done without any clear image in the mind of the reader and therefore without leaving one in the mind of the reader. But my touchstone here is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pregnant sentence, “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” i.e., we imagine them. Facts don’t make themselves known, they don’t often even impress themselves upon us very strongly. We have to go looking for them, and then we have to show them to each other. It is this showing that requires imagination. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the American poet William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, which is a passionate, almost desperate, plea for imaginative writing. (See this post on my other blog for more.)

In the world of scholarship, I encourage writers to think of the image they want to leave in the mind of the reader paragraph-by-paragraph. That is, give yourself a whole paragraph to leave a single, perhaps somewhat complex, image in the mind of the reader. Require of yourself that you can see it yourself. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be the image of a physical fact. Drawing it might mean producing  a diagram or a graph rather than a picture, or series of pictures (as in the story board of a film). But you should not be content with a paragraph that corresponds to no picture at all.

Perhaps you might think of it in terms of what it takes to demonstrate that someone has understood your words. If the only possible representation of your idea is the words themselves, then only a verbatim quotation would count as a representation of your text. That’s very unsatisfying. Scholarly ideas are the sorts of thing you should be able to paraphrase, and therefore able to imagine.