Monthly Archives: May 2018

Support, Elaborate, Defend

A university education doesn’t teach you any particular set of beliefs. What you come to believe by the time you graduate depends on the university and the program you enroll in. It will also depend on what your teachers happen to believe, what your fellow students believe, and what you believed when you started your education. Your education will hopefully affect your beliefs, of course; you will acquire new beliefs and discard old ones in line with the knowledge you are exposed to. But no one in their right mind would judge your education against some list of “truths” you ought properly to believe in order to get your degree.

What an education should do, however, is to make you better able to support, elaborate and defend your beliefs. It does not just give you knowledge, we might say, it makes you knowledge-able — able-to-know things. Being “educated” doesn’t mean that you’ve been indoctrinated into a particular set of beliefs but that you have trained yourself to hold your beliefs in a particular way. It has improved your “epistemic posture,” if you will. Faced with skepticism about the truth of your beliefs, you know how to adduce evidence and invoke authority. Faced with incomprehension about what you mean, you know how to define your terms and clarify your concepts. Faced with a contrary opinion, you know how to hold and give ground according to the force of the arguments. Importantly, being taken to task in these ways does not surprise or offend you. It’s a familiar business. You don’t expect people to just trust you. You know that’s not how it works.

It is my view that explicit instruction in the writing of paragraphs, and a modicum of discipline in practicing this craft, goes a long way toward training this posture. It will make you more articulate in your conversations, both with your peers and with yourself. It will make you better able to discuss your ideas in public and make up your mind in private. I know that paragraphs aren’t the be all and end all of academic life, nor even of academic writing. I know that you’ll do a lot of other things and you’ll do them well too. But it’s my sense that the craft of paragraphing is falling into desuetude. It’s my aim, over the next couple of decades, simply to insist on its importance for the life of the mind and the culture. In its conservation — its preservation and transmission — lies much of the value of the university.

A Brief Introduction

This morning I’m going to be rewriting the page I’ve devoted to the introduction of a standard 8000-word paper in the social sciences. Ideally, the introduction occupies the first three minutes of the reader’s attention, during which it situates the paper’s conclusion in a shared science and a familiar world. It should draw the reader in, give the reader a place, and get the reader thinking. As a mnemonic device, one that is perhaps a bit too cute, we can say that it should evoke a world, invoke a science, and provoke a thought. The easiest way to think of these tasks is to give each of them a paragraph, which is what I will be describing on the permanent page. In this blog post I want to reduce the problem a bit further, imagining how it can all be done in a single a paragraph at the beginning of a much shorter 1000-word essay.

Instead of giving yourself a whole paragraph to describe the world you share with the reader, try doing it in only two sentences. Then, as seamlessly as possible, go on to write another two sentences about the science that you and your reader apply to the problem of understanding this world a little better. Finally, write two sentences that state your conclusion and the basis on which you’ve drawn it. Let me show you what I mean.

Effective emergency response requires, not just competent team members, but strong team cohesion. Even if everyone does their job perfectly, tragedy can strike if they are not mindful of how their actions both depend upon a collective effort and make a contribution to it.

In these two sentences, a world of shared concerned is evoked in the mind of the reader. The reader is expected to care about the effectiveness of emergency response teams, and is reminded about the importance of social cohesion. While there’s nothing particularly controversial going on in these sentences (who would argue against this way of putting it?) an interest is stimulated by the dramatic possibility of a tragic outcome. Crucially, the reader (I hope) gets the sense that I know what I’m talking about, even if the space limitations (so far) haven’t allowed me to say very much.

We can now go on to the science that will frame our analysis.

Organizational sensemaking has therefore been a longstanding focus of research into high reliability organizations (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2011). In his seminal study of the Mann Gulch disaster, for example, Karl Weick (1993) found that the smokejumpers panicked as a result of a sudden loss of social structure, producing what he called a “cosmology episode” during which no one knew what was going on or what to do.

Notice here how the relatively ordinary notions of “team cohesion” and “collective” responsibilities are reframed in the strictly theoretical language of sensemaking, invoking “social structure” and “cosmology episodes” as these terms are defined in agenda-setting past research. Notice that references are here introduced to situate this paper in a larger conversation with other scholars. All that’s left to do is to introduce my contribution to the discussion:

I here want to challenge this conclusion by way of a close rereading of Weick’s sole source of data for his analysis, viz. Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (1992). It turns out that, not only did the men not panic, they responded rationally to a situation that simply got out of control because of what Maclean describes as a “conflagration” of forces.

There should be no doubt now about why I’m writing this essay. I’ve started with an important activity in the human world (emergency response) and a discipline devoted to understanding how this activity can be carried out more effectively (sensemaking scholarship). I’ve then introduced a thesis that challenges our currently held views about a particular conception of “social structure” and laid out the basis on which I’m going to make my argument. Here’s how looks when we put it all together:

Effective emergency response requires, not just competent team members, but strong team cohesion. Even if everyone does their job perfectly, tragedy can strike if they are not mindful of how their actions both depend upon a collective effort and make a contribution to it.  Organizational sensemaking has therefore been a longstanding focus of research into high reliability organizations (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2011). In his seminal study of the Mann Gulch disaster, for example, Karl Weick (1993) found that the smokejumpers panicked as a result of a sudden loss of social structure, producing what he called a “cosmology episode” during which no one knew what was going on or what to do. I here want to challenge this conclusion by way of a close rereading of Weick’s sole source of data for his analysis, viz. Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (1992). It turns out that, not only did the men not panic, they responded rationally to a situation that simply got out of control because of what Maclean describes as a “conflagration” of forces.

There are six sentences here and 174 words. This gives me room for a sentence more if I want, and it can certainly be rewritten to make the transitions — from evocation, to invocation, to provocation — more subtle. But I hope this can serve as a sort of a “proof of concept”.

Tradition and the Individual Paragraph (3)

“I continued to use the form of the prose poem which for me has come to fit Pound’s postulate of “a center around which, not a box within which.” (Rosmarie Waldrop)

Steven Pinker and Iain McGee seem to think of the paragraph as a kind of punctuation mark.  “Sometimes a writer should cleave an intimidating block of print with a paragraph break just to give the reader’s eyes a place to alight and rest,” says Pinker (p. 145). “Academic writers often neglect to do this and trowel out massive slabs of visually monotonous text.” I’m struck here by the words “just” and “visually”; it seems to me that a writer should never use a paragraph break just to rest, nor think that the monotony of a slab of prose is merely visual. McGee also thinks of the paragraph is as point of rest, but now for the writer.  “Writers often pause before starting a new paragraph,” he explains; “indeed, the paragraph is a key … extended pause position in most writing” (p. 239). Both seem to think of prose as a sort of continuous flow that needs to be modulated somehow, given rhythm or a beat, made to oscillate between activity and rest, lest it just go on and on and on. Paragraphs, they seem to think, must be imposed on discourse, not, as I want to argue, composed into them.

Taken together, Pinker and McGee make us think of the paragraph according to its entirely practical, essentially physical, aspect. This approach has much to recommend it. After all, a paragraph is, first and foremost, something we make with our hands to be viewed with the eyes. But this, I want to argue, should not obscure the intellectual structure of paragraphs. A writer’s problem is not merely to put words on a page in a visually pleasing manner; it is to express an idea. Prose is supposed to facilitate the communion of minds, i.e., communication between knowledgeable people. Here, I think, the paragraph plays more than an incidental role.

But to begin with the physical facts: a paragraph ideally consists of at least six sentences and at most 200 words and can be read in about one minute. In that minute, a discrete idea (usually one that can be summarized in a single declarative sentence) is delivered into the mind of the reader along with the writer’s reasons to think it. Those reasons may support the idea in the reader’s mind or open the idea to the reader’s criticism, but the basic structure remains the same. The paragraph says one thing and supports, elaborates or defends it. Paragraphs can be distinguished by their propositional content (the things they say) and their rhetorical posture (they way they say them). The break between paragraphs, then, is either a change of content or a shift of posture (or both). The practiced reader gets used to this ant the experience, therefore, is more interesting than merely taking a rest.

It gets even more interesting from the point of view of the writer. Here, again ideally, the paragraph is composed during a single, well-defined “writing moment” lasting 27 minutes. During that time the writer is engaged deliberately in supporting, elaborating, or supporting a single claim that has been decided upon the day before. McGee is certainly right that, working in this way, the writer will experience the paragraph break as a key moment of rest. Indeed, I would recommend taking a three-minute break and then moving on to the next paragraph.

These conditions are admittedly “idealized”. Most writers will balk at working in such an orderly way. I recommend it for anyone who experiences writing as a difficulty they want to become better at overcoming. Approaching your writing one moment at a time during an eight-week period, devoting, say, 80 hours to the composition of 160 paragraphs will teach you something about your style and build your strength as a writer (just as certainly as devoting 20 hours over those same eight weeks to running 120 kilometers will get you into better shape.) Afterwards, you may choose to write in a less disciplined manner, but your sense of the of paragraph will have changed because you have been paying attention to what happens between the breaks, to the internal structure of the paragraph, not its external limitations. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, you may come to appreciate the texture of time in your prose, not merely the structure of its space.

Ezra Pound taught Rosemarie Waldrop to think of form not as a “box within which” but as a “center around which”. I fear Pinker and McGee are teaching the opposite lesson. They are encouraging us to “break” up our stream of consciousness according to intellectually arbitrary principles. While my 27 minutes are certainly “intellectually arbitrary”, I am encouraging writers to establish these moments precisely to let them compose their thoughts, to generously spend significantly more time doing this than the reader (who spends only one minute) trying to understand them. Pinker says that “detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph … are misguided”; but I want to counter that paragraphs are precisely best understood as something we build. A paragraph is constructed during an extended moment to present a thought to the reader. It not is not merely a break during which our thoughts are momentarily interrupted by a visual “bookmark”. The paragraph truly is the unit of prose style. It is not just a piece of punctuation.

Tradition and the Individual Paragraph (2)

In response to my last post, Julia Molinari drew attention to a rather radical critique of my position by Steven Pinker. In The Sense of Style, Pinker writes as follows:

Appreciating the treelike nature of a text can also help you understand one of the few devices available in nontechnical prose to visually mark the structure of discourse: the paragraph break. Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to write a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch in a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimitated by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, to take a breather, assimilate what he has heard, and then find his place again on the page. (145)

It’s hard to imagine a stronger criticism of something than “there is no such thing”. The irony, which Pinker is wholly aware of, of course, is that what I have just quoted is itself a paragraph. Its key sentence is “The paragraph break visually marks the structure of discourse,” and it undertakes to help the reader understand this idea–it elaborates on it, explains it. Along the way, then, it finds itself saying that it does not (in a particular sense) exist, that there is no such thing as the paragraph it is trying to be. There is only the “visual bookmark” between what comes before and what comes after. It looks like this on the page:

When Pinker says that paragraphs don’t exist, he obviously means this in some formal, linguistic sense. (He’s a linguist, after all.) As Iain McGee puts it: “There is no necessary linguistic reason for a text to be segmented into paragraphs” (239, emphasis in the original). But while Pinker tells us that paragraph breaks offers readers a place to rest, McGee points out that “the paragraph aids the writer in constructing the text” (ibid.) Indeed, I suggest that writers construct paragraphs as much to be kind to themselves as to be kind to their readers. But what McGee and Pinker seem to agree about here is that the paragraph has no intrinsic motivation, no individual dignity, no essence.* And this is the idea I want to challenge.

Essences need not be timeless. To say that something is constructed is not to say that it isn’t real; Foucault famously proposed that there is a “historical a priori“. What this really means is that intelligence has a tradition and this tradition has consequences, in part for how we use language. But the history of discourse is manifest not just as a constraint on what we can say, or a demand on how we say it; our present day discursive conditions are, much more importantly, affordances. (Julia and I have talked about this before.) They allow us to say to say things more effectively and more efficiently than we otherwise could. The traditional paragraph, I want to argue, is such an affordance.

The utility of the paragraph is not just that it breaks up the page, giving the reader and the writer a rest (a break). It’s not a merely visual effect. I’m a pretty staunch defender of the paragraph as a coherent “unit of discourse” that we can make (or, as Pinker puts it, build) well or not so well. Crucially, I believe that we can learn to become better at making such things, not just carving our stream of consciousness into the appearance of them. A paragraph, in the sense that I use that word, is not just whatever happens between a set of visual markers (like a tab indent and a line return). As I said on Twitter, it is a what Deleuze and Guattari call a plateau — “a self-vibrating region of intensities”.

I realize that invoking Deleuze is not the most familiar rhetorical move in defense of the traditional prose paragraph. But let’s remember that T. S. Eliot, who arguably invented modernist poetry (or was at least given credit for doing so by the Nobel Prize committee) did not see his innovations as a break with tradition, but as a continuation of it.

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know. 

We know how to write paragraphs. Or we know how to write a great many different kinds of paragraph that achieve a wide variety of effects. These skills can be taught and students who learn them will be better writers, and better thinkers, as a result. A paragraph can’t do everything, and will accomplish nothing automatically simply by following a set of prescriptions. But that does not mean that they don’t have their own, internal reason for being. Nor that they can’t find their own composure.

(to be continued…)

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*Update: This resonates nicely with some Mike Duncan says in his very useful review of the scholarship on the paragraph: “It is the most obvious and visible evidence of the ebb and flow of our thoughts in writing. Hold a typed page ten feet away — the words fade to smudges, but the indented visual structure remains” (472).