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Words and Ideas

[Note: this post is part of a series on the “substance of the craft” of scholarly writing. Inspired by by Wayne Booth (co-author of The Craft of Research) and Oliver Senior (author of How to Draw Hands), I argue that composition is the coordination of words and ideas, paragraphs and propositions, sentences and the state of things.]

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, plate XVIII

Writing trains you to see ideas just as drawing trains you to see things. “Look at your hand,” I often tell my students, “and imagine drawing it. Now, have an idea, and imagine writing it down.” I then go on (sometimes for hours) to talk about the second half of that last instruction, the problem of writing our ideas down, but I’ve noticed that I leave the first part, “have an idea,” almost entirely out of the discussion, as if it’s as obvious as looking at your hand. Rereading Oliver Senior’s How to Draw to Hands the other day, I realized that I’m actually not following his model as closely as I like to think. He does tell you to look at your hand. But he also tells you what to look for, what to notice in preparation for drawing it.

Hold up your spare hand, then, with the open front or inner surface facing you, fingers and thumb extended but held easily without strain, and look at its odd shape and remarkable system of upholstery as though you had never seen such an object before and did not want miss noting even the most obvious facts about it. (Pp. 10-1)

Senior has the distinct advantage over me that he has a pretty good idea what you’d be looking at if you followed his instructions, even though he’s never met you and never seen your hands. When I ask you to “call an idea to mind,” I have no idea what you’re going to be thinking of, nor how oddly it may be shaped or how remarkably upholstered. You might be thinking of a pricing model or an organizational culture or an aircraft manufacturer. Or you might be thinking of a historical event, a legal framework, or a comic-book villain. Or you might be thinking of an old friend, a dear colleague, or a feared enemy. Or you might… Well, you get the point, having an idea is much more general than holding up a hand, and I think that gets me some way towards recognizing my first mistake.

A while back I did actually have a better idea: think of an interesting place you know well. While I’d still be in the dark about exactly what place you now have in mind, the fact that it is a place would let me give you some meaningful instructions by which, as Senior puts it, your “vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed.” Notice, for example, how big the place is and where its boundaries are. Are those boundaries sharp, distinguishing the place clearly from its surroundings, or does it vaguely “shade off” into its environment? (Is it a room in a house or a clearing in a forest? Is it a section in a cafeteria or a building on a campus?) Is it a place in nature or is it furnished with artifacts? What sort of business is transacted there? How accessible is it? By land or sea? By plane, train, or automobile? Or can you, perhaps, only get there on foot? Is it wheelchair accessible? Do you need a key? Are there particular customs that apply there and are you expected to wear an official costume? How do you know you’ve made it when you get there? All of these questions become meaningful because I know in very general terms what you’re thinking of, namely, a place.

I could do something similar by asking you to think of something that happened to you recently, a true story with you as the protagonist. When did the event begin and end? Who was involved? Where did the events take place? What happened, i.e., what was the sequence of motion of fact, as Hemingway put it? How did it turn out and how did it make you feel? Why was it all necessary (what was the point)? These are all natural and reasonable questions that may be asked of any story. And, if I assume that you’ve followed my instructions, and thought of something that happened recently and to you, I can expect you to know the answers. Just as taking a mental look around a place you know well will prepare you to describe it in writing, so too will these basic questions (the so-called five Ws) prepare you to tell a story in writing.

And both of these skills are useful to you in your academic writing. You will often have to describe an organization or region or market in concrete terms, or just an ordinary social practice. Or you may need recount the recent (or ancient) history of the problem you’re studying, an unfolding series of current events, or the things you did to collect your data (i.e., you might be writing your methods sections). The ability to describe things and places, and to tell stories, will help you immensely in doing these perfectly “academic” things.

But I can’t just leave it there. There are more abstract entities you’ll need to be able to write about, more abstract ideas that you’ll need to be able reflect upon. With apologies to Hamlet for mixing his metaphors, you’ll need to learn to hold a mirror up to your mind’s eye and take a good close look at your concepts. (Interestingly, Senior sometimes suggests looking at your hand through a mirror too.) So I could ask you to imagine a theoretical object or a conceptual framework — an organizational hierarchy, for example, or a synthetic option, a collapse of sensemaking or a market equilibrium, a product innovation or a corporate merger. In all cases, I would ask you to pick something that you understand well if I was going to ask you to write about it. I’m not assigning reading homework, but writing homework, so we should begin with something you’re as familiar with as, yes, the back of your hand. If I’ve been invited into your classroom I can sometimes choose my examples by talking with your teacher, but if my examples turn out to be unhelpful (i.e., unfamiliar) then just ignore me and pick something that you actually have studied and do in fact understand well.

The important thing is to take this abstract object — essentially the concept without any particular thing in mind — and notice its parts. How are they related? Hierarchically, functionally, causally? Do the parts stand in relations of subordination to each other, or do they perform particular functions in concert with each other, or does one element cause effects in the other elements? Or is it a combination of these relationships? We have many different kinds of ideas about the objects that our theories are about. In fact, theories give us the conceptual resources we need to talk about those objects in very precise ways. Have a look at your resources every now and then and write about them.

I’ll write some posts next week about what I think you should be able to see. Remember Oliver Senior’s wise words: “the better drawing is not the more elaborate attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is the better informed.” That is, you’re not trying to reproduce what it says on the pages of your textbooks. You’re trying to write down what you learned from them, to write down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You are writing down your ideas as straightforwardly as you might draw a picture of your hand in a particular position. In fact, I’ll give Oliver Senior the last word:

The better draughtsman has more ‘on his mind’ concerning his subject; and by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent — even with real — ease an expression of form, character, action — whatever may be his immediate object — that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on his vision alone, finds beyond his power. (P. 8)

The Substance of the Craft

“…the purpose of this book is to lead the student to set about acquiring the mental equipment by which his vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed…” (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, 1944)

The Craft of Research Series is underway, and I enjoyed holding the first talk on Thursday. In the second talk we we’ll get into the art of reviewing the literature, which will provide a good basis for the third talk on writing theory. (If you missed the first talk, I’ll be holding it again on March 2. As always, if you’re not a CBS student, feel free to contact me and I’ll sign you up.) I’m a little behind, but I will be posting notes and drawing from the past sessions as I go. In this post, I want to say something that lies at the core of my approach to research and writing, my understanding of the craft of research.

Writing has a physical and a mental aspect. Just as artists must train both their eyes and their hands to produce pictures of what they see, so too must scholars coordinate what is going on on the page with what is going on in their minds. The substance of the craft is neither their mental state, nor the words they have written, but the coordination of these things. As a scholar (and a student is always an apprentice scholar) you must become increasingly conscious of the formation of your beliefs and the composition of your paragraphs. You must understand that the paragraph represents, not facts in the world, but your beliefs about those facts. You are using the paragraph to open your beliefs to the criticism of your peers. The paragraph tells the reader what you had on your mind when you formed your belief — indeed, what you have on your mind in so far as you still believe it.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. In order to write good academic prose, then, you have to be writing about things you know, and you have to be writing for someone who also knows something about the subject. You have to be very clear about what you believe, but you also have to have a good sense of what your reader thinks about those same issues, how the things you’re studying look from the point of view of another knowledgeable person. You then have to become good at rendering (as I’ve been put it in my talk on Thursday) what you are thinking in words on the page.

Consider the art of drawing hands. If I ask you to look at one of your hands and draw a picture of it on a piece of paper using a pencil there is no doubt about what I’ve asked you to do. And most people know immediately how easy or difficult it will be to do well. Almost all of us can tell the difference between a good and a bad rendering (especially if we have the model right there in front of us). The substance of the craft of drawing is the relationship between the visual image of hand and the picture that ends up on the page. If you are good at drawing, this will be immediately clear to the viewer — and to you. Oliver Senior (see epigraph) was “convinced that the better drawing is not the more elaborated attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is the better informed.” I happen to agree.

The craft that I am trying to teach in these talks, then, is the judicious use of the information you have about your subject to produce a verbal representation of it that the reader will be able to bring their own understanding to bear upon. Anyone can see that a paragraph is not “the whole picture” of your thinking on a given subject. But the 75 or 143 or 192 words you have written may be more or less well-informed by your beliefs. The surface of the page will suggest an iceberg beneath it.

So as we proceed through these weeks and months of talks (and as you proceed through days and weeks of research and writing) please notice that you are not just composing paragraphs. You are also forming your beliefs. It’s a gradual process that coordinates the mind with the page, just as the artist learns to coordinate the eye and the hand. You are not just filling pages with what you have learned; you are directing, extending, and refreshing what Senior calls your “mental equipment”. Today we might say that you are “updating” your “information”. It is the substance of the craft. Get comfortable with it. Learn to enjoy it.

The Craft of Research

Wayne Booth, speaking
Image Credit: The Chicago Maroon & University of Chicago Library

As I hope was clear in a series of posts back in November, Wayne Booth is the presiding genius of this blog. This spring here at the CBS Library, we will once again try to channel his spirit into a series of weekly talks to help students who are working on their final research projects, whether they are nearing the end of the first year of their bachelor studies or reaching the final year of their master’s program. In the spirit of the times, they will be held online. (If you’re not a CBS student, that’s fine, just send me an email and I will sign you up.)

I like to think of Booth as the James Jesus Angleton of academia. Angleton was a leading figure in counter-intelligence in the early days of the CIA, which today cleverly (if a bit ominously) calls itself “the center of intelligence”. (Perhaps it thinks we’re peripheral?) He served as the inspiration for Hugh “Harlot” Montague in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, where he nurtured and guided the protagonist during his formative years at the Agency, and seems to watch over him later in life. Though I never met Wayne Booth, I often feel as though this blog is benignly haunted by him.

When I first began teaching English, I saw myself taking up the weapons of reason against a world committed to emotionalism, illogical appeals, and rhetorical trickery—a world full of vicious advertisers and propagandists determined to corrupt the young minds I was determined to save.

University of Chicago Magazine, November and December, 1967

Like I say, it’s not too far off to think of him as the honorary chief of academic counterintelligence, the “good shepherd” of the university. And if the University of Chicago Magazine was right to call his 1967 speech to students “eerily prescient” back in 2018, things have gotten downright spooky lately. Like Booth, I hope to do my small part to save the minds of the young.

In Mailer’s novel, Harlot held weekly seminars for a select group of young agents. He held them on Thursdays, devoting some of them to the art and craft of espionage, and some of them to its science and philosophy. “Low Thursdays” dealt with what we might call method and inframethod, “High Thursdays” with theory and meta-theory.

Advanced were the High Thursdays, awfully advanced for the Lows. I would ponder some of his conclusions for many a year. If Montague’s method of discourse on such days threw the more inexperienced of us over such high hurdles as the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism, he could on any Low Thursday return us the threading of a rusty nut to a dirt-grimed bolt. Indeed, the first day of the first Low had us working for two hours to construct a scenario on the basis of a torn receipt, a bent key, a stub of pencil, a book of matches, and a dried flower pressed into a cheap unmarked envelope.

Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost, p. 410

Academics perhaps understand the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism just a little too well. (I don’t really have to explain them, do I?) Already as students they got a sense of what it might feel like to be an agent working undercover as a diplomat. (Maybe I’m being overly dramatic for the sake of a literary allusion, but let’s say we’re learning how to balance “theoretical rigor” with “lived experience” as we try to thread our rusty concepts onto dirt-grimed facts.) Near the novel’s end — five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall — when Harlot has gone missing in Moscow and Harry doesn’t know what to believe about the true nature of the Cold War, he recalls those meetings in Washington, twenty years before:

What was it Harlot had said once on a Low Thursday? “The aim of these gatherings is to acquaint you with the factology of facts. One has to know whether one is dealing with the essential or the circumferential fact. Historical data, after all, tend to be not particularly factual and subject to revision by later researchers. You must look to start, therefore, with the fact that cannot be smashed into subparticles of fact.”

Norman Mailer, Harlot’s Ghost, p. 1281

Mailer wrote that in 1991. Almost forty years earlier, he had another of his protagonists recognize that “nothing is harder to discover than a simple fact.” Students know this too, as do their teachers. It’s not easy to know things.

I’m going to try to help. Over twelve weeks I will hold eleven talks, sometimes high, sometimes low, about the craft of research. Every week I’ll no doubt write a blog post as I’m working out what to say in the talk. Last year I found it to be invigorating work and I’m looking forward to seeing what I come up with this time around. I will try to reign in my natural paranoia and acquired cynicism, but I will not sugarcoat the nuts and bolts of scholarship, the difficulty they imply. There’s a reason they call it an an academic discipline.

Space, Time, and Representation

“The ideal text would be infinitely long?” (Thomas Basbøll)

Sometimes authors complain about space limitations. They feel constrained by the four or eight or even twelve thousand words they’ve been given to express their ideas. This complaint contains an implicit assumption that I want to argue doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. The assumption is this: for any object (or idea) there is some ideal number of words that can adequately capture it in writing. Any “arbitrarily” imposed length constraint (or requirement) is therefore an affront to the writer’s pursuit of the perfect expression. What is missing here is nothing less than a (and perhaps the) theory of relativity: a recognition that a text is a coordination of time and space to solve the problem of representation.

Consider a slightly different problem — that of drawing a picture of the tree outside my window. At first pass, we think of resources and constraints in terms of our materials: the size and quality of paper, the amount of colors, the grade of pencils. But we should also ask, How long do I get to work on the drawing? And once we have introduced the dimension of time (or stillness) we can apply it also to our viewer: How long will they look at the drawing? This is where things get really interesting. What is the best possible representation of the visual appearance of the tree for someone who will look at the drawing for a few seconds, a minute, five minutes, half an hour? What kind of attention will my drawing be given? Until I know that, I have no way to decide what to put on the page.

And there is no answer to be found in my own heart. I suppose there is a kind of artist who can look at a thing and let it dictate how many resources must go into its representation and then produce a work that will hold the viewer’s attention as long as it takes to communicate the relevant vision. I suppose there are even artists that have looked at particular trees and despaired, knowing they will never capture what they see, knowing they will never get their viewer to see it. They feel in an instant that only God, looking at the tree forever, really sees its beauty. I don’t have anything useful to say to them, of course.

But I think that at the end of the day most artists are pragmatists about their materials and their audience. They imagine a work they can complete within a reasonable time frame and, more importantly, they think of the work as something that can be “taken in” with a reasonable investment of time — for “entertainment purposes,” let’s say. (Remember that even Shakespeare understood that art must have an entertainment value.) The question is whether they can produce a representation that can be consumed in a timely fashion, in a coherent moment of appreciative attention.

At this point in an analogy I always wonder whether I should just stop. A word limit on a text is nothing more than a time-limit on the reading experience. A 40-paragraph paper is 40 minutes of your reader’s attention. Instead of resenting that constraint, just accept it, and construct a representation of your object that can be experienced in under an hour by a sincere reader. Don’t measure your text against the object in absolute terms. Keep the standard of representation relative to the attention your reader is able to pay to your work. The whole point is to spare your readers the time and trouble of having to experience the object for themselves. Of course, a good painting rewards repeated visits to the museum. A good paper rewards rereading.

Conditions of Possibility (2)

What conditions need to be in place in order for you to know something? What makes it possible for you to know things? Philosophers look for very general, and therefore very abstract, answers that question. They want their conditions to apply to all cases of knowing, any object of knowledge. That’s understandable since they want to know what knowledge is. But researchers can be a bit more concrete because their question is how to know specific things. We can ask how their social and material environment must be organized to support their knowledge of particular facts.

Here, we should distinguish between the conditions needed to discover a fact and the conditions that are needed simply to know it. Most of us have access to conditions needed to know the age of the universe, for example; but few us are in a position to discover it for ourselves. We don’t have access to the necessary equipment and our theoretical understanding doesn’t indicate a proper place to start. What would we even be looking for? But if an astronomer with the proper credentials tells us the universe is around 13.8 billion years old, or about four times older than the Earth, we’re likely to believe her. We’ll even let her explain how she knows and let her recommend some books to read so that, after a little effort, we can be reasonably confident that we, too, know the age of the universe. We’ll have a justified, true belief about it. In this sense, it can be much easier to know a thing than it is to discover it.

You can do this with with our own research, or, if you’re a student, with your own subject). What sorts of things within your area of expertise are you qualified to produce new knowledge about, and what sorts of things are you merely in a position to know if someone else makes the discovery and tells you about it? This will go a long way towards identifying the sorts of things that can be communicated in a classroom setting, keeping them distinct from the sorts of things that will require original research, fieldwork, experimentation, etc. In fact, the classroom provides a set of conditions that are very similar for both teacher and student: this is where we learn things that can be taught. So both teachers and students have to be mindful of what their conditions allow. A great deal of frustration (on all sides) can arise from trying to teach (or demanding to learn) something in a course that simply doesn’t provide the relevant “conditions of possibility”.

Obviously, academia presumes that a great many things can be known by these means. One of the most important functions of the university is to conserve the knowledge that we have accumulated as a species by transmitting it to coming generations. It is not sufficient to write everything we know down in books and put them in libraries (or on the Internet) for everyone to access. Much of the knowledge we need is “tacitly” stored in the bodies of scholars and scientists and must be passed on through social interaction. (Yes, I do think this means that in-person, face-to-face, contact between faculty and students is important, but I’m not here making a topical point.) The university provides conditions under which the things that can be learned in books and lectures (and laboratory instruction) can be known. More generally, it provides conditions under which the things that are already known to some people can be known by others without having to find out for themselves.

To be continued…