Monthly Archives: July 2018

Unfiltered Feedback

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still. (T. S. Eliot)

If you want to write well you have to care how your work is read. You have to be interested in the effect your words have on someone with the requisite literacy skills and background knowledge. In academia, you don’t have to worry about how the typical ten-year old will perceive your writing. In fact, you can presume quite of a lot disciplinary knowledge, a relatively high reading level, and an understanding of a technical vocabulary. Also, remember that you are writing to open yourself to criticism from your peers. So make sure you imagine a reader who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. You have to care about whether or not you are wrong, and you have to care about whether or not your reader can help you decide. That means you have to care what your reader thinks of your style.

But how can you cultivate this sort of care in practice? I often recommend a simple exercise that you can do with a colleague or fellow student. It takes 9 minutes, plus a one minute break. I will stress this again at the end, but it is very important that you spend exactly and only those ten minutes on the exercise. Don’t “debrief” the experience, and don’t start talking about other things. Do the exercise and get on with your day, each to his or her own. If you need to talk, make an appointment for some other time.

The exercise is predicated on the idea that a paragraph can be written during 27 minutes of your deliberate effort and can be read during one minute of the reader’s no less deliberate attention. At the end of the day, you articulate your key sentence and at the beginning of the next you sit down to compose your paragraph. You here make a sincere, earnest attempt to support, elaborate or defend the claim in your key sentence. You will have thought about whether the reader will find the claim hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. And you will have tried to overcome this difficulty. By putting up to 200 well-chosen words in the right order, you have constructed a one-minute experience for you reader, during which you deliver a single well-defined claim for their consideration, along with evidence, explanation or argument as needed. For the purpose of this feedback exercise, it is important that this is how you have approached your task.

Sometime on the same day that you have written it, bring the paragraph to someone whose opinion you respect — an intellectual equal, one of your intended readers. (If you are a student, remember that your fellow students are, in fact, your intended readers.) Tell them you want 10 minutes of their time. (Ideally, you will have done this before, and you will have done this for them as well, so you’ll just ask them if they have time to give you some unfiltered feedback and they’ll know what you mean.) If they agree, here’s what you want them to do.

  1. Read the paragraph out loud to you.
  2. Identify the key sentence.
  3. Tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it.
  4. Say whatever else they think about it, whether in terms of content or form, everything from your thinking to your spelling.

Before you begin, set a timer for nine minutes. When the time is up, sit together in silence for a minute and think about what they have told you, then thank them for their time and bid them a good day.

Please notice that that at no point do you say anything. This is not a conversation, it is one-way communication from the reader to the writer. Do not answer any questions, nor correct any misunderstandings. Do not react to what they say. Just listen. And don’t try to fill any uncomfortable silences. In the worst case scenario, the silence will last nine minutes (and that’s if your reader finds your writing completely illegible.) Endure it. After they have have read it out loud, give your reader whatever time they need to decide what your key sentence is, then, again, whatever time they need to determine your rhetorical posture. Finally, give them whatever time they need to think of something to say. Long silences here mean that your writing didn’t stimulate any immediate reaction; that is an important piece of information for you as a writer.

I wonder if it is obvious how valuable this experience is, regardless of how “positive” or “negative” the feedback is. I wonder, we might say, if you understand how thankful you should be. It is a gift. Fortunately, it is also a favor that is easy to return. If you are inclined to see academia as a “gift economy”, it is easy to imagine the circulation of these little moments of attention to each other’s writing. It’s an easy gift to give because it requires no preparation and will last exactly 10 minutes. It requires no special talent for giving feedback or even any social intelligence; you are merely being asked to be open about your response to the paragraph, to let the writer into your experience of reading it. It’s also an easy gift to receive because you are under no obligation to react to the “quality” of the feedback. Just thank your reader for their time, which is exactly what they’ve given you. That last minute of silence, when you show the reader that you’re thinking about it, is all the gratification they need. As Heidegger suggested, to think is to thank.

PS: I forgot to mention an important point. Since you wrote the paragraph deliberately, i.e., with the aim of supporting, elaborating or defending a claim during a single minute of the reader’s attention, and with the further aim of opening your thinking to the criticism of your peers, the feedback tasks I propose here do actually have correct solutions. Your reader’s response will or will not live up to your expectations; your paragraph will or will not (or will more or less) have the intended effect. It is from the difference between the intended and the actual response that you learn something.

Writing and Knowing

It is my firm conviction that you can’t learn to write well by writing about things you don’t understand. If you are a good writer, I will grant that you can come to understand something better by writing about it; your prose will show you the limits of your knowledge. But this will not make you a better writer. It is an application of writing to the problem of thinking, and I take no issue with people who like to use writing for this purpose. What I object to is the argument that if you are not struggling at the edge of your understanding you aren’t really writing. That, I believe, is a dangerous myth about what writing is and what it can be.

Though it may be as prevalent (or more) among scholars, this myth is most pernicious among students. After all, students commonly write about things they don’t quite understand — things they’ve only just learned. Worse, they are often pretending to know things they don’t. I haven’t yet come up with a satisfying way to avoid this problem. There doesn’t seem to be a way around rewarding students for faking their mastery of a subject by writing about it beyond their depth. What are first-year university students to do when they are asked to expound on the causes of the Great Depression, the virtues of transformational leadership, the transcendental deduction of the categories of experience, or Hamlet’s love for his mother? Confine themselves to what they actually know about these things? I don’t think that’s going to work. I certainly don’t think I can persuade them to risk it.

But this doesn’t change the fact that if they want to learn how to write well they will have to practice writing about things they know. The difficulty of writing well about something does not stem from the difficulty of knowing it. That difficulty is of course very real, and I don’t want trivialize how hard it can be understand things, but the problem of writing remains even when this work is behind us. In the case of academic writing, the difficulty is presenting what you know in such a way that another knowledgeable person can discuss it with you. How do you explain what you know to someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong?

Well, first you have to believe that you know what you’re talking about. But students generally aren’t trying to open their thinking to the criticism of their reader when they are writing their papers. They are trying to demonstrate that they have read the course materials and attended class. Unfortunately, like I say, there isn’t really a way not to reward them for doing this, even when they are pretending to know something they don’t. In school, knowing what you should pretend to know is itself a competence — or it is at least often taken as a competence in the heat of an examination. A student who demonstrates awareness of the assigned readings is likely to outperform one who demonstrates only knowledge (no matter how real) of things that fall outside those readings. Given a curriculum, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

But students who want to become better writers must practice writing what they know on a regular basis. A good way of doing this is to write about things that they learned last year, or least semester, or at least last week, and still understand well enough to build on. And a really good way of discovering such things is to take about five minutes at the end of the day to reflect on something you learned at the least before the weekend. It should come easily to mind in the form of a simple declarative sentence, and you should be able to imagine composing a paragraph of at least six sentences that support, elaborate or defend it. Then relax for the evening. Tomorrow morning, get up and spend 18 or 27 minutes composing that paragraph. This will make you a better scholarly writer.

When doing this exercise, the important thing is not to be struggling to know the thing you’re writing about. You should be writing from the center of your epistemic strength so that you can build your literary chops. Practice writing about an author or body of literature you know well. Practice writing about an organization or industry you are familiar with.  Try describing a data set you’ve analyzed closely or a theory that you understand comfortably. And choose what you’re going to say based on how confident you feel about that simple declarative sentence. Don’t choose one that you feel uncertain about. Then write the best prose you are capable of, with the most competent reader you can imagine in mind. That’s the way to improve your writing through practice.

The Great Learning

Confucius’s classic text The Great Learning begins like this:

The great learning takes root in clarifying the way wherein the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results; it is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow; it is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease in perfect equity.

This is Ezra Pound’s translation—he calls it The Great Digest or Adult Study. Reading the passage, I realize that this really does express my philosophy, and especially what I try to accomplish when helping people to improve their writing. Writing is very much part of the process of adult study.

I agree with Pound/Kung that intelligence can be increased through a disciplined process. “Looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results,” is of course a way of improving your whole intelligence. An important step is to develop “precise verbal definitions of [your] inarticulate thoughts”; Pound simply calls this “sincerity”, i.e., to be able to say plainly and straightforwardly what you think. When you think about it, it is easy to see how such frankness can improve your intelligence and, I hope, just as easy to see how insincerity might hinder or even counter such development.

Universities ought to be places where the frank expression of thought is encouraged and protected. They should also be places where “the way people grow” is “watched with affection”. I have had the pleasure of watching people grow over the past fifteen years. But I have mainly been working with early-career researchers and PhD students. Or rather, it is mainly when working with them that I have the privilege of watching people grow. As undergraduate programs grow and are made more cost-effective, the contact between student and teacher offers little opportunity for such careful observation. I think this is a loss to the teacher as well as the student.

Notice that, according to Kung, your learning is rooted in watching how othersgrow. One of the functions of students on a university campus is to provide teachers with this important experience. Interestingly, some translations of Kung reduce Pound’s (perhaps overly interpretative) phrase to the claim that the aim of the Great Learning is “to renovate the people”. This top-down attitude seems to be more common today. Certainly, programs are organized in ways that leave little room for teachers to appreciate how their students’ minds are growing more articulate. This is due in part to a number of unproductive misconceptions about the role of writing in education. I’ll say more about this next week; for now I just want to emphasize that writing should have a much more prominent place in higher education than it does today. Less talk. More text, I say.

We should not forget the need to come to rest, to achieve a balance. Intelligence grows naturally if we think about things (and articulate our thoughts) in an orderly way. The process can’t be forced but it can be supported. It can also be interrupted, confounded, and sabotaged. Scholars have an interest in finding ways “to rest in the highest excellence,” as other translations put it. It is their job, in a sense, to “grasp the azure”.

(Note: This is a lightly updated post from my retired blog. I linked to it also in a previous post here about what sorts of assignments might afford opportunities to watch our students grow.)