How School Works

We’re here to help each other get through this thing. Whatever it is.

Mark Vonnegut

Schools serve a limited but important purpose. In addition to the knowledge they impart and the skills they inculcate, they put us in contact with our peers. In the beginning, this just means other people our own age, but, as time goes on and we begin to choose what and where we will study, our “academic” community becomes increasingly defined by shared aptitudes and attitudes, a competence in and a curiosity about similar things. We begin to study our subjects among like-minded people.

This, of course, also involves a measure of competition as we meet our equals, our betters and, unavoidably, our inferiors. Part of the function of school is to show us whether we’re likely to be among the best at what we do if we pursue a particular course. I agree strongly with Frederik deBoer that we have to stop thinking of academic success as the only thing that matters for young people, but it is very definitely one kind of success.

Because school brings a lot of people together at roughly the same stage of development it helps us decide whether we’re remarkably intelligent, or athletic, or beautiful, or ambitious. We also get some measure of our confidence and our cowardice, our love and our hate, our empathy and our contempt. Some of us find out that we’re nicer than most people, and others, that they’re cleverer. Some learn to be kind while others discover that they live among suckers.

I don’t presume to know who is right, and I don’t think it really makes sense to try. I think that both virtue and talent are distributed unevenly in the population and, importantly, that they develop differently in individuals. I don’t think schools can do much about either of these facts, except to give each cohort of students the experience needed to take their own measure. I think that is mainly what school is for.

If it was just about learning things, I think there are more efficient ways to do it. But if it’s about participating in the “ongoing conversation of mankind” (a notion, you’ll note, that is so ancient that it is gendered) we need a social context in which to learn, not just the truth, but what everyone else thinks is true. Schools provide us with this community.

While we begin as conscripts, we ideally finish our education in a school we have freely chosen. In Denmark, this ideal can be seen in the choices young people have to make already after grade nine, between “academic” and “technical” high schools. And some just go straight into apprenticeships. Most societies still presume, at least at some level, that university is a free choice. But it’s distressing how many professors now think of their students as unwilling conscripts who must be constantly “motivated” to learn what their courses offer.

I generally side with those who believe that there are too many students at university these days, too many people who don’t actually belong there but who have been coerced into it, and this also means that there are too many professors, too many academic careers. The university has simply become too big to do what it originally emerged to do. But there’s no use complaining a lot about that; after all, humanity evolved to live on the Savannah, right? Our brains are just too damned big!

Like I say, I don’t think we can turn back the process of growth, but I do think we can recenter ourselves a little by noticing what universities, understood as schools of higher learning, provide: a community of roughly like-minded peers. With my interest in academic writing, this means constantly reminding people that their readers are their intellectual equals, they are writing for their classmates (not their examiners) if they’re students, their colleagues (not their reviewers) if they’re professors. As you can imagine, I’m not always successful.

What schools still do well is to make you aware of your relative mastery of your subject. A good school will always indicate the better school you could be attending if you’re too good for this one. You may make the transition between semesters, if that’s feasible, or, more likely, when you apply for grad school. But please remember that it’s not just about talent and ability. You’re also learning what you’re interested in and who you’d like to discuss it with. If you don’t like talking to academics that may not be their fault, or even yours. It’s just that you’ve decided that this field, or even all of academia, isn’t for you. There are lots of other ways to succeed.

How Essays Work

They begin. They middle. And they end. A reader of this blog has asked me to say a few words about essays, as distinct from research papers, and I am happy to oblige. One way to approach the distinction is to say that the “paper” is really just a special case of the “essay”. Another way is to say that a paper consists of a series of essays, nested inside a bigger one. The easiest way to make the distinction is perhaps to say that an essay is a “freer” form than a research paper, or a more “general” one, while a paper is governed by specific conventions, usually particular to a scientific discipline. Also, papers are more modular, and therefore easier to “skim”. While both should be written so that they can be meaningfully read from beginning to end, the conventional structure of a paper usually allows knowledgeable readers to skip around for the information they need without significant loss of meaning. An essay is more often a single gesture, best read in order, and often in a single sitting. As you can tell, I’m not going to be offering a very rigorous definition of either in this post. I’ll just try to say something about what an essay can do.

Like papers, essays are prose compositions and, like papers, they consist of paragraphs. That means that they govern the reader’s attention roughly one minute at a time, making a point and moving on to another one. Ernest Hemingway thought of his stories as “sequences of motion and fact” and knew that the “great difficulty [was] to write paragraphs that would be [their] distillation”. An essay, we might say, is a series of ideas and opinions that the writer is asking the reader to consider. If you’re writing a research paper, I would encourage you to think of each paragraph as supporting, elaborating, or defending a claim, and you’ll often do that in an essay too; that is, you’ll often be expressing a belief and expecting your reader to believe you. But the loser form of the essay, the more informal situation that it implies between reader and writer, allows you to propose ideas that even you, as the writer, are just “trying on”, “for the sake of argument,” and are ultimately only asking the reader to “entertain”. While you’re both engaged in an collaborative search for “the truth”, each paragraph need not be held to the same standard of “justified, true belief” that I’d recommend for research papers.

The root of the word “essay” is “attempt” or “trial”, and we might say that an essayist is always saying to the reader, “Try to imagine…” The essayist, like I say, is not trying to persuade the reader that what they’re saying in each paragraph is true, but is demonstrating, in a very real sense, what the reader is able to imagine. (Right now, if I’m succeeding, I’m showing you that you can imagine an essay in a particular way.) A really good essay is often one that surprises us with our ability to imagine unfamiliar situations and complications. The working title of the Thelonious Monk’s classic “Monk’s Mood,” I’m told (on good authority), was “This Is How I Feel Now.” Norman Mailer said that the implicit message of jazz was “I feel this, and now you do too.” Replace “feel” with “think” (or “imagine”) and you’ve got the implicit message of an essay. You’re literally making the reader think what you think, see what you see. You’re walking them through your thinking, showing them a corner of mind.

Even with all this freedom and creativity in mind, an essay should be a single coherent gesture. But, unlike a paper, which adduces premises to support a conclusion, or frames an argument to suggest a set of implications, an essay is more like journey through a landscape. It begins in one place and ends in another with a sense of accomplishment that is not always neatly summarized in its “thesis”. In fact, an essay can be perfectly good even if it’s thesis wasn’t news to the reader at all or remains as mysterious at the end as it was at the beginning. (A hike will often end where it began.) Or, to use Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor, an essay may be like a ladder you climb up to a platform and then discard. It’s the new view of things, not the steps, that matters. (Though the reader is of course grateful to the craftsman for the sturdy and evenly spaced rungs.) The important thing to keep in mind as a writer is that you’re occupying your reader’s time, roughly one minute for each paragraph, and those minutes should be eventful, meaningful. You have to have a clear idea what each paragraph is for. A clear image in mind.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” So to write an essay you have to have something to say, you have to have a “truth” to communicate. A research paper presumes a very disciplined peer who is familiar with your theories and methods and is capable of recognizing a definite “result”. An essay is much less formal affair, but the reader is just as important. You should think of your reader as an intellectual equal precisely in the sense that they’re capable of imagining what you can imagine, of thinking what you can think, even if they don’t know it. They’re able to do this when prompted only by words. Your job as an essayist is to lay out the words you want the reader to “try on”; in the right order, they will evoke the images you want them see with their mind’s eye; and these images, in the sequence you arrange, will move your reader through a line of argument that leaves them seeing the world a little more as you do. Thus, an essay begins. Thus, it middles. And thus it ends.

How Paragraphs Work

Whether you’re writing an essay, a paper, or a chapter, you’re going to be writing a series of paragraphs. You therefore do well to think about what a paragraph does in a text, what role it plays in the larger whole. You’re going to be making a series of claims that together constitute an argument; each paragraph will be devoted to one of these claims. Broadly speaking, we can say that the function of a paragraph is to establish a claim in your argument. It has between six sentences and 200 words with which to accomplish this task, or about one minute of your reader’s attention in which to do it.

In most cases, “establish” means that the paragraph either supports, elaborates or defends the claim, and that means you have to decide whether the claim needs support, elaboration, or defense. (We’ll leave the fourth difficulty on the side for now.) You have to choose your claims wisely, so that they don’t need more than 200 words to do any of these things or are so “easy” that six sentences just seem like a waste of time to your reader. At the end of the day, it’s not your claim that needs support, elaboration, or defense, it’s your reader that needs you to support, elaborate, or defend it. So you have to know what your reader is capable of, and what they’re willing to accept.

“To know whom to write for is to know how to write,” said Virginia Woolf. As a student or a scholar, remember that you know your reader as well as you know your peers. You are writing for someone you respect as an equal — someone who is as knowledgeable on the subject as you are, and whose mind you are familiar with.

Though it’s not always necessary, it will be useful to make the claim you’re trying to establish explicit in one of the sentences in the paragraph. In fact, if you approach the paragraph with this “key sentence” in mind, it will be much easier to write it. The key sentence should be simple and declarative, and it should occasion the difficulty you’re going to help your reader overcome.

“Sensemaking is a retrospective process,” is a good example of the sort of sentence I have in mind. You may decide that your reader needs an elaboration of this point, and therefore go on to explain exactly what you mean by “retrospective” (not to mention “process”!). If you haven’t already done so in another paragraph you may also want to briefly define sensemaking — but keep in mind that, in this example, the sentence works more like a statement about sensemaking than a definition of it. (Compare: “Sensemaking is the retrospective formation of images that justifies the behavior of members in an organization.” That’s also a perfectly good key sentence, but with a few more working parts to belabor.) This question of whether you’re making a conceptual point or an empirical one is useful to get clear about before you compose the paragraph.

Notice that the same key sentence can be presented in very different postures. You can claim that sensemaking is a retrospective process as a simple matter of definition or you can present it as an empirical result. You can even use it to provoke you reader, who may adhere to the view that sensemaking is sometimes a prospective activity. In each of these different rhetorical postures, you might decide that the simple declarative sentence (“Sensemaking is a retrospective process,”) is still the best way to write your key sentence, trusting that the reader will feel the relevant difficulty and take up the appropriate stance to receive the rest of your paragraph. But you might also make it clear already in the key sentence itself. “Karl Weick (1995, p. 24) has defined sensemaking as a retrospective process,” or, “In XYZ Corp, sensemaking proceeds retrospectively,” or, “Contrary to current fashion, my view is that sensemaking is always a retrospective process.” Notice that in each case, we’re still saying that sensemaking is a retrospective process, but we’re pitching the claim at a particular angle in order to sharpen the point, to locate the difficulty we want the reader to experience.

Think of your entire paper as a series of small, surmountable difficulties for your reader, each of which you occasion and then help them to overcome. (This also defines your difficulty, to be sure.) It can be useful to make a list of these claims (noting the associated difficulty for each) as you go along. This gives you what we call an after-the-fact or key sentence outline. It’s simply a list of the claims you presume you have established in your paper, one paragraph at a time. You can always go back to each paragraph and make sure that you really have established it, of course. But the outline gives you a nice way of surveying your argument, like Kafka’s engineer admiring the Great Wall of China. The idea is to appreciate your small contribution to the larger universe of discourse.

Finding the Difficulty

Last week I got to talk to a lot of students about the first three disciplines and noticed something interesting. When we’re asked to think of something that we know to be true, we have a tendency to play it safe. We come up with sentences that no one would find hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. But this will not do if we’re trying to generate a key sentence for a paragraph, since a paragraph is an attempt to support, elaborate, or defend a claim. If the reader were confronted with the key sentence on its own, out of the context of the paragraph, the reader would not simply believe, understand, or agree with it. It would present a problem for the reader and it’s the writer’s job to solve it, or at least provide the means to do so. That is, the key sentence should always occasion a difficulty in the mind of the reader. The paragraph resolves it.

Think of the instruction to “write something,” on the model of “Lift something!” or “Do some pushups!” or, “Run somewhere!” None of these instructions indicate a difficulty; they don’t tell you to do something hard. But each of them could be made virtually impossible by specifying how heavy, how many, and how fast. Within a reasonable range of the “humanly possible,” some people would find the task easy while others would find it hard. The trick is to set up the task so that it provides an interesting challenge. Everyone who works out knows what I’m talking about here. You have to plan your exercise regimen so that you get a little a stronger, a little faster, a little further every day. This means you can’t take it too easy or overdo it in any one session. You have to put enough weight on the bar, but not too much. You have to put enough kilometers behind you, but not too many. Otherwise, not only do you not get the health benefits you’re looking for, it’s not much fun. It either lacks that sense of challenge or is completely discouraging.

In the case of writing, then, take some care in choosing what to write about, and what to say about it. Stick to what you know and even to what you know well. But don’t confine yourself to things that are very easy to say to anyone you might meet. Rather, pick things that your peers would initially respond to with a measure of skepticism, puzzlement, or rejection. Choose your (imagined) peers wisely, however. You want to respect their concerns and you want to have a good sense of how to assuage them. That makes it much easier to enjoy their (imagined) company.

On the weekend, I started working on another metaphor. Musicians will often talk about “playing in the pocket,” and it seems to me that that’s what I’m suggesting you do when you write. You and your reader are collaborating to make your writing feel “tight”. That means not just playing an easy tempo mechanically to the beat of a metronome. You have to challenge the reader to “stretch” a little, to reach for the ideas that you’re presenting to them. This only works if you imagine your reader as a peer — like a fellow musician in your band. So, if you’re a student, make sure you have fellow student in mind, and find the pocket in a mutual respect for the difficulty of your subject. If you’re a working scholar, find the pocket in the company of your colleagues. Make it swing.

How to Like Writing

Writing is a big part of a research career. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re going to be spending a lot of time not liking your job as a researcher. If you can’t find a way to like writing academically, I honestly think you’re better off finding something else to do with your life. But don’t give up right away. During your graduate studies, and especially your PhD, spend some time learning how to enjoy writing. Insist on finding joy in the act of sitting down at the machine and addressing yourself to your peers.

Obviously, at the end of the day, you have to find that joy in your own heart, and I won’t pretend to know where exactly that is. But through the years I have, I think, found some things that might help. If you don’t like writing, it’s probably because you don’t write often enough, you write too much when you do, you don’t know what you’re writing about, or you resent your reader. Or some combination. My somewhat simpleminded advice is to just stop doing those things. And, yes, then you must open your heart. A little.

Write regularly and in moderation about things you know for people you respect. Write every day, five days a week, 32 weeks a year. Don’t write more than three hours a day. Always decide the day before what you will say; make sure it’s something you know. Have someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong in mind as you write. (Remind yourself that you really do want them to tell you if you are.) Enjoy.