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Master Class

To me, this is the original meaning of “master class”. I discovered it over a decade ago, and it has subtly shaped my writing instruction ever since. I don’t, of course, presume to be a “master” at anything like Segovia’s level. The range of my humor and the depth of my wisdom about scholarly writing is nowhere near his on the matter of playing the guitar. I imagine that the writers who come to see me are correspondingly less ambitious, though I sometimes have to remind myself and my students that I am not really an accomplished scholar at all. Still, this form of instruction seems to work when I do it. Maybe what I lack in humor and wisdom, I make up for in a vaguely Socratic irony. I know, at least, what I don’t know.

“As far as practice and suffering are concerned,” said Roland Barthes, “any writer can be compared to the greatest.” (He was talking about whether one could compare Philippe Sollers to Marcel Proust.) The master class gives me access, not just to a writer’s text, which may then be “corrected”, but to their practice and suffering, which may be disciplined. As writers, we cannot avoid suffering, but I like to think we can make it more precise. This is best done by direct engagement.

But unlike the playing of Segovia’s students, another’s writing can’t happen right in front of us in real time. You can’t tell how good a writer is, nor where their writing can be improved, by watching them work for a few minutes. That simply isn’t how writing works. On the other hand, you can’t simply point out errors of grammar and punctuation in a draft that they’ve spend the past week writing either. (That approach has, thankfully, been pretty widely rejected by writing teachers long ago.) Our instruction needs to bring together what Robert Graves called “the huge impossibility of language” with what I might call the “appreciable finitude of writing”.

To do this, I require participants in my master classes to bring a well-formed paragraph that has been written during a deliberate writing moment. I imagine Segovia expected that his students had practiced something — were “working on something” as it were — in the days leading up to their meeting. The session begins with them playing it as well as they can. Likewise, I expect my students to have written several paragraphs in the days and weeks before they attend the master class. The key sentence and its rhetorical posture had been decided in advance, and the writer has spent 27 minutes composing at least six sentences and at most 200 words to overcome the difficulty that they expect the reader to experience during one minute of their deliberate attention. Having written several such paragraphs (having “practiced”) they select one to bring the master class (where they will “suffer”).

The important thing is that I can now assume that I have before me the product of one deliberate attempt to say one intended thing. I can engage with it directly. First, I read it out loud, straight off the page, having never seen it before, to show the writer how hard or easy that is to do (for a academically literate reader and native speaker of English). I then try to identify the key sentence (the writer knows which sentence they’re hoping I pick) and determine whether it is being supported, elaborated, or defended (the writer, again, was presumably trying to do one of these things, with some exceptions). All the while I’m thinking out loud and moving words around to show what I mean. I even draw on the other participants to get multiple points of view on the same text, multiple readings. Sometimes I make some cryptic remark about “nuance” or “style”. The writer is supposed to sit quietly and take it all in. After 13 minutes (usually) I stop. We then move on to the next participant, another paragraph.

I don’t do a lot of language editing in these master classes, except where things are easy to fix and make the rest of the work go more smoothly. And I don’t ever suggest that I am correcting or even improving the text. That is for the writer to decide on their own. All I can do is reveal the contingencies in the composition, the fact that the paragraph could have been written differently. That, I’m told, is also the value of the experience to those who have tried it. To steal a line from the Segovia, I try to impart “a delicate lack of respect” for the grammar and focus on the possibilities of meaning instead. What participants get is not a judgment of their work but a very explicit experience of being read. “Writing as freedom,” said Barthes, “is perhaps the most explicit in history.” A master class provides an occasion to become, perhaps not “great”, but at least better, through a moment’s suffering, followed by many moments of subsequent practice.

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If you’re curious, you can experience my master classes as part the four-week Writing Process Re-engineering self-study course.

Keeping Up with Your Reader

I approach university students as budding scholars. Like scholars, I tell them to write for their peers. They should imagine their reader as a fellow student in their class, someone who is doing the same assignment they’re doing. Since every paragraph poses and overcomes a difficulty for the reader, the writer needs to have a good understanding of the reader’s knowledge of the subject. The context of a course provides this understanding because the reader is someone who enrolled in the course with the same prerequisites and is now following the same syllabus. To know the reader, the student merely has to be themselves and keep up with the reading.

Some students forget this and leave most of the reading until the end of the semester when they’re doing their final exams. These students will often leave their writing til the end too. Not only does this cause a lot of unnecessary stress, it robs them of a community of learning, one that can give them the important experience of forming their ideas gradually as part of an ongoing conversation. This sense of a place in a conversation is what the classroom is all about. By participating actively in a course — attending lectures, engaging in discussions, doing the reading, and writing along the way — students are finding out what it means to know things for “academic purposes”. This is not at all a trivial state of mind; it suggests an ideal that universities exist to promote.

Scholars should remember this ideal student. After all, a working scholar is really just a very successful student, someone who has earned the privilege of remaining a “student” (of their subject) “for a living”. But just as their students have to keep up with the readings in their courses — not just, like I say, in order to understand the lectures, but also in order to understand their implied reader — scholars have to keep up with “the literature” — not just to stay current with developments in their field, but in order understand the needs of their readers and their means to make sense of what they’re saying. A good academic writer has to be a good reader of the literature to which they are contributing. Their readers, after all, are reading that same literature.

This is one of the reasons that it’s important to choose your discipline carefully. If you are going to get any pleasure out of your research, you will have to find a literature that you enjoy reading. This, too, is like the student who must choose their program carefully. If you don’t like any of your fellow students — if you’re not at least a little “like” them in your beliefs and desires, your curiosity and your ambition — you will not enjoy imagining them as the readers of your papers. If you can’t respect their interest in the papers that are published in your discipline, year in and year out, then you will not find it useful to imagine the difficulty they have understanding your key sentences.

Writing is a social act because it depends on the existence of readers for its meaning. You are always writing for someone who recognizes your theories and your methods, not just from their own work, but from the work of the peers you have in common. You are writing for someone who can not only make use of your results if they are true but identify your errors if they are false. I tell students to imagine the most intelligent, most knowledgeable, student in their cohort as their reader. Scholars should imagine a well-versed peer in their discipline. You train this imagination by reading.

True Beliefs, Good Reasons (2)

(Part 1)

Crispin Sartwell (1991, 1992) thinks that knowledge is merely true belief. Most philosophers think it takes more than true belief to know something (e.g., Alper Gürkan). And many say it even takes more than justified true belief. Who is right? Do they even believe these things? Who knows what knowledge is? (Cf. Lycan 1994) I’m not going be able to answer those questions, of course. But here’s what I think.

Knowledge is true belief held with good reason. It’s not “merely” true belief, nor is it merely belief held with “reasons” (as the kids say). To know something, you must believe it and you must have your reasons, but the belief must also be true and your reasons must be good ones. When writing, then, you should know what you’re talking about and when you’re trying to decide whether or not to write something you should ask yourself (1) whether you believe it, (2) what your reasons are, (3) whether those reasons are good, and (4) whether it’s actually true. Maybe that’s also the best order to do it in. Let me try to think about each in turn.

In academic writing, the most important thing is to believe what you say. That’s because the purpose of academic writing is to expose your ideas to criticism, to give your peers a chance to correct you if you are wrong. Students unfortunately sometimes get the impression that the important thing is to say what their teachers believe. They are often rewarded for this with a good grade but this leaves their own beliefs on the subject untouched. From a strictly educational point of view, it’s better to get a C on your own ideas than an A on someone else’s. After all, you’re still going to believe your own ideas; you just don’t know that they deserve a C.

The same goes for working scholars, who may be tempted to write papers about ideas they think are publishable rather than their own. Here, again, they are missing the opportunity to be corrected on what they actually think by people who are qualified to tell them that they are wrong. At best, they are testing their hypothesis about what people want to hear, or, rather, about what their editors think people want to hear. They are not exposing their own thinking to the scrutiny of other knowledgeable people.

Beliefs and reasons are “subjective” in the sense that they belong to individuals. They are “states of mind”. It’s probably best to think of “reasons” as just more beliefs, but, if so, they are also beliefs about beliefs or at least beliefs that are held in relation to other beliefs. I may believe that my house is on fire and I may believe that smoke is rising from it. I take the second belief as a reason for the first. Importantly, if I discover that the smoke is coming from my neighbor’s house rather than my own, I no longer have a reason to believe that my house is the one that is on fire. Having a reason, rather than a mere belief, works that way. It’s still a belief, but it is implicated in other beliefs.

Now, those implications may be more or less, let’s say, tenuous — more or less of “a stretch”. Many people think of their own house for a brief second when they see a fire truck — sirens blaring, lights flashing — driving by. They don’t believe (not even for a second) that their house is on fire. It’s just that the thought occurs to them and they do a mental check to see if it’s possible that they left their iron on. Then they put it out of their minds. They believe that the fire truck is going somewhere and there’s probably a fire of some kind (or a false alarm, of course) but they don’t think that it’s their house. That’s just too unlikely.

Seeing smoke rising from your roof is, let’s say, a good reason to believe that your house is on fire, while seeing a fire truck drive by isn’t a good reason. You can make up your mind accordingly. But, at the end of the day, you may believe that your house is on fire though it isn’t. And we’re not going to say that you know something if it isn’t true. If you believe something and you have very good reasons to believe it you are being perfectly rational but you may still be entirely wrong. The question, then, is whether all those reasons you had were really so “good” after all. And what was the point of having them?

My answer is that the important thing about “knowing” something isn’t just that you believe something that is the case but that you believe a number of things in a ways that hold implications for each other. If you’re a knowledgeable person, then revising one of your beliefs should affect some of the other beliefs you hold. The better your reasons are, the more easily those revisions can be made, because the implications of your beliefs for other beliefs are simply clearer. Being knowledgeable isn’t just a matter of having your mind made up about it and happening to be right. It’s about being in a position to change your mind in an orderly fashion.

This isn’t over yet. More later.

Propositions and Statements

On Wednesday, I said that sentences express thoughts and paragraphs represent beliefs. Today, I want to argue that the sentence is to the proposition as the paragraph is to the statement (or, better, that the proposition is to the statement as the sentence to the paragraph). I take the words “proposition” and “statement” from the standard translations of Wittgenstein’s “Satz” and Foucault’s “énoncé” respectively, and it’s important to keep in mind that “Satz” just is the German word for “sentence” (though it has a meaning that goes beyond grammar) and “énoncé” is etymologically more closely related to “announcement” (though in the older sense of a “making known”). I want to relate our familiar units of prose composition (sentences, paragraphs) to these somewhat more sublime entities of epistemological analysis. I want to show how our prose relates to our thoughts and beliefs, our intelligence and our knowledge.

In Foucault’s “archaelogy of knowledge” a statement is a contribution to a discourse, or, as he sometimes puts it, a discursive formation is a distribution of statements. To participate in a discourse is to make statements that are recognized as such within it. A statement doesn’t have to be true to be part of a discourse and this is why some philosophers complain that Foucault isn’t sufficiently interested in Truth. He doesn’t think that the truth of a statement explains its role in our system of knowledge. For Foucault, it was much more important to understand the emergence of statements in history and the authority one needs to make a statement. He was trying analyze the competence, if you will, to speak for things, to represent reality.

A proposition as Wittgenstein understood it is, by contrast, essentially true or false. Its meaning (to use the spin that logical positivists like A. J. Ayer would put on it) is simply the fact in the world that makes it true (or false). Wittgenstein was influenced by Frege to think of popositions as functions whose values were “true” and “false” (rather than numerical values). It is a contribution to a larger argument and logical analysis allows us to trace the “truth functionality”, if you will, of the argument by considering the effects of the truth and falsity of the individual propositions on each other.

The meaning of proposition is independent of who considers it. When we analyse an argument into the propositions it adduces, we are trying to establish a very “objective” view of the matter. We want each analytical unit (each proposition) to be true or false on its own terms — not on the basis of some ad hoc interpretation) so that, at least for as long as we’re thinking about the argument the meaning of the terms (the words) in all the propositions is “invariant” from proposition to proposition. (If the words change their meaning as we go, we can’t keep track of the truth functions.) Not only do the meanings of the words remain stable, they mean the same thing to anyone who might say or hear, write or read them. In fact, properly speaking, there is no speaker and no listener. There’s just the proposition and its truth functionality, its meaning. The proposition is “disembodied”, if you will.

A statement, by contrast, must have an author and an audience. When we interpret a proposition we identify its objective content, whereas a statement must be interpreted with its subjective position in mind. A statement is always embodied in a speaker who is embedded in a situation. If understanding a proposition is all about grasping its “logic”, understanding a statement requires some “rhetorical” sensibilities. We must not just consider what the speaker is trying to say (what is meant and whether it’s true) but what the speaker is trying to do (why it is being said and in this way).

All this might make it seem like propositions and statements are utterly at odds with each other, but I think it’s far more interesting to consider how they complement each other. And I think this happens mainly in the act of composition, putting prositions together into statements by way of arranging sentences into paragraphs. A proposition is a mental event while a statement is a social event (it is the function of a belief). The sentence expresses the propisition (it is the content of a thought) while the paragraph represents the statement (it announces the belief).

I realise this has been a somewhat philosophical post. How does it relate to the everday business of scholarly writing? How does it help you in your work? I will obviously need to return to these issues, but let me conclude with something like an aphorism that I will promise to unpack in the future: A sentence is the work of a writer; a paragraph is the work of an author. Indeed, we are writers insofar as we compose sentences that say what we think. But we become authors when we put these sentences together to make statements in a discourse, when we write paragraphs that have a determined rhetorical posture.

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Some notes for another post: There’s the beginnings of an analysis of the difference between “continental” and “analytic” philosophy in this post. The relationship between logical form and social function has been studied by Pierre Bourdieu. If a proposition merely has “logical form”; a statement has what Foucault calls an “enunciative modality” (style, subjectivity), and this resonates with everything from Barthes’ “morality of form” to Deleuze & Guattari’s “region of intensities” (plateaus) — and, indeed, Heidegger’s “place of forms”. In all this, it seems natural to think of the “analytic” philosophers as focused on what sentences do, while the “continentals” where operating at the level of paragraphs. Too much to unpack now, but I wanted to note it down for future reference.

Sentences and Paragraphs

On Friday, I want to say something about how my ideas about academic writing are rooted in both Wittgenstein’s take on “propositions” and Foucault’s theory of “statements”. On Monday, I will bring this back to Crispin Sartwell’s question about knowledge, true belief, and good reasons. But, today, I want to begin with more ordinary things, namely, the sentences and paragraphs that make up the bulk of our academic writing. Briefly put, a paragraph states a belief and offers reasons for it. A belief is a “propositional attitude” and may be true or false; reasons are rhetorical postures and may be good or bad. The paragraph is to the statement as the sentence is to the proposition.

By beginning with sentences and paragraphs I hope to keep the discussion concrete and relevant to your work as a writer. Whether you’re a student or a scholar (which aren’t really so different), you read and write a lot of prose, and scholarly prose consists of paragraphs that, in turn, consist of sentences. You know what it means to write a sentence and to compose a paragraph. You understand that this sentence appears in the second of paragraph of this post. There is no mystery about what the words “sentence” and “paragraph” mean — you know one when you see one — though a formal definition may not spring immediately to mind. I want to begin with that work-a-day sense of what we’re talking about.

Now, a sentence expresses a thought. You have something on your mind and you string words together that capture it. To write a sentence, your mind doesn’t have to be made up; you don’t have to decide whether or not a sentence is true in order to write it. You might write a declarative sentence and, deciding that you don’t know whether it is true, turn it into a question. Or you might think of a question and end with a sentence that provides the answer. The important thing is that the sentence corresponds to a thought that you have had and that you want your reader to have. You want to reader to consider it, at least for an instant. A sentence is an instance of thinking.

If a sentence expresses a thought, however, a paragraph represents a belief. This distinction between expression and representation is perhaps a little subtle but it is important. To express something is to “get it out”; the important thing is that you say what you think, that it corresponds with what you have on your mind. To represent something, by contrast, is to “set if before” someone (sometimes yourself) so that they can have a good look at it. Here the important thing is not to get your idea right but to get the object right and to shed some light on it. You’re not just expressing your opinion; you’re describing what would be the case if what you believe is true. It’s in this sense that a paragraph presents itself as an instance of knowing.

This idea that a paragraph is an instance of knowing ties in nicely with the notion of a “writing moment”. When we “reengineer” our writing process, we’re trying to break it into discrete tasks that can be carried out according to a plan. Thinking of the writing process as a series of moments that each represents an instance of knowing — which is to say, moments that produce written representations of things you know — is a good way to keep your mind properly focused. We are not just expressing a series of stray thoughts, we are composing them into a picture of the facts as we see them. We are saying what we think is true, what we believe is the case. We have our reasons and we present those too.

Frege taught Wittgenstein that “only in the context of a sentence does a word have meaning.” Well, at least in the case of scholarly writing, perhaps we could say that only in the context of a paragraph does a sentence have a use. Or, more precisely, a sentence only finds its academic purpose in a paragraph. Reading a sentence out of context, we may recognize the language and understand the words. We have some sense of what the sentence means, but we don’t yet know what purpose it serves. We don’t know what the write is up to. In a well-written scholarly paragraph, this should not be a problem. By the end of the paragraph we know not just what the sentence says but what the writer wants with us. As we’ll see on Friday, a paragraph arranges sentences as propositions that together make a statement.