Monthly Archives: February 2019

Like Minds

In my last post, on writing for peers, I focused on student assignments. But I also said that the image of the reader that students form in their minds risks becoming a habit that stays with them as scholars even after they earn their tenure. I want to say a little more about that in this post.

Good students who have written with their teachers in mind and who have received good grades for their efforts often go on to graduate school and careers in academia. Even while they are getting their PhDs they are likely writing “upwards”, trying to demonstrate their ability to their supervisors and, as the deadline approaches, their committees. During this time, they may also be writing papers for journals and conferences, and here they have the natural authority of reviewers, editors and program committees to relate to. In all cases, just as it was back when they were undergraduates, they are writing in order to be judged. By the time they get their first tenure-track job, they can easily have spent ten or more years in this mood. It’s a deeply entrenched habit of mind.

There is another habit, one that I’m personally more familiar with, and which is just as bad. This is the habit of writing for posterity, for some future reader, not yet born, who will recognize that I am ahead of my time. In practice, it is probably more like writing for the past, namely, the tradition of “great” writers who came before us and who offer us the only real glimpse into what great minds are like. There is certainly a kind of judgment implicit in this way of writing but it is explicitly deferred to a time after the writer’s own death, so it’s a bit, let’s say, abstract. Whether or not you get appreciated for writing this way, or even published, is of little matter. Your aim is mainly to be on the right side of history.

I hope it’s obvious that I recommend against these two images of the reader, which suggest a crushing humility (and threaten humiliation) and are therefore no mood in which to write clear, coherent prose. I’m not alone. There are many who suggest simply turning this around: imagine a reader who is in no position to judge you and whose eager to learn what you have to say. Write engaging, informative essays about your expertise with the aim of helping people to understand the things you have worked so hard to learn. This kind of writing can indeed be fun to take on every now and then, but it is what I would consider popular writing. Or it’s the sort of writing you might do for a textbook. You are imagining a reader whose mind is not as formed as yours is on the issues you are addressing; you are imagining a less informed reader. You’ve turned the tables on your reader and made yourself the authority.

None of theses images of your reader should become a habit. They should not shape your writing “posture” — looking up at your reader or looking down on your reader. In your scholarly writing, you should be writing for an intellectual peer. Your purpose is neither to educate nor to edify, nor is everything you write essentially a job application. You are telling someone who is qualified to tell you are wrong what you think. You sincerely want to know if you are wrong. You respect your reader’s opinion of your thinking because you have chosen your reader carefully: someone who understands your theories and your methods and is interested in the questions you have tried to answer. Like a fellow student, your reader has read the same body of literature and participated in the same sorts of conversations (now in seminars and at conferences). Your reader, in short, is much like you. You expect to be read the same way that you read them.  Don’t look up at your reader, friend, and don’t look down on your reader. Find a reader your own size and look them straight in the eye.

Other Minds

Lately I’ve been thinking about the reader. It seems to me that both scholars and students often have a needlessly abstract of image of who they’re talking to. The short, right answer, of course, is that your reader is always a peer, and the longer, richer answer really tells you everything you need to know about how to write your papers. The key is to think of your reader as an intellectual equal, a member of your own knowledge community.

Much of the anxiety of academic writing comes from the students’ habit of imagining they are writing for their teachers and the literally sophomoric illusion that they have something to contribute there. This habit persists even among tenured faculty, who continue to write for a superior intellect. A sufficiently superior reader is, of course, indistinguishable from a god, and I would argue that the putative humility of writing with such a being in mind is immediately belied by the audacity of even doing so. Always remember that you have something to say, if you do, to your peers, not to some higher authority. Keep it real.

To write for your peers is to have “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc.” to your reader more or less as easily as you attribute these things to yourself. In short, it is to have a “theory of mind”. A theory of mind is not, like I say, a theology of the reader. You are not to attribute omnipotence, omniscience or omnibenevolence to your reader. (Nor are you, in your despair, to imagine some malevolent demon as your reader, no matter how often such a figure appears to turn up among your reviewers.) Rather, based on your reading and on your conversations with your flesh and blood peers, you should imagine a mind much like yours, knowledgeable within specifiable limits, intelligent within reason–reasons that you understand. Do not make a monster of your reader, nor an ignoramus. The reader knows more or less what you know, neither much more nor much less, and it is to this mind that you are to make a contribution.

Perhaps this will be easier to understand by imagining the situation of the first-year business school student reading, say, Chester Barnard’s Function of the Executive for the first time. Let us imagine a “serious” student, of course–one who reads the chapter with real curiosity before attending the lecture, one who then in fact attends the lecture and perhaps asks an intelligent question and, most important, one who discusses the chapter with her fellow students outside of class, puzzling over the meaning of Barnard’s words. Now, suppose we give this student the following assignment.

What does Barnard mean by the “neutral or zero point” of the “willingness to serve”? Why is this important for executive decision-making? Write your answer as a five-paragraph essay.

This instruction will seem formal and abstract to some, but let me suggest that this is a misunderstanding that arises from ignoring the concrete circumstances under which it has been issued. To say, “write a five-paragraph essay” is simply to say, “Imagine that your reader is an intellectual equal (that’s what essays are classically for) and that you have five minutes of their full attention.” The task is to provide five one-minute reading experiences (paragraphs) that answer two questions. Importantly, since this is an “academic” writing tasks (a “school” assignment) the reader can also be imagined to have read the relevant chapter from Barnard’s book. Indeed, the reader can be imagined to have attended the same lecture and participated in the same discussions. There need not be any mystery about this communicative situation.

The writer will, of course, have to make up her mind about what Barnard’s “zero point” is and why it is important for executives to consider it. But the writer will also have to make up her mind about what the reader has in mind on the very same subject. Given the reader’s state of mind, then, is the main problem, in each paragraph, to get the reader to believe something, to understand something, or to agree with something? Or is it, perhaps, to get the reader as interested in this issue as the writer is? The writer may have 24 or 72 hours, or a week, to complete the task. Or perhaps a mere hour in class. No matter. The sooner the writer decides who the reader and what is on their mind, the better the writing will go. As Virginia Woolf put it, “To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” She also talked somewhere about the “loneliness that is the truth of things,” but let’s leave that for another time. In academic writing, it’s neither here nor there.


Quality is not a mystery

You don’t have be a master craftsman to recognize high-quality work. If you had your class draw their own hands, or play the same piece of music on the piano, or build a coffee table, you’d immediately be able to decide who is good at it and who isn’t. Some wouldn’t even know where to begin. Others would produce something that only vaguely resembles the output you asked for. You’d probably be able to quite easily group their attempts into excellent, good, mediocre and bad ones; in fact, you’d probably be able to assign them grades: in a class 100 you could give As to the best 10, Bs to the next 25, Cs to the middle 30  and so on. You might sweat a little when drawing the line between the last A and the first B, but the task isn’t impossible. That’s the first insight.

The second one is that you can do this even if you’re not yourself good at drawing hands, playing the piano, or building tables. Your worst students would be almost as good at sorting the attempts by relative quality as your best ones.

But remember that this assumes that your population is randomly selected with respect to the skill that is being demonstrated. If we were dealing with a hundred art school students, or conservatory students, or carpenter’s apprentices, it might be much harder to distinguish their degrees of competence. And this tells us something important about the connection between the ability to produce quality and the ability to discern it. The smaller the differences, the greater understanding of the craft it takes to detect them. Think about why this is the case: only someone who is quite good at it will be be able to see the specific “room for improvement” that distinguishes the performances.

Now, it might be argued that a group of, say, second-year university students constitutes a hard case in this sense when it comes to writing academically. They are at the same level of a discipline that includes writing as a central competence. It would certainly be true that judges who have never attended university would have a hard time. Such people will only be able to distinguish very competent work, from middling work and work that isn’t very good at all. (Most university classrooms will, of course, have range of writing competences.) But the students themselves, I would argue, are mostly competent enough to see who they’re better than and who they might look up to. That is, looking at each other’s work, and even grading it, is a valuable exercise.

We have to demystify the notion of quality in writing. We should show them that they are in fact able to distinguish between good and bad writing. Most importantly, they can themselves see that they are improving.

Degas and Mallarmé

There’s a famous story about Edgar Degas and Stéphane Mallarmé. Degas was trying to write poetry and wasn’t satisfied with the results. Since he had such great ideas, he couldn’t understand what he was doing wrong. “But my dear Degas,” exclaimed Mallarmé, “poems are made of words, not ideas!”

Like Degas, you may be suffering under the illusion that the trick to writing well is to have good ideas. To see why it may not be quite so easy, consider reversing the roles of the painter and the poet. Suppose Mallarmé had been trying to paint two people sitting in a café and was complaining to Degas about the difficulty. “I don’t understand it,” Mallarmé might say. “They’re right there in front of me. I see them so clearly. Why is this so hard?”

In the case of painting, we immediately understand why that’s not all there is to it. It’s not enough that you can see the scene you’re painting. Paintings are not made of images, but strokes.* Likewise, having an idea doesn’t in and of itself qualify you to write it down. You have to train your hands to do something quite specific.

But ideas are of course important. Indeed, learning to paint something does require you to learn how to see it, as painter friend of mine pointed out to me long ago. She sometimes wondered how people who say they can’t draw can even see. Learning how to write will likewise require you to think.

But this is really just a way of saying that writing improves our thinking, drawing improves our vision. Fortunately, just as Oliver Senior, when he was writing How to Draw Hands, was able to assume you have a model at the end of your arm to study, your writing instructor can assume that you have ideas in your head to write about. And not just any old ideas. Like Degas, I’m sure you’ve got some pretty good ones.

When you are practicing your writing, my advice is to focus on your better ideas. This is no different than looking at your own hand in a single position and in good light. Don’t try to draw a hand as it looks when you’re waving it around in the dark.


*Update: I was talking to Jonathan Mayhew about this and he suggested an interesting variation. “Paintings (and drawings) are not made of images, they are made of shapes.” One might of course say paintings are made of strokes, drawings of lines. Poems are made of words, but perhaps also lines (in another sense) or even strophes. Essays are made of words, sentences or paragraphs depending on how you look at them. The important thing, however, is that when you’re trying to draw a face, you shouldn’t focus on the recognizably “facial” features. Rather, look at the ovals and rectangles and triangles and circles that the face in front of you is composed of, and then recompose those on the page. Whatever you do, don’t get lost in the details of the mouth or eyes or hair. Decompose the thing in front of you into is two-dimensional surfaces. Likewise, the seemingly brilliant ideas you have are composed of much less interesting, much less complicated, facets, namely, concepts and objects, and these can be rendered plainly in sentences. Indeed, they can be rendered simply by combining the right words in the right way, which is what Mallarmé was trying to tell Degas.