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Composing the Moment, part 2

You’re prepared for this. Yesterday, at the end of your learning day, you decided what you were going to write and when you were going to do it. Then you had a relaxing evening and got a good night’s sleep. You’re now awake and ready to work. Wait for the appointed time (if you decided to start at 8:00 don’t start at 7:57 just because you’re ready) and begin precisely when it arrives (don’t start writing at 8:03 because you now feel ready). Start typing when the moment begins. You have given yourself exactly 30 minutes, but you will take a three-minute break at the end. That means you’ve got 27 minutes of writing ahead of you. Notice that this means that the first two and the last five minutes are given to you in advance — you know they will happen. In between there will twenty minutes that we can summarily split into two times ten. This post is about how to spend those 2 + 10 + 10 + 5 minutes. And the break.

First, pose the difficulty for you reader. As you start typing your key sentence, think of your reader. Why does the reader need a whole paragraph about this? Is the key sentences hard to believe, understand, or agree with? Is there some way of making it clearer what difficulty you think the reader will be facing? Spend two minutes working on just your key sentence, making sure you’ve got it right. If it ends up just like the one you wrote yesterday evening, that’s fine; ideally, you will indeed have the problem precisely cued up already the day before. But you’ve got two minutes here to really feel the difficulty. Give yourself a good sense of what you’re about to do. Remember that your reader is someone you respect, someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong, a peer. Find your footing and take up an appropriate posture.

Next, write some sentences. These will either support, elaborate, or defend your key sentence, so they should be as true as it is, and as well known to you, but just a little easier to believe, understand, or agree with. You’ve got ten minutes; try to write one a sentence per minute. During this time, don’t stop writing. If you get stuck, simply rewrite some of the sentences you’ve already got, saying the same things slightly differently. You don’t want to sit there thinking, and do not give into the urge to read something or search for facts on the internet. (If you have to look something up, and you know how to find it easily, go ahead. But keep your focus on writing.) Your job, in this moment, is simply to write sentences that you know are true and that you think can be used to support, elaborate, or defend the key sentence. The sentences don’t have to be any neat order nor add up to a strong argument; you can even put them on separate lines with lots of white space between. They don’t even have to be entirely grammatical (though they should say something). At the end of the ten minutes you should have 11 sentences altogether (including the key sentence) but a few more won’t hurt and a few less is fine too.

Now, compose your paragraph. Don’t be ashamed to use your visual imagination. A paragraph occupies about half a page and it should look like you put it there deliberately. Unless you’ve got a blockquote or a bullet list in the paragraph, there should be no line returns, just lines wrapping at the right margin (which I recommend you leave ragged). Remember that a paragraph occupies about one minute of reader’s attention, which consists of nothing but the words you put it before it. Use the sentences you wrote in the previous ten minutes to arrange the best possible reading experience you can, the best possible string of words to support, elaborate, or defend your key sentence. At some point, you must decide where the key sentences works best; it doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the paragraph; it can go anywhere just so long as the reader can easily see that it’s the key sentence, the “take-home message” of the paragraph. Give yourself ten minutes to do this and make sure you end with a neat, finished paragraph. Do notice that this is ten times longer than your reader will have to read it. Feel your advantage.

Finally, read it. Out loud. Until now, you have not given your vanity any occasion to assert itself. Your perfectionism has been kept in check. By reading it out loud, you will see how well it works as a text. You will be able to feel how well the words come off the page. Both the the rhythm and the melody of your language will become apparent. You will be able to hear how your sentences sound inside the head of your reader. This will develop your empathy for your reader, deepening our kinship with them. Indeed, this act of reading constitutes your kindness to your reader. It performs your care for them. The reading itself will take one or two minutes, after another three or four — five minutes in all — stop.

Take a three minute break. This break is more important than it seems. It shows the part of you that writes that there’s still a little time left but it’s not for them. When your 27 minutes runs out you are to stop working on the paragraph but not begin on something new. Walk around in your office, rolling your shoulders, and rotating your wrists. Stare out the window. Listen to a piece of music. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. But don’t check your emails or your Twitter feed. Don’t use the time productively (and don’t even waste it). Show your writing self that you are not writing by choice and that you therefore, just as freely, chose to write when you did. Writing is freedom, perhaps the purest freedom there is. During those twenty-seven minutes you were free to do whatever you could with words. Next time you will have that freedom again.

After your break, get on with your day, which may mean that you start learning, or that you write another paragraph. I recommend no more than 3 hours of writing a day. If you’re writing 27-minute paragraphs, that’s six paragraphs at most per day. If you wan to write more paragraphs, considered compressing your writing moment into 18-minute paragraphs (e.g., 1 + 6 + 7 + 4) but go through the same stages (pose, write, compose, read) and then take a two-minute break. You can write three paragraphs an hour this way.

After that, repeat the pattern from yesterday. Learn. Prepare. Relax. Sleep.

Composing the Moment, part 1

The paragraph is where writing happens. But exactly when does a paragraph happen? That’s the question that my approach to scholarly writing tries to answer — and to answer every day. It’s not that you have to write every single day, it’s just that you should answer the question every day, even if the answer is that you will not write anything. Crucially, you should know the answer yesterday. In this post, I want to try to unpack all this as straightforwardly as I am, at the moment, able. It’s going to take a few paragraphs.

Begin with two simple observations: every day comes to an end and tomorrow is another day. That’s just how it works in any particular location on this planet. If you’re living a reasonably orderly life, we can draw a sharp line between one day and the next, albeit one that necessarily ignores the rich experience of sleeping, dreaming, and waking. What we should not ignore is the evening. You should let your day end at what is sometimes called a “reasonable hour”. And what I mean by “let your day end” is simply that you should put down the burden of learning; you should recognize that you have reached a point, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, every single day, when you are not going to get any smarter. Tomorrow, you’ll start learning again, but at this point in your day you should admit that you will not acquire any more justified, true beliefs and not become any more conversant in your discipline until you go to sleep. Until then, you can relax.

Wherever you are, a lot things happen during the day, and, as students and scholars, much of it will in some way or other contribute to our learning. I won’t say too much about the variety of actions and events that make up our learning day, but for most of us it involves some combination of reading, thinking, talking, and listening that, when done right, satisfies our curiosity and makes us more knowledgeable. Notice that I’m leaving writing on the side for now. I want to distinguish it sharply from learning even though I know that it certainly contributes to your overall project of learning. I want to suggest that your writing, ideally, represents what you have learned, so you must do at least some of your writing after you have learned something. It’s that kind of writing I want to encourage you to find time for.

We have drawn a line between one day and the next, and another between the end of the “learning day” and the beginning of a “relaxing evening”. Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound like the life a scholar should live? Isn’t that what you promised yourself you were getting into? I’m not going to tell you how to spend your evenings. I’m going to leave that up to you, except to say that you should make sure that, on most evenings, you are actually relaxing, and not, let’s say, “attending” — a gathering of some kind, an all-night party, or concert, or rally. In the morning, you should feel rested. Enough said.

Just before you relax, I want you to prepare yourself for the next day’s writing. This is a crucial part of the writing moment. A writing moment is only a writing moment if you have prepared it the day before because you must tell your unconscious what you will be doing tomorrow. If your unconscious mind learns to trust that you will in fact write about what you said you will write about at the time you said you would, you will find that it shows up “composed” and ready to work, ready to deliver a coherent prose paragraph about something you know. I’m not promising you that this will happen right away, but, with time, you’ll be surprised at how fortune rewards what is, literally, the prepared mind of the writer.

Needless to say, you must choose to write about something that you actually do know something about. To this end, do not choose to write about something you learned today. There’s a good chance you’ll find out tomorrow that you still have something to learn about it. You might even discover in the moment of writing that you don’t know what you’re talking about at all. Instead, choose something that you knew already last week. You will learn better today if you are not under pressure to come up with something to write about tomorrow. Whether you learn something interesting today or not will not affect whether you’re going to write well tomorrow. You might not learn anything. You might make no progress at all. But tomorrow you will write about something you knew comfortably last week. And, no, I will not believe you if you try to tell me you didn’t know anything last week.

After your learning day is over, then, and before you begin to relax, take five minutes to decide what and when you will write tomorrow. First, take two minutes to call some objects of your knowledge to mind, some “things you know“. Confine yourself to one-, two-, or three-word names, don’t unpack them into descriptions or claims about these entities yet. Just make a list of, say, five things that you feel you could say something intelligent about in the company of another knowledgeable person, a peer. Then, spend three minutes writing some sentences you know to be true about them that you could use as a key sentence for a paragraph tomorrow. I’ll say more about what a key sentence is in tomorrow’s post about the actual writing moment. Knowing what’s coming, as you will learn from experience much better than you will from this blogpost, will increasingly help you get the most out of these five minutes. Finally, book 30 minutes into your calendar at the start of tomorrow, before your “learning day” begins anew. It should be the first intellectually challenging thing you do. Resolve to show up ready to work on your writing for that half hour.

Now you can relax.

Will AI Disrupt the Essay?

My title is inspired by Anna Mill’s thought-provoking Twitter thread and Charles Knight‘s excellent reflections on the potential of large language models to undermine “the integrity of the essay”. If you don’t know anything about the issue that this experiment is addressing, then I highly recommend watching his talk first (embedded below). I agree with him that artificial intelligence can (and will) be used to “attack” the essay as a core competence of students and scholars. (See a recent tweet by Marc Watkins if you’re in any doubt about what’s coming.) It will certainly force us to assign more essays in-class to ensure that the students we’re giving university degrees to can actually write sentences about their subject. (See Charles’s follow-up reflections here on that question.)

Charles Knight’s talk on the question, “How could AI break the integrity of the essay?”

Anyway … I produced the 900-word essay below in ten minutes of messing around (lying on my sofa before dinner) with GPT-3. The bolded sentences are my contribution. The only other contribution was to gather loose sentences together into paragraphs (until GPT-3 caught on that I wanted paragraphs). I have not changed the order of any of the sentences or words. (See my earlier experiments here and here.) Note: I mean ten minutes literally. That is all it took.

I didn’t begin with the title but with the first key sentence (except that I added the in-text citations at the end of the process). At the start, the results came somewhat haltingly, two or three sentences at a time, hence the more frequent prompting. Adding the title seemed to inspire more essay-like results. And once it had generated the four factors, and I had prompted it to go through them, I was able to get the rest simply by resubmitting the whole text as a prompt twice. After the text had been completed, I added the in-line references (I made up the dates for for Friedman, Galbraith, and Krugman, and have no idea what I meant by “Jones 2010” and “Smith 2012”) and then prompted it one last time by writing “References” at the end. Except for some oddly placed spaces, which I have removed, it produced the reference list exactly as posted below. (Yes, do check those references out!)

I post it here without further comment, though I’ll probably repost an annotated version at some point. I’d love to hear what you think of it, both in terms of style and content. Imagine that a student submitted this as an answer to a relevant prompt (e.g., “Write 500-1000-word essay about the causes of the Great Depression”). Suppose you could be certain that it was not autogenerated or plagiarized (i.e., that was actually written by a student who had been given, say, 72 hours to write it). What grade would you give it? I imagine it depends on what class you imagine you’re teaching. Imagine getting this from a first-year economics student, or perhaps a history student, or a student in your freshman composition course. How good is it? Be honest.

Please post your reflections in the comments. for my part, I think it’s a great example of the potential of AI to “automate the C”. Preventing this will indeed “disrupt” our educational practices in higher education.

The Causes of the Great Depression: An Economic Perspective

Milton Friedman (1964) and J.K. Galbraith (1972) had very different views of the great depression. Friedman believed that the great depression was caused by the Federal Reserve's policy of not providing enough money to banks. Galbraith believed that the great depression was caused by a lack of demand for goods and services. This was debated for many years by subsequent economists. Friedman's view is generally accepted by most economists today, while Galbraith's view has been largely discredited. But recently interest in Galbraith's position has rekindled.

Some economists (Krugman 1992; Jones 2010) now believe that both Friedman and Galbraith were partially right, and that the great depression was caused by a combination of factors. They point to the fact that after the stock market crash of 1929, there was a severe lack of demand for goods and services. This led to a decrease in production and an increase in unemployment. At the same time, they argue that the Federal Reserve's policy of not providing enough money to banks contributed to the problem. This made it difficult for banks to lend money, which further decreased demand and added to the problem of unemployment.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 brought things to a head. The bursting of the housing bubble and the resulting increase in foreclosures led to a decrease in demand for goods and services. This, combined with the Federal Reserve's policy of keeping interest rates low, led to a decrease in production and an increase in unemployment. The result was the Great Recession, which is often compared to the Great Depression.

There are a number of other factors that may have contributed to the Great Depression. These include:

The high level of debt that consumers and businesses were carrying;

The increasing international trade imbalances;

The over-extension of credit by banks; and,

The stock market speculation that preceded the crash.

In this essay, I will look at each of these factors in turn.

First, then, let's look at the question of debt. In 1929, consumers and businesses were carrying a high level of debt. This was partly due to the easy credit that was available at the time. Consumers were able to buy cars and houses on installment plans, and businesses could borrow money for expansion. The problem was that when people lose their jobs or their income decreases, they have trouble making their loan payments. This can lead to defaults and foreclosures, which further reduces demand and contributes to unemployment.

Second, international trade imbalances also played a role in the Great Depression. Before World War 1, Europe had been the dominant economic power. But after the war, America became the leading economic power. America had more money than it needed, while Europe struggled with heavy debts from the war. To repay these debts, European nations began borrowing money from America. As a result, America began accumulating large amounts of foreign debt.

This situation came to a head in 1929 when an American stock market crash led to a decrease in demand for European goods. To make matters worse, American banks started calling in their loans to European nations (a process known as "contraction"). This led to a decrease in production and an increase in unemployment in Europe - which further decreased demand for American goods! The combination of these factors led to a sharp decline in international trade - which made things worse for everyone involved.

Third, banks also played a role in causing the Great Depression by extending too much credit before 1929 . When people are given easy access to credit , they tend to spend more than they would otherwise . This can lead to an increase in demand for goods and services , which can lead to inflation . In the years before 1929, banks were lending money to people who wanted to buy stocks . This led to an increase in stock prices , which encouraged more borrowing and more speculation . When the stock market crashed in October 1929, many people were left with worthless stocks and large debts . This led to a decrease in demand for goods and services , which further contributed to the problem of unemployment.

Fourth, it has been argued (Smith 2012) that the Great Depression was caused by a lack of aggregate demand. Keynesian economics argues that total spending (or aggregate demand) is what drives economic activity. If there is not enough total spending, then production will decrease and unemployment will rise. One reason why there may have been a lack of aggregate demand in the early 1930s was because of the high level of debt that consumers and businesses were carrying. Another reason was the international trade imbalances mentioned above. When countries are not buying American goods, this reduces American exports - leading to a decline in production and jobs.

So, what can we learn from all this? First, it is important to remember that economic recessions and depressions are complex phenomena with many causes. Second, we should be careful about using monetary policy (interest rates) as our only tool for dealing with recessions and depressions - as Friedman (1964, 1968) argued. Third, we should be aware of other factors that can contribute to these problems - such as excessive debt levels or international trade imbalances. And fourth, we should always be prepared for potential downturns by having strong financial systems in place - such as banking regulations or social safety nets.


Friedman, M. (1964). Money and economic development: The Horowitz lectures of 1957. New York: Praeger.

Friedman, M. (1968). The role of monetary policy. American Economic Review, 58(1), 1-17.

Galbraith, J.K. (1972). Economics and the public purpose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Jones, C. (2010) Galbraith on the great crash revisited. Challenge, 53(2), 17-40. 

Krugman, P. (1992) It's Baaack: Japan's Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2, 137-205. 

Smith, A. (2012) What caused the Great Depression? Econ Journal Watch 9 (3):449-469.

A Neat Hand

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands

I’ve now written about the ideal paper, the ideal paragraph, the ideal sentence, the perfect inflammatory word, and the importance of spelling. It’s only fitting that I conclude this series with some reflections on font choice and handwriting. The latter is, of course, fast becoming a lost art or, at least, a niche craft, while the former is an object of both confusion and indifference. As we pass from the age of mechanical reproduction to the age of digital automation, I want to argue, we must retain our sense of the fundamental humanity of the written word, the phenomenology of literature, the aesthetics of writing, or what Roland Barthes called simply “the pleasure of the text”. We have to care what it it feels like to read our work.

In my writing workshops, I get participants to write a paragraph that they then have one of the other participants read out loud to them. Some of them work on paper, which provides a particular challenge. Some portion of the half hour that is devoted to actual writing in the workshop must produce a clearly legible draft. This normally means they have to devote two or three minutes at the end to actually rewriting the 100-200 words they have usually composed. Otherwise the difficulty that the reader faces will not indicate issues of composition but defects of calligraphy. If you do want to work mainly by hand, then you should certainly work on your handwriting. There may be all kinds of good reasons to do this.

Many people swear that they write (and even think) better with a pen in their hand than sitting in front of screen. Some people swear that they can only write well in front of a noisy typewriter punching the letters firmly onto a white sheet of paper. Much of this is no doubt a matter of habit. Already in high school, I was writing most of my papers on a word processor, so I’ve never felt any strong relationship between my handwriting and my stream of consciousness. I learned to touch type at the same age, so I really do feel that the words appearing on the screen are a natural extension of my mind. This is clearly a personal preference, however, and everyone should find a way to work that gives them pleasure. My point is just that, whatever means of writing you choose, resolve to do it well. Practice it. Become “good at” forming the letters and words in your chosen manner. You will enjoy it more.

But once you have written a text in a way that gives you pleasure you must also make a deliberate effort, a conscious set of decisions, to make your text pleasing to your reader’s eye. Many years ago, I found Josef Albers’ wonderful textbook Interaction of Color in a used bookstore and it has profoundly affected the way I teach writing, i.e., the interaction of words. At one point, he makes the connection explicitly: “The fashionable preference for sans-serif fonts in text shows neither historical nor practical competence,” he tells, reminding us that sans-serif fonts (like Arial) are meant for captions not prose, while serif fonts (like Times New Roman), are based on the idea that “the more the letters are differentiated from each other, the easier the reading.” I always tell people to present their work for feedback in 12-point, Times New Roman, double-spaced, with no right justification (i.e., with a jagged right margin). It doesn’t look like a published page; it looks like a draft. It is optimal for reading and giving feedback.

Writing this post, I’m reminded of my poor habits. I have terrible handwriting, and I’ve been thinking about changing the font for the posts on this blog for years. Let me know what you think of this blog’s look in the comments, please. I’ve basically left it all up to WordPress until now, but I should take my own advice and take control of my aesthetics. Typo-graphy is an interest in the (blow by blow) impression of that the shapes of letters make on your reader; calli-graphy is a cultivation of the beauty of letters on the page. These issues are neither trivial or vain. Take some pleasure in dealing with them effectively.

Correct Spelling

Two quick very true, very embarrassing stories. As an undergraduate, I once found myself in the campus pub being gently corrected in the middle of a profound philosophical argument by a sorority girl, who explained to me that the word I was trying to use to devastating effect was, in fact, “construe”, not, as I seemed to think, “conscrue”. That same year, no doubt, I tried to shock a professor by comparing consciousness to an ordinary bodily process like, “e.g., a bowl movement”. He did not fail to point out in the margin that my attempt to be witty had been undermined by my inability to spell. Some words we learn the hard way.

Orthography is the study of the right (ortho-) way of writing (-graphy) words. In my two examples, I understood the word I was using correctly, but I did not know how to spell it. It is possible that, though I had said it often, I had never in my life written the word “bowel” before using it in that paper. And I may never have “construed” anything explicitly before I heard — and did not read — my professor doing so. My error stemmed from what Steven Pinker has called the Igon Value Problem: “when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert.” In fact, this reminds me of a third embarrassing tale: the time I wrote about “Göbbel’s” (!) incompleteness theorem on the basis of lecture by W.V.O. Quine that I had attended. I really did mainly squander my learning opportunities as an undergraduate. Words aren’t just sounds we make to sound smart, they are signs we read to actually become smart. Learn how to spell them.

I know this is tough love. I hope it’s clear that I have a great deal of empathy for undergraduates and their struggle to learn the curriculum. My point is that there are lots of lessons hidden in seemingly trivial details. Sometimes spelling is a clue to a word’s etymology, sometimes a way to avoid confusing it with another. Do you mean “free reign” or “free rein”? Are you “the sun and the air” or “the son and the heir”?

And then there’s the spelling of names. I mentioned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions the other day and the auto-generated closed captioning on the YouTube video apparently heard me say “Thomas Coons”. If I had been teaching the philosophy of George Berkeley, it would no doubt have captioned it “George Barclay”. If your discipline is organized around the works of Barbara Czarniawska (who my browser can’t even spell) or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who it actually can!) you’re going to have to take spelling seriously. Even relatively simple names like Bourdieu or Ricœur are worth learning well if you’re going to be using them often.

Students sometimes ask whether “spelling counts” and, of course, it matters less and less as spellchecking becomes better and better. But poor spelling can reveal that you’re not very familiar with the material you’re so confidently holding forth about. By the same token, taking the time to look closely at how big words are put together at the level of the letter is actually a good, if very simple, way to build some intellectual confidence.