Monthly Archives: October 2020

The Rhetorical Stance

As a nation we are reputed to write very badly.

Wayne C. Booth

Academia is a nation of sorts. We may not have an army and a navy, but our dialect is almost a language of its own. It’s not exactly a foreign culture, but academics do have a distinct way of carrying themselves. And, yes, Booth is right that our reputation somewhat precedes us when we venture outside our ivory towers (and even within it). They call us pedants (with swinish phrase!) and, indeed, our pedantry does at times take from our achievements. Though I am native here and to the manner born, I will grant that as a nation we have much to answer for. But all is not lost.

If there’s any hope, it lies in our prose. In his classic address to the 1963 annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Wayne Booth proposed “the rhetorical stance” as a corrective to the default “pedant’s stance” of many scholars and the students who imitate them. This stance, he suggested, “consists of ignoring or underplaying the personal relationship of speaker and audience and depending entirely on statements about a subject — that is, the notion of a job to be done for a particular audience is left out.” It is precisely this relationship to the reader that we writing instructors try to get our students (and their teachers) to take seriously, to care about.

Indeed, I have found that those of my peers I disagree with most strongly, namely, the writing instructors who want to banish the “five-paragraph essay,” have precisely this relationship in mind. Their hearts are in the right place. I just think they are wrong to soil a perfectly good writing exercise with the charge of pedantry. After all, the mere act of writing five paragraphs, with a clear thesis statement in the introduction and a clean landing in the conclusion, does not preclude developing a relationship to the reader. You just have to find the specific difficulty you’re helping them to overcome, you have to find the pocket.

Next week, I want to take a close look at Booth’s talk, which is also an exemplary piece of writing in its own right. So you might want to read it and form your own opinions in advance. It’s interesting to note that he explicitly confines himself to issues that can be addressed in the span of twenty minutes (even back in 1963 this was the standard length of a conference presentation, it seems.) My quick count puts it at 24 paragraphs, some of which are quite short. So there’s that.

Reading, Talking, Seeing

Every theory is a program of perception.

Pierre Bourdieu

Last year I wrote a post about analytical writing that many people found useful. My main point was that our analyses should attribute meaning to what the people we study have said and done. This provided a neat way to distinguish, paragraph by paragraph, your key sentences from the rest of the prose of your analysis. Your data tells you what your subjects said in your interviews (or how they answered your survey questions) or what they did while you observed them. You use this material to support interpretations of their experiences, i.e., statements about what their practices mean to them. The interpretations are expressed in the key sentences and your data supports those interpretations through quotation, paraphrase, and description. In this post I will try something similar with theoretical writing. I will argue that our theories are ways of seeing that emerge from discourse, i.e., the reading and talking we do in our discipline. The key sentences will delineate perspectives, i.e., ways of seeing, that the rest of the paragraph elaborates on the basis of a shared literature and an ongoing conversation. Let’s see how well this works.

Learning a theory takes a great deal of reading. This begins while we are students but continues throughout our research careers, and whether you’re a first-year student or a retired scholar, you will find that reading affects the way you see the world. “A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures,” said Borges; “it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory.” Those “durable images” are a good proxy for your theory. Reading a book about organizations, or economics, or history, or literature, installs lasting pictures of companies, markets, epochs, and classics in our memory, and these shape how we see such things when we encounter them in our own lives and in our research. Reading a book about the Great Depression shapes how we see the 2007-8 Financial Crisis and the COVID-19 Recession. Reading a book about Shakespeare shapes our perception of Beckett. And it isn’t just books that do this, of course; our mental models are constantly tweaked and challenged by the papers we read in the journals. Every time we see a theory applied to some object we see both the theory and the object a little differently. That’s the point.

Writing instructors never tire of telling their students that research is a conversation. They mean this both figuratively and literally. As Borges notes, there is a virtual “dialogue” between the readers and the (sometimes dead) authors who they’re “talking” to. But the specifically “academic” situation that many of us are immersed in offers plenty of opportunities for entirely real conversations. Living scholars, who are each other’s readers, meet in seminars and at conferences to share their results and challenge the conclusions of their peers. This is something Heidegger pointed out in a lecture back in 1938: “The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses.” How much more true that is today! Even our writing functions more like talking when we post it to social media. While the jury is still out on whether it is an on-the-whole positive or negative influence, these new media certainly participate in the gradual formation of knowledge in discourse. They are a special case of the gradual perfection of our thoughts while speaking.

What we are ultimately working on is our “worldview”. Learning a theory isn’t just a lot of reading, and a theory doesn’t just give us something to talk about; it amounts to acquiring a way of seeing the world. This is what Pierre Bourdieu meant when he said that a theory is “a program of perception”. A theory will emphasize some things and downplay others, it will focus on some things and outright ignore others. In fact, a very good theory will make you entirely unable to see certain things and unable not to see others. The whole purpose of theory is to establish a perspective from which the phenomena you’re interested in will appear salient, and the relationships between them will become obvious. Ideally, with a good theory in mind, what you’re looking for in your data will be visible at a glance. Of course, this only actually happens after you have analyzed you data. But if you have built a good model you should be able to easily present your result to a reader who is familiar with your theory. You simply look at things in the same way.

How can you implement these ideas when writing your theory section? First, make sure that your key sentence articulates a “way of seeing” or calls up, if you will, a “subroutine” in your “program of perception.” As an example, consider the perfectly theoretical notion that “sensemaking is a retrospective process.” That also happens to be a perfectly good key sentence for a paragraph; it tells us to see sensemaking as a backward looking process. While not all theoretical statements will use a so obviously visual metaphor, you may be surprised how often it does happen once you start looking for it. In any case, to elaborate on the retrospective nature of sensemaking will normally involve citing Karl Weick and those who have built on his seminal work. We decide what scholarship to invoke on the basis of the discussion we’ve had with our peers, in class, in seminars, at conferences, and over coffee (or worse poisons). “Sensemaking is a retrospective process. Weick (1995) originally suggested that … But it is sometimes argued … The most recent studies indicate …” Every paragraph in your theory section could well feel like that: a way of seeing elaborated with reference to the literature and the conversation you share with your peers.

Virtual Facework

Then stop. The writer now turns the microphone and camera back on and says a simple, “Thank you.” Let another minute or so pass in silence. Look at each other’s faces. Then say a polite, “Good bye,” and hang up. That’s it.

That probably sounds stranger out of context than it already did in context. Am I being serious? Yes, I am being totally and completely serious. And, after trying it a few times, you will understand what I mean perfectly. You may not enjoy the experience, and you may decide never to do it again, but you will understand why I suggested it. And a part of you will have learned an important lesson. However much the rest of you wants to repress it, that part of you will at some point reassert itself and demand to take another shot at it.

We sometimes talk about “finding our voice” in writing; here we’re putting on our face and giving our reader one. For 3 or 6 or 9 minutes you have listened to someone else make sense of your text and you have watched their face while they struggled. They were unable to look at yours to see how they were doing. They were utterly alone with your words and you witnessed what those words were doing to them. You could see what pleased and pained them, what puzzled them, and what was clear. You could empathize with your reader as they read your words. You got a great deal of information about how your writing works.

Now it is over. You have an urge to explain, to apologize, to excuse. And so does your reader, no doubt. They want to tell you it was “very interesting” or probably only hard to understand “out of context.” You want to tell them it’s okay, you didn’t take it personally. Their comments were very helpful. Etc. Your impulse (and theirs) is to “save face” (both yours and theirs), to engage in what Erving Goffman long ago called “facework”. You can’t help having the impulse, but with a little discipline you can do something more interesting with it.

By imposing a rule, you can experience something you might not otherwise notice. When the timer runs out and the feedback is formally over, both of you resolve not to say anything for a minute. You turn your camera back on, then the microphone. And you say a formal, but entirely sincere “Thank you.” For the next minute you just sit there, letting the reader look at the face of the writer of the words they just struggled with. Try not to communicate anything explicitly with your expression. Relax and think about what just happened. Be grateful (you should be) but don’t look for words to explain yourself. Don’t try to summarize what the reader has just “taught” you about your writing, not even silently. Just notice how you feel and let the reader observe that awareness for one minute.

Then say goodbye, formally and politely, and go on with your day, letting them go on with theirs. This experience, especially if you repeat it, will become part of your style. You don’t have to remember anything in particular. In fact, it’s fine if you forget it. Something will remain with you nonetheless. You will have demystified the relationship with the reader without trivializing it. You are learning how to find yourself “correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment.”

Virtual Feedback

In my last post, I mentioned a feedback exercise that I developed a few years ago. In this post, I want to put a twist on it that leverages the online meeting technologies that are becoming so familiar to us these days. I hope this is one of the better uses we can put things like Teams, Zoom, Hangouts, Skype and even FaceTime to. And I promise it won’t take long; in fact, if it takes a long time you’re not doing what I’m suggesting.

This is an exercise for two people: a writer and a reader. Other than the writing that the writer is presumably doing anyway, the exercise requires only 3, 6, or 9 minutes of joint attention, plus a one minute break at the end. It can be done as often as you like, but I don’t recommend doing very many of them on a given day. Doing one as a reader and one as a writer in a day is entirely sufficient, and much more than that will get tiresome.

The writer will have written a paragraph in a deliberate way. They will have chosen a key sentence the day before, and they’ll have written the paragraph in an 18- or 27-minute writing moment. The result of this work provides all the material we need for the exercise. The writer will send the paragraph by email or text message to the reader. It does not have to be editable, but it should be legible. Send it in a form that is easy on the eyes — a good font, good line spacing, and no right-justification. It can be a PDF or even a screenshot. Just so long as its easy to read on the reader’s screen. There should be no headings or other information on the page, just the paragraph as it might appear in a final text.

Now establish a video link using Teams, Zoom, Hangouts, Skype or FaceTime — whatever you would normally use. You’ll need both audio and video. The reader acknowledges receipt of the paragraph. The writer now turns off their own camera and mutes their mic. That’s the signal for the reader to begin. Set a timer for 3, 6, or 9 minutes. (More on that at the end.)

First, the reader reads the paragraph out loud to the writer. The reader can’t see the writer’s face or hear their voice. But the writer is watching the reader’s facial expression and listening to how their own words sound when someone who didn’t write them reads them. Do they come easily off the page with an intonation that suggests understanding? Do they brings smiles or frowns where they should? Is the tone and expression appropriate to the writer’s intention?

Since the writer’s mic is muted and their camera is off, the reader has no way of knowing how the author feels about the reading. As in “real life” (when we’re reading anything else), we have only the words on the page to guide us. We’re alone, as readers, with the text. The writer can’t help us make sense of what it means. The writer’s work ended with the writing; if anything is missing, it’s too late to fix it now. That’s why this exercise is so useful to writer.

After about one minute of reading out loud, the reader answers two simple questions. (1) What is the key sentence? (2) Does the paragraph provide support, elaboration, or defense? (Or does it address “the fourth difficulty”?)

With a well-written paragraph, this should not be especially difficult. Both the meaning and the rhetorical posture of the paragraph should be obvious. So if it does take the reader a long time to locate the key sentence and decide what difficulty the paragraph is trying to overcome, then this is an implicit criticism that the writer needs to take on board. The reader is free to think out loud or just sit there scratching their head. Everything, including silence, is information in this exercise.

Having decided on the meaning and posture of the paragraph, the reader is now free to air any thoughts at all until the timer runs out. (Or just sit there in stunned silence.) There’s usually three to six minutes left to work with here, and the reader can talk about the substance or the style, the argument or the grammar, the similes or the spelling. Everything is fair game as long as it’s the honest, spontaneous reaction of the reader to the text. The reader may have found the rhetorical figures of the paragraph brilliant or confusing, or may have found the ideas illuminating or obscure. The reader may have been reminded of everything they, too, know about the subject, or the paragraph may have raised questions they hadn’t considered before. Like I say, everything is on the table. And nothing. If the reader can think of nothing to say, remember that that is information too.

Until the timer runs out. Then stop. The writer now turns the microphone and camera back on and says a simple, “Thank you.” Let another minute or so pass in silence. Look at each other’s faces. Then say a polite, “Good bye,” and hang up. That’s it.

I’ll say a bit more about this on Friday. But I want to leave it as description without explanation for now. (I’m happy to hear in the comments what you think so far.) Much of the value of the exercise — the amount of information the writer receives by this means — should be obvious.

Let me end by explaining the timing. Set the timer for 9 minutes if the paragraph was written under normal circumstances, i.e., produced as part of an orderly “re-engineered” writing process. But sometimes you’ll want to do this exercise to try out a particular idea or just for fun. Then write a fresh paragraph for 18 minutes (doing all the same things you normally would, just a little faster) and give your reader only 6 minutes to respond. Finally, you might want to do this exercise right now for some reason (maybe as an in-class demonstration or because the thought strikes you). In that case, you can just find an old paragraph you’ve written and give yourself 9 minutes to edit it, deliberately focusing its key sentence and adjusting its posture. Then give your reader only 3 minutes to read and react. There’s some math to those numbers but no magic. You are spending exactly one third of the time “reading” as you did writing for the exercise.

Make Your Reader Interesting

I can’t find the passage at the moment, but I vaguely recall Nabokov saying that his job as a writer was to make his readers more interesting. It seems like something he might say in an interview or foreword or in his lectures on literature. In any case, the idea is useful to academic writers, who are likely to think their job is to be interesting. The truth is that many readers read in order to become more interesting themselves, and your academic readers are, presumably, already professionally interested in your work. So, don’t bother with getting them interested in you; rather, make them interesting to you. That gives you a much better handle on the problem of writing.

I was able to demonstrate this to my students last week using a simple exercise that I will be talking more about in my next post. They had recently submitted an essay and we were now workshopping it in class. We looked briefly at the introduction and conclusion, then at the body paragraphs as a line of argument, and then at one of them in isolation. I had them identify their key sentence, generate some variations, commit themselves to one of them, and then edit the paragraph around the new key sentence. After a break, I had them find a partner and exchange paragraphs so that they could do a three-minute version of the standard nine-minute “unfiltered feedback” exercise. The writer was to sit in detached silence and listen to the reader read the writer’s paragraph back to them. The reader was then to “guess” at how the writer had answered the essay question.

I’m simplifying somewhat instead of explaining the students’ full predicament to you. The point is that, in this exercise the reader and writer are peers — comrades in a common struggle. They had been given the same essay prompt, and the same case material, and they had been attending the same classes about the same readings for a few weeks by now. They had now spent about nine minutes reworking a single paragraph from their essays and had given a fellow student three minutes to react to it, including reading it out loud. All of this should of course have given them a great deal of information to about their own writing. The experience, I want to say, should have interested them.

Of course, not all the students were equally thrilled with the exercise. They didn’t all enjoy hearing their own words read back to them, and found it hard to sit silently by while their classmate tried to think of something interesting to say about them. Those three minutes were so intolerable to some of them that they simply began talking to their reader, discussing the text, offering excuses for its flaws, and perhaps even defending it. (I can’t be sure exactly what these conversations involved, of course; but they were not sitting in the silence I had prescribed.) Though I had told them to maintain a “poker face” so as not to reveal to the reader how they felt about the reading, looking around the room I saw much nodding and smiling and even nervous laughter. My students are kind and empathetic people. They helped each other get through it.

I reminded them that those three minutes went as well as the writer deserved. The reader’s job was just to read the writer’s words for about a minute and then react spontaneously, honestly. The writer, who is always writing for a peer, had a good sense of what the reader (a fellow student in the same class) was capable of appreciating. Indeed, the whole point of a paragraph, I had told them long ago, is to occasion and resolve a difficulty in the mind of the reader. In those three minutes, the writer should be witnessing the reader struggling to believe, understand, or agree with the reader and ultimately “getting” it. (In real life, the reader has only one minute to do this, albeit in private.) If the experience of having someone read your writing is unpleasant or uninteresting to you, that is simply on you. Next time, give them better words to read. Make your reader interesting to you, at least for the few minutes that they’re reading you.