Academic Purpose

Scholarship is the business of exposing ideas to criticism. They may be our own ideas or those of our peers. Or we may critique the ideas that inform the leaders, managers, and artists we study. In any case, the aim of our scholarship is to bring an idea into the light and examine it. We are not surprised, nor offended, when this examination reveals the weaknesses of an idea. Some ideas may be improved and some may need to be discarded altogether. Sometimes our inquiries will reveal flaws in the very foundations on which the ideas have been proposed. But here, too, we are neither surprised nor offended; rather, we are grateful to be disabused of the errors we have inherited from the past. We are moving towards the light.

In the academic setting, then, I bring my ideas before my peers to be tested. “Unless special institutional arrangements are made,” Steve Fuller reminds us, “language functions primarily to move people to act, speak, and feel in certain ways” (2004, p. 153). There’s nothing wrong with these functions of language. But Fuller also teaches us to distinguish them from the “representational function of language” and cautions us to observe the “rhetorical function of representation” (when a statement of fact is treated as true, uncritically). The whole point of a university, I would argue, is to make the “special institutional arrangements” that allow us to make and critique statements of fact. This, as Fuller points out, amounts to implementing “a language designed to represent reality”, i.e., to establishing “standards [that] would test the validity of [an] utterance” (p. 154). Without such a critical environment, we might say, there are no facts to speak of.

Criticism is hard. It is hard to give and it is hard to take. But anything that can be done well can be done badly and be done better. The difficulty you feel is simply the experience of getting better at something, of learning. If Robert Graves struggled, in his poetry, with “the huge impossibility of language”, we struggle, in our scholarship, with the particular difficulty of discourse. Our work is much easier than poetry; indeed, it is simply possible where all poetry is destined to fail. Like poets, however, writing affords us a precision that is not available in oral culture. Being literate puts the means of saying things more efficiently and more exactly at our disposal. (If it brings precision to the poet’s glorius and inevitable failure, it sometimes just exactly allows us to succeed.) We sometimes complain about the difficulty of this task too. But we must remember that writing is hard only to make criticism easier and we are in the business of exposing ideas to criticism. That is our purpose.


These are some preliminary reflections inspired by my participation in the 2019 BALEAP conference at the University of Leeds  — notes towards a philosophical investigation of the meaning of “English for academic purposes”.

Act Five

In “Hamlet and his Problems”, T. S. Eliot famously suggested that Shakespeare’s most famous play is an artistic failure. I have always thought that his argument depends on thinking of Hamlet, the man, as an existential failure, and that this in turn depends on misunderstanding his problem. My opinion doesn’t matter, of course, since “the Hamlet problem” exists in the scholarly conversation independently of my solution to it. The fact that I’ve solved it to my own satisfaction does not mean that the problem no longer exists. It arises for every reader of the play and finds, or fails to find, a solution in the mind of that reader. In the ninth and tenth weeks of my imagined course, as we’re reading the final act of the play, that is precisely what we’re asking the students to do: make up their mind about what Hamlet’s problem was and how well he solved it. A natural essay question here would be, simply, “Did Hamlet succeed?”

As usual, the students would be given one thousand words, and it would be strongly suggested that they compose at least five paragraphs. By now, this form should be familiar to them. They would know that the first paragraph should motivate and outline their argument, demonstrating that they understand the question and are able to organize a coherent answer. The rest of the essay should support, elaborate or defend that answer. They would hopefully by now be used to addressing their intellectual equals, i.e., the other students in the class who have also read and discussed the play over the past ten weeks. They would understand and accept that they will be graded on their ability, not to persuade their teacher, but to converse with their peers. From an epistemic point of view, i.e., in terms of what they know, there’s really no difference between their performance here and in a formal debate with another student. But in an essay they will also obviously demonstrate their ability to write coherent sentences and paragraphs.

Success and failure are ordinary notions. We can talk about the success and failure of social movements and business ventures, of literary projects and theatrical productions. We can mean different things by “success” but we all know it has something to do with accomplishing what you set out to do. When analyzing a series of actions we can assess them relative to their goals. A student who can do this well in the case of Hamlet has a skill that can be applied to other cases. So, once again, a seemingly trivial question about an infuriatingly “canonical” text offers an occasion to demonstrate a valuable everyday competence.

Let me also emphasize again that Hamlet serves as a somewhat arbitrary example here. The course could be organized around any other well-known and widely studied event or story. Students could be studying the Bell breakup or the Paris Agreement, The Pale King or The Lion King. It is essential that there is something like a canonical text, a body of documents that stipulate the central facts of the case, but these documents don’t have to be unambiguous. In fact, it is preferable that there’s a great deal of room to interpret them, since these interpretations are really the content of the course. The material has to be rich enough to sustain twelve weeks of study and bounded enough to keep the students from pursuing completely unrelated questions, and building up disconnected domains of knowledge. You want to make sure that they can address each other as peers; you don’t want them always to be experts (on some esoteric detail) addressing each other as non-experts.

In this course on Hamlet, the question of the hero’s success allows the students to bring everything they know to bear. They will specify Hamlet’s goal and the difficulty it implies. They will assess his actions and inaction and the state of things at the end of the play. They may realize that everything depends on what Horatio and Fortinbras make of the mess that lies before them. What is the story that will be told in Denmark of what happened at Elsinore? A teacher who has been teaching Hamlet all semester should be looking forward to reading these essays. How they are written will say a great deal about how well the course went. They will be worth much more than any set of evaluations.

I have one more post left in the series. There are two more weeks in the course to think about, and there’s a final exam.

Act Four

The plot thickens. Hamlet has killed Polonius and the fourth act opens as Gertrude informs Claudius. Hamlet hides the body, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched to find him, Hamlet is sent to England, Fortinbras’s forces draw near, Ophelia loses her mind, Laertes returns and leads a revolt against the king; on his way to England, Hamlet discovers the true purpose of the trip, is captured by pirates, and brought back to Denmark; Claudius turns Laertes’s anger towards Hamlet. Ophelia drowns. That’s a lot to take in during the seventh and eigth weeks of our imagined course on Hamlet. What simple writing task can we imagine assigning to the students? What might they write at least five paragraphs and at most 1000 words about?

My suggestion is to let them choose their topic themselves, albeit confined to Act Four of the play. That is, don’t give them a question to answer. Just tell them they have to write an essay “about” the fourth act of Hamlet. By now they know what an essay looks like and they have some sense of how their reader, a peer, responds to what they write. They can now write about their own experience as a student of Shakespeare. Or they can write a review of Kenneth Branagh’s movie that focuses on this act. They can pick a single soliloquy to write about (e.g., “How all occasions do inform against me!” as they have already tried with “To be or not to be”) or they can summarize the action, either that of the whole act, or that of one or two scenes (as they practiced doing with Act One.) They can also try to explain why a character did or didn’t do something (as they tried in Act Two.) Or they can approach the act in some completely different way. Leave it entirely up to them.

The trick here is to remind them that they are writing for each other, their fellow students — not for you, their teacher. All them have been “forced” to read the play and all of them have, presumably, attended class. It should be more difficult to do this assignment well if you haven’t read the play or haven’t attended class. In part, you’ll lack knowledge of what you’re talking about, but, perhaps more importantly, you won’t know who you’re talking to. Some of the most important information the students will get from the class discussions will be about the mind of their reader: what will they find hard to believe, understand or agree with? Emphasize that you will be grading them in view of the conversation that you’ve had with them for the past eight weeks. Their essays should, of course, be articulate; but what’s really important is that the author appear “conversant” on the subject of Hamlet. They should demonstrate an eye for the good question, an ear for humor, and the courage of their convictions. It can be useful to tell them that you will have read everyone else’s essays. So you know exactly what the readers have on their minds.

As always, don’t let them reject the task as boring or irrelevant. In its content, it’s basically as relevant and important as the most famous play that has ever been written. In its form, it is as valuable as the ability to write down what you know in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help you consider the matter more carefully. The exercise will train their ability to understand complex actions and motivations and to recognize a broad range of human emotions. Finally, it will give them an occasion to improve their writing, i.e., their ability to compose coherent prose paragraphs in well-defined moments. These are ideas and skills that the students want to master. You’re training them in the use of the “equipment for living”.

Act Three

The third act of Hamlet contains the most famous speech in, arguably, all of literature. In the context of a course devoted exclusively to the play, and, more precisely, in the context established by a week or two of discussion about the act that also contains “The Mousetrap” and “the closet scene”, no student should be in doubt about what is meant when the teacher asks, “What is the question?” There is a short answer: “to be or not to be?” But there are also countless longer ones, which can be presented in essays of no less than five-paragraphs and no more than 1000 words. Students can demonstrate their competence by reacting intelligently and knowledgeably to that simple four-word prompt.

With Act One, I suggested getting the students simply to say what happened. With Act Two, it got a bit harder; the student was to explain why something happened (or rather, why it didn’t). I’m now suggesting something that looks more like philosophy. The student must, of course, first recognize that we’re talking about a very particular question, raised by a particular character, under particular circumstances. If the student demonstrates no awareness of these things, then we’re not going to be very impressed. Second, the student must be aware of some of the familiar options: is to a question of committing suicide (is Hamlet asking whether he should, here and now, be or not be) or is a question of taking action or leaving things as they are? But there are deep philosophical questions at play and it is important that the student recognizes the “existential” importance of what Hamlet is thinking through. When we ask, “What is the question?” we have to recognize that it Hamlet’s question only at first pass. At the end of the day, it’s our question too.

My own interpretation depends crucially on how we parse Hamlet’s first restatement of the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

As I read this, Hamlet is contrasting the option of “taking arms” against the option of “suffering in the mind”. Others (and I think actually most scholars) read it differently: the choices are “suffer” and “take arms” and the question is which is “nobler in the mind”. (On my view, it’s just which is nobler.) If I were to write this essay, I would to well to note both of these interpretations and even cite come famous supporters of each. I normally point out, for example, that Edward Dowden, in his 1899 edition of the play, says, that “‘in the mind’ is to be connected with ‘suffer’ not ‘nobler’.” So there’s that. My interpretation is not original, but I can demonstrate a little learning by providing a source.

Even the independent-minded student who wants to challenge the “obvious” or “boring” solution to the problem of writing the essay must acknowledge that easy solution first. “‘To be or not to be’ isn’t really a question, nor is it ‘the’ question that Hamlet truly faces,” is a perfectly good thesis statement for the essay if the student is ready to back it up with some sound arguments. Even if they will most often be wrong in some absolute sense, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the play and their ability to write intelligently while pursuing a dead end. Quality is relative to conditions they are given.

Suppose you’ve assigned these 1000-word essays every two weeks. You’re now six weeks into a course on Hamlet and every student has submitted at least fifteen paragraphs answering the questions, “What happened in Act One?” “Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in Act Two?” and “What is the question in Act Three?” I’ll offer two no less obvious questions for the fourth and fifth acts soon. There are of course many other questions that would be just as good, and many other stories that could easily replace Hamlet in whatever field you happen to be working in. My aim is to defend this simple approach to teaching and learning, one that makes essential use of writing as part of a larger conversation in the discipline. My claim is that if students are doing this work then the discussions in the classroom can proceed at a higher level. I’m happy to hear why you think I’m wrong about this.

Act Two

There’s an old joke about philosophers: They ask such interesting questions! Why do they come up with such boring answers? Undergraduates might invert it in the case of their professors. They ask such boring questions! How can they expect interesting answers? One way to respond is to appeal to what I’ve called “the fourth difficulty” of academic writing: a knowledgeable person can see the interesting detail in a familiar generality. A student who has been paying attention during the lectures and has read the required readings will understand the underlying interest of an apparently boring question. The question may seem very simple, but it is prompting the student to demonstrate mastery of a complex reality.

In this spirit, I want to continue my reflections from my last post. Recall that I’m imagining a one-semester course on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. After reading the first act, I suggested asking the students to retell the story of its five scenes in five well-formed paragraphs. This would be a very simple “exegetical” task; it would merely answer the question “What happened?” Now consider a somewhat more difficult and “analytical” question: why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in Act 2? Obviously, it will not do to say that he had no reason to do it. By the end of Act 2, we know that Hamlet does not lack a motive but he does seem to lack some sort of resolve. Why? How does it make sense that Hamlet has not done as the ghost of his father has demanded? Is he, as he himself suspects, simply a coward? Or is it possible, already at this point, to defend his hesitation as serving some “nobler” cause? Give the students another five paragraphs to work it out.

Notice that the task requires that the students recognize why the question is interesting. Even at this early stage in the play, cowardice isn’t a simple thing; Hamlet himself has a great deal to say on the issue; he “unpacks his heart” about it. Alternatively, if it isn’t cowardice, then what is it? And is that explanation better than Hamlet’s own? The student here isn’t just supposed to make something up; the idea is to test the student’s awareness of the well-known, but very interesting, issues that have already come up.

Notice also that this same question may be quite differently answered later in the course. Confining the students to the first two acts raises the question in one way, whereas asking them to decide the same question on the basis of the entire play is another matter. We know more about Hamlet’s “problem” by the end of the play than we did at the end of the second act. One way to explain the difference is to take the perspective of the audience. Even if we specify the question as being about why Claudius still alive at the end of Act 2, the audience’s sense of the answer at the time will not be the same as its answer at the end of the play, let alone the scholar’s answer upon reflection. The student is being asked to demonstrate an ability to establish these different perspectives and use them to understand the play.

The word limit is as important here as the time limit. Let’s say we give them the question a few weeks into the course and give them a week to do the assignment at home. We tell them to write no more than 1000 words and we strongly suggest they compose their answer into five paragraphs. (They can take some liberties here, but they should use their freedom wisely.) At one level, this is like giving them a week to plan a five-minute presentation about what is generally considered the central problem in the interpretation of Hamlet (indeed, it’s sometimes just called “the Hamlet problem”). The fact that you’ve given them a week to plan it, and the fact that they only have five minutes to speak, frames our evaluation of the performance. If we had given them no preparation and twenty minutes we would allow a somewhat “looser” use of the time. But under these conditions we can demand a little focus, a little rigor.

As always, I want to emphasize that doing this well requires not just knowledge of a play but mastery of a craft. While it is a decidedly “academic” performance, there is nothing “mere” about it. People who can do this well, under the conditions I’ve proposed, can do many other things well too. Give them a week with any other text (or even some more “empirical” material) and a relevant why-question and they’ll know what to do. Higher education should make them better at precisely that skill. At university it is of course an entirely commonplace activity, but it is neither boring nor trivial in the larger scheme of things.