Picture, Texture, Scripture

Every now and then you should take a close look at the words you use. Arm yourself with a good a dictionary–one that tells you not just what words mean but where they came from. I’m often grateful for the existence of the Online Etymology Dictionary. Just today, in fact, I uttered a silent prayer of thanks (though its creator says he holds no particular faith) as I discovered the intimate connection between the words “picture” and “scripture”. I was led here by a series of early morning thoughts.

I often compare writing to drawing. Both commit marks to a page in order to evoke an image in the mind of the reader/viewer. Both make use of relatively simple means. I got to thinking of how neatly similar the words “drawing” and “writing” are, and how their likeness translates (as it were) even into their Latinate cousins, e.g., description and depiction. Ordinarily, however, I would contrast pictures, not with “scriptures”, which has too much religious baggage, but with “texts”. I’m always unsatisfied when the word forms don’t line up so neatly, however.

Draw-ing, write-ing: I like that. De-pict-ion, de-script-ion: I like that too. On this model, I would put “texture”, not “text”, across from “picture”. (“Pict” means something too different, though the root is the same.) Maybe, I thought, the etymologies could help me recover a sense of order, but, as it turns out, I appear to be more or less stuck with the contrast between pictures and scriptures, which is much more appropriate than I thought.

“Picture” leads us through the Latin “pictura” (for “painting”) from pictus, the past participle of pingere “to make pictures, to paint, to embroider.” We are now directed to the verb “to paint” which comes from Old French peint and then, again, to the Latin pingere, which, we are told, comes the Proto-Indo-European root *peig- which means to “cut” or “mark by incision”. “Scripture,” meanwhile, leads us to the Late Latin scriptura, meaning “the writings contained in the Bible” or “a passage from the Bible,” which in turn stems from classical Latin, denoting simply “a writing, character, inscription.” But this, it turns out, comes from scriptus, which is the past participle of scribere and this comes the from the Proto-Indo-European root *skribh-, which, thrillingly, also means “to cut”. That is, both words–“picture” and “scripture”–stem from roots that suggest marking up a surface. Indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary connects the PIE skribh to Greek skariphasthai “to scratch an outline, sketch,” Latin scribere “to carve marks in wood, stone, clay,” Lettish skripat “scratch, write;” and Old Norse hrifa, “scratch.”

In fact, I had been thinking of something along these lines this morning. There are “natural” pictures, I thought to myself. The camera obscura must have been discovered by accident in a cave or through a pinhole tear in a tent. But even a shadow is a natural picture (at least of the outline) of the tree or person that casts it. The footprint, too, is a “picture” of the foot, and one that is produced through no particular artifice. Is there an equally “natural” form of scripture? Is there a kind of writing that we merely imitate, a natural process of inscription that taught us how to construct a sentence? Perhaps there is. Perhaps the individual footprint is a picture, but a series of footprints tells a story. “Someone walked here, and went that way,” it seems to tell us. Did we learn to write by interpreting these natural signs, these records of the events?

We all know that “text” stems from the PIE verb tek, “to weave, to fabricate, to make wicker”. The root of the “article” is the act of “joining” things together. Perhaps we can begin to see how our experiences are woven from materials, pictures and scriptures, that are cut from the manifold of images that come to us, willy-nilly, in experience. Whether we try to capture these images by drawing them or writing them, the task is to mark up a surface and make and impression.

How Do We Know?

The universe is expanding. In four billion years, Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way. There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and most of them have planets. The Earth revolves around the Sun once roughly every 365 days. The Moon revolves around the earth once every 28 days and is moving away from us. Modern humans are descendants of primates. Over 14,000 years ago, we invented war. The climate is warming. The human population will reach 10 billion around 2050. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The human body sways to the rhythm of a 24-hour clock. Cell division is controlled by proteins called cyclins. Life on Earth began about 4 billion years ago when molecules that could replicate themselves emerged in the primordial ooze. Molecules are made of atoms and atoms are made of particles that are really organizations of energy. Energy is always conserved in a physical system. In the beginning all the energy in the universe was contained in a single point. One more thing: there is water on the Moon.

How do we know these things? That depends on what you mean but  the short answer is “science”. As a culture, we know these things because of a collective process of inquiry; as individuals, we learn them in school. That is, some of us discovered these things and taught them to others, who taught them to others, and then, perhaps, to us. Some of us don’t know these things, but we know them. Almost anyone can learn them, too, i.e., become knowledgeable about them. Given ordinary intelligence, sufficient curiosity, some time and a good book or teacher, a human being can understand these things at a level that we’d consider “knowledge”. But how do we know? What did we do to acquire this knowledge? What are we doing when we know them?

This question fascinates me. It has many different answers, but I’m after a very practical one. I want to understand the practices by which we come to know things, both collectively and individually. Obviously, I want to know (!) how the collective and individual practices intersect. Ultimately, I believe that only things that can be known by individuals can be known at all. But that does not mean that there aren’t things that it “takes a village” to discover. It’s hard to imagine the discovery of water on the Moon by anything less than a coordinated effort. But once the discovery has been made, the knowledge is available to each one of us. This is very important to me, and I don’t think the point is trivial. When I look at what passes for knowledge these days, especially on social media, it sometimes seems to me that people believe things without assuming that anyone–any one person–knows them. They defer not to one expert or another but to an anonymous, undifferentiated, collective “expertise.”

Naturally, they don’t themselves claim to know what they believe either. They merely assert that “we know” or “it is known”. This saves them the trouble of defending their beliefs, and I think we let them, and ourselves, get away with this at our peril. No one is responsible for knowing everything, but we should assume that if anything is known it can be known by “little old me” too, perhaps in a simplified form, or at some level of generality, but, even if I would never have thought of it myself, or stumbled on it in my own experience, I can understand any knowable thing well enough to know it too. I want this to be a norm of “educated” people.

In that case, then, I want to suggest that we know things mainly through experience and conversation–broadly understood to include writing. Indeed, almost everything we know comes to us through conversation with others, through discourse with other knowledgeable people. We listen to them and read what they have to say. We question them and add thoughts of our own. We help each other sharpen our points and discard our errors. If we don’t participate in this process we don’t really know anything. It is not enough to look into a telescope or read a history book. We have to make sense of what we see or read there in collaboration with others. Once I’ve understood something well enough to hold my own in a conversation about it with other knowledgeable I, too, can claim to be knowledgeable. Until then, I’m still learning.

Five Paragraphs in Defense of the Essay

A couple of years ago, Brian Sztabnik published a post at the Talks with Teachers blog called “Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay”. It began by pointing out that the most popular posts at Edutopia that year had not been five paragraph essays. “Not a single one is five paragraphs. Not one has paragraph after paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence.” Instead, argued Sztabnik, they were “authentic”, and this, he proposed, provides a much better model for student writing. In response, Robert Sheppard wrote a post at the TESOL Blog, defending the genre and the exercise. It’s a perfectly cogent effort, and I agree with much of what he says, but he, too, did not write a five-paragraph essay. In this post, I want to take up Sztabnik’s implicit challenge and write a five-paragraph essay in defense of the five-paragraph essay. Like Sheppard, I want to argue that the genre does not preclude authenticity, nor stifle creativity. Moreover, the ability to compose oneself in five coherent paragraphs is a valuable skill that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and, indeed, to test.

Sztabnik’s concerns about the genre follow naturally from his concerns about standardized testing. “By its very definition,” he reminds us, “to standardize means to make something conform, to make homogenous. And since what gets tested gets taught, all originality, creativity, and authenticity has been sucked out of student writing to standardize it for an exam.” There is no question that the five-paragraph essay is a standard form and that if you’re going to test it you should teach it. But when we require a native Dane to write in English we are not demanding inauthenticity; we are offering them a new language in which to express themselves authentically.  By its very definition, we might say, prose demands conformity. But to demand that students express themselves in an essay is not to demand they stop being themselves. They are to be themselves in a particular way under particular conditions, that is all. It is difficult to be yourself while mastering a complex body of knowledge about literature, history, society, or cosmology. Coherent prose, we might say, simply helps us to overcome this difficulty without “losing ourselves” in the details.

By a similar token, when we teach music students the arpeggios needed to play the prelude in C major of the Well-Tempered Clavier we are not destroying their creativity. Rather, we are inviting them to experience a way of doing something that achieves a particular range of effects; we are giving them new skills to express real emotions. With those skills in (as it were) hand, they can be as creative or uncreative as they like. Being skilled does not make it more difficult for them to express their creativity, it only makes it easier to accomplish particular creative goals. Do we imagine that developing the skills of drawing hands and faces somehow stifles the creativity of the artist? Do we imagine that the painter is hindered by understanding how paints can be combined to produce particular colors, and colors to produce effects like the play of light on the surface of a lake? Likewise, to teach someone to compose a coherent paragraph, and then a series of them to produce a compelling argument, is not a way of restricting a creative impulse. It’s range of things we can do with such an impulse.

The five-paragraph essay, I will insist, demonstrates a valuable skill. The genre is useful in itself for the organization of short presentations or the individual parts of longer ones. It is entirely possible to write a full journal article as a series of five-paragraph essays, at least as a first approximation. Once the five-paragraph version of an argument, or part of an argument, exists, the writer, having invested a measured amount of effort so far, can decide whether further efforts to produce a more “interesting” version is needed. (Note that I do not say a more “authentic” or more “creative” version. The writer may have been as a authentic and creative as can be within the allotted time and space.) Often, a series of good, clear paragraphs is all that the occasion demands. Each will have set down what the writer believes along with the grounds on which the reader, too, should believe such things. Each paragraph will have supported, elaborated or defended a well-defined claim, affording the reader an opportunity to engage with that claim and demonstrate its rightness or wrongness. It makes the conversation of scholarship among learned people possible. It makes learning possible. Students who learn how to represent everything they know in coherent prose paragraphs will not regret the time spent developing that ability.

We can all agree that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test the skills students need to become knowledgeable people. Knowledgeable people, when faced with a situation that falls within their domain of knowledge, are able to make up their minds efficiently and accurately about what is going on. They are able to converse intelligently about their reasons to think one thing or another about a particular matter. And they are able to write these thoughts and those reasons down in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help them think even more effectively about the question. The five-paragraph essay demands that students organize their thoughts in a way that opens them to reasoned critique by other thinkers, similarly organized, and, as I have argued here, there’s no reason to think that these cannot be entirely authentic and creative thoughts. In order to “conform”, the students must make decisions about what to say and discover their basis for saying so. And they must then present these decisions in clear and coherent prose. In short,  the five-paragraph essay represents the very skills that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test.

What Makes Students Write Better?

I attended the annual symposium of the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Internationalisation and Parallel Language use (CIP), which, as always, gave me a lot to think about. There was an interesting presentation about the importance of feedback, for example, which led to a no less interesting discussion. Nina Nellemann Rasmussen and Janus Mortensen had done a survey of their writing students which found, not surprisingly, that students found it generally useful to get feedback and more useful to get feedback from their teachers than from their fellow students. Someone asked the very relevant question of whether this showed in the students’ work, or whether this was just a matter of the students’ perceptions. The study had indeed only measured the students’ own perceptions of the utility of the feedback.

This led me to propose that we imagine a large-scale randomized controlled trial. Suppose we take a cohort of 600 students and divide them randomly into three groups (A, B, C). All three are given the same lectures and the same final essay exam. All three groups are given a pre-test to set a baseline against which to measure improvement, and are given deadlines to submit work throughout the semester, but while one group (A, the control) is merely given a pass/fail on the submitted text, the other two are given feedback. In group B, the students have to give each other feedback, while in group C they receive feedback from the teacher. After the final grades are given, the final test is compared with the pre-test and are evaluated for signs of improvement. The question is, in which group will we expect to see most improvement?

I think group C will marginally outperform group B, but B and C will significantly outperform group A. It’s possible that four groups would be needed to test whether giving feedback itself improves performance. (This raises the possibility that group B would outperform group C because the act of giving feedback is actually worth more than receiving “qualified” feedback from a teacher.)

In other words, I believe feedback is important. But I’m actually not so sure that it has to be very “expensive”, i.e., that it has to be provided by teachers. I do think students value teacher feedback more than peer feedback. But I guess I’m saying I think this may be an overly generous valuation. Even if it is worth a bit more to the student (in terms of actual improvement) it may not be worth the cost of the teacher’s time given to all the students. 80% of the value, perhaps, can be provided by peers.

I actually think the point goes deeper. I deliberately gave group A submission deadlines that are not strictly necessary (since they are neither getting nor receiving feedback) in order to remove the confounder that the regular writing practice implies. (If one difference between group A and the other two is that B and C wrote more during the semester, the comparison won’t tell us anything.) Another 80% (of the improvement independent of giving feedback), I suspect, comes simply from practicing. Finally, I think a substantial proportion of the improvement can also be predicted from characteristics of the students themselves (though this would ideally have been controlled for by randomization).  This leaves writing instructors with the following somewhat unhappy hierarchy of what improvement in writing depends on:

  1. Character
  2. Practice
  3. Feedback
  4. Instruction

In other words, I think we might be spending too much time trying to figure out what to tell the students about writing, not enough effort figuring out ways of getting them to write and seek feedback from their peers. Instruction should be organized around these student-based activities. The effort of instructors is wasted if the students are not writing a great deal and devoting time to reading each other’s work. We have to remember that writing instruction is ultimately a species of coaching. It’s not what you tell the students that matters but what you can get the students to do.

Against “Reductionism”

Sometimes a draft gets longer than we’d like. Sometimes we are asked for a text that is shorter than the one we’re working on. We’re writing a paper for a journal with an 8000-word limit and before we know it we’ve written ten-thousand words. Then we’re suddenly asked to submit an extended abstract on the same subject with a 1500-word limit. The problem, we tell ourselves, is to “reduce” what we’ve got to something shorter. I want to offer an argument against this way of thinking.

Remember that a text is a series of paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. When planning or re-organizing a text, you should always use a key-sentence outline as your guide. That is, you should take the one sentence in each paragraph that states what the rest of the sentences merely support, elaborate or defend and copy it into a separate document. If you’ve got a 40-paragraph paper you’ll have 40 sentences in your key-sentence outline. These sentences should always make sense in sequence without the context of the paragraphs in which they will ultimately appear. A good paper will be a series of claims that indicate an argument independent of the basis you are providing for each claim.

Now, each paragraph will consist of between 100 and 200 words. A first draft of a paper with an 8000-word limit should consist of about 40 paragraphs, i.e., between 4000 and 8000 words altogether, which should leave you with plenty of space to add more paragraphs as needed in revision. Always think of the revision process as identifying (1) new paragraphs that need to be written, (2) existing paragraphs that need to be removed or (3) existing paragraphs that need to be rewritten. There’s nothing else that can be wrong with your paper.

When trying to imagine a shorter version of longer paper, don’t imagine that the task is to “reduce” the bigger text to a smaller one. Don’t think of the job as removing words and sentences from the paper you have already written. Think of it as imagining a new text that makes fewer claims. You may have a 60-paragraph paper that is 9000 words long. Okay, imagine a 40-paragraph version of the same argument. You need to find 20 sentences in your key-sentence outline that you can do away with, perhaps while modifying some of the others. If you’ve got reasonably uniform paragraph lengths, you’ve just imagined a 6000 word paper. But don’t think you’ll arrive at this paper simply by “boiling” or “pruning” the longer text. That’s not how it works. Instead, write the new text following the new outline. It will take you 20 hours.

Or imagine “reducing” the text to a 1500 word extended abstract. You’ll now have to make due with 10 paragraphs at best. (I actually recommend dividing the word limit by 200, which will force you to write even more economically than necessary at first pass. You will probably then have room for an extra paragraph or two at the end.) What are the ten (or eight) things you want to say? Imagine a paper that says them. Then write it. It will take 5 hours, 27 minutes (of writing) + 3 minutes (for a break) at a time.

That is, I’m urging you not to think of your longer draft as setting a material constraint on your shorter one. The challenge is not one of representing a existing longer text in an imagined shorter text that leaves something out. Rather, the longer text was an attempt to represent what you know about something in 8,000 words, or 10,000 words, or whatever. But there’s no ideal amount of words to represent a body of knowledge. If you had 20,000 words you could do it even more justice. But that doesn’t meant that the 10,000-word text is somehow a deficient or “reduced” version of the “ideal” longer one. (The truly ideal text would, I guess, have no word limit at all? It would be infinitely long?) Rather, the enormous surplus of knowledge that the longer text demonstrates you have is a material resource for producing a different, shorter text.

You just have to represent that knowledge within the space of fewer paragraphs. In the main, think of a “shorter” text not in terms of the amount words but the amount of paragraphs. Don’t try remove words and sentences (except for the usual reason of keeping each paragraph below 200 words). Remove whole claims, i.e., key sentences, i.e., entire paragraphs. That said, I understand, for some purposes, imagining a text with shorter paragraphs. Sometimes, especially in an abstract or a conference paper, it can be useful to define the paragraph as consisting of least 4 sentences and at most 150 words. This gives you at least 10 paragraphs for a 1500 word text, which may make it easier to decide what to say. It may also bring the style more into line with the kind of text you are trying to write–more a synopsis of an argument than the argument itself.

But my point still holds: don’t try to reduce a longer text to a shorter one. Outline a new text with fewer claims. Then write the best possible paragraphs to support each one. You’re not boiling anything down. You’re not pruning branches off a tree. You’re not weeding a garden. You’re not forcing anything into a form. You are doing what you always do when you write, namely, making series of claims, one paragraph at a time. Your word limit tells you only how many things you can say. Saying them well is the same old problem of writing, the familiar difficulty.